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It is quite possible that nothing runs deeper through the veins of Herman Melville than his disdain for anything transcendental. Melville’s belittling of the entire transcendentalist movement is far from sparsely demonstrated throughout the pages of Moby-Dick, in which he strategically points out the intrinsic existence of evil, the asperity of nature and the wrath of the almighty God. To Melville, transcendentalists became a “guild of self-impostors, with a preposterous rabble of Muggletonian Scots and Yankees, whose vile brogue still the more bestreaks the stripedness of their Greek or German Neoplatonic originals” (“Herman Melville” 2350).
Transcendentalists went beyond denying the doleful possibilities of human error and suffering, and it is this ignorant altruism of transcendentalism in its looser grasps which prompted Melville’s scorn. Within the Emersonian school of thought lies the belief that “[the] ruin or the blank that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye” (Emerson et al.
81) and that “the evils of the world are such only to the evil eye” (Emerson et al. 174). Melville, however, believes that on our planet lies an inherent evil, going as far as to say, “A perfectly good being…would see no evil. –But what did Christ see? —
He saw what made him weep” (Thompson 2350), pointing out that not only does evil exist, but it exists within Christ, the ultimate symbol of good. Moby Dick, the white whale itself, is the prosopopeia of evil and malevolence in the universe. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.
(Melville 154) Moby Dick is also a depiction of Leviathan, Job’s whale created by God as a malicious symbol of God; Ahab “… sees in Him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it” (Melville 138), and if God is a representation of the spirit of the world, then within the world must exist “an inscrutable malice. ” Transcendentalists made nature out to be this wondrous, awe-inspiring creation of God which–seeing as he believed God to be more evil than good–is an idea Melville blatantly rejects as a fallacy.
Where Emerson says, “… Nature satisfies by its loveliness, and without any mixture of corporeal benefit” (Emerson et al. 107), Melville says, … all other earthly hues–every stately or lovely emblazoning–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 the subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within.
(Melville 164) When sent out to sea, the Pequod and its crew were faced by the nature of which Melville speaks–a nature that, at times, seems to “gild the surface of the water with enchantment, and causes even the wary hunter to have a land-like feeling toward the sea” (“Herman Melville” 2351), but is actually veils behind which God hides and constantly threatens to unleash his ambiguous animosity. It is the whale, a product of God and nature, that has reaped the leg of Ahab, that lashes out with the force of a thousand men.
It is the beguiling call of nature that lulls the absent minded youth into an opium-like reverie by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts until he loses his identity and takes it upon himself to take the ocean at his feet for the deep, blue bottom that pervades mankind (Melville 134-135); calms are crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. Furthermore, Melville ridicules the transcendentalists for their blindness to the rest of the world. The transcendentalists saw only the world through the “dimensions of a sturdy window in Concord” (“Herman Melville” 2394).
Melville could depict the true attributes of nature in a more scrupulous manner, for he had left his home in New England and sailed around the world. When Emerson claimed that the poet “disposes very easily of the most disagreeable facts,” it prompted Melville to respond, “So it would seem. In this sense, Mr. E is a great poet” (Thompson 443). Though a seemingly of a seemingly different nature, passions, desires, appetites, and senses of the flesh are a part of nature nonetheless: they are instincts, a natural part behind the drive of man. “…
[All] deep, earnest thinking [that] is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her upon the slavish shore” (Melville 95). It is this natural drive that keeps man from falling under the spiritual drive, this tyrannous and brutal enslavement of this wrathful God, for “natural or carnal men are without God in the world” (Alma 41:11). It seems as though Melville has an everlasting quarrel with God. Throughout Ahab’s quest for the white whale, Melville has shown his own personal independence from the authoritarianism of Christian dogma.
It is apparent that religious conventionalism was Melville’s favourite target for satire, but largely because he saw himself in competition with it. His own genius was deeply religious and the Bible seemed to serve the deepest purpose in Moby-Dick. Melville was caught in a vicious battle that he created and could not win. He started by loving God, then moved to hating God, progressed into a complete detachment from God–feeling neither love nor hate. He grew to hate his detachment and decided that God might indeed be lovable, and so the vicious cycle repeats (Thompson 148-149).
Thompson concludes, “The underlying theme in Moby-Dick correlates the notions that–God in his infinite malice asserts a sovereign tyranny over man and that most men are seduced into the mistaken view that this divine tyranny is benevolent and therefore acceptable” (242). Melville agreed with the transcendentalists that the spirit is substance, but he began to diverge from the transcendental conclusion that its effect on man was benevolent. Moby-Dick tells not only the story of the ventures of the Pequod and its crew, but also of Melville himself.
It captures all of Melville’s personal contempt toward the entire transcendentalist movement, and demonstrates his realistic recognition of evil through the symbolism of the whale, his struggle with religion through the use of ontological heroics, and his less-than-altruistic ideas of nature through the use of sheer logic. It is the perfect emblem for his gratitude for rationalism and respect for realism. “Oh, the rare old Whale, mid storm and gale In his ocean home will be A giant in might, where might is right, And King of the Boundless sea. ” WHALE SONG Works Cited.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Atkinson Brojoks, Edward Waldo Emerson. The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Random House Digital, Inc. , 2000. Print. “Herman Melville. ” World Literature Criticism. 1st ed. 1992. Print. Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc. , 2003. Print. Myerson, Joel, Sandra Harbert Petrulionis, and Laura Dassow Walls. The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print. The King James Bible. Susan Jones. New York: Doubleday, 1985. Print. Thompson, Lawrence. Melville’s Quarrel With God. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952. Print.
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