Melville: His World and Work
by Andrew Delbanco
A review by James Wood
In the Goncourt journals, Flaubert is reported as telling the tale of a man taken
fishing by an atheist friend. The atheist casts the net and draws up a stone on
which is carved: "I do not exist. Signed: God." And the atheist exclaims:
"What did I tell you!" Flaubert, the bitter master of nullification, enjoyed these
kinds of jokes: in his world, atheism is as much of a received idea, as much of
a platitude, as theism. Melville, writing at the same time as Flaubert, and most
fertile in the same decade as the French writer (the 1850s), had no comparable
worldly ease. Indeed, he may be seen as less the knowing teller of Flaubert's
joke than its butt. For Melville was trapped in the self-arrest of the atheist
believer: his negations merely confirmed God's tormenting existence.
Melville was not so much a God-doubter as a God-hater. Most people, he wrote to Hawthorne, "fear God, and at bottom dislike Him ... You perceive I employ a capital initial in the pronoun referring to the Deity; don't you think there is a slight dash of flunkeyism in that usage?" When he traveled to Egypt in 1857, he was horrified by the theological shadow cast by the Pyramids: "it was in these pyramids," he shudders, "that was conceived the idea of Jehovah." But he was repeating himself; he had already explored the metaphor of the pyramid. In his novel Pierre, in 1852, he had written that "Silence" is the "only Voice of our God ... By vast pains we mine into the pyramids; by horrible gropings we come to the central room; with joy we espy the sarcophagus; but we lift the lid -- and no body is there! -- appallingly vacant as vast is the soul of man!" And the great white whale Moby-Dick, with "his pyramidical silence" is, among the many meanings inscribed on his massively allegorical form, the noisily silent God of the Book of Job, the Leviathan who will not be drawn out with a hook, who roars and thunders and bullies and commands, but who never answers the question: "Why, Lord?"
For those who feel that this pyramidical silence is the void around which Melville's life swirled, most critical and biographical accounts of the writer seem too mildly to disperse their emphases -- there is, nowadays, Melville the homoerotic who wrote Billy Budd, Melville the analyst of race who wrote Benito Cereno, Melville the quasi-Marxist who created that great refuser of capitalist obligation, Bartleby, and who saw, in his last novel, The Confidence-Man, that the engine of American economic life was tricksterism. Hershel Parker, in his massive two-volume biography, mentions that Melville was descended from stern Calvinists, only to dilute that sternness in a comment like this: "Original Sin had not become an outmoded theological conceit in Maria Melville's house, and till his death her second son [Herman] had to resort to that concept, at times, to make sense of the world." The truer comment would be that Melville had great difficulty making sense of the world precisely because the notion of Original Sin shadowed it. Laurie Robertson-Lorant, in her biography, is even more insouciant: "Although he rejected both his mother's Calvinism and his father's Unitarianism, he was a deeply spiritual man. He attended church voluntarily on occasion, and he lamented the collapse of a central core of religious faith as much as he dreaded religious fanaticism and repressive orthodoxy." This easy liberal might almost be Henry James, for all one would know; the description carries no scent of the Melvillean desperation. And what, exactly, is "a deeply spiritual man"?
In his new biography, Andrew Delbanco, the author of The Puritan Ordeal and The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil, is a good deal more blunt than either Parker or Robertson-Lorant. Delbanco's Melville doubted the existence of God, but "never stopped looking for traces of God." He is "a fellow traveler in our post-theistic world." Quoting the passage from Pierre about the empty sarcophagus, Delbanco rightly comments that it encodes "an antic, even cruel view of man driving himself through an arduous quest only to discover at the climactic moment that in fact there is nothing to be unearthed -- nothing but more mud, rock, and dust -- and that the self, like the universe, is devoid of meaning except for the meanings we project into it for the sake of reassuring ourselves." Indeed, Delbanco's sense of Melville's theological skepticism may even exceed Melville's own terror.
Delbanco the professor of literature is interested, of course, in all the ways that the twentieth century has read Melville, and he provides acute, sometimes brilliant, summations of the latest work on Melville and race, Melville and despotism, Melville and Freud, Melville and deconstruction. But Delbanco is a fine historian as well as a fine critic, and his primary task is to provide an account of Melville's "world" as well as of his work. Not surprisingly, in Melville's world, rather than ours, the question of the deus absconditus could never be easily dispersed or casually smothered.
Melville's rise and fall is the great story of American genius discovering itself and then going undiscovered. Moby-Dick, which received mixed reviews when it appeared in 1851, finally went out of print in 1887, having sold all of 3,180 copies, and it was not until the 1920s that the Melville revival began in earnest. Delbanco notes that so obscure was Melville in his later years that Henry James mentioned him only once in his critical work, as part of a group of writers connected to Putnam's magazine. Melville's slow decline began in the late 1850s, and it received confirmation, as it were, in his decision in 1866 to sign on for what Delbanco calls "a four-dollar-a-day, six-day-a-week job" as Deputy Inspector No. 75 of the United States Custom Service.
