Praesidium, A Journal of Literate Analysis

Praesidium Archive Favorite Websites Favorite Books Favorite Music and Films

More About Us

The Blog of Virtues Make a Contribution Search This Site Contact Us



A Journal of Literate and Literary Analysis

6.3 (Summer 2006)

A quarterly publication of The Center for Literate Values


Board of Directors:

John R. Harris, Ph.D. (Executive Director)

Thomas F. Bertonneau, Ph.D. (Secretary)

Helen R. Andretta, Ph.D.; York College-CUNY

Ralph S. Carlson, Ph.D.; Azusa Pacific University

Kelly Ann Hampton

Michael H. Lythgoe, Lt. Col. USAF (Retd.)


The previous issue of Praesidium (Winter/Spring 2006) may be viewed by clicking here.

To make a donation, address your check or money order to The Center for Literate Values or to John Harris (NOT to Praesidium) and post to:


   c/o John Harris, Editor

   2707 Patriot Drive

   Tyler TX, 75701


ISSN  1553-5436

©  All essays, creative works, and other contents of this journal are copyrighted by and property of The Center for Literate Values.  The Center releases upon the contributor’s request the right to republish or otherwise seek exposure and remuneration in other quarters.  Works may not be cited at length or reproduced without The Center's express permission.



A Few Words from the Editor

 Two exceptionally far-probing essays with little in common except a disdain for ivory-tower cliquishness are our salute to a long, hot summer.

 A Synthetic Meditation on Baseball, Racism, Closed Systems, and Spiritual Rigor Mortis

John R. Harris

 Next year will mark the sixtieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s bold trespass across baseball’s color line.  Is the game freer of lock-step thinking now than it was then, however?  Is our society?

Three Poems from Troubled Lands

Ralph S. Carlson

 Professor Carlson commemorates with delicate understatement the incredible durability of life in times of social upheaval.

Pyotr’s Long Short-Cut (fiction)

Peter Singleton

An exercise in a Creative Writing Club becomes an adventure in the lost art of moralistic story-telling.

 Melville and His Marxist Critics

Steve Kogan

 Neo- and crypto-Marxist criticism has kept Melville in the pillory for years, obtusely charging him with crimes whose absurdity itself indicts this school’s literary aptitude.

Guidelines for Submissions


A Few Words from the Editor

      I started rereading Xenophon’s Anabasis in Greek about a month ago: I felt like tackling something in prose which wouldn’t prove too taxing in my present state of divided attention.  Immediately I began to be struck by the sense of how little anything has really changed in that part of the world throughout recorded history.  Well over a millennium before the Koran was written down, the royal pretender Cyrus has rendered his nook of Asia Minor safe for travel by rather Procrustean means: Xenophon notes the wealth of loiterers whose hands or feet have been cut off for an attempted malefaction.  When Cyrus is slain and the Greeks must retreat through the mountains, they encounter inhospitable natives known as the Chordoi—our Kurds of today—who hate the Persian Empire but also hate Persian-hating intruders.  It has occurred to me (and others) many times in recent years that we could have done worse in Iraq , following the deposition of Saddam Hussein, than to sponsor a Kurdish state in the north and allow the rest of Iraq to settle into its chosen density of internecine carnage.  Perhaps we could have done better, too… but it doesn’t seem as though we did.  Our last best hope in the Arab world rests with monarchies— Morocco , Jordan , perhaps even the House of Saud—and not with the will of the people.  The classics would have taught us this; indeed, they taught our forefathers to be very leery of democracy in creating a constitutional republic.

     The heavy hand of déjà vu (it becomes much heavier with age, as one’s “alreadies” multiply) descended on me, likewise, as I read Steve Kogan’s long rebuttal of the neo-Marxist critical establishment’s assault on Melville.  Professor Kogan is vastly more patient than I.  One of the reasons I desisted from seeking a full-time academic career was a complete dismay at the prospect of having to chastise such patent folderol as Steve identifies in his essay.  One wonders if such “critics” have any genuine affection for literature at all—or, for that matter, if they have ever actually read the works about which they publish voluminously.  Some day, when a sober history of our cultural meltdown is written at arm’s remove (and, of course, the strength of that meltdown renders the dawn of that day very doubtful), we will see a brilliant analysis of why our best-read vomited forth the lessons and habits of literate life.  Can it be as simple—and as sordid—as ruthless ambition?  Did everyone praise the emperor’s new clothes because everyone wanted promotion to the emperor’s council?  I, for one, can testify that in many private Christian institutions around the nation whose catalog(ue)s and PR are replete with Western-friendly traditionalism, aspirant English professors are at this moment grinding out conference papers salted with the latest critical jargon—or even the not-so-latest: for Deconstruction in some diluted form often passes for the first wave where its rancid effluvia are finally seeping in.

     O tempora, O mores!  Even my own prying into the history of our long-past pastime, baseball, has confirmed me in the sentiment that things are falling apart.  I have been researching the question of race in the game a few seasons after Jackie Robinson’s momentous appearance in a Dodger uniform, and I find much reason to conclude that we have not so much become a more tolerant society as  a less thoughtful one.  Stereotypes abound in our electronic Quik-Mart approach to life—not maliciously intended, but perhaps the more persuasive on that account.  Nor am I a member of that prolific tribe of academics, the Enemies of Generality (whose bloodline runs through Marxism and other species of anti-orthodox orthodoxy)—but it is surely preferable that we reflectively choose our operative models rather than let them be forced upon us by the way machines think.  In my opinion, the soft racism of dull assumption has grown out of the same cultural (or anti-cultural) movement as has ruined baseball itself at the Major League level, where most of you are likely to perceive the game.  The home run is a kind of grab-and-go, rogue-hero conquest of victory by one man with a bludgeon… and I promise you that you would be shocked to know what degree of duplicity, mendacity, chicanery, and downright criminality has gone into marketing the long ball.

     I felt that my piece was justified by a) summer, when baseballs are hurled and hit; b) Dr. Kogan’s piece, which was my sole submission for a long time and which an excerpt from my book promised to balance in length while offsetting in subject matter; and c) recent issues of Praesidium, which have delved deeply into that  most ludicrous of oxymora, “popular culture”.  If you loathe the game, fear not: my excerpt has far more to do with the collapse of human systems than with spitballs and bunts

     Many thanks to Ralph Carlson—again—for volunteering his superlative poetry, and to Dr. Singleton for sharing an unusual experiment in writing fiction for the literacy-challenged.


back to Contents



A Synthetic Meditation on Baseball, Racism, Closed Systems, and Spiritual Rigor Mortis


John R. Harris


Ού δεϊ την πενίαν έκβάλλειν άλλα το δόγμα.

 “It is not poverty which we should cast out, but our teachings about it.”

                                                                                     Epictetus, 3.17.9


a) Inflexible systems and racial bias

     I began looking more closely at my old baseball cards to find out if black players after Jackie Robinson were consistently short-changed in seeking fair rewards for their abilities.  They were.  I might now uncork  a sanctimonious diatribe against those of my own skin color who are not as enlightened as I—the favorite liberal pastime of scourging yourself and your entire community for a collective sin which (you make sure to imply repeatedly) you personally have never committed.  I don’t like such generous hypocrisy.  What would be the good, in any case, of apologizing for abuses half a century old, whose victims are either no longer among us or else have created new lives in the meantime?  Would Bill White get to be shuttled back in a time machine for the few thousand at-bats of which he was robbed?  Would Floyd Robinson, or Wes Covington?  Can they be placed on a Hall of Fame ballot for what they might well have done but never had the chance to do?  Can Vada Pinson, even—who probably should be in Cooperstown, probably would be if the forces against which he struggled were as well publicized as they have become in Orlando Cepeda’s case… can Vada Pinson, I ask, even be resurrected from the huge bone pile of “also ran’s” whom the Veterans’ Committee has long forgotten?

     If this book does anything of the sort, I should be more than delighted.  As for the broader social outrage of segregation, I do not have it within me to masquerade as my grandfather’s ghost and repent of a crime which someone of my generation can grasp neither with real profundity nor in full context.  Who can calculate the tragedy of a ten-year-old artistic genius sent to work in a field or a factory for the rest of his life?  Which of us can appreciate the pressure of familial and local attitudes in an age when single parents are often the norm and when households move to another neighborhood every five years?  I could express my deepest regrets—and I do—but not my artificial contrition on behalf of those I never knew to those I can never know.  Such treaties are hammered out in heaven and in hell, not on keyboards like mine.

     I suspect, besides, that most people of darker skin recognize the white-man-in-sack-cloth for the self-indulgent poseur that he is.  All sin, in fact, is personal—intensely personal: none is collective.  This is the most basic of moral truths.  The soldier who machine-guns a bunch of civilians on his officer’s order is guilty of murder: personally guilty, because his finger pulled the trigger.  The proud car-owner who takes unnecessary joy-rides around town just to show off his sporty possession is guilty of wanton pollution (not to mention silly vanity).  On the other hand, no soldier is guilty of a massacre just because he happened to be in uniform on that dreadful day; and the man who simply drives himself to work need not tear his hair about participating in a wicked Western practice which is poisoning the air.  As long as the soldier shares his food with a street urchin, and as long as the driver resourcefully strives to minimize his driving, they’re doing their bit.  You need soldiers if you don’t want other soldiers kicking your door in: the world can be an ugly place, and the human heart a tangle of vipers.  You have to pay your bills, and few of us can walk to work in our sprawling urban society.  I tried when I was younger: it didn’t last very long.  We do what we can.  Each of us does what he can.

     Enough of this non-apology.  Frankly, as I have written more than once, I received the distinct impression in putting this book together that the men most victimized by the circumstances it describes are least interested in dredging the whole thing up again after all these years.  I have noticed, as well, that many white people are as sensitive to being charged with racism as a recent bruise is to a soft touch.  They don’t want to hear about it any more.  They’ve heard about it all their lives, even though most of them have tried to live in a manner directly opposed to the past’s bigotry.  They would never deny a black person a fair crack at a job—and they grow restless and fidgety when the suggestion is floated that the past’s vices are not entirely buried.  They grow impatient, even… and even angry.

     This often makes the Caucasian-on-the-streets deaf to genuine cries of victimization raised by genuine sufferers of prejudice.  If you beat a bruise long enough, it becomes a callus.1  On extraordinary occasions such as the immersion of New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina’s waters, middle-class white Americans may be forced by the ubiquity of anguishing images to acknowledge misery’s reality.  At such times, they are apt to pour out a torrential flow of cash so as to sleep a little easier.  This is their response to misery in general, and not just to racism specifically, since most Americans, in a profound paradox, keenly register both the guilt of excessive comfort and the unease of extreme risk.  They (and I might as well say we) lead lives that are at once materially luxurious (plush minivans, video games, air-conditioning, the Internet) and beset by insecurity (lay-offs, career changes, rising taxes and insurance rates, powerlessness to influence government at any level).  Generous cash gifts in times of tragedy are like rubbing a rabbit’s foot, or sacrificing the best heifer to the unknown gods of fortune.  They show that one is aware of one’s own exposure, and hence—perhaps—they avert the evil eye.  Procul a mea tuus sit furor omnis, era, domo: “Goddess, may all thy fury stay far from my house!”

     But black kids without fathers are still waiting, just on the other side of town, for someone to show them how to throw a baseball.  White kids, too—but probably, in most towns, more black kids than white.  They don’t really need the money: they need good neighbors.  The readily bandied charge of racism, it seems to me, makes everything too easy—and also too hard.  Pay a few bucks and send your accuser on his way.  (Anyone who has ever been to a country where beggars roam the streets knows this complex feeling of guilt and resentment: “Okay, that’s all I’ve got—just go away!”)  Our children don’t need handouts and buy-offs—our neighbors’ children don’t need our checks, and our own don’t need video games to keep them out of our hair.  They need our attention.  We need our attention: the state of our souls needs attending to.

     So at last I’ve come to it: the life of the spirit.  As I look back over all I have studied and written about struggling black ballplayers, I see nothing so clearly as a classic case of the human spirit being crushed within a system.  Racism was part of the system back then, yes; but the system created racial prejudice every bit as much as prejudice created the system.  More so, I believe: for bigotry was not nearly well organized enough to launch a vast conspiracy throughout the whole baseball establishment.  On the contrary, it is the essential nature of systems to become suspicious of intruders.  In this case, the intruders happened to have skin of a different color.  Yet even when insiders were able to overcome with reasonable effectiveness their mistrust of dark skin, they remained leery of the “alien style”.  They didn’t like new arrivals from the Negro Leagues importing a more flamboyant kind of play—a more original kind of play, consisting of unusual hitting techniques, audacious base-running, and a lot of other things which they decided were “clownish” or “childish”.  They seemed to be deeply convinced that their new black players just didn’t get it, and probably couldn’t get it.  The game was sober and… well, systematic, like besieging a city.  You blasted away with heavy artillery and neutralized counter-attacking sorties by falling back on prefabricated defensive strongholds.  (That this sketch also evokes a football game is no accident: football is the system-adoring society’s diversion of choice—about which, more anon.)  Blacks couldn’t understand the middle-infield positions (the reasoning went), and they certainly couldn’t lead an entire team from the dugout as managers—a type of prejudice which I have not much discussed, but whose reality is self-evident.  They could get the “heavy artillery” part right, and they could run fast… but their wild antics were otherwise more suggestive of an unruly child than of a responsible adult.  Stealing home, indeed!

     What I’m about to say is rather complicated, and I despair of getting it all out in a coherent manner.  It has to do with what might be called “primary racism” and “secondary racism”.  The most elemental racist baldly and stupidly dislikes or dreads someone for his or her skin’s color (primary variety).  Such blunt prejudice may be contrasted with the secondary racist’s discomfort around people of a physical appearance visibly different from his group’s because those animals are suddenly working what has always been his side of the street.  The secondary racist, to be sure, still notices the tint of the epidermis and the profile of the nose.  He won’t dispute, however, that someone with such a complexion or such a nose might be handsome or beautiful—he just doesn’t welcome the competition which has accompanied these exotic features into a once-sealed community.

     Even within secondary racism (which I would guess is far the more abundant kind), there is the keen hostility of those who directly stand to lose their jobs to the newcomers… and then there is the passive but enduring suspicion of well-heeled, heavily invested traditionalists who don’t want to rock a profitable, comfortable boat.  These latter, of course, are the ones most involved in shaping and sustaining the system.  In all the accounts authored by black ballplayers which have passed under my eye, the fat-cat decision-maker is the villain hardest to forgive.  The sweat-soaked rednecks afraid of being sent to the soup kitchen are relatively easy to understand and overlook.  In many ways, their angst about mere survival sounds a very sympathetic note to the black teammates they shun.

     The heart of racism as a social and economic impediment, then, nestles among the second species of the second variety: the successful lord-of-the-manor who doesn’t want to jeopardize profits by discarding a tried-and-true formula.  In baseball terms, we’re talking about owners and general managers.  Managers, too, had much more power over their players’ careers in the fifties than they do now;2 and though a manager of those days, as a former player himself (more often than not), might well have harbored a grudge against black “intruders” over having once competed with him for a job, he might also have been a sincere “conservative”.  Perhaps he really believed that the techniques of the Negro Leagues would end up losing his team games.  After all, he himself was most certainly produced by a different, somewhat rival system.  The more genuine this commitment to old techniques, the less severe the racism from a purely visceral standpoint—which is ironic, because systematic rigor screened far more blacks from success in baseball, I have concluded, than hatred of dark skin ever did.

b) A parallel from the Ivory Tower

     Let me try to illustrate my intent by having recourse to a world I know far better than the clubhouses and front offices of baseball: academe.  For the past half-century or so—throughout my adult life, at any rate—the Ivory Tower has turned very competitive and cliquish in a very topsy-turvy fashion.  The Old Guard of the fifties had been set in its ways.  It had honored time-worn theories and had taught about and from the same old texts.  (This was certainly so in the humanities: the sciences were usually more creative.)  The New Guard which ushered in my generation during the late sixties and imparted its free-floating values to the rest of the century would have nothing to do with a literary canon of “classic” works.  The books you were “supposed” to read merely reflected which group was holding the reins of power and deviously trying to manipulate you through propaganda.  Professors started teaching movies, TV shows, comic books, and even graffiti as “texts” instead of Dante and Shakespeare.  They started grinding out tomes and tomes of indecipherable gibberish to explain their rebellion—and also, when rarely cornered by some high-placed reactionary or other, to explain that no explanation was really possible since all meaning is undergirded by prejudice, leaving only honest gibberish (like theirs) and disguised gibberish (like the classics) to compete for people’s attention.  The new professors wore their shoes without socks, preserved their hair from combs, refused to give exams, slept openly with their students, and assigned easy A’s to anyone who parroted their flaccid ideas (preserving plenty of D’s and F’s, naturally, for those who didn’t).  How well I remember it all!

     You wouldn’t think that a bevy of anarchists like this would found a new system on the grave of the one it had just so ostentatiously subverted.  You might not even think (if you are a naïve soul) that a collection of such devout social liberals would be capable of replicating a Klansman’s behavior.  Yet it all came to pass.  By the time I entered the job market as a professor, anti-systemic thinking had been rigidly systematized.  With so much of my course work and scholarly writing directed toward Homer, Virgil, Kant, and various other dead white guys, I need not have applied for most openings.  When I did somehow manage to wrangle an appointment in an English department (usually because the Old Guard had just barely fought off the New Guard for the moment), I witnessed bizarre happenings.  I found that the generation which had no use for socks craved feverishly—enough to lie, to steal, and maybe to kill—the kind of achievement demarcated by promotion and tenure.  I observed that women, especially, having been brainwashed by sixties cant that they were worth nothing without a successful career, would not be denied success.  Some of them, when we would form “search committees” to fill new positions, didn’t even want to hire another woman because they saw in their exclusive claim to minority status an inside track to the top.  I’m sure no black player ever wanted to be the only black on his team; but I wouldn’t be surprised, based upon what I’ve learned of the human heart, to discover that some minority employees enjoy being “one of the few” because the company will almost necessarily advance them if it wishes to avoid embarrassment.3

     All these starry-eyed revolutionaries, meanwhile, were busily shifting the theoretical jargon of their unfathomable publications every year or two so as to make their game less comprehensible to outsiders who wanted in—that is, so as to limit the number of people who could compete for their jobs.  The young bucks were becoming old boys.  Many feminists even insisted that a writer should be precluded from acceptance by any of their hermetic reviews if she turned out to be a “he”.  I’ve no doubt that some of these “old girls” genuinely detested men; but I think it likely that the majority simply wanted, once again, to narrow the field of competitors.  Like an aging second baseman with a bad knee, they didn’t need a sudden flood of talent from a totally new quarter.  On the contrary, they needed to throw up sandbags wherever possible.

     So much for ideologues and “idealists”.  The very same kind of behavior, I hasten to add, was fully evident on the most “conservative” campuses ever to have their ivory thresholds darkened by my shadow.  I saw it in how I was treated, and I saw it in how others were treated: the reigning emotions were fear of being ousted (on the part of junior professors with no real security) and fear of innovation (on the part of senior scholars who had clambered to the top by honoring certain “values”, such as teaching only British works rather than admitting a French novel into the mix).

     When you’re young, you always consider that you have been hired fair and square to do the job specified by your interview and your contract.  (In fact, this is seldom true: you’re hired because one campus coterie or another sees you as a potential ally in some political tussle.)  Being conscientious, you dedicate yourself to doing the best job possible.  You produce extra work for yourself by assigning—and grading with ample notations—essays which challenge the students at a high intellectual level.  You bring works into courses which the weary anthologies have overlooked (and no anthology grows wearier faster than the anything-goes generation’s, wherein stories and poems appear just because their authors were not white males).  You refuse to curtail necessary lectures and meaningful discussions for the sake of videos and ignorance-sharing rap sessions.  In a word, you teach.  You do your damn job.

     And how is your success received by your compatriots?  Well, let me underscore the parallel with baseball as I answer.  Some colleagues are merely lazy, and the precedent set by your labor-intensive assignments makes them nervous.  These were the “wits” who teased their new black teammates to the point of harassment and spread stories about them behind their backs.  Such rivalry does little observable damage to a well-motivated worker, but it can grow quite demoralizing after a while.

     Some colleagues are more malign.  Aware that no administration likes to tenure a large percentage of its faculty, they recognize you as a life-or-death challenge and apply themselves to undercutting you subtly.  I suppose the baseball equivalent would be a player of real talent who was nonetheless insecure about his position on the team when the first blacks arrived.  He didn’t run off at the mouth loosely: he just shook his head without a word—but being certain that the manager saw him—when Jackie or Willie ended a rally by being caught in an attempted steal.  When Billy homered, he pumped his fist with the rest of the team; but he also sidled up to the skipper, pretending to go for a drink of water, and muttered behind his smile, “Too bad he couldn’t have done that when we had runners on base.”

     Some of your Ivory Tower “team”—especially the more powerful—are vain, and begrudge you your long hours of paper-grading at home because you are less available to grin and fawn at their innumerable endless soirées.  These, of course, correspond to the coaches and managers who like to “hold court” after the game over a round of beers.  They egg on those of their black players who are more easily finessed to drink a few too many a little too often.  Those who see through them are branded as “not team players”: talented, yes—but obviously not happy here in Bean Town , and maybe better off being traded.  Better off for everyone—as if a trade would be a favor to them.  I heard that from a superior once: “I have a feeling you’d be happier somewhere else.”

     A few number-crunching cynics in the front office (and academe has large front offices) may or may not understand your professional ardor as sincere: they see only the gripes on student evaluations about being bored and having to work too hard.  They begin to fret over retention issues.  In the baseball front office, executives would carefully mull over the number of black citizens attending games now that “one of their own” was wearing the uniform, and counterpoise to this gratifying figure the distressing outbreaks of violence and foul language among Caucasian fans.  It’s a crying shame that certain members of the lower class have to be so crude and retrograde, but… “But baseball is a family event.  We want our fans to know that they can bring their kids to the ballpark.  Too many of these incidents spells big trouble.  We have to think of the women and children.”

c) The futility of specific corrections

     I reiterate that I am not trying to reduce the anguish of racial segregation to just one more example of workplace bullying.  I am proposing an analogy, not an equivalence.  The plight of black players in the later fifties and early sixties resembled that of other people caught within a vast system’s cogs in two respects.  First (as I have said above), all such cases involve numerous insiders perceiving a handful of outsiders as a threat—a threat to compete for and take away jealously guarded employment, and also a threat to drag complacent employers through a disruptive and unpredictable series of changes.  In isolating the threat and holding it at bay, the status quo may seize upon any irrelevant detail which seems to characterize all the outsiders superficially.  This detail may be skin color, or gender, or age, or language, or place of origin (and I might note that an aspiring professor from the northeast or the West coast is much more likely to find work in academe than a professor from Alabama or Oklahoma, all other factors being equal).  To be sure, after the harassed outsider leaves the workplace to take a walk in the park or eat at a restaurant, he will probably not continue to face suspicion and rejection as a black player would have done in 1954 after showering and heading off into the streets of Cincinnati or St. Louis .  In the previous section, I was not analogizing the entire social phenomenon of racism, but only the part of it which intrudes into baseball.

     The second way in which baseball’s cold embrace of black players resembles the inertia of a huge system exposed to change is that specific adjustments almost always fail to have a significant long-term impact.  If the boss circulates a memo demanding that all nude photos and Playboy calendars be removed from the office, then the photos and calendars will come down.  If the workplace environment is profoundly crude, however, the same old atmosphere will cling in low-lying pockets.  Salacious jokes around the coffee machine will be theatrically broken off when someone sees Julie, although Julie’s appearance within earshot was the cue to begin the jokes.  Julie will sit down at her desk and find a porn site running on her computer, though—of course—no bystander will admit to having seen any tampering.  If the old boys can rattle Julie enough, she may even fly into a rage or break into tears; and then the case can be made that she was unhinged from the start.  If, on the other hand, Julie files a lawsuit, then the boss may actually suspend or fire some trouble-makers as he fumes over paying the settlement.  Yet the next time he has a choice between hiring a male or a female, enlightened though he is, he will remember that fat settlement; and, unless required by some quota system, he will avoid inviting the trouble-makers to make trouble.

     Quota systems: have they ever worked?  You might say that the pressure to bring two blacks up to the big team by 1960 (and it was always two or four: somebody had to room with the guy on road trips) constituted a de facto quota for Major League baseball.  It worked, yes… and then again, it didn’t.  I have argued (as have others) that certain particularly recalcitrant organizations added black players who were not the best qualified of their race to receive the promotion, precisely so that integration might be discredited.  Even when the new players were top-notch, they could be handled so as to undermine their effectiveness.  They could be benched most of the week, so that their one start or their two pinch-hit appearances would find them as stiff as the boards they usually sat on.  They could be played out of position, or moved to relatively unimportant positions which dozens of other qualified players stood ready to fill.  In the event of success, their disposal in a trade could be fully justified—with plenty of farewell praise for public consumption—as necessary to get four or five younger players (and one of these might well be black, just to put up a good front).  In a bitterly cruel irony, quotas addressing such superficial attributes as skin color or gender sometimes diminish the individual minority member’s chances of success.  The establishment can always point to its satisfactory ratios, diverting attention from how each human being composing the ratio has been treated personally.

     The human spirit is as resourceful as it is perverse.  Tolstoy said it about Napoleon and the Grande Armée: as long as the French wanted to follow their emperor, they made him a legendary conqueror.  When they got tired of following him, neither his orders nor his pleas could keep them from turning back.  People will find a way to do what they’re inclined to do.  Those inclined to be bigots will find a way to slight their targets.

d) The Great War: a study in systematic rigor

     Yet my major theme in this concluding chapter is that people are inclined, above all else, to trudge around in the circle which they have already worn.  The spirit is inclined to go to sleep—to turn away from its higher destiny and embrace a lethal comfort.  Writing about a different war from Napoleon’s, Arnold Zweig made one of his characters observe, “As water inevitably gathers at the deepest point, so the human spirit will collectively find the shallowest place where it can rest undisturbed.”4  Zweig was a veteran of World War I, and his novel sees the fighting through German eyes.  Abject obedience to a system was perpetually tossing young men into the trenches like logs into a sawmill.  Systems-within-the-system kept cropping up along the Maginot Line’s moldy trenches and shell-blasted villages: lieutenants intent upon feathering their own financial nest, soldiers intent upon avoiding the front line’s risks, liaison officers intent upon telling the high command what it wanted to hear.  Overtly criminal acts arose unquestioned from these strange sodalities in modest extension of the reigning logic.  A group of officers in Zweig’s novel actually posts a young NCO where he is certain to be killed so that he will not blow the whistle on their cozy profiteering racket.

     As in little things, so in big things.  The Great War was undoubtedly a major catalyst of the West’s invincible demoralization throughout the twentieth century.  Cynicism, absurdism, nihilism… death camps, ethnic cleansing, mutually assured destruction… it all really got under way when the well-oiled socio-political machine at the turn of the century demanded to be fed with millions of human lives and limbs.  In Zweig’s account, a “closet” Marxist within the ranks reflects upon the situation’s homicidal efficiency at handling what José Ortega y Gasset would one day call the “rebellion of the masses”—and the assessment, let us admit, is not devoid of accuracy:


In order to hold the masses in check, the very coalescence of these masses became serviceable.  Every year in Germany and neighboring nations, hundreds of thousands of unemployed men were drilled in combat gear, practicing the lessons taught in schools whereby they turned their back upon their own interest and were ready to shoot themselves in the person of other workers.  In peacetime, this would remain a mere possibility: in wartime it became a grim, shocking reality.5


     So well, indeed, did World War I confirm the Marxist scenario of a privileged class eliminating its roused proletarian rabble that the popularity of communism spread through Europe like wildfire in the twenties.  The Marxist’s answer to a corrupt system is yet another system, already rigid and exclusive before it leaves the drawing board; and the Bolshevik zealots who carried the new system forward were very clear about the fate of recalcitrant hold-outs.  Culturally traditionalist elements, facing literal extermination by blood bath, felt compelled to strike an unholy alliance with fascism… which created enough adversarial friction for another world war, which further disgusted survivors with whatever cultural relics had survived the onslaught of tanks, bombs, and missiles… and Cold War Western Europe proceeded to melt down into its present toxic brew of incoherence and nullity.

