Reading Melville at Sea: Jonah and the Fugitive Slave Law

Fugitive-Slave-Act-Newspaper-headlineChapter 9: Jonah and the Fugitive Slave Law

The sermon really is very good.  Father Mapple’s marvelous interpretation of the Biblical story about Jonah and the Whale is both an allegory and a confession.  Although I am currently doubting my original suggestion that this book as an epic novel, there are loads of epic elements in this chapter.  There is the lofty language; the Satanic hero, and this wonderful simile.

Like one who after a night of drunken revelry hies to his bed, still reeling, but with conscience yet pricking him,

as the plungings of the Roman race-horse but so much the more strike his steel tags into him;

as one who in that miserable plight still turns and turns in giddy anquish, praying God for annihilation until the fit be passed; and at last amid the whirl of woe he feels, a deep stupor steels over him,

as over the man who bleeds to death, for conscience is the wound, and there’s naught to staunch it;

so, after sore wrestling in his berth, Jonah’s prodigy of ponderous misery drags him drowning down to sleep.

I broke it apart so that you can identify the parallel elements.  Jonah is intoxicated, supersaturated with a painful, nearly fatal fit of guilt.  But for what?   Doesn’t it bother you that we never find out what crime Jonah committed? 

Father Mapple says he disobeyed God, but how he did it he never tells.  He describes Jonah as a ‘God-fugitive,” theoretically someone who runs from the inevitable wrath of the Deity.  But why is this god mad?   What has Jonah done? Something so terrible that can be forgiven only once he goes to the very bottom of the ocean in the belly of a fearful beast! Here, beyond the jaws of death, in darkness and squalor, he finds peace.  And why does he feel peace?  Because he has been punished!  For what?  For running away?

What a strange religion!  Here is a sadistic god who punishes people who refuse to acknowledge his authority, and who favors those whom he scourges.  And his victims thank him for whipping them.     

But think a little futher about Jonah, the fugitive.  Father Mapple describes him thus:

O! most contemptible and worthy of all scorn; with slouched hat and guilty eye, skulking from his God; prowling among the shipping like a vile burglar hastening to cross the seas.  So disordered, self-condemning is his look, that had there been policemen in those days, Jonah, on the mere suspicion of something wrong, had been arrested ere he touched a deck.  How plainly he’s a fugitive! no baggage, not a hat-box, valise, or carpet-bag, —no friends accompany him to the wharf with their adieux…in vain essays his wretched smile.  Strong intuitions of the man assure the mariners he can be no innocent.

As allegory, the story that Mapple delivers corresponds to the story about slavery that Melville is telling in his novel.  Did it not occur to you that Jonah figures as a slave or a freed Black man running not from God, but, rather, his master?  Did it not occur to you to understand the sermon as a kind of allegory that White ministers used to preach to justify the Fugitive Slave Law?  I’m sure I’m not the first to assert this.  Surely whole dissertations have been composed to demonstrate this very point; articles advancing the same claim have made careers. 

Not convinced?  Consider the way Melville describes Jonah’s last desperate moment when he is tossed by the sailors into the sea, and the storm follows him:

“He goes down in the whirling heat of such a masterless commotion that he scarce heeds the moment…”

(my emphasis).

Jonah’s crime is what, again?  We are not told.  I will tell you.  Jonah’s crime is that he is “masterless.”  He will not obey his master and he has run away. 

This is not to argue that we should read the novel as an allegory.   In Moby Dick Melville creates a “historical allegory.” It makes reference to its time, its political and historical reality, but not through verisimilitude, as in the European novel of the same period, or in a point-to-point fashion, like a roman-a-clef.   A historical allegory, like science fiction, comments on the present in a story that seems to be about something else.  So here, we have a historical allegory with epic elements in which the fictional story comments on the political, social, spiritual, and economic realm in which it was composed: a politically complex, industrial capitalist, Christian society in which dark-skinned men, women and children were bought and sold for profit and light-skinned men and women were generating arguments for White Supremacy.

