Pasteboard Masks

moby-dick 

The Book of Job is a play removed from the historical agenda of the Jews. Job is not a Jew but rather from the land of Uz. This device allows the author to address the caprices of God and not deprive himself of an audience, or (more to the point) engage one heavy with stones. The prologue acquaints us with Job’s piety, his assets and family. During a sacred oblation the scene shifts to Heaven. Satan drops by for a chat. God sets the plot in motion: “Hath thou considered my servant Job? For there is none like him on the Earth – a perfect and upright man.” Satan takes the bait. He suggests, Job appears saintly because God has put a protective hedge about him. God demurs but allows Satan to take his best shot: “Behold all that he hath is in thy power.” Life becomes more difficult for the unsuspecting Uzzite. Marauding Chaldeans slaughter most of his herds and herdsmen. Job is thankful for the shepherds and sheep that were spared. A fire falls from the sky consuming them each. He takes solace in his family. His sons are killed in the collapse of his brother’s house. Job is stoical: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb and naked shall I return thither: The Lord gave, and the Lord taketh away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

 Thereafter, Job (who possesses the patience of Job) is barnacled with boils yet persists in his faith that nothing is unnaturally amiss. His wife attempts to keep things in perspective. After a careful study of their dilemma she concludes that he should: “Renounce God, and die.” (6) Job remains steadfast for an additional seven days. On the eighth, his fabled patience flags:

“Let the day perish wherein I was born, And the night which said, There is a man child conceived. Let that day be darkness… because it shut not up the doors of my mother’s womb.” (8)

This is less than an affirmation of God’s glory. His neighbors suggest that he has brought God’s wrath upon himself: “Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished being innocent?” (9)

 It is also addressed to any one who has ever considered the presence of evil in God’s creation. The polemic presented in Job nips any apology of free will in the bud – Job’s innocence is unqualified. The thesis of his undeserved suffering is one of the great deliberations in the world of letters. The Brothers Karamazov is another:

 The chapter is called Rebellion and immediately proceeds the celebrated Grand Inquisitor. Ivan and his brother, the priest Alyosha, are meditating on the metaphysics of murder: “… the peculiar… love of torturing children and only children. An eight year old boy has injured one of his master’s hounds, the General orders the child; whereupon the following morning: “The child is brought from the lock-up. It is a gloomy, cold, foggy autumn day, a capital day for hunting. The general orders the child to be undressed; the child is stripped naked. He shivers, numb with terror, not daring to make a peep… ‘Make him run,’ commands the general. ‘Run! run!’ shout the outriders. The boy runs… ‘At him!’ yells the general, and he sets the whole pack of hounds on the child. The hounds catch him, tear him to pieces before his mother’s eyes! I believe the general was afterwards declared incapable of administering his estates. Well—what did he deserve? To be shot? To be shot for the satisfaction of our moral feelings? Speak, Alyosha!”

 “To be shot” murmured Alyosha, lifting his eyes to Ivan with a pale twisted smile.” “Bravo!” cried Ivan, delighted. “If even you say so… You’re a pretty monk! So there is a little devil sitting in your heart, Alyosha Karamazov! …Tell me yourself, I challenge—answer. Imagine that you are erecting the edifice of human destiny with the object of making men happy at last, giving them peace and rest at last, but that to this end it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and do not lie.”

 “No, I wouldn’t consent, said Alyosha softly.” (1O)

 Elipaz might respond:Shall mortal man be more just than God? Shall a man be more pure than his maker?” (11) To which the examples of Alyosha and Job might give us pause in our alacrity of answer.

 Each of Job’s neighbors argues the rightness of God’s designs:

“Behold, happy is the man that God correcteth … doth the almighty pervert Justice?” Job turns the question around: “But how can a man be just with God? Though I be righteous, mine own mouth shall condemn me… The earth is given to the hands of the wicked… The tents of the robbers prosper… They that provoke God are secure… He coverth the faces of the Judges, thereof. – if it be not he, then who is it?…”

  These are among the most probing questions ever addressed to Deity. If Babylon and Buchenwald are ends foreseen, why create a people and to such destinies consign?

  “I should have been as though I had not been. I should have been carried from the womb to the grave… even to the land of darkness, as darkness itself. A land of the shadow of death, without any order and where the light is the darkness.”