     Insane.  How could it all have happened?  To this day, European intellectuals remain in shell-shock.  Some of them are actually Bourbonists, hoping that the restoration of the monarchy will turn the clock back, make the nightmare go away, and burrow warmly into a paternal system which would spare puny individuals the trauma of decision-making.  My purpose here is not to sort through any culture’s past choices or to argue for or against the human right or obligation to make choices.  I seek to underscore, rather, the present ineptitude for choosing in which a rigorous adherence to system has left the cradle of human freedom, the birthplace of constitutional republics and of individual conscience.  The controls have frozen, and no corrective procedure is advised by the repair manual.

     French novelist Jules Romains, in writing a classic account of the Battle of Verdun, stresses Europe ’s incapacity simply to conceptualize events as The Great War raged.  Most of his expressions could just as well be applied to the rest of Europe ’s twentieth century:


The indeterminate, the unknown, and the accidental were thus nestled into either end of the event: into the end where a worldwide convulsion was taking place, and into that where tiny, pitiful men were fighting in the smoke.  On the scale of the astronomical and of the molecular.  Nobody knew to any great extent the minute degree to which ghastly acts composed the war; there were plenty of witnesses, but all so embroiled in what was happening that they could scarcely draw back and see it—and, in any case, the impression they received from twenty paces was dulled like a lantern in a fog.  Nobody, on the other hand, knew that the event could assume the gigantic face—like that of a planet on fire—which it would present to the Night of Ages, that Night of Ages which includes not only the past, but is also the eternal envelope of a medium wherein history floats like a meteor.6


One of the French officers whose activities Romains tracks briefly lulls himself to sleep each night with “realistic” fantasies—scenarios distinctly different, that is, from the hell he lives daily, and yet still just hellish enough to justify his hoping in them.  He imagines himself, for instance, liberated from the trenches with his company to wander among the mountain forests.  His men would establish some loose base of operations—a barn, say—where they could receive orders; but they would otherwise be free to forage for themselves.  They would become what we now call guerilla fighters.  This is the extent of one bright young man’s ability to foresee a future beyond the system’s bounds: a salutary near-anarchy resulting from the practical impossibility of keeping the troops stocked in food and clothes.

     I contend that “the indeterminate, the unknown, and the accidental” are precisely what any successful system must accommodate—by not trusting itself fully, by remaining open to minority (even “crackpot”) opinion, by constantly reconstructing its orderly conclusions to suit a less orderly world.  The Great War was fought with tactics that dated back to the days of cavalry charges and cannon balls.  The geometric progression in destructive power which modern weaponry had described failed to occasion a radical review of strategy.  Among the civilian population, too, attitudes which had always been stirred before by national struggle cheered on the effort without remotely divining an imminent cultural catastrophe.  “Nobody knew….”  The actors had rehearsed lines for the wrong play, and nobody—no leading figure—could tap sufficient spontaneity to improvise effectively from various fragments of experience.

     An entire generation of young men was lost in the Great War—the “absent” to whom Edwin Muir addressed the poem which gave me this book’s title.  Because treaties had been signed, national pride staked, hands shaken, and honor pledged, two thousand years of civilization based on energetic, creative sacrifice and belief in every person’s sacred spark dissolved in smoldering ruins.  Europe ’s leaders played at the “game” of honor without duly considering whether their ends were honorable.  The old boys incited their children—others’ children, and often their own—to volunteer for the slaughterhouse because “death for the fatherland is sweet and fitting.”7

     If men will thus fling their own sons into the fiery furnace in an obsession with making the system go, what hope is there that a mere game—a true game, a joyful pastime—will liberate itself from systematic rigor to increase the quality of play or to allow more players on the field?

e) The Texas Rangers: baseball’s version of epochal folly

     Dr. Thomas Bertonneau recently reflected in these pages NASA’s change-resistant, “circle the wagons”.8  He concluded his thoughts by directing them to the etiolated bureaucracies which run our public schools.  Another person might note how reminiscent is such inflexibility, devoted first and last to preserving the system rather than accomplishing what the system was created to do, of certain church hierarchies confronted with such devastating scandals as clergy-related child-abuse.  Any long-running, many-branched human organization is likely to illustrate the same phenomenon.  (If it doesn’t, there’s something new under the sun.)  This institutional hardening of the arteries is one of the most frustrating aspects of human society.  Once in a while, starry-eyed reformers attempt to rectify flaws by creating a board or committee to review existing boards and committees.  The review board, in turn, generates a protocol which soon grows rigid… and then we savor the unpleasant irony of an anti-bureaucracy wrapping itself in red tape rather than making things honest and open.

     Again, one has to wonder how a silly little game of hitting a round ball with a round bat—a very difficult silly little game, where success is often measured in small fractions—can hope to overcome the stifling effects of dogmatism if the destiny of civilizations and the advance of pure knowledge cannot crawl out from under the “old boy” shadow.  Everything we think, do, and are seems to be blunted, as if by a narcotic drug, somewhere along the orderly corridors of the systems which have led us this far.

     But maybe this is looking at the problem upside-down.  Maybe a mere game is exactly the place where we should discover how to keep from becoming enthralled to our well-functioning organizations the way a bricklayer absorbed in his work might accidentally wall himself into a tomb.  For that matter, baseball may be the one game above all others which punishes inflexible thinking.  Ballplayers adjust, or they perish.  A pitcher who hurls bullets but has no change-up will eventually be pounded.  A hitter who can catch up to the league’s best fastballs but can’t wait on a change-up will eventually never see a fastball in the strike zone.  Such remarks as these are platitudes to baseball people.  In fact, one of the main qualities scouts look for in young talent is a certain humility—an ability to listen to and profit from suggestions.  The game is humbling by nature: failure is always sitting on your shoulder.

     So why don’t more teams value the dynamism of creativity?  I use the present tense, because, to this day, the dazzling style of play which Jackie Robinson brought to the Major Leagues is highly suspect in many organizations.  For some reason, coaches and managers often refuse to accept that the same inflexibility so toxic to an individual can be just as lethal to an entire line-up.  Teams like the Texas Rangers seem to believe that socking home runs is the prescription for victory, even though they complete season after season in the second division.  As I sit writing these words (at the end of the 2005 season), the Rangers have just set an all-time record for the most solo homers by a ball club in a year.  Not surprisingly, they have also failed to finish above .500, and they have barely managed to stay out of the Western Division cellar.  The number of sacrifice bunts successfully executed by the Ranger offense was dead last in all of baseball: nine, another all-time record for inflexibility.

     Is it an accident that the Rangers ended the 2005 season carrying just one African-American player on the roster (Gary Mathews, Jr.)?  One-dimensional slugging preoccupies the front office even as the pitching staff is routinely reviled for failing to hold the other side down.  Within recent years, the franchise has had on board such promising hurlers as Kevin Brown, Rick Helling, Aaron Sele, John Thompson, Darrin Foster, and Brian Driese.  Trade bait, every one—and almost always for another slugger.  In the 2005 season, it was deemed necessary to acquire Phil Nevin.  In past seasons, the answer to fans’ prayers was to be Alex Rodriguez.  Before him, it was José Canseco.

     Why don’t the Rangers get it?  Maybe it’s the name.  Historically, the Rangers were created by the young state of Texas as what we would call a para-military organization charged with applying irresistible force speedily to settlements under attack by Comanche hostiles.  After Reconstruction, the Rangers turned their energies to chasing down bandidos in the Nueces strip—an objective which they interpreted rather liberally, sometimes resettling local Mexican ranchers on the far side of the River Styx.  Nowadays (having successfully fought an initiative to abolish them in the seventies), Texas Rangers cruise interstate highways in search of particularly heinous crimes to ponder.  It has never been entirely clear to me how their current function differs from a state trooper’s—or why it ought to differ.

     In baseball, too, you don’t want duplication: you don’t need heavy hitter upon heavy hitter.  An 11-3 victory is just one more victory: you don’t earn extra points for piling on runs.  An 11-3 loss, likewise, is just one loss—humiliating, but every team has its share of them.  Where baseball’s Texas Rangers consistently fail to make up vital ground is in close games: games, that is, which require a multi-pronged attack, a flexible approach.  The franchise’s 2-1 and 3-2 losses stack up, season after season… and the pitchers in these little tragedies, of course, make easy targets for a shallow fandom and a shallower press.  But the cause lies just as much with the offense’s “home run derby” mentality.  When you confront an adversary with good pitching, you usually don’t prevail with power.  It is reasonably easy for skilled pitchers to work around free-swingers.  What you need in the bottom of the ninth when down a run is not Mighty Casey, but Speedy Gonzalez: someone who knows how to draw a walk and steal a base.  And then you need two guys behind him who know how to put the ball in play.  The Rangers lose nail-biter after nail-biter because they don’t acquire such players, don’t coach their youth to turn into such players, and unload any such player who happens to stumble into their clubhouse.

The Willies (and a Chuck).  One sometimes gets the feeling that white baseball wanted every black kid named Willie to become the next Mays—and one of them did.  In the early sixties, it looked as if they all might.  Kirkland (out of the Giants’ organization) actually had several second chances, despite his poor average.  Tasby and Hinton were better rounded but drew little interest when they didn’t homer at Mays-like rates.

f) The black ballplayer, spontaneity, and neglect

     Is it mere coincidence that teams like the Texas Rangers (for there are others—just study the second division) have so few black players?  Is there not for some reason a substantial connection between black players and base-stealing, gap-hitting, using the whole field, taking the extra base, and a whole range of razzle-dazzle offensive maneuvers as bewildering to the observer as shadow ball?  I know that it’s politically incorrect to suggest that something like the “African physique” might be responsible for such prowess—and I certainly don’t know enough about physiology, in any case, to judge the merits of the claim (assuming that the politically correct would allow us to judge anything by merit).  I suspect, however that the underlying causes of baseball à la Negro League are indeed more nurture than nature.  My evidence is as follows.

     I have coached both black kids and white kids, and I assert with some dismay that the white kids have far more often been rigidly instructed rather than tossed a ball and allowed to play.  They have been subjected to expensive machines of the most outlandish varieties for teaching the fine arts of hitting, pitching, and fielding—but especially hitting.  Black kids, sadly, tend to know the game of baseball less well by the age of ten, yet many of them take to it gleefully if not at once overwhelmed with minute instructions.  Once upon a time, after a single session of tutoring my ten-year-olds in how to beat a run-down and advance to the next base, I found that my black kids wouldn’t stay put during the next game.  They were so devil-may-care that my hands spent most of the evening in my hair.  (Yet not a one of them was ever tagged out.)  On the other hand, I had a couple of white kids—fast runners, too—who wouldn’t even take off for second on a passed ball.  They were scared of failing, or perhaps horrified at the sense that they were doing something beyond the bounds of routine structure.  I rather doubt that they had much fun, on that night or any other, and I should be surprised to see them playing ball five years from now.

     Since black children, at least in my part of the country, tend to live in less affluent circumstances, they have less gear and equipment, fewer machines and tutors.  They improvise better.  In a sense, they also tend to have less supervision around the home, or to be supervised more often by siblings than parents (though supervision for affluent white kids now consists largely of enthrallment before video games).  As a result, perhaps, the black child may be more apt to try something new or do something bold, while the white child is more likely to hang back and think, “Are we really allowed to do that?”  I might as well say that I believe many children in my demographic bracket (the Caucasian, professional, two-parent household) to be excessively supervised, if by that may be understood rigid scheduling of free time and even recurrence to Ritalin when the child seems to rebel rather too often.

     The factors I have just described are all environmental.  Anyone who takes a casual drive through a predominantly white neighborhood and a predominantly black neighborhood in a small southern city will instantly see where more kids are outside riding bikes.  When the kids who stay inside—the white kids—are finally released from their electronic cells, it is to fall in and drill at the ball park under the dictatorial eye of half a dozen coaches.  And the drilling has its effect, all the way from the humblest Dixie League team to the exalted squadrons of millionaires who appear on TV every summer evening.  The contempt for the unchoreographed move is apparent in everything from the absence of drag bunting to the easy lope toward second base on a “gapper”.  Spontaneity is not encouraged, nor are those who practice it best the most rewarded.  Is the slight overtly racist?  No, of course not.  But because black and Latino players, for environmental reasons (let us stipulate), are and have long been the masters of the unpredictable and the unrehearsed, they suffer the most neglect in a milieu which begrudges free-style performance.  They suffered in the fifties and sixties, years after Jackie Robinson had supposedly broken down the color barrier; and, ironically, they suffer now, years after patent prejudice on the field (if not in the organization’s hierarchy) has been eradicated.  They suffered before because they were black, but also because they constituted a threat to chess-match, station-to-station baseball.  They suffer now exclusively for the latter cause, since kids in the Dominican Republic still grow up using broomsticks for bats and black kids in Memphis or Akron import their feints on the basketball court to base-running.

     The phenomenon deserves to be called discrimination, but not racial discrimination: call it, rather, discrimination against the resourceful individual who redirects the flow where nobody anticipated its going.

g) The incredible homering hulk

     At this point, I cannot avoid mentioning the home run again.  Of all the players I used to stop and watch on TV, no matter what I was doing, the one who commanded my attention most imperiously was Tony Gwynn.  I would stand and gape at his every move, even if a baby were screaming or the phone were ringing.  Tim Raines and Wade Boggs were not far behind.  I have realized painfully that the players who inspire that same devotion in my son are the Sheffields and the Bondses.  Now, Gary and Barry are both black, and many of the game’s most exciting home-run hitters continue to be dark-skinned, just as they were in the days of Aaron and Mays… but Barry Bonds, especially, represents the game’s degeneration to me.  As a youngster, Barry was the kind of “five-tool” player who would frequently stroke doubles and sometimes stretch them to triples.  Now he is a somber monument to home-run obsession.  He has dedicated himself, by fair means and foul, to doing one thing.  His body has morphed physically, in the process.  Even if Bonds truly didn’t understand just why it was doing so, he was clearly pleased with the result.  He transformed himself into a mountain of muscle, a heavyweight machine which could no longer produce bunts or triples.  Henry Aaron, though age thickened him as it does all of us, remained essentially lean and svelte.  Not Barry: no hammer, he, but a pile-driver.

     Something about the game of baseball, and about our society more generally, has nursed this monomaniacal commitment to bullying the ball out of the park.  For the home run is the most systematic of hits: its results are the most predictable and controlled.  Once the ball sails over the fence, it’s out of play, and the base-runner need merely trot.  (Indeed, contemporary home-run hitters like Bonds have signature trots as finely tailored as Willie’s basket catch.)  Organizations like home runs, and always have.  They are decisive, final.  They dispense with the need for on-the-spot creativity.  They can be instantly entered into the ledger as assets.  Far be it from me to imply that Aaron and Mays were not exciting when they clubbed a long one—but Aaron and Mays did a host of things magnificently.  The status quo awarded them primarily (especially Aaron) for hitting home runs, and rewarded them very well compared to the treatment given other black players who were no more than potential base-stealers or batting champs.  Hank and Willie were not forged by The System, but one aspect of their multi-faceted play particularly appealed to The System’s obsession with regularity and reliability.

     Now we are allowing the system to make robots out of us in ways that are scarcely even metaphorical.  We allow technology to sculpt our bodies into something no longer quit human, knowing all the while (or maybe not knowing, in a few tragic cases) that, like Achilles, we will die young in return for our day in the sun.  Players use bats today which are no longer remotely capable of a .400 season, should a throwback magically appear who has the skill to achieve such a number.  The damn things snap in two unless you hit the ball squarely on the oversized barrel—no one-and-two pitch has any chance of being fisted over the infield.  In any case, hitters make no notable adjustment in their swing with two strikes: the third swing is one last chance to go for the downs.  Even after Ichiro Suzuki comes into our midst from an entirely different culture and shatters a season-hits record which none of our home-grown talent could ever approach, we merely shrug and turn our attention back to A-Rod or David Ortiz.

     And that raises a question about us who watch: the fans.  As much as the organization craves the money-in-the-bank solidity of the home run, we fans seem to crave its majestic arc and foot-on-the-throat triumph even more.  Why is that, I have often wondered?  What role have fans played in the rigidification of baseball around the long ball?

h) The home run’s past: a system-designer’s systematic edge

     I don’t think we spectators were always the guilty party.  Naturally, fans thronged to see Mantle and Maris chase after Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record in 1961, both because of the record’s seeming impregnability throughout baseball history and because the two men seriously assailing it were on the same team.  Yet Yankee games were perennially well attended, and the crowds which packed Yankee Stadium in the fall of ’61 often appeared more interested in harassing Roger than admiring the arc of his long flies.  During the years of my study, I do not believe that fans were the driving force behind home-run mania.  The rate of home-run hitting had risen more-or-less steadily throughout the fifties, and not just because of the influx of black sluggers.  Mantle, Mathews, Mize, Musial… the letter “M” could already account for about 2000 home runs in this era without Mays’s even being added to the tally.  Kluszewski reached or surpassed 40 home runs in each of the three seasons from 1953 to 1955.  Roy Sievers hit a total of 81 during 1957 and 1958.  Rocky Colavito walloped an even 200 homers in the five years from 1958 to 1962… and so it goes.  Not since the 1930’s had so many sluggers racked up so many “taters”.

     I have argued that the fifties and early sixties may have been big home-run years for whites precisely because black ballplayers were steadily trickling into the Major Leagues’ ranks.  That is, I suspect that management may have fallen back conservatively on the Ruthian technique of cashing in lots of chips at once because this formed a distinct contrast with Negro League baseball.  I am not insinuating that any concerted plot was hatched, and I hope none of my earlier remarks has been read as implying anything so absurd.  I simply think that greater emphasis of the home run was a natural way for white baseball to circle the wagons.  That Aaron and Banks and Mays and Robinson ended up beating the white establishment at its own game proves how little of the genuine conspiracy was behind this long-ball fever; for black home-run kings were not only rewarded with salaries and playing time approximate to a white slugger’s—they inspired many organizations to give marginal stars like Willie Kirkland a good taste of limelight in the hope that they, too, would start belting a shot every other game.

     As home-run champs, these players did more than any others of their generation to carry Jackie Robinson’s vision forward.  White management was only too happy to discover that blacks could indeed play long-ball: what made it most nervous, I suspect, was that blacks might capture the Majors with bunts and steals.  Caucasian players must have feared that they could not compete on such terms: Caucasian owners probably feared that they could not win on those terms.

     I’m going over old ground, for clarity’s sake.  I shall be adding no great revelation to say that contact hitting and steals did at last become central to the game in the latter sixties and throughout the seventies and eighties.  Home-run hitters continued to serve their vital purpose, as they always have—but a couple in the heart of the order sufficed.  Bert Campaneris and Billy North gave Sal Bando and Reggie Jackson runs to bat in: Pete Rose and Joe Morgan did the same for Johnny Bench and Tony Perez, as did Vince Coleman and Willie McGee for Jack Clarke.  The offenses of these years were far more balanced, more difficult for an overpowering pitcher to shut down entirely.  They produced fewer lopsided games, but also fewer shut-outs.  These were the very years, of course, when the percentage of blacks in the game was at its highest, and also when the variety of skills which black players could bring to the game was most manifest.  With Carew and Gwynn came Stargell and Dick Allen; with Coleman and Henderson came Winfield and Andre Dawson.

i) The “Home-Run Derby ” Scandal: TV programs the audience

     So what happened?  Here, I believe, is where the fans came in—or the television, to be precise.  Brainwashing by TV.  I wouldn’t be the first one to point out that highlight reels always privilege the home run.  ESPN SportsCenter’s capsulizations of ball games seem to consist of little except sluggers “going yard” and pitchers recording critical “K’s”… maybe a bench-clearing brawl tossed in once a week.  To the extent that such quick takes are most of what the casual fan ever sees of any given ball game, it’s small wonder if he considers such events to be, indeed, the game’s greatest moments.  Similarly, kids who grow up feeding on home-run replays in our “instant gratification” society naturally want to hit homers when they take the field at school or in Little League.  We imitate what we observe: that’s how we learn.

     Yet televised highlights are actually not the medium’s most influential message, in my opinion.  I believe the effect of television on how we watch baseball has been far more subtle  (just as the enforced passivity of TV-watching has done more to make us a violence-tolerant society than shot-’em-up cop shows).  Consider the camera man’s dilemma.  If you try to cover the whole field, the players become too small on the viewer’s screen to be of any interest.  If you zoom in on just one or two players (and the center-field camera allows you to zoom in on three, the maximum possible), then the flow of play escapes your lens as soon as the ball is hit.  Contemporary broadcasting has been incredibly resourceful about resolving the dilemma.  With multiple cameras rolling all the time, the director can switch instantly to the shortstop once a ground ball is hit, then track the throw over to first.  On a ball smacked into the gap, however, all we see—all we can see—is a couple of outfielders chasing the bounding dot to the wall.  We only pick up the runners circling the bases when a switch is made to another camera, one of the outfielders having hurled the ball back in.  Even then, we follow only the lead runner: we can’t see for the moment how far the hitter has advanced behind him.

     In a real ball game, a live ball game, you see all of this going on as it goes on.  Human peripheral vision is so superior to any camera’s lens that you can actually follow the ball to the base of the left-center field fence while being aware that the lead runner is going to try for home and that the hitter will make second easily.  To me, a double in the gap with several runners on base is the most exciting play in the game—but it’s only so if you are sitting in the stands and watching it.  Television is forced to leave far too much of the play out as it unfolds.  A televised home run is an entirely different matter.  You really don’t miss anything on the screen; in fact, you see the home run infinitely better than you would “in person” if, like me, you’re a little near-sighted.  With the announcer’s voice rising to clue you in that this one has a chance, you follow the left fielder to the wall… and see a little white orb land five rows back.  You haven’t really missed a thing on the infield, because the runners had to linger near their bases lest the left fielder make a sensational leaping grab.  The camera picks them up an instant later as they plod home, then turn around to high-five the conquering hero.  The same scene beheld live in the ballpark is often the least bit disappointing to me.  I hear a crack of the bat, I see the outfielder sprinting back… and then, everything decelerates into a kind of slow-motion.  The ball’s out of play: we just sit and watch Casey circle the bags.

     Of course, I can tell that most of my fellow spectators are not in the least disappointed—not if the home team has just racked up some more runs.  I look at them.  A lot of the least attentive are young, a lot are female (let’s face it: more men than women like baseball), and a lot are important-seeming swells on cell phones.  I doubt that most of them even knew what the count was, let alone what kind of pitch was thrown.  And anyway, stands are arranged now for easy egress to concession booth and restroom: unless you have expensive tickets, you can’t see nearly as much of the fine maneuvering as you would have in Ebbets Field.  But they all appear very happy, cradling corny dogs and nachos as a scoreboard reminiscent of their TV blares in center field and squadrons of clowns and go-go girls (or whatever you call them after the millennium) cavort on the dugout roof between innings.  Believe it or not, these people have been so well conditioned by the television to cheer the home run that they are virtually immune to the excitement of a hit-and-run play or a double steal.  They aren’t really watching: they don’t know how to watch.  They’re grazing and swaying to rock music and taking toddlers to the potty and, behind it all, waiting for that crack of the bat.  Was it one of our guys?  Yippee!

     The casual fan’s inordinate glee at watching balls sail over fences fed what I regard as the dirtiest secret in baseball since the Black Sox Scandal—and I don’t mean steroids, for this conspiracy subsumes the steroid disgrace, being its direct cause.  I have read or heard nothing over the years which softens my conviction that the Major League owners engineered a perennial home-run derby throughout the latter nineties in order to recover financially from the decade’s strike-harrowed early years.  In 1991, Howard Johnson led the National League comfortably with 38 home runs: only four other players had 30 or more, and three of these logged under 33.  Cecil Fielder, a bulging slugger of the old school, kept putting up numbers at or around 50 in the late ’80s and early ’90s: no one else really matched him over this stretch.

     Meanwhile, revenues declined as labor disputes seethed just beneath the surface.  After storm clouds gathered and partially dispersed over and over for several seasons, a deluge finally poured down in August of 1994, when a deadlock between owners and players resulted in a walk-out that canceled the rest of the season, including the World Series.  The public didn’t much care for either side.  It perceived baseball ownership as stingy and dictatorial, while the players’ union showed staunch unwillingness to countenance the notion of salary caps accepted by every other major sport.  Even when the gates finally re-opened the next spring, the man-in-the-streets was loath to spend hard-earned money enriching either one of these unsavory parties.

     How to get people back into the seats?  The home run, of course—the single baseball event which, although in many ways utterly unlike other baseball events, has come to be the game’s shorthand in the popular mind.  Little League trophies usually feature a slugger with bat wrapped around forward shoulder, having just executed a home-run cut: the typical baseball logo often represents the same slugger in silhouette.  Vox populi, vox dei—which is to say (in free translation), if the fans want it, the fans get it.  We all know how McGuire and Sosa heated up—and then, taking us somewhat by surprise, that lanky Bonds kid (who suddenly didn’t look so lanky).  Bespectacled men in lab coats ran tests to assure us that the juiced ball wasn’t juiced.  Theories full of techno-babble were floated to explain why the late-nineties player was so much more home-run proficient than his predecessors.  These guys hit the weights hard, and they generated unprecedented levels of bat speed by using short sticks with all of the meat in the barrel.  (It was considered irrelevant that, once upon a time, Ernie Banks picked cotton, Reggie Jackson delivered ice with tongs, and Mickey Mantle swung a coal pick—and also that yesteryear’s power hitters typically choked up on their heavy bats.  You want theories, you’ve got theories!)

     Change-ups awkwardly swept at with one hand carried to the warning track—or beyond—to the amazement of us older observers, who had been conditioned to record such a swing as a “can of corn” long before an outfielder trotted in to put it away.  Lifetime “gap hitters” like Brady Anderson and Luis González incredibly surmounted the 50-home-run mark, a plateau seen by all of eleven hitters throughout baseball history before 1995 and visited by ten more in the ensuing decade.

     Even umpires had been coyly recruited for the charade.  They squeezed the strike zone into a box about the size of a hitting tee, especially for a franchise slugger; and if a maverick pitcher were so ill-advised as to respond by brushing Mighty Mark back from the plate, the benches cleared or—at the very least—the offender was threatened with ejection.

     We now know, too, that the lower levels of the front office—and most certainly the coaching staff—must have been aware that banned substances were being employed to enhance the effects of all that barbell-bouncing.  Yet nobody said anything.  The owners didn’t want to know, and the managers didn’t want to tell.  Just tiptoe between photo ops and the daily hit parade.  Fave, as the ancient Romans would have said: keep silent—favor the emerging wonder by not asking or answering any sharp-edged questions.

     I’ve heard it argued lately that Rafael Palmeiro should be tried under a conspiracy statute, since he was putting a phony product before the spectator/consumer by imbibing steroids.  If we should rise up and demand that players who hoodwinked us be hauled off in cuffs, why, a fortiori, should we not demand the same thing of the owners who staged the five-or-six year sham finishing out the twentieth century?

     For all of the reasons I have just coursed through—at least half a dozen—the mini-era of McGuire and Sosa and Bonds is highly suspect, and it indicts fraudulence at a very high level.  The single-season home-run record is now a sloppy mess.  For my money, Roger Maris should be credited with owning it, and Bonds, McGuire, and Sosa should all have asterisks placed after their names.  Of the nineties generation, I nominate Ken Griffey, Jr., as King of the Home Run.  

j) Turning cowhide into pigskin: the audience pursues its downward spiral

     Yet the last few paragraphs have, in a way, constituted a mere digression in the greater matter of our cultural problem.  For baseball ownership would never have hatched The Great Home-Run Race if we fans hadn’t been home-run crazy.  Television got to us, yes: it affected our ability simply to perceive the game’s fine points, and hence to appreciate them.  Our pathological impatience with life is probably also implicated.  Suggestions for “speeding up” baseball as preposterous as using a simple gesture from the umpire to issue an intentional walk keep crawling out of the woodwork.  (Not only do a few intentional walks per year result in wild pitches: the four straight wide throws incur a substantial risk of compromising the pitcher’s accuracy, so that the next hitter is in a much more favorable position than if the umpire had merely nodded his predecessor down to first.)  We want our runs quick—at one fell stroke.