As Michael Rogin astutely observes, Moby Dick is more than a political allegory, because it remains,

“paradoxically, above politics, neither losing itself in political complexity nor transforming its political present into something new.  Allegories take positions inside a given structure of controversy.  Those who see Moby Dick as a political allegory choose one side or another in the political debates; Moby Dick undercuts it all.  It points to no fixed political truth above and outside its own story.”

Reading Melville at Sea: Chapter 8

I am getting very bored describing what happens in each chapter. I am also beginning to wonder if any one cares what I have to say about Moby Dick.  It really doesn’t matter, does it?  Whether anyone out there reads or likes what I have to say about this book, or anything at all.  That is the beauty of it. 

I shall therefore observe as I like, on what I fancy.  And I do like the maritime pulpit and chapel and salty minister Melville describes.  But the best line in this chapter is the last.

“Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.”

But what does it mean?  It seems to be a variation on Shakespeare’s famous “all the world’s a stage.”  The idea of the world as a ship on its passage out, a vessel always beginning a voyage that is never finished, makes a good deal of sense, astronomically, cosmically.  The world turns and turns and turns in its endless passage around the sun in a solar system that travels round the spiral Milky Way galaxy, which itself moves through the universe.  We can’t measure whether the universe is going somewhere, since it is ALL that we know, but we do know that the universe, the ALL, is expanding, and everything in it moving away from everything else.  Or we think we know this.  

But the idea of the pulpit as a prow, as, in Ishmael’s words, “earth’s foremost part,” makes little sense to me.  Whatever could he mean?  It seems an awfully religious statement for someone who demonstrates little faith.  “From thence [i.e., the pulpit] it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt.”  The “God” invoked here would seem to be the angry, monotheistic deity Christians worship.  Yet the next line indicates the polytheistic faith of sailors: “From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul invoked for favorable winds.” 

What is Melville up to now, I wonder? 

 The world is a ship traveling through the Bahamas?  What could this possibly mean?

If only my son, B, who is currently facing homelessness and total despair, could book a passage.  He hates the sun and hot weather.  How would he manage?  I don’t know how to help him.

Reading Melville at Sea: On women and chapter six

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The women of New Bedford, Ishmael informs us, bloom only in summer and their bloom is unmatched everywhere except in Salem, where

The young girls breathe such musk, their sailor sweethearts smell them miles off shore, as though they were drawing nigh the odorous Moluccas instead of the Puritanic sands.

Is this some elaborate, juvenile joke whereby Ishmael means to say that women smell like fish ?  Or that for all they look to be of an entirely different species—the pale, blue-eyed Puritan species, they smell just the same as the darker girls in the Spice islands?  He is speaking of ambergris, which was obtained from Sperm whales and used by perfumers after it had aged.  When it first comes out of the whale’s gastrointestinal tract, it smells like faeces. 

Like the women of New Bedford, the  women of Spanish Wells also seem to bloom only in summer, and when they are young, they appear to do very little other than strike fetching poses while seated next to young men driving boats.  For example, as we exited Channel Cut—which is nerve-wracking because the current rushing through it is so strong, and the channel between the coral on both sides so narrow, that it is only safe to go through it at slack tide— we saw a small fishing boat come roaring out behind us.  The young man standing on the bow, with one hand locked into the painter as though he were riding a bronco, the other ready with a spear, could have been one of the Pequod’s crew.  The other young man at the helm steered the tiny craft straight into the waves with what seemed an insane speed.  And the girl?  She just sat there, utterly passive, indifferent to the brave action around her, completely useless!  She might as well have been a statue.  And so common!  I found it very strange that I did not see a single woman driving a boat, not even a dinghy.

Ishmael takes a stroll around New Bedford and admires the strangers from distant shores he sees there: “actual cannibals chatting at street corners; savages outright; many of whom carry on their bones unholy flesh.” I wonder if vegans look at those of us who rejoice as we sink our teeth into bloody, red flesh, find it amazing that we, too, walk around in public, unhindered?  Do they regard us as savages? But that is the point Melville is making, isn’t it?  That the very people who think of themselves as refined and civilized are, in fact, quite brutal and bloodthirsty? 

