You can’t fool us. It is the easiest thing in the world for a man to look as if he had a great secret in him.
I first read Moby-Dick in college, my junior year, when I persuaded a professor to let me read just three books for a semester-long tutorial: Paradise Lost, Ulysses, and Moby-Dick. I fell in love that year with a straight friend of mine, and lacking any idea what to do with my feelings, I sometimes stayed home alone in the evening, got drunk in a miserable way, and found a not-quite-comfort in reading and re-reading a passage from Moby-Dick that spoke to me strangely. My old paperback still opens naturally to the page. The passage seemed disarmingly candid about the sort of desires that were troubling me, but it also seemed in touch with an occult understanding of those desires as an existential challenge that all human beings face. On the surface, the passage concerns a chore that whalemen used to perform: squeezing lumps out of oil tapped from a sperm whale’s head.2 As Melville jokes about men touching hands in the liquid—called sperm because for a long time that was what it was erroneously thought to be—he seems at first merely to be winking at the reader behind the back of Victorian censors. But as he continues, his tone changes, deepening from bawdy humor to something close to tragedy:
Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti. (NN MD 416)
To me, in my youthful misery, these sentences seemed to convey a secret meaning. They said that people like Melville and me had to accept that we were not going to be happy; we were going to have to settle. The closest we were ever going to come to what we really wanted was a metaphor.
What is a secret meaning? It is not obvious that a novel should have one. The novel is, after all, a popular art form, and it succeeds with its readers by giving them stories and by playing on their feelings. Why should it withhold anything? Jane Austen keeps secrets from her readers only temporarily, for the purpose of suspense. Early in Barchester Towers, Trollope famously gives away the ending of his book in order to prove that the pleasure he is offering has nothing to do with puzzle-solving. Yet Melville does induce in many readers the sense that he hints at more than he says. Indeed, scholars have devoted careers to figuring out his hints.
Is the pursuit worth so much effort? In the service of a fuller aesthetic appreciation of Melville’s writings, the pursuit may be its own reward, but Melville convinces some readers that much more is at stake—that he may know and be on the verge of imparting what he calls “the old State-secret” hidden underneath the human soul (NN MD 186). This is strange. Why should Melville be credited with special access to a truth revealed only to a few? Sociologically speaking, that kind of credit would be more fitting for a mystic, a guru, or a religious leader. A few decades ago, thanks to a chance discovery in a Middle Eastern monastery, scholars revealed that the New Testament gospel of Mark is an edited version of a longer, esoteric text called Secret Mark. If you believe that a divine being fathered Jesus, and that Jesus entrusted his story to Mark, then you will believe that the secret gospel of Mark, if authentic, is meaningful. If you believe that some truths should only be shared with people prepared to receive them—a belief in some disrepute since the Enlightenment—you might also believe that Secret Mark should have remained secret to all but a few. (In fact, Secret Mark was shared with so few that only a couple of sentences have survived.) But novelists do not usually claim to be gods or to receive special messages from them, and they are in the business of sharing stories widely.
Adding to the mystery is that Melville himself does not always seem fully conscious of the secrets that he is struggling to reveal—or, rather, to represent—in his fiction. He suggests as much in Pierre, when the hero reads a philosophical pamphlet that he does not understand, then shoves it into his coat pocket. Unbeknownst to Pierre, the pamphlet works its way into the coat’s lining. He later searches for the pamphlet in vain, unaware that he is carrying it around with him. “Could he likewise have carried about with him in his mind the thorough understanding of the book,” Melville asks, “and yet not be aware that he so understood it?” (NN Pierre 294)3 The idea of death, Melville suggests, may be a secret of a similar nature—one that people keep from themselves. A twenty-first-century reader may add that gay desire also has this nature when people repress it. Indeed, psychology seems a key to the paradox of secrets and authority. Even without knowing a writer’s secret, a reader might become convinced of its urgency if he somehow recognizes the writer’s quest to know it—if somehow the writer’s quest resonates with his own. A writer might seem to be working through a family romance that strikes a reader as uncannily familiar, for example.
But here is a hazard. If we agree that a novel like Moby-Dick contains a meaningful secret without being certain what that secret is, we create a magician’s prop of great efficacy—a box with a false bottom. If, in the course of interpretation, someone sneaks an idea into the box, that idea can be revealed later as an important truth, supported by Melville’s authority. Much critical warfare about canonical authors is premised on this dishonest game, which is not an accurate way of determining either truth or significance.
Perhaps as a defense against this hazard, readers sometimes have an allergic reaction when a novel’s secrets are pointed out to them. Scholars have long accepted that Captain Ahab, the maddened hunter of the white whale Moby Dick, betrays in some of his speeches a belief in Gnosticism, a set of early Christian heresies. Like the Gnostics, Ahab seems to believe that the god ruling this world is not the supreme being of the universe but a demiurge, a thoughtless maker of mechanisms. The demiurge manufactured humans as no more than flesh-based automatons; behind his back, however, a female being of a higher nature stole for humans a spark from the highest realm. According to the Gnostics, the Old Testament’s Serpent and Cain are heroes for trying to bring humans knowledge and independence—for trying to restore to them at least an awareness of their spiritual natures (Versluis, Vargish, Young).