     I suspect, too, that the image of the knock-out blow appeals to us.  Our society has grown alarmingly aggressive.  We want to see someone or something get creamed in our sports nowadays.  When a pitcher records a strikeout, an announcer is likely to call it a “K” (for “knock-out”), and a group of votaries at the upper deck’s rail will be sure to hang out a “K” sign.  I can’t recall when I first heard the term “K” used of a strike-out, but I’m pretty sure the date was in the 1980’s.  By the way, this gladiatorial mentality seems actually to have infected pitchers in some cases.  Those few like Greg Maddux who know how to induce three easy ground balls on three pitches are true masters, yet they seldom elicit much public enthusiasm.  We hunger and thirst for a dominant performance—which Maddux’s is; but we don’t appreciate dominance when we see it.  We want to witness an open humiliation which does not require of us any grasp of the game’s subtleties.

     As a result, football has become our new national pastime—or watching football, anyway.  The whole set-up fits readily into our TV’s screen.  The game’s purpose is to shove the ball down the other team’s throat: every single play involves  multiple high-impact collisions.  Though some of us may rumble around a vacant playground with our buddies on Saturday afternoon (often twisting a knee or spraining a finger) as we “psych up” for Sunday, our genuine heroes no more resemble us—or normal members of our species—than Robo-Cop looks like Officer Buckle.  Whether by ingesting contraband drugs or swallowing legendary servings of steak and eggs or pumping iron like an Olympic weight-lifter, these monstrosities have transformed themselves from human beings into weapons of mass destruction.  Barry Bonds would immediately vanish in one of their crowds.  They are grotesque—and we love them. 

     The game is also supplied with frequent lacunae of activity which flatter our cultural Attention Deficit Disorder.  This, after all, is why we find baseball “boring”: not because too little happens too seldom, but because something is always going on, and we just can’t keep up.  Football gives us frenzied, life-threatening bursts of energy followed by lulls which allow our giddy faculties to focus on another handful of potato chips.  If the players are pistons in a mighty engine, we viewers are the adolescent foot that revs the engine as we scream our throats raw—in a rather contemptible irony, it seems to me: for our sedentary guzzling and grazing actually turns us to pudgy cannon fodder even as the cadenced mayhem before us incites our irresponsible dreams of payback and autocracy.

     I don’t like football.  I haven’t liked it from the day when, as a bus carried our high school team to face a particularly imposing adversary, my best friend asked me in amazement, “Harris, what’s the matter with you?  You look like you’re about to kill someone!”  In my mind, I was doing precisely that.  I was getting “mentally prepared”.  But then, most Americans never actually play football with pads on.  And I like the game even less, if possible, when I consider how it allows them to handle a week’s load of suppressed aggression by watching other people get pounded rather than by examining their souls and changing their lives.  (Will someone explain to me, by the way, why certain denominations see an indissoluble link between football and the life of Jesus Christ?)

     These days, what I hate about football most of all is that it seems to have invaded baseball.  Home-run fever, the “K”, the diving catch (as opposed to getting a good first read or positioning yourself well)… the love of bench-clearing brawls, the joy of baiting umpires, the revived pastime (once popular when fans were taking an afternoon off from the sweatshop) of hurling racial slurs and blunt objects at players… I hate what’s happening to our society, and in baseball I can see it happening very clearly.  

k) The Black Female Coroner: racism and electronic brainwashing

     And just what is happening to our society—and what in the world does it have to do with racism?  System is happening: a new kind of system with the same old suicidal effects of all systems—a system for people who don’t know the difference between freedom and irresponsibility, between individualism and narcissism.  A system based upon private terminals and capsules—on free-market technology.  A private automobile for every traveler, a personal computer for every shopper, a television-and-dish for every thrill-seeker….

     We are all being gratified instantly these days, but we will all awaken one day (if we haven’t already) to realize that we aren’t very gratified.  The higher pleasures cannot be instant.  Playing an instrument, or composing music for it, takes years of apprenticeship.  Designing a beautiful building requires years of designing mediocre buildings, or elegant but structurally unviable buildings.  Being an All-Star hitter or pitcher requires years and years of grinding practice.  In contrast, any tall kid can succeed as a wide-receiver on his high school’s football team after a little coaching, and can extend his triumph to the school’s basketball team after football season winds down.  I’m sure players in these sports view success with satisfaction, just as I’m sure those of my students who design Web sites are being honest when they claim that their work is an artistic outlet.  As a culture, we sincerely do not suspect what deep, rich satisfactions we have given up in order to have the instant kind: collectively, we have not yet awakened.

     The worst-case scenario is that we may be growing incapable of awakening: our narcosis of quick, shallow pleasures may be luring us into a coma.  Just as our athlete-heroes are looking more like invincible robots all the time, so we may be altering our nature to suit the whimsy of our machines.  Have you noticed that the more labor-saving devices we create, the more we clamor for something new to save us more labor?  Has it occurred to you that the more time our sophisticated gadgetry spares us, the less time we have?  Our ready-made, easy-opening amusements and accessories have convinced us that the only worthy work is the elimination of work, and our lightning-quick marvels have rendered all that is not quick insufferable to us. We are in danger of incurring a fundamental moral ineptitude.  A little farther along this path, and we shall not be able to think up a plan and then bring it to fruition.  Halfway through the endeavor, we’ll be looking for a channel-stick.

     You can throw this book out the window right now with my blessing… but I remain absolutely convinced that a new racism is linked to the electronic American.  I have already argued that racist conduct occurs when people outside the reigning system can be plausibly associated with a readily observable set of superficial characteristics.  This is not a new argument: historian C. Vann Woodward described racism in the South by stressing that the freed slaves were, first and foremost, economic competition for poor whites.  When outsiders want in, they constitute a threat for insiders who have traditionally profited from the status quo.  But how on earth can today’s minorities—any of them—be said to remain outside of our technological revolution?  Poorer households can afford less hardware, to be sure; but nothing really prevents a determined kid from using the Internet at school or the public library.  Once online, his color or ethnicity can hardly be given away by how he clicks the mouse.

     The effect I have in mind, now as before, is far more subtle.  (If these things weren’t subtle, they would have alarmed us a long time ago.)  I believe that life before a monitor induces the “user” to think in stereotypes.  Everything about electronic communication is eventually centripetal.  By that I mean that we are all, sooner or later, force-fed the same ideas out of the same cookie-cutters.  We are continually being sucked toward a central deposit of images, as if we were circling a maelstrom.  The Internet has always had its libertarian defenders who assure us that the little guy—the lonely blogger, for instance—can now reach the entire world.  Television, too (since the advent of cable) looks at first glance like a happy hunting ground for viewers with a rainbow of tastes.  Never have so many been able to express themselves so freely.

     There are two things fatally erroneous about this idyllic picture, however.  The first is that any “scattering” of interests on an electronic medium is immediately followed by a “regrouping” counter-movement, just as an exploding star inevitably coalesces into smaller clouds of gas and debris.  I’m a blogger myself: I think my weekly audience may run as high as two digits on occasion.  The bloggers who have achieved sufficiently broad dissemination to render their “lonely voice” something more than a pebble on the ocean bottom are those who, in fact, reflect the general interests of vast movements.  Their work is cited or linked to dozens or hundreds of other Web sites: that’s how they pull in readers and achieve the critical mass necessary to confer influence.  As for TV, anyone who thinks that owning a dish provides access to unlimited avenues of entertainment hasn’t owned a dish.  Out of several hundred channels, one is able to strain a rather lean fare of sporting events, newscasts, porn, talk shows, and Andy Griffith reruns.  Producers simply cannot make money by targeting minute niche markets.  They well know that people who sit in front of the tube will at last settle down to doze before the least objectionable show in the absence of anything truly pleasant or intriguing.  The much-touted tendency toward the diverse ends up, sooner or later, producing rivulets which lead right back into the mainstream.

     In a society dominated by such media, minorities will be stereotyped simply because they are minorities.  Movies and TV shows will have “black” parts, just as they have young-and-blonde parts.  The major networks have lately tried to resist the tendency by casting black females as—of all things—coroners!  Apparently, the intellectual demands of the job defy the old “Amos and Andy” stereotype, the association with the legal establishment nixes the “ghetto-kid outlaw” image, and the handling of corpses belies the assumption that girls are squeamish.  One of two things will happen here, though: either black females will begin to be stereotyped as personalities fit to be coroners, or else the coroner image’s distance from reality will become so apparent that the connection will be dropped.  (I actually believe the former is more apt to occur, since people reared before screens have no notion of reality beyond what the screen reveals.)

     Electronic life is severely reductive.  It is usually timed, and has a window of only such-and-such proportions to communicate its message.  It is also legion: there are so many shows and sites riding the air waves and pulsing through the wires that an offering must “type” itself to win a following.  In the process, its component parts are also typed.  White people are typed, too: the young, the old, parents, teenagers, “hotties” and “hunks”… the whole degrading and imbecilic panoply which parades before our children.  Don’t think for a moment, either, that white kids abstain from trying to squeeze themselves into these stereotypes.  Peer pressure, like the “K”, was something none of us had ever heard of before about 1980.  The television has played nanny now to two generations—and counting—which consider themselves obliged to “fit in” somewhere among commonly broadcast expectations.

     But minorities will always have the worst of this cookie-cutter approach to humanity, because they will always have fewer options.  Their appearance will always lead them to stick out more.  Black women will always (at least if current demographic trends continue) be more observable as coroners than white women, let alone white males.  The stereotype, by the way, need not send an overtly contemptuous message.  My son told me a year ago that he wished he were black, because black guys are rappers and star athletes.  I tried to tell him that classical musician Wynton Marsalis is black, too… but the broader implications of his error are irresistible.  Until he becomes old enough to think for himself, black people will be associated with a relatively narrow range of possibilities in his mind, even though he may value those possibilities.  The true objective of desegregation is not for minorities to be saddled with “good” stereotypes, but for the saddle to be removed.  Electronic communication has pulled the cinch a little tighter, because it must do so.

l) From the Red Sox to Dexter’s Laboratory: six of one…

     System.  Tecum non possum vivere nec sine te, quipped the Roman wag Martial: “I can live neither with you nor without you.”  It would be ridiculous to suggest that we human beings could survive at all, let alone prosper and progress, without organization.  The most basic functions must be rendered somewhat routine so that we may be freed to think creatively about our higher ambitions: you can’t paint the Sistine Chapel if you’re worrying about where your next meal will come from.  The objection I have lodged against organizations is precisely that they tend eventually to sabotage their healthy effects.  They grow rigid to the point that observing organizational order is more important than accomplishing what that order was fashioned to do.  The first time external circumstances change from a predictable range of forms and patterns, the system fails to respond sensibly, so bound and gagged is it in procedural rigor.  By the early sixties, the Boston Red Sox had resisted integration and clung to habit for so long, calling up the bare minimum of black players and using them as seldom as possible, that even the expansion Los Angeles Angels were out-performing them.  The Kansas City Athletics hadn’t been much more progressive (quasi-superstar Vic Power was soon unloaded), and continued to hover near the bottom along the way to losing their franchise.  Systems cannot afford to stifle creativity, even though the admission of too much creativity undermines the system.  The contradiction must somehow be resolved into a paradox: the healthy organization must find ways to keep changing as it remains the same.

     I have never seen a system which subverts this quest for a healthy truce more effectively than electronic communication.  Messages move at the speed of light and reach every plugged-in citizen: they must therefore be responsive to individual inspiration, since any plugged-in citizen may instantly fire back the most whimsical of reactions.  Will we ever figure out, as a society, that the means of the response already “systematizes” it to the point where it can offer little resistance?  Or we will figure this out (I should have asked) before it’s too late?  The objection to speed and ease is slowness and difficulty.  Speedy solutions are not thoughtful, and easy solutions do not tap our deepest resources or develop our endurance.  The most responsible answer to a talk-show host’s question would be, “I don’t have enough time in this interview to respond as I should,” just as the only responsible conclusion to any important call on a cell-phone must be, “Come and see me, so that we can talk face to face—so that I can look you in the eye and know that you’re speaking with undivided attention.”  The inescapable criticism of our airy media is that they are unsuited to meaningful communication.  Such a criticism, of course, is out of bounds when the audience can only share in your words, to begin with, over the TV or from the other side of town.  Our whole culture would have to slow down—our very communities would have to be re-structured in favor of walking and visiting—before the critic could be taken seriously.

     The shallowness of our lives as we now lead them seems, then, to be irrevocable.  We are doomed to be “icons” to each other.  “My boyfriend”, “my teacher”, “my little sister”… I suspect fearfully that each of these nouns evokes a two-dimensional stereotype in the young people who use it.  How many of them think of a boyfriend or girlfriend as a complex human being whose collaboration in a common future will require sacrifice as well as bestow satisfaction?  How many of them simply see a face which dimly resembles a favorite movie star’s and a set of behaviors endlessly modeled on soap operas and “reality shows” (as those bizarre pantomimes are called where young people try to replicate TV scripts off the cuff)?  And if we see the persons closest to our hearts (or who ought to be closest) as mere “script-enablers”, bandying clichés with us and responding on cue in formulaic dramas, how will we ever reach out across racial boundaries to the common humanity of distant neighbors?  What exactly is a “cool black guy” to my white college students, I wonder?  Is he cool because he displays the requisite cool features—earring, high-top sneakers, dreadlocks—or because he sits quiet and the least bit surly in class, importing into the white man’s refuge a slight chip on the shoulder?  What if he were short, wore thick glasses, excelled at math, and asked lots of questions?  Would that turn them off?  Does a white lad of the same description also turn them off?  Why is the white scholar a “nerd” or a “geek”, like Dexter of cartoon fame (a pre-adolescent mad scientist), while the black scholar emanates a vague odor of betrayal, as if it were his moral duty to be tall and free of myopia?

     In my half-century of life, I have never found the people around me to be so captivated by unquestioned and shallow assumptions—so prejudiced.  The prejudice is not usually full of spite.  It more often smacks of the “black female coroner” syndrome: generous but still block-headedly rigid.  What do we do about this?  What can we do about it?

A contrast in employer devotion: the oft-traded Wagner had a longest stint of four years in Cleveland   Mantilla warmed a Braves bench for years, then played five seasons for three clubs.  Jiménezr received almost half his big-league at-bats in 1962.  Ashburn’s tour of duty with the Mets punctuated a long, distinguished career with Philadelphia and the Cubs.

     Note that the three players whose hands are visible have spaced them apart on the handle—Wagner very dramatically, Ashburn by about a quarter-inch.  Leon and Felix hold the bottom hand loose so as to turn fast on an inside pitch, while Richie’s top hand is looser, allowing him to reach for the outside pitch: a high-power versus a high-average strategy.  Such ingenious eclecticism of technique was common in the Negro Leagues, but was often scoffed at by Major League hitting “experts”.  Negro League veterans often remarked that Ashburn played ball as they were taught to play it.

p) On the vital importance of flowers and balls

     If the baseball establishment is indeed precisely like every other, then there’s not much hope of our seeing another Satchel Paige or Ricky Henderson or Rod Carew in the near future—players who, one and all, used different moves for different occasions, adjusted, disrupted, experimented, and (in a word) created.  On the contrary, as the Age of Electronic Communication is busily programming us to think in orderly channels, files, and icons, the developing technical arms of the “sports instruction” industry are rehearsing youngsters—hardware-savvy, affluent, mostly Caucasian youngsters—to do things just thus-and-so.  And as our leisure increasingly becomes given to wild fantasies on disks or websites, our “day jobs” grow ever more “goal-driven” and “results-oriented” (and the English language ever less organic).  There is no responsible, healthy symbiosis between fantasy to reality: the two blur, instead, in the most cramped and petulant ways, with the computer whiz hacking into a rival company’s secret files on a lark and the porn addict setting up hidden cameras in the ladies’ restroom.  Our most creative moments have the look of a compulsive pathology, as if we cannot resist becoming the stereotypical characters in some stale soap opera.

     The best-educated are no less susceptible than the exploited masses.  The politically correct among us scream and rave about “diversity” from their ivory tower, but their multi-cultural Arcadia is itself an assembly of stereotypes: Latinos playing Mariachi music over plates of spicy food, Chinese wielding chopsticks and water colors, Native Americans dancing in feathers and bells.... and so on, and so on.  Have you seen what goes on in your child’s foreign language class?  Lessons on distinctive food, lessons on distinctive holidays… “At Christmas we eat this, and we do this”… never a genuine poem or short story by a recognized author anywhere in sight.  The quick fix, the stereotype, dominates even when we flatter ourselves that we are “reaching out”.  Our entire culture is stifling in system.  Never has a culture been so successful—and now we are paying the price of success, denied elbow room in the rapidly narrowing corridors of progress.

     The essential spirit of Western civilization—the voice which spoke through Socrates and Boethius and Descartes and Kant (two of whom were executed, one of whom fled his country, and one of whom had to write almost hieroglyphically)—whispered to past generations beneath the steady drone of a Pharisaical officialdom that it wasn’t culture or system or burnt offerings which mattered, but Truth.  Truth with a capital T, enduring human verities, the Golden Rule, the categorical imperative… the obligation imposed upon us by the eyes of a child—any child—in need, the feeling of sublime transcendence inspired in us—all of us—by a beautiful sunset.  System has tried over and over to throttle the humane impulse of our civilization.  At long last, now that our words and very thoughts have become so systematized—now that we speak in clichés drilled home by TV commercials and dream in images designed by Hollywood technicians—our ability to pursue meaning beyond system seems to have subsided.  Even our religion speaks in relativist language.  The example of Christ is no longer true because it unlocks the noblest, most selfless ambitions which struggle for expression in every human heart: it is true only and entirely because one finds it in our culture’s historically preferred holy book.

     I know how nutty it sounds to connect electronic technology with this implosion of systematic rigor, and for that reason I want to insist upon it one more time with (I hope) greater clarity.  Look at the connection this way: never before in human history has wealth been so culturally impoverishing.  The new wealth of the Roman Empire financed provincial highways and aqueducts which, in some cases, remain functional today.  It bankrolled the literary endeavors of Virgil and Horace.  The new wealth of Renaissance Italy funded the art of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, and Raphael, the poetry of Petrarch and Ariosto, the sculpture of Bernini, the music of Monteverdi, and all the rest.  The new wealth of Hanoverian England financed the Royal Academy of the Sciences and set in motion (alack, the day!) the series of events which would produce satellites and cable TV.

     Now what, I ask you, does new wealth do in our culture?  To be sure, the Medicis and the Churchills were ostentatious on an extravagant scale: our billionaire attorneys and CEO’s didn’t invent the in-your-face, kiss-my-money palace on the hill.  But the lavish leisures in which yesteryear’s wealthy invested almost possessed, of necessity, a public dimension.  The plays which they commissioned were witnessed by dozens, if not thousands.  The portraits for which they sat pompously, though perhaps deposited in an intimate antechamber throughout their lifetime, eventually reached public museums (the masterpieces among them, at any rate).  The situation is entirely different with Sharon Jones, Bank President, or Farley Smith, Director of Acme Security Systems.  She or he has a “home entertainment center” wired up in the mansion’s heart of hearths—or maybe a small theater to accommodate dozens of fair-weather friends and sycophantic minions; the big bucks, in any case, have gone into the technology—the means of transmission—and not the “entertainment”.  Jones and Smith (and whatever appendages they may choose to invite) will sit before the same Monday Night (or is it now Nite?) Football game or Hollywood blockbuster as the rest of the nation does at lower definition and for lower admission.  The wealth of Their Honors Jones and Smith is not rewarding better screenplay-writers or commissioning brilliant but unknown composers: it is enriching the producers and purveyors of electronic technology.  The thrust of all expenditures is not toward a higher quality of art, but toward a more immanent, sensual, manipulable, convenient, and instantaneous means of delivery.  In other words, it is toward what matters least, a sideshow.  (Personally, I’d rather see a black-and-white Bogart-and-Bacall any day than sit through Titanic in “surround sound”.)  It is toward a secondary, ancillary—even parasitic—creativity; and it absorbs sums of money whose trail of zeroes Sir Isaac Newton thought only existed in the stars.

     Much of our economy—more all the time—is dedicated to creating nothing, to toying around with what was created long before we were caught in this swirling funnel of seeing quicker and closer rather than seeing more worthy sights.  Active footage of James Cagney and John Wayne is already being spliced into the trivial skits of TV commercials.  Soon feature-length films will star long-dead actors revived via computer—or perhaps super-beautiful humans digitally enhanced from the raw clay of mere “supermodels”.  But this miracle race will utter no memorable lines, will enlighten no dark corners of the human psyche: no Euripides or Shakespeare or Chekhov will be writing the script.  Culture is not being enriched by our riches; creativity is not being tapped by what we create.  We are indeed trapped in a maelstrom, and we have absolutely no idea—none of us—what cloaca maxima we are likely to be spewed into once the spout finally ejects us (if we may assume, that is, that we will retain enough pieces to care by that time).  We are enslaved to a system which does no more than constantly re-program itself, at exorbitant cost and with ever less sensitivity to what it was first intended to broadcast.  We cannot rear our heads from the dials and buttons long enough to study—to sit and study—how Delacroix used his reds or how Turner used his rough brush strokes on a static piece of canvas.  We are barbarians.  Attention Deficit Disorder is just another way of describing a Visigoth.

         The pauper, as the Roman philosopher Seneca once wrote, is not he who has little, but he who craves more.  Poverty is becoming power in our moribund culture—the privation, I mean, of material things which we not only don’t need but which are making us weak and dull.  We don’t see it yet… but those of us who will be best off will be those who have the least disposable cash.  Life doesn’t require much as long as one has a roof over one’s head and three square meals a day.  (Americans who do not have this much are usually not pinching their pennies enough: when you’re poor, think poor.)  I repeat that we desperately need not to have most of what we presently pant and pine after.  We need not to have “entertainment centers”: a book is infinitely better, if one can still be found.  Canvas and oil paints are a lot cheaper than a “ DVD library” (there’s an oxymoron for you), and will consume leisure hours far more greedily with far more excitement of gray matter.  James Galway, the world’s greatest flautist, learned to play on a tin whistle as a poor boy in Northern Ireland : emulate him.  Buy a guitar and pick out a few tunes instead of emptying your wallet and your brain on an iPod.

     But, no, we are not yet to the point where one may sing the praises of poverty and be understood as a loyal American and a faithful Christian.  To argue against the acquisitive instinct—to argue, even, against “developing” that instinct to ravenous proportions (otherwise known as advertising)—is to subvert the basis of democratic capitalism.  To insist that God is more palpable in deep silences and vague feelings which disdain to be satisfied by tinsel holidays is to deny the spirit as a “living” power.  The political forces which worry most about babies not allowed to be born worry least about six-year-olds growing up around cell phones and computers or about adolescents being propelled into a car culture that claims a Vietnam ’s worth of fatalities every year.  The maelstrom already has us turned so thoroughly inside-out that up is down and this world is the next one.  And, it seems to me, we go a little bit more insane every year.

     In our vast cultural debacle, we find ourselves sometimes playing a game with a ball, just to recover a little sanity.  In the same way, a person who crawls safely from a plane’s wreckage might sit and stare at an uncharred daisy.  Is a daisy really such an insignificant thing?  Is a game with a ball?  I’ll bet that one of the first free, spontaneous acts a survivor of a concentration camp might perform would be to rub his hand along the bark of a healthy green tree; and I’ll bet that one of the next would be to pick up an escaping ball and toss it to an expectant child.  As long as a few trees and a few balls remain, we still have a chance.  Some day, a baseball franchise may still go a little bit “nutty”, throwing out the book and throwing into its arsenal everything but the kitchen sink.  (Henrik Ibsen wrote somewhere that only lunatics are sane in a crazy world.)  This off-the-wall franchise, if it ever comes to exist, will win, almost of necessity; because the system has been finely tuned to defeat play by the book, so “wrong” play is sure to trip the system up completely.

     This is poetry, as I said at the beginning of what has become a rather long composition.  Baseball, done right, is poetry.  It is the unpredictable leap in Heisenberg’s electron, the unanticipated melody in the composer’s brain, the wholly improbable emergence of a sapling from a pile of stones, the blossoming of a flower from a crack in the sidewalk.  Yes, system is profitable in baseball, as in all human enterprises.  Pitchers systematically analyze hitters and succeed in neutralizing them: then hitters systematically analyze pitchers and neutralize the neutralizing strategy—and so on ad infinitum.  But the most successful player of all is the one who, for some reason, defies systematic analysis; and the only reason any player ever does so (for nothing, in baseball or in life, defies all analysis—even an angelic visitor would have much of x and little of y) is that the player has exploited the system’s blind side.  Not “miracle wrists” or “superhuman speed”, but creativity which—for the moment, anyway—is too much for the professors and the gurus to handle… that’s what ultimately makes a great ballplayer, just as it elevates an artistic genius from the rigors of genre and “tasteful” expectation.

     The greatest tragedy of racism, perhaps, is that it deprives a culture of the “alien” element necessary to vivify its own most beloved conventions.  Some people don’t like what Wynton Marsalis brings to Telemann by way of jazz; the same people’s grandparents, I suppose, didn’t like what Debussy imported from jazz to classical music.  But there isn’t a single example in human history of an art form which did not change with time: for to be utterly contained within forms—to satisfy expectation merely—spells death to the artistic experience.  An element of surprise, of mystery—of chaos, even—must exist in the beautiful if it is to capture the beholder.  So for goodness: if we sense no mystery in our pursuit of righteousness, but instead simply sit back and check off the commandments we have fulfilled, then we are as far from the good as any abject sinner.

     I know now that baseball has never escaped rigidity—that it was never the irrepressible burst of creativity, perhaps the one such burst honored among us today, which I naively took it to be in my youth.  But I think it has its moments; and if some bad boy keeps stirring the pot to find an advantage in competition, then… well, then maybe we may some day figure out that the more serious aspects of our lives do not have to fit the mold, either.


1 The ever sagacious Shelby Steele dissects this type of response in an article entitled “The Recoloring of Campus Life,” first published in Harper’s Magazine (February 1989) and reprinted in an anthology often used in Freshman Composition classes like mine, The Norton Reader, 11th ed., eds. Linda Peterson and John Brereton (New York: Norton, 2004), 372-382.  Professor Steele concludes, “Young whites tell themselves that they had nothing to do with the oppression of black people.  They have a stronger belief in their racial innocence than any previous generation of whites, and a natural hostility toward anyone who would challenge that innocence” (381).

2 Cf. Joe Morgan’s comments in Long Balls, No Strikes: What Baseball Must Do to Keep the Good Times Rolling (New York: Random House, 1999), 76: “Filling out the lineup card gave every skipper tremendous leverage over his team [before the era of million-dollar contracts].  Unless you were a superstar, he controlled your playing time and, by extension, your compensation.  You had to remain in a manager’s good graces back then.  If you didn’t he could sit you down, demote you to the minors, or ship you to another team.”

3 I might note here the mysterious case of Eileen Julien, an up-and-coming scholar of African Studies who was young, brilliant, beautiful, female, and black.  Professor Julien’s book African Novels and the Question of Orality (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992) was a definite tour de force.  When I read it, I immediately tracked her down to her elite East Coast campus and offered my congratulations through e-mail.  By way of reply, I was informed by a helpful drudge that Julien had “gotten married and moved to Africa ”.  Now, I have nothing against either marriage or Africa.; but when a professor forsakes an Ivy League position for one or both of these (neither of which is irreconcilable with keeping the post: scholars go on sabbaticals and international exchange programs all the time), something’s fishy.  The truth is that Julien’s book had violated politically correct orthodoxy by arguing that the lot of African women has actually improved (gasp!) because of the West’s influence.  I have no real doubt that this thesis is what sent her into exile—especially since she soon returned to work on another American campus.  When you challenge the anti-systemic system of the new anti-orthodox orthodoxy, it isn’t enough even to be both a woman and a black.

4 This is my rather liberal translation from Zweig’s novel, Erziehung vor Verdun (Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1987), 195.  The novel was first published in 1935.

5 Ibid., 24; my translation.  I am not a fan of Karl Marx’s, by the way: if the murderous  twentieth century accomplished nothing else, it revealed that Marx’s extremely reductive system supplies at least as many occasions to “trim away” outsiders and misfits as does a monarchy or a capitalist republic.  Indeed, Ortega y Gasset has astutely remarked that progressivism stifles creative responses: “Liberal progressivism and Marxist socialism both suppose that what they envision as the ideal future will come to pass—inexorably, with the necessity of an astronomical event. Protected from their conscience by this vision, they leave history’s rudder untended, stand down from high alert, and lose all their agility and efficacy” (my translation from La Rebelión de las Masas [ Madrid : Alianza Editorial, 1990], 75).

