Herman Melville & German Philosophy

Henry A. Pochmann

HERMAN MELVILLE
(1819-1891)

Literary Background

Ishmael’s observation that a whale-ship had been his Yale College and his Harvard, too, has helped inspire the myth that as a young man Melville learned little about books. But overlooked is Ishmael’s declaration that while he sailed through oceans, he also swam through libraries. 235 The publication of Typee (1846), a scant two years after his return from the South Seas, suggests that there was somewhere a preparation and literary foreground. 236 To be sure, he had still to write, partly to get them out of his system, his travel romances; but the germs of Mardi, Moby-Dick, and Pierre were already lodged in his brain. After the pap and pablum of his earlier “trash,” as he styled his first books—“written to buy tobbacco with” 237 —he turned his back on light fiction and set off on his voyagings in the untracked seas among the Mardian islands: on voyagings that led from one metaphysical abyss to another. Already predisposed to speculation, he was plunged into the world of books and literati represented by the Duyckincks, who placed their libraries at his disposal. 238 Whatever he missed during his earlier years was made up by indefatigable reading after 1844, though it may be observed that this eager investigation of bookish lore brought him little peace of mind but only mounting rage at the necessity under which philosophy, including the Kantian criticism, put him to regard truth as dual, casting two shadows—one earthly, the other heavenly.

Interest in Religion and Philosophy

If anything was lacking before he wrote Moby-Dick to turn his attention to German thought, the necessary stimulation came during his trip to Europe in the autumn of 1849. On the second day aboard the Southampton, Melville met “some very pleasant passengers,” chief among whom were George J. Adler, lexicographer and Professor of German at New York University, and Dr. Franklin Taylor, a cousin of the translator of Faust—both of whom were versed in German philosophy. Adler immediately struck Melville as a capital fellow whose learning placed no barriers in the way of free intercourse, despite Melville’s inexpert dialectical powers. On the day he met Adler, Melville “walked the deck with . . . [him], till a late hour, talking of ‘Fixed Fate, Free-Will, foreknowledge absolute,’ etc.” Sizing up Adler as a “Coleridgean,” he made this erudite linguist, “full of German metaphysics and discourses of Kant, Swedenborg, etc.,” his “principal companion.” There were evenings when, says Melville, “Adler and Taylor came into my room, and it was proposed to have whiskey punches. . . We had an extraordinary time and did not break up till after two in the morning. We talked of metaphysics continually, and Hegel, Schlegel, Kant, etc., were discussed under the influence of the whiskey.” These gaudeola, varied by whist, mock trials, and other jollifications were oft-repeated throughout the voyage, during all of which the slightest excuse “Got—all of us—riding on the German horse again." 239

We know little about the precise contents of Melville’s library, or when and where the accessions were made; but knowing something of the philosophical problems that tantalized him and that form the crux of Moby-Dick and Pierre, we can understand why visitors to Arrowhead were struck by his “well-stocked library.” 240 Apparently works of German authors included were not numerous; 241 yet somewhere along the way he picked up an acquaintance with at least the general significance of German transcendental philosophy and Biblical criticism. When, during 1856-1857, he visited the Holy Land, he found his mind “sadly and suggestively affected” by “the indifference of Nature and Man”242 to all that should make Jerusalem sacred, and disenchanted by that “great curse of modern . . . skepticism.” He charged men like Niebuhr and Strauss with having generated and encouraged it, and added, “Heartily wish Niebuhr and Strauss to the dogs.—The deuce take their penetration and acumen.”243

This is but one instance among many of Melville’s inability to choose between the Will to Believe and the Desire to Know”244 — a harassing indecision that sent him roaming through pagan and Christian philosophies, ancient and modern, to his own bewilderment. 245 The moderns, from Bacon to Schopenhauer, especially interested him because they were presumed to have had the last word.246 Of the Germans, he appears to have known most about Kant.247 How much of German philosophy he read in translation we have no way of knowing exactly, but it would seem odd, considering his rather systematic analysis of English thought from Bacon to Hume and his great interest in Schopenhauer, had he neglected Kant and Hegel altogether. It may be, of course, that he felt the conversations he had with men like Adler and Taylor sufficed for his purposes; but it seems more likely that by the time he wrote Moby-Dick (certainly by the time he considered the ambiguous moral problems of Pierre), he had either consulted Kant at first hand or had pondered long on what his informants had told him. Even earlier, Melville had mentioned Kant in Redburn and in Mardi, 248 in the latter book making Bardianna (whose whimsicalities and profundities Babbalanja is fond of quoting at length249) the mouthpiece of Kant.250

