(I wrote this paper as my senior capstone project at Saint Martin’s University. It won me me an undergraduate scholarship award. I didn’t go on in academia, but it’s not for lack of love of scholarship, and I wanted to get this out there in some way. Journals typically won’t even read undergraduate work.)
Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree is a challenging read. Nothing in the novel is given easily to the reader. The diction is archaic, words are sometimes wholly fabricated, and the symbolism draws from such a broad range of cultural sources that it is nearly impossible to make sense of. Even more confounding than the literary tools employed in the novel are the decisions made by the novel’s protagonist, Cornelius Suttree, whose inexplicably erratic lifestyle is made all the more frustrating by the fact that we are rarely given even a passing glimpse inside his head. The general oddity and interpretive challenges presented by Suttree probably explain why the novel has never enjoyed a popular readership, and why it has received relatively little critical attention. On cursory examination, the book gives the impression of a semi-comedic tale about an impoverished, alcoholic fisherman getting into legal trouble with a cast of illiterate, violent degenerates. But such a crude assessment of Suttree is no more accurate than saying that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is a story about an itinerant seaman following a crazed captain on a doomed quest to harpoon an anthropomorphized whale. Both novels aspire for something much higher than they initially present.
Beyond their general thematic scope, Suttree and Moby Dick share several similarities. Both novels trace the life of outcasts who strike out into foreign lands in search of a truth that is as difficult to obtain as it is to express. Along the way, they become caught up in the quests of maniacal, heroically-defiant figures waging personal wars against indestructible foes. By the end of their journey, the seekers find that the knowledge they hoped to attain is beyond their ability to grasp. However, though the journey may fall short of its lofty goals, it helps them achieve greater self-understanding and reconciliation with the human world from which they had originally fled.
Because they bear so many similarities to each other, comparing Moby Dick with Suttree is useful in that we can draw upon the considerable critical work that has been done on the former to illuminate the latter. Melville’s magnum opus and its attendant scholarly work are effective lenses through which to view Suttree, allowing us to discover new layers of meaning buried in the narrative, to arrive at a greater understanding of its protagonist, and hopefully to find a deeper appreciation for its high ambitions.
The importance of Moby Dick to McCarthy’s writing has been noted in the past. As Amy Hungerford instructs, Moby Dick is “probably the single most important book for McCarthy besides the Bible, as a source for language, character ideas, and moral questions. All kinds of things come from Moby Dick” (Hungerford). McCarthy himself has discussed his penchant for building on the great works of literature. In a New York Times interview he stated, “The ugly fact is that books are made of books. The novels depends for its life on the novels that have been written (before)” (Woodward). In that same interview he identified the “good” writers as Melville, Dostoyevsky, and Faulkner (Woodward). Given McCarthy’s reclusiveness, it is unlikely that we will ever get a definitive confirmation proving that he constructed Suttree with Moby Dick in mind, but whether the influence was conscious or unconscious is not a matter for concern here. What matters is that there are enough similarities between the novels that their association becomes self-evident. The proof is in the pudding.
Moby Dick’s Ishmael and Suttree’s Cornelius Suttree are both wanderers and outcasts, seekers bent on discovering the meaning of life and the secrets of their own being. Each character belongs to that group of figures identified by Samuel Coleridge when he wrote, “There have been men in all ages who have been impelled as by an instinct to propose their own nature as a problem, and who devote their attempts to its solution” (Bowen 13). Sut’s ever-restless nature explains the frequent inconsistencies and contradictions in his philosophical perspective, and might also explain why he has elicited such a disparate range of interpretations from critics. Spanning the entire spectrum of spiritual and psychological development, Sut has been called an alcoholic nihilist (Bell), an enlightened bodhisattva (Spencer), and a “black parody of Thoreau (Canfield), among other things. Throughout the novel he sometimes resembles all of those things; at other times he resembles none. But Sut is not psychically complete. Like Ishmael, he is an errant seeker whose identity is still a work in progress. For the seeker, the inner journey always permeates the outer, so that as deeply as he travels into the wilderness, he travels that deeply into himself. What he looks for outside of himself is always mirrored within. Driven by an obsessive need to know, to viscerally understand things which he cannot even adequately name, the seeker’s core beliefs and motivations are forever moving and mutating. Everything else is negotiable in their pursuit for understanding, including the ego-identifications that people normally habituate as the ‘self.’
