Edward O. Wilson in his novel On Human Nature devotes a whole chapter to religion and how it is in human nature to have religious beliefs. He begins the chapter by stating “The predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature.” (Wilson 169) In another one of his novels Consilience The Unity of Knowledge he claims that because religions are so similar to superorganisms, they follow the primary role of human existence “that whatever is so necessary to sustain life is also ultimate biological.” He analyzes the validity, necessity and overall sociobiological explanations for religions and beliefs in a god or gods. In effect, Wilson gives his highly educated sociobiological examination of religion and how it is a vital part of human nature. Because it is so vital to our humanity, it is inevitable that one would see it in numerous works of fiction, and mean a wide varies of different things, but I would contend in that in the novels Moby Dick by Herman Melville and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison the themes of religious and spirituality have the same interconnected meaning. To many people, their religious communities are a symbol of fellowship acceptance and union. It is a coalition of individuals that share a common faith that equates to a connection with each other. Both Ellison and Melville include religious themes in their novel to represent their characters position in regards to their relationships with others.
Wilson believes that genetically we are predisposed to partaking in religious behavior. The idea of religious groups or worshiping in unison for a common goal, according to Wilson, is a vital part of our humanity. As aforementioned, a major part of religion is its ability to “circumscribe a group and bind its member together in unquestioning allegiance”(Wilson 177). According to Wilson, religious groups and sects are bound together and constantly connected with each other through their common religion. In his analysis, Wilson deemed religion as a point of connection between people which brings them closer together. Due to the fact that “religion is above all the process by with individuals are persuaded to subordinate their immediate self-interest to the interest of the group” it is the perfect metaphor for community, fellowship and acceptance. Ellison and Melville bring up themes of religion and religious groups and use them to show how their protagonist are related to and connected with at larger group or individual. Both authors see religion as the perfect symbol for connections between people and over all unity.
Earlier on in the novel we are introduced to Trueblood, an ignorant black man who was accused of raping and impregnating his daughter and forced to live on the border of the narrator’s college campus. Trueblood is one of our first and most perfect examples of isolation and seclusion from his community. The black students and faculty of the college see Trueblood as a massive disgrace to the black community. Because he is hated and shunned by his own people, he lives in seclusion. When Mr. Norton insists that he and the narrator go to visit Trueblood, Trueblood gives his dramatic account of the events according to his perspective. He claimed that even though he was not aware of what he was doing, he felt terrible. Trueblood sought out absolution and attempted to go to the preacher and repent. He tried to seek acceptance in the place he assumed guaranteed unwavering forgiveness but unfortunately was wrong: “I goes to see the preacher and even he don't believe me. He tells me to git out of his house, that I'm the most wicked man he's ever seen and that I better go pray but I caint” (Ellison 66). He is truly shunned by his community. Because the church is supposed to offer fellowship and forgiveness, he went to them to repent but was rejected and therefore deemed as an outcast. Ellison uses the abandonment by the church to show that Trueblood is truly abandoned by his community and continues to use religion as a symbol of acceptance and fellowship, or lack there off in regards to the narrator.
Initially we see that the narrator is isolated from his identity, his family, his past and from society. He is a lonely and confused narrator who is having an incredibly difficult time trying to determine who he really is. He has been expelled from his university and forced to move to New York, a place that is completely foreign to his southern upbringing. When he arrives at a Men’s House in Harlem, he is presented with a chair, a bed, a dresser and a Gideon Bible lying on a small table. He begins to read that bible and becomes nostalgic: “I turned to the book of Genesis, but could not read. I thought of home and the attempts my father had made to institute family prayer” (Ellison 162). When the narrator is reminded of home the feeling of a connection becomes too much for him and he turns away from it. Alone in an unknown territory, he finds something that makes him feel closer to home, but instead of embracing it, he neglects it. He turns away from the one sense of familiarity, kinship and connection that he finds and instead goes to find a job. The narrator does not want to feel that sense of community or connection with his past and his family so he puts down the Bible. By turning away from this religious symbol, in effect, he is turning away from any past allegiance he possessed.
