Week 5: Seaman

As David points out in the comments of the previous post, in his Q&A, Lorin Stein mentioned that he and the translator of 2666, Natasha Wimmer, discussed “Father Mapple’s sermon in Moby-Dick as a precursor to Barry Seaman’s motivational speech.”

In Moby-Dick, Ishmael visits this church in Nantucket before he sets sail in pursuit of the great white whale. Father Mapple delivers this sermon about Jonah and the whale from high atop a pulpit (a pulpit that resembles the crow’s nest of a ship). This sermon is a sort of warning to Ishamael before he ventures forth into the great unknown in pursuit of a wetter life. Oscar Fate doesn’t realize that Barry Seaman is preaching to him about his trip into the great unknown of Mexican horror, but he is.

Father Mapple preaches the story of Jonah and the whale. In the story, God orders Jonah to go to the wicked city of Nineveh, but Jonah follows his own path and heads toward Joppa. In the boat on the way there, the other sailors realize the horrible weather is caused by Jonah’s disobedience. They throw him overboard where he is swallowed by a large fish. He lives in the belly of the whale three days and nights before repenting and being vomited up by the fish. Jonah travels to Nineveh and prophesies that God will destroy the town in 40 days. I’m tempted to quote Mapple’s whole sermon, but here is the heart of it:

Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. Delight,- top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven. Delight is to him, whom all the waves of the billows of the seas of the boisterous mob can never shake from this sure Keel of the Ages. And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath- O Father!- chiefly known to me by Thy rod- mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world’s, or mine own. Yet this is nothing: I leave eternity to Thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?

Santa Teresa (or is it Detroit?) is the modern-day Nineveh—a city of wickedness, where death lurks in the shadows. Oscar Fate is sent (by his editor at Black Dawn) to the Sonoran city. Unlike Jonah, Fate willing travels there, but he remains a reluctant prophet.

The “Sea-man” (ha ha, semen, lol, etc.) tells a story about DANGER and his Black Panther cofounder Marius Newell growing up in California. He says that Newell was killed in Santa Cruz, “And the only reason I can think of why Marius was in Santa Cruz is the ocean. Marius went to see the Pacific Ocean, went to smell it. . . . I see him on the beach in California. A beach in Big Sur, maybe, or in Monterey north of Fisherman’s Wharf, up Highway 1.” [FWIW, both of those places have highly literary associations in my mind. Big Sur & Jack Kerouac, and Monterey & John Steinbeck.] He goes on:

He’s standing at a lookout point, looking away. It’s winter, off-season. The Panthers are young, none of us even twenty-five. We’re all armed, but we’ve left our weapons in the car, and you can see the deep dissatisfaction on our faces. The sea roars. Then I go up to Marius and I say let’s get out of here now. And at that moment Marius turns and he looks at me. He’s smiling. He’s beyond it all. And he waves his hand toward the sea, because he’s incapable of expressing what he feels in words. And then I’m afraid, even though it’s my brother there beside me, and I think: the danger is the sea.

I believe this is crucial—not just to the Seaman-Mapple nexus or to Fate/Jonah, but to the overall scope of the novel. The faceless, nameless sea lurks and looms—dangerous. Paradoxically, the evil that in habits Santa Teresa is faceless and nameless. They both exist in a danger that is difficult to even describe—Marius can’t express his feelings in words. Words fail Amalfitano, the desert saps the language out of the critics. Where does that leave Oscar Fate?


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5 Responses to “Week 5: Seaman”


  • Matt, I’m just speechless with the beauty and logic of this. Great, great GREAT POST so helpful, so lovely and so beautifully written, too.

    Like so much else in this deliberately fractured narrative, Fate’s “disobedience” does occur at the end of this section, though in a weird, tangential way; he’s ordered back to New York by his boss, but he decides to write a story about the murders … again we’re seeing the slow progression (spinning down the drain, in Dan’s excellent phrase) of writing from meaningless abstraction toward a more meaningful (and very dangerous) reality.

    He won’t go back to New York. He’ll stay, and face the horror, and be doomed, it seems.

  • [...] before I had ever gotten wind that 2666 intersected with Moby Dick via a sermon by Barry Seaman resembling a sermon by Father Mapple, I found myself playing with the idea of proposing Moby Dick as the next [...]

  • Comment from Susan Zenger

    Matt, what a wonderful post!
    I kept seeing references to bodies of water, even swimming pools, as frightening and sinister in some way. Submersion in water is never a good thing in this book. Your post really went a long way to connecting many dots. This whole Moby-Dick thing is great. I wonder why, contrary to the tendency of many other characters, Marius is attracted to the ocean–not a common trait among urban American blacks, is he oblivious to fate or is he simply blithely confident. The two sparring partners of Lino head for the sea after the fight in relatively jolly spirits.
    Fate is ordered to Ninevah/S.Teresa, but not to investigate the truly wicked issue (of course his boss is not Yahweh, either)but to cover a triviality, a boxing match. Inner city blacks are not interested in a bunch of murdered Mexican women (anymore than white colonists are interested in the death count of blacks on slave ships, they don’t merit the “word” as they are not valued members of the group)and Fate is ordered back to NY. Fate disobeys, but he does so to confront and explore the wickedness, even if there are no “brothers” involved in the story he can see that this is the critical story in S. Teresa and one meriting international attention.

    • Comment from Michael Mullen

      Great post! One thing that struck me about this sequence was that “the danger is the ocean” was followed so closely by that exquisite description of driving through the desert. Fate leaves the road to relieve himself and it’s obvious he could just disappear forever. The desert seems as much a manifestation of the unconscious, or of danger, as the ocean does: its dry reflection, if you will. Seaman’s sermon is a breathtaking piece of work!


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