Monday, February 6, 2012

True Religion

"The Whale Watch", chapter 117, is, to my way of thinking, the single most devoutly religious chapter in this book filled with every religion born of Babel. After a day in which four whales were killed, far apart around the boat, Ahab and Fedallah (and their crew, but they are silent) float all night by a dead whale that they could not get back to the boat during the day. As the lamp casts its glow across midnight seas, Fedallah provides Ahab with a prophesy, a prophesy that we and Fedallah know to be grim, but that cheers Ahab:
"But I said, old man, that ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America."

"Aye, aye! a strange sight that, Parsee: - a hearse and its plumes floating over the ocean with the waves for the pall-bearers. Ha! Such a sight we shall not soon see."

"Believe it or not, thou canst not die till it be seen, old man."

"And what was that saying about thyself?"

"Though it come to the last, I shall still go before thee thy pilot."

"And when thou art so gone before - if that ever befall - then ere I can follow, thou must still appear to me, to pilot me still? - Was it not so? Well, then, did I believe all ye say, oh my pilot! I have here two pledges that I shall yet slay Moby Dick and survive it."

"Take another pledge, old man, said the Parsee, as his eyes lighted up like fire-flies in the gloom, - Hemp only can kill thee."

"The gallows, ye mean. - I am immortal then, on land and on sea," cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision; - "Immortal on land and on sea!"

Melville casts no doubt or ridicule on the prophesy; he does not even color it. Where other prophesies are made, as with Elijah, they are delivered with more than a touch of madness. Where other outrageous, difficult to verify statements are made, whether regarding the swallowing of Jonah or the chance of meeting up with the same whale twice, we get some discourse attempting to explain, justify or even just gild the extraordinary statement. This is bare, dramatic, and, most of all, true to what will occur.

Only here, in the words of this Zoroastrian, in the dark of night, lit only by a bit of oil and Fedallah's eyes, do we find true and unquestioned prophesy. Is this Melville's Pauline moment?

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