As the narrator continues to explore Harlem, he realizes that he is far more alienated than he previously thought. The narrator manages to find work but is met with a considerable amount of adversity which culminates in a violate accident that causes him to be hospitalized. In the hospital he goes through an experimental lobotomy procedure that leaves him feeling disoriented and abandoned but also changed; he begins to feel so alienated that in his words he has “lost his sense of direction” (Ellison 258). As the narrator wanders the streets emotionally, spiritually and literally lost, he comes across a group of white men who are attempting to evict a poor old black couple. The white men were ravaging the couple’s destitute home, repossessing all of their possessions and leaving them with nothing. One of the men immerged from the house holding the elderly woman’s bible and she immediately accosted them: “Just come stomping and jerk your life up by the roots! But this here's the last straw. They ain't going to bother with my Bible!" (Ellison 270).” At this point the narrator begins to feel connected to the people, seeing their struggle and feeling that he is a part of it. He feels a sense of community and amity that urges him to take a stand. The couple demands to go back into the house to pray and the white men refuse. The narrator starts to orate on behalf of the couple and gives a speech so compelling that this causes the group that has manifested to start a riot. In the midst of the narrator’s speech, he implores the re-po men to let the elderly people pray, he exclaims: “They don't want the world, but only Jesus… How about it, Mr. Law? Do we get our fifteen minutes worth of Jesus? You got the world, can we have our Jesus?” (279). The narrator sees the importance of religion in their lives, how God is a grounding point for them, and how praying and their bible brings them comfort and security in the time that the feel most isolated. The narrator sees that and uses it as a way to connect with these people. Through connecting with them he connects with the entire community. The narrator uses his bible and prayer as a way to relate to the elderly couple and ultimately reuniting himself with the whole community. As the Narrator embraces the idea of prayer, he also embraces the community, his culture, and his identity which are all triggered by embracing religion.
After all of the drama subsides, a man who we later learn is named Brother Jack, offers the narrator a position in a group that he calls the Brotherhood. They claim to be dedicated to social change and betterment of the conditions for black people in Harlem. They want the narrator to give speeches to the community about the plight of the black man in America agrees. The narrator joins the Brotherhood because they represent a sense of fraternity that the narrator is longing for. The narrator thinks that the group has the communities’ best interest in mind but he turns out to be wrong. One of the brothers disappears for some time and is later found by the narrator selling racist “Sambo” dolls. The brother - Brother Tod Clifton - gets into a fight with a police officer and is gunned down. The pain of Clifton’s death, juxtaposed with him selling symbols of racism, ignites hatred in the narrator. He eulogizes Clifton, telling the community to protest his death and rise up together but surprisingly this angers the brotherhood. They rebuked the narrator for not consulting the group while the narrator contended that he knew what was best for the community and their wellbeing, to which they jokingly responded with this: “He’s in touch with God… the Black God.” (Ellison 471) When one of the brothers says this he doesn’t mean that the narrator thinks he is in touch with his spirituality, he means that the narrator thinks that he is in touch with his community. He is trying to show that narrator that he assumes that he knows what best for the people of his community and what the future holds for them in the same way that God would. By comparing the narrator’s assumed connection with the community to a connection with God it’s shows how strong that connection appears to be. He saying that the narrator thinks he has a meaningful and deep connection to the people analogous to a connection with God. The narrator is trying to say that he understands the community, but Brotherhood do not does not believe him, but the only way to show him how outlandish his claim is is by comparing it to a deep spiritual connection. Religion, to the Brothers represents communion and an important mutual relationship so this is the best comparison that the brothers can make to show the narrator the magnitude of what he’s claiming. Yet again we see Ellison using religion to represent and highlight unity and connections ideas of community.
