New England Humanism Part 2: Herman Melville

Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick (1851) is known primarily as a whaling adventure, but the book also features a thoroughly anti-Christian and pro-pagan message. In the early chapters of his novel the narrator Ishmael begins a friendship with the Polynesian Queequeg, with whom he is forced to share a room (and a bed) at an inn. At first Ishmael is wary of Queequeg, who is described as a tatoo-covered cannibal (Queequeg even has an embalmed human head in his possession), although after a very short acquaintance Ishmael warms up to the stranger. In a shocking passage that perfectly describes the white post-Christian embrace of savagery, Ishmael joins Queequeg in his pagan worship and enters into a kind of “marriage” with him.

“If there yet lurked any ice of indifference towards me in the Pagan’s breast, this pleasant, genial smoke we had, soon thawed it out, and left us cronies. He seemed to take to me quite as naturally and unbiddenly as I to him; and when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married; meaning, in his country’s phrase, that we were bosom friends; he would gladly die for me, if need should be. In a countryman, this sudden flame of friendship would have seemed far too premature, a thing to be much distrusted; but in this simple savage those old rules would not apply.

After supper, and another social chat and smoke, we went to our room together. He made me a present of his embalmed head; took out his enormous tobacco wallet, and groping under the tobacco, drew out some thirty dollars in silver; then spreading them on the table, and mechanically dividing them into two equal portions, pushed one of them towards me, and said it was mine. I was going to remonstrate; but he silenced me by pouring them into my trowsers’ pockets. I let them stay. He then went about his evening prayers, took out his idol, and removed the paper fireboard. By certain signs and symptoms, I thought he seemed anxious for me to join him; but well knowing what was to follow, I deliberated a moment whether, in case he invited me, I would comply or otherwise.

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth—pagans and all included—can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?—to do the will of God—that is worship. And what is the will of God?—to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me—that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world. But we did not go to sleep without some little chat.

How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair.
(Moby-Dick, The Macmillan Company, 1929, part 1 pages 55-56)

Ishmael uses vain human reasoning to get around the clear Biblical injunction against idolatry. In saying that God is not jealous of a bit of wood, he directly contradicts the Ten Commandments, probably the most widely known passage in all of Scripture: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:3-5). The concept of marriage in the passage is also significant. Throughout Scripture Israel/the Church is described as God’s bride and the covenant between God and his people is described as a marriage. At practically the same moment that Ishmael participates in idolatry he also is “married” to a new husband, having rejected his first love. While the marriage is first described as simply being “bosom friends,” the last paragraph in the above passage clearly suggests more of a romantic or even erotic arrangement between the two. This passage gives an occult coloring to the entire novel, as Ishmael abandons the faith of his youth and “marries” a pagan and/or a pagan idol before embarking on his journey.

After joining together in “marriage,” Ishmael and Queequeg seek employment together on a whaling vessel. While interviewing for a position on the Pequod, the two ship owners Bildad and Peleg object to employing a pagan like Queequeg, insisting that he must show proof of having converted to Christianity before sailing with their vessel.

“‘Yea,’ said Captain Bildad…’He must show that he’s converted. Son of darkness,’ he added, turning to Queequeg, ‘art thou at present in communion with any Christian church?’

‘Why,’ said I, ‘he’s a member of the first Congregational Church.’ Here be it said, that many tattooed savages sailing in Nantucket ships at last come to be converted into the churches.

‘First Congregational Church,’ cried Bildad, ‘what! that worships in Deacon Deuteronomy Coleman’s meeting-house?’ and so saying, taking out his spectacles, he rubbed them with his great yellow bandana handkerchief, and putting them on very carefully, came out of the wigwam, and leaning stiffly over the bulwarks, took a good long look at Queequeg.

‘How long hath he been a member?’ he then said, turning to me; ‘not very long, I rather guess, young man.’

‘No,’ said Peleg, ‘and he hasn’t been baptized right either, or it would have washed some of that devil’s blue off his face.’

‘Do tell, now,” cried Bildad, ‘is this Philistine a regular member of Deacon Deuteronomy’s meeting? I never saw him going there, and I pass it every Lord’s day.’

‘I don’t know anything about Deacon Deuteronomy or his meeting,’ said I; ‘all I know is, that Queequeg here is a born member of the First Congregational Church. He is a deacon himself, Queequeg is.’

‘Young man,’ said Bildad sternly, ‘thou art skylarking with me—explain thyself, thou young Hittite. What church dost thee mean? answer me.’