Mardi, the first of Melville’s deeper books represents Taji-Melville following religious truth and political justice through all known and unknown parts of the world and finding both forever eluding him. His traveling companions elect to remain among the Serenians, in the land of Alma-Christ, which is governed by the laws of Christian love. They rest content in Christian faith. Taji finds their uncritical acceptance of faith, untested and unconfirmed by the absolute reason, incapable of satisfying his inquiring mind.

The problem at the beginning of Melville’s quest concerns social justice, but it soon involves the nature of God, man’s divinity, his immortality, moral nature, free will, evil. Questions regarding all these become explicit in Mardi, but none is solved. In the end it is explained, by those who find faith and “provisional” truth sufficient, that these final questions involve secrets which Oro-God guards. To divulge them would make man equal to God in knowledge, thus destroying the distinction between the human and the divine. Not content with this answer, which seems to Taji-Melville an evasion, he seizes the helm of his boat and, fixing his eye on eternity, steers for the outer ocean, to re-emerge in Moby-Dick as the questing, avenging spirit of Ahab determined to dispel the mysteries by reducing them to knowledge or to pull down heaven in the attempt. It was inevitable that sooner or later Melville’s questions respecting God, immortality, and freedom would lead to the crucial one underlying all problems affecting the Ideas of the Reason, namely, the epistemological one which Kant had considered in his two Critiques. Melville saw that all answers must remain tentative until the validity of the Reason itself is established: all ontological problems, for example, remained riddles until the legitimacy of the reason to reduce its Ideas to knowledge is validated. Accordingly when Ahab rants and raves against the inscrutability of the universe, what tantalizes him is not merely that he lacks the ability either to prove or to disprove the validity of the Ideas of the Reason; what particularly torments him is that, though he grinds away at the nut of the universe until it cracks his jaws, he finds himself baffled at the very outset by his inability to prove Reason itself capable of acquiring absolute knowledge on these high matters. It is not only that he finds himself confronted at every turn by the chasm that separates mind and matter but that the mind itself seems incapable of marking clearly the grounds, limits, and validity of human knowledge. Everywhere Ahab sees himself confronted by the grinning masks of subtle, elusive inscrutability.251 The quenchless feud which he feels, and which Melville confesses “seemed mine,”252 is against these masks, all incarnate in the white whale:

All visible objects . . . are but pasteboard masks. . . . If a man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. . . . I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.253

The conclusion of the book, couched though it be in allegorical action instead of abstract proposition or syllogism, is, for every practical purpose, the same as that of Kant’s first Critique. The marriage of mind and matter remains unconsummated, and human reason remains forever incapable of reducing its Ideas to scientific knowledge. It is hard to believe that Ahab had not pondered Kant’s argument, and that the Kantian examination of the antinomies did not lend argument and illustration to the thought that Melville incorporated in the story of the whale hunt.

While Kant relegated the purely speculative reason to a position of exercising regulative functions only, at the same time denying it any constitutive powers, he had insisted that the results of his criticism were not altogether negative. Unable to supply us with knowledge of God, immortality, and freedom, nevertheless it is a gain if, in its purely regulative province, the Pure Reason can criticize and test our ideas affecting supersensible qualities if they come to us from some other source. There Kant might have stopped. But he was loath to rest his case on a purely theoretical or speculative basis, and was impelled, by a practical human desire as a moral and religious being, to re-examine the entire problem from the point of view of Practical Reason—on the basis of moral will. The result was the Critique of Practical Reason, in which he affirmed, in the realm of the practice of ideas, what, in the purely speculative or theoretical sphere, he had logically been compelled to deny. And it is worth noting that Melville’s next step, in its broader aspects, parallel’s Kant’s second.

