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  • Inscrutable Malice: Theodicy, Eschatology, and the Biblical Sources of Moby-Dick by Jonathan A. Cook
  • T. Walter Herbert
Jonathan A. Cook
Inscrutable Malice: Theodicy, Eschatology, and the Biblical Sources of Moby-Dick
DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2012. xiii + 342 pp.

Jonathan Cook puts forward at the outset two incontestable propositions: that Moby-Dick is pervaded by biblical allusions that reflect Melville’s preoccupation with the problem of evil, and that this central feature of his masterwork has received slight notice in the scholarship of recent decades. Returning to this neglected topic, Cook provides a remarkably erudite discussion of famous passages in the novel (and many not so famous) in which he finds an abundance of biblical and theological reference.

But this theme does not confine the discussion. Cook often sets aside the treatment of Hebrew and Christian scripture to pursue other philosophic and cultural materials in the Western tradition that struggle with the moral enigmas that follow from believing that a just God governs the world. The true center of gravity here is Cook’s engagement with “the development of important religious and philosophical ideas” as this takes place predominantly in scripture, but also in a substantial collection of other texts (240).

In treating Ahab’s madness, for example, Cook discusses Marlowe’s version of the Faust legend, Mary Shelley’s Gothic monsters, Milton’s Satan, and the torture of Prometheus, including the Renaissance image of the Greek Titan’s mental torment as found in the writings of Francis Bacon and Robert Burton (99–100). Treating Melville’s comparison of the sperm whale’s head with the right whale’s head, Cook runs through invocations of Locke, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Rabelais, Robert Burton, and Schiller before concluding that Queequeg rescuing Tashtego from the sperm whale’s case is “a parody of Jonah-like deliverance” (138–40). Interpreting “The Mast Head,” Cook relates the debates about Platonic idealism to the Emersonian Oversoul and Coleridgean pantheism, as challenged by exponents of the scientific rationalism of Descartes, and explains references to the myth of Narcissus and to warnings about sleeping at the masthead in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. A passage in Proverbs warning against intoxication and referring to “he that lieth upon the top of a mast” plays an incidental role in Cook’s explication (117–18). [End Page 95]

After an introductory chapter concerning theodicy and apocalyptic writing, Cook takes the reader though successive components of Melville’s narrative—from New Bedford to the rescue of Ishmael—demonstrating minutely detailed biblical echoes and allusions. When Melville speaks of “the king of terrors” in “The Whiteness of the Whale,” he borrows the phrase from Job 18:14 (121). When Fleece, the Pequod’s elderly cook, preaches a mock-sermon to sharks feeding on the carcass of a whale, Cook notes that Fleece’s name recalls “the innocence of the lamb” (169) and that the mock-sermon itself carries echoes of the second chapter of the First Epistle of Peter. Fleece’s “Belubed fellow-critters” echoes Peter’s “dearly beloved”; the epistle’s command to “abstain from fleshly lusts” is audible in Fleece’s telling the sharks to “gobern dat wicked natur,” which also echoes the epistle’s command that believers submit to all “governors.” Peter later condemns “revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries,” delirious excesses exemplified by the scene of mad feasting to which Fleece addresses his sermon (171–72).

The similarities between the passage in the epistle and Fleece’s sermon are not exact. As elsewhere, no pattern of close quotation is evident. But however allusive and generalized, the parallels are intriguing. It cannot be denied that Fleece’s sermon evokes the language of First Peter, which Melville might have appropriated directly from reading the Bible or echoed indirectly from the preaching that he absorbed in boyhood.

Cook’s identification of telling yet inexact parallels sometimes seems strained. When Ahab says that “something shot from my dilated nostrils” that bound Starbuck to his mission, Cook marks an allusion to God imparting a living soul to Adam by breathing into his nostrils (81). In one case the nostrils are the source of the transformative discharge; in the other case, they...


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