Old Seas Man

Although my fiction writing has been said to resemble his by one of those websites that tell you who you write like, I’ve never read any Ernest Hemingway before.  In the wake of Melville I had a hankering to read his The Old Man and the Sea.  I honestly had no idea what it was about or how the story went.  I’d read Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” so Hemingway’s classic was the last of the holy trinity of sea-faring literary classics to remain unread.  Not knowing what to expect, I was blown out to sea by it.  Published about a century after Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea visits some of the same themes but also pulls into new ports as well.

Santiago has hooked a massive fish after nearly three months with no luck.  To do so, however, he has gone out too far from land.  This watery hubris leads him to make fast to a reasonable stand-in for God.  I don’t know Hemingway’s religious outlook, but sea-faring novels already have such a large dose of Jung that it’s difficult to imagine there’s nothing divine in the massive marlin Santiago snags.  With many classics the end is known before beginning to read.  I wasn’t sure if Santiago was going to make it back to land, or indeed, if he would kill the fish.  The old man’s conversations with himself are the heart of the novel.  And one in particular turns to the religious idea of sin.

Not a religious man, Santiago bargains Hail Marys and Our Fathers for the successful catching of the fish.  Then he begins to reflect on sin.  In words similar to lyrics discussed in a recent post, Santiago declares everything a sin, even though he doesn’t believe in sin at all.  His view of life is stunning at this point, and commentary on which theologians would do well to chew.  Sin is a concept meant to impute guilt to mistakes, often made unintentionally.  What might’ve begun as a form of social control has grown into a mass neurosis for those who believe humans are capable of no good.  This is especially worth pondering if the reader considers the marlin to be God.  Try it and see what you come up with.  I know little about Hemingway, but having read his Nobel Prize-winning novel, I do feel that I have learned something worthwhile.  And I also feel the trilogy is complete.

Ahab’s Garden

One of my motivations, I have to admit, for re-reading Moby Dick this year was my wife’s gift of Ahab’s Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick, by Richard J. King.  I wanted to read the latter, and I’d been toying with the idea of reading the former.  So I did both.  King’s book explores the oceanic world introduced by Herman Melville’s classic.  The various creatures and natural phenomena mentioned by Melville are examined in the light of what we now know today and a few key finding emerge.  We continue to know little about our oceans, even as we deplete them.  The book is about whales, but not only about whales.  Anyone who’s read Moby Dick knows the novel encompasses about a year at sea and describes the many sights experienced by a crew that sets out with few port calls and many long hours on the open ocean.

King does a fine job here.  It’s particularly refreshing that he doesn’t hide from what he calls Melville’s natural theology.  Many science writers fear to go to such places.  Clearly Melville looked at the world through such lenses, however.  The novel is one of the American philosophical masterpieces.  Not only philosophical, but also theological.  We can only guess what Melville’s true beliefs were, but he described the book to Nathaniel Hawthorne as wicked, and he knew that he was butting heads with orthodoxy throughout.  Natural theology was, of course, an early form of science.  Today scientists tend to be embarrassed by their heritage, but King shows that in the hands of a genius like Melville the results can be extraordinary.

This is also a disturbing book.  Any volume dealing with the natural world these days likely is.  The over-exploitation of the ocean, our use of it as a dumping ground, and global warming have combined to make the recovery of whales, as well as many other species, slow if not impossible.  While commercial hunting of whales has largely ceased, the leviathans haven’t made much of a comeback, and several species are well on their way toward extinction.  Sea birds are less common than they were when Melville was writing.  We’ve influenced our world in such a bad way that we’ve likely set the clock ticking on the extinction of our own species.  In a sense then, natural theology is facing its own apocalypse.  Ahab’s Rolling Sea is not a dour book—it is a celebration of the world as it was once known, even if that world was less than just two hundred years ago.