Nothing would have seemed less predictable when Herman Melville was born, in 1819, into the comfortable upper classes of New York City. One of his grandfathers, Peter Gansevoort, was a hero of the Revolutionary War; on his father's side, the Melvills, as they were then called, were distantly related to Scottish noblemen. (Delbanco slips when he makes the Melvill clan English rather than Scottish.) But Melville's father, an optimistic and unsuccessful businessman, went through the family's money and died in debt when Herman was twelve, and the little boy was removed from school and sent to work in a bank.
Eight years later, Melville escaped these straitened circumstances by going to sea on a whaling ship. It was an escape and an imprisonment: he became famous as a writer of sea-yarns -- Typee, in 1846, his first, was his most celebrated, since it narrated his escapades among the cannibals in Polynesia -- and Moby-Dick, a self-unraveling sea yarn if ever there was one, confused its eager readers and critics. One of Melville's early literary patrons and correspondents, Evert Duyckinck, likened it to a kind of "intellectual chowder," and wanly recommended the book for offering "some very strange, romantic, and withal, highly humorous adventures at New Bedford and Nantucket."
With subtle pacing, Delbanco expertly elongates the fevered apprenticeship of the years leading to Moby-Dick. These years are better documented than any others in Melville's life, for he was using his correspondence as soul-combustion, tossing out in his letters ideas, ambitions, piratical yearnings for greatness, theological riffs, stormy surmises. He was a young man, in his late twenties only, when he began the great assault. Parker, by sheer bloat of detail, is a little more helpful than Delbanco here, because he tells us exactly what Melville was reading, often for the first time, and when: Coleridge's Biographia Literaria in February 1848; Thomas Browne in March of the same year; in 1849 Pierre Bayle's deeply skeptical Historical and Critical Dictionary; and above all Shakespeare, in 1848 and 1849. He could not believe that he had lived so long without properly appreciating Shakespeare. Shakespeare seemed a God-like figure to him. From this bulging list, Delbanco subtly selects the Aeneid, whose influence can be felt throughout Moby-Dick, and Frankenstein, a novel in which the eponymous scientist, Ahab-like, hunts the wandering monster that he has created. "Having tracked the creature to the icy North," adds Delbano, "Frankenstein commandeers a scientific expeditionary ship headed to the Arctic and turns it into an instrument of his private vengeance."
In 1850, Melville met Hawthorne, and the friendship, knotted of admiration and rivalry, seems to have whipped Melville into writing. After two years of almost manic ingestion of book after book -- Montaigne, Milton, Seneca, Dante -- he began to write Moby-Dick. He started in February 1850, sped up after encountering Hawthorne in the summer, and by December of that year was racing, urging Duyckinck to "send me about fifty fast-writing youths." He was afloat on words and heretical ideas. Breathlessly, he wrote to Hawthorne: "I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces. Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling." By the end of the summer of 1851, he had finished the big book.
Moby-Dick's unsonorous reception was an enormous blow to Melville, and he followed it with his famously impacted and angry novel, Pierre. In that book, Pierre is described as a man possessed by Calvinism, the branch of Protestantism most given to notions of predestination and most hostile to our ability to affect what we do -- "that most true Christian doctrine of the utter nothingness of good works," as Melville puts it. But it might also be a description of the book itself, which seems calculated to affront and to frustrate, to wave its bewildering nothingness in front of the enraged reader. Delbanco tells us that when it was published The New York Day Book viewed it under the headline "herman melville crazy."
In the next few years, Melville wrote his great stories "Barteleby, the Scrivener" and Benito Cereno, and Delbanco's historical and cultural commentary is especially subtle. He points out that although Benito Cereno, an intensely gripping tale of slaves mutinying on a ship and taking the white captain hostage, is now generally read nude of context, usually in anthologies of "Great Short Fiction," its original appearance "was in a partisan magazine committed to the anti-slavery cause." Likewise, with "Bartleby," Delbanco nimbly re-inserts the story into the world of mid-nineteenth-century American capitalism. Early in his biography, he calls Melville an American Dostoevsky and then rather drops the connection, but his comparison is striking: Ahab, with his endless feud and self-pluming pride, might well be seen as a character out of Dostoevsky, an American representative of what Nietzsche called ressentiment; Bartleby, with his refrain of "I would prefer not to," is surely an American Underground Man. And both writers were deeply interested in suffering, in theodicy, and in martyrdom: Billy Budd is the great story of innocence sacrificed on the altar of spite and law.