We may prodigiously search the world’s religious literature – nowhere will we find a greater indictment of God than is found within the pages of his own sacred text. Legions of the Bible’s children have fled its counsel to the wisdom of Eastern climes. It is ironic that, in the Book of Job, Yahweh turns out to be as crafty as a Zen master – his answers as inwardly illuminating as an Oriental conundrum. In the 4th part of the drama, Yahweh addresses Job, not from the terra firma of man’s rational understanding, but as a voice from the center of his mental cyclone – theVoice from the Whirlwind:

 We may prodigiously search the world’s religious literature – nowhere will we find a greater indictment of God than is found within the pages of his own sacred text. Legions of the Bible’s children have fled its counsel to the wisdom of Eastern climes. It is ironic that, in the Book of Job, Yahweh turns out to be as crafty as a Zen master – his answers as inwardly illuminating as an Oriental conundrum. In the 4th part of the drama, Yahweh addresses Job, not from the terra firma of man’s rational understanding, but as a voice from the center of his mental cyclone – theVoice from the Whirlwind:

 “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?”

 This is the first question of God’s cross-examination. He further queries:

 

“Where wast thou. when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou has understanding… Who shut up the sea with doors when it broke forth, as if it issued out of the womb? Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? Hast thou walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed unto thee… Hast thou comprehended the breadth of the earth… or laid a line on it? Declare, if thou knowest it all? “(17)

Job can no more rationally answer the whirlwind than Yahweh could logically answer Job. The beauty of each inability is only appreciated by a sensibility that requires neither pole to suitably frame an answer. In Equus. the patient, Alan Strang, creates a pagan religion, in part, from the whirlwind’s evocation of animal strength:

“Hast thou given the horse his might? The glory of his snorting is terrible. He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage…”

The investigating psychiatrist is Dr. Dysart:

 “A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave. It sniffs—it sucks–it strokes its eyes over the whole uncomfortable range. Suddenly one strikes. Why? Moments snap together like magnets, forging a chain of shackles. Why? I can trace them. I can even, with time, pull them apart again. But why at the start they were ever magnetized at all–I don’t know. And nor does anyone else. Yet if I don’t know—if I can never know that—then what am I doing here? I don’t mean clinically doing or socially doing—I mean fundamentally! These questions, these Whys, are fundamental—yet they have no place in a consulting room. So then, do I? This is the feeling more and more with me–No Place. Displacement.” (21)

Dysart might have equally asked, Canst thou bind the cluster of the Pleiades or loose the bands of Orion? Canst thou draw Leviathan with a fishhook? Or press down his tongue with a cord? Canst thou put a rope into his nose? … Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons, or his head with fish spears? (22)

These questions undoubtedly occurred to Melville and through him to Ahab of the Pequod:

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed–there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If a man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ‘tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me, I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principle, I will wreak that hate upon him.” (23)

 For Yahweh, Leviathan, and even, in the end, the mad passion that drives Ahab, inscrutability is precisely the point. To cleave the flesh of the deep is to seek to know a face whose light few in our century have been prepared or have desired to see. When Oppenheimer witnessed the first glow of the atomic dawn he recalled the Bhagavad Gita:

“I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The voice from the whirlwind could have supplied him with as apt a metaphor:

“And his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his nostrils a smoke goeth, As of a seething pot and burning rushes. His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth forth from his mouth. He maketh the deep to boil like a pot. He maketh a path to shine after him; One would think the deep to be hoary. Upon earth there is not his like, that is made without fear.”

 From Leviathan to the atom is something of the depth we have sought to probe. Man who engages eternity at every moment is, in the end, as inscrutable to himself as he is to his God. The Glory of God is ambrosia for which even the palette of Moses was unprepared. To taste thereof would have made him a god. We were sent forth from a garden with knowledge contending God’s evil against God’s good. The sword that keeps us hence we hold within the hollow of our hand:

 “Then Moses said, Now show me your glory. And the Lord said, I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. But you cannot see my face, for no one may see my face and live. Then the Lord said, There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face you must not see.” (27)

 When Oppenheimer became death, the destroyer of worlds, he had seen, like Moses, half the mystery. To understand that the face of God is a gleaming mirror is a revelation for those who needn’t fear the face they find within.