White Whales

Every once in a while I return to Moby Dick.  I’m not sure why exactly Melville’s classic has such a hold on me.  Perhaps because I first read it while living in Boston.  For a land lubber like myself being so near the ocean was a kind of epiphany.  I read the novel as part of a course on wisdom literature in the Bible.  Harrell Beck, who was an influential person in my life, insisted that if wisdom themes were truly wisdom they would be found outside the Good Book.  We were assigned a list of modern novels from which to choose and I selected Moby Dick.  The thing that immediately struck me about the novel was just how biblical it is.  Ahab and Ishmael aside, the many references to Jonah and Job and incidental asides referencing scripture made this an intense reading experience.

I started reading it for the fifth or sixth time just before the pandemic became a crisis.  It is a large book and I didn’t want to rush through it.  I tried to pause and appreciate it this time around and I noticed just how remarkable it was that a man who made much of his life as a laborer, without any higher education, was so incredibly literate.  Classical references that I had to look up, and citation of sources blend together in a story that is compelling as it is unsettling.  Long explanations and descriptions are part of the tale, and the soliloquies are so philosophical that you have to sit back in a reverie after reading them.  I’ve read many novels in my life, but no others like Moby Dick.

As metaphorical stories go, the book is remarkably natural.  The descriptions of whales are as scientific in their own way as they are literary.  For an author with no scientific training this too is remarkable.  Indeed, a good part of the draw of Moby Dick is Herman Melville himself.  Although I have gathered a few degrees over the years, in my mind I am, like Melville, unlettered.  I’m sure he would’ve understood.  The fiction I write, although in a very different style, is a tip of the hat to him.  Friends used to tell me that nobody writes like that any more and that no publishers would show an interest.  The latter has proven to be true, and so much more’s the pity.  We could use more novels like Moby Dick.  And were my days not even fuller during the pandemic, I might even have a few moment to pursue my own white whales.

Misreading Melville

I make it a practice not to discuss books I’m still reading on this blog.  There’s no reason I shouldn’t, I suppose, but it just feels like cheating getting more than one post for a book.  Besides, there’s so much other stuff to blog about!  I’ll make an exception this time, because it involves an unusual typo.  Well, it’s not so much unusual as it is apt.  In chapter 82 of Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, “The Honor and glory of Whaling,” he discusses the mythical history of whaling.  In typical Melvillian style, he takes mythical stories to support his contention of how honorable whaling is.  After Perseus and St. George and the dragon, he mentions the curious biblical episode of Dagon and the ark of the covenant, found in 1 Samuel 5.  It’s here that my edition has a typo.  Melville writes “this whole story will fare like that fish, flesh, and fowl idol of the Philistines, Dagon by name” but my edition reads “Dragon by name.”

Image credit: Vignette by Loutherbourg for the Macklin Bible 12 of 134, via Wikimedia Commons

My very first academic publication was on this story about Dagon (I had intended to write my dissertation on that deity).  I had no idea of H. P. Lovecraft’s appropriation of Dagon at that point.  The interest was purely based on the fact that you couldn’t find much information on this curious god.  It was clear that he was well known among ancient cultures of West Asia.  He was attested at Ugarit, specifically as the father of Baal.  (Both would later be assumed to be demons.)  Further east, he was apparently a fairly major deity in Mesopotamian religions, although we are still awaiting a readable synthesis of that massive corpus of texts and the religions toward which it points.  In other words, Dagon is mysterious.  Lovecraft likely picked him up from the biblical story.

The tale in 1 Samuel is provocative.  After defeating Israel, the Philistines (who would eventually give Palestine its name) took the ark to the temple of Dagon as spoils.  The image of their god fell face-down before the ark overnight.  Disturbing as this was, the next morning after they’d replaced him, Dagon was again tumbled but also decapitated and with his hands broken off.  That meant his body was all that was left.  Somewhere along the line the name Dagon (close to the Hebrew word for “fish”) was interpreted as a maritime entity.  This seems unlikely, given what we know of his origins, but the idea stuck, leading to some compelling horror fiction.  Dagon does indeed become a kind of dragon in that realm.  My edition of Moby Dick has a typo that we today would blame on autocorrect, but in reality was likely the result of a copyeditor not knowing his or her Bible as well as Melville did.

