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The One, True White Whale 

Reading the other bible at Christmas time

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As the holiday season begins, many religious people are turning to their holy books to get back in touch with their beliefs and look for meaning in a world that can, at times, feel pointless.

But this isn’t for everybody. Sure, you can suspend some belief to read about an ark that preserved the world’s biological diversity, or even about the parting of an entire ocean. But there is a chance, in this very secular world, that the stories in the Bible, Torah and Quran just don’t speak to you.

Try Moby-Dick.

In his recent book, Why Read Moby-Dick?, Nathaniel Philbrick gets close to calling for a new religion based not on the word of God, but on those written by Herman Melville in 1851.

“As individuals trying to find our way through the darkness, as citizens of a nation trying to live up to the ideals set forth in our Constitution, we need, more than ever before, Moby-Dick,” he writes, calling Melville’s masterpiece “the one book that deserves to be called our American bible.”

The epic novel is about a whale, sure, but it’s also about sin and zealotry, compassion and acceptance. It’s about one man’s outrageous ambition, and how this destroys everything good — including other people’s lives.

In other words, Moby-Dick has all the elements of a good holy book. Even 160 years later, it still speaks volumes about today’s world.

America was hurtling towards civil war when Melville published Moby-Dick, and the ideological lines drawn by those in power divided Americans into two very different camps. I won’t argue that Tea Partiers and Occupiers are waging a battle similar to the one that ended slavery. Let’s just say that though history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme.

More to the point, people in 18th-century America felt alienated, just as many do today. People, then and now, struggle to understand their place, to feel they’re more than just another cog in the machine.

Which brings us to Ishmael, the book’s narrator.

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke,” Ishmael says, “and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

Given his despair and his desire to find meaning in life, Ishmael is the character most readers connect with. Moping over the “damp, drizzly November in my soul,” he meets “some abominable savage” named Queequeg, who is tattooed from head to toe and who worships a small wooden idol.

At first afraid of the “idolator,” Ishmael learns to “love thy neighbor” in a most modern, multicultural way.

“But what is worship?” he wonders. “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 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.”

Acceptance, pragmatism, moderation and affection — these are the moral forces in Moby-Dick.

But they stand in contrast to the unhealthy obsession that Melville manifests so well in another of his famous characters: Captain Ahab.

Unlike the accepting, affectionate Ishmael, Ahab represents rage, fear and hate.

Ever since losing his leg to the white whale, Moby Dick, Ahab has sought revenge. In Chapter 36, when Ahab convinces the crew to scuttle their whaling trip and instead search for Moby Dick, Melville “shows us how susceptible we ordinary people are to the seductive power of a great and demented man,” Philbrick argues.

What was a simple whaling voyage turns into one man’s battle for vengeance. In his hubris, Ahab compares himself to God when talking to his first mate, Starbuck. His monomaniacal mission has left him “all mutilated … with half a heart and half a lung.”

“He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down,” Melville writes. “And then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

All in order to defeat the white whale. As Philbrick says, Melville “purposely slows the pace of his novel to a magisterial crawl.” He does this in many parts of the book, pausing to expound on the greatness of the sperm whale, whose spouts have for millennia been “sprinkling and mystifying the gardens of the deep.” The great unknown.

The boat travels around the world, men lose their lives, and Ishmael begins to understand what kind of life is worth living.

“In all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity,” Ishmael realizes. A good life, he continues, is not lived by “the intellect or the fancy.” It is dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country.”

In other words, a life worth living is one that takes pleasure in everyday living, the simple things.

Even those who feel a damp, drizzly December in their souls can take solace in words like these. 

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