Fedallah, Moby Dick, & the Mystic Other
By John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Of all the curious characters that appear in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, none causes me to marvel more than Fedallah. His appearance, just before the first lowering, reflects the entrance of similar archetypal characters we find in other narratives — boarding the ship seemingly out of thin air. He is described as an “ebonness” with a “tiger-yellow” complexion, crowned by a “glistening white turban” that covers his “living hair” which is braided and coiled around his head . I see him clearly in my mind’s eye. He is the mystical other.
Growing up in East Texas, few other divisions were as profound among my friends and neighbors as the specific tones of our skin. Certainly, the most extreme examples divided us into separate races. However, even within a race, the tone of one’s complexion mattered. Caucasians who spent a great deal of time outside enjoyed a golden glow that was praised by all. African Americans often avoided the sun, wishing to avoid having their pigment grow even darker. The fair skin of my Irish ancestors was passed on to me, turning red with the slightest exposure to the solar rays – a quality universally abhorred by all, including myself. There seemed to be a “sweet spot” for each race that counted as “normal” skin tone. Anyone falling outside it was quickly branded “other.”
For reasons I am still discovering, “otherness” was always attractive to me. It stirred wonder in my psyche. It made me habitually curious. I befriended the most “other” individuals I could find. I dated outside my race. I gravitated toward experiences that drew me closer to “other.” It would be years before I would understand Edmund Husserl’s conception of the idea and even later before I would discover the Jungian approach. However, even at a young age, it brought out the best of me and many of my most transcendent experiences have been while dancing with “otherness.” In Moby Dick, Fedallah’s “otherness” seems a surprise to everyone except Ahab, who welcomes it, or at least doesn’t seem greatly put off by it, and in this I deeply relate to Ahab . Fedallah acts as Ahab’s guide, a guru of sorts, much in the way the “mystical other” has acted as my own guide. It is also worth noting that Fedallah is a non-Christian, reported to be from the Parsee religious sect. Even greater than the “otherness” surrounding tones of skin in East Texas was the separation that existed among those who claimed Christianity as their faith tradition and those that did not. Fedallah’s mystic religious affiliation creates an even greater significance as a portal for my own entry into the presence of “otherness.”
The white turban described on top of Fedallah’s head not only makes for an interesting character description, it also speaks to the mystical . A number of religious traditions require specific adorning of the head. The presence of a turban articulates something beyond just a head covering to keep out the elements. I was an adult before I saw someone wearing a turban in public. Before then, my experiences with turbans had been through film and the similar art form of magic. In The Wizard of Oz, Professor Marvel dawns a turban while looking into a crystal ball and telling Dorothy about what he sees beyond the conscious moment. In Annie, Punjab is always seen in a turban until he removes it and then uses it to mystically save orphans. These cinematic images, alongside the parade of magicians that wore turbans that I had come to fawn over in my developing years, made the white turban a symbol of the numinous in my life. While there certainly would be rich material in discussing the fact that these turbans are nearly always white, instead I will stay with the image of the turban its self.
While more modern turbans would be adapted to fit like hats, earlier turbans, like the one mentioned in Moby Dick, would consist of a single piece of material that was strategically and artistically wrapped around one’s head. I identify this to be part of the connection I hold between turbans and the mystical. I have come to understand consciousness, the transcendent, and that which is beyond us as being a singularity. All things being one. A single piece of material that can be folded and given specific shape but never ceasing to be the one thing certainly speaks to this concept with metaphoric beauty.
Throughout my studies of mythology, this symbol of the mystical other rises again and again, taking various shapes and forms, in varieties of different characters. Fedallah has emerged as a fresh image of this concept in my examination of the Epic. He joins the cast of characters that have boarded the ship of my own psyche, standing ready as the captain’s harpooner, watching for the next psychological whale to break the surface.