Moby-Dick Big Read, Day 10

Another one of my favorite chapters today — “A Bosom Friend” — and it’s read by the marvelous British actor Stephen Fry. (Don’t be jealous: I’ve got tickets to see Fry play Malvolio in London later this fall. Okay — be jealous.)

Queequeg, who was at the Whaleman’s Chapel, has beaten Ishmael home, and Ishmael finds him in their room contemplating his “little negro idol,” Yojo, and then thumbing through a bound book, marveling at all the pages it contains. Ishmael meanwhile contemplates Queequeg, and (with a nod to the nineteenth-century “science” of phrenology) decides that his roommate is “George Washington cannibalistically developed.” Soon, Ishmael finds himself experiencing ” strange feelings”: “I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it.”

Before long, Queequeg is declaring that the two of them are “married, meaning in his country’s phrase, that we were bosom friends; he would gladly die for me, if need should be.” Ishmael receives Queequeg’s “embalmed head” as a wedding present, and the two have a smoke together before Queequeg takes out his idol. Ishmael sees what’s coming and wonders what he should do:

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.

Ishmael’s comic reasoning here is not unlike his earlier rationalization, “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” in the “Spouter-Inn” chapter. Here he decides that following the Golden Rule means “turn[ing] idolator.” The fault in Ishmael’s reasoning, of course, is that the golden rule is actually the second most important law according to Jesus. In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus is asked, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” His response:

[37] Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. [38] This is the first and great commandment. [39] And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. [40] On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Ishmael conveniently forgets the first law in calling attention to the second. Melville is having fun at the expense of Presbyterians to be sure, but this passage is also a great statement about cosmopolitan toleration. Should we take it seriously given its comic setting?

We leave Queequeg and Ishmael in bed, chatting like an old married couple: “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.” Yes, the chapter is full of homosocial overtones. There are more to come.

The provocative illustration for today’s reading (shown above) is David Noonan’s Untitled (2007; collaged linen; 150 × 106.5c). Visit the site to see a high-resolution version.

[Cross-posted with patell.org]

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