December 29, 2011

1. Europe’s Catholic-Protestant Split

Perhaps Europe’s current problems can be traced back to one of Europe’s oldest problems: the Catholic-Protestant split. Countries in southern Europe are generally Catholic, and they need bailouts from the northern countries, which are generally Protestant. (An exception is Greece, which is neither Catholic nor Protestant, but Eastern Orthodox. However, Eastern Orthodox is closer to Catholic than Protestant, so the case of Greece doesn’t weaken this argument. Another exception is Ireland, which is northern but Catholic. But since Ireland, like other Catholic countries, needs to be bailed out, Ireland doesn’t weaken this argument either.)

Why are the Catholic countries having economic problems? Are they prone to live for today, while Protestants save for tomorrow? In an earlier issue, I discussed Banfield’s Unheavenly City, which argues that

immigrants [to the U.S.] from Catholic countries were more present-oriented than immigrants from Protestant countries.... The peasant cultures of Ireland, southern Italy and eastern Europe sent immigrants to America who lived for today, not for the future.... In contrast with this present-oriented ethic, Protestant and Jewish Americans were future-oriented, and they aimed at “moral and material progress, for the individual and for the society as a whole.”

Not only are Protestants more willing to sacrifice present pleasure for future goals, they may also be more willing to sacrifice for society’s goals, and this may create greater social cohesion. The Protestant considers society’s interests because he isn’t as preoccupied with his family’s interests as other peoples are — a weaker family bond, a stronger social bond. In a recent essay, an Italian writer said that his country needed “civic and political regeneration.... moral renewal inspired by the true principles of citizenship.”1

2. Sikhs

There are about 20 million Sikhs in India, or 1.7% of India’s population of 1.2 billion. There are about 700,000 Sikhs in the U.S., and a similar number in Britain; Sikhs seem to emigrate more than Hindus, perhaps because they don’t feel as comfortable in India, being a small minority. Sikhs are concentrated in the Punjab, in northwest India; according to Wikipedia, the Punjab is “the only region in the world with a majority Sikh population.” The mecca of the Sikhs is the city of Amritsar, which is near the Pakistan border. The holiest Sikh temple, the Golden Temple, is in Amritsar.

In 1984, it was believed that Sikh separatists were storing weapons in the Golden Temple. Indian leader Indira Gandhi ordered Indian soldiers to storm the Temple. Around 600 Sikhs and 100 soldiers died. In retaliation, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. In retaliation for that, there were anti-Sikh pogroms, in which some 5,000 Sikhs died. Hundreds of Sikhs were also killed by the British in the Amritsar Massacre in 1919.

The word “Amritsar” has a special significance for Sikhs. Amrit is the nectar that Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, is said to have been given at God’s court. The last syllable of Amritsar, “sar,” means chalice or cup, so “Amritsar” is a chalice of nectar. Sikhs also use “amrit” to mean baptism; Sikh baptism is drinking, not immersing.

Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak about 1500. There are ten gurus, the last of whom died in 1708. The holy book of the Sikhs is sometimes regarded as the eleventh guru. Sikhism is monotheistic. It has been influenced by both Hinduism and Islam.

The ideal of the “saint soldier” is important in Sikhism. “Sikhs were valued by the British for their military skills.”2 A male Sikh is expected to carry a short sword (kirpan). In Kim, Kipling’s novel about India, Kim and his lama-friend are on a train, and someone asks why the lama is silent. Kim says he is pondering things eternal, to which a Sikh responds, “We of the Ludhiana Sikhs... do not trouble our heads with doctrine. We fight.”

Sikhs are expected to leave their hair uncut. Sikhs can be recognized by their turbans, which hold their long hair. In Kim, we read, “‘Let thy hair grow long and talk Punjabi,’ said the young soldier jestingly to Kim, quoting a Northern proverb. ‘That is all that makes a Sikh.’”

Singh (lion) is used by male Sikhs as a middle name or last name, and Kaur (princess) is used by female Sikhs as a middle name or last name. India’s current Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, is a Sikh, and he’s India’s first non-Hindu Prime Minister.

3. The Ivy League

About 30 years ago, tuition at private American colleges began rising rapidly. This didn’t affect the rich (they could afford to pay it) or the poor (they received financial aid), but it did affect the middle class. About 7 years ago, Harvard realized that the middle class was under-represented in its student body, so it started a new policy of generous financial aid to middle-class students. Other Ivy League colleges followed suit.

One unintended consequence of this new policy is that Ivy League sports teams have become more competitive, since they can offer generous financial aid to all but the wealthiest applicants. Harvard’s men’s basketball team has been ranked in the Top 25 this year — unusual for an Ivy League college. [Update 2017: “The Ancient Eight is slated by KenPom as the 13th-best conference in Division I this season, just seven years after it placed 26th. That’s a quantum leap, a product of the league’s bolstered recruiting in that time frame. The Ivy hoops status quo now consists of top-25 recruiting classes.” (

4. Tippers and Payers

My father’s business was construction equipment (road-building equipment, etc.), and his customers often didn’t pay him. For example, they would rent a roller for a month, pay in advance for the first month or two, then fall behind with their payments. One customer was an especially bad payer, and my father’s company had to repossess his equipment more than once, sometimes in the dark of night. But when that bad payer had lunch with my father at a restaurant, he not only paid the bill, he left the waitress a big tip. He seemed to derive an ego boost from tipping, but not from paying debts. Perhaps he got an ego boost from not paying debts. Meanwhile, some people who pay debts promptly are reluctant tippers. Tippers and payers are two different species.

