Since last we spoke, I’ve been reading up on Herman to gain more insights into his history, motivations, character and intentions.
I’ve been feeling quite confused about him actually. I felt that I was getting mixed messages. Or that I had missed the memo that explained everything.
Philbrick in Why Read Moby-Dick? had prepared me for Melville’s anti-slavery stance – ‘a lie festered at the ideological core of the then-thirty states of America‘ – and for his first hand experience with the ‘democratic diversity‘ of working life on board a whaling ship. But for some reason I came away from this book thinking that Melville was a devout, religious man – with his biblical stories, analogies and ‘divine equality‘. Philbrick again, tells us that he was deeply concerned about death and what came next – ‘is there a heaven?‘
However his story is far more complex than that. And I will probably spend the next 7 months trying to unravel it! After only nine chapters I heard Melville sermonise on Jonah with all that old testament doom and gloom about original sin, guilt and punishment but then there was also moments, via Ishmael, where he was deeply questioning of the (political and religious) status quo as well as the strict beliefs that informed his Calvinistic upbringing. What was going on here?
It was only as I reread parts of Philbrick today, that I discovered a small line that I had missed first time, ‘as the agnostic writing outside his own uncertain beliefs, Melville is describing the fantasy he desperately needed but could never quite convince himself existed.’
Now that explains a lot.
His agnosticism now explains to me that amazingly astute, acerbic line in The Spouter-Inn chapter:
The man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.
Strange bedfellows indeed (Shakespearean pun intended!)
But it does make me wonder who Melville was thinking of – did he have a particular drunk Christian in mind or was it more of a general philosophical statement? Or was he simply saying that he would rather be with a sober/rational ‘other’ than with one of those Christians who fail to practice what they preach?
Anyway, below is what I’ve unearthed (of interest to me) so far.
- (wikipedia) Melville was ‘the descendant of Revolutionary War heroes on both sides, Melville was born in 1819 to a status and prosperity that abruptly vanished when his father failed in business. Allan Melville died insane, leaving his wife to raise eight children on the scant funds wealthy relatives would spare.’
- Young Herman contracted scarlet fever in the mid 1820’s which caused lifelong vision issues.
- His parents were members of the Dutch Reformed Church – a Calvinist theology.
- His father’s business failed during the 1830’s depression, after which he grew ill, possibly with some form of ‘nervous delirium‘ and died in 1832.
- Herman was taken out of school to start work – first as a banking clerk, then as a teacher (obviously teacher qualifications were different back in the 1830’s).
- In 1839 he studies surveying and engineering before sailing as crew on the St Lawrence from new York to Liverpool and back.
- 3rd Jan 1841 Melville sailed out of New Bedford on board the whaling ship Acushnet. After 15 months, he and a friend, Richard Tobias Greene, deserted during a stopover on Nukahiva, one of the Marquesas Island in Polynesia. ‘Melville was impressed with their sophistication and peacefulness; most Europeans believed that Polynesians were cannibals. He also found reason to criticise European attempts to “civilize” the islanders by converting them to Christianity.‘ **
- A few weeks later they joined the Australian whaling ship, the Lucy Ann. The crew mutinied and Melville spent a brief period of time in a Polynesian gaol (probably on Tahiti) before escaping with a friend, John B. Troy.
- He signed onto another whaling ship, the Charles and Henry. Glutton for punishment, I hear you say, except that this time he enjoyed ‘three months of leisure quite different from his previous journeys. Once they arrived at Hawaii Melville was honorably discharged and worked in a bowling alley and in a store (Bradbury 171).‘ ***
- During his time in Hawaii, Melville became a vocal opponent against the Christian missionaries trying to convert the local native population.
- (wikipedia) Melville had an ‘obsession for the limits of knowledge that led to the question of God’s existence and nature, the indifference of the universe, and the problem of evil.’
- On 17th August 17 1843 Melville enlisted in the Navy on board the frigate United States. Kirby (1993) noted that “Even though Melville had seen a fair amount of human unpleasantness on his three previous voyages, nothing had quite prepared him for the institutionalized brutality of life aboard the United States.” ****
- 1846 Typee published.
- 1847 Omoo published and marries Elizabeth Knapp Shaw
- August 1850 meets Nathaniel Hawthorne and wrote a lot of letters.
- 1851 Moby-Dick published.
- 1852 Pierre published.
- Many now think that Melville had bi-polar or manic depression. His wife considered divorcing him 1867 due to insanity.
- He was troubled by money problems his whole life.
