Political Liberty and the Duty to Worship: Honoring Queequeg
Virginia Arbery, Ph.D.
It is a bit daunting to begin this series on the topic, “God and Culture.” If it is true that, as Aristotle says the beginning is more than half the whole, than the whole series is in trouble. The series is in trouble because I think the subject matter dictates that I chart two seemingly incompatible courses, one that absolutely defends religious diversity and one that defends religious absolutism. At base, I hope to affirm what, in his 1947 Gifford Lectures, Christopher Dawson defended as the two paths of natural theology, the search for God above the earth (in the natural world and the heavenly bodies) and the other a search beneath (in one’s spiritual depths or in an awakened consciousness). Since Socrates got publicly ridiculed for investigating things both above and beneath the earth (i.e., beyond the political order upon it and the civil, official, religion it dictates) in Aristophanes’ comedy “The Clouds,” a caricature that led to the charge that he corrupted the young by introducing new gods into the city, one successfully upheld in court and leading to his condemnation to drink hemlock, I am a bit hesitant to proceed. It might be better to just go ahead and take the hemlock now, because I am confident that what I am going to say will neither be popular nor sufficiently convincing.
Writing this talk, I felt like I got sucked into a black hole described on NPR yesterday as speedily compressing the body, shoulder to shoulder so that, if one were to go feet first, one would be “noodle-ized” with great dispatch, an appropriate fate for one of Italian descent, my husband unkindly suggested to me late last night. Among other problematic suggestions, these will stand out: in a vital culture, religious conviction is preferable to mere toleration; in a decadent culture, lack of religious conviction can lead to false prophets; in all cultures where freedom is the vital principle, the worship of God is a matter of taste. I suspect these premises as stated should offend all kinds of believers, both strong and open-minded. We will start with the last suggestion: that divine worship is a matter of taste.
De gustibus non disputandum est. Many of you will recall this Latin adage from your school days-“when it comes to taste, there is no dispute.” I remember Sr. Matthew Ann, bellowing this phrase dominated by the assonance of the “u,” from her formidable 5×5 frame- Matthew Ann with a perpetual twinkle in her eye gone only once, when she told us President Kennedy had been shot, Matthew Ann feared and loved for her withering Irish wit, “de gustibus non disputandum est.” “But, Sister,” I protested, “we argue all the time over what we like to eat, or what we like to wear, or what music we’ll play. That’s just another Latin proverb that doesn’t make any sense in our day,” I foolishly continued. Her response was delayed, a bit slow for her usual quick wit; I was scared. Mildly, softly at first, Sister replied, “Miss Lombardo, Yes, you are right, this adage seems out of date because you and your culturally deprived classmates are being brought up in a world that has lost the virtue of discretion, of courtesy.” Then, loudly, “Now, memorize the phrase and learn not to argue over what makes good sense.”
To get this notion of the taste for God in mind, we might begin with the most unlikely pair to ever share a bed in Western literature-the Yankee schoolteacher Ishmael from Manhattan and the cannibal Queequeq, “native of Kokovoko, an island far to the West and South.” “It is not,” Herman Melville writes Moby Dick, “down in any map; true places never are.” You’ll recall in the chapter entitled “Bosom Friend,” which begins just after the would-be suicide Ishmael has just left the Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford, the marble tablets in the wall memorializing the dead whalers, where the melancholy Ishmael hears the rousing sermon of Father Mapple, a former harpooner himself, boomingly, movingly delivered from the pulpit without stairs having instead a perpendicular side ladder, railings of rope, like those “used in mounting a ship from a boat at sea.” Pulling up the ladder after his ascent, Mapple speaks of the need for discernment of soul, employing the central image of Jonah, and ending in a rousing chorus of sentences beginning with “Delight” the gist of which emphasize the rooting out of sin in ourselves and others, the casting of oneself on the “Father,” “chiefly known to me by the rod” whose “eternal delight and deliciousness will be his” upon his last breath. Going from this grand Puritan sermon to Peter Coffin’s Spouter Inn, Ishmael finds Queequeq sitting before the fire, holding “close up to his face the little Negro idol [Yojo, made of polished ebony] . . . ; peering hard into its face, and with a jack-knife whittling away at its nose, meanwhile humming to himself in his heathenish way.” Having observed his thoroughly tattooed body the night before, Ishmael now studies how he is “hideously marred about the face-at least to my taste-his countenance yet had a something in it which was by no means disagreeable. You cannot hide the soul. Through all his unearthly tattooings, I thought I saw the traces of a simple honest heart; and in his large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold, there seemed tokens of a spirit that would dare a thousand devils.” His lofty bearing-he held himself like a man who had “never cringed and never known a creditor”-is enhanced by the shape of his skull, which, Ishmael concludes, is “excellent.” Indeed, it reminds him of George Washington. “Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.”
