Sunday, July 11, 2010

Speaking of Parallels


Let's see. I think in the original, we have something like this, in terms of major characters' world views or "values" (in the current language of talking about virtues and vices):

Ishmael = pantheist / agnostic

Ahab = devil worshiper (basically), Faustian

Queequeg = idol-worshiper with a heart of gold, his god is impotent but he isn't

Starbuck = Christian; his god is variously conceived as good/bad, but therefore he is impotent

Stubb/Flask = modern men, atheistic and/or materialistic, addicted to temporal goods (I've really never understood the point of having both of them on board as they seem kind of redundant)

Okay, as far as I can see, everyone can be moved into a modern narrative w/o too much change, EXCEPT Queequeg and Starbuck. (I mean, they could, but I'd have trouble conceiving of them that way.) Ishmael has to stay the same, for sure; Flask/Stubb are a stock type of the modern world (nothing's changed since Melville for them, I don't think). Ahab would have to have the supernatural elements played down, but I think I can pull it off w/o too much change.

So for the other two. For me, casting Queequeg as a Christian of a decidedly mystic bent sounds like a more believable, modern analog, than having him belong to some more "exotic" cult (also helps defuse some of Melville's backward ideas about race and savagery and civilization): he worships something sincerely and faithfully, this faith energizes and drives him forward, but it's never 100% clear that this thing he worships is REAL (just like poor Yojo is described as a well-meaning, but rather inept god who sometimes gets accidentally set on fire and has to be unceremoniously extinguished). And when I think of Starbuck moved into a modern key, I think of a secularist of a very optimistic sort - the kind of person who believes in human perfectibility and progress, and who's confused and confounded by man's depravity. And yes, I could cast him as more of a milquetoast Christian character for some of that effect, but milquetoast isn't what I'm trying for: he's courageous enough (as in the original) but his outlook doesn't allow for some kinds of evil, is how I conceive of his problem in either version. And as with Melville, who wants to include a (partly) admirable Christian character to balance all the wicked westerners on the boat, I'd like a (mostly) virtuous secularist character, to balance off Stubb/Flask.

All right, bearing in mind that in neither version is Christianity portrayed as unambiguously "right" but some synthesis is hinted at, and w/o getting all "How dare you make the secularist the weaker first mate?!" - any thoughts on how to spin or nuance it further? Thanks!!


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