Richard Gray

The Impulse to Believe

Herman Melville: A Biography Volume 2, 1851–1891

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‘He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief,’ Nathaniel Hawthorne once observed of his friend, neighbour and fellow novelist, Herman Melville, ‘and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.’ For Melville, human experience was ruled by contraries. ‘There is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contraries,’ the narrator declares in Moby-Dick. ‘Nothing exists by itself.’ And those contraries were no more evident, he felt, than within each human being, as they struggled to find a basis for truth or faith, something that would really make life worth living. Melville could not resign himself to doubt, or to a placid acceptance of the surfaces of experience. ‘I am intent upon the essence of things,’ he has one of his characters announce in his third novel, Mardi, ‘the mystery that lies beyond … that which is beneath the seeming.’ That speaks for Melville’s own artistic project. What also speaks for that project, however, is an intimation offered by the narrator of Melville’s 1852 novel, Pierre. ‘Far as any geologist has yet gone down in the world,’ he tells the reader,

it is found to consist of nothing but surface stratified on surface. To its axis, the world being nothing but extended superficies. By vast pains we mine into the pyramid; by horrible gropings we come to the central room; with joy we espy the sarcophagus; but we lift the lid – and no body is there! – appallingly vacant as vast is the soul of man!

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