Chapter 17: The Ramadan

I once argued that it would not be absolutely immoral to peel a man’s face off and cover it in lemon juice. I was young and, to be fair, playing devil’s advocate for moral relativism. I argued that although I thought peeling a man’s face off seemed wrong, and although I would do everything I could to stop such an act if the unfortunate opportunity arose, I couldn’t see where a “correct” morality could come from, since I believe neither in personified God nor in a master race or culture.

Ishmael also struggles with the restrictions of his culture’s imposed morality early in Moby-Dick as he tries to understand and accept Queequeg as a dear friend. Queequeg worships idols; Ishmael identifies as a Presbyterian. Queequeg’s people eat dead enemy soldiers after a battle; Ishmael’s people prefer to leave dead enemies unconsumed. Impressively, Ishmael challenges his own beliefs several times in the course of the book, and particularly in Chapter 17, “The Ramadan.” Forced by his faith in his friend’s goodness, Ishmael steps over countless moral lines he previously drew in the sand until, upon realizing that Queequeg has to do the same for Ishmael, he has to let it be. In the end, the two friends come together to share an exceptionally big breakfast “so that the landlady should not make much profit by reason of [Queequeg’s] Ramadan.”*

Clearly, neither Ishmael nor Queequeg come from cultures with so obviously wrong norms as the peeling of faces off, but I think both situations beg the same worthy question: In the absence of God and ethnocentrism, where does our sense of morality come from? And can we consider that moral sense absolute?

I have yet to find a satisfying answer to these questions. For now, and most likely for always, I’ll have to stick by my faith that most people want to be good, and do good for others. Perhaps that striving alone — forcing the recognition and consideration of the needs, wants, and feelings of others — forms our moral sense, or perhaps that humanistic striving serves as a higher calling, beyond the simple act of following a set of rules.

*Ishmael refers to Queequeg’s fast as a Ramadan, not to be confused with the Muslim holiday.

Chapter 17: The Ramadan

No suicides here,
And no smoking in the parlor, dear.
He’s locked himself inside —
I’m shut out ’til the rising tide.

The keyhole affords
No better view than half the floor —
He’s nowhere to be seen
Beyond his weapon in the corner leaning.

Queequeg prays (sit alone in the cold for your Ramadan
With Yojo on your head) to the god who gives him voice;
It’s the choice of every man.

Queequeg prays (sit alone in the cold for your Ramadan
With Yojo on your head); oh, who am I to say
That my Christian faith’s the only way.

I burst into the room —
Shuttered like a bud to bloom,
My best friend remains
In the piety of pagan names.

I tell him when he wakes,
Religion needn’t cause him pain.
He smiles back at me,
In friendship, never condescension.

Queequeg prays (sit alone in the cold for your Ramadan
With Yojo on your head) to the god who gives him voice;
It’s the choice of every man.

Queequeg prays (sit alone in the cold for your Ramadan
With Yojo on your head); oh, who am I to say
That my Christian faith’s the only way.

Queequeg prays.

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 15, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea March 15, 2009

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