Tell a lay reader all of this, and you may be answered with a sigh. The information seems surplus, somehow in violation of the rules. If readers of Moby-Dick really needed to know about Gnosticism, wouldn’t Melville have told them about it? Doesn’t labeling Melville’s source rob Ahab’s madness of its mystery? Moreover, Gnosticism hardly seems to be the book’s important secret; a novelist is not after the same kind of truth as a theologian or a philosopher. “The system-builder’s job is to refine his system, give reasons for accepting it, and perhaps draw from it some practical consequences,” Michael Levin has written. “A novelist like Melville is trying to articulate the world as seen through the lens of the system. He need not even subscribe to the system to appreciate its interest as an aesthetic object” (qtd. in Sealts, Pursuing 316).
Sometimes, though, a novelist does believe in the philosophical system he borrows from, or at least wrestles with belief in it, and such, I believe, is the case with Melville’s Platonism—with the ideas and imagery that Melville drew from Plato’s classic dialogues about the nature of love, death, truth, and the soul. When Melville wrote Gnosticism into Ahab’s speeches, he may have been play-acting, but he seems to have found Platonism to be what William James, in “The Will to Believe,” calls “a live hypothesis”; he was able to live and feel as if it were true. Melville may have doubted and even deprecated Platonism, but as Merton M. Sealts Jr. demonstrates, Melville’s imagination involved itself richly and complexly with Plato’s, and Plato’s hold on his attention could be urgent (“Neoplatonic Originals”). In what follows, I would like to take Sealts’s exposition of the relationship a little further and describe patterns of Melville’s meaning that draw not only on Plato’s ideas and imagery but also on Melville’s imaginative extensions of them.
As these introductory caveats suggest, I do not claim that the patterns I am about to describe constitute the key secret of Melville’s writing. When I was twenty, I imagined an identification between Melville and me. We had both felt romantic love for men, I thought, and had both felt barred from expressing it. I still suspect that these assertions were true of Melville, but the second is no longer true of me. Where once my basis for interpretation was identity, today it may be difference.4 I am also more aware than I was two and a half decades ago that other grounds exist for identification with Melville, some of which I share and some of which I do not. I am still interested in Melville’s cryptic meanings, but now more as an aesthetic matter or what might be called an archaeological-biographical one. I do not believe that Melville’s secrets will necessarily turn out to be in any larger sense true. As Emerson explained, in a Platonic metaphor of his own,
It seems as if the Deity dressed each soul which he sends into nature in certain virtues and powers not communicable to other men, and, sending it to perform one more turn through the circle of beings, wrote, “Not transferable,” and “Good for this trip only,” on these garments of the soul. (Emerson 628; his emphasis)
“All human beings . . . yearn, as regards the body and soul,” the character Diotima declares in Plato’s dialogue The Symposium, “and when they arrive at maturity, our nature longs to beget” (Plato, The Banquet 541). Having fallen in love with beauty, humans hope to beget in its presence. For men—and Plato is for the most part concerned only with male psychology—two kinds of begetting are possible. On the one hand, those men “who have a yearning according to the body, turn themselves rather to women,” and try to procure immortality by begetting children (546). Poets, artists, lawmakers, and others who yearn “according to the soul,” on the other hand, hope to beget “intellect and every other excellence.” A man who’s after “intellect and every other excellence” falls in love with a beautiful soul united with a handsome body, and in the interest of such excellence, he and his beloved will form “a friendship more firm” in the end than those who come together to have biological children (547–48).
I am quoting here from George Burges’s 1850 translation of Plato, which is thought to be the version Melville read (Sealts, Pursuing 299, 391n34, n35). Burges considered “a portion of [the dialogue’s] matter . . . happily abhorrent from our finer feelings,” but despite his reservations, Burges retained and Englished enough of Plato’s references to “beautiful boys or youths” (554) to make it clear that in Plato’s schema, men who yearn according to the soul fall in love with men. Even in Burges’s translation, Pausanias, another of Plato’s characters, labels men’s love for women “vulgar” and their love for male youths “celestial.”
Burges rendered the title of the dialogue as “The Banquet,” and Melville alludes both to this rendering of the dialogue’s title and to the dialogue’s ideas in “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” his anonymous review of Hawthorne’s story collection Mosses from an Old Manse.5 Melville published the review in August 1850, within a few months of his first meeting with the older author. The language of the passage has struck many commentators as not just romantic but sexual.
To what infinite height of loving wonder and admiration I may yet be borne, when by repeatedly banquetting on these Mosses, I shall have thoroughly incorporated their whole stuff into my being,—that I can not tell. But already I feel that this Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul. He expands and deepens down, the more I contemplate him; and further, and further, shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul. (NN PT 250)
In much the way that Diotima explains, Hawthorne’s beauty is impregnating Melville. Melville had been writing a book about whaling. Falling for Hawthorne inspired him to reconceive it and to beget the book that we know today as Moby-Dick, a feat that has indeed brought Melville something like the immortality promised by Plato. A little more than a year after Melville wrote “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” Hawthorne read Moby-Dick, which Melville had inscribed to him, and sent Melville a letter praising it. In November 1851, Melville responded, this time in a direct and private letter that again invoked Plato’s erotic theories.