The narrator’s response to the Brotherhood’s jeering is an interesting one. “Not with God nor with your wife, Brother” (Elision 471). One would assume, at first glance, that the narrator is denouncing his connection to the community but that is not the case. With that retort the narrator is denouncing his relationship with the Brotherhood. By proclaim that he has no relationship with God or his Brother’s wife he is saying that he no longer connects with the Brotherhood on a whole as a society and individually as members of a family. The narrator realizes that this is not the type of fraternity that he was looking for and distances himself from the Brotherhood. With this declaration the narrator announces his separation from the brotherhood. He leaves the Brotherhood and is later confronted by Ras that forces him to conceal his identity in public. He dons a pair of sunglasses with dark green lenses that alter his perceived appearance so much that people think he is another man: Rinehart. Rinehart is a lot of things to a lot of people, a lover, a hipster, a gambler, a briber, and finally and most importantly, a reverend. The narrator stumbles upon a spiritual revival that is supposed to be run by Rinehart the reverend and the emotion and energy that the people at the service emit has so much power that the narrator is compelled to leave.
It was too much for me… could he be all of them: Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend?... He was a board man, a man of parts who got around. Rinheart the rounder. (Ellison 498)
This worship service caused the narrator to realize just how disconnect he really was to his community and his identity. This man, Rineheart, who meant something to so many people and affected the entire community, was nothing like the narrator. This man had an identity, several identities and the narrator barely even had one. Rineheart was actually a part of the community and such an integral part of it that he was a preacher. In the most community-oriented forum, Rinheart was the leader, and with that the narrator realizes that he is far from connected. This is a pivotal instance in which Ellison uses the ideas of community and fellowship that are so ingrained in religion to give insight into the narrators struggle to be a part of his community. By showing that Rineheart is so important that he has been anointed to a high religious position of preacher, Elision shows how disconnected and isolated the narrator truly is from his community.
This brings us to the narrator’s final epiphany. After all of this he is forced into seclusion in an underground basement. Although these events take place in the prologue, chronologically they happen at the end of novels events. He recounts a tale of a time that he smoke reefer and had a visions about the spaces in between time in jazz music, a church service and an old singer of spirituals. The preacher is talking about the Blackness of Blackness how blackness with and wont get you, how it makes and un-makes you. The narrator questions the spiritual singer and asks her why she is moaning. She’s said that he slave master has died and although he hated him he also loved him because he was the father of her two children. She claimed that she loved he master for giving her her children but hated him for not giving her the one thing she wanted most: freedom. This love hate relationship completely baffles the narrator. He can’t understand whether Freedom lied in love or in hatred or why the woman still cared for her master. It is evident that the narrator cannot yet understand his people and his community. The trouble and dilemmas of a slave woman are completely foreign to him. Here we see how disconnected he is from his past and his culture. His questioning bothered the woman so much that she became dizzy and her son had to take care of her. The son came to her aid and attacked the narrator for harassing his mother. “Git outa here and stay, and next time you got questions like that, ask yourself!” (Ellison 12). We see now that if the narrator really wants to find a way to be connected with his community and his race he must find that method within himself. And all of this happens in during a church service on the Blackness of Blackness.
When Elision presets us with scenes in which religion is the focal point of discussion he is using it to alert us to the deeper theme of community, togetherness and connection with others. Ellison uses religions symbols and ideas as segways into the true topics of fellowship and bonding. When we see a character embracing religion they are embracing fellowship and when they reject it (or it rejects them) they are choosing a life of seclusion and segregation. Even when a character is not directly involved in a religion practice we see them making an assertion one way or the other how they relate to the community. Melville does the same thing with his characters only one a smaller more intimate scale. When he is attempting to develop the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg he uses Queequeg religion and religious tattooing to connect them. He shows how as Ishmael begins to accept and understand a person of another culture he begins by accepting and understanding their religious values.
