So before I start on my chapters today, I want to check out the differences between Gnosticism and Agnosticism, as both terms have been used to described Melville in the various readings I’ve done so far.
Some commentators challenge the Gnostic term, but all seem to agree that his struggle to believe was an agnostic one (or atheist, pantheist, skeptical humanist, romantic nihilist or anti-religious depending on who you read.)
I will use a simple wikipedia definition to gets us started.
- is a modern name for a variety of ancient religious ideas and systems, originating in Hellenistic Judaism and the Jewish Christian milieux in the first and second century AD. Many of these systems believed that the material world is created by an emanation or ‘works’ of a lower god (demiurge), trapping the divine spark within the human body. This divine spark could be liberated by gnosis, spiritual knowledge acquired through direct experience. Gnosticism is not a single system, and the emphasis on direct experience allows for a wide variety of teachings.
- Scholars debate Gnosticism’s origins as having roots in Neoplatonism and Buddhism, due to similarities in beliefs, but ultimately, its origins are currently unknown. As Christianity developed and became more popular, so did Gnosticism….until the proto-orthodox Christian communities expelled the group in the second and third centuries (C.E.).
- is the view that the existence of God, of the divine or the supernatural is unknown or unknowable. Another definition provided is the view that “human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist.”
- The belief that the physical universe is equivalent to god, and that there is no division between a Creator and the substance of its creation.
- is, in the broadest sense, an absence of belief in the existence of deities. Less broadly, atheism is a rejection of the belief that any deities exist. In an even narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which, in its most general form, is the belief that at least one deity exists.
- is opposition to religion of any kind. It involves opposition to organized religion, religious practices or religious institutions. The term anti-religion has also been used to describe opposition to specific forms of supernatural worship or practice, whether organized or not.
- is a philosophy or life stance that embraces human reason, secular ethics, and philosophical naturalism while specifically rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism, and superstition as the basis of morality and decision making.
- Melville, An Existential Humanist by Mª Feljsa López Liquete, Universidad del País Vasco, in Rerista de Estudios Nortcamericauos. 1 (1991) pp. 49-57.
- Religious crisis stands out as one of the main experiences in nineteenth century American life. The reasons which account for this phenomenon were, among others, due to the new scientific discoveries (technological advances and the theory of evolution), economic changes (which brought the transformation of a rural society into an industrial and urban one), and biblical criticism.
- All critics agree that Melville had come to hate the harshness and cruelty of a Calvinistic God, but do not coincide in Melville’s final response to his unbelief.
- Melville was one of the few writers, if not the unique among his contemporaries, who denounced that religion was being used to defend specific ideological interests such as imperialism.
- Man is depicted as a restless unbeliever and God as “the everlasting mystery”.
- No one is responsible for us, “therein each man must be his own saviour.”
- Man had to become independent from both the mother country – the family – and God. That is, he had to get rid of inherited ideologies. The void produced by that attitude brought new fears, but Melville was brave.
- Since we are condemned to exist, we should, at least, live as “humanly” as possible, caring about other human beings, defending the unfortunate, and paying attention to our bodily needs.
- Grace In The Arts: Herman Melville: An Author In The Angst Of Ambiguity by James A. Townsend in Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Spring 2004.
- Nathalia Wright claims (in Melville’s Use of the Bible 1969): “On average, every seventh page of [Melville’s] prose has some biblical allusion. More explicitly, Moby-Dick has 250 biblical references.
- Melville was raised within the confines of belief in an all-sovereign, all-encompassingly decreeing Calvinistic God, yet his life was regularly pocked with tragedy—the family bankruptcy, his father’s insanity and death, his mother’s financial pinchedness, his own two sons’ early and untimely deaths, etc. There always seemed to be someone or something ominously and oppressively opposed to Melville’s welfare. So, if God was all-controlling and this world was forever menacing, would it not make sense to take on this defiant, ever-squelching power?
- In the Melville corpus there are at least three types of theological affirmations and allusions: 1) those enunciated through his characters and narrators which are merely accurate summations of what individuals of one given persuasion would believe; 2) similar statements by characters which are a mask for Melville’s own views; and 3) outside-his-novels theological reflections (such as in his letters) by Melville (which, naturally, are most authentically Melvillian in terms of personalized belief).
- seems to put Scripture and Shakespeare on the same level, if both are to be called “inspired.”
