Sunday, February 27, 2011

Society v. Cannibals

Herman Melville’s experiences with the high society through his father and his encounters with tribal people lead him to the conclusion that the cannibals have a superior view of life which is ultimately reflected in Moby Dick.

Melville’s father, Allan Melvill, a charismatic import merchant married his mother, Maria Gansevoort, in Albany. They promptly moved to New York City where Allan considered his prospects to be bright in a letter to his father in 1820. In actuality, Allan’s “yield from his talents was meager” (Delbanco 20). He spent most of his time fighting off creditors for the money he couldn’t repay and begging for more money. In an industrializing business where “good taste and personal charm counted for less than the ability to anticipate rising markets” (Delbanco 20) Allan’s charm was becoming only helpful in digging himself and his family into more debt. The family, however, seemed unaware of the increasing difference between the money they owed and the money they had. Allan lived well beyond his means employing numerous servants and other extravagancies. Not only was their home filled with housekeepers and cooks, but the family also moved through a string of house, the next greater than the last. As they moved from house to house they distanced themselves from their original home on the waterfront, “he was losing touch with the source of his livelihood” (Delbanco 23). The family ends up running from the debt collectors to Albany, where Allan took a job as a clerk in a fur store. Still buried in debt, Allan takes a trip to New York to try and pacify the collectors. His trip home goes awry and Allan spends most of the trip back in an open carriage and ultimately ends up crossing a frozen river to be united with his family. This trip ends up being Allan’s downfall. With their father’s death, the family’s fantasy of being well-off, which had already started to crumble with the move to Albany, is completely disillusioned. Herman is taken out of his prestigious schools, which the family can no longer afford, and his family tries to get him to take job after job. Herman felt disappointed and exasperated at his situation. He started high in society, being educated in the hopes of a bright future, to have it all taken away by his father who was so entrenched in his own society that he became engrossed in the social ladder until it literally consumed him. Frustrated with the supposedly Christian society who built his family up and then tore them down again, Herman takes to the sea. Herman’s opinion about civilized society, most evidently the Christian society, is influence by his past. This is represented in the comments on Christianity in Moby Dick. In many instances Ishmael blatantly expresses his doubts in the Christian ideology. For example, after he decides Queequeg is harmless he thinks “Butter sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” (Melville 26). Here Ishmael calls attention to the misconception that that just because someone is a “Christian” it makes them a good person. Queequeg also notices the inconsistencies of Christianity when Ishmael realizes he left the sermon early. One of the largest statements Melville makes on Christianity is by explicitly pointing out the irony in Quaker whalers. The idea of the most peaceful sect of the religion making up the majority of the bloody business is a critique on the religion itself. Ishmael and even Queequeg call attention to contradictions in Christianity.

His first voyage from New York to Liverpool lasted about three months. Herman described this journey as the “first time in his life that he was neither pampered nor pressured by adults who had place high hopes in him” (Delbanco 29). Herman spent time on land for a length of time, but the sea was calling him and this time he set off on a whaling expedition on the Acushnet. After six months at sea, Herman found himself in “indulgent captivity” (Delbanco 41) in the Typee Valley. Herman perceived the inhabitants, who were rumored cannibals and covered in tattoos, as reasonable and, in the case of the women, doting and attentive. During this period Herman started to form a lot of his opinions about foreign cultures and the light they are viewed in back in America. He began to see “not of one universal form of civilization but of plural civilizations–thereby acknowledging no singular means of organizing life” (Delbanco 55) and recognized his captives’ way of life not only equal in its right to exist parallel to our civilized society, but he went so far as to say that it may be a superior way of life. One of the opinions during the time that Herman agreed with was the infantile eloquence of the savages’ language. Emerson noted that, “As we go back in history, language becomes more picturesque, until its infancy, when it is all poetry” (Delbanco 54). Emerson likens the guttural grunts of the cannibals to verse, an idea that Herman fell in accordance with believing that “Civilization, in other words, comes with a price: it weakens the imagination” (Delbanco 54). Herman’s view on savages is reflected in Moby Dick through Queequeg. During Ishmael’s first encounter with Queequeg he is unsure of how to react when he comes in the room and is frightened that Queequeg is trying to kill him. This response represents how civilized society perceives savages – they do not understand them so they fear them and such fear leads to rash conclusions. With Queequeg settling down and offering Ishmael half of the bed, Ishmael comes to realization that “the man’s a human being just as I am” (Melville 26) which is a more apt representation of Herman’s opinion about cannibals in general. Queequeg’s likable characteristics continue to demonstrate themselves when Queequeg gives half of all the money he has to Ishmael. This exhibits Queequeg’s loyalty to Ishmael and acts a contract of their friendship. In another scene where Ishmael and Queequeg are talking in bed they discuss Queequeg’s experiences with society so far. Queequeg speaks of the wickedness he’s seen in the whaling industry and says “it’s a wicked world in all meridians; I’ll die a pagan” (Melville 62). Here it becomes apparent one of the main reasons Ishmael and consequently Herman view the cannibals in such a good way, they perceive other cultures and learn from them but they don’t try to assimilate the other culture into their own. Herman may even connect this thought with the plights of his own family, believing if they had lived in a savage community the social pressures wouldn’t have driven his father to the brink. For being an “uncivilized cannibal” Queequeg is portrayed as rational, understanding, and loyal as opposed to the “civilized Christians” who are walking contradictions to their own doctrines.

Herman’s familial history and time with the savages affected his opinions about society. These opinions are echoed in Ishmael’s observations and actions around society and cannibals and speak to a different way of thinking that cherishes the tolerance and consistency of the savage way of life.

Delbanco, Andrew. Melville : His World and Work. Alfred A. Knopf Incorporated , 2005. eBook.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Penguin Group, 2003. Print.

1 comment:

  1. You work through some important material in Melville's biography, specifically the economic situation behind his move to the see. The summary of this material from Delbanco is fine. Your application of it is is certainly solid as well, but it's a little on the general side. What bothers me specifically is your equation of Melville's critique of *Christianity* with his *economic* situation. Now, this isn't baseless or wrong - many people in our culture (both in favor of the status quo and against it) equate or connect capitalism with Christianity. Melville might be doing exactly that - or it might be that he has different, somewhat disconnected things to say about the two topics (I'd argue, for instance, that he is very concerned with the *authenticity* of Christianity, and that "Christian" is used both satirically and seriously at different points in the book).

    In any case, this was fine - but might have been a little more focused.