Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 3


Herman Melville

Loren Goldner
Herman Melville: Between Charlemagne and the Antemosaic Cosmic Man: Race, Class and the Crisis of Bourgeois Ideology in an American Renaissance Writer
Queequeg Publications, New York 2006, pp. 291, £9

HERMAN Melville, as Loren Goldner notes, was ‘the man who put American literature onto the level of world literature’ with his literary classic Moby Dick (1851), the famous ‘whaling story’. Yet Melville was never acknowledged as such in his own lifetime, and for several decades after his death in 1891, was just another ‘minor New York writer’ (p. 22). In the 1920s, this finally changed as Moby Dick was ‘discovered’ by literary critics, and by the time of the Cold War Melville had been safely canonised as a romantic writer of the ‘American Renaissance’ whose individualistic heroes fought for liberty against totalitarianism. It is therefore perhaps hardly surprising that Marxists with a bent for literary criticism have generally avoided writing that much about Melville, and so Goldner’s new study is welcome.

Goldner’s starting point is quite rightly Moby Dick, the story of the doomed whaling ship the Pequod, and the creative influences which inspired Melville to write it. Much of this work is concerned with examining the specificity of American society during ‘1848’, with respect to the problematic of slavery in particular, and so demonstrating how ‘something approaching “the” nineteenth-century American literary epic’ was born at that moment. Yet though he discusses Melville’s voluminous other writings, this is not a biography using a strictly chronological framework to build up ‘a “history and literature” study’ of the writer. Goldner rather has a specific argument to make, noting that ‘in Moby Dick, Melville imagined something beyond bourgeois society, and after Moby Dick, he did not. That is the axial point of his life, and of this study.’ (pp. 283–84)

Yet what is really novel about this study is how Goldner discovers one ‘thread’ in Melville’s thought that has not received significant attention up to now, which weaves in and out of Moby Dick in particular. ‘That Melville, at the time he wrote Moby Dick, was intimately familiar with a vast range of world mythology is no mystery; the most casual reading of the book suffices to demonstrate it.’ (p. 89) But Goldner insists that there was more than mere mythology in Melville, there was a concern with a particular myth, that of ‘cosmic kingship’. This, according to Goldner, began with the Egyptian pharaohs and then Alexander and reached its zenith in the sacred founder of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne, but had steadily declined in the face of the development of science and the decline of feudalism into ‘pseudo-sacred’ Emperors like Charles V. The French Revolution with its regicide broke the tradition of ‘cosmic kingship’, and from then on power could only be mythic, with secular ‘heroes’ like Napoleon or Nelson. By the 1840s, when Melville was writing, Goldner argues that there were simply no more heroes worthy of the name left: ‘Napoleon represented a last Ersatz recomposition of mythic unity before being shattered into the fragments of late-nineteenth-century Bonapartist buffoons such as his nephew.’ (p. 91) Moby Dick, contemporaneous then with Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, for Goldner is first and foremost an attack on such legitimations of power. In his portrayal of the Pequod’s captain Ahab, ‘Melville weaves the question of charismatic authority so totally into his story of the destruction of the Pequod that it would not be an exaggeration to characterise Moby Dick as, among other things, a treatise on the origins and decline of the Napoleonic myth’. (p. 23)

Goldner cites a particularly telling paragraph in Moby Dick, Chapter 35, The Mast Head:

Of modern standers-of-mast-heads we have but a lifeless set; mere stone, iron, and bronze men; who, though well capable of facing out a stiff gale, are still entirely incompetent to the business of singing out upon discovering any strange sight. There is Napoleon; who, upon the top of the column of the Vendome, stands with arms folded, some 150 feet in the air; careless, now, who rules the decks below; whether Louis Phillippe, Louis Blanc, or Louis the Devil. Great Washington, too, stands high aloft of his towering main-mast in Baltimore … Admiral Nelson, also, on a capstan of gun-metal, stands his mast-head in Trafalgar Square; and even when most obscured by that London smoke, token is yet given that a hidden hero is there; for where there is smoke, must be fire. But neither great Washington, nor Napoleon, nor Nelson, will answer a single hail from below, however madly invoked to befriend by their counsels the distracted decks upon which they gaze.