You understood the pervading thought that impelled the book . . . You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul. Once you hugged the ugly Socrates because you saw the flame in the mouth, and heard the rushing of the demon,—the familiar,—and recognized the sound; for you have heard it in your own solitudes. . . . I shall leave the world, I feel, with more satisfaction for having come to know you. Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality. (NN Correspondence 213)
Plato gave Melville more than just images through which to express his feelings. He gave Melville the confidence to mean that last sentence literally: “Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality.” Later Melville was to doubt that he truly had known Hawthorne and to doubt the existence of an afterlife; his epic poem, Clarel, published in 1876, was to plumb both doubts, in a sort of dark, late answer to Tennyson’s In Memoriam, another Victorian exploration of religious faith in the shadow of a lost, loved man. At the moment of completing Moby-Dick, however, Melville felt that he and Hawthorne had recognized in each other a flash of spirit that proved the existence of the higher realm—the realm imagined by Plato, the longing for which brought both romantic passion and the aspiration to achieve intellectual greatness. Plato’s realm, in Melville’s mind, may even have seemed one with the afterlife promised by Christ.
Accordingly, in Moby-Dick, faith in a higher spirit is to be found in moments of communion between men. “Let me look into a human eye,” Ahab tells his first mate, Starbuck; “it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God” (NN MD 544). As a child, the novel’s narrator Ishmael once hallucinated the clasp of a “supernatural hand in mine,” and when Ishmael wakes up in a New Bedford inn embraced by the cannibal harpooner Queequeg, the cannibal’s touch reminds him of that supernatural hand, but with “the awful fear” taken away (26). In the doubt-clouded Clarel, by contrast, Melville’s characters regret that the world long ago outgrew the era when “Man clasped a deity’s offered hand” (NN Clarel 2.21.69).
Moby-Dick is a tragedy, and in it, faith is menaced. Despite Starbuck’s appeal to Ahab’s humanity, Ahab feels compelled to act “against all natural lovings” (NN MD545); despite Queequeg’s Massachusetts marriage to Ishmael, “a wild, mystical sympathetical feeling” involves Ishmael, too, in “Ahab’s quenchless feud” (179). Why is Ahab’s rage at odds with love between men? In fact the situation is more complex than the question suggests. Ahab mistakes a triangulation of forces for a mere opposition. The third force—a greater threat than Ahab’s rage—is the strange business of hunting human-like animals and draining their heads of sperm. I believe Melville understands this business as a materialist distortion of Plato’s myths of love. The “cruise for the whale, whose brain enlightens the world,” is how he characterizes it in his early novel Mardi (NN Mardi 3). In the business of whaling, Melville found an allegory for the alteration of men’s higher aspirations that industrial capitalism effects. Ishmael might be considered a final, uninvited guest to Plato’s banquet, and his tale a postscript to Diotima’s.
Melville knew that whales were intelligent, were distressed by other whales’ pain, and had sex the way humans do, face to face. He hints that killing whales is tantamount to killing people. The Quaker captain Bildad, for example, is reproached for indulging in “leviathan gore,” even though Quakers are not required to be vegetarian (NN MD 74). When Stubb, the second mate, eats a whale steak, the narrator is led by his train of thought to a half-jocular defense of cannibalism (300), and when Ishmael tastes a sample of the purplish flesh that adheres to blubber, he claims that this “plum-pudding” tastes “something as I should conceive a royal cutlet from the thigh of Louis Le Gros might have tasted” (417). In the days before whale oil was heat-purified on board ship, the unloading of blubber in ports is said to have smelled like “excavating an old city grave-yard” (409).
Sometimes Melville hints that the case may be even worse—that the whale may belong to an order of being higher than the human. The whale is praised, for example, for his morally superior ability to “live in this world without being of it,” as the Puritans used to advise (NN MD 307). When a diving whale ups flukes, the sight suggests to Ishmael devils and archangels (378); similarly, when a fossil whale is found in Alabama, “awe-stricken credulous slaves in the vicinity took it for the bones of one of the fallen angels” (457). Antedating Adam and surpassing humans in both power and moral delicacy, Melville’s whales owe something to the extinct beings that Lucifer shows Cain in Byron’s 1821 tragedy. “What are these mighty phantoms which I see / Floating around me?” Cain asks.
—They wear not the form
Of the Intelligences I have seen
Round our regretted and unentered Eden;
Nor wear the form of man as I have viewed it. . . .
And yet they have an aspect, which, though not
Of men nor angels, looks like something, which,
If not the last, rose higher than the first,
Haughty, and high, and beautiful, and full
Of seeming strength, but of inexplicable
Shape; for I never saw such. (Byron 5.241-42)
In what is nearly the first sentence of the novel, in “Extracts,” Melville quotes Hackluyt’s claim that “the letter H . . . almost alone maketh up the signification of the word” whale and warns against spelling whale without it (NN MD xv). The letter H gives the sound of breath—that is, of spirit—and whether a whale can go without breath is a crucial question about him. The whale is a fish that breathes air, “a spouting fish,” in Ishmael’s definition (137), but the whale is also able to dive and “live without breathing” for a time (371). If breath is understood as a mechanical process, then diving is spiritual; if breath is understood as spirit, then diving is a descent into pure mechanism. At the bottom of Melville’s metaphors lies, therefore, an “unemendable discrepancy,” to borrow a term from textual editor Harrison Hayford. Are whales remarkable for their spirit, or remarkable in being able to go without it? The question may also be asked of human beings, of course, and it is crucial to the Gnostic conflict between the mechanical demiurge ruling this world and the spiritual forces obscured by him.
