1/29/17- Hunting the White Whale: Melville, Religion, and the Sea

Sermon 1/25/17 Hunting the White Whale: Mellville, Religion, and the Sea

The first time I read Moby-Dick I was in 8th grade at Holy Family-Holy Name school. If just about any other kid in the country made that claim, we’d think…Wow! That’s pretty heavy stuff for a kid. But not here in New Bedford. If you are born here, these days you’ll probably have a onesie with a whales or harpoons on it, and your hipster parents will surely have bought you the Mody-Dick pop-up book. Every grammar school kid, at some point, visits the Whaling Museum and walks the decks of the Pequod, visits the Seaman’s Bethel and gets to stand where Fr. Mapple stood for his famous sermon. By the time your 11 or 12 you’ve probably seen every version of the movie twice, and you know it’ll be required reading sometime in junior high or high school, because the story of Moby-Dick begins here, in the Whaling City. We have taken ownership of this great American novel. We understand it, we feel it in our blood and bones, we smell it in the salty air. Melville writes,
“…New Bedford is a queer place. Had it not been for us whalemen, that tract of land would this day perhaps have been in as howling condition as the coast of Labrador. As it is, parts of her back country are enough to frighten one, they look so bony. The town itself is perhaps the dearest place to live in, in all New England. It is a land of oil, true enough; but not like Canaan; a land, also, of corn and wine. The streets do not run with milk; nor in the spring-time do they pave them with fresh eggs. Yet, in spite of this, nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they? how planted upon this once scraggy scoria of a country?
Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion, and your question will be answered. Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.” (6.5-6)
So, too was this church harpooned and dragged up hither. We give visitors to our church this little booklet called, The Church that Whaling Built, detailing our connection to the sea. And as Unitarians, we have a connection to Melville, who, after a life-long struggle with religion, finally joined All Soul’s Church in New York City in the latter part of his life. “Some literary critics see religion in Moby Dick as a struggle between Melville’s personal adoption of Unitarianism, and the Calvinism of his mother. Born in the Bronx in 1819, his father died when he was 12, so Melville didn’t go to college, in fact, he didn’t even finish high school. But he had a great love of books and taught himself through reading and experience.
His mother Maria Gansevoort was descended from the earliest Dutch settlers of NY, and his Father Allan Melvill from Scots-Irish. Both of Melville’s grandfathers fought in the American Revolution, and his paternal grandfather participated in the Boston Tea Party (the original one). Melville was not celebrated in his lifetime, earning little from his books and poems.”1 And Moby-Dick, which has been touted as the greatest American novel ever written, was particularly poorly received when first released in 1851; it didn’t gain real popularity until the 1920’s. The rejection was largely due to the fact that “the novel shows equal respect for a wide variety of religious traditions and, at the same time, not-so-gently mocks the foolishness of religious extremism.
In this novel, tribal pagans and New England Christians seem pretty similar—and frequently the pagans seem more ethical than some of the Christians around them. In contrast to both this complexly egalitarian attitude toward religiosity and the heavy satire that accompanies some of the religious commentary, the novel also uses a great deal of Biblical symbolism, especially in the names and allegorical roles of characters.”2 But I want to get away from all the reading I did about Melville and Moby Dick and religion and focus on where all my thinking about it took me.
Melville, who died in the Bronx in 1891, would have never imagined that the people of New Bedford, 166 years after Moby Dick was published, would spend a whole weekend celebrating his novel of the sea, that we would make it part of our culture here, and would read it cover to cover together once a year. This sermon was supposed to be preached a few weeks ago, when a bunch of Melville scholars were in town, so I felt under some pressure to be scholastic in my approach to Melville. I read waaaay too many books and papers in preparing for this sermon…I took in so much information that I could barely figure out where to begin and struggled with the first version. You can’t imagine my relief when the snow just kept coming and we had to cancel the service…because at 9:30 I was only about 2 and a half pages into hunting the White Whale and I was throwing harpoons into a dark sea.
