Melville: Shakespeare in prose
Darshan Singh Maini

Herman Melville
Herman Melville

Herman Melville, that 19th Century American novelist could, at his best, be compared with Shakespeare in the power of his range and vision. He wrote a number of romances such as Piere or The Ambiguities, Moby Dick, White Jacket, The Confidence Man & Billy Budd. Of these, the best-known book is, of course, Moby Dick.

Melville, that tormented American prophet who went whaling as far out into the metaphysical seas as any mortal before or after. Shakespeare along among the earlier writers had that kind of ontological penetration and vision, not to speak of poetry and rhetoric. No wonder, Shakespearian analogy strikes us as apposite and organic. The modernity of Melville is at once spatial and temporal. He is our contemporary in the manner of Shakespeare.

To be sure, a mind like Melville’s would have anywhere and any time drawn its energies encountered with the imponderables of life; and thus hoisted metaphysics of dualities and uncertainties. But it must be emphasised that American situation of his day had in a palpable and dramatic manner the kinetics to inveigle his imagination in that direction. Sartre’s statement that "Americans tend to suffer from an ambivalence of anguish", is particularly true of that period when the new nation was culturally and politically moving in a miasma amidst a burgeoning and flourishing economy.

To begin with, it’s necessary to remember Melville’s own endless references in putative form to the question of antinomies, ambiguities and "linked analogies". Its clearest and loudest expression comes in the title of Pierre or The Ambiguities. As for its dramatisation in situation and character, there is hardly a novel or a tale where the idea does not burn to the wick. Also, its lyric statement in the form of musings and questionings and apostrophes may be seen embedded in nearly all the dramatic crystallisations of the theme. Clearly, Melville is possessed by the idea of ambiguity. Marius Bewley "knew in an otherwise penetrating essay that till Moby Dick, the novelist is able to maintain strenuously the clear polarity of good and evil and that soon after in Pierre he slips into "a poisoned ambiguity" cannot be sustained if Melville’s pronouncements on the nature of reality in his earlier writings such as Mardi and White Jacket are taken into account. In Moby Dick itself, Melville throws up his hands in despair again and again at the maddening complexities and ambiguities of things.

In Moby Dick (1851) all the metaphysical bees buzzing in Melville’s head descend in swarms, so to speak. The question of appearance and reality, innocence and evil, identity and flux, heaven and hell, freedom and necessity assume an awesome and tragic dignity beyond all that his tormented rhetoric can suggest. Ahab’s hunt of the white whale, rich in symbolism has been interpreted in several equally attractive and convincing ways, and the power of Melville’s art lies in the fact that he has woven endless ambiguities into the fabric of the story, and the visionary ambivalence is in constant attendance. At the back of Melville’s mind is the belief that "human kind cannot bear very much reality" in the words of T.S. Eliot. And yet here and here a raving Ahab will not be appeased, turn as he may from pillar to post.

The bushes burning in his resinous heart will set him aflame on a course that will end in madness and destruction. And Ahab is, indeed, a metaphysical desperado who has hijacked humanity aboard that ship in his combat with shadows. The man, who would "Strike the sun if it insulted him", and who, in the end, smashes the quadrant that had indeed descended into those extremes of solipsism from which there is no return.

Moby Dick heaps upon us the way white whale heaps upon the tormented soul of Ahab. All the multiplying incidents, details, scholarly investigations, philosophical probings and poetic outpourings are intended to drive the reader pitilessly into those vortices of thought, where thought turning upon itself comes to grief. The nuclear ambiguity of things endures beyond thought.

Upon this metaphysical leitmotif, then are built all the variations in the grand symphony of Melville’s works. The theme of innocence and evil, white and black, democracy and dictatorship, justice and authority, self and society, expediency and idealism, language and silence etc. only help swell the music. In other words, Melville’s metaphysics subsumes his ethic, politics, sociology and rhetoric. The key to all the problems over which he agonises from book to book lies if indeed, there is anything like a key in such matters — in his torment over the opacity, inscrutability and immutability of human reality.