5. Gingrich

Newt Gingrich, who has emerged as a contender for the Republican nomination, exemplifies two theories that I’ve discussed in previous issues:

  1. Successful politicians often come from father-less households. Obama, Clinton, and Gerald Ford were raised by single mothers, and later, step-fathers. When Gingrich was born, his mother was just 16; her marriage to Gingrich’s father “fell apart within days.”3 When she was 19, she re-married.
  2. Politicians in modern democracies are prone to sex scandals; democracy rewards the outgoing, sociable person who follows the Pleasure Principle rather than the Super Ego.

One might connect these two theories by saying that a boy’s Super Ego is molded by the father image, and the result of a father-less household is a weak Super Ego.

Nietzsche says somewhere that one advantage of aristocratic origins is that you can be content with moderate poverty. Gingrich represents the opposite: his origins weren’t aristocratic, and he wasn’t content with moderate poverty. He wanted wealth, and the luxury goods that wealth makes possible (fancy jewelry, fancy wine, etc.).

But whatever flaws Gingrich may have, I wouldn’t hesitate to vote for him. Every candidate has flaws; there’s no perfect candidate. In addition to flaws, he has virtues: knowledge, experience, intellect, etc.

Though Gingrich recently emerged as a contender, his star seems to be fading, and Intrade now gives him just a 6% chance of being the nominee, while it gives Mitt Romney a 74% chance. Romney’s father was a prominent businessman and politician who ran for the Republican nomination in 1968. Jon Huntsman’s father was also a prominent businessman who had political aspirations. This seems to be a pattern: if the presidential candidate isn’t raised in a father-less household, his father is often well-connected, and has dreams of the White House. John F. Kennedy’s father was a successful businessman who was involved in politics. And of course, George W. Bush’s father was himself a President.

6. Amazon

Amazon has been getting some bad press because it’s rewarding customers who go to a local bookstore, and compare the store’s prices with Amazon’s prices, using a mobile app. Amazon is being called a destroyer of bookstores, especially small, independent bookstores. I’ve participated in many bookstore discussions, and I realize that independent bookstores contribute to a town’s culture, economy, etc. But there are a few things to be said for Amazon:

7. Chesterfield

A high school junior recently asked me to help with an English assignment. The assignment was to read a piece by Lord Chesterfield and, “in a well-written essay, analyze how the rhetorical strategies that Chesterfield uses reveal his own values.” The piece is an excerpt from one of the famous letters that Chesterfield wrote to his illegitimate son (he and his wife had no children).

Bath, October 4, 1746
Dear Boy,

Though I employ so much of my time in writing to you, I confess I have often my doubts whether it is to any purpose. I know how unwelcome advice generally is; I know that those who want it most like it and follow it least; and I know, too, that the advice of parents, more particularly, is ascribed to the moroseness, the imperiousness, or the garrulity of old age. But then, on the other hand, I flatter myself, that as your own reason (though too young as yet to suggest much to you of itself) is, however, strong enough to enable you both to judge of and receive plain truths: I flatter myself, I say, that your own reason, young as it is, must tell you that I can have no interest but yours in the advice I give you; and that, consequently, you will at least weigh and consider it well: in which case, some of it will, I hope, have its effect. Do not think that I mean to dictate as a parent; I only mean to advise as a friend, and an indulgent one too: and do not apprehend that I mean to check your pleasures; of which, on the contrary, I only desire to be the guide, not the censor. Let my experience supply your want of it, and clear your way, in the progress of your youth, of those thorns and briars which scratched and disfigured me in the course of mine. I do not, therefore, so much as hint to you how absolutely dependent you are upon me; that you neither have, nor can have a shilling in the world but from me; and that, as I have no womanish weakness for your person, your merit must, and will, be the only measure of my kindness. I say, I do not hint these things to you, because I am convinced that you will act right, upon more noble and generous principles: I mean, for the sake of doing right, and out of affection and gratitude to me.

I have so often recommended to you attention and application to whatever you learn, that I do not mention them now as duties; but I point them out to you as conducive, nay, absolutely necessary to your pleasures; for can there be a greater pleasure than to be allowed to excel those of one’s own age and manner of life? And, consequently, can there be anything more mortifying than to be excelled by them? In this latter case, your shame and regret must be greater than anybody’s, because everybody knows the uncommon care which has been taken of your education, and the opportunities you have had of knowing more than others of your age. I do not confine the application which I recommend, singly to the view and emulation of excelling others (though that is a very sensible pleasure and a very warrantable pride); but I mean likewise to excel in the thing itself; for, in my mind, one may as well not know a thing at all, as know it but imperfectly. To know a little of anything, gives neither satisfaction nor credit; but often brings disgrace or ridicule.