The parallels between this and the last lines of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire (the prediction that ‘when the imperial mantle finally falls on the shoulders of Louis Bonaparte, the bronze statue of Napoleon will crash from the top of the Vendome Column’) are noted – as are the parallel use of metaphor and vivid imagery in both Marx and Melville. Yet Goldner not only cites reference after reference to historic ‘Kings’ and ‘Emperors’ throughout Melville’s writings, but he also shows how the personal circumstances of the writer help explain why Melville saw the decline and fall of this myth of cosmic kingship so clearly: ‘What made him virtually unique among the American Renaissance writers of the 1850s was extreme downward social mobility.’ (p. 145) Not only were the Melville family high aristocrats originally, (indeed, his grandmother was apparently descended from the King of Norway), but his grandfathers were men of action in the American Revolution of the mid-1770s. However, Melville was a writer of ‘dispossession’ from this rich past and revolutionary traditions after his father had died a bankrupt when he was only 13 in 1832 and he had been forced to work as a bank clerk. A monotonous and relentlessly dull life of white-collar work and capitalist wage-labour was apparently all that awaited him, one where individuals were doomed to be just cogs in the machine (pp. 8, 148). The young Melville felt an instinctive hatred of bourgeois civilisation.

Yet in the early 1840s, Melville escaped New York and enlisted to see the world through working on ships. His visit to the islands of the South Seas allowed him further to criticise ‘Western civilisation’ though a comparison with the ‘primitive’ islanders he encountered. He was repelled by the impact of Christian missionaries, noting in Typee the ‘diseased, starving and dying’ natives of Hawaii. As he put it: ‘The devoutest Christian who visits that group with an unbiased mind, must go away mournfully asking – “Are these, alas! the fruits of twenty-five years of enlightening?”’ (p. 120) Even witnessing the ‘rather bad trait’ of Polynesian cannibalism prompted Melville in Omoo to ‘ask whether the mere eating of human flesh so very far exceeds in barbarity that only a few years since was practised in enlightened England: a convicted traitor … had his head lopped off with a huge axe, his bowels dragged out and thrown into a fire; while his body, carved into four quarters, was with his head exposed upon pikes, and permitted to rot and fester among the public haunts of men!’ Indeed:

The fiend-like skill we display in the invention of all manner of death-dealing engines, the vindictiveness with which we carry on our wars, and misery and desolation that follow in their train, are enough of themselves to distinguish the white civilised man as the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth. (p. 121)

Melville’s next book, Mardi (1849), now for the first time saw a conscious cosmic dimension enter into his writing as he rose above the purely descriptive accounts of his travels which had been his form of writing up to now. (p. 123) That he was also clearly influenced by the revolutions of 1848 can be seen also in his other novels of this period, Redburn and White-Jacket, which are full of descriptions of class conflict. In White-Jacket, set on board a US warship the Nevermind, when rumours of a war with England sweep the fleet the officers are enthusiastic, but the men are not showing ‘the incurable antagonism in which they dwell’ for ‘how were these officers to gain glory? How but by a distinguished slaughtering of their fellow men. How were they to be promoted? How but over the buried heads of killed comrades and mess mates …’ (p. 134)

Yet it was not until 1851 and Moby Dick that race and class finally came together in Melville to demonstrate that there was an alternative way of organising work and so society without ‘officers’, empires and ‘Kings’ – to be brought about through the mass collective action of those who produce the wealth. As Goldner notes, for Melville ‘the modern labour process in its collective and de-mythified character … is the actual and potential source of a new, directly lived “cosmic imagination” that exceeds in its power anything known in the past. This is a “reading” of Melville which must be pulled carefully out of Moby Dick’, through an examination of his portrayal of the multi-racial crew of the Pequod – as opposed to his portrayal of its ‘officers’. (p. 60) This is from Moby Dick, Chapter 26, Knights and Squires:

If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces … if I shall touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rain-bow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind!

