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Chapter Seven: The Chapel, in which Ishmael steps into a church, reads some plaques, and rants to the reader about the nature of mortality. He identifies the church as the Whaleman's Chapel, but the city of New Bedford calls it the Seaman's Bethel.

There's the exterior for you.

Proof! The selfsame church!

While it is not a cold, dark November in my soul, it is a brisk February outside, hence the dinosaur hat.

Anyway, that's where Ishmael goes.

In Chapter Eight: The Pulpit, the preacher enters. His name is Father Mapple, though no such name appears on the plaque outside the Seamen's Bethel. (I believe the Rev. Enoch Mudge wins the Best Name Award. Say it out loud, it's fun!)

The pulpit itself is a wondrous creation.

pg. 40-41: Like most old fashioned pulpits, it was a very lofty one, and since a regular stairs to such a height would, by its long angle with the floor, seriously contract the already small area of the chapel, the architect, it seemed, had acted upon the hint of Father Mapple, and finished the pulpit without a stairs, substituting a perpendicular side ladder, like those used in mounting a ship from a boat at sea. The wife of a whaling captain had provided the chapel with a handsome pair of red worsted man-ropes for this ladder, which, being itself nicely headed, and stained with a mahogany color, the whole contrivance, considering what manner of chapel it was, seemed by no means in bad taste [...] Nor was the pulpit itself without a trace of the same sea-taste that had achieved the ladder and the picture. Its panelled front was in the likeness of a ships bluff bows, and the Holy Bible rested on a projecting piece of scroll work, fashioned after a ship's fiddle-headed beak.

Translation: the pulpit looks like the front of a ship, complete with rope-ladder access.

When Melville wrote Moby Dick, the actual pulpit in the Seamen's Bethel looked nothing like that. It was just a regular pulpit. Here to tell you all about the transition from historical landmark to tourist trap is D-Ray, whom I bullied into guest-blogging for me.


Seamen's Bethel!
A wondrous adventure in making-shit-up and praying to God all that whoring and murder you did in port wouldn't follow you to your watery grave!

Seamen's Bethel's existence is pretty hilarious in and of itself.
Since largely no has ever been lying about the dirty, degrading and amoral behavior of sailors, the fact that at any given time in the 1800's there were as many fisherman and whalemen in New Bedford as there were residents of the city definitely gave it an unsavory flavor (check out the bombastic and bloody history of The Ark!).
Amusingly, a huge amount of folk in New Bedford at the time were Quakers and really, they just hated all the penis-ing and money-wasting that the sailing folk did.

So of course, they created a coalition to make sailors want to screw whores and drink less.
You can't make this shit up.

Seamen's Bethel was a kind of “popular demand” building meant to make sailors more pious (Built 1832).
Instead, it mostly just made them MORE superstitious. If you could imagine that.
It became tradition to visit the Bethel before embarking on a voyage; If you didn't, all manner of unpleasant things might befall you.
This in blatant disregard that all manner of unpleasant things had just happened to you at the brothel.
It's seriously questionable how much their devotion had to do with religion and how much was just regular, mortal fear.
I suppose the Quakers fancied themselves the winners either way.

It's a completely non-denominational church meant to make seaferers feel less crappy about their incredibly vile lives.
It's freakishly Quaker in style, being white, tall and imposing (not unlike the Quakers themselves) and is reasonably indistinguishable from many other small chapels from the time.
Except the Cenotaphs, those are pretty creepy.
A cenotaph is a poster-style grave marker for folks buried/lost out at sea. There are over 30 at Seamen's Bethel (which doesn't even begin to cover the actual amount of lives lost on fishing and whaling vessels over the years).

In fact, Herman Melville found the building just so darn quaint when he made his requisite pre-voyage mass that he decided to write it into his novel Moby Dick, about whaling.
You may have heard of it.
The bench he sat in at the Bethel is even marked(!).

