From edition

The Stepmother World: On Herman Melville

Cesare Casarino, Modernity at Sea: Melville, Marx, Conrad in Crisis, University of Minnesota, paper, 272 pages, $22.95

Hershel Parker, Herman Melville: A Biography, Vol. 2, 1851-1892, John Hopkins University Press, hardcover, 1056 pages with 63 halftones, $45

In the spring of 1851, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts ordered a seventeen-year-old runaway slave named Thomas Sims returned to his master. A few months later, Shaw’s son-in-law, Herman Melville, published a novel called Moby-Dick. The two events share a history as emotionally complex as the two men who wrote them do. The judge was a patron of the writer: he financed the row house in Manhattan where Melville and his young bride, Elizabeth, lived as newlyweds. Later, he purchased a farm in the Berkshires for their growing brood. Throughout their lives, Shaw was almost always ready to bail out the insolvent author. But their relationship was informed by more than romantic tensions between art and capital. Melville’s first novel, Typee, was dedicated to Shaw and the judge had been a presence in the writer’s life from an early age. He had been a friend of Melville’s father, Allan, and was engaged to Allan’s sister, Nancy, but the young woman died before the marriage could take place.

As a state judge in mid-nineteenth century America, Shaw’s legal opinions helped to shape the fundamental law of the United States. He was outspoken in his condemnation of the Missouri Compromise, a series of agreements that were made in 1820 to balance the interests of the industrializing northern states and their agricultural southern counterparts. Thirty years later, another set of compromises was made. One of them was the Fugitive Slave Act. Before 1850, no fugitive slave had ever been returned from Boston, a stronghold of abolitionist sentiment. In February, 1851, a black man named Shadrach was arrested in Boston on charges of running away from his master. A mob of anti-slavery supporters stormed the courthouse where he was being held and Shadrach escaped. Secretary of State Daniel Webster called the action “a case of treason,” and Henry Clay asked the Senate whether “a government of white men was to be yielded to by a government of blacks.” Storms raged in the midwest that summer and in the fall, the nation reaped a mean harvest. In September, 1851, in the Pennsylvania Quaker village of Christiana, a slaveowner seeking two fugitives was shot and killed by a group of armed black men. Three months later, Thomas Sims was taken into custody in Boston. He was locked in the Federal Courthouse and this time the doors were barricaded with chains. Shaw had to bow down beneath them to enter the court.

From his stooped perspective, Shaw saw the world turning upside down. The United States was straining at the seams. In the thirty years between the two great compromises, the number of slaves in the union had more than doubled to over three million. The country continued to expand westward, at the expense of the native civilizations that flourished there. For many, the peculiar qualities of American liberty, the ways that democracy, genocide, and slavery amplified one another, were becoming too awkward to morally justify. But while Shaw used abolitionist language to condemn slavery, he also believed that immediate emancipation would bring misery to the nation. Shaw’s moral imperative was not to elevate blacks to the level of their white counterparts. Black violence threatened the American union and Shaw sought to preserve its rule by law.

In Hershel Parker’s exhaustive two volume biography of Melville, he writes that while Melville was familiar with the plight of Sims, “it did not capture his full moral attention.” The book he produced that year was the work of a daring writer whose work had always been engaged with spiritual, aesthetic, and political questions. But the publication of Moby-Dick also signalled a shift in the writer’s focus. “Melville himself in some of the parts he added to the ‘completed’ Mardi had fancied himself as national political commentator. That role he now renounced forever, content instead to become one of ‘ the choice hidden handful of the Divine inert,’ one of God’s studiedly self-effacing ‘true princes of the Empire.’ Even though he counted himself one of those ‘who always abhorred slavery as an atheistical iniquity’ . . . in Moby-Dick he asked, ‘Who ain’t a slave?’ thereby shifting the focus from the immediate horrors of Negro slavery in the United States to the level of cosmic tyranny.” Melville had been taken to task by the New York Albion’s reviewer of White-Jacket for bringing talk of ‘the essential dignity of man’ and ‘the spirit of our domestic institutions’ into his description of flogging. Melville was now looking for an unassailable vantage point to observe the burning world.

