“The Ship” is one of the funniest chapters in all of Moby-Dick, largely due to the Punch and Judy show between Captains Bildad and Pelig, but also because of a funny bit in the opening paragraph about Queequeg’s god, Yojo. Ishmael’s presentation of Queequeg and Yojo throughout the book (not to mention Melville’s choice of the name Yojo, which has a sort of mumbo-jumbo ring to it) seems problematic to say the least, and it’s not even a tired old argument about judging history from modern values that gets either Ishmael or Melville out of the water on this one. Rather, Ishmael’s tone in speaking about other religions saves him any charge of ethnocentrism/bigotry. Ishmael sees (literally and figuratively) all religion as entirely negotiable and, as such, somewhat bizarre and silly.
Take for instance the aforementioned Punch and Judy between Bildad and Pelig. Both are, as most Nantucketers of the time, Quakers. Quakers are fundamentally pacifists. To give an idea of the intensity of this pacifism, according to Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, during the revolutionary war a prominent Nantucket Quaker, also among Nantucket’s most successful whalers, faced criminal trial for throwing a boatload of personally owned bayonets into the ocean rather than giving them to the continental army for the purpose of killing human beings. The Quaker felt that giving the bayonets over to kill men was tantamount to killing the men himself. So, why then, both Dolin and Ishmael ask, do these Quakers daily participate in such a bloody and murderous trade? In Ishmael’s words, Bildad probably “. . . had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another. This world pays dividends.”
Time and again, the religious rituals and beliefs of men in Moby-Dick are presented as peculiarities or idiosyncrasies, from Queequeg’s sacrificial biscuits to Bildad’s muttering of scripture. It’s not condescending, it’s not dismissive, but it’s honest. Religious beliefs are plucked from the ether and returned to sender without the bat of an eyelash. If only we all could have such a sense of humor about ourselves and the silliness of our beliefs, we could see that at heart our values are similar, and there is not such a wide gulf between men after all.
Chapter 16: The Ship
Yojo sent me to find a ship!
Yojo sent me to find a ship!
Oh, Yojo, did you send me to the Pequod?
Oh, Yojo, did you send me to Ahab?
Nothing could seem more wise
Than the wrinkles ’round Pelig’s eyes.
Oh, Pelig, won’t you tell me what whaling is?
Oh, Pelig, it’s a right ferocious accident!
To see the world from a whaler
Is just lookin’ at water, sailor.
And he despises those merchant ships!
And he disguises old Ahab’s tics.
We’ll sign you on, young fellow,
But first give our other owner a hello.
How could a Quaker kill a whale?
Bildad? Captain Bildad, can’t you say?
You read the scriptures every day!
How far ye got?
So sign on for a 300th lay my son (you’re a lucky one!),
And bring your mysterious harpooner friend along (he’s a-welcome on!).
The Pequod will be your final home.
The Pequod will take you to your home.
(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea July 11, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea November 19, 2008