In the novel we see-and we’ll return to it later-how Ishmael develops not only a taste for Queequeq but a profound friendship. Queequeq is Ishmael’s ladder and rod to the deep things underneath, his veritable lifeline. But here, early on in the novel, the other-ness of his roommate’s person and his private devotions enhances and gives new life to an overly cerebral Ishmael, whose journey leads him to the discovery of themysterium tremendum at the heart of reality. But not yet. Ishmael first overcomes his distaste for the other-ness of the cannibal’s religious habits, and, after a theological debate with himself, honors him by joining him, out of courtesy, in worshipping the idol. He begins to develop a taste for the primitive. And, when he finds out what an expert harpooner Queequeq is, it also makes eminent practical sense for him to stay as close to his unlikely bosom friend as possible.
That old Latin phrase, having to do with what personally pleases, makes eminent political sense too. In John Courtney Murray’s book, We Hold These Truths, Murray wrote of the rules of discourse, “articles of peace,” he called them, which give us a code, a courtesy which protects the great good of civil unity by protecting pluralism, and in particular, religious diversity. These articles derive from the self-evident convictions articulated in The Declaration of Independence: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the
Pursuit of Happiness.” The rule of law arrived at by the public consensus depends on a level playing field that is available to all men by virtue of their common creature-hood, not equality of conditions, as de Tocqueville pointed out. Importantly, equality and rights are not granted by man but are God-given. They are part of our nature and derive from His generously sharing his own with us.
This conviction-a transcendent not based on faith but on reason-was the very “proposition,” as Lincoln put in “The Gettysburg Address” to be proven by America’s political choices. The conviction, it could be said, is America’s natural theology, and it has hugely significant implications, which are its corollaries in public life. If men of all colors and national backgrounds are equal, then men of all religious persuasions are also equal. The believer’s humanity and political liberty were in no way to be diminished by the regard held by the corporate body for the individual’s understanding and expression of his duty to worship God. Furthermore, without fundamental agreement on man’s creatureliness necessitating a response in gratitude to the Creator, and without the protection of the unique and private and different ways this might proceed, America would fall into the same sort of religious wars which plagued Europe for years. The “Articles of Peace,” “sweet peace,” as Roger Williams put it in his The Bloody Tenant, leave to God then, what he argued was God’s domain only: separating the wheat from the tares; in the meantime, in this life, as Augustine argued earlier, we know not who lives in the city of God and who is simply living for nothing other than the goods of this life, those attached solely to the city of man. Williams and Augustine understood the two orders to be inextricably entwined in this life, and thus it was outside the business of politics to judge who was religiously sanctified and who not. In Williams adaptation of de gustibus non disputandum est, worship guided by conscience is the way whereby “civil peace and the beauty of civility and humanity may be obtained.”