Frankenstein, Frankly

The classics.  No matter how much I read more contemporary fiction, the classics keep me coming back.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a classic in more than a single sense.  It was a novel that had tremendous influence in the nineteenth century and has continued its impact to the present.  Chris Baldick’s In Frankenstein’s Shadow can be considered a classic in its own right.  Although it only dates from the 1980s, it contains exhilarating analysis of Frankenstein in a number of authors and genres of the nineteenth century.  And I’m a fan of literary scholars who write accessibly.  I’ve read modern literary studies that I simply don’t understand and they leave me feeling alienated and cold, as if they were written for a private audience.  One that didn’t include me.  Baldick’s treatment is wide-ranging and full of moments of blinding insight and is open to all.

Often I put the book down thinking that I’d had my world changed.  Baldick’s no hero-worshipper.  He notes the weaknesses in Shelley’s writing (and they are admittedly there), but he does so respectfully.  The astonishing part of this study is the sheer breadth of the influence Baldick finds for Frankenstein.  A word or phrase, a theme here or there, and yet he makes an excellent case that these can be traced back to their monstrous forebear.  His section on Melville made me want to stand up and cheer.  (I have to admit to being more of a hero-worshipper than the author.)  This is literary criticism done right.  It makes you want to read the books you haven’t.

Since the book deals with literature, it doesn’t really address how the creature morphed into something completely different in the twentieth century.  I know I grew up thinking Frankenstein’s monster was part robot.  I suppose it was the bolts in his neck, according to the Universal script, that convinced me.  That, and his stiff-jointed lumbering about.  Shelley’s story is, however, very much a human one.  In many respects the monster is more humane than his creator.  Various aspects of this tale, including that one, are taken up in other classics and turned over, examined, and reapplied.  Suddenly quite a bit of what I’d read elsewhere made immediate sense.  Interestingly, although I grew up not so much a fan of this particular monster, books on him have become among my favorites as an adult, if I am such.  I think Baldick may have had his fingers on that revivified wrist when he wrote this book.  It certainly did for me what literary criticism always should.  At least for the classics.

Starting Something

Starting your own religion, I’m told, just takes patience.  You may have to die before it gets off the ground,  but if it’s a religion you’re starting you get to make the rules.  Well, until somebody else starts interpreting what you wrote.  I grew up thinking a religion had to be ancient to be real.  There’s a certain comfort in untestablity—you can’t verify the facts, so you accept them.  It took many years before it dawned on me that new religions rely on the same premises as old: someone has received the truth (at last!) and is willing to share it with the world.  Followers emerge—true believers.  And then they begin to change things.  “The founder meant this,” they argue, and really they’re starting their own sub-branch of the religion.

Not everyone is convinced by this ancient religion paradigm.  Zarathustra, for example, set out to create his own religion, according to tradition.  Jesus, it seems, was trying to reform Judaism.  The process never stops.  A couple of weeks ago in New York City I saw an adherent of a New Religious Movement.  This one had started in the 1930s.  The man appeared a little older than me, so his life may well have overlapped with that of the founder, or they might’ve missed each other by a decade or two.  Already, however, the religion had grown into its own entity, and it doesn’t seem to worry adherents that the truth was being revealed, for the first time, maybe in their lifetime.  You have to start somewhere.

So, if I were to start a new religion, what would it be?  For a variety of reasons I think I’d call it Moby.  The connection with Melville is palpable, but that wouldn’t be the reason for the name.  (Religions must have a sense of mystery, otherwise they can be analyzed until they look illogical.)  Like Unitarian Universalists, I think the religion would be more about what you value than what you believe.  Belief can be shifting sands.  New information can lead to new results—this is one of the weaknesses of religions developed when the earth was still the center of the universe.  Heaven is now outer space and Hell is earth’s iron core.  Moby would avoid such a doctrinal morass by not having doctrine.  It would need rituals and ceremonies, of course—no matter what Mr. Spock wannabes say, we need emotional engagement and ritual has the goods.  All of this requires patience, because who has the time to develop a new religion when there are only two days in a weekend?

