Melville's Moby Dick: Defining Violence in Literature

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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Also, an absolute truth necessarily requires a certain denial of humanity; humanity is the desire to transcend its smallness and know the whole truth, but humans are infinitely small and located. Thus, such a truth must exist beyond the human ability to comprehend both absolute and truth.

In this sense, clinging to anything that we know is, in a sense, self destructive because we are constantly driven to expand and change this knowledge. By clinging we become reliant on something that is unreliable and we therefore inevitably experience rending, deconstruction- violence. The implication that follows is that in order to survive we must drift, release. But what is the difference between being out to sea (drifting) and being unmoored (the inevitable fate of clingers)? A circularity emerges in which we ask: What is the value of survival in the absence of meaning and what is the reason for clinging if it is unsustainable?

The tension and union between these oppositional forces create the urgency and destabilizing brilliance of Melville's Moby Dick. "It is through the encounter between these two principles - the widening embrace of Ishmael and the "monomania" of Ahab - that Moby-Dick takes form" (Delbanco, xix). Delbanco goes on to suggest that at the heart of Moby-Dick is a dilemma that Melville takes on more explicitly, but less gracefully, in a later novel, Pierre. "In Pierre, Melville confronts head-on the possibility that the idea of transcendence - the idea of a stable truth that exists outside of time - is not only undemonstrable but fatal to one's ability to live in a contingent world" (Delbanco, xxvi).

Ahab's monomania is the epitome of cling and feverish meaningfulness. Ishmael's dissipated, reabsorbed self is the epitome of drift and release. At the end of the book, Ahab dies (I would argue that the other deaths are part of Ahab's - the characters and ship all serve as lenses to focus Ahab's monomania) and Ishmael survives. But what we know of survival is very changed. Survival is the immutability of an invisible, infinitely expanded character who has gradually and almost imperceptibly divested himself of meaning in the course of the story. Meaning survives only if it continues to dissipate, to spread and percolate and become ungraspable yet malleable. Meaning which is clung to becomes a grave, as Ahab so magnificently demonstrates.

The oppositional reinforcement of these two processes is the evolutionary movement of literature. Stories perpetuate the tension between clinging and drifting, but resolve neither. Literature is humanity and the denial of humanity, a mirror in which we see ourselves. A mirror, at first, may be said to reflect a repetition, a reality in stagnant balance with the reflected. However, the mirror does something much more disruptive. A reflection is a separation of the experience of self from the self as perceived by the other. The mirror tells us a story about ourselves that we cannot otherwise know, but in reaction to the reflected story, our experienced story changes and thus reflects something new. An evolutionary pump is set in motion.

Thus, neither reflection nor the reflected is the whole self, but together they are an ever-changing, evolving dialogue of self. The image we see in the mirror/story moves us on an essentially human journey toward something humanly unattainable. Whether this movement is constrained by the boundaries of formulas or by the recombinant material of parent formulas, the essential quality is change. Stories are the perpetual rebirth of that simultaneously regenerative and fatal human journey.

Works Cited

Dalke, Anne

2004 "Picking through the rubble." The Story of Evolution and the

Evolution of Stories, Course Forum 8: Literature as Listening To/Telling


Delbanco, Andrew

1992 "Introduction" in Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. New York: Penguin

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