This letter uses various rhetorical strategies and devices, and it also reveals the author’s values. But the rhetorical strategies don’t reveal the values; the rhetorical strategies are designed to persuade the boy to work hard. The assignment is to show how the rhetorical strategies reveal the values. This is like asking someone to find a needle in a haystack that has no needle. Whoever created the assignment was “too clever by half”; he created what appears to be a challenging task, suitable for an AP (Advanced Placement) class, but in reality it’s an impossible task. The only student who will excel at this task is one who can defend a thesis that isn’t true, a thesis that the student himself doesn’t believe. The assignment doesn’t teach what is most important: respect for truth. Perhaps the best way to fulfill the assignment is to reject the assumption underlying the question, reject the notion that the rhetoric reveals the values, and simply discuss the rhetorical strategies, and then discuss the author’s values — two separate things, with no connecting link. Assignments of this sort are all-too-common in educational establishments. Is there a certain falsity embedded in the educational process?

Perhaps the chief rhetorical strategy that Chesterfield uses is concession: he concedes the weaknesses of his position, and he concedes the strength of objections that could be raised against him. At the start of the letter, he concedes that he may be wasting his time, and he concedes that people don’t usually desire advice or follow advice. One might compare these concessions to the concessions that Lincoln makes in his Gettysburg Address:

We can not consecrate... this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here....

Concession is an important and widely-used technique, and Chesterfield makes skillful use of it in this letter.

Another strategy that Chesterfield uses is to make his argument appear to come from the boy’s own head, to make it appear that the boy’s own “reason” is telling him what, in fact, Chesterfield is telling him: “your own reason, young as it is, must tell you that I can have no interest but yours in the advice I give you.” One might call this rhetorical strategy “the self-evident strategy,” since it’s designed to make the author’s argument appear self-evident, appear to be approved by the reader himself.

Rhetorical questions are similar to “the self-evident strategy” since they appeal to the reader’s own mind, and make it appear that the reader is telling himself what, in fact, the author is telling him. Chesterfield uses two rhetorical questions: “Can there be a greater pleasure than to be allowed to excel those of one’s own age and manner of life? And, consequently, can there be anything more mortifying than to be excelled by them?”

Chesterfield positions himself as a friend and guide, not as a parent or commander. In short, he does everything possible to make the boy receptive to his advice. Is this the essence of rhetoric — to make the audience receptive?

Another strategy Chesterfield uses is to hide his harshest comments behind the phrase, “I do not so much as hint to you...”

I do not... so much as hint to you how absolutely dependent you are upon me; that you neither have, nor can have a shilling in the world but from me; and that, as I have no womanish weakness for your person, your merit must, and will, be the only measure of my kindness. I say, I do not hint these things to you...

This is like a modern writer saying, “I’m not even going to mention...” and then mentioning the very thing that he pretends he isn’t going to mention.

Chesterfield makes skillful use of metaphor: “Let my experience supply your want of it, and clear your way, in the progress of your youth, of those thorns and briars which scratched and disfigured me in the course of mine.”

Chesterfield also makes use of what might be called “parallel structure,” which adds rhythm and clarity to prose. A writer can achieve parallel structure through the repetition of certain words, or the repetition of a sentence-pattern. In his second sentence, Chesterfield repeats “I know” three times:

I know how unwelcome advice generally is; I know that those who want it most like it and follow it least; and I know, too, that the advice of parents, more particularly, is ascribed to the moroseness, the imperiousness, or the garrulity of old age.

In the following sentence, Chesterfield achieves parallel structure with matching pairs of nouns: “To know a little of anything, gives neither satisfaction nor credit; but often brings disgrace or ridicule.” In this sentence, “satisfaction nor credit” is parallel with “disgrace or ridicule.”

As for Chesterfield’s values, it’s striking that the letter makes no mention of religion, but repeatedly speaks of pleasure:

Do not apprehend that I mean to check your pleasures; of which, on the contrary, I only desire to be the guide, not the censor.... Can there be a greater pleasure than to be allowed to excel those of one’s own age and manner of life?

The repeated reference to pleasure helps to explain why Samuel Johnson said that Chesterfield’s letters “teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing-master.” Perhaps Chesterfield would defend himself by asking, “What better way to appeal to a 14-year-old boy?” But Chesterfield’s cynical arguments seem to represent his genuine views; one scholar spoke of his “want of heart,” and Wikipedia describes him as “selfish, calculating and contemptuous.”

Chesterfield seems to ally himself with the rational-scientific camp that adored Newton more than Christianity. His respect for reason is evident in phrases such as, “your own reason, young as it is, must tell you that I can have no interest but yours in the advice I give you.” In an earlier issue, I described Johnson as “a rational thinker, the product of a rational age... he didn’t appreciate the importance of myth and the unconscious.” Johnson was a contemporary of Chesterfield (they had a famous quarrel), so if Johnson’s age was rational, so too was Chesterfield’s. Chesterfield respects reason, and ignores religion.

Chesterfield places a high value on excelling, on out-doing your peers, on being the best. “Can there be a greater pleasure than to be allowed to excel those of one’s own age and manner of life?” Chesterfield seems to like the idea of being #1 for its own sake — not a lofty or high-minded ethics.

Chesterfield frankly says that he doesn’t have unqualified love for his son: “As I have no womanish weakness for your person, your merit must, and will, be the only measure of my kindness.”

8. Moby Dick Criticism

A. Lawrence

I read D. H. Lawrence’s essay on Moby Dick, which constitutes one chapter of his Studies in Classic American Literature. It’s a good essay, I recommend it, I’m surprised it’s not anthologized more often. Though Lawrence is much impressed with Moby Dick, he isn’t blind to the book’s faults.