Although Ahab ended disastrously in his attempt to carry the turrets of heaven by escalade, Melville tried, in his next book, to have Pierre test the adequacy and validity of moral law. Having failed in the purely theoretical, he would test the practical sphere of rational activity. The difference between Melville and Kant here is that Melville still seeks for what he calls “the Ultimate of Human Speculative Knowledge,”254 that is, he demands of moral truth the same finality which Kant had proved impossible in the first Critique, and simply posited in the second.255 The result is that Pierre is befooled by Truth, Virtue, and Fate, and that he concludes “it is not for man to follow the trail of truth too far, since by so doing he entirely loses the directing compass of his mind.” For like the Arctic explorer, when he finally reaches the pole, to whose barrenness the needle of his compass has led him, he finds that the needle “indifferently respects all points of the horizon alike.”256 The subtitle of the book is, appropriately, “The Ambiguities.” The answers are all ambiguous.257 Different as this conclusion is from that of Kant’s second Critique, there is still the singular parallelism of both men’s examining the problem of knowledge on identical levels— the metaphysical and the moral—in a manner to suggest that Melville was not unaware of Kant’s example.258 The influence of Kant on Melville is not one of clear-cut concepts or precise propositions, but rather one of Melville’s understanding and applying the main or broad conclusions of the Kantian criticism. His interpretation of Kant, as voiced by Babbalanja, Taji, Ahab, and Pierre, is that Kant had marked the boundaries of “the Empire of Human Knowledge.”259 Rightly or wrongly interpreted, Kant furnished Melville with the backbone upon which to build his anatomy of despair.260

Among German literary figures Melville had, with a few notable exceptions, little acquaintance. As has already been noted, he bought in 1849 a copy of Schiller’s Poems and Ballads; in 1851, writing to Hawthorne, he mentioned Schiller’s advocacy of an aristocracy of the mind, but added, “I don’t know much of him,”261 In the case of Goethe, the situation was different, for Melville paid a good deal of attention to Goethe and was alternately attracted and repulsed by him. “As with all great genius,” he concluded, “there is an immense deal of flummery in Goethe, and in proportion to my own contrast with him, a monstrous deal of it in me.”262 As regards the other German writers, convincing arguments have been presented by Professor Leon Howard (1) that Fouqué’s Undine supplied more than a suggestion for Melville’s conception of Yillah in Mardi, and (2) that Melville’s flower symbolism (in Mardi as well as the rose imagery of his later poems) derives from that of Fouqué, Tieck, Novalis, and others of the German Romantiker.263

Melville was attracted to German thought in much the same way that Emerson was drawn to it—by the hope that it would help him in the problem of squaring his heart by his head. Like Emerson, too, he contented himself largely with information derived at second hand, and seldom got beyond the comprehension of general tendencies, except perhaps in individual tenets of Kant, in whom, be it observed, he only found his worst fears substantiated. For where Emerson felt German speculative efforts to constitute an affirmative Yea to human questionings, Melville interpreted their conclusions to be an Everlasting Nay.  “A pondering man,” as he styled himself, unwilling to accept “the infinite cliffs and gulfs of human mystery and misery” that Dante first revealed to him,264 he groped about in Kantian epistemology and Goethean “pantheism” and found that after vast pains of mining the pyramid, “with joy we espy the sarcophagus; but we lift the lid— and nobody is there!—appallingly vacant, as vast as the soul of man.“265