Consider Ishmael’s observation that all the lovely, tidy mansions in the town have been “harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”  He reminds us that the tidy, civilized life on shore comes not just from the unruly, savage life on the sea, but also from the labors of the dark “savages” who toil on the ships owned by the White men on land. 

Junkanoo. A gush.

I saw my first Junkanoo surrounded by Bahamian people and was so moved by the majesty and power of the music that a wide grin burst across my face and tears came to my eyes. Island music had been blaring out of loudspeakers all across the island for three days, but it was dead in comparison to this drumming, this living song of pride and power and beauty of the Bahamas.

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I was surrounded by Bahamian people and so moved that a wide grin burst across my face and tears came to my eyes.  Island music had been blaring out of loudspeakers all across the island for three days, but it was dead in comparison to this drumming, this living song of pride and power and beauty of the Bahamas.

How to help you feel and see it? I was glad I hadn’t brought a camera, becuase trying to film or photograph would have prevented me from experiencing what was so clearly not a performance for tourists, but rather something much more authentic and sacred.

For it is a kind of ritual, Junkanoo.  A ritual as in a theatre, as in a liminal display when the line between quotidian reality and the fantastic blurs.  The players wear elaborate feathered headdresses and masks that elevate them above their ordinary everyday roles, if only while the rhythm lasts.  The Junkanoo players are young and strong, as they must be to carry the massive steel barrels and to slam, crash, and boom their hands against them.

The mesmerizing booming tempo that they create also creates them, lifts them up, fills them up with the spirit of their culture, their people, the ones who brought them this fantastic gift, this spirit that they also now return to their people all around them.  That is to say, the people who observe Junkanoo, when they happen literally to be the family of the men performing, engage spiritually, or viscerally, emotionally, as passionate spectators who imbue the performers with ecstatic power, a spirit that comes both from their collective ancestors as well as from themselves, who are now creating something new. 

Junkanoo is Bahamian display for Bahamians with multiple meanings over time.  The first “John Canoe” parade took place in Nassau in 1801, but the precedents of this festival almost certainly derive from Africa and African, enslaved peoples.  As Nicolette Bethel observes,

Of all the “national symbols” in the Bahamas, it is Junkanoo that receives the most attention. Throughout history, it has acted as a force for the construction of many different Bahamian identities.  During the early 1800s it united slaves in Christmas celebrations; during the middle of that century it was adopted by Liberated Africans as a focus for their displacement; at the beginning of the twentieth century it provided members of the working class with a forum for their grievances; and later in the century it functioned both as an emblem of race and of masculine activity.[5]  Since Independence in 1973, it has become more and more integral to conceptions of the nation.  Iconized, it now appears on stamps, customs stickers and five-dollar bills; restaurants bear its name, much of contemporary popular music follows its beat, and both an art gallery/cultural centre and the national beer are onomatopaeically named after the sound of drum and cowbells.  Additionally, Junkanoo is promoted to tourists as the “quintessential” cultural event.  Somewhat paradoxically, however, it remains primarily an occurrence produced by Bahamians for Bahamians.  

Junkanoo in the Bahamas: a tale of identity

I of course experienced Junkanoo as a tourist, an outsider, but the display I witnessed was not put on for my benefit, but rather for the Bahamians who outnumbered tourists by 100 to 1.  The performance took place not technically as a parade, but rather as a procession from the outside to the inside of a large restaurant on the beach, during a celebration of the end of the regatta at Little Farmer’s Cay.   Two men with mariachi-like rattles in white shirts and dark sunglasses led six men carrying drums into the room, where they played for about ten minutes, and then outside to the deck on the beach, and then back in again.  I followed them, enchanted, delighted, moved to dancing and smiling and tears in a kind of stupified wonder, for I had indeed never before experienced anything like it. 

It seemed to me a procession every bit as solemn as a Catholic mass and infinitely more joyful.  It would take a Melville to convey the intoxicating theatre of junkanoo.  I cried for the sheer beauty of this tempo, this dance, this song, this music of the Bahamas.