At first you are put off by the style.... Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville, even in a great book like Moby Dick. He preaches and holds forth because he’s not sure of himself. And he holds forth, often, so amateurishly.... One wearies of the grand serieux. There’s something false about it. And that’s Melville. Oh dear, when the solemn ass brays! brays! brays!

Notice the peculiar style of Lawrence’s essay. Many of Lawrence’s essays are written in this style. It isn’t what I would call “pure prose,” it’s a mix of prose, poetry, and conversation. But if you can put up with Lawrence’s style, I think you’ll find that both his criticisms and his compliments are on target.

Melville is far too ready to philosophize, to look for deep, dark truths in the universe. And he’s far too ready to imitate other writers, especially Shakespeare — to imitate Shakespeare’s philosophical asides, and Shakespeare’s emphasis on fate. Melville imitates because, as Lawrence notes, “he’s not sure of himself.” Melville was determined to be a Great Writer, so he imitated other Great Writers, especially the Greatest of them, Shakespeare. But a writer who’s really great stands on his own feet — is original, not imitative.

Lawrence has high praise for Melville’s descriptions, especially his description of the first chase (Chapter 48), which Lawrence calls, “a marvelous piece of true sea-writing.... When [Melville] forgets all audience, and gives us his sheer apprehension of the world, then he is wonderful, his book commands a stillness in the soul, an awe.... Melville is a master of violent, chaotic physical motion; he can keep up a whole wild chase without a flaw.” And Lawrence also has high praise for Melville’s descriptions of a calm sea. He even praises the chapters that describe the process of whaling (“magnificent records of actual happening”). Lawrence calls Moby Dick “a surpassingly beautiful book.... the greatest book of the sea ever written. It moves awe in the soul.”

When I read Moby Dick, I too was struck by Melville’s descriptions, such as the chase scene in Chapter 61. For me, however, Melville’s obscure prose makes Moby Dick unenjoyable to read; perhaps obscurity bothers me more than it bothered Lawrence. I’m ready to admit that Moby Dick is a classic, and deserves to be considered a classic, but it’s a classic that I don’t enjoy, and don’t recommend.

Lawrence’s critical essays often express his own philosophical ideas. He says that the white whale is “the deepest blood-being of the white race,” and the effort to kill the whale is our “white mental consciousness” trying to dominate our “blood-being.” But even when Lawrence’s interpretations are colored by his own philosophy, they’re still interesting. Lawrence says that Melville knew “his race was doomed.... ‘Not so much bound to any haven ahead, as rushing from all havens astern.’”

Lawrence notes that Melville “hardly reacts to human contacts any more,” perhaps because he’s intent on philosophizing. Ishmael becomes friends with Queequeg, but soon “Queequeg is forgotten like yesterday’s newspaper.... Queequeg must be just ‘KNOWN’, then dropped into oblivion.”

There’s a small error at the end of Lawrence’s essay: he says that everyone dies at the end of Moby Dick, including Ishmael. Is Lawrence unaware that Ishmael survives because the first English edition of Moby Dick didn’t mention Ishmael’s survival, and thus left the impression that everyone perished?

B. Leonard Woolf

Leonard Woolf (husband of Virginia Woolf) is tougher on Melville than Lawrence — more critical of his style, less impressed with his virtues. But even Woolf admits that Moby Dick attains greatness, and Mardi is “on the verge of” greatness. Woolf thinks that Melville’s early prose (the prose of Typee, for example) is better than the prose of Moby-Dick.

It seems to me that after 1846 Dickens had a deep, and in some respects a disastrous, influence on Melville. From Dickens he derived the exaggerated, and in his case unspontaneous, humor which disfigures so many pages of Moby-Dick [and] the loose torrent of his unending sentences.4

I think this is true, though I haven’t found any confirmation of Dickens’ influence on Melville. It stands to reason that a writer as popular as Dickens was in 1846 would influence the young Melville. We noted above that Melville was prone to imitate.

With respect to style, Woolf is Melville’s toughest critic:

The first thing which must be said of Melville is that he writes the most execrable English. Take a sentence like the following [describing Ahab’s authority]: “That certain sultanism of his brain, which had otherwise in a good degree remained unmanifested; through those forms that same sultanism became incarnate in an irresistible dictatorship.”[Ch. 33] This is a thoroughly bad sentence, and its badness is quite pointless, and there are thousands like it in Mardi and Moby-Dick. (The use of the semi-colon in this sentence is worth noting; it is characteristic of Melville, who bespatters his sentences with semi-colons without regard to meaning or convention.) His second great vice is rant or rhetoric. When he wants to say that a sailor looked angrily at the mate, he describes him as “stabbing him in the eye with the unflinching poniard of his glance.”[Ch. 54] I cannot see the slightest point in this kind of bombast, and, when it raves on for page after page, I almost pitch the book into the waste-paper basket and swear that I will not read another line.

I agree with this criticism, and I think that Melville’s style ruins Moby Dick — for me, and for many other readers. I remember chatting with a guide at the New Bedford whaling museum, who said he had tried to read Moby Dick several times, but couldn’t do it. Moby Dick isn’t a book that a teacher should assign, unless he wants to persuade students that classic literature is obscure, difficult, and unenjoyable.

But I agree with Woolf that Melville sometimes writes well, and there are some fine sentences in Moby Dick, such as the sentence I quoted in the last issue: “The rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness...” If Melville had written nothing but this sentence, he would be immortal.

