- Striking Through the Mask
In one of the most chilling moments of Moby-Dick, Ahab delivers an impassioned appeal to the crew, but to Starbuck in particular, urging assent to his personal quest for vengeance. "The Quarter Deck," chapter 36, sets the scene in distinctively dramatic terms: "(Enter Ahab: Then, all)"; and goes on to develop a powerful theatrical metaphor: "All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks." At first glance this well-known passage seems to have a simple meaning—at least for Ahab: "If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?" But upon closer reflection the meaning becomes complicated, indeed inscrutable: "I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him."
Jonathan Cook has chosen his title well—"Inscrutable Malice"—because, as his subtitle declares, the whale of his quest is "Theodicy, Eschatology, and the Biblical Sources of Moby-Dick." His valuable contribution to literary studies consists of recognizing and expounding learnedly upon the importance of the biblical themes of theodicy (the attempt to reconcile [End Page liii] the goodness and justice of God with the existence of evil) and eschatology (the study of theological "last things"—namely death, judgment, heaven, and hell). By means of a careful and sequential analysis of the novel with these themes in mind, Cook makes good on his overarching claim that they give shape and meaning to Melville's masterpiece. Because of the chapter-by-chapter approach, this book has an added advantage of serving as a reader's guide to the novel, one which will be indispensable to any serious reader of Moby-Dick, whether for the first or the twentieth time.
This study restores to the center of one's reading experience the governing theme of natural and moral evil in Moby-Dick, a perennial conundrum that clearly preoccupied Melville throughout his literary career. Accordingly Cook highlights the prevalent mid-nineteenth century understanding of the problem of evil, as well as then contemporary views of the decline of Christianity, the disappearance of God, and the historicizing of the Bible. Careful to place Melville with respect to the several generations of Scottish Presbyterian ministers on his father's side, as well as the extent to which he was drawn to the arguments of the Calvinist fideist and skeptic Peter Bayle, Cook argues persuasively that the book of Job is the foundation of Melville's thinking about God's apparent justification for the existence of evil.
A sensible thematic outline of his study thus emerges: "in their attitudes toward evil, Ahab and Ishmael convey different reactions to the moral predicament of Job." Moreover, concerning the prophetic and apocalyptic backdrop of Melville's allegorical passion play, Cook handily identifies key corresponding sections in the books of Daniel and Revelation, the synoptic Gospels, and especially the letters of Paul. He demonstrates further biblical acuity in his skillful linking of Ishmael's skepticism and irony to passages from the wisdom books of the Old Testament.
Especially telling in this regard is the systematic treatment of the "gams," the nine encounters between the Pequod and other whaling vessels as "an antiphonal blend of comic and tragic motifs incorporated within the novel's larger biblical themes." Cook reads them as thematically related pairs and triads, and even as two sets of four types of metaphysical parables plus the stand-alone "The Town Ho's Story"—an amalgam of comedy and tragedy with a complex blend of Christian allegory and myth. Especially fine in this respect is his typological and sectarian interpretation of the mad prophet Gabriel of the Jeroboam, drawing on a combination of apocalyptic motifs from both Daniel and Revelation. Readers therefore will register a connection between this episode and the prophetic warnings of the mysterious and unaccountable Elijah from the opening chapters of the novel...