Herman Melville discussion

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Updike Talks Melville

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message 1: by Frederick (new)

Frederick This week's NEW YORKER (Feb 9 & 16th, 2009), has several excerpts from the writings of John Updike, whose passing marks the end of of a NEW YORKER epoch. I figured he'd written something about Melville, and, if you get the new issue, you'll find this on page 74:

"At the book's climax, in a very curious phrase, when Moby Dick smashes the ship of his pursuers with 'the solid white buttress of his forehead,' he is seen 'vibrating his predestinating head.' Predestinating: the awful absence of God, of the Calvinist God, becomes, in a way, God. Moby Dick represents the utter blank horror of the universe if Godless. Melville has been described as a mystic, but to me he has nothing of mysticism such as might be ascribed to Wordsworth or D. H. Lawrence. Melville is a rational man who wants God to exist. He wants Him to exist for the same reasons we all do: to be our rescuer and appreciator, to act as a confidant in our moments of crisis and to give us reassurance that, over the horizon of our deaths, we will survive."


message 2: by Hershel (new)

Hershel Parker | 11 comments I think you will see in Updike's comments over the long haul that he was one of those who want (and need) to see Melville as a quitter, a man who was totally silenced by [choose your particular social or political force:]. Updike formed his views on the criticism of the 1920s and never changed it. He was hostile to new information--never came to terms with CLAREL as an important poem, for instance. He coasted through the last several decades, it seemed to me. OK, this is heretical, but I was watching what he said about Melville and also seeing the successive Rabbits hop less high than the first. I speak as someone who witnessed the March Hare leaps in the wild, once, where MD, PA, and DE come together. RABBIT, RUN, did some leaping.


message 3: by Frederick (new)

Frederick Updike's comment that "Melville is a rational man who wants God to exist" seemed somewhat off to me. I never have thought of Melville as in any way frustrated about existence as such.


message 4: by Carl (new)

Carl | 3 comments If Updike is correct about what the White Whale represents, given the nature of Ishmael's salvation, wouldn't that make Queequeg God, or at least Noah?


message 5: by Frederick (new)

Frederick I think the elements of MOBY-DICK are so universal as to be beyond symbolism. When Melville draws an analogy he paints giant arrows. Joyce is the symbolist.
The insistence that a writer necessarily hides everything in plain sight is anathema to me. I had a teacher in eleventh grade who asked what the car which runs someone down in THE GREAT GATSBY represents. I remember being mystified by the question. Fitzgerald clearly wanted to show what a drunken person might do with a car in the middle of the night. The car wasn't more than the means by which one person casually took someone else's life.
I had a friend who wrote a report on MOBY-DICK in college. He told me that, in order to get a good grade, he simply pointed out Calvinism wherever he saw it. He didn't believe Melville had put it in there, or, more to the point, that Melville was saying anything about Calvinism. Melville wrote because he had the Bardic yearning.


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