I should mention in passing that, as often happens, the first Norton Critical Edition is better than the latest one. The latest one emphasizes documents (such as Melville’s letters), as if the editors decided that documents are more valuable than essays; the latest one also has too much contemporary criticism, and too little criticism from the 1950s, 1960s, etc.5

C. Charles Olson

One critic who is found in the first Norton Edition but not in the latest is Charles Olson, author of a study of Moby Dick entitled Call Me Ishmael (1947). Olson grew up in Massachusetts (Worcester and Gloucester) and became a prominent poet. For a person with a modern sensibility, like Olson, Victorian fiction would have little appeal, and Melville’s darkness and nihilism would be refreshing and impressive. But now that Western culture has spent a century wallowing in darkness, Melville’s darkness is neither refreshing nor impressive.

Olson compares Ahab to Faust, who made a pact with the devil. Olson says that Ahab’s diabolism reaches its peak in the Candles chapter (chapter 119), when a storm lights the masts with “corpusants,” or St. Elmo’s fire, and Ahab brandishes his harpoon at the crew. The following morning, Ahab puts a new needle on the damaged binnacle, and he appears “in all his fatal pride.”

Shortly after, a change sets in, Ahab is softened by contact with the mad cabin-boy, Pip, as Ishmael was once softened by contact with Queequeg. “The lovely association of Ahab and Pip,” Olson writes, “is like the relations of Lear to both the Fool and Edgar.” Olson says that Pip has seen God, and so he’s able to mock the Pequod’s “black tragedy.” Though Pip is below decks in the last chapters, the change he has wrought in Ahab is lasting; Ahab’s “insistent diabolism” melts away, and he becomes a sympathetic figure.

D. William Ellery Sedgwick

Another critic who is found in the first Norton edition but not in the latest is William Ellery Sedgwick, author of Herman Melville: The Tragedy of Mind (1944). The Sedgwick essay discusses Shakespeare’s influence on Melville: “There are numerous and diverse parallels in language, in emotional effect, in situation and tragic action between Moby Dick on the one hand, and, on the other, King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Timon.” Sedgwick quotes Melville’s remark on Shakespeare: “Those deep faraway things in him; those occasional flashings forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality — those are the things that make Shakespeare, Shakespeare.” Sedgwick quotes a “probing” from Moby Dick: “Oh God! [Ahab cries,] that man should be a thing for immortal souls to sieve through!” As a second example of a probing, Sedgwick quotes Ahab’s “angry retort to the ship’s carpenter, ‘Thou art as unprincipled as the gods, and as much of a jack-of-all-trades.’” I doubt that such probings are what make Shakespeare great, and I doubt that Melville’s probings add to Moby Dick.

Sedgwick says that “in Moby Dick, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, there is a solid, crowded foreground of material things and of human characters and actions.” But unlike Shakespeare, Melville is continually looking behind this foreground, in order to obtain “a more immediate view into the ultimate.” According to Sedgwick, Melville was bound by “his inherited and his temperamental Calvinism... to confront the truth as directly and comprehensively as possible.”

A modern critic, Joyce Carol Oates, makes the same point; she speaks of “Melville’s conception of the art of fiction as primarily moralizing allegory. [Melville] is basically an essayist for whom drama is not an end in itself but the mere pretext for speculation.”6 Oates also speaks of “Melville’s notorious stylistic difficulty, his lengthy and frequently graceless sentences.” These were all factors, Oates says, in Melville’s unpopularity with his contemporaries, along with “the unremitting bleakness of his vision” and his “cosmic pessimism.” The mystery is not that Melville was unpopular, but that he has become popular.

Sedgwick compares Moby Dick to Dante’s Divine Comedy, and says that, just as Dante grows in understanding, so Ishmael grows in understanding. “Dante came at last to the beatific vision and beheld the divine love enfolding the orders of creation.” Ishmael, on the other hand, “has seen into a sundered or cloven universe and he ends by calling himself ‘another orphan.’”

Sedgwick tries to explain the horror of whiteness that Melville discusses in Chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Sedgwick says that it stems from “the preoccupation with truth, with ideality.... In the white light of the soul’s preoccupation with truth all its earthly satisfactions seem illusory — all stale, flat and unprofitable.”

Sedgwick says that Ishmael keeps his balance, and doesn’t completely accept Ahab’s pessimism:

Through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, [Ishmael says,] divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.

E. Warner Berthoff

Warner Berthoff wrote The Example of Melville (1962), an excerpt from which is in the first Norton edition; the excerpt is called “Characterization in Moby Dick.” On the character of Ahab, Berthoff says, “The characterization itself is static in conception, and contrived and mechanical in the actual working out. Ahab acts most of the time in a trance of calculating madness; or, to put it in another way, he stays monotonously within the mold established for him.” Berthoff notes that in Chapter 132, Ahab steps out of his character, and speaks to Starbuck from the heart. But the fact remains that Ahab is a “type character” rather than a “real character,” and his obsession with the whale is an obsession that exists only in fiction. One can imagine a Raskolnikov in the real world, but an Ahab has never existed, and never will.

Joyce Carol Oates says that only in Pierre did Melville attempt a realistic novel, with three-dimensional characters. But she thought Pierre was “fatally marred” by its style.