Moby Dick and Suttree are more than the accounts of a seeker’s adventure. The books are constructed in such a way that the reading experience itself becomes a kind of truth-seeking by proxy. Both novels have been perceived as being flabby with extraneous content. Some have said that Moby Dick is in need of a good editor, full as the novel is with seemingly superfluous meditations on cetology, strange encounters with ships that do nothing to drive the plot forward, and long monologues about everything from economics to epistemology. Likewise, Suttree is full of side stories so fractured they can’t even be called subplots, pages-long details of detritus and ruin, and ruminations on astrology and geology. There is a purposeful affect achieved by the tangled, overgrown narrative style of the novels, however. To appreciate that effect, we need to step back for the broad perspective and take in the books in their totality, not in their dissected parts.
Moby Dick and Suttree rely on suggestion to achieve an impression of the otherworldly. If Ishmael’s chief fears were explained to be existential meaningless and being eaten by a giant whale, the effect would be quickly lost. The most persistent human fear is fear of the unknown, and the two unknowable things are death and what is after death. In order to play upon this deep, psychological fear, Moby Dick never consigns its narrator’s fear to anything so crude and simple as physical danger. Instead, there is some unnamed maliciousness always at work. The sense of fateful inevitability and omnipresent threat is palpable in Moby Dick from the moment that Elijah emerges from the fog upon the docks to prophecy:
Well, well, what’s signed, is signed; and what’s to be, will be; and then again, perhaps it wont be, after all. Any how, it’s all fixed and arranged a’ready; and some sailors or other must go with (Ahab), I suppose…God pity them! (Melville 102).
Elijah is talking about something that goes beyond the dangers of the sea. He is hinting at a damnation already writ by the gods. Similarly peripheral insinuations of danger “accumulate through the book to build an impression of cosmic horror that is the stronger because the reader cannot put his finger on its exact source and attempt to refute it once and for all” (Walcutt). The fact that we do not now what we are afraid of is the key to the novel’s unsettling ambience.
Employing the same techniques used to imbue “cosmic terror,” Moby Dick is filled throughout with a sense of impending epiphany and divine revelation. It feels as though there is always some mystical truth waiting just beyond the next wave crest, but the mystical truth never quite comes. Ishmael always falls slightly short of grasping the profundity suggested by the things he sees in the ocean, but the sense that profound understanding lies just ahead never quite falters. The novel is so successful in this regard that even knowing the voyage’s fatal ending, we return to the story again with the certainty that some profound insight must surely lie within the pages. The stylistic choice of the novel is essential to its success, as it becomes in itself a literary expression of the ambiguous, mysterious wonder-world that Ishmael has gone in search of.
The lessons of the wonder-world transcend logic and reason. Once analyzed and compartmentalized, they become only facts or ideas, losing their sense of profundity. IN this way, the shapelessness of Moby Dick’s storytelling is indicative of its success, not its failure. The philosopher is tasked with expressing reality in an easily understood way; the artist is tasked with packaging reality in a way that preserves its sense of profundity. In the profound reality of Moby Dick, nothing can be taken for granted–the sacred and the profane permeate each other at all times. David Walcutt writes:
“When art is complex it may be difficult, and therefore obscure; but this is because it is trying to communicate profundities and complexities. Great art does not try to reduce the mysteries of the world and of life to childish simplicities. It must be complex when it is dealing with profound and mysterious things” (Walcutt).
The highest achievement for an artist is not to provide answers, but to provide a perpetual question. Moby Dick’s mazelike construction is critical to its artistic success. Anything less would render it just another adventure novel. “Like the whale,” Andrew Delbanco explains, Moby Dick “must, if we truly wish to read it, ‘remain unpainted to the last’” (Delbanco xxvii).