The First Amendment then is simply the offshoot of the reasoning behind the pre-Revolutionary sentiments that found their way into the Declaration. The self-evident truths and the prohibition of Congress establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof came from assumptions that made for “good law,” and sounding a bit like Sr. Matthew Ann, Murray concludes that, “It is in fact the only view that a citizen with both historical sense and common sense can take.” He goes on, “if history makes one thing clear it is that these clauses were the twin children of social necessity, the necessity of creating a social environment, protected by law, in which men of differing religious faiths might live together in peace.” He cites Daniel Boorstin in The Genius of American Politics who observed that “The impression which the American has as he looks about him is one of the inevitability of the particular institutions under which he lives” (66). Murray comments, “This mark of inevitability is an index of goodness.” He argues that even without Williams, Jefferson, and Madison, religious pluralism would work itself out in the American experience, as it indeed had to do in each state.
But I said earlier, that religious conviction is preferable to mere toleration, a sign of a vital culture. Let us imagine asking an American Muslim today or an Anglican in Virginia in the 1770’s or a Catholic in Maryland then, or a Jew from the Hebrew Congregation in Rhode Island or Savannah, “Do you really believe in the first two provisions of the First Amendment?” The question, Murray writes, reminds us of one of the memorable answers of Samuel Johnson to the numerous questions put by James Boswell: “whether it is necessary to believe all the Thirty-nine Articles.” The Doctor replied; “Why sir, that is a question which has been much agitated. Some have held it necessary that all be believed. Others have considered them to be only articles of peace, that is to say, you are not to preach against them” (58). Johnson’s prudent reply is marked by that sense of measure that self-governing peoples should be known for along with their courage. One assents to the non-establishment clause in the same way that one assents to the thirty-nine articles in England-not because they embody the nature of the highest truths or freedom, the way one should develop say, a spiritual life; they are not invested with the sanctity of dogma, but “only with the rationality that attaches to law” (58). Those who dogmatize about these articles of peace invest freedom of religion with a secularizing aspect neither intended nor consistent with either the article’s stated meaning nor with the culture out of which they could have been and were written; they are committed to what Stephen L. Carter has called a “culture of disbelief.”
The anti-hierarchical religious individualism which marked the Puritan “spirit of religion” Tocqueville talked about as America’s first political institution-the counterpoint and progenitor of its spirit of freedom-contributes, of course, to a distaste for any religion such as Islam, which claims it is the one and only true religion, i.e., that claims God himself established the religion and thus constituted how He must be worshipped and best by those holding certain beliefs. Despite the fact that Roger Williams himself, along with Anne Hutchison and others, were banished and condemned by their Protestant brethren for their intolerable belief in the spirit’s authority over the congregation’s authority, Protestant orthodoxy nonetheless contributed to the privatization of faith. As John Locke and John Milton specified in the seventeenth century in their watershed teachings on freedom and expression and religious toleration, all religions are to be tolerated except those religions that claim to be the one true religion. At the time, this, of course, excluded religious toleration for Catholics, as it was the case in England for a long time, but, it also, and perhaps more importantly, established a secularist tendency latent within the “tolerance,” that goes something like this: since safe religion is religion-in-general, “then various sects in their dividedness are as repugnant religiously as they are politically dangerous.” (Murray) (Our founders thought the opposite, stating that diversity of religious sects protects their being one, held by the majority, that could lord it over all the rest-Federalist 10.) Religious truth is to be understood as a matter of personal experience, and faith subjective impulse, “not related to any objective order of truth or to any structured economy of salvation whose consistence is not dependent on the human will.” (Murray)
As Murray concludes, given this secularist tendency, religious freedom is a value, but religion is not. This is how he puts it: “Religion itself is not a value, except insofar as its ambiguous reassurances may have the emotional effect of conveying reassurance.” The ground under this assumption is that the “mind or will that is committed, absolutely and finally, is by definition not free. It has fallen from grace by violating its own free nature”(60-61). Now Dr. Allums and Dr. Stroud will, I’m confident, help to outline the arguments from a secularist’s perspective next week, but I want to at least indicate how confused the commitment to religious diversity becomes when it becomes identified with a commitment to religious neutrality. The one does not require the other, and, in fact, makes for a bland, colorless culture.