F. Melville’s Doubloon and Homer’s Shield

I read an essay that compares the doubloon that Ahab nails to the mast with the shield that Hephaestus makes for Achilles.7 The essay argues that the doubloon-shield parallel is just one aspect of something larger: Homer’s influence on Moby Dick.

The author, Daniel Garrison, begins with some remarks on a literary device called ecphrasis — describing a work of art in another work of art.

Keats’s “Ode On A Grecian Urn” is ecphrastic virtually in its entirety; usually the device is set in a larger whole. Often the work of art described is imaginary, as is the case with Keats’s Urn; occasionally the object of an ecphrastic description is real, as happens to be the case with Melville’s Ecuadorian Doubloon.

Melville is fond of ecphrasis, Garrison says, and uses it “not as a showpiece but as a vehicle of meaning.” Garrison says that Mardi has a description of “a carved oaken box of sea biscuit.... The glass ship in Redburn and the small oil painting of the protagonist’s father in Pierre are prominent visual objects which symbolize a state of mind essential to the novel’s meaning.” Early in Moby Dick, Ishmael sees a painting in an inn, and tries to figure out its meaning. According to Garrison, Melville is “preoccupied with visual images and he repeatedly appeals to our remembrance of paintings, sculpture, and architecture.”

After these preliminary remarks, Garrison compares the doubloon and the shield. He says that both are round and gold, both depict the sun, and both appear to be symbols of the world. Furthermore, Melville’s doubloon description is found in the same place in his work as Homer’s shield description — the beginning of the fourth quarter.

Now Garrison turns to other parallels between Melville and Homer. He says that Moby Dick is about the wrath of Ahab, as the Iliad is about the wrath of Achilles. He says that Ahab sequesters himself in his cabin (especially at the start of the novel) as Achilles sequesters himself in his tent. One critic, F. O. Matthiessen, said that Moby Dick “is more consistently alive on the Homeric than on the Shakespearean level.”

I’m not convinced that Homer had much influence on Melville, and I certainly don’t think he had as much influence as Shakespeare. But Garrison is convincing when he writes about the importance of visual art in Melville’s work, and when he argues that Homer’s shield influenced the doubloon.

G. Final Thoughts

Now I’d like to comment on a few passages that caught my eye as I read Moby Dick, passages that I haven’t yet commented on. First, in Father Mapple’s sermon (Chapter 9), Jonah is said to have an evil eye, an evil air; Jonah is a “shadow figure,” and the people around him sense that immediately.

[Jonah] finds the Tarshish ship receiving the last items of her cargo; and as he steps on board to see its Captain in the cabin, all the sailors for the moment desist from hoisting in the goods, to mark the stranger’s evil eye. Jonah sees this; but in vain he tries to look all ease and confidence; in vain essays his wretched smile. Strong intuitions of the man assure the mariners he can be no innocent.

The captain also detects Jonah’s evil air:

“I seek a passage in this ship to Tarshish; how soon sail ye, sir?” Thus far the busy captain had not looked up to Jonah, though the man now stands before him; but no sooner does he hear that hollow voice, than he darts a scrutinizing glance.

Melville takes a bleak view of New Bedford whaling:

One most perilous and long voyage ended, only begins a second; and a second ended, only begins a third, and so on, for ever and for aye. Such is the endlessness, yea, the intolerableness of all earthly effort.

Melville seems preoccupied with time; in his view, time stretches out endlessly. He doesn’t grasp the present, the moment, the “eternal now.” Melville’s preoccupation with time is the antithesis of Zen. Melville’s view is false, insofar as he sees endless repetition of the same, and he overlooks change. New Bedford whaling only seemed “for ever and for aye”; in fact, it ended not long after Melville sailed. So the whaling industry exemplifies change, not endless repetition.

Melville takes a dim view of the world in general:

The sun hides not Virginia’s Dismal Swamp, nor Rome’s accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth. So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true — not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. ‘All is vanity.’ ALL.

One suspects that Melville regarded the pessimistic Schopenhauer as a kindred spirit. Nietzsche’s objection to Schopenhauer applies also to Melville: a negative judgment about the world tells us more about the judger than about the world. Melville’s pessimism is a product of his experiences, of his own temperament.

Melville seems to make a deliberate effort to write a Great Book, and to create characters that resemble Shakespeare’s characters. He says that a tragic hero should have

a half willful overruling morbidness at the bottom of his nature. For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.

Ahab is certainly morbid, and he has an “overruling” passion, a monomania. In an earlier issue, we discussed A. C. Bradley’s view of the tragic hero: “Bradley says that Shakespeare’s tragic characters fail to achieve balance, wholeness, and restraint:

In almost all we observe a marked one-sidedness, a predisposition in some particular direction; a total incapacity, in certain circumstances, of resisting the force which draws in this direction; a fatal tendency to identify the whole being with one interest, object, passion, or habit of mind. This, it would seem, is, for Shakespeare, the fundamental tragic trait.... It is a fatal gift, but it carries with it a touch of greatness.

Bradley’s remarks fit Ahab perfectly. Bradley’s view of the tragic hero agrees with Melville’s view: one-sidedness, lack of balance and restraint, a touch of greatness, a touch of evil.

Melville realizes that the future is foretold by both externals (omens) and internals (hunches). And he realizes that our inner being shapes circumstances:

Ye admonitions and warnings! ....not so much predictions from without, as verifications of the foregoing things within. For with little external to constrain us, the innermost necessities in our being, these still drive us on.