Moby-Dick is the story of a peculiarly American violence. It begins in the heart of the American enterprise, in lower Manhattan. “There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs–commerce surrounds it with her surf.” There is dissent brewing somewhere. War is rumbling beyond the horizon, but here, at the edge of the black Atlantic, the narrator Ishmael begins his odyssey with innocent eyes. Ishmael is an outcast, a former schoolteacher and journeyman, named after a bastard son of Abraham. He is a man not quite of the royal line. Part of “the grand programme of Providence,” Ishmael’s odyssey is at once mythically timeless and specific to a moment in the history of the world. “It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that the part of the bill must have run something like this:
‘Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States’
‘Whaling Voyage of One Ishmael’
‘Bloody Battle in Afghanistan'”
Events at home and abroad are mediated by Ismael’s journey into the sea.

Melville was intimate with the shore from which Ishmael began his journey as well as the ocean in which he ended it. He was born on Pearl Street, near the Battery, in the same year as Walt Whitman was born: 1819. Unlike Whitman, the son of a carpenter, Melville was the offspring of a marriage of New World brahmins. The Melvills were a Boston merchant family (Herman added an e to the name) and the Gansevoorts landed gentry in upstate New York. The family fell on hard times in Melville’s youth, moving from New York City to Albany, where p?re Melvill died of pneumonia. Herman was thirteen at the time of his father’s death and the abandonment haunts Moby-Dick. A general aura of quittance and ruin surrounded Melville all his life. His family had the bearings of failed aristocrats and this failure was vital to his world view. He could not look at the world with the false optimism of someone who had known great success but with the dispassionate honesty of an orphan, a child of failure. He was both a recipient of the wealth that had been accumulated from the plunder of the New World and he was estranged from it.

At twenty, Melville signed on as a “boy” to the St. Lawrence, a merchant vessel sailing for Liverpool. During the next five years, Melville moved in the shadowy, violent world of the sea as a common sailor on various ships. Much has been made of his line, “a whaling ship was my Harvard and my Yale,” but for Melville, the open seas were truly an alternative to the more bourgeois paths his brothers took as lawyers. Life at sea was cruel but liberating. Even before the St. Lawrence set sail, a dead body was discovered smuggled into one of the bunks. Underway, a drunken sailor jumped overboard to the indifference of his mates; the ship passed the wreckage of another ship without stopping to recover the bodies of three men strapped to it. On board the whaler Acushnet, thirteen of twenty-three crew members, including Melville, deserted or were put ashore dying of unknown diseases. The cramped, wretched living conditions of the crews called to mind a marginally more human version of a slave ship’s hold. In Melville’s first four books, Typee, Omoo, Redburn, and White-Jacket, he would explore the traumas he had visited on these voyages alongside the powerful freedom he encountered. It was in this watery, surrogate world that Melville, like generations of seamen before him, learned the craft of story-telling. But it was in his early books, which he famously described as “botches,” that Melville learned to write.

Melville is the quintessential boy’s writer. He is a teller of adventure stories, a self-made scribe who led a dangerous life. But by the time Melville sat down to write Moby-Dick, his travelling took a different course. The phase of turning outward gave way to an inward movement and in this violent motion, Melville’s language matured. His prose became more studious and more careful as he moved in an entirely different ocean. In Moby-Dick, one can discern the textures of other great and minor works: the Bible, King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Camo?ns’ Lusiads, J.N. Reynold’s magazine article “Mocha Dick or the White Whale of the Pacific,” Owen Chase’s Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, volumes on cetology and natural history. Nothing was too high or too low for Melville’s use. It was almost as if Melville, like the whale, consumed these myriad shoals and out of them produced a nugget of ambergris, that precious substance found in the bowels of the whale and used for manufacturing perfumes. “Now that the incorruption of the most fragrant ambergris should be found in the heart of such decay; is this nothing? Bethink thee of that saying of St. Paul in Corinthians, about corruption and incorruption; how that we are sown in dishonor, but raised in glory.”

For Cesare Casarino, Melville’s is “a writing of crisis.” Casarino points out that Melville, writing at the onset of mass literary production, is no longer the writer of leisure who can afford all the “Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!” of the world. He is a professional writer and his writing is subject to the pressures of the marketplace. “What to Melville looks like a ‘hash’ and a botch might be the new form that writing needs to assume in order not to give in to the demands of capital, while at the same time necessarily operating within those demands,” he writes. “Moby-Dick is such a botch, that is, a generic and structural mess whose immanent logic derives from the double-edged desire not to surrender to the writing dictated by the logic of capital while pushing that very logic beyond its limits in writing and so beating capital at its own game.” In Casarino’s terms, Moby-Dick is both “a writing of crisis” and “a writing of resistance to capital within capital.”