Notes

235.  Moby-Dick, I, 139, 167. All references are to the Standard edition, 16 vols., London, 1922-1924. [—> main text]

236.  The extraordinary range of literary and historical allusion in his “Fragments from a Writing Desk,” composed seven years before Typee, suggests that the young man was no stranger to books. His brief subjection to the classical curriculum of the Albany Academy laid the foundation for the knowledge of the classics which his later writings reveal, and it may be presumed that he read somewhat during the years from 1837 to 1841, when he taught school in New York and Massachusetts. It has been suggested that books, among them Otto von Kotzebue’s New Voyage Round the World (1830), first aroused what Melville called his “everlasting itch for things remote” which sent him a-whaling in the first place, thus preparing him for his writing career. While the whaling adventure was primarily an education by experience, his signing on the Lucy Ann on the return voyage threw him much in the company of Dr. Long Ghost (John B. Troy ?), a colorful adventurer and “a capital fellow to finish Melville’s education."—R. M. Weaver, Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic (N.Y., 1921), p. 218. Dr. Long Ghost was an educated man who had enjoyed having and spending money, had cultivated a fine taste for wines, and had associated with gentlemen. During the long hours of the night, Melville found him a boon companion; he could quote Vergil, talk learnedly of Hobbes of Malmesbury, and repeat poetry by the canto (see Omoo, pp. 13-15). “He was himself a picaresque library, and he who ran with him had much to read.” —Weaver, op. cit., p. 53. Later, aboard the U.S. frigate United States, Melville found not only the raw materials for White-Jacket but a man named “Nord,” in whose eyes Melville recognized at once ‘a reader of good books . . . an earnest thinker,” who had “been bolted in the mill of adversity.” With Nord, he “scoured all the prairies of reading, dived into the bosom of authors, and tore out their hearts.”—White­Jacket, p. 63. For a suggestive account of how Melville came, even during his experience on the United States, to appreciate philosophical books in a manner to learn to do a little “prancing” of his own “on Coleridge’s High German horse,” see Ch. XLI of White-Jacket, pp. 207-9. Thus was born the writer Melville who described himself as “a pondering man,” and who professed, “I have swam through libraries and sailed through oceans."—Weaver, op. cit., p. 339; Moby-Dick, I, 167. [—> main text]

237.  Journal up the Straits . . . ed. by R. M. Weaver (N.Y., 1935), Introduction, p. v. [—> main text]

238.  Evert Duyckinck’s choice collection of 17,000 volumes and the lists of “Books Lent” that Duyckinck kept give us some insight into the use Melville made of his opportunities. For suggestive details regarding his reading, see Willard Thorp (ed), Melville. Representative Selections . . . (N.Y., 1938), pp. xxv-xxviii; Luther S. Mansfield, Herman Melville, Author and New Yorker 1844-1851 (Chicago, 1938), pp. 189-208; Wm. Braswell, Melville’s Religious Thought . . . (Durham. N.C., 1943), pp. 3-18; K. H. Sundermann, Herman Melvilles Gedankengut . . . (Berlin, 1937); and esp. Jay Leyda, The Melville Log (2 vols., N.Y., 1951), I, 193ff. It requires no great effort to gauge the impact of his rapidly widening familiarity with books as it is manifested in the greater allusiveness and the tendency toward philosophical allegory in Mardi of 1849 and White-Jacket of 1850. It is this quickening of his philosophical perceptions that Melville referred to when he told Hawthorne: “From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then [1844] and now, that I have not unfolded within myself. “—Julian Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife (2 vols., Boston, 1884), I, 405. [—> main text]

239.  Leyda, op. cit., I, 319-23; Weaver, Melville, pp. 285, 286-89. With Adler he sketched “a plan for going down the Danube from Vienna to Constantinople; thence to Athens by the steamer; to Beyrout and Jerusalem— Alexandria and the Pyramids.” While these plans came to naught for lack of money, they stuck together throughout Melville’s stay in England, and subsequently Adler turned up in Paris to help Melville over his difficulties with French and to resume their talks of “high German metaphysics.” Melville’s brief Rhineland tour was rendered cheerless after Adler’s departure and of little profit to him so far as acquiring much of the German spirit goes; but back in London his haunting the bookshops may be presumed to have been inspired partly by a desire to provide himself with the materials more expertly to “ride the high German horse.” Among books acquired were no German titles, for Melville knew no German; but it may well be that his purchase in London of Goethe’s Autobiography and his Letters from Italy (both in the Bohn edition), coupled with his meeting Bayard Taylor soon after his return, stimulated his interest in Goethe. Another German book purchased at the time was Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy, subsequently referred to a number of times in his writings—Weaver, Melville, pp. 298-99. 301-2, 304; Mansfield, op. cit., p. 199. [—> main text]

In the spring of 1857, on the return trip from the Holy Land, Melville made a leisurely and more enjoyable tour of Germany. He crossed Switzerland from Lake Maggiore and entered Germany at Basel, proceeded to Heidelberg and Frankfurt (where the places of Goethe interest fascinated him), and thence down the Rhine to Amsterdam—Journal up the Straits, pp. 166-71.