Melville was not aware that whales sing. To the contrary, Ishmael claims that “the Sperm Whale has no tongue” (NN MD 347). “Thou hast dived the deepest,” Ahab addresses the severed head of a sperm whale suspended by the side of his ship, but “not one syllable is thine!” (311–12) In defense of the whale’s silence, Ishmael writes that “Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say in this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living” (372). Ishmael is here repeating an idea from Melville’s 1849 novel Mardi, in which the philosopher Babbalanja explains that one of his favorite authors wrote because he was compelled by hunger. “The greatest fullnesses overflow not spontaneously,” says Babbalanja; “and, even when decanted, like rich syrups, slowly ooze. . . . When great fullness weds great indolence;—that man, to others, too often proves a cipher.”6 Like the sperm in a whale’s head, the essence in an author’s mind tends to remain there. Babbalanja’s author fell into want, however, and “that churned him into consciousness” (NN Mardi 593). The verb churn is telling; Melville also uses it to describe the first whale-killing in Moby-Dick. With a lance stabbed into a whale, Stubb “was carefully churning and churning,” Melville writes, “as if cautiously seeking to feel after some gold watch that the whale might have swallowed” (NN MD 286). The analogy between whales and writers re-appears in Ishmael’s discussion of the sperm whale’s spout, which he half-jokingly attributes to the profundity of the whale’s thoughts. “I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts,” says Ishmael. In a mirror, Ishmael even claims, he once saw a plume of mist over his own head “while composing a little treatise on Eternity” (374). The topic is not incidental. According to Ishmael, the sperm whale’s broad brow reveals him to be a Platonist, with “a speculative indifference as to death” (335). (Plato’s name, as Sealts notes, derives from the Greek word for “broad,” probably because the philosopher had either a broad brow or broad shoulders [Pursuing 391n41].)
The sperm whale, then, is an intelligent, affectionate creature on a par with humans if not morally superior to them. In the chapter titled “The Grand Armada” (Ch. 87), Ishmael and Queequeg are pulled into the calm center of a school of the animals, where they witness “young Leviathan amours” (NN MD 388) and mothers nursing their young. So the sperm whale is capable of the heterosexual love that Plato calls vulgar. Ishmael’s analogies suggest that older, solitary male sperm whales with broad brows, such as Moby Dick, are capable of yearnings after heaven, the love that Plato calls celestial. The whale’s celestial yearnings remain silent, perhaps, because as Plato explains in another dialogue, the Phaedrus, the noblest thing to do about falling in love with a male youth is nothing. The highest natures resist sexual congress and under the spur of their longing devote themselves to philosophy. Like humans, then, the sperm whale has two uses for the “quickening humor” (NN MD 138) after which he is named: he may use it to engender offspring, or he may hold it in his head while he thinks of heaven.
Indeed, Melville even hints that the whale may be better at yearning for heaven while on earth than humans are. The position of the sperm whale’s eyes, on either side of his head, suggests a mental capacity to “attentively examine two distinct prospects” at the same time, Ishmael observes (331). In the midst of the school of sperm whales, Ishmael observes infant whales apparently in the act of balancing this world and the next:
As human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;—even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us. (388)
Like the best human philosophers, Ishmael says, the sperm whale can regard “doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly, . . . with equal eye” (374).
Unfortunately for whales, human industry has a third use for the noble animal’s sperm—neither vulgar nor celestial but infernal. The whale is to be killed and spermaceti extracted from its head by force. In a recent history of whaling, Eric Dolin has written that whalers were the first Americans to work on “what could reasonably be called an industrial assembly line” (Dolin 108). Industrial production requires workers to conform to its rhythms; it rules out indolence, no matter how fecund of art or philosophy. Industrial production also travesties biological reproduction. While surrounded by nursing sperm whales, for instance, Queequeg mistakes a whale’s umbilical cord for a line of hemp attached to a harpoon (NN MD 388). On another occasion, while standing on the severed head of a sperm whale and baling out its spermaceti, the harpooner Tashtego accidentally slips inside. The whale head comes loose from its tackle, drops into the sea, and sinks, but Queequeg dives to the rescue, “delivering” Tashtego from the sperm whale’s head underwater through a series of incisions and maneuvers that Melville likens to a Caesarean section. “As for the great head itself,” Ishmael jokes afterward, “that was doing as well as could be expected” (344). Tashtego’s metaphoric mother, in other words, sinks to Davy Jones’s locker. “How many,” Ishmael further jokes, “have likewise fallen into Plato’s honey head, and sweetly perished there?” (344) Plato’s two loves have been crudely materialized. Instead of two avenues to immortality, there are now just vulgar and celestial kinds of death: the fate of the whale’s sunken head and the fate that Tashtego narrowly avoids.
Plato believed that in successive reincarnations, people rose to higher realms by practicing love that was more and more enlightened (Phaedrus 533). Industry, however, sees sperm as no more than fuel, so Ishmael, as a whaler, comes to see life and death as a cycle without any chance of progress. “Hardly have we mortals by long toilings extracted from this world’s vast bulk its small but valuable sperm . . . when—There she blows!—the ghost is spouted up, and away we sail to fight some other world, and go through young life’s old routine again” (NN MD 429). Ishmael nearly perishes despite the love he shares with Queequeg, and Ahab does perish despite the love he shares with Pip and despite the love that is offered to him by Starbuck. The supply of the men’s love is inadequate, perhaps because it is being tapped for economic use.
