Yona, Yunos, Lonas… Jonah, and of course our friend the Whale. Then again according to the Hebrew text of the Tanakh, the Quran and the Bible he is of course merely a ‘big fish.’ When did he become a Whale? This question arose the other day when a co-worker was recounting a Halloween were her husband turned his pick up truck into a giant paper mache Whale. It followed me home to where I had been listening to Hugh Laurie's new album ‘Let them Talk.’ Hugh covers an old J.B. Lenoir track titled, of course, ‘The Whale has Swallowed Me.’ The Lyrics are simple, and are what under lie all good blues songs, acting as the perfect source of meditation. Lenoir has given us an interesting metaphor; he sometimes ‘…feels that old whale has swallowed [him to].’
What does it mean to feel like a whale has swallowed you? Its’ not found in the obsession of the Captain Ahab. It cannot be categorized under the uniquely Christian disease, of desiring a death made impossible by the resurrection and redemption of Christ (That Kierkegaard describes as the ‘Sickness Unto Death’). It is not even the simple pain of mortality. Our friend the ‘big fish’ is more a kin to fate itself, bearing down on the helpless seafarers of old, and as it bears down on us today. It is short of the pain of mortality it self. It is instead the simple feeling we all have in the deeps of our stomachs that there is something going on that we cannot quite put our fingers on. It is that same emotion C.K. Chesterton indicated to as the motivating factor of all great poets and artists. The truth that no man, woman or child can quite describe or grasp in language alone.
Lenoir most likely would not have known of the translational error that came from the pulpit. He would have perhaps realized that the story came from the Old Testament making it both important to Christians and Jews. It is less likely that he knew of it’s recounting in chapter 37 of the Koran. Here it is a story much a kin to that found in the Old Testament. Jonah flees from the calling of Lord aboard a ship only to be cast into the sea when the ship becomes overtaken by a storm. His lot in life came as lots where drawn by his fellow shipmates seeking to appease their respective gods. In the end he repents and is rescued from the belly of the whale.
Why did he end up trapped in the belly of the great fish? According to the Quran he committed acts worthy of blame. But what did Lenoir do to be worthy of blame? Maybe God knows? But what we can be sure of is that he grew up in the Deep South during a time of racial discrimination. These motivations came to the forefront in later albums he produced in the mid-60’s titled Alabama Blues and Down In Mississippi. And in a performance captured in a Martin Scorsese Blues Documentary these later themes become intertwined with his original classic. You can check the video out on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34evyrWA0xc). It captures that something, the feeling we cannot describe in words, and it dose it with the images of the fight for civil rights and the bending strings of Lenoir’s guitar.
So when did the ‘big fish’ become a whale? I feel it must have happened sometime shortly after people stopped reading the bible and began to depend once more upon their respective religious elders for divine inspiration. But the whale is a strangely fitting symbol, for those who look past the literal meaning and try to grasp at that deeper kernel of truth. The rest, well they make giant paper mache whales out of trucks.