Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonor! Woe to him who would not be true , even though to be false were salvation!
The Sermon, Chapter9
I never got the big deal about Father Mapple. He tells the story of Jonah. Sure, that has an obvious tie-in for a book like Moby-Dick, a book narrated by Ishmael whose name matches the data base for one Abraham’s exiled son of a whore–but, c’mon. The chapter is called “The Sermon.”
I hate sermons.
I think this is where we went wrong. Look at Odysseus. The dude went and fought a noble battle and now he is just trying to make it home to Penelope and the gods are in his face at every turn. Does he shuffle himself into some stone Cathedral or so much as a white washed clapboard building off the road to scootch his butt onto a hard pew and listen to someone else tell him with full authority just what the hell the gods want him to understand?
No. The gods are
in his face.
Make one god happy, and, no doubt, you are gonna piss off another. Either way, you don’t get out of it with mea culpas—what you do to appease the god (because, you don’t understand them or not understand them–you just appease then)–you go slaughter some livestock and burn it up good in a drunken beach party and THEN the gods will let you start back on your way–until some other supplicant to the gods throws their ballot into the gods’ suggestion box before you get home and then you have to get dashed on this shore, or wrapped in this nymph’ s calves, or, well, you get the idea.
I hate sermons.
(For many reasons).
But the reason I dance with Mapple’s lead today is that there is one thing I like about this chapter.
It is not Mapple’s :
Delight to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven.
Nor his supplicating:
Here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world’s, or mine own.
Why would you do that?
LOOK at the gift of this life and tell me, will you really spend it agonizing over pleasing a God who won’t even
get in your face?
Will you throw away what has been placed here at your feet? Placed here in your arms?
Walk right over it in your hurry for your heaven or 10,000 virgins or what have you–for that unknown (and very possibly completely an invention of ancient minds) for that–you will pull your hand away from mine today?
You will turn your face away from mine today?
You will pull your collar closed and purse your lips and judge my hunger for life?
What I LIKE about this chapter is not Mapple and his sermon, but that Queequeg walks out.
We don’t see it in The Sermon, but in the beginning of the next chapter:
Returning to the Spouter-Inn from the Chapel, I found Queequeg there quite alone; he having left the Chapel before the benediction some time. He was sitting on a bench before the fire, with his feet on the stove hearth, and in one hand was holding close up to his face that little negro idol of his; peering hard into its face, and with a jack-knife gently whittling away at its nose, meanwhile humming to himself in his heathenish way.
Dallas high society is big into the framed family portraits. Boys in their immaculate white shirts and khakis sit with a protective arm around the ringlet-ed girl in petticoat whose head is topped with a bow three times larger than the size of my thigh. They recline beneath an oak along the bank of a pristine stream where the sun is always shining. At their feet, the Irish setter glistens with dignified obedience, no doubt the beneficiary of hair care products way out of my budget. A large framed copy of the photo, enhanced with oil overlay to give it that painted look, will hang in the entry hall or library, and then a thousand copies will be sent out at Christmastime reminding us of our humbleness under the grace of an infant.
Some years ago, my husband and I contemplated a nice black and white photo where we were all dressed in jeans and white t-shirts with one word across the front “HEATHEN”. The boys would inevitably dissolve into shoving each other out of the photo, my bald infant daughter would be grabbing the cat who was riding by on the freaked out dog pursuing an out of control flock of poultry.
Of course, we would have to keep the mailing list pretty small for that card, seeing as how we depend upon the kindness of the wealthy. Would it be fair to call them strangers– just because their secretary sent us THREE identical Christmas cards this past year (We apparently show up on multiple mailing lists, and what board member can really be expected to check for overlap when they have so much else to occupy their time–like tracking the progress on that statue of Saddam. . .)?
At any rate, this really does tie in to my current obsession.
What is truth?
How can we honor the truth and the truth alone if we cannot define it?
Mapple defines it and ends the sermon
slowly waving a benediction, (he) covered his face with his hands, and so remained kneeling, till all the people had departed, and he was left alone in the place.
But Queequeg. . .
Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them. (Chapter 110)
I’ll walk with the heathens, and should we stumble on the truth, I do not know that I will be able to speak it. But if you stay by my side, perhaps you shall see what I see, and perhaps, together we will witness the riddle unfold.