Suttree uses some of the same techniques as Moby Dick, though this can be harder to see because the characters and situations it deals with are considerably cruder than those dealt with in Melville’s work. Suttree’s Tennessee River is choked with every bit as much death and malice as Ishmael’s oceans. Bodies float to the river’s surface, there are midnight stabbings in town, and a shadowy “Other” forever pursues Sut through his waking and dreaming life. Suttree employs a wide array of literary allusions and symbols taken seemingly at random from Christian, Classical, Celtic, and Voodoo mythologies, creating the general impression that every supernatural agent in existence has a vested interest in the ruination of the human race. Like Moby Dick, Suttree uses its peripheral suggestions to create a sense of “cosmic horror.” Additionally, in order to create a sense of the profound, Suttree focuses intensely on physical details of the natural world. Looking at just one, average paragraph, a simple walk over a mudflat reveals, among other things, a “crusted stone strewn with spiderskeins of slender nylon fishline,” slugs that “recoiled and flexed mutely under the agony of the sun,” gars laying “like dogs” with “heavy shapes of primitive rapacity,” and a “hogsnake snubnosed and bloated…coiled and sleeping in the dry ruins of a skiff” (McCarthy 121). Taken cumulatively through the text, these details have the effect of transforming the ordinary into a representation of the unfathomable intricacy with which the world has been made. The intricacy imbues a sense of wonder, perhaps also a sense of the sublime, as we are faced with the incredible breadth of time that shapes such things. Just as the construction of Moby Dick transforms the ocean into the universe and the Pequod into the world, the construction of Suttree transforms Knoxville, Tennessee into a mythical space stage upon which the fates of souls will be decided.
Suttree and Ishmael are not natives of their respective wonder-worlds. Each one comes from an ordinary, materially comfortable world, with prospects for greater comfort if they so choose. Ishmael has worked as a schoolteacher in the past, yet has chosen the hard and dangerous labor of whaling. Similarly, Sut has chosen to leave a wealthy family in order to live in poverty among Knoxville’s underclass. A simple explanation for Sut’s decision would be that he is trying to escape social responsibility, but that would not account for all the time and energy he spends helping the more incompetent and troubled inhabitants of the McNally Flats slum. Another simple explanation would be that Sut is a morally conscious individual who has chosen to discard material wealth in order to practice compassion among the needy, but that would not account for the fact that he has abandoned his wife and son. The one hint that we get of Sut’s motivations come in the form of a letter from his father:
“In my father’s last letter he said that the world is run by those willing to take the responsibility for running it. If it is life you feel you are missing I can tell you where to find it. In the law courts, in business, in government. There is nothing occurring in the streets. Nothing but a dumbshow composed of the helpless and impotent” (McCarthy 14).
The letter indicates that there has some dialogue between Sut and his father about the nature of “life,” and that they have arrived at opposing conclusions. For Sut, the banks of the fetid Tennessee River resemble something closer to his notion of life than does a corporate office or a judge’s seat. To understand Sut’s unusual reasoning, we can look to analysis of Ishmael’s motivations.
Ishmael is an intelligent, well-read individual. His claimed school teaching credentials suggest prospects for a life far less demanding than sailing, and far less demeaning than the odd jobs he proudly attests to taking. But Ishmael is not concerned with material comfort or with social standing. The normal workaday world repels him precisely because it is so comfortable and orderly. For Ishmael, the city is a land of the dead and the dying, a place bloated with bloodless commerce, nihilistic scientism, and hypocritical religious institutions. The weight of the life promised by such a place drives Ishmael towards suicidal despair, as he tells us:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the fear of every funeral I meet…I account it high time to get to sea as soon as possible. This is my substitute for pistol and ball (Melville 1).
Ishmael’s flippant tone conceals the gravity of what he is discussing, but ultimately “for Ishmael, the sea voyage is the only logical sequel except for suicide to a life which seems to be getting ‘gray and grizzled’” (Sherill 133). Sut suffers from the same existential misery as Ishmael. For him, “the middle-class professional and business realms are no more vibrant than the church, being equally regimented, bureaucratic, and exclusionary; all are creations of false, anchoritic powers” (Luce 258). Like all seekers, Sut is repelled by the socially normative life of civilization, as it cuts him off from the sacred. Material comforts are not only unneeded on his journey, they are a detriment to it. Set apart from his concerns for those material comforts, Sut has no need to fret over a career. He would likely agree with Ishmael’s declaration that, “For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever” (Melville 5). Sut’s disdain for economic practicality is so complete that, upon receiving the Indian Michael’s gift of a remarkably-effective fishing bait, he refuses it because “the odor of it, the gagging vomit reek, was more than he could stand” (McCarthy 222). Living in abject poverty, he is unwilling to bear a temporary olfactory irritant in order to increase his financial gain. Sut is similarly contemptuous of organized religions as he is careerism, particularly Catholicism. A good share of this disdain stems from his distaste for his father’s hypocrisy. Sut’s father is a respected member of society and a devout Catholic, but he mistreats his own family for perceived genetic inferiorities. He assumes his wife’s ignorance because she came from a lower socioeconomic rung than he did, and treats all those who share her blood as inferiors. Sut tries to explain his father’s cruelty to his Uncle John:
Look, said Suttree, leaning forward. When a man marries beneath him his children are beneath him. If he thinks that way at all. If you weren’t a drunk he might see me with different eyes. As it is, my case was always doubtful. I was expected to turn out badly. My grandfather used to say Blood will tell (McCarthy 19).