The best part about Seamen's Bethel, he said, was that there was a huge, radical freakin' ship's bow instead of a pulpit. And let's face it- that sounds fuckin' awesome.
Naturally, after people read this (an upsetting number of years later), they wanted to check it out themselves. After all, how many of these could there even be in the world?

Only problem is, Herman Melville was lying.
The pulpit at Seamen's Bethel was a depressingly boring box pulpit, just like every other depressingly boring church in the region.
Tourists actually, very really, complained that it looked too much like the way it was supposed to.

Instead of directing their anger at Melville for inventing a feature so pointless and yet awesome sounding, they got mad at the City of New Bedford for essentially being a victim of libel.
A victim of a libel that was confusingly almost 100 years old at this point.
Why no one noticed or thought to complain BEFORE the 50's escapes pretty much everyone.
So, instead of holding fast to our proud and wild fishing-ways, the city did something weird:
they actually changed the building in the 60's to match Melville's description of the Bethel.

What's even more depressing is that tourists actually liked it better that way.

Off the record, a lot of people hated it. With a passion.
Although lately, it's hard to find anyone who gives a care one way or the other.
Since then, New Bedford has developed a rather glamorous reputation as Historical Decepticons so, should anyone even bother?

In review, we took a truly inspiring, historically significant and unique structure in not only the history of whaling and fishery but in the development of an infant America--
and slapped on the historical equivalent of fake tits.
Just to keep a handful of jaded, Melville-toting idiots happy.

Now, don't get me wrong. The structure is impressive in its own right.
The story makes for some delicious gossip-column style history in and of itself.
Not to mention there's a certain spice that comes along with knowing you live near a church that, like some sort of malformed Transformer, is part boat.

However, when you realize that you're not only in a place of worship, maybe the last thing ashore some men saw before they died but also that it is a house to what are basically graves, you have to kind of shrug your shoulders and take that clash of imagery in.
In retrospect, it's a little silly.


My theory on the "why no one cared before the fifties" thing is because the Moby Dick movie starring Gregory Peck came out in 1956, and it displayed the Bethel as it was described in the book. Fans of the film wanted to visit the real deal, got disappointed when the real deal was less cool than the movie, and whined, as they are wont to do.

Then again, I'm not from 'round these parts, which is why I asked D-Ray to write about it for me in the first place. Also, because she is super radcore.

In Chapter Nine: The Sermon, Father Mapple opens his trap and delivers a sermon. I'm sure you're all shocked.

The sermon takes nine pages for Melville to recount, and is based around the Biblical story of Jonah. Essentially, God is like, "Jonah, tell people how awesome I am," and Jonah is like, "NOOOOOOO" and runs away and tries to escape on a ship but God sends a storm so Jonah throws himself overboard and gets eaten by a whale. He survives this and repents while hanging out in the whale's stomach, so the whale goes "BLARRRGH" and vomits him up safe and sound on the shore. Jonah spends the rest of his life telling everyone how awesome God is.

The moral of the story, as I understand it, is that no matter how far you run, GOD WILL FIND AND PUNISH YOU.

I'm pretty sure Melville had Father Mapple use the story of Jonah because it is the only notable Bible story with a whale in it, and the book is subtitled "The Whale."

They still have ministers give this sermon at the Seamen's Bethel from time to time. I am no judge of sermons (being a minister's grandkid only goes so far), but it seems okay to me. Better than some drivel I've had to fall asleep to sit through in church.

COMING UP: More "no homo" homoerotica. You thought chapter four was bad? You ain't seen nothin' yet.


Other adventures in Moby Dick reading include:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four (You Are Here)
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen
Part Fifteen
Part Sixteen
Part Seventeen
Part Eighteen
Part Nineteen
Part Twenty
Part Twenty-One
Part Twenty-Two


ambrmerlinus: Portrait of a young white man with a flowing blond mohawk, in profile. (Default)

February 2012

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