Sea Change

MelvillesBiblesMy reading list is long, and it grows longer all the time. I read both fiction and non-fiction with equal avidity. Given that there are so many books I want to read, it is unusual to read entire books a second time (they should be kept for reference’s sake, of course). Two exceptions to the multiple reading trend have been, for me, the Bible and Moby-Dick. In reading Ilana Pardes’Melville’s Bibles, I discovered I’m not alone in according Melville nearly biblical status. As a book itself, Melville’s Bibles went on my reading list as soon as I learned of it. You see, Moby-Dick was added to my personal Deutero-Canon as soon as I closed its cover. Perhaps before. It was an assignment for a seminary biblical studies class on wisdom literature. My high school wasn’t one that required the novel, and all I knew about it previously was that it was a big book about whale hunting. I knew so little.

Pardes looks at Moby-Dick, and other literature, both by Melville and others, through the lenses of biblical characters. Of course there’s Ishmael. And Ahab. Melville, however, knew his Bible well, and to understand his work on a deeper level so must his reader. Job’s there. As is Jonah. Jeremiah, Elijah, Micaiah ben-Imlah, and even Rachel. Pardes takes these characters and shows how they appear, generally in Moby-Dick, spread across a variety of characters. More than one Ahab and Ishmael walk these decks. All the while, she notes, Melville himself wasn’t a typical “believer.” He struggled with the deity that he just couldn’t find. The end result is a compelling analysis of literature and human nature.

This brief study has a disproportionate number of insights. I frequently found myself stopping to ponder what I’d just read. Perhaps that’s to be expected in any book that brings two weighty canonical works together in such a gam. (If you can’t recall what a gam is, reading either Pardes or Moby-Dick will remind you.) Encountering Moby-Dick the first time was like finding a lost book of the Bible. I had no idea, however, at the depth of comparison. Pardes shows just how deep that ocean is. Melville’s well-thumbed, indeed, annotated Bible does play a role in all of this. Perhaps he didn’t intend all the connections readers like Pardes find, but that doesn’t make the connections tenuous. They’re clearly there. Canonical works are like that. Moby-Dick, indeed, is an iconic book and Pardes is a very capable Captain to guide a reader through it.

Ships Ahoy

Huge ShipsI’m always on the lookout for a good metaphor. Some time ago a humorous list of improbable book titles was circulating the internet. One of those books was How to Avoid Huge Ships, by Captain John W. Trimmer. Privately published, it surely made its author little money, and it quickly became one of those books with hilarious, bogus reviews on Amazon. My family, knowing my predilection for seafaring (at least in imagination) and my love of irony, found an overpriced, used copy for my birthday. I was glad to have it, but wasn’t sure I’d ever read it. I don’t own a boat, and my efforts to live on the coast have always been thwarted. But then, I’m always on the lookout for a good metaphor.

How to Avoid Huge Ships, subtitled I Never Met a Ship I Liked, is one of the most parsimonious books I’ve ever read. Trimmer, a veteran of many years at sea, writes with paternal concern for those who have no apparent sense of reason. Large ships, as most of us with a modicum of physics realize, can’t stop or turn quickly. Yet, in this spellbinding little book, Trimmer reports, and even provides photographic evidence that smaller, private boats often deliberately cut across the bow of these fast-moving juggernauts. As he points out, no license is required to drive a boat, and most small boat pilots have no training. Accidents and fatalities occur. People destroy exorbitantly priced yachts by not moving out of the way of what can truly be called a monster. And like an impatient father, he’s somewhat weary of it. The style is so unpretentious that it might redeem self-publishing in an era when common sense doesn’t interest commercial book houses.

Aware of his own literary limitations, Trimmer bemoans not having an exalted final chapter of great wisdom. He’d already won me over, however, with the simplicity of his sermon. Get out of the way of massive ships. It is a gospel for those with ears to hear. He even points out that the non-seafaring Israelites had respect for ship pilots (citing Ezekiel on Tyre, with decided hints of Melville, intentional or not). I’m not likely to be on a ship soon, but I have survived a horrific hovercraft trip across the English Channel that forever taught me the true respect for the sea. And I know, if I ever find myself again upon the waves, I will consider myself fortunate for having read this wonderful little book.

