The Problem of Evil in the Works of Melville and Emerson
Herman Melville, like all other American writers of the mid and late nineteenth century, was forced to reckon with the thoughts and writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson celebrated the untapped sources of beauty, strength, and nobility hidden within each individual. Where Emerson was inclined to see each human soul as a beacon of light, however, Melville saw fit to describe and define the darkness, the bitter and harsh world of reality that could dim, diffuse, and even extinguish light. Each man wrote about life in specific terms, while pointing toward human nature in general. The problem of evil paradoxically separates and unites both authors. Emerson looked inward and Melville pushed outward, each searching, each trying to effect change. The problem of evil remains ever-present, driving both men to reinvest in understanding the interconnectedness, the interdependency of human relations. Though "Melville alternately praised and damned 'this Plato
who talks thro' his nose' ", Emerson's influence direct or indirect helped to shape Melville's ideology and thus his fiction (Sealts 82).
Both authors acknowledge human pain and suffering, Corruption and vice. Emerson was accused by his contemporaries, including Melville upon occasion, of neglecting these most basic elements of the human condition, turning instead toward the glib optimism of self-reliance. True, Emerson's ideas were rooted in introspection. It was the very essence of humanity's darker side that drove him to search for solutions, for a source of stability, faith, within.
"...our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual... we grant that life is mean; but how did we find out, that it was mean?" (Emerson 289).
We can know and acknowledge evil, Emerson said, only because we each possess a soul that is ultimately good. In the realm of the soul, distinctions between the sublime and the mundane, the divine and the human, cause and effect, become blurred and disappear (Emerson 294). Emerson promoted the existence of an all encompassing Oversoul which manifested itself in each living being, rather than a dogmatic conception of God. The inner strength of self-reliance found its source in the Oversoul. Exploration of the soul was a revelation of truth to Emerson. He tried to combat evil by articulating the necessity of the Oversoul to human happiness. As our knowledge of the Oversoul expands and we cultivate our inner life, goodness will eventually displace evil (Braswell 29).
Melville stopped well short of this optimistic conclusion. While not categorically denying the existence of a spiritual and solacing soul, Melville notes especially the prevailing bitterness and cruelty of life. Most people existed in a world of darkness; Melville's fiction reflects this. Ahab's struggle does not take place solely within his tortured mind. It is played out before the reader, his mind (his madness?) actively involving the lives and fates of others as well as challenging the very forces of nature.
"The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac
incarnation of all those malicious agencies which
some men feel eating in them... all evil, to crazy
Ahab, were visibly personified in Moby Dick"
Unlike Emerson, divine Providence is suspect if not absent altogether from the world. The existence of evil, of human suffering simply pointed out God's apathy or utter separation from the tangible workings of the world (Braswell 125). Ahab seems to pose the questions: is the
universe ungoverned by ethics? Can God allow evil to exist? "Ahab tries to harpoon Moby Dick because he cannot harpoon God" (Braswell 59).
Ahab's rage-filled obsession with these questions becomes a madness that ultimately destroys him, the Pequod, and his crew. In the chapter entitled "The Whiteness of the Whale" the narrator, Ishmael, tries to articulate the abstract qualities associated with the whale and its color based on the reports of others as well as Ishmael's own insight. The reader is left, however, with the impression that the essence of the whale, its "whiteness", Is projected from the imagination of those who encounter it. In this manner Moby Dick resists capture; the whale ironically houses infinite possibilities in the imagination (Cooke 62). Later Ishmael admits,
"I know him [Moby Dick] not and never will. But if I
know not even the tail of this whale, how understand
his head? much more how comprehend his face when he
has none?" (Melville 295).
Yet Ahab tries to master and destroy Moby Dick. He raises a defiant fist in the face of its infinite possibility and goes mad. He faces the terror of infinity but sacrifices his basic humanity in doing so (Parke 71). The natural world seems to be an intermediary in the world of Melville's fiction. Higher themes and abstract concepts can be applied to nature as in the case of Moby Dick himself. Neither nature nor the concepts attached to it can be mastered by humanity. They are not evil as Ahab would have it, but neutral and untamable. Humanity can coexist with them but cannot seek mastery or it is doomed (Parke 68). The idea is at the heart of Starbuck's warning as the chase and the novel draw to a destructive close. "Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou who madly seekest him!" (Melville 428).
Emerson's concept of fate also encompasses the harsh cruelties of the natural world without sentimentalizing nature. Fate coexists with his sense of the Oversoul. In fact these concepts work in concert.
