Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Herman Melville and the City of God

I was reading Moby Dick today and reached Chapter 91, which is one of Ishmael’s regular digressions into a completely unrelated tale, this one about the laws of England, specifically that which says that ‘of all whales captured by anybody on the coast of that land, the King, as Honorary Grand Harpooneer, must have the head, and the Queen be respectfully presented with the tail.’ Such emoluments are then traditionally assigned to whichever Lord Warden has jurisdiction over the waters in question, in this case the Duke of Wellington.

There follows a very funny scene in which a whaler, having landed a whale, tries to bargain with the Lord Warden’s agent, arguing that the whalers have done all the work so deservedthe whale, and that the Lord Warden is rich enough not to need such free gifts and so on. To each argument, the response is invariable: ‘It is his.’

This put me very much in mind of Bartleby the Scrivener, with Bartleby’s continuous response of ‘I would prefer not to.’ (Although, of course, Bartleby was written after Moby Dick, indeed it was Melville’s response to its poor reception, so strictly speaking Bartleby should put me in mind of Moby Dick. But anyway...)

The unvarying nature of the responses in these two cases is very similar and, given that it is the same author, it is likely that Melville was at the very least conscious of the similarity, if not intentionally invoking it. Which is slightly curious.

The tenor of the Moby Dick passage, although humorous, suggests that Melville is setting down the law as it stands and is not particularly disagreeing with it. This is the way of things, he is saying. Similarly, with Bartleby the Scrivener, although Bartleby’s intransigence is initially irritating, one comes, in time, to admire, respect, even approve of his contrariness. Therefore, one might suggest, there are indeed strong parallels between the two, and in each case Melville is inviting our approval.

However, the two examples are also entirely dissimilar. The Moby Dick example relates to property and ownership, both human concepts and inventions – the realm of the material: we are firmly placed here, in Augustinian terms, in the city of man.

Bartleby, however, seems to me a wholly spiritual man. I am sure that Bartleby the Scrivener is a Christian allegory and Bartleby’s torment is that of an angel in the city of man; when he dies, he goes, in the Augustinian view of existence, to the City of God. This, St Augustine’s conception of the two cities, of God – ie, the spiritual – and of Man – ie, the material – was something that Melville, a strong Christian, would have held to be true. For example, Chapter 41 of Moby Dick – a key chapter in which the initial clash between Ahab and the white whale is described, includes the following passage (my italics):

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;--Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it.

So, Melville clearly makes the Augustinian distinction between the two cities in his writing. And he appears to be referring to the respective cities in his descriptions of the acquisitive Duke and the spiritual Bartleby. And yet, in seeking to portray these opposite cities, he employs the identical rhetorical technique.It feels like a curious contradiction to me.

Unless I’m reading it wrong, which is entirely probable. If anyone can put me right, please do.

1 comment:

Harald Sack said...

Thanks for your interesting article on Herman Melville! Because of his 194th birthday today I’m looking for more interesting articles about him and his writings.
If you are interested, last year we also published a brief article on Herman Melville entitled ‘Herman Melville’s Nightmare’ in our blog at