In any case, whether a secularist or religionist or someone in between in the vast spectrum of worshippers, this republic has a commitment to the universal truth of human equality and the other self-evident truths and to religious liberty. Our founding fathers argue that it is to be protected as coeval with political liberty. To say the later is to imply the former. Political liberty leaves each believer the option of other religious choices than his parents’ or his community’s, however true or false those beliefs may in fact be. And we will fight to protect the quality of life that commitment to our rule of law allows. It is a political principle that in the end requires the courage of our political conviction, no matter how polite we are about our personal religious differences.
Winston Churchill said that courage is the “first of human qualities, because it is the quality which guarantees all others.” The eminent philosopher Hannah Arendt cites Churchill’s statement within the recent context, of course of WWII and Nazi Germany, where the purity of the blood, God ordained and from the earth, is promulgated as both natural theology and national religion. Arendt forcefully conveys that more is at risk than our own lives when the world itself is at stake-when the essence of what is worth living for, as the signers of the Declaration felt, was being violated. As Arendt puts it in Between Past and Future, courage does not “gratify our individual sense of vitality but is demanded of us by the very nature of the public realm. For this world of ours, because it existed before us and is meant to outlast our lives in it, simply cannot afford to give primary concern to individual lives and the interests connected with them; as such the public realm stands in the sharpest possible contrast to our private domain, where, in the protection of family and home, everything serves and must serve the security of the life process. Courage liberates men from their worry about life for the freedom of the world” (156).
Now let me sharpen, with James Madison’s help, how protecting religious liberty is the best way the public realm can foster a climate in the world conducive to man’s fulfillment of what he calls man’s first duty, the duty to worship God. I will suggest that the protection of religious diversity articulated by Madison in 1785 (before the passage Jefferson’s Act for the Establishment of Religious Freedom in 1786) fosters a climate that longs to taste God, enkindles a desire to seek out the divine in the world and beyond and in one’s own being. Ironically, privatized taste is vital to culture despite the fact that culture is rightly connected with the traditional expressed in forms, ritual, and communal worship. For as T. S. Eliot (1945, owing much to Dawson) would point out in “Notes toward a Definition of Culture:” “We have not given enough attention to the ecology of cultures” (131). Religious practices and beliefs that are sharply different from each other and that seem foreign to regnant sensibilities and taste, are vital to culture, i.e., if its forms and reality are more than mere civil religion. He writes that if a national culture is to “flourish” it “should be a constellation of cultures, the constituents of which, benefiting each other, benefit the whole.” Eliot thinks he is introducing a new notion-but he isn’t, the Founders articulated it fully in Federalist 10 in their teaching on avoiding the tyranny of majority faction-“the vital importance for a society of friction between its parts” (132).” “One needs the enemy. So, within limits, the friction, not only between individuals but between groups, seems to me quite necessary for civilization. The universality of irritation is the best assurance of peace” (133). (Of course he cites here Germany and Italy, each instances of a country quickly and violently becoming “too well united.”) To be sure, and at the same time, Eliot observes that culture and religion are virtually identifiable-a people’s organic growth-the structures which emerge-are predicated from the root. He qualifies his remarks on multifarious religions or resisting cultures with the following: “…/E/very subculture is dependent upon that from which it is an offshoot. The life of Protestantism depends upon the survival of that which it protests”(149). (Anglican v. Protestant and Anglican, in turn, v. Latin culture.)
Back to Madison. First a word of two about the background. In the late spring of 1785, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia attempted to pass a law for the support of Anglican clergy to teach Christian religion in schools of Virginia. Anonymously, James Madison circulated a petition throughout Virginia stating the principles that such a law, if implemented, would violate. This circular, called “A Memorial and Remonstrance” is one of the more neglected but most important statements anticipating the First Amendment. It was important in clarifying the principles of the relation between the human and the divine order that are the foundation for personal and institutional religious liberty. The thinking of Madison is more timely than ever, as it established the terms of the natural theology that lay behind the privatization of what, for the majority of man’s history, had been publicly established-religion, and, remarkably, it liberated man’s religious choices while greatly augmenting the authority that God, whether Yahweh, the Lord, the Great Spirit, The Trinity, or Allah, or otherwise named, pre-eminently holds.
