December 09, 2012

Sober cannibals and drunken Christians

A while back, I vowed to blog about that (the) great American novel Moby-Dick and why you, Gentle Reader, should give it a try for the first or 50th time. As I've said before, one of the best reasons to read it is that it's laugh out loud funny.

Most of its humor is directed at Ishmael, its narrator, who may or may not be reliable. One great example of this occurs early in the book and involves a bit of a gender bender.

Much could be, and no doubt has been, written about homoerotic or at least sexually ambiguous themes in Melville's work. Not that there's anything wrong with that. One could argue that the first such episode in this classic occurs when Ishmael arrives in New Bedford, Massachusetts en route to a gig on a whaling ship. He learns to his dismay that he missed the boat to Nantucket and has to stay a few nights before the next one is available.

That raises just a bit of tension since our hero is a bit short of money. His tension rises more when he is told by Peter Coffin, proprietor of the Spouter Inn, that no more rooms are available and that he must share a bed with a harpooneer. I think it's fair to say that most guys would be just a bit weirded out to be told that they'd have to share a hotel room with a total stranger, much less a bed.

Ishmael gets even more weirded out the more he hears about his roommate, who is apparently out trying to sell shrunken heads--something he's even done on the sabbath! It gets worse when he hears that the stranger is a bit of a cannibal.

Ishmael then resolves not to sleep in said bed but to try to find some angle of repose on a bench in the dining room of the inn. When this doesn't work, and when it looks like the roommate may not return that night, he relents and tries to sleep. Mayhem very nearly ensues when the tattooed Queequeg returns and is startled by his bedmate.

In the end, all is well, and Ishmael claims never to have slept better in his life:
Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.
A bit later on, Ishmael relates that after sharing a companionable smoke from Queequeg's tomahawk pipe,
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. 
What's really going on here, methinks, really has more to do with overcoming prejudices than with sexual ambiguity. Queequeg turns out to be far more admirable than most of the Christian characters in the book and Melville himself in other works delighted in unfavorably contrasting missionaries with cannibals.

The book is saying that the prejudices we harbor, then as now, often turn out not to be just wrong, but even comically wrong. Which is another reason you should read it.

THE POWER OF NEGATIVE THINKING, or at least a critique of uncritical positive thinking, is discussed here.

THIS IS REALLY GROSS, but click here if you want to learn more about how maggots can heal wounds.


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