Monday, January 30, 2012

Filling Bottomless Bellies

When we began Moby-Dick, there was foreshadowing aplenty, with the early chapters working very hard to build up the tension for the coming half-knowns. But once we are at sea, beginning with Ahab's speech to the crew on their true mission and the sudden emergence of Fedallah and his crew from the hold as the first boats are lowered, that which has been prophesied and foreshadowed begins to play out. As we emerge from those wild chapters just after they find the open ocean, the first dramatic chapters, the first tempest as Pip appears, the early Cetology chapters, the epic tale itself begins playing out. Now, our references as often look backward, to the first inklings and the small bread crumbs dropped for us, as they do forewards, building to the still grander and more untamed heights of the finale.

The cook's sermon to the sharks is one such moment, where the foreshadowing of the early chapters is reflected, and shown in a new and different light, in the heart of the book. This chapter, to me, is but a revisiting of Father Mapple's sermon, wherein he retold, in somewhat mangled form, the story of Jonah, heightening the conflict among men, increasingly the role of money, and focusing the Biblical messsage of obedience on the particlar role of speaking God's truth to evil. Now, however, instead of the noble father who rises to the pulpit to preach to a congregation of rough but pious sailors, we have the cook speaking to a congregation of blood-maddened sharks:
"Your woraciousness, fellow-critters, I don't blame ye so much for; dat is natur, and can't be helped; but to gobern dat wicked natur, dat is de pint. You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not'ing more dan de shark well goberned. Now, look here, bred'ren, just try wonst to be cibil, a helping yourselbs from dat whale. Don't be tearin' de blubber out your neighbour's mout, I say. Is not one shark dood right as toder to dat whale? And, by Gor, none on you has de right to dat whale; dat whale belong to some one else. I know some o' you has berry brig mout, brigger dan oders; but den de brig mouts sometimes has de small bellies; so dat de brigness ob de mout is not to swallar wid, but to bite off de blubber for de small fry ob sharks, dat can't get into de scrouge to help demselves."

It is a simple speech, humbly told. Watch the accent: is that "sartin" a play on "satan" as well as "certain"? Does "gobern" suggest not just governing but "burning"? And, what can you do with "Gor" for "God"? Melville is having a grand time here, but I often sense that he is most serious when he is most comic. The sermon on land, with its pomp and its practiced drama, gives way to the truer heartfelt sermon at sea, a sermon which speaks to a congregation in the midst of its grand and bloody gluttony. The sermon quickly takes a quick philosophic turn:

"Well done, old Fleece!" cried Stubb, "that's Christianity; go on."

"No use goin' on; de dam willains will keep a scrougin' and slappin' each oder, Massa Stubb; dey don't hear one word; no use a- preachin' to such dam g'uttons as you call 'em, till dare bellies is full, and dare bellies is bottomless; and when dey do get em full, dey wont hear you den; for den dey sink in de sea, go fast to sleep on de coral, and can't hear not'ing at all, no more, for eber and eber."

We are all sharks, with nature governing even as we spin our sermons. No use preaching to us until our bottomless bellies are full. Father Mapple's Jonah has nothing on Cook's High Feast of the Sharks, and, indeed, Cook to me is the compelling counterpoint to Mapple's opening argument. Cook's closing lines prophesy anew for us, foreshadowing that which is still to come, punctuated with yet more guffaws for the groundlings, when Cook says of Stubb "'I'm bressed if he ain't more of shark dan Massa Shark hisself,' muttered the old man, limping away; with which sage ejaculation he went to his hammock."

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