There are fifteen beautifully reasoned and rhetorically persuasive points offered in opposition to the law to support the clerics of one particular sect. I will review them all with a short respite for breakfast at dawn. In the first place, the petition remonstrates against the bill because it undermines a “fundamental and undeniable truth, that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” This is defined as an “unalienable right”-by “nature”-for two reasons: (1) The first has to do with the nature of opinion. Opinions, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men. (2) The second reason for religious liberty being unalienable has to do with the nature of God: “What is here a right towards men is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe. And if a member of Civil Society, do it with a saving of this allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.” Now, of course, the distinction made here is between religion and the worship of God, or between culture and God, if we keep in mind that the culture out of which the whole civic enterprise begins in America is indeed very much, nearly exclusively Christian and Protestant above all.
Madison goes on. Legislative bodies have not one more jot of power than inchoate civil society itself. Moreover, since man’s first duty in the order of being is the worship of God (as his mind leads him, and to which, we might add, his taste finds “acceptable to him”), the first duty of Citizens is to be jealous of this duty-to defend at the first sign of alarm. This, he argues, is “one of noblest characteristics of the late Revolution.” The “free men of America” did not wait until “usurped power” “entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle.” The circular goes on to argue that the bill before the assembly “violates the equality which ought to be the basis of every law.” They retain, above all an “equal title” to the free exercise of Religion according to the dictates of Conscience. We must be able to assert a freedom to “embrace,” “profess,” and “observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin,” but we must not deny an “equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.” Here is the key point-“Now if this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered.” This remarkable point argues two things that might offend contemporary sensibilities: (a) that a religion that claims itself as absolute has an equal right to be privately held and an equal right to proselytize and (b) to abuse this freedom legally (which indeed enforces a cultural climate to do so outside the law) is an offense against fully free worship of God that divine nature requires.
Another way to put this is that, contra Hobbes, who advised reasonable men to say think one thing in the secrets of the heart and say whatever is necessary with one’s lips publicly, God doesn’t want our lies. He wants-deserves-to be desired from the heart (will) that can alone give its assent when belief is grounded in rationally. Conscience, a knowing with, not just a private feeling, is important here. Madison’s circular seems to be urging-under the surface, that free believing Americans fulfill their duty to worship not merely conventionally but only if they become truth-seekers, i.e., those who seek to satisfy their thirst for God as much as possible by the inquiring minds they have been given. Given these guidelines, worship would seem to serve God poorly if the duty were more to one’s parental or communal religion adhered to simply because it was easier, both personally and socially. Instead, Madison raises the bar to an active engagement with finding out what, long ago, Thucydides put before all men the fundamental question for all citizens, ‘Quid sit Deus?”-“What might God be?” (Leo Strauss, The City and Man)
A culture alive with this question is itself served best when it offers its citizens many highly realized and strongly different alternative answers with their different attendant forms. Christopher Dawson points this out in his important work, Religion and Culture. But he makes a point that exceeds Madison’s own with its exclusive emphasis on rational satisfaction for the believer. Dawson observes that religious diversity protected as a province sacred to man and not to God leads to the paralyzing thought of William James that religious experiences in their varieties-and thus privileged in and of themselves-grow increasingly non-communicable “to the reason on the plane of rational science and philosophy and natural theology.” We might add that individualism in religious experience has the undesirable effect of producing isolatoes, such as depicted in the figure Ishmael, making civic unity-not to mention psychic integrity-fragile. Religious personalism could be said to emerge from the loss of the mystery in nature that followed the Baconian revolution-where natural things are, as Ahab says in MD, but “pasteboard masks” that modern science wills to get behind. Such a view is the death of natural theology, which, along with the hierarchy in being, the new science cast out from observable truth. With the loss of the hierarchy in nature it was a short step to the questioning of the authority in religious orthodoxies. In the new world, modern man was left without natural theology and the confidence that thought supports belief. Dawson puts the dilemma this way “On the one side we have a world which is full of religious richness and depth but incapable of rational demonstration. On the other, an intelligible order without spiritual depth or direct contact with religious truth.” In such a world, we might cry out as Pascal did after Descartes’ famous proof of God in the closet of his mind, “Not the god of the philosophers and the scientists, but the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob-Deum meum et Deum vestrum ” (20).
