Ishmael, too, is a modern man, but one that is an observer and commentator on Ahab’s quest. Like Ahab, Ishmael is a Christian in name only. He attends the Whaleman’s Chapel before he boards the Pequod and listens to a sermon with no mention of Jesus Christ, but one rather that offers a series of moral warnings against “false pilots” who seek “popularity and honor” above all else. The sermon, as “impressive and moving” as it is, Morissey writes, unites “neither the congregants with one another nor the messenger with his congregants.”
Ishamel’s true belief is in a kind of progressive tolerance. He finds the cannibal Queequeg a better “Christian” than most Christians, but he also embraces the other side of the coin. If all men are equally good, they are also equally bad. “Just as we are all savages,” Morissey writes, “beneath the civilizational surface, so we are all cannibals,” and Melville suggests that it is, perhaps, that cannibal nature in man that is the true driver of American expansion, not some Emersonian universal goodness.
Melville had no time for Emerson (or Whitman’s) pronouncements on the inherent goodness of mankind. For Emerson, “Nature turns all malfeasance to good. Nature provided for real needs. No sane man at last distrusts himself. His existence is a perfect answer to all sentimental cavils.” Such a view was dangerous in Melville’s view. It treated the inescapable darkness in mankind as an illusion, one that would disappear with the light of knowledge. If this darkness were ignored, it would allow men to be duped into following a strong man like Ahab on a pseudo-spiritual quest for knowledge.
The men on the Pequod are isolated from each other, which allows Ahab to unite them in his hunt for the mysterious Moby-Dick, using whatever tools at his disposal to gain support. Ishmael shares to some degree Ahab’s quest, though he is more interested in seeing the whale than mastering it, stating at one point that “the parent of fear” is ignorance, which leads him, Morissey argues, in a “boundary-pushing…quest for knowledge.”
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