"The author of Moby Dick would have appreciated that
the connotations of [Emerson’s]'Fate' include 'hints
of ferocity in the interiors of nature'"
Ironically, Ahab feels that his hunt for Moby Dick is fated by divine forces.
"This whole acts' immutably decreed. 'Twas rehearsed
by thee and me a billion years before this ocean
rolled. I am Fate’s lieutenant; I act under orders"
Though Melville accused Emerson of ignoring '"the vast alien immutabilities" of the natural world and humanity’s struggle with it, it seems as though Ahab's madness echoes an Emersonian sense of fate (Bishop 207).
Ahab's struggle is essentially tragic. Though he madly clings to a sense of predestined fate, the author holds Ahab responsible for his own destruction. Even with the knowledge of his actions and their fatal consequences, something inherently noble persists in his struggle (Braswell 65-6). Ahab is tragic in that he remains unredeemed and admirable, perhaps because he will not meekly submit to the humiliating routine defeats imposed by forces beyond his control. In this manner, Melville is able to distance himself from Ahab without destroying the nobility or futility of his struggle to the end.
Perhaps Melville uses this distance to explore Emersonian self-reliance in a more realistic context. Introspection can lead to complete isolation. Though Ahab’s conflict is externalized, he has lost all connection with his crew, with his fellow men. Only Pip, the young cabin boy who speaks only gibberish, touches Ahab's soul. Melville seems to suggest that one should be aware of the risks involved with self-reliance. He seems concerned with the difficulties in balancing human connections with self-reliance, a tenuous relationship at best. He advocates active involvement, leading an authentic existence regardless of risk.
"The only mode in which you can derive even a
tolerable idea of it's [the whale's] living contour
is by going whaling yourself, but by so doing you
run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk
by him" (Melville 215).
Surely Melville's concern with the delicate distinction between isolation and self-reliance points toward an Emersonian inheritance. One of Emerson's goals, after all, was to create educational environments conducive to self-discovery (Sealts 188).
Though the manner in which they pose and deal with the problem of evil is quite different, no great philosophical disparity exists between Herman Melville and Ralph Waldo Emerson. One critic goes so far as to call Melville a "critical half disciple" of Emerson (Bishop 180). Though
like his own fateful captain, Melville is consumed with discovering the primary cause of evil, he preserves hope and allows Ishmael to survive. Ishmael learns from Ahab's tragic struggle and relates it to the reader. Ishmael wants to and does relate well with others. In the chapter
entitled, "The Monkey Rope," Melville tangibly displays the metaphoric relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael, connecting them with a lifeline of rope. The only hope for goodness comes from such relations. Goodness through authentic human relations, though rare in Melville's world, redeems life and allows us to give it value and meaning (Braswell 123). Goodness can only be understood, however, when placed within the dismal context of the real world.
Likewise, Emerson acknowledged pragmatically that the ultimate task of self-discovery and the eventual triumph of good would not occur in his lifetime or even the next century. "He was forever being reminded of 'the yawning gulf that stretches between the 'ambition of man and his power of performance' and it is this disparity between desire and capacity that for him' makes the tragedy of all souls'" (Sealts 188). His idea of the soul, universal as it was, was still limited by this disparity. It meant that knowledge of the Oversoul could be privileged. The eternal optimist, Emerson was undaunted by this apparent obstacle. However distant, Emerson remained committed to the idea that the ultimate displacement of evil was possible. By enriching his own connection to the Oversoul, he could connect to other souls as well.
And connect he did. In many ways Melville and Emerson are on opposite ends of a monkey rope not unlike that of Queequeg and Ishmael. "For better or worse, we two, for the time are wedded" (Melville 253). Regardless of how Melville tried to cut the "hempen bond" that ties him to Emerson's soul he could not. It may well be fair to say that "the Emersonian soul is the very axletree of Melville's imagination" (Bishop 144).
Bishop, Jonathan. Emerson on the Soul. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1964.
Braswell, William. Melville's Religious Thought. New York:
Pageant Books, 1959.
Cook, Charles H. "Ahab's Intolerable Allegory". Rpt. in
Discussions of Moby Dick. Milton Stern ed. Boston:
D.C. Heath Inc., 1960.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Emerson's Essays. Philadelphia: David
McKay Inc., 1890.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Inc.,
Parke, John. "Seven Moby Dicks". Rpt in Discussions of Moby
Dick Milton Stern ed. Boston: D.C. Heath Inc., 1960.
Sealts, Merton M. Jr. "Emerson as a Teacher" Rpt in
Emerson's Centenary Essays. Joel Meyerson ed.
Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.
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