But Melville actually wrote something much finer and complex than mere resistance. Throughout Moby-Dick, he explores the dishonor and glory that define the American world. Ishmael, at the onset of his voyage, finds himself in bed, “wed” to the tattooed Queequeg. The two enroll as partners, seaman and harpooner on the whaleship Pequod. The captain of the ship is Ahab, a man who has been “dismasted” by the white whale Moby Dick, and is now wed in vengeance to the colorless leviathan.

Who else is on the Pequod with Ishmael and Ahab? A motley crew of islanders–“isolatoes”–culled from the four corners of the colonized earth. They wear the skins of the subjugated: a South Sea Islander, an Indian from Massachusetts, an African from the Guinea Coast; Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo are the ship’s harpooners. Above them are the ship’s officers, Stubb, Flask, and Starbuck, young American men who are already veteran whale hunters. Ahab does not distinguish between them inasmuch as he refers to them all as “manufactured men”; they have been manufactured out of the history of colonialism. Melville writes of these men fancifully, in the pseudo-scientific language of the era’s explorers and ethnographers. In fact, the characters are a composite, a medley of different ethnic groups and racial “types” that traversed the commercial lanes of the world in the 19th century. They are remotely recognizable and yet impossible to accurately name.

Ahab hides the true purpose of his quest from these vague men. Then he reveals it and when the crew grumbles, he falls back on the original business of the Pequod. It is a business that united them and is beyond reproach, the business of making money. Nothing else should matter to them but this. Ahab hides something else from the men. When the ship is well under way he reveals a group of “Parsees,” fire worshippers from “the Manillas,” whom the men look upon with both fear and disdain. Their chief is Fedallah, a sinister man with dirty fingernails and hair matted into a turban. Fedallah is an adviser to Ahab, a jaundiced prophet who predicts that Ahab will only die on the voyage if he sees two hearses at sea: the first not made by mortal hands and the second made of wood grown in America. He can only die by hemp, and Fedallah must die before him. But Fedallah is more than Ahab’s pilot to the underworld. He has a richer role in the captain’s life and the two are related somehow in the way that Queequeg and Ishmael are related: the way a premonition is related to lived reality.

In the chapter, “The Monkey Rope,” Ishmael must lower Queequeg over the carcass of a whale the ship has caught. “It was a humorously perilous business for both of us. For, before we proceed further, it must be said that the monkey-rope was fast at both ends; fast to Queequeg’s broad canvas belt, and fast to my narrow leather one. So that for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, than both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake. So, then, an elongated Siamese ligature united us. Queequeg was my own indispensable twin brother, nor could I anyway get rid of the dangerous liabilities which the hempen cord entailed.”

To balance the sperm whale hanging over the ship’s side, another weight is needed and the crew hunt down a right whale. Flask and Stubb row back to the ship with its body, gossiping on the way. Stubb is convinced that Fedallah is the devil incarnate and talks boldly about throwing him overboard. “Damn the devil, Flask; do you suppose I’m afraid of the devil? Who’s afraid of him except the old governor who doesn’t catch him and put him in double-darbies, as he deserves, but lets him go about kidnapping people, aye, and signed aboard with him, that all the people the devil kidnapped, he’d roast for him? There’s a governor!” As they approach the Pequod, the two officers see Fedallah and Ahab on deck, slaver and enslaved, servant and master, their forms mingling in the distance. “And Ahab chanced to stand, that the Parsee occupied his shadow; while, if the Parsee’s shadow was there at all it seemed only to blend with, and lengthen Ahab’s. As the crew toiled on, laplandish speculations were bandied among them, concerning all these passing things.”

Where is one most certain of encountering the devil but in the mirror? The great opaque body of Moby Dick acts as a kind of reflective screen: the pious seeing the face of the damned looking back at him in the whale. Moby Dick’s blankness hovers over this twoness, these “Descartian vortices.” He is a spectral whiteness that drives the ship and the narrative towards its fatal conclusion. The whale is a part of the Pequod’s journey and therefore a part of every man on the ship. It is a part of the reader also. We come to know the whale intimately in these pages. Melville investigates every crevice and pore of his body. We visit under the whale’s foreskin and inside his bowels. Ishmael describes all of these abject details lovingly, as only hunters can describe the creatures they hunt, as only someone who has taken apart the beloved’s body knows the details of that body.