6 My translation from Romains’ Prélude à Verdun (Paris: Flammarion, 1938), 43-44.  This volume, like most in Romains’ stunning series, Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté, is actually more easy to obtain in English translation than in French.  If I needed a specific example of how far European culture has degenerated, this desertion of its own great authors and thinkers would do nicely.

7 Wilfrid Owen borrowed this line from the Roman elegist Horace to mock bitterly the European Old Guard’s staunch support of the War.  The poem was one of Owen’s last: he was killed one week before the Armistice.

8 See “’I, Martian’: The Autoscopy of a Science-Fiction Addict,” Praesidium 6.1-2, pp. 5-23.

back to Contents



R. S. Carlson: Three Poems  

Boy Soldiers’ Lunch

 A scene from the Thai/Burma border January 1995, where the military junta of “Myanmar” is increasing pressure on ethnic minority civilians and armed resistance groups who, in turn, flee to the jungles or cross into Thailand.  Gathering one of the world’s worst human rights records through routine use of forced labor, forced relocation of towns and villages (orders emphasized by random beatings and executions, arson and pillage), arbitrary demands on citizens for supplies and “taxes,” and unrestrained torture, rape and murder, the regime—which currently has decreased health care spending but devotes 30% of its budget to the military—offers “great business opportunities” to international corporations.


While her husband

from higher up the river bank

mobile-phoned to contact

our next truck ride toward the city,


she and I shared the patch of shade

one surviving tree offered the sand and gravel

in the hundred meters between

the forested bank

and the southerly slide of the river.


Where the longboats had left us,

a truck-track in the clay

broke through the flood-stage face of overburden

and spread to a corduroy of mahogany logs

set in the gravel for cargo ramp and boat landing.


Fifty paces from the low water line

a ten-by-ten stack of hundred-kilo sacks of rice

waited for longboat delivery to the refugee camps upriver.

Here and there, tiny cascades of rice

hourglassed from rips in the burlap

onto the hot gravel.


In the sliver of shade left

by the leaning trees and bamboo thickets

gripping the edge of the cutbank,

the port crew watched its one pot

boil chicken and chilies with rice.

The half dozen teen porters and boy soldiers

joked among themselves in the home tongue,


and we foreigners wondered, as is human,

what they had to be saying about us.

Did they know we had brought medicine upriver?

Were we simply obscene, having money to come and go,

some of us overweight in new clothes,

here among the ill-clad and semi-starved?


One of the boy soldiers, M16 left  in the shade,

ambled through the noon heat to the rice sacks,

gathered a handful of spillage, came back,

and scattered it for the two red-brown chickens

remaining tied into a bamboo basket.

With their former companion gone to pot,

the survivors had room to maneuver

heads through the open-weave

and pick at the dropped grains.


Her husband still had not come back into sight. 

Our other team members

skipped rocks on the water

or waited on a driftlog near the rice pile.


The hens tilted their combs,

wattles wagging, to focus the lay

of the next rice grain to beak off the sand.


Shaking her head, she nudged a few grains

closer to the basket with her left boot.

The hens squawked,

then fell to pecking lunch again.

The port crew began spooning

watery shares of rice-and-chicken gruel

into their individual tin cans.


This kind of rice, she said,

my people never eat this --

Only give it to pigs

and sell to refugees.


                     First published in Melting Trees Review


Moei River Question

On hearing of Myanmar/Burma government troops mounting a new offensive against ethnic minority Karen National Union bases as well as refugee villages in the Thai/Burma border region, January 1995.


The little girl

with the page boy cut

and impish grin



the one who

                       pushed  friends aside

to play pat-a-cake with our Sara


yes, the one whose

                       parents were both killed



did she make it

                       inland when

                       they fled the village


amid the







                        First published in Melting Trees Review


   Street Signs

 (Vientiane, 1998)


     What place is this?


The young girl hosing the dirt road between us

grins briefly,

shakes her head.


Water, like silver,

in visual range could make light break

into ten million pieces against muddy dust.


     What place is this?

     What is the road to the capital?


The girl pinches eyebrows at each other,

widens one nostril, then looks back to the dust.

She does not answer neighbor-country language.


Sun sags toward salmon-blossomed Bougainvillea.

Dust brightens the ragged spines

of banana leaves and grass thatch.


First gear again, and the tires

pursue the more passable runnels

in the cratered clay.


Water buffalo stroll from work or wallow or pasture

toward home, calves scrambling to keep hold

under mother’s flank for the milk that keeps walking away.


Chickens rove yard and road,

pecking all possibilities,

bright or dim in the dusk.


A flag awaits wind in a school yard

above boys and soccer ball

straggling off toward homework and supper.



First published in Glass Tesseract


Lane skirts pond, dead-ends at a deserted brickyard.

Street wanders back to traffic circle.

A cyclo driver awaiting night rice


wipes down the multicolor flames and chrome

of sheet metal side panels,

and again the question:


     What way to the capital city?

The man leans forward, listens...

     What way to the capital city?


He bends his arm left,

right, left again.

A nod.  First gear.  Second.


Candles waver on roadside vendors’ tables.

Tires twirl dust

from powdering clay.


Lane turns onto street. 

Vendors cart home unsold pork, T-shirts,

charcoal, ducklings, plasticware.


Bicycles and motorbikes

minnow past trucks and cars

regarding potholes more cautiously.


A turn,

a street lamp,

a temple seen before,


a government office,

a paved road,

a traffic light,


market vendors

dispersing the twilight by the score

with carts and polebaskets,



a street sign

pointing to the known.


back to Contents



Pyotr’s Long Shortcut


Peter Singleton (et alii)


     Since this vignette is something in the nature of filler for an already oversized issue with a pitiable dearth of fiction, I will be brief in explaining its provenance.  The work was born in a middle-school writing club which I agreed (for my son’s sake) to sponsor.  We were trying to create a simple narrative after the fashion of a fable.  The students for some reason took to the name “Pyotr” when I suggested it, and I found them attracted (for no reason at all that I could discern) to a vaguely medieval atmosphere which, in their minds, belonged to the land of the fabulous.  It is not an uncommon ambiance, I gather, in the kinds of science-fiction games and films which kids enjoy nowadays.

     I began to take more and more control of the exercise, because—sadly—I had to.  The peripeties volunteered by my young authors ranged from having one character produce an AK-47 to having a plague suddenly eat the flesh off of every living person’s skull.  If you have ever monitored the creative activity of children at this age (especially boys), you know that it can easily qualify as among life’s more depressing experiences.  Anyone who contends that our “popular culture” is not malignantly affecting, not just the morale of our children, but their very ability to perceive reality, should undertake to work with sixth-graders for a week.  Frankly, I think the notion of a plague is all too apt—but it is eating out the contents rather than the integument of our skulls, and it is being spread by our “entertainment” rather than by Al Qaeda or migratory birds.

     So here is a humble exercise in fiction: I withhold further comment until the story is told.


     Pyotr had never entered the bustling town of Olympia .  Perched atop a large round hill, the settlement wore its gray stone walls like a crown.  Sometimes he would admire it from a distance, as when he got to drive the cows to summer pasture or sneaked off to go swimming where the river formed a broad, still pool.  But there had never been any reason actually to go among all those people.  His father would say that just about everything they needed could be found right there on the farm.  What little they didn’t grow or make themselves—a new plough, a frying pan, something special for mother’s birthday like a cleverly wrought sundial or candle-holder—could be obtained at the great monthly fairs down by the ruined castle.  People from three counties would drive their flocks, lead their oxcarts, and carry their parcels to the wide green meadow.  Jugglers and magicians would set up tents and do stunning tricks inside them.

     Pyotr lived for those days; but he lived, even more, for the day when he could visit Olympia .  He figured that all the marvels he saw at the fair would be ordinary events in the great town forever wearing its crown of stone walls.

     Once the new bridge was built across the river, that day arrived.  Now there was no more reason to make the long trek along the river’s bending south bank in order to reach his grandparents’ house.  The route across the bridge and straight over the great hill, going through the heart of Olympia , was a full five miles shorter than the old way.  Pyotr’s father was less than thrilled about the idea.  For reasons which he would never tell Pyotr very plainly, he regarded the magnificent township as a place to be avoided.  But there was the harvest to be gotten in, the strong but weary farmer could spare no one to accompany his son, and he could indeed only spare the tall, lean, hard-working Pyotr for a few days.

     Pyotr was sternly warned, at any rate, to spend no more time than necessary in the streets of Olympia .  He was just to pass through, from the east gate to the west gate, and continue on to the cottage in Misty Forest .  It would take at least two more days to help Grandfather chop wood for the winter.  There would be no time left to fritter away among “citified fools”, as his father called the inhabitants of Olympia : Pyotr was to come straight back home again.

     All of these warnings vanished from Pyotr’s mind as soon as he saw Olympia ’s broad main gate, thrown wide open to the mid-morning flow of farmers, venders, visitors, and travelers.  Everybody seemed either to have something to buy or something to sell, unlike the scarcely moving crowds he had seen at the fairs.  Nobody seemed to be walking back on his heels like Pyotr, just enjoying the sights.  A driver cracking his whip atop a horse cart shouted at the boy to get out of the way—which he did, just in time.  A few steps farther on, a couple of brawny men carrying heavy sacks elbowed him out of their path without so much as a grunt.  A small girl once paused to look up at him and smile, the first mannerly company he had yet encountered—but her mother immediately screamed her name from behind them and jerked her along by the wrist.

     Yet even if nobody else was enjoying himself, Pyotr was having the time of his life.  Bumps, pushes, and all, he couldn’t get enough of the hustle and bustle.  Back on the farm, people were certainly busy—they were busy all the time.  But their chores took most of the day and often had to be repeated day after day, so they trudged and slogged along at the same unhurried pace.  These city-dwellers, on the other hand, seemed to be involved in a very intricate dance.  Barely missing each other, timing their comings and goings so that three of them would have fallen flat if one had delayed one step for one instant, they were almost as much fun to watch as the acrobats at the fair.  In a way, they were far more fun: because there were so many more of them, their dance was much more breath-taking.

     “You!  Come here!  Yes, you!  Stop right there!”

     With his hands still in his pockets, Pyotr shrugged.  “How do I come there if I stop here?”

     “Don’t be impertinent.  Now come here.”

     “Yes, all right.  Here I am.”

     “How dare you pass by the shrine of Olympius Doratus without bending your knee!”

     “Olympi… Olympius Dor…”

     “Yes, yes!  Olympius Doratus, the god of urban prosperity.  The sacred golden one, the river of all life, the key to the future’s gate, the father of human order and… and…”

     “I’m sorry,” said Pyotr sincerely.  “I… I’m new here.  I mean… I’ve never been here.  Where is this shrine, anyway?”

     “Right before you!  Are you blind?  How on earth can you not see Olympius Doratus?”

     Pyotr blinked at a shadowy space between a pair of white-washed wooden columns.  He had noticed the life-sized bust of a rather arrogant-looking human head before this instant, its chin thrown back and its brows furrowed—but he had supposed the thing to be some kind of art work for sale.  And he had supposed, further, that it would be a long time in selling.  He couldn’t imagine who would want anything so ugly on the mantelpiece at home.

     “I… I thought that was… are you sure it’s the god of… of what you said?  It looks just like you!”

     “Like me, did you say?”  The man drew his breath until his cheeks were as puffy and red as tomatoes.  Pyotr’s mouth fell open.  What was so bad about looking like a god—even an ugly god like this one?

     “Of course he looks like me!  Why wouldn’t he?  I have devoted my entire life to serving him—to the point that I have acquired his very features, his noble brow and stern eye and manly chin!”

     As the man spoke, his face quickly erased whatever differences Pyotr could see between it and the statue.   The two now looked identical.  It was rather scary.

     “I… I should be going,” stammered Pyotr, edging back.

     “Go?  Go!  How dare you go without bending your knee to the god, you… you…”

     “Um… maybe next time.  Bye, now!”

     And with that, Pyotr turned his back and hunched his shoulders as he would have done before a strong north wind.  He shoved his hands more deeply then ever into his pockets, and resumed his walk with longer strides than he would have taken when the barnyard at home got very muddy.

     Whatever fussing and fuming the odd little man did behind him was at once swallowed up in the crowd’s buzz.  Nobody else seemed to care particularly about Pyotr’s “outrage” against Olympius Doughnut, or whatever his name was.  They all still had places to go, things to buy and sell, goods to deliver, appointments to keep.  Pyotr welcomed their cold, rude hustling and bustling now.  It was like the pasture of tall grass which, on a windy day, would easily conceal his movements if he were trying to crawl away from Farmer Petrushka’s orchard after pilfering apples.

     Pyotr had just begun to settle back into his normal pace when a strong hand clapped him on the shoulder and held him still in his tracks.

     “There, now… there, there, young man—ha-rumph!  Yes, that’s it, pull over this way a moment.  Yes, yes, that’s it.  I know you didn’t mean to commit a great sacrilege against Olympius Gloriosus.”

     “Not again!” murmured Pyotr, trembling under the pressure of the mighty hand.  He slowly rolled his eyes to the side, hardly even daring to move his neck.  Another pair of columns, this time painted brilliant red, rose before him several feet away from the street’s busy traffic.  Another bust, as well, filled the space between the columns.  Its white marble curls were mostly hidden by the likeness of a warrior’s helmet, on its lip and chin were sculpted the short, pointed mustache and beard of a military man, and the part of its broad chest which the artist had chosen to include seemed to be encased in a thick soldier’s breastplate.

     “There, now—isn’t he grand?” continued the deep voice at Pyotr’s side.  “Isn’t he majestic?  The broad brow with courage virtually written across it, the fearless eye looking out upon the world like an eagle from his cliff… the strong jaw, the mighty chest… where should we all be without him?  Olympius Gloriosus defends our city from invaders.  He makes our roads and bridges safe.  He patrols our borders.  He chases the barbarians back into their lairs.  We must all pay our respects to the god every time we pass his shrine.  Without him, we should be mere… mere… well, I really don’t know what we should be.  It scarcely bears thinking about!”

     “No,” agreed Pyotr.

     “Well, then… show some respect.”

     “Umm….”  Pyotr glanced from the man towering over him to the statue perched in the alcove.  It was then that he realized how very much these two, also, looked alike.  The man’s shaggy hair was not confined within a helmet, and his broad chest was enclosed in no armor—probably because the morning was already growing hot, for there were some heavy-looking brass objects on the ground behind a heap of bread, cheese, sausages, and wine bottles.  Otherwise, the mustache and beard, the bent brow and hooked nose, were just the same.

     “Come along now!  Such irreverence in one so young—what is civilization coming to?”

     “Um…” repeated Pyotr stupidly.  He felt stupid—and a little frightened before this huge oddball.  He decided to try the knee-bending bit that the other stranger had wanted him to do before the Doughnut god.

     “No, no!  What are you doing?  Olympius Gloriosus requires a cash contribution.  I can’t stand here all day guarding his shrine for nothing, you know.”

     “Oh,” said Pyotr, straightening up—and he thought to himself, “I’ll bet the other god was about to ask for money, too.”  But he decided not to share the thought out loud.

     “Well?  You must have something.  Your dear mummy and daddy can’t have sent you into town without anything.”

     “Hey look, your cheese!  A crow is carrying it off!”

     “What?  A crow on the cheese of Olympius Gloriosus?”

     And with a warlike roar, the great man threw himself upon the heap of food and drink behind him, just as a cart trundled by smartly along the road.  Pyotr dipped behind the large, creaking wheels, taking care to bend low, and trotted along under cover until he was safely submerged again in the sea of humanity.

     “Whew!” he mumbled.  “I don’t suppose that ogre would have murdered me in front of everyone for the couple of coppers in my pocket… but if he did, maybe, no one in this place would stop long enough to bury me.  I’ll be sure to stay to this side of the road from now on.”

     “Stop!” commanded a low voice at his elbow.

     A command it surely was, yet the voice was so mellow—so soothing, almost—that Pyotr found none of the shyness in him which had tied his tongue before.  He wheeled around with every intention of wrenching his shoulder free from the faint grasp upon it.

     “Will you please let go of…”

     Pyotr’s tongue immediately wound itself into a sailor’s knot.  He had never seen such an… an odd face.  A face so troubling that he felt he could stand here studying it until he dropped dead of hunger.

     “It is most ill-advised to pass the shrine of Olympia Amatoria without paying your respects.”

     “ Olympia Ama… is she a woman?  Like you?”

     “She is a goddess.  I merely serve.”

     “Are those… are those your real eyelashes? “

     “Silly child!  I can see that you are a novice to Olympia ’s cult.  Come inside the shrine, and let me show you.”

     “I… I…”

     “Don’t be afraid, boy!  Look at her face.  Does such a face frighten you?  She is the goddess of love—love, which brings new calves and lambs into the world each spring, which brings the bee to the blossom, which draws the stars up from the treetops at dusk, which…”

     Pyotr saw a long, slender white hand point backward toward what must have been another shrine and another statue, but his eyes went in reverse direction… back up the slender white arm, to a shoulder all but hidden in dark hair, and—set within the hair as if under a forest’s shadows—a pair of cat’s green eyes aglow with their own inner light.

     “I… I’ll give you all the money I have,” he babbled, fumbling in his pockets.  “It’s not very much….”

     “Boy, the goddess doesn’t want your money.  She wants your devotion.  Follow me.”

     Pyotr would never entirely understand how he managed to pry himself away from the retreating dress of silk and the flowing black hair.  He had thought that his feet were following in the goddess’s tracks (for this woman, he quickly decided, was the true goddess)—yet he suddenly found himself, not walking, but running along the crowded avenue.  Through all the uproar of hucksters and teamsters, of whining children and bleating goats, he seemed to detect an echo of his mother’s voice calling him to his supper.  It wasn’t at all like that woman’s voice; and he would conclude, one day when he had had many months to think about these moments, that the memory of his mother had somehow pulled him from Olympia ’s clutches.

     His quickened pace, however, did not outstrip the spread of ugly rumors up and down the city’s main street.  His busy feet only carried him into the arms of an angry crowd which appeared to be waiting for him.  A wall of grown men with squared shoulders and folded forearms blocked his way, and the faces into which he looked all seemed to wear the proud scowls of the Doughnut god or the spoiling-for-a-fight arrogance of the Glory God.  In fact, he could now see—now that the arms reached out and strong hands lay hold of him—the servants of the two gods pointing at him.  Their free hand, he saw through all the shaking and shoving, was placed on the cushion of a raised chair—a kind of litter carried by several men with bald heads.  Toward this chair, in roundabout fashion, he was dragged and hustled.  A powerful pressure on his shoulder made him fall to his knees, and a powerful hand in his hair made him roll his head back.  Against a brilliant blue sky, he could see a man draped in even more brilliant golden robes.

     “I am the Chief Magistrate of Olympia !” announced the golden man in nasal tones which carried from end to end of the crowded avenue (for everyone instantly grew quiet).  “What is this I hear of criminal impiety?”

     “He is one of them, O Most Just and  August One!” blustered the Doughnut priest, no longer so dignified at the foot of the chair.  “He is one of these traitors we hear about who sneak into the city from our unruly countryside!”

     The Chief drew an invisible circle in the air with a chin that was, in the fat folds of its neck, almost invisible.  “He seems very young… surely he is no ring-leader.”

     “Ha-ha!” blurted the soldier-priest in something between a laugh and a shout.  “The young are the worst of all!  Being mere boys, they can pass everywhere without suspicion—and then they smear the city’s gates with poison taken from their country plants and make the dogs go rabid with the bite of the lycotropus infernalis, an evil insect they extract from their country rivers!”

     “Is this true?” roared the Chief, his eyes showing forth for the first time from the ample folds of his cheeks.

     “Uh… I…”

     Before Pyotr could defend himself, Olympia —the goddess, the living divinity—came running up to the crowd’s edge.  People moved aside for her with the same silence and reverence, almost, which they showed to the Chief—especially when her mellow voice rose to a wail.

     “O wicked boy!  Never has Olympia Amatoria been so disgraced!  O child of an evil seed!  O enemy of love!”

     There were a few more o’s that Pyotr couldn’t remember, or perhaps didn’t pay attention to.  He was spellbound by the slender white arms and the flowing black hair.  Even if he had kept his wits about him, though, he wouldn’t have been allowed a chance to speak.  After Olympia had finally run out of names for him that he couldn’t understand, the entire city fell silent for what seemed like an endless second.  Then a woman’s voice screamed from somewhere, “Away with him!”  The whole crowd at once caught up the refrain—including the Chief Template.

     “Away with him!” he cried, flailing stubby arms under his golden robes and squirming on his chair so that its bald bearers almost stumbled into each other.  “Away with him!  Away with him!”

     In no time at all, a two-wheeled cart had been unhitched from an ox, and Pyotr was muscled into its bed.  The crowd seemed to fight over the honor of pulling it and pushing it along, both men and women, both young and old.  He picked up more speed than he would have thought such a vehicle could possibly achieve.  He couldn’t even tell, as he looked down upon the whole scene in a daze, if an old woman in a black shawl were trying to throw something at him or to beat a man’s shoulders who shoved her out of the way, or if two big burly laborers were shouting at him or each other as they fought over one of the cart’s shafts.

     Just then he happened to look forward.  Pyotr was tall for his age and standing as straight as he could, even with the cart rolling and weaving beneath him, so as to stay out of reach of all the grabbing hands.  From his height, he saw that the city’s far gate was looming just ahead, almost low enough for him to jump and touch—and a few yards beyond the gate, he realized with a gasp that the city’s hill came to an abrupt end.  There was a rocky ledge where wisps of grass grew, and then… and then, the great forest where his grandparents lived spread in a blur, blue in miles of distance.

     Almost without thinking—almost in a kind of reflex that went with his gasp—Pyotr threw up his arms as high as they would reach.  His hands locked on one of the beams roofing the gate.  He heaved himself up out of the cart with a determined grunt.

     “Stop him!  Pull him down!”

     Throwing his head back, Pyotr could see the Chief Marmalade—upside-down—closing fast on him from behind and leaping from his portable chair with a sudden lurch, his flabby fingers aiming for Pyotr’s neck.  With one more determined heave, Pyotr slung his legs up into the roof beams and flattened himself as much as he could.

     He heard a great outcry beneath him—shouts of surprise, screams of horror—but he couldn’t look down from where he held himself tight against the timbers.  At last his slender wrists could force his fingers shut no longer.  They ached so badly that he let go of his grasp with his own cry of disappointment—a cry that even he could not hear in the bedlam.

     He didn’t fall very far at all—a short drop, and then he was sliding.  It was like hurling himself onto a hayrick from the top of the barn and shooting downward.  He made sure to keep his feet and hands high above the slick, bumpy surface beneath him.  At the bottom, his momentum threw him onto his feet with such force that he had run a dozen steps along the road out of town before he could stop himself.

     When Pyotr looked back, he beheld the funniest scene ever set before his eyes—far more comical than a band of acrobatic clowns tumbling in a mass at the fair.  On the bottom of a great human heap was the Chief Reprobate, his golden robes thrown up over his head, his fists pounding the earth, and his bare legs kicking at the bald men and the litter’s rails piled on top of him.  The Priest of Doughnut had been pinned up against one of the grand seat’s cushions so that the costly fabric was shoved far into his mouth.  The Gloriosus Guy was trapped between several old women, one of whom kept pulling his whiskers and another of whom was feeling through his pockets for cash.  Olympia Amy had managed to stand off to one side, but she was busy kicking one man’s shins, beating another’s head with a chicken that had somehow fallen into her grasp, and screeching with a voice that was now anything but mellow.

     Pyotr laughed until he could not stand up straight, and then laughed some more.  He might have stayed there laughing longer than would have been good for him—but a tremendous crack far below stood him back up with a start.  He eased to the edge of the cliff and peered over: the two-wheeled cart, mercifully empty, was now a dusting of little splinters on a mass of big gray boulders.

     Two days later, on his way back from his grandparents’ house, Pyotr didn’t bother to take the shortcut through Olympia .  When he was much older and had children of his own who wanted to explore the magnificent city crowning the hilltops, he didn’t repeat the vague warnings of his own father, but told them all about his adventure, instead.  In his household, the city soon became known as Lunympia, for everyone agreed that the place he had visited must be a great gray-walled lunatic asylum.


     Too cynical for children? Most of the “children” of my group were very disappointed in what I ended up doing with Pyotr and the goddess of love.  And yet, I would argue that the romanticization of sex as the high road to adventure, supplying both entry into true manhood and access to life’s greatest pleasure (“the second best feeling of my life,” dull men have long said of other delights in elliptical jest), is definitively adolescent.  Sexual excitement is visceral, self-centered, and unaccompanied by any memory of achievement: we could well say that it is childish but for its biologically post-infantile basis.  Physically overpowering another person—that “second best feeling” for my ephebes—has all the same components, except that it MAY require courage (when you’re not facing down the other guy’s Smith & Wesson with an AK-47).

     Here, I believe, is the heart of our cultural loss: our children do not really understand the inner operations of the human soul at all—of their own or anyone else’s—and are not about to learn of them from popular entertainments or even the latest Newberry Award Winners.  La Fontaine knew that simple fables could be used to convey sobering lessons about the adult world; so did the author of the Sanskrit Pancatantra.  Our “old beyond their years” children, however, grow up to become disastrously incompetent electors who can’t divine the presence of sordid motives behind soapy rhetoric.  Even in the voting booth, they are auto-erotic rather than analytical: however tough or cool or cruel their talk, they fall for “compassion” and sensitivity” every time.  We could do worse than make them read Aesop as we once did.

back to Contents



Herman Melville and His Critics


 Steve Kogan

Dr. Steve Kogan, a Brooklyn native and alumnus of Columbia University, has taught for three decades at Manhattan Community College.  His review of Lev Rasgon’s True Stories appeared in Pr. 5.1/2.  

“Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?...  The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed.  Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be.”

                                                                                                              George Orwell, 1984


1. Subverting Melville

     Over the past thirty-five years, American literary studies have echoed all the leitmotifs of Karl Marx’s “materialist”[1] view of history.  Scholars and critics may claim that they have modified strict Marxist  theory through a “sophisticated mixture of critical approaches,”[2] but their reconstructions and revisions have only created a more sophisticated echo chamber, in which our own literary classics are being turned “into something contradictory of what they used to be.”

      There are two main reasons why Melville has become a special target of leftwing analysis: he communicates a tragic sense of life that challenges the utopian visions of the left,[3] and the democratic spirit of Moby-Dick also challenges the anti-American prejudices of today’s cultural elites.  Melville’s commitment to the nation’s deepest norms is vividly expressed in his hymn to the “great democratic God”[4] in Chapter 26, his transformation of tragedy from the traditional fall of kings to the fall of “meanest mariners” (104), and his representation of America in a crew that comes from every corner of the world.  As strange as it may seem to the uninitiated, these aspects of the novel have been distorted to the point where it is barely recognizable.

      The definitive New Left reading of Melville is Michael Rogin’s influential work Subversive Genealogies: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville, which not only places politics before art in the title but also defines political critique in Marxist terms.  Rogin’s approach to literary analysis may be gauged by the fact that be cites Marx twenty times, despite the fact that Marx’s world view is alien to Melville’s in almost every way.[5]  By contrast, there is not a single reference to Marx’s great German predecessors Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Gottfried Herder, whose respective philosophies of nature and history can be distinctly heard in Melville’s most celebrated works, Moby-Dick and Billy Budd.