Finding myself thus hard pushed, I replied. ‘I mean, sir, the same ancient Catholic Church to which you and I, and Captain Peleg there, and Queequeg here, and all of us, and every mother’s son and soul of us belong; the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong to that; only some of us cherish some queer crotchets no ways touching the grand belief; in that we all join hands.'”
(ibid., part 1 pages 94-95)

Ishmael’s solution to this problem is to argue that all men are part of the real “Catholic Church” and that all forms of worship, both pagan and Christian, are essentially one. Such an idea of course contradicts the clear Biblical teaching that the Church is a congregation of those who are not of this world and that Christians must be separated from unbelievers: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?” (2 Corinthians 6:14-15). What the Bible calls “darkness” and “Belial” Melville declares to be part of the one universal church.

In addition to making excuses for Queequeg’s paganism, Melville also presents this savage as noble and dignified, as opposed to boorish white “bumpkins” who look down on the foreigner. Thus we see another defining feature of the white liberal mindset: it is not simply the case that savages are equal to civilized men, they are in fact superior. While taking a passenger ship together from New Bedford to Nantucket, Ishmael and Queequeg encounter some “racist” whites, although Queequeg’s natural virtue soon shines through and wins the day:

“…for some time we did not notice the jeering glances of the passengers, a lubber-like assembly, who marvelled that two fellow beings should be so companionable; as though a white man were anything more dignified than a whitewashed negro. But there were some boobies and bumpkins there, who, by their intense greenness, must have come from the heart and centre of all verdure. Queequeg caught one of these young saplings mimicking him behind his back. I thought the bumpkin’s hour of doom was come. Dropping his harpoon, the brawny savage caught him in his arms, and by an almost miraculous dexterity and strength, sent him high up bodily into the air; then slightly tapping his stern in mid-somerset, the fellow landed with bursting lungs upon his feet, while Queequeg, turning his back upon him, lighted his tomahawk pipe and passed it to me for a puff.

‘Capting! Capting!’ yelled the bumpkin, running towards that officer; ‘Capting, Capting, here’s the devil.’

‘Hallo, you sir,’ cried the Captain, a gaunt rib of the sea, stalking up to Queequeg, ‘what in thunder do you mean by that? Don’t you know you might have killed that chap?’

‘What him say?’ said Queequeg, as he mildly turned to me.

‘He say,’ said I, ‘that you came near kill-e that man there,’ pointing to the still shivering greenhorn.

‘Kill-e,’ cried Queequeg, twisting his tattooed face into an unearthly expression of disdain, ‘ah! him bevy small-e fish-e; Queequeg no kill-e so small-e fish-e; Queequeg kill-e big whale!’

‘Look you,’ roared the Captain, ‘I’ll kill-e you, you cannibal, if you try any more of your tricks aboard here; so mind your eye.’

But it so happened just then, that it was high time for the Captain to mind his own eye. The prodigious strain upon the main-sail had parted the weather-sheet, and the tremendous boom was now flying from side to side, completely sweeping the entire after part of the deck. The poor fellow whom Queequeg had handled so roughly, was swept overboard; all hands were in a panic; and to attempt snatching at the boom to stay it, seemed madness. It flew from right to left, and back again, almost in one ticking of a watch, and every instant seemed on the point of snapping into splinters. Nothing was done, and nothing seemed capable of being done; those on deck rushed towards the bows, and stood eyeing the boom as if it were the lower jaw of an exasperated whale. In the midst of this consternation, Queequeg dropped deftly to his knees, and crawling under the path of the boom, whipped hold of a rope, secured one end to the bulwarks, and then flinging the other like a lasso, caught it round the boom as it swept over his head, and at the next jerk, the spar was that way trapped, and all was safe. The schooner was run into the wind, and while the hands were clearing away the stern boat, Queequeg, stripped to the waist, darted from the side with a long living arc of a leap. For three minutes or more he was seen swimming like a dog, throwing his long arms straight out before him, and by turns revealing his brawny shoulders through the freezing foam. I looked at the grand and glorious fellow, but saw no one to be saved. The greenhorn had gone down. Shooting himself perpendicularly from the water, Queequeg, now took an instant’s glance around him, and seeming to see just how matters were, dived down and disappeared. A few minutes more, and he rose again, one arm still striking out, and with the other dragging a lifeless form. The boat soon picked them up. The poor bumpkin was restored. All hands voted Queequeg a noble trump; the captain begged his pardon.”
(ibid., part 1 pages 64-65)

The heroic colored man not only stands up to the ignorant white bumpkin, but he magnanimously saves the life of the “racist” and even saves the entire ship, all while displaying an unflappable dignity! This story of white humiliation and non-white exaltation presages countless scenes in film and television that have become quite common since the 1960s. This radical inversion of racial reality was already a feature in New England humanism.

