Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thank you Mr. Melville

I recently read an essay by Albert Camus on Herman Melville. In short, Camus found Melville's work to rank up there with some of the greatest books ever written. He wrote about Melville's ability to not only write superior books but to create in those books myths that will last generations. Camus wrote, "if it is true that talent recreates life, while genius has the additional gift of crowning it with myths, Melville is first and foremost a creator of myths." He wrote that Melville's genius made it possible for him to write works that take us on a spiritual journey that help us discover and understand our place in this world. Camus says, " judging Melville's genius, if nothing else, it must be recognized that his works trace a spiritual experience of unequaled intensity..." And again Camus wrote about his works, "These anguished books in which man is overwhelmed, but which life is exalted on each page, are inexhaustible sources of strength and pity. We find in them revolt and acceptance, unconquerable and endless love, the passion for beauty, language of the highest order..." What struck me in Camus' essay is when he spoke about the reception of Melville's work when he (Melville) was still alive. Apparently Melville was not taken seriously as an author while he lived, and after the initial success of his travelogues his popularity declined dramatically. His most famous work, Moby Dick, was considered to be at most a child's book to only be read in school. After the failure of The Confidence Man, Melville went into a self-imposed isolation and quit writing, except for a few poems, for the next thirty some odd years. Camus said that Melville "accepted annihilation", which brings me to point of this post. I spend a lot of time thinking of all the pain and suffering in this world, and more pointedly, how this suffering is often experienced in isolation and obscurity. How many countless, nameless people the world over and how many untold generations have lived and suffered, and no one knows their names or their stories. Are these lives wasted? I find it difficult to believe or accept that all the pain and gratuitous suffering in the world is part of some divine plan or some cosmic experiment. If fact, it seems to me that it would cheapen those lives if all this is just a test. No, I find it much easier to accept that the pain, the suffering, and even the joy and happiness we experience here is just what it is to be alive. Our isolated and often obscure experiences are what make up the bones, and the sinew, and the cell structure of the collective of humanity. The beauty and grandeur of human life is not only found in our isolated experiences, but in the collective experiences of the all of the humanity and through out all of history. Most of our lives are lived out in relative obscurity and, outside of a few close family members, friends, and close contacts, begin and end in a world that doesn't even knowing we were here. How do I account for that mother in Ethiopia who just watched her baby die of hunger? What of the slave who spent his/her entire life from childhood working in some ancient Sumerian mine? What comfort is there for the man in the slums in India who will work to his dieing day without ever knowing what rest is? What is the point of the failure of the son who was unable to be there when his father died? Up to now I have not been able to reconcile any of this, but I think Camus' essay has given me a good starting point. Listen to Camus in this extended quote on Melville, " 'To perpetuate one's name,' Melville said, 'one must carve it on a heavy stone and sink it to the bottom of the sea; depths last longer than heights.' Depths do indeed have their painful virtue, as did the unjust silence in which Melville lived and died, and the ancient ocean he unceasingly ploughed. From their endless darkness he brought forth his works, those visages of foam and night, carved by waters, whose mysterious royalty has scarcely begun to shine up us, though already they help us emerge effortlessly from our continent of shadows to go down at last toward the sea, the light, and its secret." The genius of Melville was to bring myths to life even though that life giving quality was performed in obscurity. I have written before on another essay by Lin Yutang where he exhorts us to live life as a poem, and in Camus' essay I am beginning to put some skin on the bones Yutang presented me. All of our individual lives are collections of short stories, poems, essays, and for some, epic novels. Even though no one may never read my story, I can find some solace in knowing that I, and all those who share and have shared this planet with me, add to the beautiful complexity of this life. We each live in the depths of obscurity, but as Melville pointed out and as his own life was lived out, it is in these depths we find our name and our voice. I know I cannot turn pain, suffering, joy, and happiness into a romantic virtue, and that isn't what I aim to do. I am just trying to understand and find some redemption in it.


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