      There is no denying the historical shift in American literary studies along Marxist lines of thought: the downgrading of the individual in the name of group identity, the constant criticism of authority in every sphere of life,[6] repeated calls for social justice through radical change, and the belief that “material” interests control human experience—all these elements of Marxist critique have reemerged with the ascendancy of the left in American education.  In a survey of contemporary literary scholarship and criticism published by the Modern Language Association, Cecelia Tichi remarks that, since the 1970s, every aspect of American studies to the Civil War “has undergone dynamic, radical change”[7] and that “the written text, the author, and his or her culture” are now regarded as part of a collective historical process, in which


Melville, to cite another canonical example, is similarly recontextualized, approached as a participant in a network of dynamic associations—familial, political, cultural, economic—in all of which he becomes a figure of historical contingency….. To enshrine him (or, for that matter, Emerson or Thoreau or Poe) in a fraternal pantheon of singular cohorts is to stress his separateness, his distinctness from the society he inhabited, which inscribes itself in his texts.  (219)


Melville studies thus reflect the New Historicist position that “individuals are themselves the products of collective exchange,”[8] while the once neutral term “historical contingency” is now used as a battering ram against “transcendent” values. In the language of the academic left, when we “historicize” American literature, we unmask a “profoundly impure—that is, contingent and political—tradition of American intellectual culture.”[9]  In The Columbia History of the American Novel, Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky identifies “the rhetoric of the Revolution”[10] as the source of this “impure” tradition, in which early nineteenth-century literature attempted to propagandize “an American readership to be good citizens of the Republic,” was “written almost exclusively by white men” (8) and lacked a true “cultural voice” (10).  For Rubin-Dorsky, the authentic voice of culture is marked by resistance to social injustice: i.e., “the refusal to internalize, and thus be tamed by, the forces and agents of cultural repression” (10).  A frequent argument in this vein is that Melville supported the politics of repression by denying his fictional crews the possibility of rebelling against their ruthless authorities (Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick and Captain Vere in Billy Budd), thus reducing his sailors to “proletarian” servitude.  In Tichi’s summary, “Moby-Dick is revealed to enact the politics of imperialism, with Ahab exploiting Third World labor to plunder the globe’s natural resources (Rogin, Dimock)” (219-20).

      For all the talk about new and “dynamic” approaches to American literature, the influential voices in the field all claim that social injustice is at the heart of our literary classics, the so-called “canon” of great works as defined by traditional scholarship prior to World War II and by the New Criticism of the 1950s.  However different their methods of interpretation, and no matter what books and authors they placed high on their lists, as long as both schools began with the premise that certain works have high literary value, they are charged with having fostered a ruling-class doctrine of artistic greatness, thereby silencing the voices of America’s oppressed minorities and obscuring the “profoundly impure” character of American culture.  Tichi observes that, for new historicists, the post-World War II shift from “fireside” authors such as Longfellow, Whittier, and Lowell to the darker worlds of Poe, Hawthorne and Melville nevertheless continued to support a repressive belief that America’s democratic values “are embodied in texts of aesthetic genius” (218).  According to this academic party line, the belief in “transcendent” literary and political values was “ideologically self-serving to certain groups, especially to white male elites, and enactive of its own historical moment, such as the Cold War” (218).  Hence the term “Cold War criticism” as a catch-phrase for literary studies of the 1950s.

      This Marxist-inspired attack against America’s political and cultural institutions has a double edge, since the Soviet Union’s totalitarian doctrines are conspicuously absent from discussion, while America’s alleged “Cold War paranoia” is lifted from the 1950s and read into the past as though it had grown out of American history itself.  In effect, there is no history, since the essential never changes.  Donald Pease, for example, claims that post-war American studies were dominated by a “Cold War scenario”[11] that derived from traditional political rhetoric, both of which supposedly fostered a spirit of “containment” and conformity. Melville's “Ahab functions like post-Jacksonian politicians” by exploiting his authority “at the cost of real life” (242),  and “the Cold War scenario silences dissent as effectively as did Ahab in the quarterdeck scene” (244), where he seduces the crew of the Pequod to “hunt Moby Dick to his death!”  As for Ishmael, who narrates the story of the quest, “dissent” is not even an option, since he is “a man without home feelings,” a walking ghost who “moves distractedly from one observation to another, with no basis for any of his observations more enduring than his need for exciting self-expression” (274-75).[12]  Like the emiserated proletarians of The Communist Manifesto, Ishmael for Pease represents the alienated self under bourgeois domination.          

      In characterizing Ishmael as a glorified narcissist, Pease joins ranks with other leftwing intellectuals in denigrating nineteenth-century American individualism as a philosophy of egocentric self-mystification, which Philip Fischer contemptuously dismisses as “the egotistical sublime” (239).  These attacks against the Transcendentalists and the Emersonian doctrine of self-reliance are hammered home in repeated challenges to “individualist ideals,” whereby “the masculine ethos of individualism in Thoreau, as well as in Cooper, Emerson, and Melville is reidentified as egocentric narcissism.”[13]  Hence Ishmael is now seen as yet another know-nothing, self-absorbed American, devoid of any “political and philosophical symbols with which he can reflect upon his experiences.”[14]  The fact that he has thought long and hard about “that story of Narcissus”[15] means nothing to Pease, nor do any of Ishmael’s other observations on history, religion, philosophy, and myth, since Pease has already decided that he lacks what supposedly genuine thinking requires, namely a radical consciousness that stands in opposition to the status quo.  True to type as an early nineteenth-century American, Ishmael is allegedly incapable of radical thought, since America itself “lacked what a revolutionary culture needs in order to flourish—the remnants of an old tradition to continue to oppose” (245).[16]  So dire is Ishmael’s historical predicament that, even if he had “home feelings,” he would still be lost, for “without a firm belief in the purposes it carried forward from a past, a nineteenth-century American village lacked any coherent sense of cultural purpose” (16).  Ishmael thus belongs to a mass of men who are doomed to wander through life without a clue about society, politics, or the economic forces in their lives, since Americans had “difficulty in experiencing their historical situation at all” (245).  The fate of the Pequod is therefore historically inevitable, since the crew has no  “revolutionary culture” to guide it out of the capitalist wilderness.

      Although Greenblatt insists that new historicism is “no doctrine at all” (1), the advocates of “cultural critique” are essentially writing footnotes to Marx.  A telling example is their deliberate ignorance and obtuseness regarding religion in American life.[17]  When Pease, for example, claims that American villages had no “coherent sense of cultural purpose,” he seems to have never noticed that at the center of every American town there stands a church.  One wonders which is worse, the complete blackout of Melville’s spiritual concerns or politically driven references to Scripture that border on the incoherent, as in the following allusion to Daniel Webster’s 1850 Compromise on slavery:


Webster may have had the size “of the Pyramids," and his oratorical silences may have been monumental.  But Webster offered reassurance; Moby Dick’s “pyramidal silence” did not….  Enslaved Jews built the Egyptian pyramids, but though Ahab assaults the “high, pyramidical white hump” of Moby Dick, he frees no slaves. The sphinx head of the whale “has seen enough to make an infidel of Abraham”; no Abraham on the Pequod answers the riddle of the sphinx and resanctifies the children of Israel.  Americans had moved their nation of Israel into nature.   But Webster’s nature, in spite of his protestations, no longer enshrined human freedom.[18]


The entire passage is a shopping list of meaningless parallels, which are held together by coincidences of words and chronology: Moby-Dick was written at the time of Webster’s Compromise; a contemporary compared his physique to the pyramids; Melville says that Moby Dick had a “pryamidical” hump; enslaved Jews built the pyramids; the Compromise concerned the spread of slavery; many Americans believed that the nation was a new Israel in the wilderness of nature; and the word “nature” can also be applied to Webster’s nature, “which no longer enshrined human freedom.”  Hence, Moby-Dick is the story of a failed political idea, in which “Melville’s Declaration of Independence... went down with the Pequod” (151).  Presumably, if Melville’s political faith had remained intact he would have returned the Pequod safely back to port.  Both conclusions are as immature as Rogin’s line of reasoning.  Tragedy and democracy are not incompatible.  In fact, in Ishmael’s eyes they ennoble one another.  In Chapter 26, he states that if “to meanest mariners… I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces,” and “touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light,” it is because the “Spirit of Equality” has “spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind!” (104-05).  Almost everyone on board the ship has “high qualities, though dark,” and it is precisely when the Pequod sinks that we see a perfect emblem of a “workman’s arm” woven round with “tragic graces” and touched “with some ethereal light.”  As the rushing seas “poured themselves over the sunken head of the Indian at the mainmast,” Tashtego’s “red arm and a hammer hovered backwardly uplifted in the open air, in the act of nailing [Ahab’s] flag faster and yet faster to the subsiding spar” (469).  Not even Sophocles or Shakespeare would have concentrated the full force of high tragedy upon a common “workman’s arm.”

      Melville said as much when he wrote to Hawthorne that the Declaration “makes a difference,”[19] yet Melville’s vision of America also embraces a European and Biblical heritage, and here too leftwing academics rewrite Moby-Dick and Billy Budd into the opposite of what they say.  These inversions amount to a persistent distortion of the record, which this essay aims to recover and set to rights.


2. The European Background

     Melville’s prose and patterns of construction grow out of his readings in the Greek classics, Biblical scripture, and Elizabethan literature, but there is also a contemporary influence at work that can be traced to Goethe’s philosophy of organic self-development, which essentially states that all living things evolve from their own primal archetypes.  In his magnificent garden poem, The Metamorphosis of Plants (1789), he likens the prime phenomenon in plants to the image of a child, and a similar principle is expressed in Herder’s Ideas toward a Philosophy of the History of Man (1784-91): “As the botanist cannot obtain a complete knowledge of a plant, unless he follow it from the seed, through its germination, blossoming, and decay; such is the Grecian history to us.”[20]  Herder’s Grecian “plant”  expresses a complete world view and lives not only in time but also space, since every culture in his eyes is also shaped by the landscape of its origins:


Here kingdoms and states crystallize into shape; there they dissolve and assume other forms.  Here from a wandering horde rises a Babylon; there from the straitened inhabitants of a coast springs up a Tyre; here, in Africa, an Egypt is formed; there, in the deserts of Arabia, a Jewish state….[21]


Herder’s vision of the past as a wealth of distinctly different cultures led to several new concepts in historiography, among them the idea that the achievements of every high culture have equal value along their own lines of growth.  Hence Ottfried Müller’s argument that “knowledge of antiquity… [puts] before our eyes an alien humanity in its full, robust, and self-sufficient existence.”[22]  In a journal of his travels on the Baltic in 1769, Herder had already linked the “self-sufficient” worlds of ancient Greece and Scandinavia to the contrasting qualities of the Mediterranean and Baltic seas, which he saw reflected in the contrasting atmosphere and imagery of Greek and Scandinavian epic, a thousand years apart but equally “young” and “robust” in their respective worlds.[23]

      In a direct challenge to the philosophers of the French Enlightenment, Herder denies the possibility of universal progress, since childhood yields to youth, youth to age, and


every thing in history is transient: the inscription on her temples is, evanescence and decay.  We tread on the ashes of our forefathers, and stalk over the entombed ruins of human institutions and kingdoms. Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome flit before us like shadows: like ghosts they rise from their graves, and appear to us in the field of history….  Cultivation proceeds; yet becomes not more perfect by progress; in new places new capacities are developed; the ancient of the ancient places irrevocably pass away.  Were the Romans more happy than the Greeks?  Are we more so than either?[24]


Like Goethe’s “riot of flowers,”[25] the sheer variety of cultures and civilizations becomes a central focus of Herder’s attention, and his thinking correspondingly reflects a receptive imagination that is open to all that is unusual, suggestive, and remote.  The compelling movement of his poetic prose mirrors this creative flow of thought, in which he recalls his


inclinations toward the shadows of antiquity... my youthful dreams of a water-world, my trembling before psychological discoveries, new thoughts emerging from the human soul, half-comprehensible, half-obscure, my perspective of fragments, groves, torsos, of archives of the human race—everything! My life is a procession through Gothic arches. [26]


Almost every phrase in Herder’s passage has its counterpart in Chapter 1 of Moby-Dick, including Ishmael’s coupling of “meditation and water” (13), his anticipation of “wild and distant seas,” and his “everlasting itch for things remote” (16).  The very opening of the novel reverberates with Herder’s “archives of the human race,” beginning with the word “whale” in fourteen languages, followed by seventy-eight references to whales from Genesis to Darwin.  On a deeper level yet, Herder’s view of history finds its way into Ishmael’s reflections on the life course of individuals; for, just as Herder’s once germinating and blossoming cultures now rise “like ghosts... from their graves,” so too the individual life cycle speaks to Ishmael of the impossibility of human progress and of childhood as a prime symbol of existential solitude:


Oh, grassy glades! oh, ever vernal endless landscapes in the soul….  Would to God these blessed calms would last.  But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm.  There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause….  But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally….  Where is the foundling’s father hidden?  Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.  (406)[27]


Ishmael’s “mingling threads of life” are twined together in the epilogue when Queequeg’s coffin-sea chest turns into Ishmael’s “coffin life-buoy” (470),[28] on which he alone survives the whirlpool of the sinking ship.  He has literally become an orphan in the “round” of life, which circles just above the grave of the Pequod, the grave that Ahab has created out of his hatred of Moby Dick.  Ishmael speaks of our common humanity, the “paternity” of “our souls,” but Ahab’s spirit has no point of reference beyond its single goal: “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul  is  grooved  to  run”  (147).   Melville  deliberately  contrasts  his  mental  rigidity  with  Ishmael’s embrace of life, the same acceptance of the life cycle that Herder urges historians to develop in their exploration of the past.  Despite Pease’s remarks to the contrary, Ishmael does indeed possess a set of “philosophical symbols with which he can reflect on his experiences,” and Herder’s historiography provides a key to their meaning.  From the very first page of “Loomings,” Ishmael begins a long train of meditations on ancient cultures from Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Babylonia to India and the Pacific which demonstrate a similar fascination with “the wonderful and the hidden”[29] that Herder offered in opposition to Enlightenment philosophers and their secular faith in progress and perfectibility.[30]

      This faith  is the cornerstone of Hegelian and Marxist philosophy, the first of which proclaims the ultimate triumph of the “world-historical” Spirit working through the State, the second the end of human oppression through the victory of the working class.  Neither view of history bears any relation to Melville’s tragic sense of life, nor do the prose styles of Hegel and Marx bear any relation to his own, which proceeds through twists and turns and countless digressions and is almost entirely based on contrapuntal patterns of association.  Like Shakespeare, Melville works through themes and variations, shifting scenes and subjects across great distances of time and space; and Moby-Dick and Billy Budd are also Shakespearean in their tragic dimensions, since the downfall of Ahab and the execution of Budd are essentially tragedies of character and circumstance, whose depths are unknowable.  Like the Pequod, Billy “was gone, and in a measure mysteriously gone” (131).

      If one is truly serious about exploring Melville in a European context, the place to look is not in Marxist theory but in Byron, Goethe, and Herder, nineteenth-century German music,[31] and the new Shakespeare criticism in England and Germany.  In parallel developments, organicism contributed to a renewed interest among German composers in contrapuntal and self-generating patterns of composition in Bach and Handel, while Shakespeare was now perceived as the model of the intuitive and self-defining poet-dramatist, whose principles of organization did not follow classical but “Gothic” lines of thought:  dark, recessive, digressively interwoven, and free of canonical strictures of time, place, and decorum of character and subject matter.  In “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” Melville speaks to this understanding of Shakespeare and praises him not as the conventional “great man of tragedy and comedy” but for “those deep far-away things in him; those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality” (541).[32]

      The “great Art of Telling the Truth” (542)—that is Melville’s aesthetic creed.  To read Moby-Dick as a Marxist allegory of imperial ambitions and Billy Budd as his final submission to power is to substitute his singular visions with ideological clichés.  Everything about Melville, in fact, is bent toward distancing himself from abstractions, and his career, like Ishmael’s, is marked by a hunger for experience.  It is evident in his early adventures at sea, his travels through Europe and the middle east, his encyclopedic knowledge, and his own literary “probings at the very axis of reality.”  From Typee to Billy Budd, “deep far-away things” appear on every level of his work.  In geographical terms alone, his novels of the sea take us to remote and isolated settings, and, in Moby-Dick, we follow the movements of whales across the globe and into the sea itself.

      Melville’s journeys into the remote also draw us into a world of hidden energies.  In his first reference to the white whale, Ishmael pictures Moby Dick breaching the sea “like a snow hill in the air” (16), and throughout the book he reminds us of the raw violence of the underwater world, of “thousands on thousands of sharks” feasting on a “dead leviathan” (249) and “bones of millions of the drowned” (264).  The very ending of the novel confronts us with one final image of the ocean’s force in the whirlpool of the Pequod’s demise, the moment when Ishmael alone survives as


the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side.  (468)


In psychological terms, we have the discharge of deep emotional energies in such figures as Jackson in Redburn, Ahab in Moby-Dick, and Budd and Claggart in Billy Budd.  Claggart has “a subterranean fire... eating its way deeper and deeper in him” (90), and Budd kills him with a single blow, “quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at night” (99).  Like Shakespeare’s tragic stage, the ship is a theater of violent emotions, yet it marks a deliberate departure from the regal trappings of Elizabethan tragedy.  Melville is emphatic on this point: “Passion, and passion in its profoundest, is not a thing demanding a palatial stage whereon to play its part.  Down among the groundlings, among the beggars and rakers of garbage, profound passion is enacted” (78).  Hamlet spurns the “groundlings.”[33]  Melville ennobles them.

      If Melville’s prose seems inexhaustible, it is because he believes that “all subjects are infinite.”[34]  His portrait of Claggart in Chapters 7 and 10 is a case in point, in which he shifts from reflections on changes in naval gunnery (with respect to Claggart as the Master-at Arms) to subtleties in his physical appearance, biographical information on his shadowy past, and an analysis of his malicious nature that moves by “indirection” through the “labyrinth” (74) of other men, ending with observations on evil as defined in Scripture, Plato, and Calvin.  This analytical maze goes to the heart of “those deep, far-away things” in Claggart’s character, which Melville sums up in Scriptural terms as his “mystery of iniquity” (76).  It is at this point in the story that Melville’s concerns are truly lost upon his leftwing readers, whose fixation on “material” reality bars them from understanding any deeply psychological and religious questions of the spirit.  It is Claggart”s darkness that Melville seeks to penetrate.  As he says at the outset of Chapter 7, “This portrait I essay, but I shall never hit it” (64).

      Approximations and analogies are the tools of Melville’s trade because “cunning glimpses” are all that life allows.  It is reality itself that is inexhaustible.  In a letter to Hawthorne, Melville describes the world as a “great allegory”[35] of dark truths and hidden meanings, which the writer can only approximate through figurative relationships.  In an extended meditation on “this matter of whaling,” Ishmael pointedly remarks that “there are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method” (304).  As Melville’s compositional structure illustrates, this “true method” is based on the logic of contrapuntal order: the interweaving of distinct voices or the unfolding of variations on a theme.  In Morse Peckham’s analysis of romantic art, the impulse behind this conceptual framework is to extend the bounds of traditional forms and genres, gain access to otherwise hidden or unconscious capacities, and create symbolic representations of what he calls “the streaming life of the self.”[36]  Beginning in the last years of the eighteenth century, Beethoven, Wordsworth, and Constable create in their respective arts a “new orientation” (129) of the self to the world, as radical in its own way as the political upheavals of the American and French revolutions, the British naval mutinies at Nore and Spithead, and the Napoleonic wars, the historical moment in which the narrative of Billy Budd is set.

      The global reach of Moby-Dick is evident on every page, and, even before we get to Chapter 1, Melville sets the stage with ten pages of literary “Extracts” that span thousands of years of whaling lore.  Billy Budd similarly opens with references to the Liverpool docks, the constellation Taurus, the French Revolution, the Erie Canal, the British navy in the 1790s, Assyrian mythology, and Alexander the Great.  The story itself takes place in the year of the Great Mutiny (1797), just before the Battle of the Nile (1798), a moment that is crucial to the whole tragedy of Budd’s predicament: his unpremeditated killing of an officer in a year of peril to England and under extreme provocation.[37]

      It takes some doing to narrow Melville’s range, yet new historicist readings draw our attention almost exclusively to the American scene, to the point where he is practically cut off from rest of the world.  In Subversive Genealogy, the argument is rigged from the start.  In his first two pages, Rogin claims that the nineteenth-century European novel “presents a society’s waking activities,” American literature “its dream life” (15), hence realism abroad and a style that moves “through the power of symbols” (16) in American romance.  Although he pays obligatory homage to the complexity of Moby-Dick, Rogin nevertheless attempts to recover the “social” meanings of Melville’s works by reading them in light of southern slavery, the class struggle in Europe and America, and psychological oppression under capitalism, which practically sum up American history for the academic left.[38]

      Rogin is not even accurate on his own home ground.  Melville is no stranger to conflict and oppression, but he treats them in view of a larger concern to which he and his contemporaries continually return.  In an illuminating article on the NASA Challenger explosion, Jack Beatty identifies it as “the dread of mechanism,”[39] the fear that the individual will be swallowed up and destroyed by a system of any kind, whether it be political, economic, military,  scientific, religious, or philosophical.  This sense of dread is singularly expressed in Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” (which takes place under the eyes of the Spanish Inquisition[40]); it dominates the mood of Budd’s court martial through the inflexible terms of “military necessity” (113); and in Moby-Dick it surpasses the normal anxieties of whaling and emanates from Ahab’s “audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge” (162): “Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct!  Madness!  To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous” (144).  Rogin claims that Ahab’s rage reflects the insanity of the industrial revolution, since Ahab associates his one-track mind with “iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run,” [41] yet Melville tells us time and again that his madness has a demonic character that is peculiar to his own rigidity of mind.  “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man,” cries Ahab to his first mate,  “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me” (144).


3. Propaganda as Literary Analysis

     Armed with pronouncements that are the stock in trade of leftwing rhetoric, Subversive Genealogies has had a lasting influence on Melville studies ever since its publication.  Tony Tanner praises the work as an “excellent book,”[42] Brook Thomas calls it an “excellent study of Melville,”[43] and David Reynolds in Beneath the American Renaissance, Donald Pease in Visionary Compacts, and Michael Gilmore and Susan Mizruchi in The Columbia History of the American Novel all reflect the orthodoxies of “cultural critique” that fill the pages of Rogin’s work.  In his preface, Rogin notes that his study owes a debt to “my many conversations with Stephen Greenblatt” (x), one of the founders of what Greenblatt calls the non-doctrinal school of new historicism. 

      The only purpose of this defense is to deny the Marxist origins of the school.  Greenblatt’s readings of Shakespeare typically reduce the texts to four or five

“materialist” categories of analysis,[44] and Rogin’s work is similarly organized around two predictable motifs: victims and victimizers and socially engaged writing vs. a retreat into “art,” the two staples of Marxist criticism in the 1930s:


Had he been conscious enough to own his aggression, [Billy Budd] could have established independence from authority….   Hanging Billy, Vere offered up his own generative powers to the military state….  Billy and Vere shared the masochistic bond of victims.  (306-07)


European artists after 1848 retreated into aestheticism….  Melville, too, replaced the living world with the aesthetic artifact.  (159)[45]


In the best tradition of the old, “vulgar” Marxism, Rogin reads all human experience from a “materialist” point of view, as in the following passage on Melville’s middle-class parental home:


Surrounded by his objects, the bourgeois formed his interior from the interior of his home.  Commodities fluctuated in value and lacked stable meanings….  They defined and empowered a self which had not produced them.  The middle class lived on the illusion, as Walter Benjamin put it, that products of exchange would lose their character as commodities and be transformed into value-giving, self-connected objects by being taken into the home.  (28)


In effect, Rogin claims that, under capitalism, commodities are buying people, that Melville’s father might have better served his integrity by making all his furnishings, and that the middle class derived its values from its possessions, which, in light of the Protestant ethic, is true in reverse.[46]

      Rogin’s central thesis is that Melville compromised his democratic ideals in the face of harsh realities in society and his family.  In response to his growing isolation, he withdrew “into texts that were increasingly self-referential” (ix), and in Billy Budd he permanently regressed by creating an infantilized hero whose loyalty to Vere “confines us in a denuded, mundane world, from which all possibility of transformation has fled” (302).  Similarly, in Tanner”s introduction to White-Jacket, we read that Melville was aware of slavery but retreated from the idea of black rebellion, and, in Ronald Takaki’s Iron Cages, that the crew of the Pequod is made up of oppressed proletarians to whom the author denies revolutionary consciousness to change their fate.  In The Columbia History, Michael Gilmore repeats Rogin’s thesis to the letter, claiming that Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville made fiction “increasingly self-referential”[47] and that Melville’s works “awaken awareness of social injustice but leave the reader with no thought of changing things” (67).  All these claims are a form of intellectual subversion, for if Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville had written with the “thought of changing things,” they would have had to rewrite their works to make rebellion plausible.  It is revisionism with a vengeance and attacks the very integrity of art and the authority of the written word.         

       This project of subversion is informed by the Marxist belief that human nature and the world itself can be revised.[48]  Hence, Melville’s tragic plots are no longer seen as explorations of the human condition but as allegories of social injustices that cry out for radical change.  Like Gilmore, Rogin and Takaki reproach Melville for not turning Billy Budd and the crew of the Pequod into rebellious sailors in order to “transform” their worlds and escape their tragedies.  This presumptuous idea ignores two key facts: 1) except for Starbuck, Ahab’s men are “at one” (144) with him; and 2) if Melville had allowed Vere’s crew to emulate the recent mutinies at Nore and Spithead, he would have cancelled the meaning of his preceding pages and made nonsense of the work.  These are not simply errors of judgment but deliberate distortions.  In Billy Budd, Melville definitively states that the tale is “an inside Narrative” about the “inner life of one particular ship and the career of an individual sailor” (54) and that “the point of the story” (76) hinges on Claggart’s profound maliciousness.

      This point is brought home not only through the plot but also through key literary allusions regarding Claggart’s “elemental evil” (78) and raging envy of Budd’s innocence and beauty.  When Melville remarks, for example, that Claggart was capable of “apprehending the good, but powerless to be it” (78), he is speaking the language of Milton’s Satan in the Garden of Eden (“and the more I see / Pleasures about me, so much more I feel / Torment within me”);[49] and when he concludes that the “energy” behind malicious envy must finally “recoil upon itself” (78), he recalls Satan’s very thought that revenge “ere long back on itself recoils.”[50]  The parallels to Shakespeare’s Othello are more extensive yet: both Budd and Othello are spontaneous by nature and attract others by their moral and physical virtues; both succumb to men who are consumed with hatred and envy; Othello comes close to stuttering when he is in the grip of Iago’s “poison,” just as Claggart arouses Budd’s “organic hesitancy” in stuttering uncontrollably “under sudden provocation of strong heart feeling” (53); both works center on military figures in time of war; the tensions in both plots are heightened by the enemy’s imminent threat at sea (the Turkish navy in Othello, and the French in Billy Budd), and both works are organized around a series of analogies between ocean imagery and plot and character.

       Leftwing academics have little or nothing to say about Melville’s literary concerns, but even when they do attempt literary analysis, their ideological bent distorts the record.  Among his other Marxized interpretations, Rogin claims that “Moby-Dick is unified by symbols rather than the social actions of realistic characters,” such as one finds in a “Balzacian, realist plot” (115), and that the “deepest reality” of Billy Budd “lies in the text itself, not in a realistic world outside to which the text refers” (302).  If these arguments were true, then Balzac’s “deepest reality” would be the actual life of nineteenth-century France and La Comédie Humaine nothing more than a glorified reference work.  No matter how one finesses the idea, it remains absurd.  Many of Balzac’s characters are larger-than-life monsters of rapacity; Gogol and Dostoevsky create visions of St. Petersburg that border on hallucination; and major European works such as Heart of Darkness and The Magic Mountain are both naturalistic and deeply symbolic in language and intent.  Among his other erroneous pronouncements, Rogin states that “the interracial bond between Ishmael and Queequeg introduces Moby-Dick” (107), even though they do not meet until the end of Chapter 3, and that Ahab’s lunacy represents “the egotistic, bourgeois desire for power” (120), although there is nothing specifically “bourgeois” about the will to power, and Ahab detests the spirit of the counting-house.  It strains belief that one could seriously apply a Marxized vocabulary to a novel whose range and depth argue against narrow conclusions of any kind.

      In commenting on the digressive character of Moby-Dick, its back and forth movements covering plot and character, the lore and practice of whaling, and marine biology, Walter Bezanson observes that it is a work in “free form”[51] and borrows from a wide range of literary sources, together with naval logs, whaling journals, and other reference material that Melville uses to meet his needs.  In Bezanson’s accurate assessment, the book is not a fixed, conclusive statement but an “organic form” and “always in process” (670).  Bezanson speaks in Goethean terms, and he is corroborated by Melville himself.  In a striking parallel to The Metamorphosis of Plants at the beginning of Chapter 63, Melville writes, “Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs.  So in productive subjects, grow the chapters” (246).[52]  Botanical imagery also figures in Melville’s summary of his own development from the age of twenty-five to thirty-two, in which “Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself.  But I feel that I am now come to the inmost leaf of the bulb, and that shortly the flower must fall to the mould.”[53]

      Against all the evidence of Melville’s inner ripening, Rogin persists in filtering his career through a “materialist” interpretation of reality, no matter how far-fetched his arguments may be: 


Allan Melvill, the textile importer, succumbed to the animistic emblem of clothing.  But his son, to repeat the metaphor Melville used both in Moby-Dick and about it, wove his own text.  (115)[54]


Just as his father was a textile importer and supposedly made a fetish of his commodities, so Melville became absorbed in spinning words and made a fetish of his texts.  Father and son thus enact a Marxist allegory of bourgeois egotism, the father playing the role of the economic “structure” of social reality, the son the cultural “superstructure” of false consciousness, the first by seeking to commodify the world, the second by playing intricate word games instead of using literature to promote social justice.