- I agree with Brain Pickings – it doesn’t matter whether Herman was homosexual, bisexual or homoerotic in nature,
- The quotient of intimacy cannot be contained in a label. The human heart is an ancient beast that roars and purrs with the same passions, whatever labels we may give them. We are so anxious to classify and categorize, both nature and human nature. It is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos, to construct a foothold so we may climb toward higher truth. It is also a limiting one, for in naming things we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again — cannot begin to contain the complexity of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them. (my highlights)
- Melville was critical of western imperialism – John Paul Wenke in Melville’s Muse (1995) says about Typee, ‘Melville not only dramatizes the limitations of the Western point of view but also reveals how Eden Regained is itself a self-gratifying, and fallacious, cultural fiction.’
- ‘When he stopped publishing novels in 1857, it wasn’t because he had run out of ideas—it was because no publisher could afford to print his books, which always lost money,‘ writes Mark Beauregard, the author The Whale: A Love Story. ‘He started writing poetry instead.’
- 1866 Battle-Pieces (five Civil War poems) published.
- 1876 Clarel published.
Which brings me to my thoughts about –
Chapter 8: The Pulpit
- The famous Father Mapple!
- ‘Like most old fashioned pulpits, it was a very lofty one‘
- ‘Father Mapple after gaining the height, slowly turn round, and stooping over the pulpit, deliberately drag up the ladder step by step, till the whole was deposited within, leaving him impregnable in his little Quebec.’ What a performance!
- ‘Its panelled front was in the likeness of a ship’s bluff bows, and the Holy Bible rested on a projecting piece of scroll work, fashioned after a ship’s fiddle-headed beak.’
- ‘the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.’
- Fanda is correct in saying that Simon Callow’s reading of this chapter on the Big Read podcast is a real treat – very theatrical, complete with dramatic voices, fire and brimstone!
- I’ve actually reread and listened to various versions of this chapter several times in an attempt to unpack its meaning.
- I realised after reading Fanda’s post about the religious themes in the preceding chapters, that I had missed a lot of Melville’s religious purpose. I don’t see the world through a lens of sin, or of ‘punishment, repentance, prayers‘ so I impatiently skimmed my first reading of this chapter. But Fanda and the Whale, Whale, Whale podcast prompted me to look a little closer at Melville’s meaning and intent.
- The partial singing of the hymn, Death, and the the terrors of the grave comes from Isaac Watts (1674 – 1748) who is purported to be a distant ancestor of mine.
- I wonder…does Father Mapple deliver the same Jonah sermon every week? Given he has a church designed by and for whalers and there are only ‘four chapters – four yarns‘ in the bible about whaling, does he just repeat and supplement the same story each time?
- Themes within the Jonah story (thank you google)
- God’s mission, nature and character, the nature of evil, salvation, forgiveness, the emptiness of life lived apart from God, repentance, mercy, omnipresence, the unfulfilled and conditional nature of prophecy and compassion.
- The old testament sure knew how to scare the bejeezus out of you!
- Jonah had ‘no baggage, not a hat-box, valise, or carpet-bag‘.
- Ishmael had a whole chapter devoted to HIS carpet-bag!
- Melville lesson #1 – don’t trust a man without a carpet-bag.
- Jonah ‘paid the fare thereof‘ while Ishmael worked his passage.
- Melville lesson #2 – don’t trust a man who takes the soft option.
- Jonah – a ‘fugitive finds no refuge‘ by running away to sea. Ishmael goes to sea with meditation in mind.
- Melville lesson #3 – you cannot run away from your problems.
- Pop culture references brought to mind
- The movie Master & Commander and the Jonah story told within.
- The West Wing ‘Two Cathedrals‘ episode with all ‘the howling of the shrieking, slanting storm without‘ and the preacher who ‘seemed tossed by a storm himself‘. And Jonah who ‘feels that his dreadful punishment is just‘, is like Jed Bartlett railing at his god after the death of Mrs Landingham.
- If only a few more people could ‘preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood!‘ in the real world White House.
- Melville finishes with a several long paragraphs all about the ‘eternal delight and deliciousness‘ – his search for heaven continues.
- Lots of comparisons about what is supposedly civilised and what is ‘heathenish‘.
- ‘Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.’ 😅
- ‘I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved a hollow courtesy.’
- Again with the Christians who give religion a bad name.
- ‘to do the will of God.’
- Melville lesson #4 do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
- ‘There is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends….this, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair.’
- ‘Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy were we.’
- I suspect that such intimate contact between a male/female couple would not have been written about and read without censure in 1851, let alone between two men.
- ‘truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold.’
- I read this chapter in rural NSW last week during a sudden cold snap that produced snow on the ranges around us. I was snuggled under multiple covers, with Mr Books for a hot water bottle, and nothing but my ears, nose and fingers sticking out, and slowing turning into icicles. This quote felt truly alive with personal relevance.
- ‘yet see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when love once comes to bend them‘ almost reads like a Benny Hill (the master of double entendre) skit!
Sorry about another long post; I seem to have absorbed some of Melville’s verbosity and love of detail!