Ahab rebels against that use. “Thou art always prating to me, Starbuck,” he complains to his first mate, “about those miserly owners, as if the owners were my conscience” (474). But his rebellion is confused. What has the white whale named Moby Dick done to provoke his rage? It has merely insisted on its individuality by resisting homogenization into fuel. Such reduction is whaling’s premise. “However peculiar . . . any chance whale may be,” Ishmael explains, “they soon put an end to his peculiarities by killing him, and boiling him down into a peculiarly valuable whale oil” (204). Ahab, too, protests to the universe that he is an individual—that “in the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here” (507)—but he is unable to see that he and Moby Dick are in many ways brothers, both seeking revenge for their wounds, both with brows as broad as Plato’s and as distinctly marked as Cain’s. Ahab’s soul has been so badly damaged by industrialism’s distortions, which during forty years of “privation . . . on the pitiless sea” have allowed him fewer than three ashore (543), that he awakes from nightmares in a state of depersonalization, “a vacated thing . . . a ray of living light . . . but without an object to color, and therefore a blankness in itself” (202)—a blankness much like the “colorless, all-color” he sees in his white enemy Moby-Dick (195). Ahab is beyond the reach of love. Lacking the sperm whale’s bifocal vision, he sees only one thing; heaven’s light no longer invests his world.
If I look again at the passage in “A Squeeze of the Hand” that meant so much to me more than twenty years ago, I see now that Melville was referring to Plato’s celestial love when he wrote of placing a “conceit of attainable felicity . . . in the intellect or the fancy.” Burges chose the word intellect to translate sophia, the quality that those who yearned according to the soul hoped to beget. Perhaps not coincidentally, Sophia, which may also be translated as “wisdom,” is the name given by the Gnostics to the female divinity who thwarted the demiurge by conveying spirit to humans. If the passage is strictly construed, Ishmael must be understood as saying that he is giving up on any alternative to earthly satisfactions. Nonetheless, I stand by my youthful impression that Ishmael regrets the surrender and that his insistence on the sensuous pleasure of his earthly substitute hints at rebellion. What concerns me, in returning to the passage, is whether Ishmael’s rebellion is in some ways like Ahab’s. In his fantasy of heavenly sperm-squeezing, Ishmael sees no personal beloved. More dangerously, the realms of heaven and earth have collapsed into each other. The suckling infant whale may be able to find in one of this world’s pleasures a reminder of the next one and an occasion to daydream about it, but Ishmael here imagines the next world as offering no more than the repetitive pursuit of a merely physical pleasure obtainable in this one. It is a desperate fantasy; Ishmael has not succeeded in imagining a higher realm, and he is angry; he has lost faith. No wonder a miserable person would choose to read and re-read the passage.
Melville met Hawthorne while the two were living in neighboring towns in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Shortly before Melville wrote his ecstatic letter of November 1851, Hawthorne announced that he was leaving town; a few months after Melville wrote the letter, Hawthorne was gone. Melville’s next novel, Pierre, published in 1852, told the story of a naïve young man, Pierre, who meets a woman named Isabel, who he comes to believe is his half-sister—his father’s illegitimate child. Hoping to redress his father’s sin, Pierre moves in with Isabel and is thereby led into incest with her.
In 1969, the critic John D. Seelye pointed out that Pierre finds Isabel living in a small red farmhouse beside a lake in a neighboring town, much like the small red farmhouse beside a lake where Hawthorne had lived in the Berkshires. Isabel’s farmhouse, moreover, is encrusted with “the brightest mosses,” perhaps an allusion to the story collection of Hawthorne’s that Melville had reviewed (NN Pierre 110). In 1993, James Creech proposed that in writing the novel Melville had adopted the Albertine strategy, so named after a character in Proust, of disguising a homosexual love with a fictional change of gender.7
Indeed, Pierre’s declarations of love to Isabel strangely echo Melville’s ecstatic letters to Hawthorne. “Ineffable socialities are in me,” wrote Melville in November 1851 (NN Correspondence 212). “The audacious immortalities of divinest love are in me,” says Pierre (NN Pierre 36). Melville asked, “Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life?” (NN Correspondence 212). Pierre asks, “Mysterious girl! who art thou? by what right snatchest thou thus my deepest thoughts?” (NN Pierre 41). In a June 1851 letter, Melville wrote that “It is a frightful poetical creed that the cultivation of the brain eats out the heart. But it’s my prose opinion that in most cases, in those men who have fine brains and work them well, the heart extends down to hams” (NN Correspondence 192). Pierre similarly exclaims “Plus head, minus heart—Pah! the brains grow maggoty without a heart; but the heart’s the preserving salt itself, and can keep sweet without the head” (NN Pierre 320).
The mysterious pamphlet that Pierre reads and then loses in his coat points the supposed moral of the novel: trying to live by heaven’s laws in this world leads to “strange, unique follies and sins unimagined before” (NN Pierre 213). Creech calls Pierre’s justification for involving himself with Isabel “the alibi of virtue” and characterizes it as a cover story (Creech 167, 157). It may be one, but I suspect it is also a further exploration of the Platonic myths about love. When Isabel claims that “There is no sex in our immaculateness” (NN Pierre 149), and when Pierre vows to “love with the pure and perfect love of angel to an angel” (154), they are collapsing the heavenly and the earthly realms, instead of balancing intimations of one with doubts of the other. Lovers sometimes do not realize the meaning of a love affair until it has ended. Perhaps while Melville was in love with Hawthorne, he was able to believe that his yearning was for a satisfaction that could be postponed to heaven, but once he lost him, became aware that his longings had been carnal all along.