Both Ishmael and Ahab were injured in their potential for heterosexual love, but Ahab’s wound is septic. Ishmael still manages complex feelings about the white whale and this complexity allows him to experience a more selfless vision of the ocean that surrounds them. His love manifests itself towards Queequeg as something primitive, pre-rational, and instinctive. An even fuller version of it comes to Ishmael as he sits squeezing cooling globules of spermacetti back into fragrant liquid, rinsing himself of his “horrible oath.” “Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, –Oh! My dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come, let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”

Ahab does not partake of this fraternal labor. He has fatally lost his capacity to imagine such love. Ahab has abandoned his wife and child to hunt down Moby Dick; he refuses to help the ship Rachel search for her missing sons. He lives on vengeance and his hatred of the white whale brings him to his suicidal end, a fulfillment of Fedallah’s Macbeth-like prophecies. Ishmael, meanwhile, survives the wreck of the Pequod and is picked up by “the devious-cruising Rachel,” a bereaved mother. Love doesn’t triumph over hatred; it survives its destructive power.

Any great book is an act of love. One can imagine the love that propelled Melville’s pen over the seventeen months he was composing the book in the cleavage of the Berkshires: love for America, for the sea, and for Nathaniel Hawthorne. But this love was threatened by the clouds of identity and its discontents. A great war over racial identity was brewing; the morality of the body as merchandise was being passionately contested; the categories of hetero- and homosexual were about to become medicalized identities. Categories of identity invariably serve the interests of policing and in this moment, one can see the lyricism of ambiguity about to be confined by the demands of a new, war-driving, information-hungry, and socially restrictive culture.

But in the lush prose of Moby-Dick and in Melville’s remarkable letters to Hawthorne, the codifying impulses of sexuality give way to something much finer and truer to the mystery of sex. The suggestion that the passionate friendship evinced in Melville’s correspondence was somehow aberrant would have doubtless troubled both men. Melville met Hawthorne sometime during the period he was composing the whaling book. Although it is not known exactly how the meeting influenced his subsequent revisions of the manuscript (Melville’s journals are as stingy as his letters are fruitful), the letters that Melville wrote, and the inscription of the finished book to his appointed mentor, indicate that Hawthorne was a powerful presence in Melville’s creative life.

After reading a later draft of the manuscript, Hawthorne responded to Melville with his support of the book. In November 1851, Melville wrote a torrid letter to his neighbor. ” A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the lamb. Ineffable socialities are in me. I would sit down and dine with you and all the gods in old Rome’s Pantheon. It is a strange feeling–no hopefulness in it, no despair. Content–that is it; and irresponsibility; but without licentious inclination. I speak now of my profoundest sense of being, not of an incidental feeling.”

By contemporary publishing standards Melville’s book is not only wicked, it is a mess. There is no single character on to whom the reader can hang his expectations and sympathies, no hero or heroic behavior to lubricate the reader’s progress through its pages. Ishmael narrates the journey and we travel into and out of his head, seeing things that he can not physically see. “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method,” Melville writes of whaling (chapter 82). The writing of Moby-Dick was such an enterprise.

Casarino parallels Melville’s writing of Moby-Dick with Karl Marx’s writing of the Grundrisse. “Would it be enough to suggest that both are differently dictated not only by the same first modern crisis of 1857 but also by the same new conception of crisis, by the very concept of modern crisis? Would it be enough to maintain that they both write the crisis of modernity? And would it be just too visionary to imagine Melville in 1852, just over the exertions of Moby-Dick, reading the scathing commentaries on the coming crisis by one Karl Marx, the London correspondent of the New York Daily Tribune?”

Possibly. But Moby-Dick is a book written by an American, working in isolation from the main currents of European writing at the time. Melville eschewed the models of the English or European novel, the social novel, or the novel of manners, the novel of “real life” (that is, real bourgeoise life). Melville began his writing life with reportorial travel books–journals or narratives. His origins were in the oral story-telling of sailors and travelers and he was now moving into settled life. He sought to wrestle the coarse themes and images of his youth into a finer mythology.