Throughout the book there emerges, despite the collegial pastels which Delbanco gently uses, a vivid portrait, notably well-written, of a tormented manic-depressive and heavy drinker. He was a stranger to the notion of clean linen, said Hawthorne, and ate his food, says Delbanco, in a nice phrase, with "canine urgency." As he grew older, and more withdrawn from writing and the literary world, so there were "bursts of nervous anger and attacks of morose conscience." His wife's friends feared for her safety at times, and for her happiness. His son, Malcolm, committed suicide at the age of eighteen. Perhaps the saddest vignette in this masterful biography concerns Melville's attempt, between 1857 and 1860, to make a living as a public speaker. Delbanco provides a grayly exotic itinerary -- Albany, Montreal, Yonkers, Chicago, Milwaukee, New Haven, and as far south as Louisville, Kentucky.
But Melville hardly radiated on stage, and he muttered through his thick beard; one member of the audience complained that his voice was about as powerful as "the creaking of a field mouse through a thick hedge," and another that his "countenance" was "slightly flushed with whisky drinking." He rears from Delbanco's pages like a nineteenth-century John Berryman, another bearded, muttering alcoholic and manic-depressive. The letter of 1877 to which he adds a heartbreaking demotic italicized postscript -- "P.S.: I aint crazy" -- even has something of the wild tilt of The Dream Songs.
But his work outlasted him; posterity is a capricious doorman. Moby-Dick,
above all, was allowed entrance. None of Melville's works was written at the
pitch of intensity that marks every page of Moby-Dick, and none is as
rich or as massive. In nothing else he wrote did he so wallow in words; in nothing
else did he make of metaphor a systematic hypothetical constellation of shadow-meanings,
a misty allegorical network. Plump with all his reading, ripe with its inheritance,
Melville's language in this book displays what Virginia Woolf called "words
with roots," or what Coleridge called a language having "the eyes-and-hooks
Melville's words muster their associations, their deep histories, on every page. There are scores of allusions to the King James Bible. Adjectives and adverbs are placed in glorious, loaded convoy: "The warmly cool, clear, ringing, perfumed, overflowing, redundant days, were as crystal goblets of Persian sherbert, heaped up, flaked up, with rose water snow." With a tiny smirk of irony, Melville saves the word "redundant" for last place in that gorgeous list: as if to say, "I dare you to find any of these multiple adjectives ... redundant!" Melville is here describing days of perfect, calm weather at sea, but he might as well be describing his language itself -- "heaped up, flaked up"; or what Keats once called language "yeasting itself up."
Again and again, Melville stretches his similes and metaphors, risks their formal success, pushes them to the rim of the plausible, so that rather than simply asserting that x is like y, he seems often to be floating a hypothesis: suppose that x were seen as y. We are used to the Flaubertian-Nabokovian idea of simile as predominantly visual, but some of Melville's most daring similes begin as visual likenesses and then swerve into the comparative blindness of abstraction. The Pequod's masts "stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old Kings of Cologne. Her ancient decks were worn and wrinkled, like the pilgrim-worshipped flagstone in Canterbury Cathedral where Becket bled." The first simile in that duet, likening the masts to Cologne cathedral, is visual in impulse, though already nicely alienating; the second, though it seems visual, has a quality of excess, of speculation, of ideation, that pushes it beyond the merely visual. And it might be said to be, in the ordinary sense, not especially "successful" as a simile: however worn and wrinkled these wooded decks were, they can never really have looked much like the gray old stone of Canterbury. But the visual fitness is not the point; the simile is being used to slap on thought, to goad an association, to wander. Simile is being used to enable what Melville called "philosophical ripping" and what we might call philosophical riffing. And simile is being used here, obviously enough, to lend an aura of divinity to this ship of souls.
Moby-Dick is full of these kinds of simile. They effect what the Russian formalists called estrangement, by forcing new linkages and trains of associations. Queequeg, tattooed over his entire body, "seemed to have been in a Thirty Years' War, and just escaped from it with a sticking-plaster shirt." Starbuck has flesh as hard as "twice-baked biscuit. Transported to the Indies, his live blood would not spoil like bottled ale." Daggoo, the hugely tall "negro-savage" is described thus: "There was a corporeal humility in looking up at him; and a white man standing before him seemed a white flag come to beg truce of a fortress." A porpoise is called by Melville a Huzza Porpoise, "because he always swims in hilarious shoals, which upon the broad sea keep tossing themselves to heaven like caps in a Fourth of July crowd." At one moment, the whale's skeleton is compared to that of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham:
Though Jeremy Bentham's skeleton, which hangs for candelabra in the library of one of his executors, correctly conveys the idea of a burly-browed utilitarian old gentleman, with all Jeremy's other leading personal characteristics, yet nothing of this kind could be inferred from any leviathan's articulated bones.