When we first meet our other first person narrator, Ishmael he is also a lost, troubled and isolated individual. He often considers suicide and attempts to or actually gets into physical altercations. The narrator decides to join a whaling crew in hopes of exploring the sea. As he arrives in New Bedford he came upon an unknown building that he assumes to be “The Trap”. When he entered it he unknowingly interrupted an all black church service. With this seen we see early on about his views other cultures and their religious practices.
It seemed the great Black Parliament sitting in Tophet. A hundred black faces turned round in their rows to peer; and beyond, a black Angel of Doom was beating a book in a pulpit. It was a negro church; and the preacher's text was about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there. Ha, Ishmael, muttered I, backing out, Wretched entertainment at the sign of 'The Trap!' (Melville 11)
Ishmael is unconcerned and about the events going on in that pseudo church. He feels no connection to the preacher or what he is preaching; he is an outsider walking into this world that he does not know so he immediately backs out. He is obliviously discontented with the preacher who he deems a “black Angel of Doom” referring not only to his race but also about his profession. Ishmael is disconnected and displeased by this all black religious service so instead of investigating it further he removes himself from it promptly. Here we see a connection between Ishmael and the narrator of Invisible Man, not only in relation to their initial isolation from religious practices which equates to an isolation from others but also we see a direct borrowing by Ellison of Melville’s work. We see obvious similarities better the sermons on The Blackness of Darkness in Moby Dick and The Blackness of Blackness in Invisible Man. Because we see such a strong connection between the two authors it is inevitable that we will see a connection in their writing between the ideas of religion and community and relationships.
Ishmael reaches The Spouter inn where he is paired with a foreign harpooner who is also seeking a job on a whaling ship. He is forced to share a room with this savage cannibal who is a native an island in the South Pacific Ocean. This foreigner, named Queequeg is immediately revolting to Ishmael. His appearance may be the most frightening thing to the narrators because Queequeg is covered from head to toe in tribal tattoos. These tattoos, we learn later have spiritual, religious and cosmic meaning. In Queequeg’s fictional primitive tribe religion and culture are one and the same, so I would content that these tattoos are not only cultural but religious as well. Wilson in is novel Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge that tribalism and religion are powerful allies and that they become interconnect and intertwined in certain cultures. (Wilson – Consilience 281) These marking although beautiful to Queequeg are utterly appalling to Ishmael. To Ishmael these markings do not represent his rich spiritual heritage but a cultural so different from his that not only cannot he not understand it he doesn’t want to. Here we see how much Ishmael wants to distance and isolate himself from Queequeg due to his xenophobia but his main point of disgust are Queequeg’s religious tattoos.
As the novel progresses we see that Ishmael becomes comfortable with Queequeg. He begins to grow accustomed, to a certain extent, to his differences and his cultural intricacies and he even joins Queequeg in a social smoke out. This ritual, according to Queequeg, qualifies them as married, so he gives Ishmael half his possessions and they share a marital bed. Instead of thwarting this idea of marriage with a savage earlier on he accepts it and embraces it. Ishmael is even prepared to join in pagan worship with Queequeg, however his only stipulation is that Queequeg must be willing to join him in a ritual of Christian worship as well. We see here yet again how Melville uses religion or a religious practice to represent a union between people. If Ishmael is willing to worship with a person who he previously deemed as a brutal savage, it is evident that he in on the road to accepting Queequeg. Because Ishmael feels a personal (and one could contend physical) connection with Queequeg he feels the need to seek a spiritual connection with him as well. Ishmael does not only want to join Queequeg in worship but he also wants to introduce Queequeg to Presbyterian traditions. This type of reciprocal, cross religion worship is a monumental sign of union. We see that Ishmael truly wants a deep connection with Queequeg because he is willing to partake in the rituals of a foreign religion.
