Friday, April 1, 2011

The Prophet Elijah

Revision of "Elijah as Truth,"

In the bible, Elijah and Ahab come into frequent (yet discrete) conflict. Ahab is the most evil of the kings of Israel, guided by greed and deceit (such as in his pursuit of the greatest vineyard after acquiring another through murder). In the bible, Elijah sends his prophecy of the fate of Ahab, whose “blood will be drunk by the same dogs who drank the blood of Naboth” (Glover 456). In Nahum M. Waldman’s article “Ahab in Bible and Talmud” — in which he compares Ahab’s role in context of the bible versus archaeology — he states that Abab “unlawfully deprives Naboth of his ancestral vineyard and his life” (42). Elijah’s prophesy links Ahab to his evil conduct and anticipates his gruesome death. Based upon their biblical roles, Melville’s manipulation of the relationship between Captain Ahab and Elijah in Moby Dick creates the depiction of Elijah as the learned prophet who forces his prophecy upon the Pequod; he is ominously present throughout the entire text through this shared prophecy.

Elijah’s literal presence in the novel is brief; he enters in the earlier chapters when he lurks behind Ishmael and Queequeg as they walk down the street, sends them his warnings and disappears for the rest of the novel. However, according to Neil Glover’s article “Elijah versus the Narrative of Elijah,” “Elijah is a troublesome subject, but his existence is less problematic than his disappearance” (454). Following his disappearance, Elijah’s significance expands and universally affects (and afflicts) the ship. There are two sections that mention Elijah’s name after the prophecy, both of which evoke Captain Ahab’s mysterious reign. The first is directly before Ahab’s first appearance upon the deck; he has remained hidden from the sailors below deck since before the Pequod set sail, “Every time I ascended to the deck from my watches below, I instantly gazed aft to mark if any strange face were visible; for my first vague disquietude touching the unknown captain, now in the seclusion of the sea, became almost a perturbation. This was strangely heightened at times by the ragged Elijah's diabolical incoherences uninvitedly recurring to me, with a subtle energy I could not have before conceived of” (Melville Ch. 28). His “subtle energy” mirrors the biblical Elijah. Ishmael mistakenly attributes his speech to a sense of evil, but it is the pervading truth that lurks beneath the superficial “incoherences” that demands his remembrance. He may not invite it, but the ominous feel of Ahab’s ship calls to Ishmael’s intuitive speculation and search for reason aboard a ship of deceit.

The second occurrence comes after Fedallah and his group — whom Ahab had hidden from the sailors — make their first ascension to the upper decks, “Though the affair still left abundant room for all manner of wild conjectures as to dark Ahab's precise agency in the matter from the beginning. For me, I silently recalled the mysterious shadows I had seen creeping on board the Pequod during the dim Nantucket dawn, as well as the enigmatical hintings of the unaccountable Elijah” (Melville Ch. 48). Ahab runs his ship with the authority of the king. His blatent secrecy in keeping the Arab’s hidden demonstrates a darker authority over the ship. Ishmael is not only questioning his faith in Ahab, he is trying to determine the significance of Elijah’s “hintings.”

The “hintings,” however, are not trivial or purposeless; they are Elijah’s prophecy. At their last encounter, in which the Ishmael continues to note Elijah’s mysterious peculiarity — with a defensive tone he had earlier remarked, “You can't fool us. It is the easiest thing in the world for a man to look as if he had a great secret in him” — Elijah asks whether Ishmael noticed “anything looking like men going aboard,” then remarks,

“See if you can find 'em now, will ye?

"Find who?"

"Morning to ye! morning to ye!" he rejoined, again moving off. "Oh! I was going to warn ye against—but never mind, never mind—it's all one, all in the family too;—sharp frost this morning, ain't it? Good-bye to ye. Shan't see ye again very soon, I guess; unless it's before the Grand Jury."

This is Elijah’s prophecy, despite its enigmatic subtlety. In the Old Testament, as Glover notes, “Elijah speaks…without the need for divine warrant or authentication. He establishes no credentials…he is simply the man who speaks” (Glover 452). This parallels Moby Dick’s Elijah, and causes Ishmael’s weariness to believe him. Yet, his words resonate, subjected “to greater scrutiny than those of any other…character” (Glover 455). Elijah does not clearly speak the words of death to Ishmael, but the ambiguity and his sarcastic reflection when he references the “Grand Jury” intimates an omen. If Elijah’s disappearance is problematic, here it suggests death.

