Chapter 22: Merry Christmas

This is farther than I usually care to venture into literary analysis, but I think in Captains Bildad and Peleg, we have something of an Old Testament God and Satan, respectively. In chapters leading up to “Merry Christmas,” Bildad blesses while Peleg curses, Bildad quotes scripture while Peleg challenges the hypocrisy and inconsistency of Bildad, Bildad ruminates as Peleg blusters, and so on. In these two captains, I can’t help but see not a pairing of good and evil, but of faith and practicality, Heaven and Earth.

The contrast carries into our last encounter with the pair, acting as harbor pilots for the Pequod in “Merry Christmas.” Bildad sings lamenting psalms about fruition and plenty, laying in wait beyond the river’s flood. Peleg kicks crew members in the rear as they hoist anchor to a bawdy tune “about the girls in Booble Alley.” Ishmael refers to a balance between “pious Bildad” and the “devil for a pilot” of Peleg, in thinking if his voyage was being launched to “peril” or “salvation.” Even in the imagery of their final goodbyes — Bildad’s simple “God bless ye” versus Peleg’s promised “hot supper smoking” for the mates in Nantucket upon their return — Bildad and Peleg seem as God and Satan.

In “The Ship,” as Peleg writes out Ishmael’s contract before Bildad, I can’t help but think that Ishmael, like Job, is something of a bet about the corruptibility of all humankind. In the midst of the bargaining, Bildad repeatedly wishes for Ishmael to have the seven hundred seventy seventh lay — three sevens, a union of frequently occurring numbers of strength and protection in many mythologies, including the Bible. Is Bildad trying to charm his wager, or is he just a cheapskate?

I also can’t help but wonder why two Quakers would choose a Christmas morning to launch a voyage, and there perhaps lies a significance. In treating Christmas as a day like any other, Bildad and Peleg plant us firmly in Old Testament myth — not of a war for souls, but of faith in the human spirit, challenged repeatedly by an advocate, if only to strengthen and affirm the position held by the faithful. To me, thinking about the whole of Moby-Dick in these terms seems true to its literary merit. By no means do I seek an “answer” to the book in coincidental symbol and allusion, nor do I think these ideas lend themselves to answers as much as they do to questions, the biggest question perhaps being, as in the story of Job, “Who won the bet?”

Chapter 22: Merry Christmas

Based on belief, it wouldn’t be logical
Charging a man to tame the depths of all,
Much less a man so touched when on the battlements.

A bet the devil would make
In Old Testament days
With God, so celebrate
A Merry Christmas.

Sing to the sea, your words of milk and honey,
Warm through my heart to stand against the chill,
Pounding with strength still cresting from the darkest day.

A bet the devil would make
In Old Testament days
With God, so celebrate
A Merry Christmas.

Our pilots disembark,
Return to lee.
Three cheers for open water,
No traffic.

Based on belief, it wouldn’t be logical.

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea September 27, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea September 13, 2009