- Melville placed human experience above biblical revelation.
- the literary analysts are in little doubt that Melville engaged in a lifelong conflict with reference to the idea of God itself.
- in both poetry and novel it is apparent that the later Melville can never quite escape the tormenting whale of Calvinism fostered in and foisted upon the earlier Melville’s upbringing.
- faith’s foundation for Melville lay not in doctrine, but in morality.
- Rather than seeing hell as some objective biblical reality, then, Melville viewed it as an invention of discomfortable human experience (“dyspepsias”) extrapolated outwardly.
- Harold Bloom’s conclusion [in How To Read and Why, 2000] that the mature Melville is not a Christian seems well-founded. Indeed, Melville seemed to flounder amid ambiguity….Through his characters he mouthed rather orthodox understandings of creation, angels, the devil, and demons. Though Melville represented evil as globally pervasive, he dispensed with any Christian doctrine of original sin.
- Like Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick, Melville felt tortured by the need to pin down this haunting, massive God-idea, but it proved to him so uncontrollable. Wherever he searched, it seemed to elude him.
Obviously, I’m not the only one that has become slightly obsessed with Melville. Every time I google his name with another term (i.e. ‘gnosticism’), I discover new articles, new books, new thoughts and new conversations about this enigmatic man.
But in the end it all comes down to interpretation.
Interpretation of what Melville believed or didn’t believe as referenced, spoken or narrated by his book characters as well as what he said in the letters he left behind.
So far I’ve been focused on what others have interpreted Melville to mean.
Next post, I will aim to read some of his letters, to see if primary source material reveals anything new to me.
Chapter 17: The Ramadan
- Just when we think that Ishmael is developing some genuine acceptance of another’s different ways of worship, we have Queequeg observing Ramadan.
- ‘I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical.’ hmmmmm I don’t think you do actually Ishmael! Not unless you’re trying to make a point that all religious obligation is comical!
- ‘we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects.’
- Another’s beliefs & obligations can be laughed at for being silly or crazy but when it comes to being ‘dreadfully cracked about the head‘ we’re all in the same boat, ‘Presbyterians and Pagans alike‘ and all ‘sadly in need of mending‘.
- The chapter morphs into a slapstick routine worthy of Laurel and Hardy.
- And Ishmael attempting to view the world through Queequeg’s eye after all –
- ‘he no doubt thought he knew a good deal more about the true religion than I did. He looked at me with a sort of condescending concern and compassion, as though he thought it a great pity that such a sensible young man should be so hopelessly lost to evangelical pagan piety.’
- Or maybe he’s just projecting!
Chapter 18: His Mark
- Bildad philosophy –
- ‘Son of darkness, I must do my duty by thee; I am part owner of this ship, and feel concerned for the souls of all my crew.’
- Peleg philosophy –
- ‘Pious harpooners never make good voyagers – it takes the shark out of ’em.’
Chapter 19: The Prophet
- Elijah was an Old Testament prophet who warned King Ahab about a drought that would devastate Israel if he continued his idolatry.
- King Ahab was a real historic leader from 871 -852 BC, the seventh King of Israel.
- He was married to Jezebel, a daughter of the Phoenician ruler at the time. Her family worshiped the god Baal and his consort, Ashereh.
- King Ahab worshiped his god, Yahweh (which was actually an evolution of the much older god El, plus Baal and Asherah).
- Jezebel insisted on maintaining her own religious beliefs and encouraged her husband to do so too.
- ‘Happy wife; happy life’ was obviously King Ahab’s motto, as he condoned her practice.
- Elijah (and others) feared Jezebel’s influence on her husband, especially regarding religious policy.
- This occurred during a major period of religious change that eventually led to Israel claiming Yahweh as the one and only god and denying the existence of all others by the eighth century BC.
- Melville’s Elijah spends the chapter offering up prophecies about Ahab and the voyage.
Chapter 20: All Astir
- Preparations and stocking up for a three year sea voyage.
- Bildad, Peleg and Aunt Charity organise everything.
- Foreshadowing –
- ‘If I had been downright honest with myself, I would have seen very plainly in my heart that I did but half fancy being committed this way to so long a voyage, without once laying my eyes on the man who was to be the absolute dictator of it….but when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself.‘
I’m truly astounded by how much I am loving this book.
Why did I ever fear it so?