in “The Pulpit,” Ishmael introduces the fantastic, though brief, character of Father Mapple, a reverend via the holy order of whaling. Father Mapple spent his youth as a harpooneer and, to Ishmael’s great transfixion, carries “clerical peculiarities about him, imputable to that adventurous maritime life he had led.” Father Mapple arrives at church through a storm, bedecked in a sailor’s hat and overcoat. He strips the outerwear to reveal his inner identity as spiritual leader, and climbs into his prow-shaped pulpit via rope ladder “with a sailor-like but still reverential dexterity.” Father Mapple then hoists his rope ladder, isolating himself in his pulpit.
Ishmael clearly finds great significance in all these details. In his description and analysis of Father Mapple, Ishmael constructs a definition of sailor as pilgrim that stretches throughout Moby-Dick as a whole. Here, in discussing the significance of Mapple’s prow-inspired pulpit, Ishmael thinks “What could be more full of meaning? — for the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world.”
I am left to wonder: who stands in this pulpit at sea, in the isolated spiritual search of the whaler? Ahab stands out as an obvious parallel to Mapple — both being captains of sorts, both being old and wizened, both idiosyncratic to say the least — and I would not put this kind of bleak spiritual implication past moody Ishmael, but as we see with Mapple in the following chapter, he doesn’t bear the heavens or the earth with any of Ahab’s malice. In fact, what we see most of Mapple in his sermon is a contemplative and observant storyteller, much more akin to Ishmael, the captain of our narrative, and the Noah of the book’s final flood (there’s hope for us yet!). The thought of an Ishmael at the prow of the world carries many interesting implications, especially in considering that Ishmael is no captain at all. Rather, he is a listener, an observer, a thinker, and an honest teller of his own inner truths. What more could we possibly aspire to as human beings?
Chapter 8: The Pulpit
Climbin’ up the pulpit, as a ship at sea.
Isolate your sermon, lofty like a priest.
At the prow:
So we set the stage
From a random page.
Every affect, image, turning of the leaf
Doesn’t carry meaning deeper than the brief
Lightness isn’t heaven.
But oft it goes,
The tempest of our woes,
Whether a lost, forgotten captain,
Or rebel to shake the wrath of God.
Through the door, a mass of idiosyncrasies:
With the shell of sailors over suit to preach.
Old and bright,
But a man the same.
Don’t forget his name.
(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea October 15, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea December 29, 2009