Chapter 19: The Prophet

At the risk of offending my sister, I’m going to write about her cat, Jack. If Jack were my actual human nephew, I would not like him very much. He hides himself away all day, and shows himself just long enough to hiss at me or meow in a anthropomorphically suggestive way. Then he runs off for another five hours. My biggest problem with his behavior is the fact that my family reacts by talking about Jack for the next four of those five hours, wondering what he meant by that meow, and hoping that he’s ok. I joke that Jack needs to start a training tutorial to teach celebrities how to get everyone thinking about you without having to be nice to anyone.

The titular character of “The Prophet,” has clearly taken Jack’s tutorial. He accosts Ishmael and Queequeg soon after they sign on to the Pequod’s crew. He speaks in “ambiguous, half-hinting, half-revealing, shrouded sort of talk,” about Ahab, and about their souls. Ishmael, a well-read storyteller himself, knows how this sort of thing goes, and notes that “It is the easiest thing in the world for a man to look as if he had a great secret in him.” Even so, Ishmael can’t help but to think about Elijah’s words long after they leave Elijah at the dock. Ishmael says that Elijah’s words “begat in me all kinds of vague wonderments and half-apprehensions, and all connected with the Pequod.” It seems Elijah could teach us all a thing or two about authoring novels as well — compelling stories (like Moby-Dick) often do the same, and by using similar methods.

In fact, much of “The Prophet” reads as somewhat meta-. By so obviously invoking literary conventions, and then having Ishmael reject them outright, Melville seems to criticize the laziness of convention while conceding it efficacy as narrative device. For example, physical disfigurement in literature often belies a greater purity of character (the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tiny Tim, Esther in Bleak House, Isaiah, Gerty McDowell in Ulysses), and Melville gives his “prophet” Elijah a face disfigured by smallpox. And what about naming this crazy man on the dock Elijah, a prophet from the reign of King Ahab in Israel, who will return to announce the Messiah? Bible references lend an irresistible mystical quality to any story. More than anything else, “The Prophet” announces the coming of a different kind of book — self aware, and toying with convention.

Chapter 19: The Prophet

Well, you talk about a soul deficiency,
And you wax about a man who’s come undone,
And you speak in opposition, then before our very eyes
Say so long and hallelujah, better him and he than me.

And it’s easy! It’s so easy
To make it seem the secret’s inside of you.

You’re a plot device, you speak in pronouns,
And disfigurement suggests the same within,
Did you strike into the darkness and escape a different man
Or are you just a reference to an older way of writing books?

And it’s easy! It’s so easy
To make it seem the secret’s inside of you.

(c) and (p) 2010 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea July 23, 2010
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea January 15, 2011