It is probably not coincidental that of all the Christians who proselytize to the fallen inhabitants of McNally Flats, none are ever shown doing anything of earthly good for them. It is the outcast Sut alone who tends to the deeply flawed figures like Gene Harrogate and the ragpicker. The greatest threat that civilized life poses to Ishmael and Sut might not be its bureaucracy or its hypocrisy, but in its tendency towards the regimentation of thinking itself. Both protagonists hold an Emersonian view of human nature, assuming that if freed from the corruption of creed and flag, a man will act with a natural goodness and instinctive grace. Ishmael and Sut want to cleanse themselves of the murk and soil of reason in order to return to a more spontaneous way of being. It is a Romantic longing most emblematically expressed by Thoreau:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. (Thoreau 62–62)
Ishmael and Sut both suspect an “insufficiency of the speculative intellect as a guide to essential truth,” and have determined that “Reason may at its best serve us to discover the errors of others, but it will not lead us to truth. For ‘truth is in things, and not in words.’” (Bowen 82). Despite his voyage, Ishmael does not at first escape the confounding need for analysis. To him, the whale “portends the ungraspable phantom of life” (Sherill 139), yet he spends a good part of the novel trying to classify the anatomy and physiology of the whale as a means of understanding it. His reductionist approach fails:
“All of these forms of scientific inquiry–linguistic, bibliographical, and naturalist–are finally failures, “the classification of the constituents of chaos,” and he must finally own, with one of the authorities he quotes, that there is an “impenetrable veil covering our knowledge of the cetacea” (Sherill 146).
Sut has already arrived at his distrust of science’s unsatisfactory limitations before his novel begins, as he relates early in the novel:
“From all old seamy throats of elders, musty books, I’ve salvaged not a word. In a dream I walked with my grandfather by a dark lake and the old man’s talk was filled with incertitude. I saw how all things false fall from the dead” (McCarthy 14).
The nihilistic despair wrought by civilized life, that “woe that is madness” (Melville 465), impels Ishmael to strike out to sea. For him, the “voyage is for recuperation: he wants not to recover from some physical ailment but, rather, to recover himself in relation to the holy by meditating on oceanic revelations” (Sherrill 134). Yearning to see the “great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open” (Melville 8), Ishmael is willing to stake his life on an encounter with the miraculous. Such a quest demands that he abandons, physically and psychologically, his ties to human society. Merlin Bowen writes, “The ties that hold us to the breathing human beings whom we love are the same ties, the head realizes, that fetter us to compromises and half-truths of the past: there can be no freeing ourselves of the one and clinging to the other” (Bowen 26–27). For his part, Sut has numerous drunken adventures with Oceanfrog, J Bone, and Trippingthrougthedew, but all of these are only brief interludes in the extended, solitary meditation that he has undertaken.
Ishmael seeks his transcendence on the open sea; Sut opts for the less wonder-world-like slums of Knoxville. But the physical sea of Moby Dick is not as important to the seeker as the danger, rawness, and opportunity for solitude that it affords. As Paul Brodtkorb writes:
“One goes to sea intending to get away from the mood in which land encompasses the familiar, the boring, the superficial, the static, the deadly, the too definitely formed, because the sea provides the elemental contrast with the land” (Brodtkorb 20).
