Marriage and the great white whale

What humor, homosexuality, and Moby Dick can teach us about marriage and romantic love.

by Aaron Schreck

Giving a best man’s speech is one of the most difficult things I can imagine. Not only must you articulate your love and appreciation for one of the most intimate relationships of your life—whether it be a relationship with your son, brother, or best friend—you must also speak about what is perhaps the most ineffable aspect of life in this world: romantic love. The only man less fit for such a task is the groom himself, struck dumb at the sight of his bride’s white silhouette gliding towards the altar. Language fades away, and only awe remains.

This illustrates a paradoxical feature of the human experience. We find that the closer we get to the heart of things, the less fit we are to speak about them, to reduce them to the level of language. Perhaps great poets and artists find their greatness in capturing these fundamental experiences without losing what makes them so significant. Regardless, to speak about these things often eludes us. It is likely for this reason that the contemporary debate over the definition of marriage is one of the least coherent or effective instances of public discourse in recent memory. This is not surprising. In trying to address such fundamental questions, each interlocutor is giving their own best man speech, trying to craft words strong enough to hold the weight of the romantic mystery. No one has sufficient distance from this question to speak about it objectively. In our attempts to do so, we find ourselves as speechless and inarticulate before the rawness of our subject matter as the groom finds himself before his bride on his wedding day.

But, as in Shakespeare, the veneer of comedy often grants the fool clarity which escapes those passionately invested in the situation. Australian comedian Jim Jefferies reaches this level of insight in his stand-up routine, “Alcoholocaust”. Although the title gives a representative sample of his comedic register (read: low), his segment on relationships cuts right to the heart of what I believe to be a significant question underlying the contemporary marriage debate.

Amid a series of jokes based on stories of his own failed relationships, Jefferies says, “I’ve been a heterosexual my whole life; I would not call the experience happy. I would call it a struggle at best.” These lines come as the punchline to a series of jokes about the putative happiness of homosexual men, derived from both the original meaning of the word gay along with various stereotypes and Jefferies’ personal experience. At one point during his musings, he says, “It must be wonderful to be in a relationship where if your partner is being a dickhead, you can punch him in the head”. In Jim Jefferies’ mind, at least for sake of the joke, one of the great allures of the homosexual relationship is the ability to treat one’s romantic partner like oneself. It offers the possibility of erotic love independent of both sexual difference and its accompanying challenges.

Under the veneer of comedy, these jokes question the fundamental purpose of the erotic relationship. Although his comments tend toward homosexuality, the answer to this question is equally as relevant to advocates of traditional marriage. Do we pursue such a relationship for pleasure and exhilaration in the same way we might ride a rollercoaster or eat a deluxe fudge brownie? If so, Jefferies might be right in suggesting that the complexities of an encounter with femininity ruin the net benefit of the relationship–just like a screaming child or a disagreeable sauce ruin a ride or dessert. Or, does an encounter with sexual otherness bring its own goodness, something more sublime, something beyond sensual pleasure and exhilaration? The married life is never easy, and Jefferies bids us ask whether such difficulties are worth it.

To help us consider this question, let us consult American literature’s favorite swashbuckling homoerotic couple, Queequeg and Ishmael. Throughout Moby Dick, Melville develops a perplexing construction of marriage centered around the relationship between the island native and the Nantucket sailor. The morning after the awkward bedroom encounter, Ishmael awakens to the savage’s tattooed arm draped across him such that “[y]ou had almost thought I had been his wife”. Later on, Queequeg performs a native marriage ceremony and declares them “bosom friends”, such that “he would gladly die for [Ishmael] should the need arise”.

The strange marriage between the two men gains further definition through the chapter entitled “The Monkey Rope”. As Ishmael gazes over the railing at the laboring Queequeg and contemplates the rope which binds them together, he remarks to himself that, “for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded”. Although the imagery of connection and protection correspond to man’s everyday understanding of the marriage relationship, little else from the shared lives of these two men seems to warrant such nuptial language.

Melville’s bizarre construal of marriage becomes clearer when understood as a thematic alternative to Ahab’s solipsistic quest to punch through the “pasteboard mask” and confront whatever divinity or nothingness lies behind the material world. Looking out upon the ship’s deck just a short time before the epic three day chase, Ishmael describes a clear day on the water such that “the sun seemed giving this gentle air to this bold and rolling sea; even as a bride to a groom”. In this image, we have a blueprint for Melville’s anti-solipsism: two lovers reaching out of themselves towards “the girdling line of the horizon, [where] a soft and tremulous motion…denoted the throbbing trust, the loving alarms, with which the poor bride gave her bosom away.” In Melville’s mind, one finds the real substance of human love only after breaking out of one’s self and submitting to another. Through the grammatical juxtaposition of “throbbing trusts” and “loving alarms”, Melville suggests that the experience of love in this world is inextricably bound up in uncertainty. Love requires that we offer up mastery of ourselves to another with no guarantee of kindness or reciprocity. To embed onself in fallible, human community is to be always vulnerable to imminent disappointment. While relational solipsism provides security, it also covers over the vulnerability which allows for genuine love.

So what does this strange construal of marriage from a 19th-century novel about whaling contribute to a contemporary discussion of marriage? I doubt that Melville was really all that interested in making any normative claims about the institution of marriage. Rather, he uses it as a vehicle to oppose individualism, and to offer his audience a binary vision of life in this world. A man can see himself either as a radically free, individual beholden to nothing but what lies beyond the pasteboard mask, or as inextricably bound up in relationships to those around him, an idea perfectly captured by the image of the monkey rope. So, although marriage in Moby Dick has very little to do with ordinary human marriage, it is worth noting that Melville saw marriage and romantic love as the best analogue to depict in narrative an existential embrace of otherness.

In light of this philosophical project, the homosexual nature of their relationship becomes more or less insignificant. After all, there is hardly a feminine option within the novel’s universe. Aunt Charity, Mrs. Hussey, and the pale squid would make a poor season of the Bachelor. The relationship more primarily provides Melville’s novel with a concrete example of embracing what is existentially foreign in another human being. Just as a married couple must overcome differences of body, mindset, and perspective to achieve domestic harmony, so does the relationship of Queequeg and Ishmael require each man to embrace alien aspects of his partner. Physically, Queequeg’s tattooed, dark skin opposes that of the Caucasian Ishmael; religiously, Queequeg’s little god Yojo challenges Ishmael’s Presbyterian sensibilities. Socio-economically, Queequeg’s royal islander blood looms over Ishmael’s nondescript American birth. The two men even work in different positions on the ship, Queequeg a harpooner and Ishmael a regular sailor. They are opposites in almost every way possible aboard a Nantucket whaler. Their relationship embodies both the struggles and joys which accompany a deep, holistic embrace of another human being. Even as Ishmael grows in his love for Queequeg, he must embrace a whole host of Queequeg’s eccentricities, ranging from the savage’s benign and comedic practice of changing clothes under the bed to his much more divisive worship of the little god Yojo and observance of the Ramadan. To love another is to suffer, just as even the gentlest breeze from the sun makes waves upon the sea.

All this is to say that perhaps when Jim Jefferies says his life as a heterosexual has been a struggle at best, he’s more on the right track than he knows. If we accept Melville’s vision of marriage and erotic love, then the struggle gives us hope that we are on to something. Any great object is won at the expense of great effort, and perhaps we are wrong to think love is any different. As anyone who has run a marathon or built something out of wood knows, you cannot separate the making and the having. The struggle becomes a great part of the awe a groom feels before his bride, and it makes the experience of romantic love so ineffable.

Aaron Schreck is a junior studying English and math.

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