Ahab is driven on by his inner being, his obsession, and nothing external can deflect him from his destiny. Queequeg shows that death comes from the will, not from externals, and if we don’t will to die, we won’t die:

Now that he had apparently made every preparation for death; now that his coffin was proved a good fit, Queequeg suddenly rallied; soon there seemed no need of the carpenter’s box: and thereupon, when some expressed their delighted surprise, he, in substance, said, that the cause of his sudden convalescence was this: at a critical moment, he had just recalled a little duty ashore, which he was leaving undone; and therefore had changed his mind about dying: he could not die yet, he averred. They asked him, then, whether to live or die was a matter of his own sovereign will and pleasure. He answered, certainly. In a word, it was Queequeg’s conceit, that if a man made up his mind to live, mere sickness could not kill him: nothing but a whale, or a gale, or some violent, ungovernable, unintelligent destroyer of that sort.

One might go even further, and say that even whales and gales can be molded by our inner being, our will.

But the opposite is also true: circumstances can mold our will, and Melville is aware of this, too. He shows how the depressed Pequod is enlivened by an encounter with the cheerful Bachelor:

Not seldom in this life, when, on the right side, fortune’s favorites sail close by us, we, though all adroop before, catch somewhat of the rushing breeze, and joyfully feel our bagging sails fill out. So seemed it with the Pequod. For next day after encountering the gay Bachelor, whales were seen and four were slain; and one of them by Ahab.

Malcolm Gladwell has argued that our circumstances, our environment, molds our mind. When I discussed Gladwell’s Tipping Point, I wrote thus:

In earlier issues of this e-zine, I’ve often discussed thinkers like James Allen, who believe that our mind, our attitude, molds our circumstances. Gladwell argues the opposite — that our environment molds our mind, “our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances.” Gladwell calls this the Power of Context.

Melville has the genius to grasp both the Power of Will and the Power of Context.

In the middle of his novel, Melville places a story-within-a-story, a digression called “The Town-Ho’s Story.” A later novelist, a novelist in the realistic tradition, like Hardy or Tolstoy, wouldn’t digress in this manner. Is Melville part of the pre-realistic tradition? Should we compare him to Cervantes and Fielding, rather than Hardy and Tolstoy?

At the climax of the Town-Ho’s story, the Captain prepares to lash Steelkilt, but suddenly desists:

Steelkilt here hissed out something, inaudible to all but the Captain; who, to the amazement of all hands, started back, paced the deck rapidly two or three times, and then suddenly throwing down his rope, said, “I won’t do it — let him go — cut him down: d’ye hear?”

Why does the Captain release Steelkilt? Some scholars argue that Steelkilt is a woman dressed as a man, and when the Captain realizes that, he releases Steelkilt. But Steelkilt is said to have a “flowing golden beard,” and there doesn’t seem to be anything feminine about him. What other theory could account for the Captain’s surprising decision to release Steelkilt? I remember hearing about an American prisoner who was about to be executed by a Japanese officer. The prisoner told the officer that, if he was killed, he would haunt the officer for the rest of his life. The officer released him. But could Steelkilt make such a threat? Steelkilt is going to be flogged, not executed. The Captain’s decision to release Steelkilt is a difficult puzzle to unravel.

Melville makes a striking observation about the whale’s eyes:

While in most other animals that I can now think of, the eyes are so planted as imperceptibly to blend their visual power, so as to produce one picture and not two to the brain; the peculiar position of the whale’s eyes, effectually divided as they are by many cubic feet of solid head, which towers between them like a great mountain separating two lakes in valleys; this, of course, must wholly separate the impressions which each independent organ imparts. The whale, therefore, must see one distinct picture on this side, and another distinct picture on that side; while all between must be profound darkness and nothingness to him. Man may, in effect, be said to look out on the world from a sentry-box with two joined sashes for his window. But with the whale, these two sashes are separately inserted, making two distinct windows, but sadly impairing the view.

Analysis of the eye leads to some remarks on the whale’s brain:

Both his eyes, in themselves, must simultaneously act; but is his brain so much more comprehensive, combining, and subtle than man’s, that he can at the same moment of time attentively examine two distinct prospects, one on one side of him, and the other in an exactly opposite direction? If he can, then is it as marvelous a thing in him, as if a man were able simultaneously to go through the demonstrations of two distinct problems in Euclid.

Melville also discusses how the whale breathes — or rather, how he swims underwater without breathing:

The whale, who systematically lives, by intervals, his full hour and more (when at the bottom) without drawing a single breath, or so much as in any way inhaling a particle of air; for, remember, he has no gills. How is this? Between his ribs and on each side of his spine he is supplied with a remarkable involved Cretan labyrinth of vermicelli-like vessels, which vessels, when he quits the surface, are completely distended with oxygenated blood. So that for an hour or more, a thousand fathoms in the sea, he carries a surplus stock of vitality in him, just as the camel crossing the waterless desert carries a surplus supply of drink for future use in its four supplementary stomachs.

Melville also comments on the whale’s size — bigger than a whole town!

According to my careful calculation... a Sperm Whale of the largest magnitude, between eighty-five and ninety feet in length, and something less than forty feet in its fullest circumference... will weigh at least ninety tons; so that reckoning thirteen men to a ton, he would considerably outweigh the combined population of a whole village of one thousand one hundred inhabitants.