When Ishmael first hears about Ahab upon inquiring about the whaling expedition, Captain Peleg attempts to instill intimidation, yet foster trust. His result is a stream of contradicting, exaggerated and vague statements about who the captain is. “He's a queer man, Captain Ahab—so some think—but a good one...a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; doesn't speak much; but, when he does speak, then you may well listen. Mark ye, be forewarned; Ahab's above the common; Ahab's been in colleges, as well as 'mong the cannibals; been used to deeper wonders than the waves; fixed his fiery lance in mightier, stranger foes than whales. His lance! aye, the keenest and the surest that out of all our isle! Oh! he ain't Captain Bildad; no, and he ain't Captain Peleg; HE'S AHAB, boy; and Ahab of old, thou knowest, was a crowned king!” (Melville Ch. 16). This description alludes to Ahab’s duplicity; he is part homicidal, ungodly savage, and part god-like crowned king. He is ferocious and demanding, and is able to undermine the authority of the other two captains. This is reflective of the story of Naboth mentioned in my introduction. Ahab overtakes the Naboth’s vineyards for Jezebel and in idolatrous worship of Baal (Waldman 44). The “abhorrent” act mirrors Ahab’s reign over the Pequod. The ship is like the vineyard in that she does not completely belong to him, yet he rules over her as a king in pursuit and worship of his own idol, the white whale.

Waldman’s article also introduces the view of Ahab as a respected “successful” military leader (41). His troops respect their king, just as the sailors respect their captain. Elijah’s first “diabolical incoherence” described the force of his command, but invokes skepticism of the reasons for it, and whether the captain deserves the faith of his trusting sailors. “But you must jump when he gives an order. Step and growl; growl and go—that's the word with Captain Ahab. But nothing about that thing that happened to him off Cape Horn, long ago, when he lay like dead for three days and nights; nothing about that deadly skrimmage with the Spaniard afore the altar in Santa?—heard nothing about that, eh? Nothing about the silver calabash he spat into? And nothing about his losing his leg last voyage, according to the prophecy. Didn't ye hear a word about them matters and something more, eh? No, I don't think ye did” (Melville Ch. 19). The questions remain unanswered as Ishmael boards the ship, so he is left to ponder their significance. The inception of Ahab’s evil path into the storm of his idol lurks; it is responsible for that ominous tone aboard. Yet Ishmael and the sailors stand behind Ahab in his pursuit, joining in on the idolatrous obsession, supporting Ahab’s worship. Just as Elijah’s prophecy condemns Ahab in the Old Testament, it condemns Captain Ahab to his fate; it condemns his blood to be licked by the mouth of Moby Dick.

Because Captain Ahab maintains such definite ties to the biblical Ahab, his evil-doings must summon some divine justice. This is the role of Elijah. He imparts his wisdom of Ahab upon Ishmael, who carries his seemingly “incoherent” messages and the prophecy aboard the ship. As the mystery of Ahab unfolds, the problem of Elijah’s disappearance grows and the prophecy becomes real. Moby Dick’s Elijah and the Old Testament’s Elijah are the same; Elijah is the prophet sent to condemn the evil of the king, whose reign of a vessel is ruled by his obsessive worship of the white whale is his fatal sin.

1 comment:

  1. This is very different from the draft!

    I was impressed by the draft because it was allusive (not elusive) and full of potential, but I was, you'll recall, worried that you were biting off more than you could chew. Maybe you *were* biting off more than you can chew, judging from this big change in direction

    What I see here is a thorough account of the role of Elijah in the novel, which is deeply reliant on your secondary sources. It seems like a good choice of sources, but two things bother me here.

    1) You stick so close to them that, at the end of the day, I'm not at all sure about where their ideas end and yours begin. If you're going to *really* root yourself in a particular source, or sources, you also need to make some kind of explicit statement of what you're doing with them - "I agree with x, but challenge x on point y; here's why." Or "I agree with x, but want to extend her point regarding z" - something like that. It's good to use someone else's work, but at some point you need to articulate what you're using it *for*

    2) Given that this essay is about the role of Elijah and Ahab in MD, as rooted in their biblical equivalents, it's odd that you don't make more *direct* use of the biblical texts, which would be very helpful here.

    Overall - this is a fine use of research, and a fine character study, which could use more clarity re: your own direction.