Stonefaced

Railsea Imagine, if you will, life on the open sea. Back in the whaling days. Days before enlightenment really took hold. Transpose that thought onto railroads. In a day of huge moles and other underground creatures. Days when no one can imagine where the rails end. That might give you the slightest glimpse of China Miéville’s Railsea. I haven’t read too much of Miéville’s fiction, but I have read enough to know to expect a reality distorting romp through very interesting places. In this take on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Miéville takes some noteworthy risks in providing his characters with a native religion. Fiction authors sometimes find religion a constraining topic. Consider Salman Rushdie. More often the restraint appears to be a lack of imagination on the writer’s part—although we can’t define religion very well, we all know what it is and what it’s supposed to look like. Miéville, although in backstory, provides a new religious world where the gods are called Stonefaces and everybody believes in angels, and the explanation of where the railways came from is “theology.” Even our erstwhile Captain Ahab is chasing after her “philosophy” in the form of a giant mole that seems to have taken her arm.

With a sensitivity I’ve rarely found (the fault could well be entirely mine), Miéville utilizes religion, particularly Christianity, to construct an alternate universe. The gospel therefore appears as godsquabble, and to suggest there is anything beyond the sea of rails is literally heresy. Our protagonist Shamus ap Soorap on his voyage of discovery ends up riding to heaven on the rails only to find that there is yet even more beyond. Although religion itself is not central to the story its adjuncts are, creating an entire mythos of life on the railroad. It this world it is clear that wood and trees are related, but no one quite knows how; some suppose an evil god planted false evidence to deceive them. There’s even a healthy dose of the Odyssey thrown in, with the Medes having to pass through a mountain dwelling monster, the siller, and the Kribbis Hole.

But aren’t we really on the ark once more? For surely the bedeviled Pequod was a shadow of the same. In Miéville’s fantasy world, the open ground unpopulated by islands is dangerous. All kinds of innocuous creatures burrow out and will eat the traveler who is not safely ensconced on a train. As if to underscore the Noahic connection, Sham ends up on an actual boat on an actual endless sea. I’m pretty sure Homer never read Genesis, but the parallels between Greek mythology and the Hebrew Bible were long ago recognized by Cyrus Gordon and his colleagues. Miéville continues the tradition. Stranded on an island, Sham tries walking on the rails (read walking on the water and you’ll get the picture) until his faith fades. There are many who declare that religion has outlived its usefulness, but if an author can bring Melville, Homer, and the Bible into an intensely creative story, I think I’ll have to beg to differ.

Psychotic Vampires

Over the past several months, and unrelated to the current vampire craze, I have re-watched some of the classic vampire movies: Dracula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu (both Murnau and Herzog), and even Shadow of the Vampire—a movie about making vampire movies. Although the prototype of the vampire goes far back in civilization, in some form back to even the earliest of civilizations, the modern rendition rests mostly on the imagination of Bram Stoker. I’ve been re-reading Dracula to recapture a sense of why this particular telling of the tale has become iconic. One suggestion that comes as I’m reading is that it presses the religious taboos of its Victorian era sensibilities. Indeed, Stoker consciously wrote religiously provocative elements into his story. Of course, in movie form the story is altered to fit the needs of both time and scope.

A character that transforms in these various films is Renfield, the lunatic. In Stoker’s original Renfield is the foil for Dracula himself, his devotion interpreted as insanity by the science of the day. At one point Dr. Seward, Van Helsing’s protege and the man in charge of Renfield, notes with clarion penetration, “for a strong man with homicidal and religious mania at once might be dangerous. The combination is a dreadful one.” Renfield is, as a servant of Dracula, complicit in both homicide and religious mania. He uses Christianesque language when referring to his master. In describing his devotion, Seward notes, “He thinks of the loaves and fishes even when he believes he is in a Real Presence.” To a generation raised without Bible, this confession makes little sense.