In stressing that the harpooners like Queequeg (a South Sea cannibal), Tashtego (an Indian) and Daggoo (an African), ‘the meanest mariners, renegades, and castaways’ constituted ‘an Anarcharsis Clootz deputation from all the isles of the sea’ (Chapter 27, Moby Dick), Melville, Goldner argues, was going beyond mere democratic humanism. That would be astonishing enough in itself in the America of 1848, still torn apart by the question of slavery. But by referring to Anarcharsis Clootz, a Prussian nobleman who embraced the Great French Revolution and called for one Universal Republic open to all, Melville was consciously returning to the moment when the ‘myth of the cosmic king’ met its decisive end in the regicide of Louis XVI. (p. 104) Moreover, he was alluding to the birth of what he called a new ‘antemosaic’ cosmic man – not only a revolutionary democratic antithesis to the myth of authoritarian cosmic kingship but what Goldner argues is ‘a return on a higher level’ of ‘a ‘cosmic’ sensibility’. (p. 52) Queequeg for Melville was a truly heroic figure in an age of myths and legends. ‘Savage though he was, and hideously marred about the face … you cannot hide the sou l… Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.’ (Chapter 10, Moby Dick) The parallels with Marxist thought with respect to ‘primitive communism’ are examined, with Goldner arguing that:

Melville’s portrayal of [intellectual] Ishmael in the final scene of Moby Dick, swept into the vortex of the maelstrom and then carried back to the surface with Queequeg’s coffin, is a condensed symbolic expression of the ‘supercession’ of the wreckage of the world of the bourgeois ego by a fusion with elements of the primordial past, much as Engels in the final part of The Origin of the Family described communism. (p. 25)

After the ‘failure’ of Moby Dick to impress the world of publishing and the public at the time, Melville, after taking revenge on the literary critics in Pierre (1852), retreated into the world of the ‘sacred’ totality that had preceded the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. He immersed himself in the study of the lost world of Western Christendom to illustrate the transition from warrior monks like the Knights Templar to the ‘pseudo-sacred’ modern lawyers at the Temple Bar. In one passage from a short story in 1853 (which inadvertently also reminds us of the influence of Melville on later American socialist writers like Jack London), Melville described how with the decline of the power of kings, ‘the iron heel is changed to a boot of patent leather; the long two-handed sword to a one-handed quill … the helmet is a wig. Struck by Time’s enchanters wand, the Templar today is a lawyer.’(p. 167) Melville’s ‘medievalism’ comes out again in Clarel (1876), but it is clear that after Moby Dick, Melville had abandoned his hope in a collective revolt by the working class and his dream of seeing the ‘Anarcharsis Clootz deputation’ return. Yet Goldner continues to devote himself to pulling at the ‘thread’ of ‘cosmic kingship’ in Melville’s later writings, pulling until the writer is left exposed to us, a bourgeois ego somewhere ‘between Charlemagne and the Antemosaic Cosmic Man’.

There is much more that could be said about Goldner’s wide-ranging and thought-provoking study, but I have limited myself to try and stress what I see as the new dimension to Melville’s thought that has been illuminated through his stress on the ‘cosmic imagination’ in Moby Dick. His exploration of the relationship of Melville to modernism as it initially emerged as a movement in France after 1848 is also noteworthy, as is his argument for an ‘anthropological’ as opposed to a purely ‘aesthetic’ view of culture. Goldner’s attention to detail with respect to the world of the sacred, cosmic and mythological is impressive, and reinforced with a fascinating discussion about a host of minor and almost forgotten thinkers. One cannot help but be reminded of Marx’s maxim that ‘nothing human is alien to me’, and Goldner’s humanism shines throughout this work.

There are a couple of minor but glaring factual errors. Melville was born in 1819 not 1818 so he was not quite ‘the exact contemporary of Marx’ (pp. 7, 10), and his father died in 1832, not 1831 (p. 9), and Goldner at times seems to assume his readers have already read the relevant work by Melville when making his argument. The classic Marxist study of Moby Dick in my opinion remains that of the late Trinidadian intellectual C.L.R. James. How much Goldner’s thoughts on ‘race, class and the crisis of bourgeois ideology’ in Melville owe to James’ Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1953) will be clear to anyone who reads that work. Yet James’s pioneering work was written in difficult circumstances in the midst of McCarthyism, and parts of it are clearly now outdated. Though this is not the place to discuss Goldner’s Jamesian ‘attempt to outline a “program” for American Marxism understood not from the vantage point of the “Ishmaels” but of the “Queequegs”’, he should be congratulated for bringing what he calls James’ ‘unusual and little-known study’ to the attention of a new generation of anti-capitalists. (p. 25) We should also celebrate a new Marxist study of Herman Melville, whose descriptions in Moby Dick of ‘the meanest mariners, renegades and castaways’ according to C.L.R. James constitute, ‘like all great literature, not only literature but history’.

Christian Hogsbjerg

Updated by ETOL: 30.10.2011