Take My Cannibal, Please

At times, Moby-Dick is laugh-out-loud funny. Seriously. the Classics Slacker has laughed out loud.

Take the chapter called “The Ramadan” where Queequeg observes, you guessed it, Ramadan. (Melville has a real flair for chapter titles.) Although Ishmael practices Christianity and Queequeg practices Cannibalism (the food is better), Ishmael is surprisingly tolerant. On their first night together, Ishmael says, “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” He even tries to understand Queequeg’s religion. “Although I applied myself to it several times, I never could master his liturgies.” In other words, he just doesn’t “get” Ramadan.

Still, when the holy day arrives, Ishmael leaves Queequeg alone so he can fast and meditate in private. Ishmael last sees him “posed on his hams in a cold room, holding a piece of wood on his head.” The “wood” as Ishmael so irreverently calls it, is Queequeg’s beloved idol, Yojo. (See “Ishmael Gets Laid” for more about Yojo.)

Ishmael does not expect Queequeg’s observance of Ramadan to last longer than your typical Catholic mass, where, it must be pointed out, celebrants crunch wafer cookies made of body parts and drink wine distilled from blood. (Who’s the cannibal now?) But Ishmael is about to learn that a Ramadan meditation, at least the cannibal version, outlasts most, if not all, of your major religious services. When Ishmael returns, he finds the door locked. He knocks. No answer. He calls through the door. No answer. He grows alarmed, imagining that his “friend” (See “Dearly Beloved” for the truth about these two) has had an apoplectic fit, or worse, committed suicide.

Ishmael runs for help and finds the mistress of the house, Mrs. Hussey. She discovers Queequeg’s harpoon missing from the storage closet, confirming Ishmael’s worst fear. She is none too pleased about it, either. “It will be the ruin of my house,” she gripes. “Betty,” she commands her chambermaid, “Go to Snarles the painter and tell him to paint me a sign: ‘No suicides permitted here, and no smoking in the parlor.’ Might as well kill both birds at once.” Too bad Mrs. Hussey hadn’t posted that sign earlier. It might have saved Queequeg’s life--and lots of money on dry cleaning.

Ishmael takes matters into his own hands, literally, and breaks down the door. He finds Queequeg very much alive but still locked in Ramadan-meditation mode. “Queequeg, what’s the matter with you?” asks an exasperated Ishmael. No answer. “He would not move a peg, nor say a single word, nor notice my presence in any the slightest way.”

So Ishmael replies, in short, “Okay, have it your way” and stalks out. He probably would’ve slammed the door, too, if there still was one.

By 11 p.m., Ishmael has cooled off. “I went up stairs to go to bed, feeling quite sure by this time Queequeg must certainly have brought his Ramadan to a termination. But no; there he was just where I left him; he had not stirred an inch.”

Ishmael endures a restless night. “Think of it; sleeping all night in the same room with a wide awake pagan on his hams, stark alone in the cold and dark; this made me really wretched.”

Finally, upon the first light of dawn, Queequeg gets up, “with stiff and grating joints” but smiling, nonetheless. “He limped towards me where I lay; pressed his forehead again against mine; and said his Ramadan was over.”

Not so Ishmael’s scolding. He calls Queequeg’s observance of Ramadan “stark nonsense; bad for the health; useless for the soul; opposed to the obvious laws of common sense.” Worst of all, he claims, “fasting makes the body cave in” and causes “dyspepsia.”

On this last point Queequeg must disagree. He tells Ishmael that only once in his life did he suffer from dyspepsia (fancy word for a stomachache). And it wasn’t caused by fasting. Quite the opposite. He tells Ishmael of a “memorable” victory feast, when “fifty of the enemy had been killed by about two o’clock in the afternoon, and all cooked and eaten that very evening.” That’s when he got a tummy ache.

Those cannibals…such cut-ups.