Melville built his myth out of the two spheres of his life: the library and the ocean. There are two distinct currents in Moby-Dick. In one, Melville figures a material world of labor and economy. In the other, Melville grasps at something sublime, ideal, and spiritual. It is something that is often beyond the grasp of language and its codifying impulses. There is the bloody business of whaling and then there is the lofty symbol of being that is the whale and the noble pursuit of hunting it. The profane and the sacred, victim and victimizer, black and white, good and evil, body and soul, Self and Other: these warring, interpenetrating, and mirroring narratives form the basis of Moby-Dick. In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois would write of the “double consciousness” of race. The Negro was stranded in the American world, ” world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” Estranged from subjecthood, the doubly conscious Negro sees himself through the contemptuous eyes of the white. The result is two unreconcilable strivings in one dark body. But the black is not the only one to be scarred by this internal warfare. In the course of the Pequod’s journey, Ahab succumbs to his own violent dualism. Ishmael, meanwhile, is in the thick of the battle but not of it. He witnesses the “other world,” dispassionately lets go of it, and survives its violent end.

How does a novelist witness the world in a way that is different from the way the events of the world are recorded? One has only to open the newspaper today to know that the truth is somewhere else and the facts are made to lie. Information, immediate and reasonable, is engaged in a struggle with the timeless and enigmatic craft of storytelling to narrate historical truth. Technologies of recording like the camera have been steadily displacing the art of memory and witnessing since Melville’s time. The facts they reproduce suggest that history no longer exists and the substance of the epic has also changed. In its place there is the flashback, the sponsor’s interruption that bears its own distinct commercial relationship to the unfolding narrative of the present.

Moby-Dick is an epic quest. It is a quest for a white whale, a common ground for all the men on the ship. The whale will bring them all that they have wanted since the beginning of time. But desire is a complex animal and is never all that it appears to be. In “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Melville writes about the deep, primal fear of whiteness that is embedded in the human psyche, a rarely explored part of our Cartesian legacy. “One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”

What is the terror of whiteness of which Melville wrote? Is it the appearance of slave ships on the Guinea Coast? Hooded men lurking in the magnolia forests of Mississippi? During the winter months that he was working on Moby-Dick at Arrowhead, Melville must have been acquainted with the blanketing whiteness of New England snowstorms. “Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.” Whiteness exerts a powerful pull on the imagination–it is at once a symbol of comfort and of horror. The terrifying quality of this color, or the absence of color, is the emptiness that it suggests. Nature paints itself to disguise the emptiness that is at is core. All those landscapes, rendered in rich oil paintings by European painters, could not disguise the true and violent nature of the land that Melville’s forefathers conquered. ” . . . the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel house within. . .”

The world Melville came to know through the page was a terrifying blankness every writer confronts. The world is empty; nothing in it is of any constancy; there is nothing to grasp on to and those that do sooner or later find themselves with their illusions shattered, adrift at sea. There can be as many objects as would fill up that sea, but each of these has the property of emptiness; there is nothing in them that is a self or belongs to a self. This emptiness is a frightening thought to reckon with in a world in which everything long ago achieved the equivalence of objects. Identity is one fiction that man imposes to shield himself from this fearful emptiness. It is a powerful fiction but at the end of it, we are left with the truth of the matter: there is no Self or Other, no black or white, no hetero- or homosexual, no slave or master. There are no enemies and no allies in the journey from birth to death. There is only the whiteness of the whale.

Casarino reads a tangible anxiety behind Ishamel’s exposition on whiteness. “What horrifies Ishmael . . . is not that white power is violent and absolute and meaningless and valueless, but that one day it may finally collapse, thus leaving the door open to as yet unimaginable historical possibilities. The urgent question one can hear echoing in Ishmael’s dread of whiteness is how and for how long can absolute power last as a tautology for itself? Or, what will finally be the modalities and the schedule of disintegration of such a power?”

The quest in Moby-Dick is a lonely search for the truth of the whale’s whiteness and in Ahab’s case, the quest brings about his destruction. The attempt to penetrate the material world to reach the truth, to stab beyond the substance of the page, the conventions of language, would give way finally to Melville’s last novel, his great masterpiece of “unreadability,” The Confidence Man. In it, he echoes a sentiment expressed in Moby-Dick on the impossibility of rendering a portrait of the great Leviathan “with any very considered degree of exactness.” “But if the acutest sage be often at his wits’ end to understand living character, shall those who are not sages expect to run and read character in those mere phantoms which flit along a page, like shadows along a wall?” (The Confidence Man, p. 69)

