28 August 2006

That Ghastly Whiteness

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 10:35 am

“Call me Ishmael.”

Ishmael: is this also the name by which he calls himself? Rarely does the narrator speak of himself; rarely do others speak of him. On that pilgrimage all eyes are fixed elsewhere: toward the horizon, into the Deep, upon the voiceless terror that bears another name.

“Praise be to God who has given me Ishmael and Isaac in my old age!” – so said father Abraham; so is it written in Surah 14. Had not Ishmael helped his father build the Sacred House of Ka‘bah, to which all the faithful must bow, to which all shall make the Hajj? Say: “We believe in God and that which has been revealed to us; in what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes; to Moses and Jesus and the other prophets by their Lord.”

Queequeg the South Sea islander; Tashtego the red man; Daggoo the black African – each harpooneer squires one of the mates, good New Englanders all. Fedallah the yellow Parsee, servant of Zarathustra, leader of the five dusky phantoms, “a muffled mystery to the last” – he it is who steers the monomaniacal captain to his fate, who wields the iron of death.

“Fedallah was a creature such as civilized, domestic people in the temperate zone only see in their dreams, and then but dimly. The likes of him glide among the Oriental isles – those insulated, immemorial lands, which even in modern days preserve much of the ghostly aboriginalness of earth’s primal generations. There all men eye each other as real phantoms and ask the sun and the moon why they were created and to what end. There, according to scriptures, angels indeed consorted with the daughters of men – and devils also indulged in mundane amours.”

And the captain himself, his leg carried off in the whale’s jaws, his leg now fashioned of the jaw of a whale — already mystically united with his nemesis, he lurches toward the  one final reconciliation. All array themselves against the spectral monster of brooding cruelty becloaked in his “ghastly whiteness.”

“I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things,” Ishmael exhorts us near the beginning of his tale, “and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits.” We good Presbyterians – why does Ishmael, ever cautious, choose to grant us this glimpse behind the veil? Spewed from the black vortex of that watery desolation, buoyed by Queequeg’s floating coffin, was he born again as one of us, or as another, as Ishmael?


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