Let’s return to Madison for a moment before we join Ishmael and Queequeq back in their room at the Spouter Inn. Madison’s pre-founding circular makes several other points I should mention. Using religion as the “engine of Civil policy” is an “arrogant pretension” and “an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.” It may be of some benefit to remind ourselves of Madison’s healthy reassertion of the two swords notion of the fifth century, a reassertion hard for the Roman world to realize in practice, as it is now for the less liberal elements of Islam, most of whose forbears were content to exact a poll tax and not heads for having a different submission than to Mohammad’s Allah. Another point: appealing to the Culture, Madison argues that it shows its lack of confidence in the Author of the Christian religion to think God needs human policy to be its patron. Again, Madison is concerned to keep the religion in service of the worship of the Creator and not the Creator in the service of the creature. A third additional point: the proposed law is a “departure from the generous policy” which offering an “Asylum” to the persecuted and oppressed of every nation and Religion, promised a luster to our country.” Now, the commonwealth signals a degeneration by degrading the immigrant who comes-if he would under such a law-as a second class citizen, not really equal. A fourth major observation that Madison makes is that such an immoderate law will usher in other violations, leading to a lack of “harmony” among the various sects-again, a violation of the articles of peace to be fully articulated in the First Amendment. And in a final rhetorical point, Madison again shows his hand, the hand of the colonial and fledgling nation’s Christian Culture: “the policy of the Bill is adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity for “it at once discourages those who are strangers to the light of revelation from coming into the Region of it; and countenances by example the nations who continue in darkness, in shutting out those who might convey it to them.” With an “unchristian timidity” in the face of the “encroachments of error” it builds a “wall of defence” around Truth and thus stoops to ignobility.
Thus, Madison in trying to put his audience in the right frame of mind, argues that such a law undermines their magnanimity as a people. Finally, once again invoking the norm that religion should be exercised according to the dictates of conscience, he concludes the circular, somewhat like the Declaration of Independence, with a prayer. Again he asserts that worship belongs to God in gratitude, man’s first duty, and that it is insufficiently understood as an exercise of free speech. He invokes the “Supreme Lawgiver of the Universe” to illuminate those among the General Assembly so that they would firstly, “not affront his holy prerogative” and secondly, violate the trust committed to them. Then, he earnestly prays that God will “guide them into every measure which may be worthy of his blessing and may redound to their own praise” for the “liberties, prosperity and happiness of the Commonwealth.” The art of Madison’s great defense of religious liberty and diversity is that it is as much, and in principle more so, an exhortation to worship God and to invite others to do so within the Christian religion. Thus, while retaining the prejudices of his own culture he trusts in the sufficiency of its virility to be elastic-to welcome the “Nations who continue in darkness.” Thus he pairs religious conviction to genuine toleration. Religions of all kinds can feel at home here because there is a vital religious ecology that springs from a strong, privately watered root.
Those of you who have regularly come to our Wednesday night lecture series will remember when last Fall, Dr. Allums pointed out a remarkably prophetic passage in chapter 1 of Moby Dick. The introspective Ishmael (whose name comes, in the Bible, from the son of Abraham said by Mohammad to be the line from which Islam comes) realizes that somehow his excursion to New Bedford to find himself again at sea is ordained by Providence or Fate. Romantic that he is, he pictures the billing his solo would get, a “brief interlude,” showing the world-importance of what, at one level is his own apparent choice. Among “more extensive performances,” his stage managers, the Fates, would sandwich his excursion in this way:
Grand Contested Election For The Presidency Of The United States.