For Sut, the depraved honesty of McNally Flats is as far from the refined hypocrisy of his father’s world as he can get, and serves his philosophical needs perfectly.Ishmael and Sut’s longing for a more natural connection to nature is exemplified in their relationships with two characters who symbolize the fullest realization of that naturalness–Queequeg and Michael. At various points Ishmael tries to counsel his friend Queequeg against some of his more egregious “savagery,” but throughout the novel he never loses his intense fascination and admiration for the Pacific Islander. Queequeg accepts reality as it is. He takes the presence of higher powers as a given, but does not seem overly troubled by the idea that they do not have his welfare in mind. The master harpooner is a heathen according to Christian standards, yet he displays a level of selflessness, self-control, and courtesy beyond anyone else in the novel. Queequeg is alive in every moment in a way that Ishmael, behind his veil of reason, is not. Partly because of his immersion in the present, Queequeg’s dexterity and skill with the harpoon are uncanny, graceful and perfect as the movements of a cat. Also unlike Ishmael, the Pacific Islander appears to harbor no concerns about death. When his time comes to die he accepts it without fear or complaint. At peace with himself and the universe, Queequeg is the physical manifestation of all the things that Ishmael is striving for.Where Ishmael has Queeqeug, Sut has Michael, a Native American that shows up one day at the fish market with an 87-pound catfish, the largest that anyone has ever seen (McCarthy 220). Where Queeques possessed preternatural skill with harpoon, Michael displays a similar acuity at fishing. Unlike Sut and the other fishermen who drop several lines into the water at once hoping for a bit, Michael uses only one, yet achieves markedly better results. He needs no rationalization to accept the talismanic powers of random objects that come by his way. Of a pair of doll eyes fastened to his coat, Suttree asks, “What do those signify? The Indian looked down. He touched the doll’s eyes. Them? I don’t know. Good luck” (McCarthy 239). Michael lives in a magical world that Sut envies, and one he aspires to. Above all else, Sut is fascinated with Michael’s knowledge of hunting and cooking turtle, an arcane skill which seems to have been lost to the residents of Knoxville. With the exception of Ab Jones, Michael is the only character in the novel that Sut asks for advice. However, despite his many attempts, Sut is never able to achieve the kind of wonder-world that Michael represents. There is an impenetrable barrier between them; even if Sut were to ask Michael’s philosophies, the fisherman would be unable to express them. His spiritual state is natural to him, not something rational that he can instruct on. In the end, the same thing that Ishmael says of Queequeg can be said of Michael: “in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read” (Melville 524).Sut’s attempt to regain some imagined form of naturalism is doomed from the start. He cannot escape the burdens of his knowledge, no matter how badly he may wish to. His failure culminates with the hapless undertaking of his vision quest in the mountains of Gatlinburg. We do not know how long his quest lasts, only that it is long enough to threaten his sanity, and long enough that “his beard grew long and his clothes feel from him like the leaves” (McCarthy 285). For this indeterminate amount of time, Sut does not seem to discover much of anything. He has multiple visions, but each is merely an hallucination that adds no personal insight. From the very arrival in the woods, it seems that Sut is not welcome there. He curiously turns a stone over only to find staring back at him a snake with the same indifferent menace that Sut has been fleeing. He “could not tell if” the snake “watched him or not, little brother death with his quartz goat’s eyes. He lowered the stone with care” (McCarthy 284). Throughout his wilderness foray, Sut’s anxieties about death are only magnified, as “He saw with a madman’s clarity the perishability of his flesh” (McCarthy 287). Most frightening of all, the shadowy Other that has followed him throughout the novel seems to finally be gaining ground:
In these silent sunless galleries he’d come to feel that another went before him and each glade he entered seemed just quit by a figure who’d been sitting there and risen and gone on. Some doublegoer, some othersutrree eluded him in these woods and he feared that should that figure fail to rise and steal away and were he therefore to come to himself in this obscure wood he’d be neither mended nor made whole but rather set mindless to dodder drooling with his ghostly clone from sun to sun across a hostile hemisphere forever (McCarthy 287).
Sut eventually abandons his vision quest, winding up half mad with starvation and thirst, crying pitifully to a crass waitress in a cheap restaurant. He nearly dies in pursuit of an instinctive embrace of life that is just not possible for him, anymore–if it ever was. Ishmael’s quest for transcendence is as frustrating and failed as Sut’s. He enjoys numerous glimpses into the wonder-world, but can never quite fully penetrate the depths. His and Sut’s failures result not from lack of effort, but from the paradox that results whenever someone seeks to fully grasp the breadth of the infinite. Ishmael hints at part of the paradox when he explores the myth of Narcissus:
And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all (Melville 5).
