Sunday, August 11, 2013

He isn't quite a land animal - D. H. Lawrence's Melville

Guess who this is?  D. H. Lawrence launching into Herman Melville in Chapter 10 of his 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature:

Melville has the strange, uncanny magic of sea-creatures, and some of their repulsiveness.  He isn’t quite a land animal.  There is something slithery about him.  Something always half-seas-over.  In his life they said he was mad – or crazy.  He was neither mad nor crazy.  But he was over the border.  He was half a water-animal, like those terrible yellow-bearded Vikings who broke out of the waves in beaked ships.  (139, 1977 Penguin edition)

So this is one highly distinctive writer on another, one eccentric stylist enjoying another.  The book is uncompromisingly Lawrentian, I will say that.  Did Lawrence have any insights into Herman Melville, or any other American writers, or were they just subjects for his riffs?  Yes, lots of insights, some of which are now so commonplace as to be almost invisible.  But, yes.

This is the end of the same chapter.  You can see why I raised some doubts:

Melville was, at the core, a mystic and an idealist.

Perhaps, so am I.

And he stuck to his ideal guns.

I abandon mine.

He was a mystic who raved because the old ideal guns shot havoc.  The guns of the ‘noble spirit’. Of ‘ideal love’.

I say, let the old guns rot.

Get new ones, and shoot straight.  (152)

Literary criticism by means of metaphor, with Lawrence himself right up front.

Lawrence gives Melville two of his twelve little chapters, a favor he also grants to Cooper and Hawthorne (so, yes, Cooper, Hawthorne and Melville are, by weight, half of the American literature that interests Lawrence).  The first chapter covers Typee and Omoo, Melville’s first two books, fictionalized accounts of his adventures in the South Seas, and he really did have one crazy adventure.  The second chapter in on Moby-Dick.  No “Bartleby,” no poetry, no Billy Budd, which would not be published for another year.  Melville’s name had survived, to the extent that it had, as a kind of travel writer, so those first two titles were the ones that were still read.  Only a few connoisseurs knew about Moby-Dick.  Lawrence was one of them.

His chapter on Moby-Dick is largely an extended, oddly inflected plot summary, with long quotations from the novel.  Lawrence cannot assume that any of his readers have read the novel or have any real idea of what is in it.  So that fills his space.  Lawrence was writing at the very beginning of the Melville Revival, so  Studies in Classic American Literature is part of the revival, part of the reason Moby-Dick is now a famous book.  Thus, the obviousness of many of the insights – yes, everyone knows that now.

The strangest thing is that Lawrence had not read the entire novel.  The English edition was originally published without the last page, which is also the short last chapter.  That last bit does explain a thing or two.  Lawrence seems to have known only this mangled version.  The ship sinks, dragging an eagle-angel down into the sea with it, and:

So ends one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world, closing up its mystery and its tortured symbolism.  It is an epic of the sea such as no man has equalled; and it is a book of esoteric symbolism of profound significance, and of considerable tiresomeness.

But it is a great book, a very great book, the greatest book of the sea ever written.  It moves awe in the soul.  (168)

I hope that, after Classic Studies was published, one of Lawrence’s American friends was able to supply him with that last page.


  1. Does Lawrence attribute any grand symbolic meaning to the whale? Part of a Lawrencian force of nature thing maybe?

  2. Good question. The answer surprised me: no. I think Lawrence is treading lightly, aware that he is introducing the novel to his readers. He is not afraid to forcefully interpret James Fenimore Cooper or The Scarlet Letter.

    "Of course he [the white whale] is a symbol.

    Of what?

    I doubt if even Melville knew exactly. That's the best of it." (Ch. 11, p. 153)

    1. Hey, that's good. Because Ishmael's (at least) sympathy for the whales varies from episode to episode, doesn't it? Moby-Dick is some demon from the deep, but the old whale that Stubb harpoons, throwing the lance into an old wound, is considered to have been treated cruelly by Starbuck. No one pauses to consider that the great white whale has been wounded cruelly many times by whalers; he's just a Bad Fish, and there's a gold piece for the man who spots him first. I need to read this book again.

  3. Sort of, yes. Ishmael has infiltrated the Pequod as an agent of Leviathan / Tiamat, and is thus an ally of Moby-Dick in the battle against Ahab, agent of Yahweh / Baal. It is not clear why Leviathan wants or needs an agent - perhaps just to bear witness. Also not clear if Ishmael understands his own role in the cosmic battle.

    Dangedest thing is that this is actually in the novel.

    I would like to write - or I mean I would like to have written - a novel titled and about The Death of Moby-Dick. The protagonist is Moby-Dick.

  4. I love to read the rumination that one artist or thinker has about another.

    I am not sure what Lawrence meant by abandoning is own guns?

    That quote on Moby Dick is phenomenal. The mention of "tiresomeness" really makes it.

  5. Interesting that "Moby-Dick" was virtually unknown in the mid 1920s (when DHL wrote about it); and yet, some 30 years later, Somerset Maugham, whose taste in literature was very conservative, had no hesitation including it in his "Ten Great Novels and their Authors", alongside such warhorses as "David Copperfield" and "Pride and Prejudice".

    I reread "Moby-Dick" last year, hoping this time to understand it. I didn't. I now think you aren't meant to. To paraphrase Neils Bohr on another matter - if you think you understand "Moby-Dick", you don't. I think DHL is perfectly correct when he writes this:

    "Of course he [the white whale] is a symbol.

    Of what?

    I doubt if even Melville knew exactly. That's the best of it."

  6. I had wondered if I would need more sympathy for Lawrence to appreciate this book, but no, if anything it created sympathy. But "D. H. Lawrence" is a big concept. He changed so quickly; he wrote so many books.

    As for those guns, I don't know. Those are the risks of criticism-by-metaphor.

    It is a rare and unusual talent to create literature that is so full of meaning yet radically ambiguous that it is almost uninterpretable. Melville, Kafka, Dickinson. Some others. Not too many others. Shakespeare, of course, but he belongs on every list.