Thursday, February 2, 2012

Of Ishmael and Cetacean Foreskin

In earlier posts, I looked at Melville's use of the Egyptian myth of Osiris, in which Osiris is, like Ahab, dismembered by Typhon each year and then reborn, and the Hindu snake sacrifice myth in the "Ramadan" chapter, where the devout sage is ridiculed and mocked while carrying out a vow of silence. We have also looked at the Old Testament myths of Job and Jonah, preached through Christian authority. But we would be remiss if we did not delve more into more purely classical and Hebraic mythology.

In an article in Poetics Today (1998), Elisa New rereads Moby-Dick as critically focused on the conflict between Ishmael, whom she sees as an Hebraic scribe and the hero of the story, and Ahab, whom she sees as the flawed and anti-heroic voice of Hellenism and, in particular, of Pauline Platonism, a sort of angry Emerson in a toga. Ishmael, forever classifying, forever spewing legalisms, becames a wise Rabbinical sub-sub authoring a story that is a new Deuteronomy and a new Ecclesiatics, upholding the power and logic of the Word. Ahab, forever soliquizing, is the embodiment of a Christian/Hellenic spirit which wishes to embrace, conquer, and unify the very essence of the world. Ahab is St. Paul to Ishmael's Moses. Ishmael lives; Ahab dies.

New's reading grounds itself on a number of chapters she sees as the ultimate expression of "Ishmaelic scribalism", "Cetology" and "Fast and Loose Fish" among them, contrasted with a handful of chapters she finds deeply imbued with Hellenism: most prominently "The Cassock". In "The Cassock", a mincer cuts thin sheets of the blubber to feed into the flames of the try-works while encased in protective clothing crafted from the whale's penis skin, and New quotes the chapter:
"Bible Leaves! Bible Leaves!" This is the invariable cry from the mates to the mincer. It enjoins him to be careful, and cut his work into as thin slices as possible, inasmuch as by doing so the business of boiling out the oil is much accelerated, and its quantity considerably increased, perhaps increasing its quality.

Here is what she makes of it:
Melville's caustic allusion to "Bible Leaves!" makes it ambly clear that his mincer is a satirized minister. Traducing the materiality and history of the world's body in pursuit of its perfect spirit, this cassocked divine is one of Melville's many figures of a sacrificial and deadly Christian Hellenism, whose essentialist legacy Melville opposes with all the textual resources he can marshal. In another context, the analogy between the rendering of whale fat and the extraction of essence from Scripture might seem merely playful....This tableau of the tireless priest feeding leave to the fire and working, moreover, in an apron fashioned from the whale's own stupendous penis is calculated to elicit laughter.

There is indeed something here in her quote and analysis; the whale oil as essence, the giver of light; the humor of a cassocked mincer dressed in a penis feeding the Bible to hellfire; the send up of preachers and their hellfire rants; the intermixture of the demonic and the sacred.

But, somehow, New, as earnestly scholastic as any sub-sub, boils down the whole book into a single conflict between Hebrews and Christians/Greeks; she peels away the chapters to reveal in them her own most favored and most despised mythologies, and in so doing, gives the role of sacred law-giver and true superhero to Ishmael. She even identifies the Hebrews as the winners; the book becomes an anti-Platonic diatribe.

While it is good to see Ishmael raised up to such heights rather than in his usual role as the mere Bard of the two great characters of Ahab and Moby-Dick, a sort of Cetacean side-kick, I can not help but find this approach, well, sort of essentialist and Hellenistic of her. Come now. We can't read out the Hindus and Egyptians. More is afoot.

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