Our vision of reality is forever distorted by our own reflection. When we gaze into the water, we gaze also into ourselves. Upon everything we see, our eyes impress our own psychic contents. If one fixates the water too long, he risks becoming drowned in himself.
Ishmael and Sut are further doomed to failure by the sheer limitations of their intellects, which is to say of all human intellect. Our minds are not made to grasp the infinite. Any truth that we can enjoy can only be tasted in parts. Both protagonists want to grasp everything simultaneously, to see not only how every part of the machine works together but why every part of the machine works together. The immensity of the concept is more than they can comprehend. Moby Dick’s Pip is the only person in either novel who gets a prolonged view of this deep machinery of reality, and for that witness he pays with his sanity:
Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the misermerman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, G0d-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to the celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God. (Melville 453–454).
Ishmael and Sut’s mistake is in misunderstanding the magnitude of what they are after and the limitations of their ability to perceive it. It is like they are trying to see all sides of a basketball at once.
Shortly before leaving Knoxville, after he nearly escapes dying from a prolonged and unnamed illness, Sut is told that God must have been watching over him. In response, Sut replies “You would not believe what watches. He is not a thing. Nothing ever stops moving” (McCarthy 461). Sut has caught a glimpse of the truth he was seeking, and of that thing that drove Pip mad. It was not what Sut intended to find, but it does indicate that he has finally found something. The god-thing he has discovered is a cosmic process, not a human-like figure concerned with his welfare. But at least he has seen something, and even if he does not hold a special place with it, he at least fits neatly into its greater design. Sut’s near-death experience is the final straw in his decision to leave Knoxville, but it is not that alone that compels him to travel on. It is also the deaths of two friends.
Ab Jones is to Suttree what Captain Ahab is to Moby Dick, a crazed fanatic waging war against an unbeatable foe. Ab is a physically imposing black man who battles the police of Knoxville in his private quest for revenge. Where Ahab had his leg bitten off by the whale, Ab was shot by a white man when he was fourteen years old. The source of both men’s rage goes beyond their physical scars. The attacks were an affront to their basic human dignity on some fundamental, metaphysical level that only they can understand. Despite the fact that Ab and Ahab’s quests are obviously doomed to end in tragedy, Sut and Ishmael find an appeal in them that is at least temporarily undeniable.
Caught up in Ahab’s fervor, Ishmael declares during their crazed hunt: “I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs…A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine” (Melville 194). Despite all of his attempts to observe life objectively and to escape the futile enterprises of men, Ishmael is yet drawn inexorably into Ahab’s mission.Sut’s relationship with Ab Jones is very similar to Ishmael’s relationship with Ahab. Erik Hage writes:
Ab’s shortened appellation also calls to mind Ahab, form one of McCarthy’s favorite works, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Ab’s obsession with the massive ‘unbending pale’ calls to mind Ahab’s obsessive quest for the white leviathan. Here, an analogy can be drawn between the white whale and the Knoxville judicial body politic that Ab confronts–this particular usage of body politic having its roots in Thomas Hobbes’ fittingly title treatise Leviathan (Hage 20).
While a black man’s rage towards the white establishment of 1950s Tennessee is hardly an enigma, Ab’s hatred crosses into obsessive territory. His rage goes so far that even when he suspects his days are numbered, Ab asks the Voodoo priestess Miss Mother not to extend his days but to make sure that the policeman named Quinn goes with him. “I aint interested (in my future),” Ab says, “I just don’t want to leave Quinn here and me gone” (Suttree 280).
Sut respect for Ab is obvious. He talks differently to Ab than he does to anyone else in the novel, including Michael. He addresses Ab with respect, and talks to others about him with something approaching reverence. Sut knows Ab cannot win, but something in Ab’s fight appeals to him. The ‘white’ law that is bent on destroying Ab is not exclusive to the colored man. Like the continuous stories and false sightings of Moby Dick in Melville’s work, there are subtle insinuations of the law’s malignant presence throughout Suttree. Common passages relate things like: “He walked Gay Street, pausing by store windows, fine goods kept in glass. A police cruiser passed slowly. He moved on, from out of his eyecorner watching them watch” (McCarthy 29). Despite the omnipresent police harassment, Sut never resists verbally or physically. It is only when Ab becomes locked in his final, fatal confrontation that Sut lashes back.