One of the most memorable chapters in Moby Dick is Chapter 119, “The Candles,” which deals with the typhoon, and the “corpusants” (also known as “St. Elmo’s Fire”). The corpusants are fires at the ends of the masts; they make the masts resemble candles.

While this pallidness was burning aloft, few words were heard from the enchanted crew; who in one thick cluster stood on the forecastle, all their eyes gleaming in that pale phosphorescence, like a far away constellation of stars. Relieved against the ghostly light, the gigantic jet negro, Daggoo, loomed up to thrice his real stature, and seemed the black cloud from which the thunder had come. The parted mouth of Tashtego revealed his shark-white teeth, which strangely gleamed as if they too had been tipped by corpusants; while lit up by the preternatural light, Queequeg’s tattooing burned like Satanic blue flames on his body.

Passages like these remind one of Hawthorne’s remark: “What a book Melville has written! It gives me an idea of much greater power than his preceding ones.”

After the storm, Starbuck goes below to speak to Ahab in his cabin.

The loaded muskets in the rack were shiningly revealed, as they stood upright against the forward bulkhead. Starbuck was an honest, upright man; but out of Starbuck’s heart, at that instant when he saw the muskets, there strangely evolved an evil thought; but so blent with its neutral or good accompaniments that for the instant he hardly knew it for itself.

Starbuck asks himself,

Shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship’s company down to doom with him? Yes, it would make him the willful murderer of thirty men and more, if this ship come to any deadly harm; and come to deadly harm, my soul swears this ship will, if Ahab have his way. If, then, he were this instant — put aside, that crime would not be his.

In a similar way, some of the people around Hitler knew that he was carrying Germany to destruction, and they thought about trying to kill him before he did so. (In the last issue, we discussed other parallels between Ahab and Hitler.)

Near the end of the novel, a hawk carries off Ahab’s hat, later dropping it in the ocean. This prompts the following remark from Melville:

An eagle flew thrice round Tarquin’s head, removing his cap to replace it, and thereupon Tanaquil, his wife, declared that Tarquin would be king of Rome. But only by the replacing of the cap was that omen accounted good. Ahab’s hat was never restored.

The Roman legend involves an eagle, symbol of royalty. Melville implies that the theft of Ahab’s hat is a bad omen; perhaps dropping it in the ocean suggests that Ahab himself will have a watery grave. I would call this episode synchronicity rather than prophecy; the hawk doesn’t have any prophetic power, rather, it’s part of the inter-connected fabric of the world. However, this fabric can be studied for hints about the future, as the Greeks and Romans studied the flight of birds for hints about the future; synchronicity sometimes overlaps with prophecy.

Soon after the hat theft, another synchronicity occurs, also involving animals:

Scarce had [Ahab] pushed from the ship, when numbers of sharks, seemingly rising from out the dark waters beneath the hull, maliciously snapped at the blades of the oars, every time they dipped in the water; and in this way accompanied the boat with their bites. It is a thing not uncommonly happening to the whale-boats in those swarming seas; the sharks at times apparently following them in the same prescient way that vultures hover over the banners of marching regiments in the east.

What makes the sharks significant is that they appear on the decisive third day of the chase, when Ahab and most of the crew are about to perish; the sharks didn’t appear earlier. So their appearance is like the hat theft: a synchronicity that hints of coming events. Melville compares the sharks to vultures that hint of coming events, as he earlier compared the hat theft to an episode from Roman history. These comparisons, like the episodes themselves, suggest that Melville understood synchronicity. The sharks and the hat theft are the only synchronicities that I see in Moby Dick. (In the last issue, I mentioned a synchronicity in Melville’s biography.)

The final battle:

Moby Dick had turned, and was now coming for the three crews. Ahab’s boat was central; and cheering his men, he told them he would take the whale head-and-head — that is, pull straight up to his forehead — a not uncommon thing; for when within a certain limit, such a course excludes the coming onset from the whale’s sidelong vision. But ere that close limit was gained, and while yet all three boats were plain as the ship’s three masts to his eye; the White Whale churning himself into furious speed, almost in an instant as it were, rushing among the boats with open jaws, and a lashing tail, offered appalling battle on every side; and heedless of the irons darted at him from every boat, seemed only intent on annihilating each separate plank of which those boats were made.

© L. James Hammond 2011
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1. “Can Italy Put Berlusconi Behind It?” by Maurizio Viroli, New York Times, November 10, 2011 back
2. Norton Critical Edition of Kim, Ch. 2, footnote 5 back
3. Wikipedia back
4. Woolf’s remarks can be found in an early Norton Critical Edition (made in 1967, probably the first Norton edition). back
5. At the front of the latest Norton Edition, there’s a map showing the route of the Pequod, as well as the routes taken by the young Melville on his outward voyage, and on his homeward voyage. The map shows the Pequod far to the east of South America, though in chapter 51 of Moby-Dick, Melville tells us that the Pequod visited a cruising-ground “off the mouth of the Rio de la Plata.” So the map is inaccurate. I found a more accurate map online. There’s a summary of Moby Dick here. back
6. Billy Budd and Other Tales, Afterword; Signet Classics back
7. “Melville’s Doubloon and the Shield of Achilles,” by Daniel H. Garrison, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Sep., 1971), pp. 171-184 back