Melville's Moby Dick: Defining Violence in Literature

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Melville's Moby Dick: Defining Violence in Literature

Two stories were recently told to me, independently of one another, and although I was struck by each, it was a third story that emerged from the collision of the first two that most challenged me. The first story is about the violence of literature: "That's my current definition of literature: a cataclysmic event, one that disrupts what we think we so-settle-edly-know..." (Dalke). The second story is a definition of violence that I heard used in the context of a conversation about racism. "Violence is the denial of humanity." Although the implication seemed to be that humanity is denied to the victim of violence, I also suggest that violence diminishes the humanity of the perpetrator.

Looming at the point where these two stories encounter each other is a pair of screaming questions. 1) What does it mean to deny humanity? And 2) How can this definition of violence be reconciled with the assertion that literature/storytelling is violent when storytelling is a fabulously human phenomenon?

Initially, I was compelled by Dalke's definition of literature as cataclysmic and violent, partly because my immediate reaction was to disagree. Is not literature a tool that we use to cling together and to ever more profound meaning? Must literature deconstruct in order to recreate and expand? In concert with this skepticism is another story about literature which maintains that the actual number of stories is very few. All stories can be reduced to, at most, a dozen types or formulas within which storytellers maneuver creatively in order to extract new things from the old patterns. Violence suggests that something is being destroyed or detracted (I will turn to the specific target of humanity in a moment), so if literature is violent, must we conceive of these variations on a formula as somehow depleting the underlying structure? Alternatively, violence suggests that literature is a process of cannibalizing old formulas in the creation of new. This version creates the space for an infinite number of story types.

So, is literature violence or clinging? Or are these two things ultimately the same? The story of violence as the denial of humanity is where I begin to search for an answer. The elemental gesture of humanity is the desire to transcend itself, to know the universe, to grasp the absolute truth. But, this clinging to meaning, to greater meaning, is destructive because it implies something incomplete about humans and sets us up for failure.

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