      This whole tortured line of argument is based on Rogin’s premise that Melville withdrew into “symbolism” from “a realistic world outside.”  In point of fact, every page of Billy Budd and        Moby-Dick demonstrates an integration of intellect and life.  Like Captain Vere, but without his burden of responsibilities, Ishmael is always at home in his work and his own inner world.[55]  Hence the ease of his reflections on the “mingling threads” of his voyage and his literal fascination with looms as he and Queequeg weave a rigging mat in which he sees an image of the world  (“chance, free will, and necessity… all interweavingly working together”).[56]  Later in the novel, Ishmael will recall a similar meditation on an earlier voyage, when he gazed upon a “wondrous” forest in the Arsacides, filled with “lordly palms,” “a gorgeous carpet” of vines, “the great sun” shining through “the lacings of the leaves,” and he beheld the work of “the weaver-god” upon “the great world’s loom” (374-75).

      There is no opposition between symbol and reality in Moby-Dick, for Ishmael’s loom is also a concentrated image of Melville’s art of composition as he integrates whaling with literature and myth:


I was the attendant or page of Queequeg, while busy at the mat.  As I kept passing and repassing the filling or woof of marline between the long yarns of the warp, using my own hand for the shuttle, and as Queequeg, standing sideways, ever and anon slid his heavy oaken sword between the threads… it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates….  This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hands I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads.  (185)


In one and the same breath, Ishmael describes a commonplace task aboard a nineteenth-century whaler and alludes to the Greek Fates and Norns of Norse mythology, who spin and cut the threads of life.  These references speak to the very existence of the narrative, since Ishmael would not have lived to tell the tale if the thread of his life had not been severed at the last moment from the Pequod’s fate. 

      Rogin’s separation of art and life is contradicted on the very first pages of the novel, where Melville’s “Etymology” of the whale from Hebrew to Erromangoan relates the title figure not only to the global voyaging of whales but also to language and the written word, to textuality itself.  This is underscored by seventy-eight literary “Extracts” that the “Sub-Sub-Librarian” has gathered in “the long Vaticans and street-stalls of the earth” (2).  Figuratively speaking, he is the author himself, who hunts down books as he once hunted whales (“a whale-boat was my Yale and Harvard college”)[57] and who becomes the human counterpart of the whale in his global travels through literature.  If any occupations may be said to reflect the character of the book, they are whaling and writing, in that order.

      Since Marxist critics must have cardboard capitalists and cardboard proletarians, their “materialist” critiques have the perverse effect of ignoring the realities that great literature does disclose.  Just as “the ­­point of the story” in Billy Budd turns “on the hidden nature of the master-at-arms,” so too, even in the photographic realism of Balzac, Turgenev, and Flaubert, there is a deeper purpose at work than the mirroring of “a realistic world outside,” namely, the exploration of the human mind and heart and the arousal of wonder in the reader’s imagination.  In Père Goriot, to cite a “Balzacian” novel par excellence, Balzac even associates the dark side of Paris with the same underwater world that Melville refers to time and again in Moby-Dick and Billy Budd:


Paris is an ocean whose depths you will never sound... no matter how many explorers may investigate this sea, there will always be uncharted regions, unknown caverns, flowers, pearls, and monsters of the deep, unheard of or forgotten by the divers of literature.  The Maison Vauquer is one of these curious monstrosities.[58]


Melville shares this same “Balzacian” vision of life’s “curious monstrosities,” whether he is describing Ahab’s “unabated rage” (162) or the frightening change in Claggart’s eyes, which gradually lose their “human expression” when he falsely accuses Budd of plotting mutiny, and they begin to “gelidly” protrude, “like the alien eyes of certain uncatalogued monsters of the deep” (98).

      From Subversive Genealogies to The Columbia History, leftwing readers avoid Melville’s concern with “the inner life of one particular ship” and instead depict the story as an apology for ruling-class oppression.  Mizruchi even claims that Vere needs to destroy Budd, since his striking beauty might have unpredictable effects upon the crew and weaken Vere’s authority.  If Budd had not “killed Claggart, Captain Vere would have had to find some other reason for his demise” (194).  In other words, any excuse would have done just as well as the murder of an officer in time of war.  This bizarre reading is contradicted by the good-natured pride of seamen in the company of a “Handsome Sailor” (43) and by the high regard in which Billy is held by the two captains in the story.  The first is Captain Graveling of The Rights of Man, who is sorry to lose his “best man” (46) to Vere under the terms of impressment; and the second is Vere, who quickly recognizes Budd’s naval skills and even thinks of promoting him to “the captaincy of the mizzentop” (95) before the crisis  unfolds.

      Since her underlying assumption is that authority is inherently oppressive, Mizruchi can only conclude that Billy’s execution is an act of cruelty, even though Vere tells his officers that he too feels “the full force” of Budd’s innocence “before God” (110).  He also tells them with some anguish that he is constrained by the Mutiny Act, particularly in light of the recent events at Nore and Spithead and the threat of revolutionary France at sea.[59]  Melville underscores the problem just before the trial and states that Budd’s killing of Claggart “could not have happened at a worse juncture.  For it was close on the heel of the suppressed insurrections, an after-time very critical to naval authority…” (102-03).

      However the arguments may turn, the left always needs oppressors and oppressed.  While Mizruchi pits Vere against Budd, Rogin claims from the opposite side that both are victims of the state.  This interpretation, however, is no better than the first, since Vere is neither an authoritarian nor a pawn of the crown but the model of “a true military officer,” who maintains “his vows of allegiance to martial duty” as a monk maintains “his vows of monastic obedience” (104).[60]  Vere thus takes his place within a religious code of “knightly valor” (56) that reaches into England’s feudal past and to the highest levels of the English navy, since Melville ascribes “a sort of priestly motive” to Nelson’s decision to wear the medals “of his own shining deeds” (58) at the battle of Trafalgar.

       In yet another blighted argument, Mizruchi claims that Billy Budd foreshadows America’s need to ensure social control in a modern, industrial society, yet it is the past, not the present, that weighs on Melville’s mind.  Throughout the story, he reminds us that many of its central elements have faded from the stage, among them “the less prosaic time alike of the military and merchant navies” (43), the impressment of sailors before the advent of the steamship, the general harshness of life in the Royal Navy before the reforms, and “the doctrine of man’s Fall, a doctrine now popularly ignored” (52).  Billy Budd foreshadows nothing.  The “doctrine now popularly ignored” is the doctrine of original sin, which is the key to Claggart’s “mystery of iniquity.”

      Melville’s aesthetics get the same treatment as his subjects, and these arguments fare no better than the rest.  There is nothing in the writing of Billy Budd that supports the doctrine of “art for art’s sake” (Melville’s withdrawal into “symbolism”), nor does Melville treat his sources in Moby-Dick in industrial terms as “the writer’s raw materials that, when processed through the imagination, emerge as a finished product, a literary symbol, to be marketed as fiction for profit (Gilmore).  The novel thus takes on the character of a factory.”[61]  The comparison is absurd on both sides of the parallel, since no factory could operate along the digressive lines of Moby-Dick, making and unmaking its products the way Melville builds, shifts, and transforms his metaphors.  As Bezanson observes, the true mirror of the novel is nature itself, for “the dynamic of the book is the organic mind-world of Ishmael” and its material “the organic land-sea world where life forms move mysteriously among the elements” (668).

      The very character of the Pequod  has been molded by the sea: “Long seasoned and weather-stained in the typhoons and calms of all four oceans, her old hull’s complexion was like a French grenadier’s, who has alike fought in Egypt and Siberia” (67).  Everything about her looks ancient, gnarled, and grizzled. Ishmael calls her “a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old fashioned claw-footed look about her.”  Her bows “looked bearded,” her decks are worn down, like the “flagstone in Canterbury Cathedral,” and there is even a certain atavism in her “new and marvellous features, pertaining to the wild business that for more than half a century she had followed”:


She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory.  She was a thing of trophies.  A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies.  All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the sperm whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to.  Those thews ran not through base blocks of land wood, but deftly travelled over sheaves of sea-ivory.  Scorning a turnstile wheel at her reverend helm, she sported there a tiller; and that tiller was in one mass, curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe.  (67)


The last thing the Pequod represents is the advance of industrial America.  Starbuck tells Ahab that the quest itself is alien to “the business we follow” (143), and the depth of Ahab’s regression into rage may also be gauged by the fact that American whaling was the most advanced in the world.

      Leftwing readings of Melville not only get things wrong but also get them backwards, and their judgments are so uniformly rigid that the same political bias often underlies opposing claims.  The net result is that, no matter what the argument may be, Melville can do no right.  Gilmore claims that Melville acted as a capitalist in Moby-Dick by exploiting his sources for the marketplace, while Rogin accuses him of identifying with state power because he omitted source material that would have given Billy Budd a “novelistic life” (301).  Seeking a “formal order” (302) instead of “taking meaning from society” (293), Melville “denied the human histories which flesh out novelistic characters” (301), as though “fleshing out” were merely a device to make literature seem “real.”

      Rogin’s first argument is irrelevant and his second false.  Billy Budd is a work of concentrated fiction, not a documentary, and Melville does not “deny” histories to Claggart, Budd, and Vere.  In fact, Chapters 2, 6, 7, 8 and 10 provide a series of unusual biographical, physical, and psychological details for all three men, which also play a part in the subtle influence that they have on one another.  As Ishmael’s picture of Ahab grows darker with each new piece of information, so too the singular qualities of Claggart, Budd, and Vere only serve to shroud them in mystery all the more.  Nor are they the only “exceptional characters”[62] in the tale.  Melville also wonders how the Hebrew prophets could have seen so deeply into the human heart, since they were “mostly recluses” (75), and he views naval history itself as a roll call of superlatives types: “Don John of Austria, Doria, Van Tromp, Jean Bart, the long line of British admirals and the American Decaturs of 1812,” (56) and Nelson himself.  Melville follows this list with a closely reasoned argument on the key to Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, which he ascribes to his combined greatness of mind and heart.  In Melville’s accurate analysis, Nelson was at once “painstakingly circumspect” (58) in his plans and daring in his acts.

      Since the left has a built-in prejudice against the idea of the unique individual,[63] it has an ideological stake in distorting Melville’s “exceptional characters.”  In a typical example of this strategy, Rogin claims that Vere is a creature of the state and “an allegorical type of the law” (301), yet Melville says that he was drawn to “books treating of actual men and events” and to “unconventional writers like Montaigne, who, free from cant and convention, honestly… philosophise upon realities” (62).

      Vere is not alone in being reduced to one fictitious attribute.  Rogin seems to think that reality itself is a fixed and knowable quantity, since he claims that, at Budd’s trial, Vere “excluded the details essential to a full grasp of human life, so that judgment could be handed down from on high” (300).[64]  Three pages later, he pulls out all the stops and claims that Billy Budd  has no connection to “a realistic world outside” and “achieves its formal order by withdrawing from society.”  In point of fact, the story is filled from beginning to end with pertinent reflections on naval history, technology, customs, and decorum, psychological extremes in human nature, the revolutionary period of the 1790s, and the decline of Christianity in the modern age, all of which contradicts Rogin’s argument that the text “prohibits fidelity to a sprawling, diffuse social reality” (302).

      The retreat from “a realistic world” that Rogin sees in Melville is a projection of his own patterns of avoidance.  Hence his denial of the spiritual nature of the tale.  All he can say about Billy’s final words, “God bless Captain Vere!” is that they “quieted the threat of mutiny” and “sanctified the state” (316).  Rogin claims to side with victims of oppression, yet he denies the sailors their one positive experience in this otherwise wrenching event, since they are all moved by Budd’s “unconscious simplicity” and believe that they have witnessed a second Crucifixion.  Rogin claims that the execution scene is “closer to pagan nature ritual” (314) than to Christian rebirth and that there is no “regenerate community reborn from Billy’s death,” although years later the sailors still regard every chip of the spar on which Billy was hung as if it were “a piece of the Cross” (131).  There is nothing “pagan” about the scene.  The mast and spar literally form a cross; Budd is executed by martial law as Christ was by Roman law;  and, in the apotheosis of his name and his identity,[65] Melville alludes to Dante’s Paradiso and portrays the execution as a vision of Christ resurrected in the mystic rose:


At the same moment it chanced that the vapoury fleece hanging low in the east was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.  (124)


After his death, Budd is transfigured once again, this time through a sailor’s ballad that concludes the work.  The anonymous writer is himself an incarnation of Budd, since he too is a foretopman and mirrors Budd’s innocence through his “artless poetic temperament” (131).  Melville heightens the effect of the ballad by preceding it with an official account of the events “in a naval chronicle of the time” (130).   Written “under the head of ‘News from the Mediterranean,’” the story is derived from second-hand sources and rumors, falsifies the story to Billy’s detriment, and in effect kills him a second time.  The poem, on the other hand, makes no pretense at objectivity, yet it is true to Budd’s character and accurately reflects the crew’s “general estimate of his nature and its unconscious simplicity.”  Like the old Greek myths that metamorphosed human figures into plants, the poem transforms his execution through art as the morning rays of the sun transformed the last moments of his life.

      The story thus ends with two contrasting versions of the narrative, the first in leaden prose that mangles the facts, and the second in a poem that wells up from Budd’s community of sailors and enfolds the tragedy in an aura of reverence.  It is Melville’s final word on the spontaneous origins of art and myth, and it also speaks to his love of Shakespeare and “those deep far-away things in him”:


I remember Taff the Welshman when he sank.

And his cheek it was like the budding pink.

But me, they’ll lash me in hammock, drop me deep

Fathoms down, fathoms, down, how I’ll dream fast asleep.

I feel it stealing now. Sentry, are you there?

Just ease these darbies at the wrist,

And roll me over fair!

I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.

                                                                         132, ll. 25-32


In these last lines, Melville recalls two of Shakespeare’s most persistent motifs: the sea and sleep—primal nature and the unconscious—which repeatedly figure in his exploration of the “depths,” as in the association of unconscious guilt with the bottom of the sea in Clarence’s dream in Richard III (1593); the contrast between the king’s healing sleep and Albany’s vision of humanity eating itself “like monsters of the deep” in King Lear (1605)[66]; and the recurring themes of sleep, death, and sea-change in The Tempest (1611), “Full fathom five thy father lies; / Of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes.”[67]  The anonymous sailor-poet evokes a similar transformation through death at sea when his mythical Budd reflects on his coming execution: “A jewel-block they'll make of me tomorrow, / Pendant pearl from the yardarm end / Like the eardrop I gave to Bristol Molly.”[68]


4. Ahab's Marxist Readers: The Ultimate Distortion

     In turning Melville’s works “into something contradictory of what they used to be,” the academic left has fabricated an image of Melville’s acquiescing in “the new order” of developing capitalism, with Moby-Dick expressing that submission on an epic scale.  Translating Melville into Marx, the left insists that the crew of the Pequod is made up of “workers” who were drawn into servitude. Rogin calls them “proletarians” (114) to underscore their misery, and Takaki claims that they reflect “the class / caste structure of American labor and society” (283).  The Pequod becomes a microcosm of capitalist production, with “all workers of color... below deck, serving the interests of Captain Ahab and capitalist investors” (283), and its “class structure” parallels the so-called narrative of oppression in The Tempest, with Prospero / Ahab as slavemaster and the Caliban-crew as slaves:[69]


A significant supply of the “muscles” on the Pequod has been drawn from workers of color—blacks, Indians, Pacific Islanders, and Asians.  Thus, the social order aboard the ill-fated ship reflects the dichotomy between Prospero (mind) and Caliban (body)—white (brains) and color (muscles), white masters and black slaves.  (282)[70]


Takaki’s picture of the crew working “below deck” is meant to convey an image of hidden toil and misery, like the coal miners in Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier or Fritz Lang’s underground workers

in Metropolis.  In reality, the crew is relatively small, most of the work is done on deck or open sea, and the main “workers of color” are the American Indian Tashtego, the African Daggoo, and the Pacific Islander Queequeg, all of whom are master harpooneers (according to Bildad, Queequeg receives
”more than ever was given a harpooneer yet out of Nantucket”).[71]  The rest of the crew is also made up of skilled, independent men who chose whaling precisely for its dangers.  In one of his most telling observations, Ishmael notes that all whalemen are lured, as he was, by the risk of sudden death, which he calls “the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored” (402).  As for the “class structure” of the Pequod, although it has its “brains” and “muscles,” there is no “working class” on board the ship, since everyone works, including Ahab, who takes part in the hunts together with his mates, Starbuck, Flask, and Stubb.  Takaki’s whole critique is false.  Melville never describes a scene of “masters” above and “workers” below; Ahab despises money and trade; and he identifies with the Parsee Fedallah, the “pagan harpooneers,” and “five dusky phantoms” (187) from southeast Asia more than with anyone else aboard the ship. 

      Leftwing academics cannot help but get things wrong, since their fixation on class and race always trumps the facts.  In order for Takaki to maintain his Marxist fictions, the Pequod must have “white masters and black slaves,” so he says it does, even though it doesn’t. Ditto Tanner, who claims that Melville hid behind Ishmael’s “abstract” reponse to slavery and avoided “local, historical and political problems—like the status of the black slave in the America of 1849” (xxviii).  Tanner thus subordinates literary analysis to his own political bias and assumes that Melville’s concerns should have been the same as his.  Hence his inability to comprehend Ishmael’s acceptance of the world as it is:


    What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks?  What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament?  Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance?  Who ain’t a slave?  Tell me that.  (15)


There is nothing “abstract” here.  Tanner simply doesn’t believe in “the scales of the New Testament” and therefore cannot understand the spiritual optimism that sustains Ishmael in his embrace of life.

      Rogin’s project covers Melville’s entire career, yet the formula remains the same: slavery “dominated Melville’s work” (150).  His reading of Ahab typifies the quality of all his arguments.  He takes great pains, for example, to identify Ahab’s hold over the crew with Senator John C. Calhoun’s defense of southern slavery, even though the officers are “morally enfeebled” (162) by their own frailties of character, the crew identifies with “the old man’s ire,” and even Ishmael admits to “a wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling” for Ahab, whose “quenchless feud seemed mine” (155).

      Not content with these distortions, Rogin also identifies Ahab with Calhoun’s physical features and claims that he too had “skeletonlike” hands and an “emaciated body” (134), yet Ishmael says that Ahab’s “whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus” (110).  Since Calhoun’s eyes apparently grew fiery during his speeches, and Melville had alluded to them in Mardi, Rogin accepts Alan Heimert’s conclusion that the senator’s eyes, “bright as coals” (135), reappear in Ahab’s eyes, “glowing like coals.”[72]  The words are in fact taken from Dantes description of Charon’s eyes in the Inferno,[73] and here the parallel is exact.  Like the condemned souls that Charon ferries into hell, the crew of the Pequod  is figuratively on a journey of the damned; Ahab enacts a satanic baptism when he tempers his newly forged harpoon with the unholy cry, “Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli” (404);[74] during the typhoon in Chapter 119 (“The Candles”), Ishmael describes a scene out of a Black Mass; and, in Chapter 96 (“The Try-Works”), he sees a vision of hell in the nighttime boiling of blubber into oil:


Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body….  It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.  (353)


Every sight and smell adds to the demonism of the scene—“the red heat of the fire,” the smoke of burning whale fat (“horrible to inhale”), and the “uncivilized laughter” of the stokers—a Gothic nightmare that conveys the demented spirit of Ahab in every corner of the ship:


… as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.  (353-54)


Ishmael speaks truer than he knows, for the ship is also a mirror of Ahab’s eyes glowing in the dark, as the “red hell” of the Pequod shoots deep into the night.

      Toward the end of the chapter, Ishmael snaps out of his “unnatural hallucination” and cautions the reader not to give “thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, and deaden thee; as for a time it did me” (355).  In Chapter 1, we learn that Ishmael’s chosen element is water and that his mind is fluidity itself.  It is Ahab who identifies with fire and who seems burned himself.  In his first view of Ahab, Ishmael says that “he looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overruningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them” (109-110), and his very body seems branded by a lightning bolt:


Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender, rod-like mark, lividly whitish.  It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and... peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom...  (110)


Ishmael identifies Ahab with lightning once again in the nightmare setting of “The Candles,” where Ahab’s “slender, rod-like mark” is mirrored in “the lower parts of a ship’s lightning rods,” which “are generally made in long slender links” (415).  During the height of the storm, the yardarms become tipped with balls of light (St. Elmo's fire), “each tripointed lightning-rod end” marked “with three tapering white flames,” which Ahab associates with the goal of his obsession: “Aye, aye, men!” cried Ahab.  “Look up at it; mark it well; the white flame but lights the way to the White Whale!” (416)

      Melville’s drama is Shakespearean through and through.  In “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” he associates Shakespeare’s imagination itself with lightning in “those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him,” and he cites the example of the storm scene in King Lear when “the frantic King tears off the mask and speaks the sane madness of vital truth” (542).  In “The Candles,” however, the parallel is not to Lear but to the storm in Julius Caesar the night before the assassination.  The very images are the same:


All the yard-arms were tipped with a pallid fire; and touched at each tri-pointed lightning rod-end with three tapering white flames, each of the three tall masts was silently burning in that sulphurous air, like three gigantic wax tapers before an altar.


So too, in Julius Caesar, Casca says that he has seen  

Th’ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam...

But never till tonight, never till now,

Did I go through a tempest dropping fire….

A common slave—you know him well by sight—

Held up his left hand, which did flame and burn

Like twenty torches joined, and yet his hand,

Not sensible of fire, remained unscorched.

                                                          I, iii, ll. 7-18


Both storms are premonitions of disaster, and both descend on figures who hurl defiance back at them.  Cassius defies the spirit of Caesar, which is “most like this dreadful night” (I, iii, l. 73), and bares his “bosom to the thunder-stone”:


And when the cross blue lightning seemed to open

he breast of heaven, I did present myself                

Even in the aim and very flash of it.                          

                                       I, iii, ll. 49-52


Ahab goes one step further and, like a second Prometheus, symbolically attempts to possess the cosmic flame by grabbing the lowest link of the lightning rod.  In the next moment, he begins his invocation to the spirit of fire and identifies the brand on his body with “the lofty tri-pointed trinity of flames.” It is in this exact instant that Ishmael sees him metamorphosing into Satan as Ahab celebrates a Black Mass before a perverted image of the Holy Trinity, where “each of the three tall masts was silently burning in that sulphurous air, like three gigantic wax tapers before an altar”:


“Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit; and I now know that thy right worship is defiance….  Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.”  (416-17)


Cassius, Prometheus, and Satan: three classic figures of rebellion who live again in Ahab’s rage:


The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung….  All that most 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.  He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it. (160)


It is a measure of Melville’s humanity that he endows the one figure in the book who embraces life with an intellect that surpasses Ahab’s, and it is Ishmael alone who understands that Ahab’s hatred of the whale is not only blasphemous, as Starbuck says, but irretrievably insane.

      Ishmael’s understanding of his fellow seamen is equally profound and sure.  Toward the end of Chapter 41 (“Moby Dick”), he ponders on their frailties of character, “the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask” (162).  And he notes as well that the entire crew identifies with Ahab’s hate, which “at times... seemed almost theirs.”  In one of the most profound moments in the novel, he probes the psychological question of “what the White Whale” could have meant “to their unconscious understandings,” and, like the Goethean that he is, he is content to rest within the limits of his knowledge,[75] for “all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go.”  Unlike Ahab, who is obsessed with the “inscrutable malice” that he sees in Moby Dick, Ishmael has the capacity to acknowledge a mystery and move on.  Despite everything that he knows about his shipmates, his thoughts are limited to his present understanding of the men, and it is not until the latter half of the book that he will “dive deeper” into the motives of the crew.

      Ishmael’s ignorance is born of wide and subtle knowledge, but Melville’s leftwing critics see no mysteries at all, since they believe that they have all the answers, or, more precisely, one answer for everything.  Like Takaki, Rogin invents a fictitious portrait of Ahab as a symbol of capitalist development and then accuses the nation of sharing his obsession, which supposedly “penetrated the defenses of law-abiding men, and reached the derangement at the heart of America” (119).  The very direction of American history and the industrial revolution are for Rogin lunatic to the core.  Starbuck’s appeals to stick to the business of whaling are “not simply inadequate to stop Ahab” but “inadequate to capitalism’s historical task. Ahab, like other merchant-adventurers, has broken loose from the process that generated him.  But he has done so by carrying its social logic to its limit” (120).  Hence Ahab as a mirror of capitalism’s inherent insanity.  At this point, we are no longer reading Melville or discussing literature at all, for we have entered the realm of demonization, where Rogin’s picture of America fits comfortably into the Black Muslim doctrine that the white man is a devil.

      Armed with an ideology that is impervious to fact, Rogin is blind to the reality of the very subject on which he grounds his interpretations; for if the industrial revolution were indeed insane at heart, all the captains of industry put together could not have developed “capitalism’s historical task” even for a single day.  You can follow Melville’s Sub-Sub Librarian through all the libraries of the world and still not find a single “capitalist” whose ambitions were born in dismemberment and lunacy:


... when he received the stroke that tore him, he probably but felt the agonizing bodily laceration, but nothing more.  Yet, when by this collision forced to turn towards home, and for long months of days and weeks, Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in one hammock, rounding in mid winter that dreary, howling Patagonian Cape… that it was only then, on the homeward voyage, after the encounter, that the final monomania seized him, seems all but certain from the fact that, at intervals during the passage, he was a raving lunatic; and, though unlimbed of a leg, yet such vital strength yet lurked in his Egyptian chest, and was moreover intensified by his delirium, that his mates were forced to lace him fast, even there, as he sailed, raving in his hammock.  In a strait-jacket, he swung to the mad rockings of the gales.  (160)[76]


The idea that Ahab’s quest for revenge mirrors “capitalism’s historical task” has no basis either in history or in the novel, unless one is ready to believe that the driving impulse of “capitalism” is to unlock the secret meaning of existence:


“Hark ye yet again,—the little lower layer.  All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.  But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.  If man will strike, strike through the mask!  How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?  To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.”  (144)    


Ahab’s obsession is not simply to kill Moby Dick, as Rogin claims it is (capitalism raping the earth), but to know “the secret thing” (264), to penetrate with his harpoon beneath the world’s “pasteboard masks” and possess the creature that has “dived the deepest” and seen the “world’s foundations” at the bottom of the sea, those underwater depths, which Melville, time and again, identifies with the unconscious, the bottom of the mind.  It is the inarticulate omniscience of the whale that Ahab seeks to penetrate, the same mystery that he sees in the silence of a sperm whale’s severed head (“The Sphynx”) and that Pip sees face to face when he falls into the sea, “where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes” and “he saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom” (347).  There is nothing in Marxist critique that has any bearing on the central subject of the novel, which is the mystery of human consciousness in the face of a silent and indifferent universe.  Ishmael announces this subject at the outset of his voyage when he couples “meditation and water” with the myth of Narcissus and “the tormenting, mild image that he saw in the fountain…  It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”

    Leftwing assumptions are not only inappropriate to the complexity of the novel but also lead to erroneous judgments when Melville’s writing is straightforward and direct.  Pease, for example, claims that Ahab speaks in Shakespearean cadences in order to enclose himself in a mystique of “unapproachable cultural power” (245), yet Ahab addresses the crew in the common language of whalemen, and his sailors understand exactly what he means:


“Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!”  Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: “Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perditions flames before I give him up.  And that is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.  What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now?  I think ye do look brave.”  (143)


Moments later, he turns to Starbuck and explains his deepest motives in hunting down the whale.   There is nothing “unapproachable” about his power.  It is his force of personality that works upon the crew, and when he passes round the flagon to seal the oath of “Death to Moby Dick!” the men understand only too well the demonic ritual that he enacts: “Short draughts—long swallows, men; ’tis hot as Satan’s hoof” (145).  As for Ahab’s controlling intellect, Ishmael’s is far more wide-ranging and complex, and although Pease claims that Ahab’s Shakespearean rhetoric illustrates his “cultural power” to beguile an audience (the oppressor seducing the oppressed through the rhetoric of great literature), Melville tells us in “The Prophet” and “The Quarter-Deck” that the story of Moby Dick was common knowledge in the whaling community.  Ahab merely underscores what the crew already knows: “‘Aye, Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round; it was Moby Dick that dismasted me…’” (143).