240.  Weaver, Melville, p. 308. [—> main text]

241.  For his reading of German authors he appears to have relied largely upon the Duyckinck, the New York Library Society, and other New York collections. Something, we may be sure, came to him by way of Carlyle. several of whose books he owned and several others of which he borrowed from Duyckinck, but whom he does not mention in his writings, though the marks of Carlyle’s influence are everywhere, especially in Pierre. See R. S. Forsythe (ed), Pierre (N.Y., 1941), pp. xxxvi-xxxvii. He learned still more about German thought from Coleridge, whom he repeatedly mentions. See White-Jacket, pp. 63, 193, 207; Moby-Dick, I, 236-37; Billy Budd, p. 389; and the diary, quoted by Weaver, Melville, p. 285; also Braswell, op. cit., pp. 20, 108. In London, in 1849, he acquired the Bulwer Lytton translation of The Poems and Ballads of Schiller, and shortly after his return from abroad, borrowed Evert Duyckinck’s two-volume (London, 1845) edition of Jean Paul’s Flower, Fruit, and Thorn Pieces; also Sartor Resartus, Heroes and Hero-Worship and Carlyle’s versions of Wilhelm Meister and German Romance. In 1862 he bought and read Madame de Staël’s Germany in a New York edition of 1859, underscoring (and commenting upon) various passages in her discussion of Goethe’s Elective Affinities that confirmed his own doubts about human intellectual profundity.—Mansfield, op. cit., pp. 199, 206; Braswell, op. cit., p. 15; Leyda, op. cit., II, 651. During the last years of his life he acquired seven volumes of Schopenhauer’s works (then being made available in English) and marked numerous passages apparently consonant with his own views, but they came too late to exert any influence on his more characteristic writings. For details, see Braswell, op. cit., pp., 117, 144, n. 49. [—> main text]

242.  Journal up the Straits, pp. 79-80. [—> main text]

243.  Strauss’s Life of Jesus, says Melville, has robbed the pilgrim to the Holy Land of much that was formerly sacred—Ibid., pp. 107-8.     Clarel, which represents his mature deliberations on the conflict between knowledge and faith, science and religion, often returns to the same theme. See Clarel, I, 136; also Moby-Dick, II, 106; Weaver, Melville, p. 360; and Wm. E. Sedgwick, Herman Melville. The Tragedy of Mind (Cambridge, Mass., 1945), pp. 208-14. [—> main text]

244.  It was this torn state of mind that Hawthorne came to know well in his friend while they lived near each other in the Berkshires, and when they sometimes “talked ontological heroics together’ and argued “about time and eternity, things of this world and the next, and books, and publishers, and all possible and impossible matters . . . deep into the night."—Julian Hawthorne, op. cit.. I, 400, 415. And it was this same perplexity of mind that Hawthorne commented on sadly five years later when Melville visited him in Liverpool, just before embarking for the Near East, as the result of Melville’s long wandering over the deserts of speculation and his inability either to believe or to “be comfortable in his unbelief.”— Ibid., II, 535. [—> main text]

245.  Miss Nathalia Wright has counted some 600 Biblical references in Melville’s prose writings. See Amer. Lit., XII, ii (May, 1940), 185. He referred to St. Augustine on original guilt; he was brought up on Calvin; he wrote familiarly of Luther and Melanchthon, he read John and Jeremy Taylor, Fuller, Burton, Browne, Massillon, Tillotson, Bayle. Montaigne. Voltaire, Paine, Volney, Herbert of Cherbury, Edwards, and Ethan Allen; and he searched Dante and Milton for their contributions to his problems. He had some knowledge of Polynesian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Persian religions, and he avowed a special interest in the position of evil in Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Parseeism. There are also references to the early Christian heretics, the Gnostics, and the Marcionites. He wrote familiarly of Mohammed and the Koran years before he went to the Holy Land, and there are “incidental references to Egyptian, Assyrian, Chinese, and Norse beliefs and an abundance of references to Greek and Roman mythologies."—Braswell, op. cit., pp. 11-14, 18. [—> main text]