Melville famously considered writing the “Great Art of Telling the Truth.” The expense of telling this truth was another matter. “But Truth is the silliest thing under the sun,” he wrote to Hawthorne after Moby-Dick was published. “Try to get a living by the Truth–and go to the Soup–societies. Heavens! Let any clergyman try to preach the Truth from its very stronghold, the pulpit, and they would ride him out of his church on his own pulpit banister . . . Truth is ridiculous to men.” And yet, there seemed to be little Melville could do but try to tell the truth in these circumstances. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael encounters a preacher before the Pequod ships out. Father Mapple is a grizzled sea-dog who reminds his congregation of Jonah’s responsibility to preach the truth upon discovering the great emptiness within Leviathan’s belly.

“Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appeal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonor! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who, as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!”

There is a hysterical tone to the preacher’s sermon that belies the solemn contradictions of Melville’s own life. For the writer, truth was arrived at through the telling of stories, just as his fiction was created from a fabric of scientific and pseudo-scientific facts. Melville’s peculiar social position afforded him a unique view of the events of the day. Being both inside and outside the whale, Melville was an unimpeachable witness to the moral struggles of America, the ways that freedom and slavery amplify one another.

What happens when the aims of the nation and its economy are at odds with what the witness has seen? The discredit of words today is great. America is on the warpath and it needs its stories of total victory over impossible and evil enemies. What expectations can we have of American literature? Is there room any longer for stories about failure?

In a letter to Chief Justice Shaw the year before Moby-Dick was published, Melville disparaged his two recently published books, Redburn and Mardi, as “jobs.” “So far as I am individually concerned, & independent of my pocket, it is my earnest desire to write those sort of books which are said to ‘fail.’ Pardon this egotism.” Moby-Dick was notoriously under-appreciated when it was published. In his lifetime, Melville saw a scant $1259.45 for the 3715 copies sold in England and America.

But Melville’s lie is more than a parable for the sometimes divergent paths of art and patronage, truth and commerce, and Moby-Dick is more than an allegory of the triumph of love over hatred. Melville cautioned against reading the novel as an allegory in its very pages. An allegory is a description of one thing in the image of another and Moby-Dick is not a description or an image of anything. To paraphrase Beckett on Ulysses, it is that thing itself. Borges wrote of the whaling book, “The story grows page by page until it assumes the dimensions of the cosmos: at the beginning the reader might consider the subject to be the miserable life of whale harpooneers; then, that the subject is the madness of Captain Ahab, bent on pursuing and destroying the white whale; finally, that the whale and Ahab and the pursuit which exhausts the oceans of the planet are symbols and mirrors of the universe.” Borges saw the whale as a symbol not of evil, but of the “enigmatic stupidity” of the world.

Ahab catches a glimpse of this inevitability in the moments before the white whale is sighted. Beneath the righteous layer of his hatred, there is a richer sorrow that Melville reveals: “Slowly crossing the deck from the scuttle, Ahab leaned over the side, and watched how his shadow in the water sank and sank to his gaze, the more and the more that he strove to pierce the profundity. But the lovely aromas in that enchanted air did at last seem to dispel, for a moment, the cankerous thing in his soul. That glad, happy air, that winsome sky, did at last stroke and caress him; the step mother world, solong cruel–forbidding–now threw affectionate arms round his stubborn neck, and did seem to joyously sob over him, as if over one, that however wilful and erring, she could yet find in her heart to save and to bless. From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.”

The “enigmatic stupidity” of the world is that we create the structures that imprison us and then try to destroy them in the same deliberate way that we built them. The result is that there is no liberation from them. Casarino suggests moving beyond an idea of liberation that is based on the logic of exchange. More than one hundred and fifty years have passed since a black man named Thomas Sims was acquainted with the brittle quality of such freedom. The different responses of Melville and Shaw to the storms raging around them attest to the different moral aims of politics and of literature. Perhaps only literature is able to acknowledge the inherent failure of the humanist project. We live in a moment where humanitarian aid is a moral pretext for the killing of humanity, survival is the impetus for self-destruction, and colonization occurs under the banners of freedom; human existence is no longer human. Today, the humane survives only where it can challenge by its determined irreconcilability the dictate of the grand narratives of civilization and success. The orphans of the man-made world grapple with the task of writing the lonely epic of the early 21st century. In it, the shipwreck is inevitable; no one can postpone the ends of empires.

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