Reading Moby Dick, Chapter Three: Ishmael Goes to a Bar

If you are really into small-town Christmas, and are White, heterosexual, and maybe also an alcoholic, consider spending the holiday in Hopetown.  It’s very nice, very safe, and very…as a new friend observed, “it’s the way small-town American used to be 40 years ago,”…  Norman Rockwellian.  Think, for example, about race relations, attitudes towards homosexual and transgender people and atheists and people with mental illness and women in the United States 40 years ago. Not pretty.

I suppose my friend was right to observe that homogeneity and the illusion of social equality is a pleasant experience.  It’s pleasant to be White and relatively well-off in a society where White people control most of the property and businesses as long as you don’t think too much about the Black people who live here, too, and who have lived here just as long.  My friend is not a bigot but, like most of us White people, he may not always think about the White privilege implications of things that he says.

What I enjoyed most about the Christian winter holidays here in the Abacos was getting to know many interesting new people, most of whom come from Canada and the UK and the Northeastern US.  I have so far met only two women who sail solo, one a psychotherapist from Chicago and the other a salty beauty born who just brought her schooner up from the Grenadines. 

When you go to a bar here, you will find yourself among a lot of people very much like yourself, White, well-off, and heterosexual (which I am, for the most part).  As long as you avoid politics and religion, you will probably have a very nice time.  If you are lucky enough to meet with someone who shares your political point of view, then you will probably have a better time.   There are Black people here, of course, but you will usually encounter them behind the bar or on a fishing boat or behind the register at the Post Office or raking the grounds of second home on a lovely beach.  Race relations do not feel very different to me here than they do in the US.  They trouble me. They troubled Melville, too. 

Ishmael enters the Spouter Inn because it looks like a place he can afford, and there he finds that the only bed he will get that night is one with a “harpooneer.”  Here Melville has a bit of fun with his readers, I suppose, by cracking a sexual joke in which Ishamel declares that if he must sleep with another man in a bed,

it would depend upon who the harpooner might be.”  That this particular harpooner happens to be a dark-skinned man does not worry our hero so much as the  thought that he he “should tumble in upon me at midnight—how could I tell from what vile hole he had been coming?  Landlord!  I’ve changed my mind about that harpooneer.

But Ishmael soon agrees to share the bed after all, since he can’t sleep on the hard chairs in the  bar, and admits that he might after all “be cherishing unwarrantable prejudices against this unknown “harpooneer.”  After a number of furious questions to the landlord, Ishamel finds out that this harpooner is not only dark-skinned, but not Christian, and business of selling shrunken human head..  Still he agrees to share his bed.  After the landlord shows him to the room and shuts the door, Ishamel tries on an article of his clothing, views himself in the mirror, and throws it off. 

The Harpooner himself, when he finally appears, frightens his future bedmate with his all-over body tatoo, yellowish-purple skin, bald head and long, black pigtail, and his oblations before a “black mannikin,” which he also calls a “Congo idol,” and “little negro.”  Not only this, but the “savage,” and “wild cannibal,” as Ishmael calls him, also possess a “tomohawk” pipe.  Queequeg displays characteristics of various diverse peoples oppressed in Melville’s time: Africans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans.

Ishamels’ attitude towards him seems refreshingly tolerant:

For all his tatooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal.  What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thougth I to myself—the man’s a human being jsut as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him.  Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian. 

Perhaps its not very nice of Ishamel to assume that Queegeg is a cannibal—he has learned that he only eats red meat, but has not yet found definitive proof that the man eats human flesh. Does his assumption proceed from his White perspective?  I wonder how the White folks of Abaco would have read this scene, where Ishmael, the protagonist and hero of this strange epic, finds being groped by dark-skinned, tatooed, tomahawk-wielding, yellow-skinned, pigtailed man.  It’s so juicy!  So exciting, so funny, so delightful.

I wonder if my son got this joke right away?  He probably did.  His generation is so much more forward thinking than our own, as evidenced by the LGBT group he joined in junior high in mainstream, Arlington, Virginia.  The members came together not necessarily because they had identified as one type of sexuality or another, but for quite the opposite reasons—-because they understood that sexuality is something that culture imposes on us, and that it takes time and open-mindeded and listening to the body and spirit to understand how one really feels, sexually, which is also to say spiritually. 

Normative sexuality is not all that different from normative religiosity.  It is a way of being that parents, schools, communities, courts, and governments impose on us—by making it easier to for those who agree to behave in a certain way, and harder for those who don’t fit in to the normative, heterosexual, “faith” adhering mold.  There is no evidence that our universe was created by a god.     And why should have have to identify as one way or another any way, if not to conform to an institution—the family, the educational system, the juridical system—that insists on this particular ordering of society? 

Society is not simple, not orderly, not easy, as Melville knew. Through Ishmael the outsider he seems to be exploring the viewpoint of the insider, the White, heterosexual, Christian man, sympathizing and communing with the people that his society had defined as “outside,” outside the same system of justice, denied the same rights and freedoms that Ishmael, and Melville himself, enjoyed. 

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