Once Ishmael’s journey on the Pequod begins, his relationship with Queequeg does not receive as much attention. However, interspersed with the narrative of the whaling voyage are numerous philosophical reflections which align very well with the paganism and relativism espoused by Ishmael in the earlier sections of the book. One such reflection involves Ishmael describing his experience of being lost in thought while standing in the ships’ crow’s nest and scanning the ocean for whales.

“Very often do the captains of such ships take those absent-minded young philosophers to task, upbraiding them with not feeling sufficient ‘interest’ in the voyage; half-hinting that they are so hopelessly lost to all honorable ambition, as that in their secret souls they would rather not see whales than otherwise. But all in vain; those young Platonists have a notion that their vision is imperfect; they are short-sighted; what use, then, to strain the visual nerve? They have left their opera-glasses at home.

‘Why, thou monkey,’ said a harpooneer to one of these lads, ‘we’ve been cruising now hard upon three years, and thou hast not raised a whale yet. Whales are scarce as hen’s teeth whenever thou art up here.’ Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Cranmer’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!”
(ibid., part 1 pages 168-169)

In this passage Ishmael (and by extension Melville) describes himself as a follower of Platonism and pantheism, both of which are anti-Christian philosophies. The designation as a Platonist is particularly interesting because elsewhere in the book Melville asks, “How many, think ye, have…fallen into Plato’s honey head, and sweetly perished there?” (ibid., part 2 page 73). The idea of Plato’s philosophy brining about the death of an inquirer would never be held by a dogmatic Platonist. On the contrary, a genuine devotee of Plato would maintain that in his master’s philosophy one finds the absolute truth. This light manner in which Melville treats philosophy is again expressed when he describes how a ship hoists a whale’s head onto each side of the prow and thereby balances herself, comparing these heads to different philosophers.

“As before, the Pequod steeply leaned over towards the sperm whale’s head, now, by the counterpoise of both heads, she regained her even keel; though sorely strained, you may well believe. So, when on one side you hoist in Locke’s head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant’s and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right.
(ibid., part 2 page 55)

Here Melville suggests that a philosopher like Locke will draw one’s head too far in one direction, while a philosopher like Kant will do the same in another direction. He even states that one’s head will be better off abandoning such “thunder-head” philosophers altogether. But if Melville holds philosophers in such low esteem, what are we to make of his numerous and lengthy philosophical digressions? In this we can see that not only is Melville post-Christian, but he has also abandoned Enlightenment concepts of objective truth and has embraced what can be termed a post-modern perspective. For Melville truth is no longer the goal, and all philosophies and experiences become playthings for minds that are supposedly free from all dogmatism. Of course this post-modern rejection of objective truth is self-contradictory, for everyone must have some faith, some dogmatic belief in order to make value judgments about anything (which Melville frequently does). Thus true moral and philosophical relativism is impossible, although the feigned relativism of Melville and those who have followed in the tradition of New England humanism is often a useful tool for demolishing the Christian foundation of society.

A final passage of interest from Moby-Dick is taken from a lengthy meditation on the nature of the sperm whale, in which Melville focuses on the majesty and profundity of the creature.

“…had the great Sperm Whale been known to the young Orient World, he would have been deified by their child-magian thoughts. They deified the crocodile of the Nile, because the crocodile is tongueless; and the Sperm Whale has no tongue, or at least it is so exceedingly small, as to be incapable of protrusion. If hereafter any highly cultured, poetical nation shall lure back to their birth-right, the merry May-day gods of old; and livingly enthrone them again in the now egotistical sky; in the now unhaunted hill; then be sure, exalted to Jove’s high seat, the great Sperm Whale shall lord it.”
(ibid., part 2 pages 75-76)

Here Melville goes back on what he said earlier about the fundamental equality of all religions. Here he describes paganism in positive terms and clearly states that a return to paganism would be a blessing. He says that the “merry” gods of old lost their “birth-right” in our hearts and temples when replaced by Christianity, and that only a “highly cultured” nation could bring them back to enliven our physical environment. We can also see that Melville’s love of the savage is insincere, or at least inconsistent. At one moment he extols the savage, at the next he says that only a “highly cultured” people could truly advance humanity. Therefore I say that the New England humanists are “mock-savages.” No pagan savage from Polynesia would ever engage in contemplation of Platonic or Kantian philosophy, nor speculate about a “highly cultured” people creating a new religion. The New England humanist merely extols the savage for the purpose of denigrating and attacking the “bad whites” who hold to our Christian past, a strategy that is still used by white liberals today.

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