Later on, Ishmael observes Queequeg in a full on religious display. Ishmael accepts it at first but when he sees what his approval of this ritual really connotes he withdraws his approval. Initially Ishmael claims that he “cherish [es] the greatest respect to everybody’s religious obligations”(Melville 91) supposedly not matter how foreign they are but when Queequeg locks himself in a room and is so deep in meditation that he is unresponsive, Ishmael panics. He gets so scared that grabs the landlady of the inn to help him break down the door so he can confirm Queequeg’s safety. They discover him unharmed and the landlady assures Ishmael that Queequeg is fine and that they should not disturb him. With this frantic display of affection we see how much Ishmael truly cares about Queequeg. When Queequeg’s ritual is over Ishmael finds the need to reprimand Queequeg
Now, as I before hinted, I have no objection to any person's religion… [b]ut when a man's religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine, makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in; then I think it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him. (Melville 94)
Initially, Ishmael was ready to willingly participate in Queequeg’s foreign religious practices, but now when he sees what tolerating these practices really means he rejects them. He sees that he deeply cares for Queequeg and after this display of affection in front of the landlady he sees how unacceptable the love is. In an effort to attempt to push Queequeg away from him and to show that their relationship is not as meaningful as it seems he attempt to attack Queequeg’s religious practices and deem them “uncomfortable” and ”frantic.” To refute this socially unacceptable relationship Ishmael attacks Queequeg’s religion, one of the most poignant metaphors for their relationship in the novel. Yet again we see a character distancing themselves from religion in order to distance themselves from a relationship or a connection to other people. It is blatantly evident that this coupling of ideas is an ongoing theme for both authors.
Near the end of the novel, after Queequeg and Ishmael’s, relationship has fully grown we see a full on acceptance and tolerance of Queequeg religion by Ishmael. We see Ishmael embracing the one thing that previously made him utterly revolted by Queequeg, his tattoos. In an effort to understand more about whales he travels to the Arsacides, to a village named Tranque to visit Tranquo, its king. This tribe is probably not too dissimilar to Queequeg as they also practice tattooing. In Tranque there is a huge whale skeleton that they use as a temple, Ishmael decides to measure this skeleton and have the dimensions tattooed on his arm. This is another symbol of commitment to Queequeg and the bond they have. Ishmael journeys to tribe that is analogous to Queequeg’s and has one of their places of worship tattooed on his arm. Tattooing alone is a sign of unambiguous sign of devotion to Queequeg and his religious culture because at that time, as a white man, having tattoos was unheard of. Furthermore, in effect, Ishmael tattooed a church on his arm, and as this church is a pivotal symbol of the tribes’ spirituality, this tattoo is an irrevocable symbol of his dedication to his relationship of Queequeg.
Steve Rosenthal, a Sociologist at Hampton University and a critic of Wilson’s works argues that religions and religious groups do not promote community and fellowship but rather subservience. It allows people to be controlled because they have a higher power to answer to, according to Rosenthal.
Therefore, religion is "a necessary device of survival," because it promotes submission to the group. Religion "is also empowered mightily by its principal ally, tribalism." Moreover, humans by nature are easily indoctrinated and manipulated (pp. 245-260). The human brain, Wilson asserts, "is a stone-age organ." It makes people "intuitive and dogmatic," emotional and unscientific. (Rosenthal)
I would contend that this is simply not the case. In both Moby Dick and Invisible Man there is no instance of subservience in regards to religion in any capacity. When Ishmael and Queequeg have their pseudo marriage it is a mutual union where no man appears to be in a dominating position. When the narrator in Invisible Man gives a speech in the attempt to stop the old couple from being evicted he is attempting to inculcate himself into the community by showing that he cares about it’s well being. Religion is the thread that ties these two instances together but never once does manipulation or submission come into play.
It is apparent that there is a thread running between both novels uniting them with the theme of religion. When both character are actively embracing religion the other is attempting to alert the reader to the fact that they are attempting to strengthen or maintain a relationship with others. When we see a character refute or distance themselves from religion we see that the want to remain isolated and alone. Both authors adhere to Wilson’s definition of Religion that is why they make is one of the cruxes of their novel. This unifying them of religion helps the read or both novels see when and how the protaganist are trying to make connections with other respectively.