Thursday, July 19, 2018

July 19: Jonah, Storytelling, Truth

Reference was made to the historical story of Jonah and the whale in the preceding chapter. Now some Nantucketers rather distrust this historical story of Jonah and the whale. But then there were some sceptical Greeks and Romans, who, standing out from the orthodox pagans of their times, equally doubted the story of Hercules and the whale, and Arion and the dolphin; and yet their doubting those traditions did not make those traditions one whit the less facts, for all that.

One old Sag-Harbor whaleman's chief reason for questioning the Hebrew story was this:- He had one of those quaint old-fashioned Bibles, embellished with curious, unscientific plates; one of which represented Jonah's whale with two spouts in his head- a peculiarity only true with respect to a species of the Leviathan (the Right Whale, and the varieties of that order), concerning which the fishermen have this saying, "A penny roll would choke him"; his swallow is so very small. But, to this, Bishop Jebb's anticipative answer is ready. It is not necessary, hints the Bishop, that we consider Jonah as tombed in the whale's belly, but as temporarily lodged in some part of his mouth. And this seems reasonable enough in the good Bishop. For truly, the Right Whale's mouth would accommodate a couple of whist-tables, and comfortably seat all the players. Possibly, too, Jonah might have ensconced himself in a hollow tooth; but, on second thoughts, the Right Whale is toothless.

Another reason which Sag-Harbor (he went by that name) urged for his want of faith in this matter of the prophet, was something obscurely in reference to his incarcerated body and the whale's gastric juices. But this objection likewise falls to the ground, because a German exegetist supposes that Jonah must have taken refuge in the floating body of a dead whale- even as the French soldiers in the Russian campaign turned their dead horses into tents, and crawled into them. Besides, it has been divined by other continental commentators, that when Jonah was thrown overboard from the Joppa ship, he straightway effected his escape to another vessel near by, some vessel with a whale for a figure-head; and, I would add, possibly called "The Whale," as some craft are nowadays christened the "Shark," the "Gull," the "Eagle." Nor have there been wanting learned exegetists who have opined that the whale mentioned in the book of Jonah merely meant a life-preserver- an inflated bag of wind- which the endangered prophet swam to, and so was saved from a watery doom. Poor Sag-Harbor, therefore, seems worsted all round. But he had still another reason for his want of faith. It was this, if I remember right: Jonah was swallowed by the whale in the Mediterranean Sea, and after three days' he was vomited up somewhere within three days' journey of Nineveh, a city on the Tigris, very much more than three days' journey across from the nearest point of the Mediterranean coast. How is that?

But was there no other way for the whale to land the prophet within that short distance of Nineveh? Yes. He might have carried him round by the way of the Cape of Good Hope. But not to speak of the passage through the whole length of the Mediterranean, and another passage up the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, such a supposition would involve the complete circumnavigation of all Africa in three days, not to speak of the Tigris waters, near the site of Nineveh, being too shallow for any whale to swim in. Besides, this idea of Jonah's weathering the Cape of Good Hope at so early a day would wrest the honor of the discovery of that great headland from Bartholomew Diaz, its reputed discoverer, and so make modern history a liar.

But all these foolish arguments of old Sag-Harbor only evinced his foolish pride of reason- a thing still more reprehensible in him, seeing that he had but little learning except what he had picked up from the sun and the sea. I say it only shows his foolish, impious pride, and abominable, devilish rebellion against the reverend clergy. For by a Portuguese Catholic priest, this very idea of Jonah's going to Nineveh via the Cape of Good Hope was advanced as a signal magnification of the general miracle. And so it was. Besides, to this day, the highly enlightened Turks devoutly believe in the historical story of Jonah. And some three centuries ago, an English traveller in old Harris's Voyages, speaks of a Turkish Mosque built in honor of Jonah, in which Mosque was a miraculous lamp that burnt without any oil.

Sorry for my absence these last couple days.  Yesterday, I was having dinner at my parents' house.  Got back home late, and then I had to help my daughter get ready for her trip to Missouri.  She left this morning with her boyfriend's family.  By the time I finally sat down, it was past ten o'clock at night, and I was brain dead.  Anything that I attempted to write last night would have sounded something like this:  "I believe the tofu tree next door is dropping Bob Dylan on top of my house, where he's peeing lemonade into my rain gutters."

Tonight, however, I'm a little more cogent.  The chapter from Moby-Dick is all about the story of Jonah from the Bible, and the relative historical truth of its details.  Melville, after pointing out the inconsistencies of the Biblical account, comes down squarely on the side of believing that Jonah was swallowed by a whale near Joppa and vomited onto the shores of Nineveh, despite its impossibility.  Melville chooses to believe in miracles.  So do I.

Tonight, I am attending a poetry/storytelling open mic.  It's one of my favorite events of the month.  People show up, papers in their fists, and share some remarkable work.  It never ceases to amaze me that there always seems to be some thread that connects every poem and story that is shared.  One month, everyone was talking about loss.  Another month, summer was the topic.  This past January, we all shared holiday tales.  None of this synchronicity is planned.  It just happens.

I do believe in the power of storytelling.  A story doesn't have to be true to be truthful.  Moby-Dick is true, but it's also fiction.  For me, the standard I use to judge poetry is truth, as well.  A poem has to somehow ring true, even if it's about Bigfoot meeting Albert Einstein.  If it doesn't meet this test, the poem is a failure for me.

I think that's why most people make the assumption that all poems are "real."  Because of this truth standard, to which most people subscribe.  All the poems I'm going to read this evening are true.  Ditto the stories I'm going to tell.  I may talk about the time I was swallowed by a giant lake sturgeon in Lake Superior.  How it coughed me up on the shores of Canada, where I found the Aurora, goddess of the borealis, and ate pancakes with her.

And it will all be true, every last word.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for Jonah and Bigfoot.

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