I have contended throughout this blog that religion and horror are intimate familiars. To understand the appeal of the vampire, one must explore the religious context. Surely the simple neck-biting and blood-sucking without religious underpinnings would soon grow tedious. It is the sense of mystery—most fully realized in religious thought—that brings the vampire to life in the imagination of a generation lacking traditional religion. Not to mix metaphors too intimately, but there is a dose of Melville to be mixed in as well. Renfield is the epitome of madness, blindly following where he believes he is called. But the reader knows how sadly mistaken he is. So it is that I return to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and in so doing find a form of true religion.

Shelley, Byron, Trelawny, and Ahab

“I took up the word [atheist], as a knight took up a gauntlet, in defiance of injustice. The delusions of Christianity are fatal to genius and originality: they limit thought.” The words come from Percy Bysshe Shelley, according to Edward Trelawny. After visiting the display Shelley’s Ghost at the New York Public Library last week, I was struck by how little I knew of Shelley. I’d read some of his poetry, and had watched the fictional movie Gothic (maybe more times than is really healthy) to get a sense of this candle in the wind, the Romantic poet who died in a shipwreck before reaching 30. Edward Trelawny’s reputation as an historian is somewhat suspect, but he did form friendships with Shelley and Lord Byron and arranged the disposal of their earthly remains. His book, Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron, while somewhat self-serving, weaves an intriguing account. Among the mementos in the library display are some fragments of Shelley’s skull, taken after his cremation by Trelawny. This erstwhile biographer did prove his mettle by reaching into the pyre and pulling out Shelley’s heart, according to his own account, that eventually returned to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, his widow.

Trelawny admired Shelley’s atheism, and even applauded Darwin’s Origin of Species when it appeared. The nineteenth century was setting the stage for a strange Frankenstein’s monster of political and religious backlash against the freedom of the Romantics. Not all of the Romantics, obviously, were atheists, but their works extolled the wonders of nature and a sense of liberty from tyranny that would define them as dreamers and idealists. Lord Byron comes across much less favorably in Trelawny’s account, although their friendship lasted through some difficult times. After the poet’s death, Trelawny claims to have examined his feet, discovering the cause of a lifelong limp. His psychologically astute conclusion is that Byron’s disagreeable personality traits arose from his lifelong anger and anxiety about his birth defect.

Being an ardent admirer of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, I have to admit that the elements of anger at the divine for a limp (Captain Ahab forcefully stomps into mind), and the emphasis on ships and shipwrecks (as in Shelley’s death) tie these three literary geniuses together into a knot of suffering and seeking. Religion had consoled many in the nineteenth century, just as it continues to do now in the twenty-first. Among many of those who have endured through their literary works, however, God had slowly disappeared. Not quite as dramatic of a demise as Shelley’s, nor as unforgettable as Captain Ahab’s, but one for which there will be few biographers.

Woeful Wisdom

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.” Herman Melville takes the credit for this passage. It is one of the many pericopes that make Moby Dick the greatest book ever written. Those who know me only as a biblical scholar may be surprised to read that, but I invite anyone who has ever instantly fallen in love with 1 Chronicles 1-9 to reply and argue the point.

Although Moby Dick has fallen into the provenance of books that are kept alive only by required high school and undergraduate required reading lists, this novel still comes back to me at many points in my life and fractured career as both a solace and a warning. Melville was clearly a man tormented by his search for meaning. He drew heavily on the Bible for Moby Dick, likening Ishmael to Ecclesiastes at one point, and the whaling haunts of New Bedford to tophets. To appreciate Moby Dick deeply, one must be familiar with the Bible.

Is this the Bible, or what?

Considering the great changes that are taking place in society, I often wonder if we have reached a breaking point. In my university life, I see students absolutely frantic to achieve an A in an easy class, one that would not have broken a sweat in my undergraduate days. Their anxiety is real; grade inflation has forged the B into the new D, or F. Yet these same students know nothing of life apart from the internet. In times like these, I betake myself to the Catskills, and with Melville, turn my eyes upward, seeking madness.