      As if Pease’s fictions were not enough, the specific form of Ahab’s lunacy is also politicized.  Rogin calls monomania an expression of capitalist alienation and claims that it “began attracting notice early in the nineteenth century” (118), although the idée fixe has been with us since the time of Homer's Iliad, where it takes the form of Achilles” immovable rage.  Scripture also speaks of men with fixed minds and hardened hearts, and obsessive types fill the title pages of Renaissance works, such as Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Don Quixote, to which Melville alludes in the novel.  Rogin even forgets his own dating of monomania when he notes the parallel storm scenes at the onset of Ahab’s lunacy and Lear’s; but Ishmael also relates the origin of Ahab’s madness to the moment when Othello learns that it is “honest Iago” who has poisoned his mind into a rage against his wife.  In recounting its genesis, Ishmael states that “Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab’s leg, as a mower a blade of grass.  No turbaned Turk, no hired Venetian or Malay, could have smote him with more seeming malice” (160), which links the onset of Ahab’s lunacy with the exact moment of Othello’s suicide:

And say too, that in Aleppo once,            

Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk

Beat a Venetian and traduc’d the state,

I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog,

And smote him—thus.                               

                                  V, ii, ll. 352-56


Ahab’s “malignant Turk” is Moby Dick, on whom he projects the “intangible malignity which has been from the beginning” (160).  Capitalist alienation, southern slavery, and post-Jacksonian politics have nothing to do with the cosmic reach of Ahab’s insanity.  It is Ishmael, out of his deep absorption in history, myth, and religion, who gives us the true dimensions of his “frantic morbidness”:


That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;—Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it.


Ahab’s “incurable idea” (162) is born of the same world-hatred that Ishmael finds among the gnostic sects of late antiquity, which demonized Jehovah’s creation as the prison-house of the spirit: “How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?  To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.”  Like “the ancient Ophites,” or “Believers in the Serpent,” this “ungodly old man” seeks deliverance “from the darkness of this world into which we are flung.”[77]  In his extensive commentary on the novel, Harold Beaver remarks that when Ahab takes hold of the lightning rod at the height of the typhoon and identifies the flame with “my sweet mother” (417), he invokes the late-classical figure of heavenly wisdom (Sophia) as she is understood in gnostic doctrine, the Great Mother who works through the serpent to thwart Jehovah and impart her revelation.[78]

       Ahab’s crew is equal to his lunacy.  These are no featureless “proletarians” in thrall to a generic “capitalist” master.  Ishmael pointedly observes that “such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge” (162).  There is no “capitalist” oppressor on the ship, for Ahab is the prime symbol of his crew, raised to its highest pitch.  Moreover, in identifying with his quest, the crew becomes the epitome of its own community, since all whalemen, according to Ishmael, are lured by danger and a singular drive for oblivion.  In Chapter 112, he speaks of “the death-longing eyes of such men, who still have some interior compunctions against suicide” (402) yet cannot resist the siren song of death.  Ishmael has already told us of his own “everlasting itch for things remote,” for “wild and distant seas,” and the “nameless perils of the whale”; and now in the story of Perth the blacksmith he again rhapsodizes on death as “the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored.” As whalemen turn their “death-longing eyes” to the sea, the “all-receptive ocean” does


alluringly spread forth his whole plain of unimaginable, taking terrors, and wonderful, new-life adventures; and from the hearts of infinite Pacifics, the thousand mermaids sing to them—“Come hither, broken hearted; here is another life without the guilt of intermediate death; here are wonders supernatural, without dying for them.  Come hither! bury thyself in a life which, to your now equally abhorred and abhorring, landed world, is more oblivious than death.  Come hither! put up thy gravestone, too, within the churchyard, and come hither, till we marry thee!”  (402)


The entire passage is conceived in a middle eastern key.  There is the same “Magian”[79] contempt for the  fleshpots of the “landed world”; the “Unshored” is a watery desert  on  which  nomadic whalemen  travel; and the ocean holds the promise of resurrection among the houris of the sea.  It is the blacksmith’s sudden turn to drink that provokes these Arabian reveries, for one day, “at the age of nearly sixty,” he uncorked a fearful genie in the basement of his happy home: “It was the Bottle Conjuror!  Upon the opening of that fatal cork, forth flew the fiend, and shrivelled up his home” (401).  His work declined, his family died, “the old man staggered off,” and, as suddenly as he took to drink, “the blacksmith’s soul responded” to the mermaids’ song, “and so Perth went a-whaling” (402).

      Like the whalemen’s suicidal reveries, Ahab’s compulsion to know “the secret thing” also accords with Spengler’s reading of the Magian religions, each with its own tradition of “a secret meaning” (II: 246) in its holy book, while his strategic disguise parallels their laws and rituals to shield them from the “unbelievers.”  Until “some infernal fatality” gives him the precise crew that he needs, he keeps his obsession to himself.  This monstrous secret, which he projects onto Moby Dick, is conceived after his initial rage subsides, and when he reaches home after his dismemberment, he succeeds so well in dissembling his “special lunacy” that


when with ivory leg he stepped ashore at last, no Nantucketer thought him otherwise than but naturally grieved, and that to the quick, with the terrible casualty which had overtaken him….  Had any of his old acquaintances on shore but half dreamed of what was lurking in him then, how soon would their aghast and righteous souls have wrenched the ship from such a fiendish man!  They were bent on profitable cruises, the profit to be counted down in dollars from the mint.  He was intent on an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge.  (161-62)


Once the voyage begins, Ahab becomes the charismatic leader of a suicidal quest, or, more precisely, an inverted charismatic, in whose “deeper part, every revelation partook more of significant darkness than of explanatory light” (386).  As Lucifer, the angel of light, metamorphosed into Satan, so Ahab has twisted everything that was once positive in him into its opposite: his prodigious seamanship and “great natural intellect” (161) are now bent on destruction, and his gift of leadership only increases his alienation from humanity.  There is a kind of world-disgust that can temporarily overwhelm sensitive minds—witness Hamlet, Lear, and Othello—but the genuine gnostic has a revulsion toward existence that seems altogether unnatural and absolute.  Moby Dick is no longer a whale to “crazy Ahab” (160) but a malignant thing, and its physical reality only a “paste-board mask” of that malignancy.

      Starbuck is right to call this obsession “blasphemous,” but he fails to recognize Ahab’s “special lunacy” and depth of hate.  In “The Sphynx,” Ahab demonstrates once again the impotence of his rage as he gazes on a whale’s severed head, which has “seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!” (264).  It is the existential solitude of human consciousness that torments him.  Starbuck instinctively knows that Ahab is suicidal, but it is Ishmael who understands the intertwining of world-hate and suicide at the deepest level of the book.

      After Ahab reveals the dark motives of his quest, Ishmael hears Starbuck murmer “God keep me!—keep us all!" (144), and he notes with heavy heart that Ahab does not hear this “foreboding invocation” (145).  Alert as always to the mood of every scene he witnesses, Ishmael begins to sense subtle warnings of disaster everywhere on board the ship, from “the presaging vibrations of the winds in the cordage” to “the hollow flap of the sails against the masts.”  Like Hamlet and Captain Vere, he has a quick mind for generalization, and as soon as he notes the “admonitions and warnings” of disaster he remarks that such signs are “not so much predictions from without, as verifications of the foregoing things within.”  For Ishmael, these portents are only the outward corroborations of a mysterious death-wish in our nature, which, instead of holding us back, “still drive us on.”

      The crew’s pledge of “Death to Moby Dick!” is the Pequod’s point of no return.  The flames that “light the way to the White Whale” begin the final act, and the book itself opens with Ishmael reflecting on his recurring depressions and suicidal drives, Hamlet with a Yankee twang:


Whenever  I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul… and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.  This is my substitute for pistol and ball.  With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.  (12)


Ishmael has gone to sea before, but he has never hunted whales, yet suddenly and unaccountably “there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, midmost of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air” (16).  Moby Dick is Ahab’s “ungraspable phantom of life,” and Ishmael’s newfound urge has a special connection to the Pequod’s fate, since the whirlpool’s “cunning spring” in the epilogue is foretold in  “the  springs  and  motives”  of  his decision  to hunt whales, “now that I recall all the circumstances... which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises induced me to set about performing the part I did.”  Ishmael cannot know this at the outset of his journey, but in substituting a whaling voyage for yet another “pistol and ball,” he has only charted a devious course through his own suicidal impulses.  The fact that he is lured by the dangers of whaling suggests that his present depression may the deepest he has ever had.

      The first paragraph tells us everything we need to know about his intellect and character.  We learn that Ishmael has an eye for historical analogies as he associates nineteenth-century suicide (“pistol and ball”) with its counterpart in the ancient world (the Roman sword).  His very first words, “Call me Ishmael,” establish his distinguishing traits of intimacy and ease of expression; and his kinship with humanity is announced through his almost colloquial understanding of history, in which he puts his own suicidal impulses on an even footing with Cato’s “philosophical flourish.”[80]  Finally, and in marked contrast to Ahab, there is a distinct avoidance of self-dramatization as “I quietly take to the ship,” and his even-tempered nature will always reassert itself in moments of crisis and stress.

      Ishmael’s delvings into history and literature are not “formalistic” subtleties but immediate responses to the real-world subjects of the novel, from his first meditations on going to sea to every aspect of the voyage.  His Goethean habit of seeing facts as metaphors is the exact counterpart of Ahab’s associative turn of mind; but where Ishmael experiences the world as a living organism of unfolding analogies, Ahab sees it as a fixed and interlocking chain beyond the range of speech: 


O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives in matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.  (264)


To “crazy Ahab,” the white whale is the incarnation of these “linked analogies,” and when his quest to penetrate “the secret thing” destroys the ship, he concludes a journey that began in Chapter 1 with Ishmael’s urge to hunt for whales, which simultaneously pulled him out of his own suicidal impulses and drew him into Ahab’s.

      Ahab’s fixation on Moby Dick reaches its full demonic splendor when he takes hold of the ship’s lightning rod, “the last link held fast in his left hand” (416), and he cries out that “the queenly personality lives in me.”  He has transfigured himself into the divine Sophia of gnostic lore, and it is at this moment of intense lunacy that he reaches the final stage of his own psychological journey, which began in an earlier storm when he rounded “that dreary, howling Patagonian Cape” and “his mates were forced to lace him fast” in his hammock, where “he swung to the mad rockings of the gales.” 

       In their combined intensities of madness and terror, the storms in Chapters 41 and 119 not only surpass the limits of Shakespeare’s tempests but, with the exception of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, they also exceed the visions of the oceanic sublime in nineteenth-century art.  Melville’s mastery of this artistic vision speaks to the central place of the novel in a long line of romantic works[81] that are foreshadowed in Herder’s drama of the “water-world.”  It is a vision that grows in intensity from Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture to Chateaubriand’s identification with the sea in his memoirs, Gericault’s monumental painting The Raft of the Medusa, Turner’s seascapes,[82] Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea, Wagner’s first major opera, and the mystical seascapes of Albert Pinkham Ryder, whose celebrated painting The Flying Dutchman is the visual equivalent of Wagner’s text and music:


Have you met the ship upon the sea,                 

with blood-red sails and black mast?                

High on the deck, the pallid man,                       

master of the ship, keeps unceasing watch,   

Whoo! how the wind howls!...                            

In an ill-wind and a raging tempest,                  

once he tried to round a cape;                           

Mad with fury he cursed, then swore:               

“Never, never will I give up!”                               

Whoo!  And Satan heard it!                              

Yo ho hey!  Yo ho hey!                                      

Whoo!  And accursed he now                          

sails the sea, without rest, without peace![83]


Like the Dutchman’s mournful cry—“The grace I seek on land / I ne’er shall find” (3)—Senta’s ballad recalls the second great motif of romantic art: the hero in eternal conflict with the world.  It is a type that recurs in the novels of Hugo, Dostoevsky, and Balzac, Byron’s Manfred and Childe Harold, Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades, Wagner’s Ring cycle, Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, and in a host of

tormented seamen from Ahab and the Dutchman to Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo and Jack London’s Wolf Larsen, among countless other literary outcasts who span an arc from Russia across middle and western Europe to America.  No two men could be more different than Melville and Wagner, yet their wandering heroes seem to come from a single mind.  There is the same defiance of the elements, the same towering image of a death-haunted captain, the same cursed ships steeped in red and black—the Dutchman’s “with blood-red sails and black mast” and Ahab’s bathed in “a jet gloom, now and then made ghastly by flashes of redness”—and both are surrounded by a malevolent atmosphere of satanic curses carried on the wind.  Underlying these resemblances is the terrifying image of two ships flying further and further from humanity.  “How oft into the ocean’s deepest depths / have I yearning hurled myself?” (3), the Dutchman cries, while Ishmael has the wild impression “that whatever swift, rushing thing I stood on was not so much bound to any haven ahead as rushing from all havens astern.”  It is a flight that mirrors both commanders’ cravings for oblivion.  Ahab hurls his “death-glorious ship” (468) to the bottom of the sea, where “untold hopes and anchors rot” and sperm whales have “seen enough to split the planets”; and the Dutchman waits for doom, when “I shall pass into the void. / Ye planets, end your course! / Perpetual extinction, carry me away!”  Like the pool of Narcissus, the sea throws their image back to them and mirrors their almost erotic hunger for nothingness in “the unwarped primal world,” where the sirens of the unconscious rise “from the hearts of infinite Pacifics,” and “the thousand mermaids sing to them—‘Come hither, broken-hearted... till we marry thee!’”[84]

      Every page of Moby-Dick takes us to “far-away things” in the very quality of its prose, which breaks through formal restraints of the balanced line, piles images and allusions on top of one another, and describes natural phenomena and human traits that are almost always beyond the range of ordinary experience.  The anatomy of the sperm whale is overpowering in its size and strangeness; storms can burst from a “cloudless sky” (413); Ahab is “darkness leaping out of light” (417); and even the master harpooneers are confounded by “the three tall masts... silently burning in that sulphurous air”:


While this pallidness was burning aloft, few words were heard from the enchanted crew; who in one thick cluster stood on the forecastle, all their eyes gleaming in that pale phosphorescence, like a far away constellation of stars.  Relieved against the ghostly light, the gigantic jet negro, Daggoo, loomed up to thrice his real stature, and seemed the black cloud from which the thunder had come.  The parted mouth of Tashtego revealed his shark-white teeth, which strangely gleamed as if they too had been tipped by corposants; while lit up by the preternatural light, Queequeg’s tattooing burned like Satanic blue flames on his body.  (415-16)


In all the commentaries cited in this essay, there is not a single discussion of Melville’s prose—its rhythms, its precision, or its patterns of analogy—and even the first few bars of The Flying Dutchman are a better introduction than all their pages to the mystique and stormy energy of Moby-Dick.

      In Studies in Classic American Literature, D. H. Lawrence observes that the very feel and rhythm of Moby-Dick is oceanic in character.  His insight is borne out in Melville’s persistent motifs of rising and falling, which are primary spiritual directions as well as primary physical motions and somewhere near the core of Melville’s work.  In Redburn, a fictionalized account of Melville’s first ocean voyage, the snakelike figure of Jackson rises from a sick bed and steps out “from his dark tomb in the forecastle” looking “like a man raised from the dead.”  The “blue hollows of his eyes” seem like “vaults full of snakes” as he climbs the rigging in a storm, takes the main position in reefing in the top-sail, coughs up “a torrent of blood from his lungs” onto “the bellying sail,” and then falls “headlong from the yard” to his death, “like a diver into the sea.”[85]  In the chapel scene in Moby-Dick, Ishmael broods on the common lot of sailors “who have placelessly perished without a grave” (41); and this same haunting image of oblivion stays with Melville to the end of his career in Billy Budd: “But me they’ll lash in hammock, drop me deep. / Fathoms down, fathoms down, how I’ll dream fast asleep.” 

      From “The Chapel” to the epilogue  of Moby Dick, there are countless references to drowning and descents into the sea but only three detailed accounts of a providential rescue.  The longest is Father Mapple’s sermon on Jonah, who begins his flight from God on a ship sailing out of Joppa, where he hides “in a contracted hole, sunk, too, beneath the ship’s water-line” (47), and falls into a “prodigy of ponderous misery,” which drags him “drowning down to sleep” (48).  In his vivid retelling of the tale—“one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures” (45)—Father Mapple describes it as a “deep sea-line” that plumbs the “depths of the soul” (45).  When the “God-fugitive” (48) confesses to the sailors “that for his sake this great tempest was upon them,” the crew grabs hold of him, and he is “taken up as an anchor and dropped into the sea” (49).  The story extends his fall when “God came upon him in the whale and swallowed him down to living gulfs of doom,” and it goes deeper still to the whale’s grounding “upon the ocean’s utmost bones” (50).  Just before the sermon, Ishmael gazes on the memorials to sailors drowned at sea and has a sudden glimpse into the heart of faith, which, “like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope” (41).  He will soon hear this same principle of faith in the story of Jonah’s repentance and his resurrection “out of the belly of hell.”

      Father Mapple closes his sermon by associating these Biblical polarities of the lower and the upper worlds with suffering and redemption, and he draws his lesson of hope and faith from the very construction of the ships on which the men in his congregation sail:


“But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of ever woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep. Is not the main-truck higher than the kelson is low?”  (50-51)


Like Jonah, Ahab defies “the living God” (50), but, unlike the repentant prophet, he drags the Pequod into the depths from which Jonah rose.  Nor is this the end of his descent, for in that fall there is another dragging down at the last sight of the mainmast as Tashtego begins to nail Ahab’s flag to “the subsiding spar.”  It is the final act of the crew’s allegiance to its mad commander, and, as though in final witness to his vengeance, it destroys a thing of beauty when a sky-hawk swoops down, pecks at the flag, and catches its “broad fluttering wing” between Tashtego’s nail and the spar.  In “his death-grasp,” Tashtego keeps “his hammer frozen there,”


and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted itself with it.  (469)


Rogin would have us believe that Melville began to “retreat” into symbolism in Moby-Dick, yet it is characteristic of his genius to describe primal forces of nature and prime symbols in the same moment and at their most extreme.  It is this spontaneous flow of intensities that vivifies his metaphors, which would otherwise be stilted, lifeless things.  Billy’s Christ-like transfiguration would be no more than a formulaic expression if not for the charged setting of his death: “At the same moment it chanced that the vapoury fleece hanging low in the east was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystic vision.”  And the same is true of the sky-hawk, which “now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood.”  Like Billy at the moment he is hung, the sky-hawk recapitulates Christ’s descent into flesh, swooping “downward from its natural home among the stars” (469), only to be crucified on the mainmast as the Pequod sinks from sight.

       Every detail of religious significance contributes to the metaphysical drama that is at the heart of Moby-Dick.  As Billy “ascended” when he was hung, so too Queequeg’s coffin shoots up from the whirlpool of the Pequod’s descent and resurrects Ishmael from the general doom.  It is a spontaneous gift of pagan grace, literally from the depths, in mute testimony to Ishmael’s acceptance of Queequeg’s “absurd notions about Yojo and his Ramadan….  I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans, and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects” (78).  Charity, says Paul, is the highest Christian virtue, and for Ishmael “the scales of the New Testament” have weighed in favor of his embrace of the world.  The entire work is a lesson in Scripture, in which Father Mapple’s sermon sets the stage for the mystery of redemption that is fulfilled on the last page of the book.  It is indeed an astonishing page, for Ishmael could not have written one syllable of this epic work if not for his providential rescue at the end.  The final moment thus completes a redemptive process that begins with the crew’s first sight of “moody, stricken Ahab,” who “stood before them with a crucifixion in his face.”  His torment will be burned into the entire voyage, even to the very end, when the sky-hawk, with “his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab,” will be nailed to the central mast.

      As Ishmael began the novel with three simple words, so he begins the epilogue with his mournful declaration, “The drama’s done.”  They are almost the same as Christ’s final words on the Cross in the Gospel of St John, “It is fulfilled.”  Both the story of the Crucifixion and the Book of Job are dramas of existential solitude, and it is with this thought in mind that Ishmael places the refrain of Job’s four messengers at the head of his epilogue: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”  The final word of the novel repeats this tragic theme as he tells of the melancholy ship that lifted him from the sea: “It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”  Melville turns here one last time to an Old Testament story of affliction, on which he builds the Gospel message at the heart of the book: the price of redemption is suffering and loss.

      The paradigm of Christ’s journey is figured in the Pequod’s setting out on Christmas day and in Ishmael’s Easter-like rebirth in the epilogue, which pays explicit homage to the Old Testament as the ground of his resurrection.  Among the many “cunning springs” that work beneath the surface of the plot, the providential surfacing of Queequeg’s coffin recapitulates Jonah’s redemption from “the ocean’s utmost bones”; and Ishmael is picked up by the Rachel, which, like her Hebrew namesake, was searching for “her missing children,” in this case, several whalemen and the captain’s son, who were dragged out of sight by Moby Dick.  Goaded by the whale’s proximity, Ahab refuses to join in the search, despite the captain’s pleadings, which only reinforce his rigidity (“and Ahab still stood like an anvil, receiving every shock, but without the least quivering of his own”).[86]  Having become a monster himself in demonizing Moby Dick, Ahab knows no law, neither of Scripture nor the sea.  The very name of the Rachel’s commander, Captain Gardiner, hints at the garden of creation, and both the prelude to the voyage and its final notes are marked by Old Testament chronology.  In the chapel scene, just before the sermon, Ishmael ponders the death of “antique Adam who died sixty round centuries ago” (41); and the final words of the last chapter refer to the Great Flood in Genesis, “then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago” (469).

      Other references to Hebrew scripture are directly linked to Ahab’s death.  Nantucket has its own prophet Elijah in Chapter 19, whose warnings echo the prophecies of Elijah to King Ahab in the first Book of Kings.  In “The Candles,” Ishmael recalls God’s prophetic writing on the wall in the Book of Daniel and sees the “pallid fire” on the yard-arms as “God’s burning finger... woven into the shrouds and the cordage” (415).  The very rigging has become an emblem of the loom of fate. From the first “presaging vibrations of the winds in the cordage,” Ahab defies all portents of disaster and hurls his “death-glorious ship” across the seas, “chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world.”

      Father Mapple celebrates the God of creation when he exclaims that “on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight than the bottom of the woe is deep”; but Ahab’s “frantic morbidness” sinks the Pequod and his spirits all at once: “Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief” (468).  Unlike Jonah’s defiance of God, there is no possibility of redemption in Ahab’s rebellion, for he is the victim of his own suicidal quest, and so he crashes against the walls of his crazed belief that the world is governed by radical evil, “visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.”  In his final moment, Ahab cries out for one last triumph of death: “Sink all coffins and hearses to one common pool!” but Queequeg’s coffin will not sink.  As Ishmael embraces life, so the sea shows to him its face of change and transformation, where an unused coffin can turn into a life preserver and the captain whom Ahab spurned can return to save him from the wreck.  Thus, the doom of the Pequod begins and ends in Ahab’s maniacal trance, while the story of his fate is told by the one sailor who affirms the life-principle and is rescued from the general curse.  Like Dostoevsky’s great novels of nihilism and redemption, Moby Dick is a gnostic world-drama that takes place in a Biblically structured universe.  Ishmael’s last sentence in “The Pulpit” sets the stage: “Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out . . . and the pulpit is its prow” (44).


5. The Marxist Inversion of Reality

     How could a prominent school of literary studies generate so many discussions that not only go wrong but end up exactly backwards from the truth?  Rogin claims that Ahab embodies “capitalism’s historical task,” yet Ahab despises trade; Takaki argues that the crew of the Pequod toils below, a scene that never appears in the book; and Pease says that Ishmael’s mind is bent on “exciting self-expression,” even though it is absorbed by whaling, history, religion, myth, and the psychology of the crew.    This same pattern of inversion can be found on all levels of interpretation.  Every new historicist I cite argues that Melville supported the status quo, yet his works wrestle with basic questions of life; and leftwing academics turn the entire record upside down when they claim that western literature is a mask for privilege,[87] even though many of the greatest works from the Iliad to 1984 depict “the course of human events” as a story of conflict, loss, and tragedy.  Stanley Geist speaks to this picture when he says that Melville struggled with the idea of a blind, irrational universe, citing his remark in Pierre that “not to know Gloom and Grief is not to know aught that an heroic man should learn.” [88]

      One would think that a tragic sense of life would appeal to leftwing intellectuals, since they claim to have a special interest in human suffering, yet here too a Marxist distortion is at work, turning “Gloom and Grief”  into public grievances on the road to social justice.  It is the one standard by which they judge literary worth, and they will invent any interpretation that fits the mold.  Hence, Balzac’s novels of French society are politically acceptable because he supposedly “depicts the last great struggles against the capitalist degradation of man,”[89] whereas Melville’s tales of mental affliction and iniquity are too brutal for the left to face without the illusions of radical critique.  For Takaki, Ahab’s “workers” lack the political maturity to rebel,[90] and Rogin likewise argues that Billy’s loyalty to Vere “infantilizes him” and blocks his “independence from authority” (307).  In point of fact, Billy’s tragedy lies within, for he has no conception of malice and therefore cannot understand why Claggart would accuse him of plotting mutiny.  When “the officer of marines” asks the crucial question, “Now why should he have lied, so maliciously lied, since you declare there was no malice between you?” Budd is at a loss for words, not because his loyalty to Vere has stunted his development but because the question touches “a spiritual sphere wholly obscure to Billy’s thoughts” (107).  Budd can be seen as an infant puppet of Vere only if one believes that he is a victim of authority and that Melville denied him the class-consciousness that would have made him a full-fledged radical adult.

      The world view of this academic orthodoxy is therefore inherently irrational, since it assumes that history and the culture of the “ruling class” are records of oppression, yet it also assumes that social “transformation” can take place in this same “realistic social world.”  Speaking to this contradiction in philosophical terms, Thorstein Veblen observes that Marx defines history as a Darwinian struggle between strong and weak that also advances along Hegelian lines of historical progress.  As Veblen notes, however, it is impossible for a socialist revolution to be both inevitable and the conscious decision of an awakened proletariat, since consciousness proceeds by reflection, which precludes an automatic correlation between circumstance and thought.  If “material conditions” did determine consciousness, one could never be the center of a complex “process of living” but only “an isolated, definitive human datum,”[91] a one-dimensional being without a history or will.  Hence the shallowness of radical critique.  Since “canonized” texts allegedly serve ruling-class interests, Melville has to take his place among other “worried white liberals” afraid of social change.  According to Greenblatt, even the design of an Elizabethan dramatic plot confirms “the structure of human experience as proclaimed by those on top” (17).  Hence, Prospero’s forgiveness of his enemies is the “ultimate expression” (147) of his power.  By the same logic, daylight is the “ultimate expression” of night.

      Leftwing literary analysis is predicated on absurdities of this kind, where mercy can be read as coercion and “revolutionary consciousness” can turn tragedy into freedom.   Melville is also subjected to this double-mindedness, since he was supposedly conditioned by “the forces and agents of cultural repression” and at the same time refused to speak for the silent voices of his time.  In the first tableau, he becomes a victim of his time and place, and in the second an accomplice of the ruling class.  In either case, the ruling powers triumph, as the dark princes of the universe, the imperial archons of gnostic cosmology, were said to control the visible creation.  Like Ahab and Ishmael’s “ancient Ophites,” leftwing intellectuals see the world as a theater of malicious agencies, and they will distort any subject they discuss in order to support its liberation from the demons of authority, including the authority of the written word.  Little wonder that they have chosen Melville as a special target of subversion, since his world view is anathema to their persistent faith in the Marxist revelation.



