Friday, April 5, 2013

angels with jars, in the stars

In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti. -- Moby-Dick
Ishmael's image of angels in paradise is a meditative vision of the night: borne of dreams, but also perhaps the product of stargazing. Maybe Ishmael means visions of the night SKY. His phrasing echoes Job 4:13 where Eliphaz begins to relate a fearful nightmare. The book of Job has been called "the most distinctively astronomical part of the Bible" (Catholic Encyclopedia). Job's "chambers of the south" (Job 9:9) are constellations in the southern hemisphere, admired in the fourth book of Clarel by another Ishmael, Ungar, that "wandering Ishmael from the West" (4.10):
But Ungar, islanded in thought
Which not from place a prompting caught,
Alone, upon the terrace stair
Lingered, in adoration there
Of Eastern skies: "Now night enthrones 
Arcturus and his shining sons;
And lo, Job's chambers of the South:
How might his hand not go to mouth
In kiss adoring ye, bright zones?
Look up: the age, the age forget-- 
There's something to look up to yet!"  (Clarel 4.7)
As John M. J. Gretchko first noticed in Melvillean Ambiguities, one of the star maps by Julius Schiller in the Harmonia Macrocosmica  of Andreas Cellarius shows, besides the jar-toting angel in Hyrdria Chananaea, the figure of Job as a southern constellation.

There he is near the bottom of the map, just left of center:  Job.

Back to Ishmael's vision in Moby-Dick as a vision of the night sky, how wonderful is this?  nine asterisks, all in a row!


Ilana Pardes sees it:

"The row of asterisks that follows his description adds a visual correlate of angelic stars while hinting at what remains inexplicable in the “inexpressible sperm.”
-- Melville's Bibles (University of California Press, 2008) page 30.

Pardes is also instructive, and eloquent, on the contrast between the comical serenity of Ishmael's vision and the "manipulative use of divine terror" by Eliphaz in Job:

“Instead of fear and trembling, he puts forth a very different concept of divine vision that is based on a more fluid and playful crossing between the heavenly and earthly spheres. (Melville's Bibles page 31)
a more fluid and playful crossing between the heavenly and earthly spheres.
That's it! In his recent reading of the same passage, Caleb Crain gets that "the realms of heaven and earth have collapsed into each other" but regards the collapsing as something perilous--a hostile, faithless, "desperate" move (Melville's Secrets, Leviathan Volume 14, Issue 3, October 2012, pages 6-24 at page 16). That's why we need to look up every now and then. That collapsing of realms, that "crossing between the heavenly and earthly spheres" is Melville at his wicked and spotless best. It's the essence of poetry. Alongside the comment by Ilana Pardes on Melville's "fluid and playful crossing," compare the similar idea advanced by David Atwood Wasson while essaying to define poetry, especially poetry in relation to the aims of epic tragedy:
"Poetry is the free reading up and down from Nature to Spirit and from Spirit to Nature, each seen in the other.  The outward feature of Nature and life must be preserved, with the finest, most delicate exactitude, that we may not read in a blurred type; and yet in all the soul must find its own immanent secret."  -- Epic Philosophy in The North American Review for October 1868, page 518; reprinted in Beyond Concord.
And here we are again, back to secrets.

For more on Melville in the stars, let's check out
John F. Birk's Tracing the Round
Bret Zimmerman's Herman Melville: Stargazer
and don't' forget the prince of desert astronomers Dan Matlaga and his illuminating posts for Ishmailites, a few of which are still up here, at Pequod's End.

Related posts:
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