“Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville” — D.H. Lawrence on Moby-Dick

From D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, Chapter XI, “Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick“–

A hunt. The last great hunt.

For what ?

For Moby Dick, the huge white sperm whale: who is old, hoary, monstrous, and swims alone; who is unspeakably terrible in his wrath, having so often been attacked; and snow- white.

Of course he is a symbol.

Of what ?

I doubt if even Melville knew exactly. That’s the best of it.

He is warm-blooded, he is lovable. He is lonely Leviathan, not a Hobbes sort. Or is he ?

But he is warm-blooded and lovable. The South Sea Islanders, and Polynesians, and Malays, who worship shark, or crocodile, or weave endless frigate-bird distortions, why did they never worship the whale? So big!

Because the whale is not wicked. He doesn’t bite. And their gods had to bite.

He’s not a dragon. He is Leviathan. He never coils like the Chinese dragon of the sun. He’s not a serpent of the waters. He is warm-blooded, a mammal. And hunted, hunted down.

It is a great book.

At first you are put off by the style. It reads like journalism. It seems spurious. You feel Melville is trying to put something over you. It won’t do.

And Melville really is a bit sententious: aware of himself, self-conscious, putting something over even himself. But then it’s not easy to get into the swing of a piece of deep mysticism when you just set out with a story.

Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville, even in a great book like Moby Dick. He preaches and holds forth because he’s not sure of himself And he holds forth, often, so amateurishly.

The artist was so much greater than the man. The man is rather a tiresome New Englander of the ethical mystical- transcendentalist sort: Emerson, Longfellow, Hawthorne, etc. So unrelieved, the solemn ass even in humour. So hopelessly au grand serieux, you feel like saying: Good God, what does it matter? If life is a tragedy, or a farce, or a disaster, or any- thing else, what do I care! Let life be what it likes. Give me a drink, that’s what I want just now.

For my part, life is so many things I don’t care what it is. It’s not my affair to sum it up. Just now it’s a cup of tea. This morning it was wormwood and gall. Hand me the sugar.

One wearies of the grand serieux. There’s something false about it. And that’s Melville. Oh dear, when the solemn ass brays! brays! brays!

But he was a deep, great artist, even if he was rather a sententious man. He was a real American in that he always felt his audience in front of him. But when he ceases to be American, when he forgets all audience, and gives us his sheer apprehension of the world, then he is wonderful, his book commands a stillness in the soul, an awe.

 

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