[1] Marx’s own term.  See his summary of “the materialist conception of history” in Patrick Gardiner, Theories of History (New York: The Free Press, 1959), pp. 126-32.  An incisive critique can be found in Thorstein Veblen, “The Socialist Economics of Karl Marx” (1906), in The Portable Veblen, ed. Max Lerner (New York: The Viking Press, 1948).  For a detailed survey of leftwing Melville criticism since the 1970s, see Peter Shaw, Recovering American Literature (1994).

[2] Michael Ryan, “Political Criticism,” in Contemporary Literary Theory, ed. G. Douglas Atkins and Laura Morrow (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1989), p. 201.

[3] See Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), p. 76: “Marxist criticism is not just an alternative technique for interpreting Paradise Lost or Middlemarch.  It is part of our liberation from oppression.”  Today’s “liberation” studies date from the late 1960s and can be traced to Marx himself: “The Communists seek... to rescue education from the influence of the ruling class.”  In The Communist Manifesto (1848), II, “Proletarians and Communists,”

[4] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The White Whale, ed. Harrison Hayford and Herschel Parker (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1967), “Knights and Squires,” p. 105.  References to Melville will be to this edition, unless otherwise noted.  Wherever possible, page numbers for all works will be in parenthesis after the first citation in the notes.

[5] There are, however, certain striking resemblances between Marx himself and Melville’s Captain Ahab, among them an obsessive vision of the world as a theater of radical evil, contempt for traditional religious values, and a compulsion to destroy the object of their hate, the ruling class for Marx and the white whale of Ahab’s quest.  Paul Johnson remarks on the “savagery” of Marx’s youthful verse, its “fascination with corruption and violence, suicide pacts and pacts with the devil….  He has himself, in the person of God, say: ‘I shall howl gigantic curses at mankind’... [he] was fond of quoting Mephistopheles’ line from Goethe’s Faust, ‘Everything that exists deserves to perish.’”  In “Karl Marx: ‘Howling Gigantic Curses,’” Intellectuals (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988), pp. 54-55.  Marx’s “gigantic curses” find a corresponding echo in Ishmael’s portrait of his lunatic commander: “Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world,” Chapter 41 (“Moby Dick”), p. 162.

[6] French literary theory has contributed to the subversion of established norms in education.  See Danny J. Anderson, “Deconstruction: Critical Strategy/Strategic Criticism,” in Atkins and Morrow, pp. 151-52, in which he notes that deconstructionists have replaced “the illusion of masterable knowledge and meaning” with “the analysis of power and authority in meaning.”  This academic project also originates in Marx: “The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas,” in Gardiner, p. 129.

[7] Cecelia Tichi, “American Literary Studies to the Civil War,” in Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies, ed. Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1992), p. 210.

[8] Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1988). p. 12.  New Historicism: a mixture of Marxism and modern literary theory that dates from the 1980s.  The term was coined by Greenblatt.  See his essay “Towards a Poetics of Culture,” in The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Veeser (New York, London: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc., 1989), p. 1.

[9] Philip Fisher, “American Literary and Cultural Studies since the Civil War,” in Redrawing the Boundaries, p. 240.

[10] Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky, “The Early American Novel,” in The Columbia History of the American Novel, ed. Emory Elliot et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 14.

[11] Donald Pease, Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings in Cultural Context (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), p. 244.

[12] Fredric Jameson similarly claims that the real subject of Hemingway’s prose is the unique “Hemingway” voice and that America ’s complex social life “is clearly inaccessible to the careful and selective type of sentence which he practices.”  In Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 412.  Melville and Hemingway are studies in contrast, but from a Marxist perspective both are “bourgeois egotists.”  The only difference is that one is narcissistically extravagant and the other narcissistically concise.

[13] Tichi, p. 222.

[14] Pease, p. 274.

[15] “Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy?  Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and make him the own brother of Jove?  Surely all this is not without meaning.  And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned.  But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans.  It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all,” Chapter 1 ("Loomings"), p. 14.  Like Narcissus, Ahab does not know that he is entranced by his own image when he searches the oceans for Moby Dick, and he too will drown in his attempt to seize “the ungraspable.”

[16] Pease mistakenly applies a European model of the radical intellectual to the American experience.  See Paul Johnson, p. 138: “Independent America had never possessed an ancien régime, a privileged establishment based on prescriptive possession rather than natural justice….  On the contrary: the United States was itself the product of a revolution against the injustice of the old order.  Its constitution was based on rational and ethical principles, and had been planned, written, enacted and, in the light of early experience, amended by men of the highest intelligence, of philosophical bent and moral stature.  There was thus no cleavage between the ruling and the educated classes: they were one and the same.”

[17] Marx and his followers have three basic responses to traditional values in ethics and religion: condemnation, distortion, and denial.  In The Communist Manifesto, Marx chooses the third and summarily dismisses all spiritual and moral objections to his ideas: “The charges against communism from a religious, a philosophical and, generally, from an ideological standpoint are not deserving of serious examination.”  Internet source cited above.

[18] Michael Rogin, Subversive Genealogies: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), p. 145.  Generating random associations is one of Rogin’s characteristic traits: “George Washington was the model helmsman on Webster’s ship of state.  Washington , said Webster, was the ‘living, speaking, animated form’ of the spirit of the Constitution.  Henry Clay held a fragment of Washington ’s coffin before Congress, to warn against the Union ’s destruction.  Queequeg is ‘George Washington cannibalistically developed,’ and his coffin saves Ishmael” (146). 

[19] Letter to Evert Duyckinck (March 3, 1849), in The Portable Melville, ed. Jay Leyda (New York: The Viking Press, 1952), pp. 379-80.

[20] Herder, Ideas toward a Philosophy of the History of Man (1784-91), in Gardiner, p. 38.  On his friendship and collaboration with Goethe, see the preface to Goethe’s journal On Morphology (1817-24): “My laborious and painstaking research was made easier, even sweeter, when Herder undertook to set down his ideas on the history of mankind.  Our daily conversation was concerned with the primal origins of the water-covered earth and the living creatures which have evolved on it from time immemorial.  Again and again, we discussed the primal origin and its ceaseless development.”  In Goethe: The Collected Works, ed. Christopher Middleton et al., 12 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994-95), Vol. 12,  Scientific Studies, ed. and trans. Douglas Miller, p. 69.

[21] Herder, Ideas., p. 35.

[22] Ottfried Müller, Prolegomena to a Scientific Mythology (1825), in Neff, p. 109.  In today’s “multicultural studies,” by contrast, “the Other” is treated with exaggerated familiarity (i.e., blacks, gays, and Hispanics), and “Eurocentrism” is regularly attacked, even though the study of world cultures originates in European thought.

[23] See Neff, p. 46, on Herder’s voyage and reflections: “On the way through the narrow Skagerrak to the broad North Sea, glimpses of the bleak, mist-shrouded mountains of Norway, their green bases bathed in deep fjords, told him why the Eddas and Ossian exhaled wildness of a different quality from that of the Odyssey.”  On comparable periods of “flowering” among different cultures, see Herder’s Ideas, p. 41: “Shakespeare was no Sophocles, Milton no Homer, Bolingbroke no Pericles: yet they were in their kind, and in their situation, what those were in theirs.”

[24] Herder, Ideas, pp. 42-43. 

[25] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The Metamorphosis of Plants,” in Selected Poems, trans. Christopher Middleton (Boston: Suhrkamp / Insel Publishers Boston Inc., 1983), p. 155.

[26] Herder, in Neff, p. 47.

[27] In the preceding paragraph, Ishmael says that Ahab also reflected upon these “soothing scenes” (406).  On this basis, Hayford and Parker add quotation marks around the passage in a later edition, which give the lines to Ahab.  This change is unwarranted.  Ahab’s voice is characteristically hard-edged; only Ishmael associates weaving with the loom of creation (Chapters 47, 93, 102, and here in 114); and “Oh, grassy glades” continues his previous analogy of the calm seas to prairie grasslands.  In the only other scene of comparable loveliness (Chapter 132, “The Symphony”), Melville unambiguously introduces Ahab, whose only moment of tranquility quickly collapses into his underlying torment and despair.  Ahab is incapable of a meditation that speaks of learning in the midst of world-loneliness.

[28]The body of Melville’s epilogue is printed in italics.  In Chapter 110 (“Queequeg in his Coffin”), Queequeg develops a high fever and asks the carpenter to build him a “coffin-canoe” (396), which he uses as a sea-chest after he recovers.

[29] Herder, Still Another Philosophy of History, p. 21.

[30] See Neff, p. 18: “Contempt for the Middle Ages, praise for modern thought and invention run through d’Alembert’s ‘Preliminary Discourse’ to the celebrated Encyclopedia, through national histories like the philosopher Hume’s England and the Presbyterian clergyman Robertson’s Scotland.”  Marx’s condemnation of religion has its origin in eighteenth-century anti-clericalism and contempt for medieval Europe .  Herder alludes to his critique of Enlightenment philosophy when he describes his career as a path through “Gothic arches.”

[31] Lewis Mumford may have been the first to make this observation, in Herman Melville (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1929), pp. 182-83: “Melville’s instrument is unsurpassed in the writing of the last century: one must go to a Beethoven or a Wagner for an exhibition of similar powers.”  On Melville’s contrapuntal patterns of composition, see Harold Beaver’s notes on “The Symphony” in Moby-Dick, ed. Beaver (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981).  He also remarks that the first chapter is “the prelude to sound all the main themes and keys, and shifts of key, on which the rest of Moby-Dick will play its prolonged and fugal variations” (700).

[32] Compare Melville’s image of Lear tearing “off the mask” (542) with an earlier passage by Charles Lamb on Shakespeare’s tragedy: “The greatness of Lear is not in corporal dimension, but in intellectual: the explosions of his passion are terrible as a volcano: they are storms turning up and disclosing to the bottom that sea, his mind, with all its vast riches.”  See “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare” (1818), in Prose of the Romantic Period, ed. Carl R. Woodring (Boston: The Riverside Press, 1961), p. 237.

[33] In his celebrated speech to the players on the art of acting, Hamlet says that “the groundlings... for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise,” Hamlet, in The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, ed. William Allan Neilson and Charles Jarvis Hill (Cambridge, Mass.: The Riverside Press, 1942), III , ii, ll. 9-13.  The editors note that the groundlings “stood in ‘the pit’ of the theatre, the cheapest place.”  Melville turns Hamlet’s speech around and sees them as the actors of their own tragedies.

[34] Melville, “ Hawthorne and His Mosses,” p. 551.  A year later, Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne “in token of my admiration for his genius.”  In the essay, he celebrates Hawthorne for the same qualities of depth that we associate with Melville himself.  His very emphasis suggests a personal identification with the word: Hawthorne is “a man of deep and noble nature” (536),  “He is immeasurably deeper than the plummet of the mere critic” (541), and his story “Young Goodman Brown” is “deep as Dante” (549).

[35] Melville to Hawthorne on completing Moby-Dick: “Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of this great allegory—the world?  Then we pygmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended,”  Letter of November 17, 18 51 , p. 566. Melville’s cautionary note has been thrown to the winds by every critic and scholar who claims to have found the “key” to Moby-Dick.

[36] Morse Peckham, Beyond the Tragic Vision: The Quest for Identity in the Nineteenth Century (New York: George Braziller, 1962), p. 266.

[37] Claggart’s false accusation that Budd was plotting mutiny.  He first approaches Captain Vere with this lie and repeats it in the presence of Vere and Budd, whose crippling defect of stuttering, combined with his innate sense of loyalty, results in his lashing out and killing Claggart with a single blow.

[38] Between pages 17 and 20, Rogin refers to Marx nine times as the authority for his views on nineteenth-century politics and art.

[39] Jack Beatty, “Trapped in the ‘NASA-Speak’ Machine,” New York Times, Op-Ed Page (March 9, 1986).

[40] The pendulum is an execution machine that has been devised by Poe’s fictional Inquisition, hence the simultaneous dread of time, machinery, and religious authority that pervades the tale.

[41] According to Rogin, Ahab is in the grip of a “technological” madness (138) that supposedly represents the dark side of the industrial revolution.  This is another of Rogin’s fictitious parallels.  The machinery on board the Pequod is no more than the standard equipment of a nineteenth-century American whaler.  It is Ahab’s mind that runs on “iron rails.” 

[42] Tony Tanner, Introduction, Herman Melville, White-Jacket or The World in a Man-of-War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. xix.

[43] Brook Thomas, “The New Historicism and Other Old-Fashioned Topics,” in Veeser, p. 197.

[44] In Shakespearean Negotiations, Greenblatt uses a Marxist language of the marketplace to create an aura of “materialist” cultural activity, i.e., “collective exchange,” “artistic production and consumption,” “cultural transactions,” “collective production of literary pleasure,” etc., pp. 4-13.  Marx himself associates “material production” with “the production of ideas,” “mental production,” and “the production and distribution” of ideas, in Gardiner, pp. 128-29.

[45] Rogin’s bias against the “aesthetic artifact” is a softer version of the old attacks against “bourgeois formalism” in Soviet cultural propaganda.  See “Proletcult, Formalism and Trotsky” in Dave Laing, The Marxist Theory of Art (Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1978).  Rogin’s point about “European artists after 1848” is directly taken from the Hungarian Marxist critic Georg Lukacs.  See Laing, p. 53.

[46] According to Rogin, “The Protestant ethic, glorifying visible signs of grace, located saving power in material objects rather than in God” (126).  This is the standard oversimplification of Max Weber’s seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1902).  For its refutation, see Chapter V, “Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism.”

[47] Nichael Gilmore, “The Book Market Place I,” p. 66.

[48] See Veeser, Introduction, p. xi, “no discourse... expresses inalterable human nature.”  Soviet propaganda aimed at nothing less than the creation of a “new man” and a new world reality.  At the 1934 Soviet Writers’ Congress, Maxim Gorky proclaimed the benefits of “a revolutionary attitude towards reality, an attitude that in practice refashions the world.”  In Laing, p. 37. Nikolai Bukharin similarly announced that “a new type of man is arising who knows the world in order to change it” (40).  Several years later, the great Soviet “theoretician” was shot on Stalin’s orders.

[49] John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: The Odyssey Press, Inc., 1935), Book IX, p. 275, ll. 119-21.

[50] Ibid., p. 277, ll. 171-72.

[51] Bezanson, p. 669.

[52] “Productive” and “sterile” for Goethe are synonymous with truth and falsehood: “The true always bears fruit... the false, in and of itself, lies dead and sterile,” in “Natural Philosophy,” Collected Works, vol. 12, p. 47.  The Goethean ideal: “Productive power of the imagination combined with all possible reality.”  In “Studies for a Physiology of Plants,” vol. 12, p. 74.  Nothing could be further from Marx’s mechanistic “production of ideas” than Goethe’s concept of organic self-development.

[53] Melville, Letter to Hawthorne , June 1?, 1851, p. 556.  Henry A. Pochmann remarks that Leon Howard “finds unmistakable evidence that Melville read Goethe’s Autobiography with special reference to his own inner unfolding while he pondered the allegorical ambiguities of Mardi, Moby-Dick, and Pierre .”  In Pochmann, “Herman Melville & German Philosophy,” German Culture in America : Philosophical and Literary Influences, 1600-1900 (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1961), n. 262,

[54] Taking a “materialist” criticism of Moby-Dick to its ultimate absurdity, Rogin claims that the Protestant ethic “endowed” objects “with magical, redemptive power” and that Ahab strikes at Moby Dick as though he were “a disappointed fetishizer of commodities” (126).  One wonders just how disappointed a consumer would have to be to relive “all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down,” Chapter 41 (“Moby Dick”), p. 160.

[55] Vere and Ishmael bear the stamp of their author as sailor-scholars. Melville remarks that Vere “was an exceptional character” who combined practical seamanship with “a marked leaning toward everything intellectual” (62). 

[56] Moby-Dick, Chapter 47 (“The Mat-Maker”), p. 185.  Compare Ishmael’s meditation with Goethe’s cosmic loom: “Thus view with unassuming eyes / The Weaver Woman’s masterpiece: / One pedal shifts a thousand strands, / The shuttles back and forward flying, / Each fluent strand with each complying, / One stroke a thousand links commands; / No patchwork, this, of rag and tatter, / Since time began She plots the matter, / So may the  Master, very deft, / Insert with confidence the weft.” In “Doubt and Resignation,” Collected Works, vol. 12, pp. 33-34.

[57] Moby-Dick, Chapter 24 (“The Advocate”), p. 101.  Interestingly enough, it is Ahab who is the academic, a savage one at that.  In Chapter 16 (“The Ship”), Captain Peleg sums up his extremes when he says to Ishmael, “Mark ye, be forewarned; Ahab’s above the common; Ahab’s been in colleges, as well as ’mong the cannibals” (76).

[58] Honoré de Balzac, Le Père Goriot (1835), with an introduction and critical notes by Pierre-Georges Castex ( Paris , 1963), p. 20.  Translation mine.

[59] Both Mizruchi and Rogin cast a blind eye at the growing dictatorship in France and its menace abroad, while they assume the worst of the English navy as the right arm of an authoritarian state.

[60] Rogin claims that Vere’s ship is a “negative church” and that

“piety in Vere’s monkish world... meant only the sacrifice to legalism” (312).  These pronouncements ignore every description that Melville provides about the captain, and they also contradict Melville’s high regard for the “knightly valor” of the heroic captains that he lists in Chapter 4.

[61] Tichi, p. 220.

[62] Melville repeatedly calls attention to such men.  Vere is an “exceptional character”; “certain exceptional mortals” can be aroused to hatred “by the mere aspect of some other mortal” (74); a “finer spiritual insight” is “indispensable to the understanding of the essential in certain exceptional characters; whether evil ones or good” (75); and the story opens with a memory of sailors surrounding “some superior figure of their own class,” the “Handsome Sailor” (43) who combined “strength and beauty” (44), such as blue-eyed Budd himself.  Melville remarks that the loss of Biblical wisdom has contributed to a general lack of clarity regarding all such types; for “if that lexicon which is based on Holy Writ were any longer popular, one might with less difficulty define and denominate certain phenomenal men” (75).

[63] For new historicists, selfhood is “not an index of singularity but a term referring to the historical process of which any individual, including the writer, is necessarily a part,” in Tichi, p. 219.

[64] Rogin’s criticism of Vere is meaningless.  No one has ever had “a full grasp of human life.”  Ishmael understands this perfectly when he speaks of “the ungraspable phantom of life” in Chapter 1.

[65] This sublime moment is Melville’s homage to romantic plant symbolism and a farewell to the singular figure of “the ‘Handsome Sailor’ of the less prosaic time alike of the military and merchant navies.”  Pochmann notes that, according to Leon Howard, “Melville’s flower symbolism (in Mardi as well as the rose imagery of his later poems) derives from that of Fouqué, Tieck, Novalis, and others of the German Romantiker.”  Internet source cited above.

[66] King Lear, IV, iii, l. 50.

[67] The Tempest, I, ii, ll. 396-98.  Sleep also figures in the background to these lines.  Shortly before his song to Ferdinand, Ariel tells Prospero that he has safely harbored the King’s ship and put all the mariners to sleep.  In one of his letters, John Keats alludes to the fact that the sea appears in one guise or another in all of Shakespeare’s plays.

[68] “Billy in the Darbies,” p. 132, ll. 7-9.  Jewel-blocks “hang from the ends of yards where studding-sails are hoisted,”  in Hayford and Sealts, Jr., p. 201.  Compare Billy’s hanging to his Olympian freedom among the sails before Claggart begins his malicious plot: “Life in the foretop well agreed with Billy Budd.  There, when not actually engaged on the yards yet higher aloft, the topmen, who as such had been picked out for youth and activity, constituted an aerial club lounging at ease against the smaller stun’sails rolled up into cushions, spinning yarns like the lazy gods, and frequently amused with what was going on in the busy world of the decks below” (68).

[69] In reality, Prospero turns Caliban into a menial servant only after his attempts to educate him fail and he is unable to control Caliban’s savagery without the aid of his magical powers.  In the last scene, Caliban thanks him for revealing that he has been duped into a false sense of freedom by Stephano and Trinculo.  Prospero also awakens the conscience of all his enemies, after which he casts his magic staff and garments into the sea and says that when he returns to Milan, “Every third thought shall be my grave,” none of which has anything to do with early capitalism or Moby-Dick.

[70] Although Ishmael remarks in Chapter 27 that Americans provide the “brains” of American whaling, “the rest of the world... generally supplying the muscles,” Takaki ignores his next remark that whalemen by and large are also white: “No small number of these whaling seamen belong to the Azores, where the outward bound Nantucket whalers frequently touch to augment their crews from the hardy peasants of those rocky shores.  In like manner, the Greenland whalers sailing out of Hull or London , put in at the Shetland Islands , to receive the full complement of their crew.  Upon the passage homewards, they drop them there again [so much for their enslavement].  How it is, there is no telling, but Islanders seem to make the best whalemen.  They were nearly all Islanders in the Pequod” (108).  The idea that most of the crew is made up of “workers of color” is a leftwing fabrication.

[71] Moby-Dick, Chapter 18 (“His Mark”), p. 84.  Captain Bildad is one of the two “part owners and agents” of the Pequod who are responsible for fitting out the ship and seeing it “supplied with all her needs, including the crew” (69).  Beaver notes that Bildad is “named after the second, and least consoling, of Job’s comforters” (732).  Melville’s reference to the Book of Job at the outset of the voyage is complemented by the epigraph from Job in the epilogue.

[72] Moby-Dick, “The Symphony,” p. 442.

[73] “The demon Charon, with eyes of burning coal,” in Dante, The Divine Comedy, ed. John D. Sinclair (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), Inferno, Canto III , p. 53.

[74] “I baptize you not in the name of the father but in the name of the devil.”

[75] See Goethe, “Selections from Maxims and Reflection,” in Scientific Studies, p. 305: “[Nature] has carved our [chess] pieces; gradually we will learn their value, their moves, and their powers.  Now it will be our task to find the moves we think best; each seeks this in his own way regardless of any advice.  Leave well enough alone, then….  We must be ready to attend to anything we may hear, especially anything opposed to our own view, for here we will recognize the problematic character of things and, especially, of people.”

[76] On Ahab’s dismemberment and the Osiris myth, see Beaver, pp. 780-82.  Ishamel provides the basis of this research when he speaks of Ahab’s “Egyptian chest” and remarks that Ahab’s madness reached its height “in mid winter” on the voyage home.  Beaver cites H. Bruce Franklin (The Wake of the Gods), who notes that Osiris “is a priest-king-god who sails the world in a ship” hunting a “malignant” sea-monster and that his phallus is annually dismembered; “the date is variously given as the autumnal equinox, the winter solstice, and the period in between.”

[77] From the “Great Life” of gnostic lore.  In Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, Inc., 1968), p. 9.  Melville is on solid ground.  The study of gnosticism was well advanced in the nineteenth century.  See Voegelin’s introduction, pp. 3-4.

[78] Hence the Greek word gnosis, knowledge, for these mystic revelations.  On Ishmael’s references to the gnostic cults of the Middle East , see Beaver, p. 779 and pp. 927-29.  The gnostic hatred of Creation is summed up in Spengler, II: 225: “Jehovah as the Creator God, the Demiurge, is the ‘Just’ and therefore the Evil.”  Beaver similarly observes that “the Creator being evil, it followed that his foes of the Old Testament are really its heroes, and Ophites specially revered Cain, the Sodomites and the Egyptians,” note 283, p. 779.

[79] From the Old Persian magus, magician.  The three Magi who follow a star to Christ’s manger have come from the east, hence the suggestion that they are Chaldean astrologers.  Spengler associates the word with all the “Springtime” sects and religions of the Middle East .  See The Decline, Vol. II, “The Magian Soul,” pp. 233-61.  Ishmael is familiar with the term.  In “The Prairie,” he makes one of many references to ancient Egypt and remarks that “had the great Sperm Whale been known to the young Orient World, he would have been deified by their child-magian thoughts” (292).

[80] Ishmael’s attachment to books shows even in this casual detail.  Beaver remarks that “Cato the Younger, according to Plutarch, spent several hours reading Plato’s Phaedrus before committing suicide.”  Note 93, p. 703.

[81] In “The Composition of Moby Dick,” Leon Howard writes, “The romantic tradition in which Melville conceived and began Moby Dick is revealed by the opening section of the book itself and by the type of fiction which predominates in the lists of books he brought back from Europe or borrowed during the first few months after his return.”  In Hayford and Parker, p.711.  One would never guess from Melville’s leftwing critics that he drew at all from a European heritage.

[82] Beaver, p. 711, notes that “Turner painted four whaling pictures in 1845-6, derived from Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale.”  Ishmael sees an oil painting of a stormy seascape in the entry at the Spouter-Inn (Chapter 3), whose “unaccountable masses of shades and shadows” (20) distinctly recall the lower half of Ryder's Jonah and the Whale.

[83] Richard Wagner, “Senta’s Ballad,” Libretto by the composer, in Joseph Keilberth’s 1955 Bayreuth recording of The Flying Dutchman, pp. 8-9.  Ryder’s painting is the visual equivalent of the Dutchman’s aria and Senta’s ballad, which refers not only to his story but also to his portrait that hangs in her home.

[84] Once again the Magian note.  Ishmael’s reverie has unmistakable associations with the Islamic promise of seventy virgins of paradise to martyrs in jihad.  In “The Candles,” Ahab likens his quest to a holy war when he traces his genealogy to the divine spirits of gnostic prophecy.

[85] Melville, Redburn: His First Voyage, ed. Harold Beaver (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1977), pp. 385-86.

[86] Chapter 128 (“The Pequod Meets the Rachel”), p. 435.  In “Call Me Ahab,” Jeremy Harding spins this episode into an indictment of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy: “A year after 11 September, the Pequod’s encounter with the Rachel... is darkly evocative of the new unilateralist ferocity.  The sorry Gardiner could nowadays be just about anyone who hasn’t got the Bush Administration’s point.”  In London Review of Books ( October 31, 2002 ),  Harding could also condemn Bush by analogy with Achilles, Pontius Pilate, Scrooge’s rejection of the Christmas charity workers, in fact “just about anyone” in literature with a hardened heart.  

[87] In “The New Historicism and other Old-fashioned Topics,” Brook Thomas speaks for a generation of tenured radicals when he identifies western literature with “the white, patriarchal tradition of the West,” in Veeser, p. 201.  This too is a footnote to Marx: “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production,” in Gardiner, p. 129.

[88] Cited in Stanley Geist, “Melville’s Tragically Great Hero,” Herman Melville: The Tragic Vision and the Heroic Ideal (1939), in Hayford and Parker, p. 638.

[89] Eagleton, p. 30.  It takes a Marxist reader to reduce Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine  to a political abstraction. 

[90] According to Takaki, they “lack the political consciousness—the awareness of their own class interests as well as the recognition of Ahab’s madness—necessary for resistance,” p. 284.  Nineteenth-century mutineers and deserters did in fact speak the language of political revolution, with disastrous results.  In The Encantada, Melville remarks that Charles’s Island was “proclaimed the asylum of the oppressed of all navies.  Each runaway tar was hailed as a martyr in the cause of freedom,” and. in consequence, the island was shunned by vessels, “however sorely in want of refreshment,” for it became a “lurking place of all sorts of desperadoes, who in the name of liberty did just what they pleased.”  In “Charles’s Isle and the Dog-King,” Billy Budd and Other Tales, pp. 259-60.

[91] Veblen, “Why Is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science?” (1898), in The Portable Veblen, p. 232.  

back to Contents


Our criteria are refreshingly indulgent, in terms both of length and of content.  We have never turned away a good essay or story because it was too long.  In extreme cases, we might run the entire work serially for several issues.  Material may be submitted electronically to the editor at [email protected].  Conventional mailings, of course, must be accompanied by a stamped, self-addressed envelope if their return is desired.  Note address in left column.


Regarding content, we are very interested in the following kinds of matter: any original short stories or poems which do not court tastelessness for mere shock effect; translations into English of stories, poems, or even novels; essays which critically examine the contemporary academy, especially its politically correct zealotry, its contempt for Western tradition, and its Byzantine inner workings as a system; reassessments of our literary or cultural past where it has been deemed “unusable” by the imperious arbiters of such things; and comparisons of literary works not usually viewed together because they belong to different times or cultures.


Naturally, this “wish list” is not all-inclusive.  We are eager to consider any kind of submission which reflects honest and profound thought.  Footnotes should be minimal: citation should be used to clarify rather than to overwhelm.

back to Contents      Home Page     Recommended Reading

Praesidium Archive     More About Us