Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Melville, Jonah and Judith.

In his new e-book, A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next America, Archbishop Charles Chaput opens with this quote from Herman Melville;

Truth is like a thrashing-machine; tender sensibilities must keep out of the way.

The quote comes from Melville's last novel The Confidence Man . When I finished reading Chaput's e-book, I was so impressed with the Melville quote that I downloaded the novel from Project Gutenberg. Reading the novel, I was reminded of something from about 15 years ago. I was living in Cave Spring, GA at the time. I remember thinking at the time that I had missed out, intellectually, by never having read Moby Dick. I can recall borrowing the book from the public library and reading it outside, behind the house while on vacation.

My life was in disarray at the time; I know I never finished the book, way-back-when. It was while reading The Confidence Man that I decided to download a copy of Moby Dick and rectify that. I realized when I started reading the novel a few days ago, that I had read even less than I remember. Everything seemed completely new to me.

Father Mapple's sermon on the Book of Jonah has a sense of excitement not found in the actual book. After reading the sermon, I had to reread the story of Jonah to compare the two.

It was the same when I came upon Melville's comparison between a whale's head hoisted against the ship's side and another story from the Bible;
"........there, that blood-dripping head hung to the Pequod's waist like the giant Holofernes's from the girdle of Judith."

I was familiar with the story of Judith; Caravaggio's painting of Judith beheading Holofernes being a favorite of mine. Immediately after reading Chapter 70 of Moby Dick where Judith and Holofernes are mentioned, I opened up my Bible to read the Book of Judith . (don't bother doing likewise if you don't have a Catholic won't find the book in the Protestant version).

Reading the Book, I began to wonder if Caravaggio had read it. In his painting, Judith's maid is a very old woman when she helped Judith "bag" Holofernes' head. At the end of Chapter 16 when Judith dies at 105, she gives her maid her freedom. There's no mention of the maid's age, but if Judith was 105 when she died, the maid, as portrayed by Caravaggio, would have been at least 150. I'd say Artemisia Gentileschi's painting more closely represents the biblical story.

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