Melville the Pessimist & Alternative Lessons My Religious Education Has Taught Me about Creation

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Melville the Pessimist & Alternative Lessons My Religious Education Has Taught Me about Creation

Laura Otten

I distinctly remember sitting in my second grade classroom, hearing the Book of Genesis read aloud by my teacher. On the board, Mrs. Kane had drawn a length of land leading into the waves of an ocean with a gaping strip of sky overlooking the whole scene. I held tight to my own magnet, a bunch of purple grapes, while glancing around at all the magnets that the other children held. Tiny hands clutched lions, wheat, Adam, birds, starfish, apple trees, Eve, mice and a large blue whale. Carefully listening to the number of 'good' things God had conjured up during creation, at our own individual discretion we arose, walked towards the board and placed our magnet in its appropriate environment. When the teacher finished the story, God's own designs sprinkled our world and life had supposedly begun.

After thirteen years of Catholic education, it is no surprise that I am embedded with a reverence for God's creations and a solid belief that our world is inherently good. In my day-to-day life, this powerful faith does not often surface unless I encounter something that attempts to shake my beliefs at the core.

Reading Moby Dick provided many such incidences. Often times I found myself putting aside the novel. Disheartened, disgusted, terrified, doubting. Could I discount Melville's cynicism to the times in which he lived? To his skeptical character? Or was I upset that his questioning and probing led me to feel confused? To me, one of the most horrifying statements Melville wrote in Moby Dick was this,
"Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.
Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from this isle, thou canst never return!" (pg. 225)

Melville's illustration of the underwater kingdom is dark and gloomy. The beautiful sea masks evil. 'The loveliest tints of azure' hide 'dreaded creatures'. 'Brilliance and beauty' are 'devilish'. The citizens of this underworld are 'remorseless', cannibalistic and hostile, creatures which have been 'carrying on eternal war since the world began.' It makes me feel miserable and I believe it is inaccurate. Melville cannot claim that such events only occur in the deep sea and contrast it against the peacefulness of the earth. Terror of the same magnitude is present on land as well, in the same way that peacefulness can indeed be found in the oceans.

Within the second paragraph of this quote, Melville invokes imagery of the land. He says that compared with the sea, the earth is 'green, gentle' and 'docile'. In looking at the contrast between these two extremes, the land and the sea, Melville sharply divides between good and evil. For him, it seems there is only black and white, no grey area of vagueness. I would argue that such vagueness is exactly what defines our being human. With God's gift of free will, humans are forever struggling to distinguish between good and evil. If we use Melville's categories, then humans ceaselessly wade through the murkiness of the shore, neither submerged in a malicious sea nor dry and perfect on the land.

From the second part of the quote, I think Melville believes that humans possess some good inside, for he writes that, 'this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life.' The 'soul of man' is like the 'verdant land' and contains 'Tahiti', a paradise island that is 'full of peace and joy'. With this image, Melville affirms the optimistic view of humans' original, inherent goodness. However, Melville goes on to say that surrounding humans there lies, 'all the horrors of the half known life.' The darker reality of the external world and the hidden darkness in us all, calls for a warning, 'God keep thee! Push not off from this isle, thou canst never return!' When thrown into the chaotic, sinful mess of the world, Melville believes human purity is immediately shattered. By simply living and existing, we are susceptible to numerous forms of predatory evil. Therefore, we should 'push not off from this isle' for 'thou canst never return'. According to Melville, once humans experience sin, it is impossible to regain purity. How is it possible to stay 'on land'? How does Melville expect us to do this? To never experience the external world, would be to risk not living at all. How can Melville confidently claim with this novel, that living with both good and evil, wading along the shore, human choice will always lead to demise?

The tones of Melville's statements throughout Moby Dick bother me because they lack of any hope. I would like to challenge his ideas. I strongly believe that with the options and risks for both good and evil it is possible for humans to live with good intent and produce positive results. I believe that everything created in this world holds potential for goodness and because of this; we have nothing to fear in 'going to sea' and leaving the 'land'.

Thinking back to my second grade classroom, I knew that my purple grapes belonged on the board, under the category of 'good'. I knew that what God created, the lions, wheat, Adam, birds, starfish, apple trees, Eve, mice and even the large blue whale, a supposedly 'dreaded' creature of the deep, were all 'good'. I knew it then and I believed it to be true. I maintain and carry that faith to this day. God created humanity and nature with an overriding power for good.

Within that second grade classroom, my perspective began with the Bible, an influence that has continued to teach throughout my education. In the Bible, God pieced together the world, and the results were wonderful.
"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters...And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas: and God saw that it was good." (KJV, Genesis 1: 1-10)
One of the first reports in the Bible is that the 'Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters' and the Sea and Earth were 'good.' Water, one of the most basic elements of our physical world, is terrifying to Melville and for others, like myself, it is the subject of holy grace.

I love the water. My parents called me a natural 'fish' as a child because I was always splashing on beaches, in pools and leaping off docks. I like boating, swimming, snorkeling, waterskiing, kayaking, and descending in submarines. The water holds no fear for me. It is the opposite; it is a space of joy and comfort. Water is showers, baptism, water is life-giving. For example, in the midst of college applications, I was strongly considering Bryn Mawr. What kept me hesitant? It was not close to a coast. I could not see water from campus. The lack of water, not its presence, alarmed me. In contradiction to Melville, I think that physical water, and the metaphor of the 'sea' in us, holds nothing worthy of trepidation.

According to the Bible, after the introduction of water,
"God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth." KJV (Genesis 1: 20-22)
With this passage, we witness the beginning of life. Everything that might have frightened Captain Ahab races forth in a single moment. Chaos that is both joyful and risky at once. With a final declaration, "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good" (KJV, Genesis 1: 31) we can be certain that even with the possibilities for evil, God's grace prevails. The world unbounded will reap goodness.

Melville fears that what is dark and mysterious in this world will corrupt me, and draw out the evil that lies inside. I know that it is my own free will, which grants me opportunities for success and mistake. In our world, there are mistakes, yet I have witnessed many successes. I believe that everything God set in the world is 'very good' and therefore I refuse to live in fear. I do not fear the water literally, I do not fear the greater thrashing 'sea' of the surrounding world, and I do not fear the darker 'sea', which swells inside of me.

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