It is hard to know whether Melville believed in an afterlife. “At best, ’tis but a hope,” says Babbalanja. “But will a longing bring the thing desired?” (NN Mardi 237). We think life is precious, Babbalanja points out, but so do herring (575). Sharks no doubt dream of a future Pacific Ocean where sailors are endlessly tumbled overboard (289). “As for the possible hereafter of the whales,” Melville writes, “a creature eighty feet long without stockings, and thirty feet around the waist before dinner, is not inconsiderately to be consigned to annihilation” (289).
Annihilation was on Melville’s mind in November 1856, when he visited Hawthorne in Liverpool, where Hawthorne was serving in the American consulate. Melville was on his way to tour the Holy Land. After some awkwardness, the two friends went for a walk on the beach. Hawthorne reported in his journal that
Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated”; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation. . . . He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. (qtd. in NN Journals 628)
Again, the topic is not incidental. Hawthorne could no longer persuade Melville of his immortality. Melville proceeded to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea on his own. In 1864, Hawthorne died, and in a monody, probably about Hawthorne, Melville gave some vent to his pain (see Crain; Hayford; Milder, “Editing”; and Thompson).
In 1867, Melville’s mental health was so poor that his family considered helping his wife separate from him. In 1876, he published Clarel, a long, dense, cryptic poem about a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which drew on notes by then almost two decades old. Hawthorne appears in the poem as one of several male figures whom the young protagonist Clarel, a theology student, approaches but never quite connects with as he searches for a way to recover his religious faith. “Give me thyself!” Clarel silently pleads to the Hawthorne figure, but Clarel comes to see that the man is too burdened by guilt to be able to reciprocate (NN Clarel 2.27.70; 3.7.36).
Late in the poem, a celibate monk challenges Clarel to join him in “the vowed life austere” (NN Clarel 3.30.123). Clarel is uncertain he could live without women, but he recalls the “repulsed advance” he made to the Hawthorne figure and wonders if there “can be a bond / . . . as David sings in strain / That dirges beauteous Jonathan, / Passing the love of woman fond?” (ll. 149–52). The monk’s appeal is fraught with a certain amount of disgust over women’s sexuality, which the thought of the Virgin Mary helps Clarel to dismiss.8 He proceeds to muse earnestly nonetheless on the monk’s choice.
By the 1870s, German-language writers were beginning to coin words for a consistent same-sex attraction, and Melville comes close to naming something like homosexuality in the lines that follow, which contain a strange syncretism of Christianity and Platonism. As Clarel thinks through the problem of sexuality and asceticism, he begins by noting that the angels “through all their ranks . . . are masculine” (3.31.31); an inference he seems to have drawn from Milton and from Jesus’s declaration that there will be no marrying or giving in marriage in heaven. “Yet love in heaven itself to spare— / Love feminine!” Clarel exclaims (ll. 37–38). The exclamation is a little obscure, but I think Clarel means, But surely the love that rules in heaven will make an exception when translating heavenward the sort of love that’s natural on earth—that is, men’s love of women! After further consideration, however, Clarel suspects that such an exception would be a logical impossibility. If there are no genders in heaven, then a man’s love for a woman, transported to heaven, has no more chance of long-term survival than a cut flower:
Can Eve be riven
From sex, and disengaged retain
Its charm? Think this—then may ye feign
The perfumed rose shall keep its bloom,
Cut off from sustenance of loam. (ll. 38–42)
Because heterosexuality cannot exist in heaven, man’s earthly love for a woman cannot be immortal. Can any other kind of love? What about “Love kindled thence,” Clarel asks; “is that eternal?” (l. 45). The slightly archaic word thence means “from there,” just as thither means “to there.” In other words, when Melville writes “love kindled thence,” he is referring to a love kindled from heaven into the hearts of people on earth—that is, kindled between two people who are male, as all souls in heaven are, in Clarel’s understanding. Melville may have been thinking here of a passage that he marked in his copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost, where the angel Raphael explains to Adam that angels do make love in paradise, “and obstacle find none / Of membrane, joint, or limb, exclusive bars” (Grey and Robillard 156). If angels do make love, then their love is the one Plato called “celestial.” Can it be felt on earth? “Here, here’s the hollow—here the haunting!” Clarel worries (l. 46). He can think of only two Christians who were able to practice such a love benignly on earth: Saint Francis, who created a fraternal religious order under its spur, and Saint John, identified in the New Testament as “the disciple Jesus loved.” But “That other love!—Oh heavy load—,” Clarel exclaims. The trouble is that men who are not saints fall into sin when they try this love on earth. The “heavy load” that Clarel regrets is the burden of incarnation, which degrades celestial love to an act that on earth has an infernal reputation. “Is naught then trustworthy but God?” Clarel asks (ll. 53–54; Melville’s emphasis).
