Death and Spiritual Birth in Moby Dick


The full quote comes from Moby Dick in chapter VII when Ishmael wanders into a chapel just before his voyage to ponder the dangers. He reads epitaphs within the chapel of whalers who died at sea, and he observes widows and families grieving the dead. He then tells the reader:

It needs scarcely to be told, with what feelings, on the eve of a Nantucket voyage, I regarded those marble tablets, and by the murky light of that darkened, doleful day read the fate of the whalemen who had gone before me. Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine. But somehow I grew merry again. Delightful inducements to embark, fine chance for promotion, it seems—aye, a stove boat will make me an immortal by brevet. Yes, there is death in this business of whaling—a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me. And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot.

Ishmael describes death as a quick chaotic bundling just as a child is received from the womb. The child is immediately taken to be cleaned and wrapped to keep warm. The swaddling blankets are the immediate next womb the infant occupies. In Ishmael’s statement, Eternity is the swaddling cloth to be wrapped about the soul.

This is such a comforting view of death. I’ve often heard reference to this motif of death as birth in this way: pain, transition, newness of being, etc. But most often these pictures fail to assuage fear as well as the image of Eternity swaddling about the naked shaking skin of an infant soul.