Here and there – Herman Melville on Evil

 

In Melville’s final work, Billy Budd, Billy personifies innocence and beauty.  John Claggart personifies evil.  He cannot stand the sight of Billy.

… The Master-at-Arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.  And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that cynic disdain – disdain of innocence.  To be nothing more than innocent! … A nature like Claggart’s surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible act out to the end the part allotted to it. 

And then there is this:

The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts.

In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab represents another kind of evil.  Ahab is mad to get revenge on the murderous whale that ‘dismasted’ him.  W H Auden said that Ahab ‘is a representation, perhaps the greatest in literature of defiant despair.’  Ahab is wilfully beyond comfort because ‘comfort would be the destruction of him’ (a phrase that Auden takes from Kierkegaard).

Captain Ahab personifies the fanatic, and he appeals to the gutter.  It was only on reading the novel for the third time – in which serious self-editing is permitted – and on looking again at the luminous book Melville, His World and Work (2005) by Andrew Delbanco – that I realised how relevant this curious novel is to us now.  It is a frightening portrait of a manic demagogue.  There is another frightful example in the White House as we speak.

Captain Ahab believes that we are all prisoners of our ignorance about the meaning of our suffering.  He asks his Chief Mate ‘how can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?’

To me, the white whale [Moby-Dick] is that wall, shoved near to me.  Sometimes I think there’s nought beyond.  But ‘tis enough.  He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it.  That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white male agent, or be the white male principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.  Talk not to me of blasphemy man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.

This is the kind of apocalyptic stuff we get with Carlyle.  Delbanco says that with Captain Ahab, ‘Melville struck a note that would resound through modern history in ways he could never have anticipated’:

All that 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.

The usual term is scapegoat.  Delbanco refers to another writer who says that ‘every sufferer instinctively seeks a cause for his suffering….a ‘guilty’ agent who is susceptible to pain’ upon whom he can vent his rage and ‘dull by means of some violent emotion his secret tormenting pain.’

For this purpose, Ahab gees up his troops, who are at best an indifferent motley.  They happily surrender to the mood of the moment, and to the instinct of the herd.  The zeal of each takes on the colour of the rest.  Delbanco refers to a critic who called Moby-Dick a ‘prophecy of the essence of fascism’, and to a French critic who in 1928 saw the drift into reactionary nationalism and xenophobia and who said that ‘hatred becomes stronger by becoming more precise.’   He refers to another comment about the ‘intense subjectivism’ with which Hitler ‘repeatedly over-rode the opinions of trained diplomats and the German General Staff, committing blunder after blunder’ that led to the final disaster.

The relevance of all this to the manic demagogues we have now, and their pliant acolytes is obvious.  Delbanco concludes:

In Captain Ahab, Melville had invented a suicidal charismatic who denounces as a blasphemer anyone who would deflect him from his purpose – an invention that shows no sign of becoming obsolete any time soon.

Amen.  But, at least the whale won that one.  And the phrase ‘truth with malice in it’ belongs to the ages.

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