Sut finds his friend beaten nearly to death in an alley. Police arrive. Sut tries to usher Ab off, but the man will have none of it. We know before the conclusion that this is Ab’s last stand: “But the black had begun to become erect with a strength and a grace contrived out of absolute nothingness and Suttree said: Ab, and the black said: Go on.” Sut still tries to convince the police to leave, but the battler will have none of it. Ab curses the police and turns to run down the alley. While the police give chase, Sut gets into the squad car, rides it around town for a while, and then sinks it into a river. Ab is killed that night, and Sut’s pointless act of rebellion accomplishes nothing. But the important thing to note is that something in Ab’s defiance sparked resistance in Sut for the first and only time in the novel–a resistance resembling purpose.
Ahab is widely considered to be a symbol of heroic defiance, whether that defiance is against an indifferent God or against the nonexistence of God. For Suttree, Ab Jones is a symbol of the same. Each one is doomed to die in their quest, yet they represent the antithesis of an important shortcoming inherent in Ishmael and Sut–the will to act. Ishmael and Sut are lost in contemplation. They are looking for reasons to live, as though those reasons can be arrived at the way one solves a math formula. At some point, all life starts with the will to act. That will might be irrational in a purposeless universe, but it is still the only choice other than suicide. Sut finds his will to act after witnessing the deaths and imprisonments of his friends, and the razing of McNally Flats. Happening near the same time as Ab Jones, the death of the ragpicker seems to be the event that solidifies Sut’s decision to leave Knoxville and start to live again.
Sut finds the ragpicker dead in his bed beneath the overpass. The ragpicker is important to Sut as a friend, and important to the novel because he takes Sut’s nihilism to its extremist degree. Routinely the ragpicker talks of suicide and a general disdain for God and life. We are never exactly certain why Sut is so drawn to this hopeless figure, but he is. In their usual suicidal discussions, Sut often agrees with the ragpicker, or at least does not attempt to refute him. Yet when faced with the old man’s corpse, Sut declares in tears, “You have no right to represent people this way…A man is all men. You have no right to your wretchedness” (McCarthy 422). The death seems to bring Sut’s boiling internal world to critical mass. We are not certain where he is headed, but wherever he is going he is doing so dressed in “new trousers of tan chino. A new shirt open at the neck. His face and arms were suntanned and his hair crudely barbered and he wore cheap new brown leather shoes the toes of which he dusted, one, the other, against the back of his trouser legs. He looked like someone just out of the army or jail” (McCarthy 470). Cheap though the threads may be, Sut has come dressed as a man ready to reenter society and start living again. In addition to the will to act, Sut learns another important lesson on his journey. He comes to realize that no man is an island unto himself, no matter how badly he might try to be. Our identity does not exist wholly separate from our fellow human beings; instead, our identity relies for its life upon our fellow human beings. To try to cut oneself free from the gravity of human coexistence is to continuously wander unmoored from our own selfhood. While the promise of the adventure into the wonder-world may be at times irresistible, in the end “a comparable sterility awaits those of us who would rest in a simple contemplation of self. For our identity is something that takes shape for us only through interaction with all of which opposes it. Neither in life nor in art are we sufficient to ourselves” (Bowen, 46). Ishmael finds his reunion with humanity while extracting sperm from a whale aboard the Pequod. He recalls:
I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborer’s hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,–Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves into the very milk and sperm of kindness (Melville 456).
Homoeroticism aside, the epiphany that Ishmael experiences while working on the ship shows him how deeply tied he is to his fellow man, and how essential they are to anything that might be called ‘meaning.’ While Sut lies close to death during his last days in Knoxville, he wakes from a fever dream to utter, “I know all souls are one and all souls lonely” (McCarthy 459). In the commonality of human suffering, Sut has found the connection to the human race that he had been missing. Perhaps man is abandoned by God, or perhaps there is no God at all, but even so the one certainty is that we are all in this together. The universe may indeed be absurd, but like Camus, Sut has decided that suicide is not an acceptable choice. Irrational though it might be, he has decided to live, to participate in the human drama, no matter how full of folly it may be. Sut’s discovery might seem pale when considering the sacrifices he has made to attain it, but for him at least it is an answer, and to a seeker so bent on understanding, any answer if infinitely better than none.
Copyright 2018 Jeff Suwak
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Originally published at www.beyondthetempestgate.com.