Almost exactly a hundred years later, Saul Bellow would write the most Melvillean novel of the twentieth century, The Adventures of Augie March, and like Melville, he would pack his American material with far-flung allusions and metaphorical references to the Greeks and Romans, and to figures from European history -- Caesar, Napoleon, Trotsky, Plutarch, and the like. John Berryman called these figures the novel's "Overlords or Sponsors," and noted how they deepened the scope of Bellow's American naturalism. Something similar occurs in Moby-Dick, with its wandering metaphors, its references to Cologne, Canterbury, Bentham, the Thirty Years' War, and so on. Melville, after all, had written in one of his slightly manic letters that a Shakespeare could, even now, be born on the banks of the Ohio River; and Moby-Dick was the attempt to make good on that claim, to make a European masterpiece on native American soil -- or rather, to float an American masterpiece on international waters.
Melville's metaphors "wander" most fruitfully into theology and anti-theology. Of all subjects, it is the whale that is described and re-described most obsessively. Sometimes, it looks "like a portly burgher smoking his pipe of a warm afternoon," sometimes like an Ottoman gentleman with his harem, at other times like a book, a Pyramid, a nation, a script. Its mouth is lined "or rather papered with a glistening white membrane, glossy as bridal satins." The whale is broken up like the Godhead -- broken up by language, by metaphor. What is this whale that Ahab pursues in his "quenchless feud"? What does it mean? The "mystic" whale, writes Melville, "remains undecipherable," inscrutable. He is both God and Satan, though not recognizably the God or Satan of Biblical tradition. In the famous chapter forty-two, "The Whiteness of the Whale," this giddy accruing of allegorical meaning is finally frozen, and Ishmael confesses that he finds the whiteness, the blankness, of the whale terrifying. Why is whiteness so full of terror? By its indefiniteness, it "shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation ..." And then "whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all colours ... a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink ..."
Melville, raised in the Puritan tradition of allegory, of seeing signs taken for wonders, produced in Moby-Dick a kind of blasphemous parody of the theological impulse: an allegory of allegory, of our need to search for signs. Ahab, feuding after religious meaning, proposes, in a famous passage, that "all visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event -- in the living act, the undoubted deed -- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike though the mask!" Yet on the other side, Ishmael confesses that the whiteness of the whale "stabs us from behind" with its very nothingness, its absence. One man, with devoted hatred, striking through the mask; and another, with eloquent fear, confessing that it is not we who strike but the object -- or sign -- itself that strikes at us. Possessing both men is the fear that, like the Pyramid in Pierre, the sarcophagus is empty: the sign has no divine, or even satanic, referent. There is nothing.
Melville is blasphemous not just in the way he confesses his fears, but in the way he uses language and metaphor to frustrate the protocols of religious allegory. He floods allegory with words and similes. Language fills the whale with meaning, but it is language that empties the whale of meaning, too. The dizzying procession of metaphors makes the whale everything and nothing. Melville could see that language explains and conceals God at the same time. Metaphor, likewise, promises to describe God figuratively, by indirection; but such indirection only raises a craving for direct description, raises the very craving that indirection promised to satisfy. What is a metaphorical description of God but a death by approximation? And metaphor is dangerous in another way: as soon as you liken God to something else, you bring God Himself into the ocean of metaphor. You threaten the heretical idea that God is only a metaphor.
Wittgenstein once wrote that "a nothing will serve just as well as a something about which nothing can be said." I think he did not mean this pessimistically; for his philosophical purposes, he was as happy with a description-rich "nothing" as with a description-poor "something." But to a less mystical or less pragmatic religious mind, to a nineteenth-century mind messily desperate for a theological answer, desperate to draw out Leviathan with a hook, to hear God's voice, to find the tomb not empty, there might indeed be something terrifying in the idea that there is little difference between a "something" about which we are constantly talking but of which we never seem to say anything of importance, and a "nothing" about which we can, by definition, say nothing of importance anyway. In both cases, language breaks itself on the rock of indescribability, and the something and the nothing horridly merge, because our language cannot make present either presence or absence.
Melville was aware of this, and sounds a similar note in a letter to Hawthorne: "As soon as you say Me, a God, a nature, so soon you jump off from your stool and hang from the beam ... yes that word is the hangman. Take God out of the dictionary, %amp% you would have Him in the street." Take God out of the dictionary, indeed: Moby-Dick, you might say, drowns God in the dictionary, in what the novel itself punningly calls "Noah Webster's ark." God's indescribability, and our inability to describe him in human language, is the profoundest terror animating Melville's amazing book. And we are back to the contradiction, the frozen arrest, the incoherence of Flaubert's joke, in which the atheist at once denies God and confirms his presence: on the one hand, God is, blasphemously, only a word, nothing more; on the other, we will fight him -- and note the "flunkeyism" of the capitalized "Him" -- on the street. "What did I tell you!"
four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free
For nearly 90 years, the New
Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous
examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today,
we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy
the magazine TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give
you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every
word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica
of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!
to sign up.