Evil Echinoderms

Ever since I can remember, I have longed for the ocean. Not a good swimmer, and not one to eat the myriad creatures that fill its immense waters, I find myself nonetheless drawn to its endless pounding surf and salt spray. Even before I’d read Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, discovered the eternal fascination of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or had even heard of H. P. Lovecraft, I knew that I belonged to the ocean. It need not compete for my affection. It had already won. With family visiting this weekend and with an unseasonably warm March weather-system, we went down to the Jersey Shore yesterday to visit my old friend. Sandy Hook is a peninsula that juts up from New Jersey toward New York City, a sandbar of undeveloped free ocean access administered by the National Park Service. During the summer it can be intensely lined with fishermen and sun-worshipers, but in March it was a reasonable place to be. Sea creatures are abundant when left alone, and we saw our first harbor seal of the season, along with a galaxy of sea stars. These echinoderms had eluded me thus far; we’ve been to the shore several times during our Jersey days and had never discovered any. One large sea star had been stranded in an evaporated tide pool. Compassion overcame me and I carried it down to the surf to offer it a chance for continued survival.

Miserable sinner?

Recently I reread Jonathan Edwards’ horrific yet classic sermonic masterpiece, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Vividly depicting a furious deity barely capable of restraining his repressed wrath directed toward wicked human beings, but for an uncommon dose of misplaced compassion, Edwards suggests we all deserve ghastly destruction. Edwards underscores one of my recurrent observations about religion – it is a means of control. The great Puritan divinity only accepts penitent Puritans, all others go directly to Hell, not passing Go, not collecting their two-hundred dollars.

As I held that helpless sea star, destined for the cruel, drying rays of an unclouded sun, I did not think of its multiple transgressions. Murderous predators, sea stars consume other sea creatures, including their own kind, in the constant struggle for survival. This one had obviously had a successful run and had grown to an impressive size. I felt no rage, no desire to destroy this killer. Instead, I saw a radiant example of a being evolved to live in an environment that I can not even comprehend, just doing what it needs to get along in its undersea world. And I recognized the wrath of God for what it really is – one man’s unfulfilled plan to decide the destiny of his fellow creatures.

Moby Dickens

One of the perks, or perhaps afflictions, of not having cable is missing the constant stream of current culture daily rushing by. When I hear others discussing the latest chic program I feel helplessly Bronze Age in the cell phone generation. Occasionally, when visiting family members who can afford to be fully wired, I catch glimpses of what the thousands of networks have on offer. During a visit to my mother’s house last year I caught an episode of Whale Wars. This reality program follows the exploits of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as crews attempt to foil whalers going about their daily slaughter. The truly disturbing part of the episode I watched was the enmity of the whalers towards these cetacean saviors — let alone their utter disregard for the intelligent creatures in our seas who have the misfortune of not having evolved opposable thumbs. Armed with weapons for disabling, and potentially killing, their species-conscious fellow homo sapiens, the whalers defiantly claim it is their right to destroy these gentle giants.

I confess to having been an advocate of our animal companions since I was a child. I used to contribute regularly to Greenpeace until the non-negotiable bills of adult life routinely began to outstrip my extremely modest income. These great creatures, the largest our planet has ever yielded, are seriously endangered because of the machinations of their only predators — us. Despite the fact that most whale products are not really necessary for economically deprived families, the gruesome harvest continues. Today’s newspaper carried the story of how the Sea Shepherd’s new ship, Ady Gil, was rammed and sheered in two by an angry Japanese whaling crew’s vessel.

In the light of all this, it may seem hypocritical to admit that my favorite novel of all time is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I cringe every time I read his descriptions of nineteenth century whaling, but I draw my comfort from knowing that Ahab’s nemesis is not a physical whale but an invisible, silent, immortal deity. As the tortured captain hurls harpoon after harpoon at the implacable god who caused him so much personal harm, no barb can ever kill Moby Dick. The echoes of Melville’s own subterranean cries against cosmic injustice reverberate so clearly through his prose that I simply can not put the book down once I start to read it over again. My heart goes out to the physical whales, however. They are the innocents being hunted by a predator they can’t stop as they are forced by nature to surface for air. In the cetacean version of Moby Dick, which surely must exist in some form of whale consciousness, they too are being relentlessly pursued by unfeeling gods.