I think Melville is trying to make us laugh, don’t you? In a dark humor sort of way? Ishmael tells us that whenever he finds himself “grim about the mouth,” obsessed with death, stopping at coffin shops, following funeral processions, and so irritable that he wants to knock people’s hats off, he goes to sea. Don’t you love his little suicidal joke:
With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to ship.
I do. The story begins in medias res, in the middle of action. Years ago, our hero found himself depressed and drawn to the sea. He took to ship as a cure for the “spleen,” the physical dis-ease that had sickened his heart and mind. All men are drawn to the sea, he says, as Narcissus was drawn to the water in which he glimpsed but could not reach the
ungraspable phantom of life, and this is the key to it all.
The key to what? To the story? to Narcissus? to Ishmael? Narcissus pines for his own image…does Ishmael pine for himself? or for God, in whose image the Bible says humans were made? Is there something else here? Is he saying that the cure for suicidal feelings is to go do something in which you will very likely lose your life?
Dark though he is, Ishmael is funny! He would never go to sea as a passenger, he insists, since
passengers get sea-sick—grow quarrelsome—don’t sleep of night—do not enjoy themselves much, as a general thing;—no, I never go as a passenger; nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook. I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever. It is quite a much as I can do to take care of myself, without taking care of ships, barques, brigs, schooners, and what not. And as for going as a cook, —though I confess there is considerable glory in that, a cook being a sort of officer on ship-board—yet, somehow, I never fancied broiling fowls;—though once broiled, judiciously buttered, and judgmatically salted and peppered, there is no one who will speak more respectfully, not to say reverentially, of a broiled fowl than I will.
He cracks me up! As though Ishmael cares about enjoying himself! After a political jab at commodores who get their atmosphere at second-hand from sailors, just like leaders who are led by those they think they command, Ishmael observes that the joke is on him:
But wherefore it was that after having repeatedly smelt the sea as a merchant sailor, I should now take it into my head to go on a whaling voyage; this the invisible police officer of the Fates, who has the constant surveillance of me, and secretly dogs me, and influences me in some unaccountable way—he can better answer than any one else.
Police officer of the fates! Really? Apparently Ishmael experiences the universe as one giant panopticon focused particularly on him.
Anyway his name is not necessarily Ishmael; he simply tells us to call him that. And it takes chuztpah to identify yourself with the firstborn son of ur-patriarch, in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition, Abram/Abraham. Adonai takes a keen interest in this kid, whose name means “God is listening” or “The Police Officer of the Fates is watching.”
Adonai communicates not to Ishmael’s father, but his mother, Hagar, an Egyptian slavegirl, who belongs to Abram’s infertile head wife, Sarai. When Hagar conceives the child she can’t produce, Sarai begins to feel insecure, and to mistreat her, so Hagar runs away. But Adonai sends an angel after her, and convinces her to return. She goes back to camp and delivers the child. Sarai feels upstaged, so she convinces Abram to send Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, where the boy nearly dies of dehydration. Hagar prays. Adonai hears Ishmael crying in the desert. Hagar finds a well, takes the water to her dying son, and saves him.
The Ishmael of Moby Dick never mentions his mother and, in fact, the novel is strangely devoid of feminine characters. It seems relevant to point this out, given that I have started this project in order to think about my relationship with my own Ishmael, my own often depressed son.Given the importance of water as a symbol in Moby Dick ‘s first chapter, and its centrality to the Biblical story of Ishmael, I’m surprised that Ishmael never mentions his mother.
There is one line that may obliquely point to Hagar, whose name means “fugitive” or “stranger.” Ishmael is trying to convince us, or himself, that he doesn’t mind the humiliating life of a sailor, and says:
Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.
But this may also only be another instance of his egotism. Moby Dick was published in 1851, only one year after the Fugitive Slave Act allowed white people to return any man, woman, or child who escaped from their servitude to capture, hold, and exchange them as chattel goods. Even the lowest ranking, most impoverished man considered to be “White” had considerably greater freedom than a slave in the United States of 1851.
Not only does Ishmael tell us nothing about his mother, he seems to take no responsibility for anything that happens to him. All the world’s a stage, he asserts, and he just plays the part assigned to him:
Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces—though I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgement.
It’s not my fault! Ishmael seems to be saying. They made me do it! I was tricked! My son says stuff like this a lot. What an narcissist, right?
Narcissist that he is, I like Ishmael. I like him for admitting to the perversity of his curiosity, and for wanting to be polite to things that frighten him:
I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land of barbarous coast. Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it—would they let me—since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the places one lodges in.
He’s adventurous, brave, funny, and generally friendly, open to experience. He’s prone to depression and gallows humor. I like Ishmael. He reminds me of myself. He reminds me of my son.
Ishmael and my son share the same depressive nature and black wit. In fact, B is one of the most hilarious people I have ever known. He inherited his father’s gift of gab. When we were volunteering in Nepal, we ate dinner together every night with the four British and one Dutch students, who were all B’s age in the house we shared. B had them all bending over and holding their stomachs with laughter seven nights a week. He’s wickedly satirical, my B is, like Melville, when he talks about American politics.
B’s depression started before we went to Kathmandu, in 2011. He had dropped out of college and moved to Pittsburgh to live with me. I was elated. Not that he had dropped out or gotten depressed, of course. I was happy to him under my roof again. I thought I might make up for the years I had spent away from him.
When B was 6, his father and I divorced acrimoniously. I was just finishing my dissertation and got a pretty good job as an English professor in Missouri. I was the only person in my class to get a job that year. I wanted to bring B with me, but didn’t want to tear him away from his father and his school. I thought I was doing the right thing. I don’t think it was the right thing to do now.
I am writing this in a bar at Marsh Harbor, Abaco, The Bahamas, where there is this funny sign: