Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Ramadan: a Hindu Interpretation

In the first book of the Mahabharata, The Book of the the Beginning, King Pariksit chases a deer he has shot with an arrow into the forest; as he searches for the deer, he comes upon a hermit undergoing a vow of silence. As the King tries to ask first one question and then another of the sage, all while eager to get on with the chase, the Brahmin sits, unmoved and unresponsive, without any explanation, for none can be given without breaking his vow. The king drapes a snake carcass over the sage's shoulders, which the sage also does not react to, and returns to the chase. The sage, however, becomes an object of ridicule, sitting there with a dead snake over his shoulders, and his son, in shame, curses the King, setting the wheels in motion for Pariksit's death at the hand of the King of Snakes.

The vow-of-silence-hijinks is a trope in Indic cultures. In the Ramadan chapter, Melville appropriates it for Queequeg, having him undertake, as part of his religious celebrations, a vow of silence behind locked doors, and having the misconstrual of that silence lead to panic from Ishmael and ensuing mayhem as Ishmael and the landlady consider the possibilities and their outcomes. Suicide? Muder? Break down the door? Not my door! Get the doctor!

Finally, Ishmael breaks in and finds the silent and still Queequeg, to whom, unresponsive, he gives a small, dramatic speach; still no response, and none shall there be until the middle of the night.

When Queequeg finally completes his ceremonials and joins Ishmael in bed, Ishmael looks to reason with him:

"Queequeg," said I, "get into bed now, and lie and listen to me." I then went on, beginning with the rise and progress of the primitive religions, and coming down to the various religions of the present time, during which time I labored to show Queequeg that all these Lents, Ramadans, and prolonged ham-squattings in cold, cheerless rooms were stark nonsense; bad for the health; useless for the soul; opposed, in short, to the obvious laws of Hygiene and common sense. I told him, too, that he being in other things such an extremely sensible and sagacious savage, it pained me, very badly pained me, to see him now so deplorably foolish about this ridiculous Ramadan of his. Besides, argued I, fasting makes the body cave in; hence the spirit caves in; and all thoughts born of a fast must necessarily be half-starved. This is the reason why most dyspeptic religionists cherish such melancholy notions about their hereafters. In one word, Queequeg, said I, rather digressively; hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling; and since then perpetuated through the hereditary dyspepsias nurtured by Ramadans.

I then asked Queequeg whether he himself was ever troubled with dyspepsia; expressing the idea very plainly, so that he could take it in. He said no; only upon one memorable occasion. It was after a great feast given by his father the king, on the gaining of a great battle wherein fifty of the enemy had been killed by about two o'clock in the afternoon, and all cooked and eaten that very evening.

Ishmael is indeed left wondering if there might be worse things than undigested apple-dumplings; perhaps the heathen's empty stomach is a better alternative than some other celebrations?

Much is going on here, but part of what I'd like to look at is the form. Melville has pulled into this book an "eastern" trope, used it for comic effect, and simultaneously put Queequeg in the role of the sage whose piety is misunderstood and Ishmael in the role of the duped man who misconstrues the events. This trope usually would highlight the wisdom of the sage, or Queequeg, and the comic degree to which we, the mass of people, fail because of our lack of piety.

However, the references for Melville's tableau would be obscure for most of his readers, save a few sailors, world travelers, and linguists, and the role of the pious Brahman would not be understood as the natural hero of the scene and laden with the same mythic status. I suspect Melville, ever fascinated by non-Western stories and myths, would understand this chapter differently than his general readers, and would have enjoyed the play of meanings and contexts here. Indeed, reading through this chapter a couple of times, I think he has down-played Queequeg's piety, and done his best to insert good Western rationalizations and post-hoc justifications for Ishmael. And, indeed, Ishmael drapes a bearskin jacket rather than a snake-skin around Queequeg's neck, helping to warm him rather than trying to ridicule him. Melville has altered and westernized the trope.

There is always a question of how much one should bring to reading: should you go beyond the novel, is the novel understood to be a strong, closed world unto itself, a play on a stage which the audience should not interrupt? There are several points in Moby Dick, though, where Melville disregards this fiction, striding on to the stage himself or inviting us to do so. There is a way in which this is meant to be a very personal work for we readers, one we shape as we read, and Melville seems to have thought intensely about that process of reading, as we shall see in some later discussions. For me, the Ramadan is one particularly personal chapter, where I think I read it somewhat differently than many of its readers, thanks to a little secret handshake Melville left for others who might have travelled a bit in his wake.

The image is a decorated form of an Indonesian shadow-puppet of King Pariksit or, as spelled here, Parikesit.

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