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Posted by acdtest on December 1, 2003


henever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…then I account it high time to get to sea….

So Ishmael. More prosaic, I, at the first damp and drizzly November day of each year, account it high time to plunge once more into the pages of Melville’s enduring masterpiece, there, for a time, to sweetly perish deep sunk in its overrich language, crowded detail and incident, and mystic and metaphysical loomings as would Tashtego have sweetly perished deep sunk when falling head first into the great Heidelburgh Tun of a beheaded sperm whale had not that leviathan’s capacious case been almost completely baled of its pure, unctuously rich, sweetly fragrant spermaceti.

Melville’s epic yarn of crazy old Ahab’s blasphemous, God-and-Heaven-challenging, monomaniacal quest for vengeance against the inscrutable, unknown, but still reasoning thing behind the unreasoning pasteboard mask of the visible object that was its agent, which visible object was Moby Dick, never fails to engage and enthrall no matter how many times revisited. Most now will aver, as do I, that if there be such a thing as The Great American Novel, Moby-Dick is it.

How, then, to explain the prominent coming on stage of the tale that most strikingly un-American (and un-Christian) “muffled mystery”; the spectral, sinister Persian, Fedallah? And how to explain the importance attached to him by, and his singular intimacy with, the mad but otherwise quintessentially American Ahab?

Stubb, “wise Stubb,” seems all but convinced that Fedallah is the very Devil himself in disguise, with his tail tucked up and coiled away in his pocket so as not to give himself away, and there on board the Pequod to conduct a bargain between himself and mad Ahab concerning the finding and killing of the White Whale. For a more modern, critical view, a Google search on Fedallah turns up just such thoughts, but not quite as literal, the modern sensibility seemingly more comfortable in declaring Fedallah a concrete representation of the demonic in the world.

But, surely, this cannot be all as it would then be but a mere superfluity in the context of the tale as one need do nothing more than clap an eye on crazy old Ahab for a surfeit of the demonic enough for two worlds.

Good and necessary reason there must be, however, for the prominent place given this sinister, un-American character in this most American of tales. Nothing in Moby-Dick, from greatest to smallest, is there without good and necessary reason, the palpable presence of Fedallah no exception.

And Melville is not parsimonious with his clues touching this spectral Parsee. For but two among many, we have,

• Meantime, Fedallah was calmly eyeing the right whale’s head, and ever and anon glancing from the deep wrinkles there to the lines in his own hand. And Ahab chanced so to stand, that the Parsee occupied his shadow; while, if the Parsee’s shadow was there at all it seemed only to blend with, and lengthen Ahab’s.

• But though his [Ahab’s] whole life was now become one watch on deck; and though the Parsee’s mystic watch was without intermission as his own; yet these two never seemed to speak – one man to the other – unless at long intervals some passing unmomentous matter made it necessary. Though such a potent spell seemed secretly to join the twain; openly, and to the awe-struck crew, they seemed pole-like asunder. If by day they chanced to speak one word; by night, dumb men were both, so far as concerned the slightest verbal interchange. At times, for longest hours, without a single hail, they stood far parted in the starlight; Ahab in his scuttle, the Parsee by the mainmast; but still fixedly gazing upon each other; as if in the Parsee Ahab saw his forethrown shadow, in Ahab the Parsee his abandoned substance.

What need has Ahab to speak aloud in words to his inmost spirit, his driving principle, or it with him? It’s for our benefit that Melville makes flesh in Fedallah’s unsavory spectral presence that sinister, un-American spirit and principle the better for us to see, feel, and understand how coolly and unconcernedly it consigns to perdition those whom it possesses. That “cozzening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor… that against all natural lovings and longings…recklessly [makes one] ready to do what in [his] own proper, natural heart [he] durst not so much as dare.”

Possessed by such a horror, wonder ye, then, at mad Ahab’s anguished cry, “Is Ahab, Ahab?” And would ye not cry as much thyself for thyself were thee so possessed?

UPDATE (5 December at 2:20 PM Eastern): Weblogger Aaron Haspel of God Of The Machine takes exception to my attempt at coopting Melville’s prose style.

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