Herman Melville was a deep reader of Sir Thomas Browne,* author of Hydriotaphia and The Garden of Cyrus (both 1658). In the former, what first appears to be little more than a catalogue of historical burial customs slowly rotates into an ironic Ecclesiastean meditation on the meaning of death and the purpose of life. The longer, more mysterious, The Garden of Cyrus gathers together every scrap of knowledge related to the number five that Browne’s disorientingly vast learning can provide. What can it all mean? Browne, playfully, or frustratingly, refuses to say. It means many things to many people. It means everything. Nothing.
Browne’s prose is a magnificently supple instrument, an artistic achievement independent of subject, and Melville’s own prose owes a debt to Browne and many other 17th century writers. But Melville learned something else from Browne. Take any subject – any subject at all – and the imaginative writer can pull and twist and embellish it into something meaningful, or something that appears to be meaningful. Whales, or the sea, or whiteness. Any one is enough to get somewhere. Now, combine them, intertwine them. Make the whale white. Anything you want to find can be found therein.
It’s all a trick, a writerly trick (sorry, technique). Most literary art does something similar – a symbolic structure is created in the hope that some new meaning arises. Few books are as explicit about the technique as Moby-Dick, where an entire alternate symbolic system, “a complete theory of the heavens and earth,” is directly tattooed on one of the characters. Queequeg’s tattoos are “a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them” (Chapter 110). Little wonder, then, if I have trouble reading Melville’s own mysteries, and I suspect that “himself” is not just Queequeg but Melville.
“Great God! But for one single instant show thyself!” Starbuck cries near the end of the book, echoing any number of characters in Clarel. But He does not, or, worse, He does and is unrecognized. Melville’s own search for God included a massive amount of reading, an accumulation of masses of information. The right book, the right combination of books – could they somehow reveal something? What? Some people seem to read books, and even write about them, as some form of time-killing, an alternative to television or crossword puzzles. Not me. But then, why? What am I looking for?
At the end of Moby-Dick, in one of the craziest of crazy moments, the sinking whale ship snags the “sky-hawk” that has been harassing Ahab and drags it into the sea:
And so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it. (Ch. 135)
Moby-Dick is surprisingly well-stocked with archangels, but this one, on the next-to-last page, reminds me of those on back on page 3, the ones who were going to be driven from heaven against the coming of the saintly Sub-Sub-Librarian. So that’s one down, it seems. You’re almost there, you grub-worm of a poor devil of a Sub-Sub. Almost there.
* Please see here for an entire blog centered on Sir Thomas Browne. Please allow that blog to lead you to W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn (1995):
And yet, says Browne, all knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world. (p. 19)