The critic Robert Milder has written that Melville returns in this passage “to the central ambiguity of Platonic homoeroticism,” namely, whether Platonic homoeroticism transcends carnality or is subject to it (“Ugly Socrates” 145). But if Melville’s phrase “that other love” refers to homosexuality, as I suspect it does, then the ambiguity is here all but decided. No human love is unstained by earthly eros. Melville does not seem to have felt any disgust about homosexual acts; only the metaphysics troubled him. When the travelers of Clarel reach the site of Sodom, for example, the ex-revolutionary Mortmain insists that the Sodomites must have been guilty of subtle sins—”decorum’s wile, / Malice discreet, judicious guile” (one thinks of Captain Vere)—not merely “carnal harlotry” (NN Clarel 2.36.34–35, 43). And not long after Clarel declines to join the monk in celibacy, Clarel spends the night with a trader from Lyons with a “voluptuous air” and “curls, / Like to a Polynesian girl’s,” and begins to wonder if he has been needlessly “foregoing many an easy joy.” Clarel may even spend the night in the man’s arms; the poem is ambiguous (4.26.21, 248–49, 70). Clarel’s disillusionment about “that other love” sets him free to renew his pursuit of Ruth, his somewhat under-imagined female love interest.
What if heaven does not exist after all, as the poem Clarel repeatedly musters scientific and historical evidence to suggest? Might one be content with a merely human relationship, whether with a man or a woman? In “Empedocles on Etna,” a poem that Melville cherished, as Walter Bezanson’s scholarship has shown, Matthew Arnold asked,
Is it so small a thingTo have enjoy’d the sun,To have lived light in the spring,To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
To have advanced true friends, and beat down baffling foes—That we must feign a blissOf doubtful future date,And, while we dream on this,Lose all our present state,
And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose? (93)
Melville was unable to take the step that would bring him into such a world; his emotional need to remain in contact with divinity restrained him. “Who will bring to me, / That living water which who drinks / He thirsteth not again!” Clarel asks, in a passage that seems to express both longing for a man’s love and for God’s grace (NN Clarel 4.28.69–71; Melville’s emphasis).
“Let be,” Clarel continues: “A thirst that long may anguish thee, / Too long ungratified will die” (NN Clarel 4.28.71–72). In fact, Melville’s thirst seems never to have died. At the poem’s end, the narrator urges Clarel to remain in a state of unrest like the one that Hawthorne had witnessed Melville suffering from in Liverpool. Perhaps someday Clarel’s soul will emerge from the struggle, the narrator suggests, like a budding crocus, a rising swimmer, or a disclosed secret (4.35.29–31).
Much of the whaling practice described in Moby-Dick is factual, but Melville did sometimes invent. In “The Cassock” (Ch. 95), for example, Melville writes that before slicing up a whale’s blubber, the slicer customarily dresses himself in the skin of the whale’s penis. “The whaling sources give no indication, physiological or otherwise, of the facts of Melville’s chapter,” Howard P. Vincent observed in The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick; “one must assume that it came from memory or from an imagination profoundly Rabelaisian” (Vincent 328). Almost certainly the source was Melville’s imagination, given that no ship’s log or whaler’s narrative has yet surfaced to corroborate the existence of the custom.
What about sperm squeezing? Several accounts published after Moby-Dick confirm the practice, but I have not been able to find one that predates the novel. Considering the heavy semantic weight that Melville places on sperm squeezing, the question of its reality seems worth a closer look.
Melville claims that as soon as spermaceti is extracted from the head of a sperm whale, it begins to congeal into lumps, and that sailors were put to work re-homogenizing the oil by hand, a task made pleasurable by the oil’s luxurious feel. In An Account of the Arctic Regions, published in 1820, William Scoresby had similarly written that “the head-matter congeals when it is cold” (2.534–35). Francis Allyn Olmsted, in his Incidents of a Whaling Voyage, published in 1841, had written that spermaceti “concretes in beautiful white masses, if allowed to become cold, or as it drips upon the water” (65). In 1856, Charles Nordhoff agreed that the substance could change its state but assigned a different cause: “It is quite fluid when first taken out, but quickly congeals on exposure to air” (127). According to Scoresby and Nordhoff, spermaceti was put into casks immediately, but Olmsted claimed that it was first purified with high heat in try-pots. Though Melville describes try-pots at length, he does not specify whether spermaceti oil was purified in them.
On its face, sperm squeezing as Melville understands it does not quite make sense. If sperm oil congeals as it cools, then presumably it melts again when heated, and the try-works would render squeezing unnecessary. On the other hand, if the spermaceti were stored in barrels without heat purification, squeezing would be in vain because lumps would inevitably form in it again while the oil waited inside the barrels for months and in some cases years. Either Melville was fictionalizing, or he was describing a real process that he did not accurately understand. The testimony of William M. Davis, in his 1874 account Nimrod of the Sea, suggests the latter. According to Davis, the point of sperm squeezing was “to squeeze and strain out the fibres, which, if allowed to remain, would char with the heat, and darken the oil” (Ch. 6). Indeed, Melville had noticed a substance that he called “slobgollion”; he had described it as “an ineffably oozy, stringy affair, most frequently found in the tubs of sperm, after a prolonged squeezing” and had speculated that it consisted of “ruptured membranes” (NN MD 417).
The evidence of Davis’s book cannot decide the question, however, because sperm squeezing sends Davis into Melvillean raptures that suggest he might have read Moby-Dick. “I almost fell in love with the touch of my own poor legs,” Davis writes. The witness may have been tampered with. More persuasive is the 22 February 1871 journal entry of Laura Jernegan, age nine:
the men are boiling out the blubber in the try pots. the pots are real large. when the men are going to boil out the blubber, too men get in the pots and squis out the blubber and are way up to there knees of oil
Arnold, Matthew. The Oxford Authors Matthew Arnold. Ed. Miriam Allottt and Robert H. Super. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Baym, Nina. “The Erotic Motif in Melville’s Clarel.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 16 (1974): 315–28.
