When writing Moby Dick, Melville had with him the Bible and King Lear.  At first glance, the former could be taken for a narrative of hope, while the latter a story of despair.  Yet the Bible, as well as the king of Briton himself, draws the reader into something more profound.  There is no starry eyed hope untouched by the violence of the world, yet neither is there a comfortable renunciation of all meaning, allowing for a cheap nihilism.  Instead, the reader is drawn into an intricate story of nature as ‘red in tooth and claw,’ as well as a hope that shines through the apparent meaninglessness of death.  Within the texts can be found a coherent narrative drawing together seemingly irreconcilable differences.

In contrast to Melville, it was Emerson who “was the perpetual passenger who stayed below in bad weather, trusting the captain would take care of the ship.”  Melville, on the other hand, “was the sailor who climbed aloft, and knew that the captain was sometimes drunk and that the best of ships might go down” (Lewis Mumford).  In other words, Emerson appears to be an eternal optimist, while Melville, in true radical fashion, remains on the side of the hopeful, amongst those who truly live.

As Melville states,

“So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than of sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true – not true, or undeveloped.  With books the same.  The truest of all mean 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.  This willful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon’s wisdom yet.  But he who doges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing graveyards, and would rather talk of operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils all of sick men; and throughout a care-free lifetime swears by Rabelais as passing wise, and therefore jolly; – not that man is fitted to sit down on tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon (Chapter 95).”

For the sake of hope and life, I choose to travel with Melville and will gladly leave Emerson to the green shores.

So how to find the hopefulness in the dour Melville?  I like to think that he some himself as a short-circuiting of the grand Protestant narrative; against those who would deny death and so deny life itself; against those who would proclaim material progress yet destroy nature in the self-same act, against those who would claim that transcendence is something to be conquered.

Melville could stare death in the eye; not stare through death, but at death itself.  He saw nothing so sublime as the “infinite” – for this is only another vortex (“Ah! how they still strove through that infinite blueness to seek out the thing that might destroy them!”).  Rather, Melville could look to the quotidian, to the fact that humans can be nasty creatures hell-bent on material gain.  An everyday fact of life, if there ever was one.

The hope, then, is not unlike Herbert McCabe’s take on the crucifixion of Jesus, a reading that Melville would surely appreciate.

“What was the reason for the cross?  Why something so strange as the crucifixion for the Son of God?  Now my belief is that the ordinary Christians who have kept the crucifix or the sign of the cross as their creed – a visual one that is just as good as a verbal one – never had this problem at all.  The ordinary people, deep down in their understanding have never had the slightest puzzle about the cross.  They have taken it for granted.  Why naturally the man was crucified.  Aren’t we all?  Whether they would put it into words or not, they felt deep down that crucifixion really does express what life is about.”

McCabe goes on to say that living a life like Jesus, a life full of love, means of course you will be killed.

“He is going to be first exploited and then destroyed.  This is the fact recognized by all those ordinary people I was talking about who take crucifixion for granted.  This is no world for love.  There is a twist or a contradiction in our human life that means we build a world unfit for humans.  The only way to get by in it is to restrict your humanity rather carefully, otherwise you will get hurt.  The world is not totally unfit for human habitation, but it can take just so much of it.  You have to ration your love, keep a wary eye out for enemies if you want to survive.  Now Jesus did not ration his love, so naturally he didn’t last (God Still Matters, 95-7).

Many will continue to claim that ‘all is well’; the captains of industry will continually assure us that all business is sound, lest they cause a panic among the investors.  Preachers will continue to preach the gospel of easy living; the wealthy Pharisees will continually assure us that our captains of industry are sound, lest the people revolt.  It takes the virtue of hope to inform us that the ship is in fact going down and that the captain has long ago abandoned ship.  It takes a Melville to remind us that this world has little room for love, yet herein, mysteriously, lies our hope.

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