Whaling Voyage by one Ishmael.
Bloody Battle in Afghanistan.
When one reflects on the traditional vatic role of the poet, we are stunned by the prescience of Melville’s grandstanding by his disconsolate failed teacher. But the correspondences aside, what our great epic writer saw even more prophetically is the continued need for the other, the non-familiar as it worships and trusts and, Yes, also searches, in order to rediscover the meaning of being human. And who we are is first of all, for each of us, a question of how I came to be and then of where am I going. We cannot find the complete answers to these questions in genes and quarks. Melville, impishly it seems, makes sure we know that the nobleman in the novel is from nowhere than can be calculated or plotted. Queequeq, you’ll remember thought he would travel to find something better for his people among the Christians, the Europeans. He sets off, Ishmael speculates, like Czar Peter, “But alas! The practices of whaleman soon convinced him that even Christians could be both miserable and wicked; infinitely more so, than all his father’s heathens. Thought he, it’s a wicked world in all meridians; I’ll die a pagan.” It is Queequeq’s coffin carved with the same cosmology tattooed on his body and thrust up from the killer vortex into which the Pequod and all but one of its crew are sucked that saves Ishmael.
It is as though what has happened in his imagination and ruminations-even in the cold bed in the dark of the Spouter Inn-has literally and symbolically occurred as he is plunged into the dark waters only to be thrust back into life, reborn and changed. This “head-peddling purple rascal” who fills him with fear the first night, by the second night inspires meditations such as these which presage what will happen at the end of his voyage: “I have a way of always keeping eyes shut, in order the more to concentrate the snugness of being in bed. Because no man can ever feel his own identity aright except his eyes be closed: as if darkness were indeed the proper element of our essences, though light be more congenial to our clayey part.” This soul plunging in the darkness behind one’s eyes follows the unusual communion between the one and the other. Having honored Queequeq’s religious practices, despite his distaste for them, Ishmael can go on to admire the singular integrity of this undivided man-his heart one with his mind-a studied admiration which makes him experience the strangest of feelings: “I felt a melting in me.” He describes the letting go of his rational and cultural prejudices:
No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits. Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him. And those same things that would have repelled others, they were the very magnets that thus drew me. I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.
Sharing his one pipe in the bed connotes many things, but it works its warming effect too on the aloof savage who now, if there lurked “any indifference towards Me,” Ishmael says, thawed and “left us cronies.” Following his country’s manner, Queequeq clasps Ishmael around the waist, touches his forward to his, and pronounces them “bosom friends”-married. Premature, Ishmael thinks, according to our “old norms.”
Our tastes too are changed by the transformation we mimetically participate in. We know something new about nature, custom, thinking, feeling, and God’s providence, and about science. There is hardly an aspect of reality or culture, Western or otherwise that isn’t touched by this novel, and by the time we survive it, we understand that taste is the “chief cultural activity among man’s political activities” (Hannah Arendt, 223). As Kant says, taste judgments “woo the consent of everyone else,” and so, as in liturgies, art, expressions of all the visible forms of religion, believers see something beautiful and attempt to persuade others. For finally taste, while thoroughly private, about which there is no dispute, longs to be shared-“it gains in validity to the degree that it has liberated itself from merely individual idiosyncracies” (Arendt, 223). We free people refuse to be coerced about what we affirm is true, verifiable in science, or beautiful in the arts. But we will be wooed. And , if we won’t be wooed by something true, we will be by the tawdry, by the “merchant hawking his shoddy wares” (Caroline Gordon, “Cock-Crow”). The Roman humanitas is theinheritance that gives us the confidence of knowing the difference. Ours is a healthy vital generosity toward religions, because we don’t want to be denied any aspect of contact with understanding the God whom we have the “duty” to worship. By saying “duty,” we seem to say less than “desire”-but we mean more.
© The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture – Permission is granted to copy and redistribute this lecture on the condition that the content remains complete and full credit is given to the author.