Bezanson, Walter E. “Melville’s Reading of Arnold’s Poetry.” PMLA 69 (1954): 365–91.
Byron, [George Gordon]. Cain. In The Works of Lord Byron, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge. Vol. 5. London: John Murray, 1905.
Crain, Caleb. “Melville’s Monody: Probably for Hawthorne.” Steamboats Are Ruining Everything. 9 August 2010. Web. https://steamthing.com/melvilles-monody-probably-for-hawthorne.html
Creech, James. Closet Writing/Gay Reading: The Case of Melville’s Pierre. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Davis, William M. Nimrod of the Sea; or, the American Whaleman. New York: Harper, 1874. Web. http://mysite.du.edu/~ttyler/ploughboy/davisnimrod.htm
Dolin, Eric Jay. Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. New York: Norton, 2007.
Emerson, R. Waldo. “Uses of Great Men.” Essays & Lectures. New York: Library of America, 1983. Pp. 615–32.
Grey, Robin, and Douglas Robillard. “Melville’s Milton: A Transcription of Melville’s Marginalia in His Copy of The Poetical Works of John Milton.” Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies 4 (2002): 117–204.
Hayford, Harrison. Melville’s “Monody”: Really for Hawthorne? Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1990.
James, William. “The Will to Believe.” The New World 5 (1896): 327–47.
Jernegan, Laura. Journal, 1 December 1868–4 March 1871. Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Web. http://www.girlonawhaleship.org/jernapp/journal.do
Melville, Herman. Clarel. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1991; cited in the text as NN Clarel.
———. Correspondence. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1993; cited in the text as NN Correspondence.
———. Journals. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1989; cited in the text as NN Journals.
———. Mardi and a Voyage Thither. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1970; cited in the text as NN Mardi.
———. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1988; cited in the text as NN MD.
———. The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839–1860. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1987; cited in the text as NN PT.
———. Pierre. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1971; cited in the text as NN Pierre.
Milder, Robert. “Editing Melville’s Afterlife.” Text: Transactions of the Society for Textual Scholarship 9 (1996): 389–407.
———. “‘The Ugly Socrates’: Melville, Hawthorne, and the Varieties of Homoerotic Experience.” Chapter 6 of Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
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Plato. The Banquet. Trans. George Burges. In The Works of Plato, vol. 3. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1850. http://www.archive.org/details/theworksofplato03platiala
———. Phaedrus. Trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. In Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.
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———. Pursuing Melville, 1940–1980. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982.
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Voloshin, Beverly R. “Parables of Creation: Hawthorne, Melville, and Plato’s Banquet.” Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies 13.3 (October 2011): 18–29.
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1 A version of this essay was delivered as the Walter Harding Lecture on 23 September 2010 at SUNY Geneseo, and for the honor and their hospitality the author thanks the Harding family; the SUNY Geneseo English department, including Paul Schacht and Alice Rutkowski; and SUNY Geneseo’s president, Christopher C. Dahl.
3 Pascal had a memo of an ecstatic religious experience sewn into the lining of his doublet. After my Geneseo lecture appeared online, an email correspondent, Nick Younes, suggested to me that the memo may have inspired Plinlimmon’s pamphlet. The mystic philosophy inscribed in Queequeg’s tattoos, which Queequeg himself cannot read, would seem to be a similar figure (NN MD 481).
4 Though I have experienced homosexual longings, repressed and not repressed, I have no experience of living with such longings in a heterosexual marriage. Might a closeted homosexual man jury-rig a bond to his wife by projecting onto her the feminine part of himself that he disowns? Such a man would hate in his wife a part of himself that he remained attached to, and his relationship to her would be controlling, possessive, sadistic, and quite strong. A dynamic along these lines might help to explain the late Melville’s idealizations of alcoholic intoxication (he would have needed to muddy his own understanding before he could enjoy the relationship) and his outbursts of disgust at female sexuality and at femininity, whether in women or men. In “The Erotic Motif in Melville’s Clarel,” Nina Baym discusses several such outbursts in that poem, including the rebel Mortmain’s assertion that women are “nearer the slime / Of nature’s rudiments” and the praise, in a patristic poem shared with the hero by a celibate monk, of life without women as “The rib restored to Adam’s side, / And man made whole, as man began” (NN Cl 2.36.96–97; 3.30.113–14).
5 Beverly Voloshin also traces the Platonic themes of banquetting and erotic communion as they appear in Melville’s literary representations of and to Hawthorne.
6 This metaphoric association of genius, indolence, and slow oozing recurs often in Melville’s work. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael asserts that “the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness” (NN MD 288) and exclaims “God keep me from ever completing anything!” (145). In Clarel, Rolfe believes that divine natures engage in no “quarreling with indolence” (NN Clarel 1.32.31). And in “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” Melville describes Hawthorne’s heart as “slowly-oozing” (NN PT 241).
7 In his essay “The Ugly Socrates,” Robert Milder demurs somewhat from Creech’s emphasis on homosexuality and considers these erotic complexities in light of the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut’s theory of narcissism.
8 Nina Baym was one of the first critics to explore the passage’s sexual ambiguities.