If there’s one large lesson I learned as an artist, it’s that the things you create can be pretty easily painted over, if only you can find the resolve to let go of it, and begin again. I’ve whiled away hours of my life standing in front of paintings I knew were going nowhere and mustering up the courage to pick up a turpentine soaked rag and wipe it all away, paint a different background, and start something new, something that works for me. I hope every one of you, at some point, amid many other successes, got to a point with some project or idea or relationship, that just fizzled out, or that you grew beyond, or that you figured out just wasn’t you. This is how we humans learn, right?…from what we get wrong more than what we get right, and the courage to try again.
So, ya, Monday night, after reading through what I had written already, I slashed and burned most of what I would have talked about on Jan. 8, reset my course, and turned the wheel hard to port…back here to New Bedford, where the sea surrounds us. And my theory is that Melville, the God of Metaphor, found something in the ocean, in its power and vastness, that brought him closer to understanding the Divine more than any sermon or ingrained dogma could ever deliver. And if you’ve spent enough time on the ocean you know…there’s a quality that is at once intangible and so very tangible, like something right on the tip of your tongue that you can’t quite get to but you now is there.
What is it about going to sea? I hope none of us here forget that this city was built on the backs of generations of hard-working whalemen and fishermen. It’s a risky job, and there’s a price for the wealth that we receive from the ocean. Because there be MONSTERS! The ocean is a powerful, fickle, unforgiving element. It is also full of mystery and wonder. But there is something else…
In the opening paragraph from Moby Dick, what we might consider the ‘Gospel according to Melville’ on the question of what draws men to sea, Ishmael sketches a dark, watery answer that creates a theme of desperation, at once prosaic and poetic. It flows throughout the book and makes it timeless and, at points, terribly real.
“It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”
There is anger there, and frustration, and the sense of an instinct to flee, to run from the pressures of living on land. But there’s also an instinct to chase something, maybe even something seemingly indomitable, and unknowable. And if you think of it in those terms, the last line of that first paragraph can be understood a little easier.
“If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”
We all, in one way or another, chase our white whale, don’t we? We have all had a damp, drizzly November in our soul. And when we feel locked by the land and its problems, we take quietly to our ships…we resort to whatever keeps us afloat. And I think that what Melville experienced when he went to sea and traveled, gifted him something transcendent, if confusing, to hold onto, like Ishmael clinging to the coffin, somehow saved but still just floating alone. And it couldn’t be put into words, not in a straightforward way, because I don’t think God talks to us in a straightforward way, so Melville concocted this luscious metaphorical narrative of how he wrestled with his own white whale, how he hunted it, and how, in the end, there were both aspects of being saved, and being pulled under by the vast ocean. Maybe he even felt like a heretic, or a pagan, that the ocean gave him answers he couldn’t find anywhere else.
My struggle and doubt about this sermon was, I realized, quintessentially Melvillian. His writing was full of questioning, anguished doubt, and explorations of “good and evil.” It’s no wonder that, after struggling with doubt about his beliefs, he ended up a Unitarian. We specialize in doubt and revel in questioning.
His friend, Nathaniel Hawthorn, says of Melville, (Quoted in Nathaniel Philbrick’s ‘Why Read Moby Dick?’ which I recommend)… “He had pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated. But still he does not rest in that anticipation, and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists — and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before that — in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential. He had a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.”
I don’t think it much matters what you believe. I do think that having a high and noble nature, and wandering to-and-fro, and being persistent in our doubt and our search for the good and the right and the transcendent, is what saves us in the end. The journey of the spiritual seeker isn’t a smooth and obvious path to walk, it’s more like a whaling voyage, full of danger, rough seas, monsters from the deep, and the endless, awesome mysteries of the ocean. I’m pretty sure that if Melville was here, he might just say, “Amen.”

1. “Melville Biography,” in http://xroads.virginia.edu; “Herman Melville,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herman_Melville (3/16/10); “Herman Melville,” Encyclopedia of World Biography 10, 472-476; and “The Life and Works of Herman Melville,” in http://www.melville.org/
2. http://www.shmoop.com/moby-dick/religion-theme.html
Kring, Walter Donald, Herman Melville’s Religious Journey, 1997