246.  He knew something of Baconian utilitarianism and Spinoza’s pantheism. He wrote of Hobbes as if he knew a great deal about him; he commented at length on the Lockean rejection of innate ideas; he referred to Berkeley on matter, Edwards on will, and Priestley on necessity; he praised Homes skepticism, and in his copy of Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Idea he heavily underscored a passage which reads: ‘From every page of David Hume there is more to be learned than from the collected philosophical works of Hegel, Herbart, and Schleiermacher together.’ ‘—Braswell, op. cit., pp. 14, 15, and notes. [—> main text]

247.  In his copy of World as Will and Idea. (I, xi). he marked Schopenhauer’s passage on the significance of Kant, and opposite a passage in his copy of Literature and Dogma, in which Arnold spoke of ‘something splay. something blunt-edged, unhandy, and infelicitous” in the German mind as well as in the language, he wrote “True” (ibid., p. 15), whence we conclude that he was not overfond of German ways of thought, though he knew too little German to have formed an intelligent opinion based on his own reading of the German philosophers in their own language. [—> main text]

248.  Redburn, p. 254; Mardi, I, 14. [—> main text]

249.  Mardi, I, 230, 244, 325, 339, 366-69; II, 37, 86-87, 104, 140-42, 160-161, 189, 212, 255, 298-303, 309-11, 329. Other notable references to Kant, aside from the satirical passages on the post-Kantians and the British and American disciples, occur in Moby-Dick, II, 59; Pierre, pp. 372, 390-92, 409, 418; and in his diary, quoted in Weaver, Melville, pp. 285, 288. [—> main text]

250.  Thus it would appear that Melville knew something about Kantian thought some time before he met Professor Adler and Dr. Taylor. The tone of dissatisfaction with German metaphysics and the satirical note that characterizes several of his references to the Transcendentalists is doubtless indicative less of disrespect for Kant or critical transcendentalism than of impatience with abstruse philosophy of whatever kind that leads to no positive conclusion or that pretends to more than it achieves. Although he had come to suspect, when he wrote Mardi, that the question “What is Truth? is more final than any answer” (Mardi, I, 329), as a voyager in the “World of Mind” he dared not overlook any readings or bearings by which he might steer a safe course among the Mardian Isles. [—> main text]

251.  Moby-Dick, I, 234-44 passim. [—> main text]

252.  Ibid., I, 222. [—> main text]

253.  Ibid., I, 204. [—> main text]

254.  Pierre, p. 233. [—> main text]

255.  At least, Melville’s outburst (ibid., p. 421) against “practical unreason” seems to indicate as much. [—> main text]

256.  Ibid., p. 231; see also pp. 384, 473, 499. [—> main text]

257.  Pierre’s experiences serve but to confirm what Melville had said to Hawthorne: “Perhaps, after all, there is no secret . . . [and] the Problem of the Universe is like the Freemason’s mighty secret, so terrible to all children. It turns out, at last, to consist of a triangle, a mallet, and an apron, —nothing more. ‘—Julian Hawthorne, op. cit., I, 388. Truth, Melville concluded, lies at the bottom of an endless spiral staircase, concealed by the endlessness of the spirals and the blackness of the shaft. See Pierre, p. 402; also pp. 397, 421, 472. [—> main text]

258.  After coming to another impasse in Pierre, Melville shrank within himself. While he continued, as Hawthorne observed, to wander to and fro in the “dismal and monotonous" metaphysical regions, and on occasions to regale his friends and visitors with philosophical monologues in the Coleridgean manner, his will to believe appears to have effected at least a partial triumph by the time he wrote Clarel (1876), in which he heaps scorn upon Jewish Margoth, a shallow scientist, who, in his insensibility to spiritual values, declares that “All’s mere geology,” while an ass brays confirmation (Clarel, I, 350; see also p. 329; Julian Hawthorne, op. cit., II, 135; Braswell, op. cit., pp. 108, 110-20; and Weaver, Melville, pp. 16, 351). At all events, when, during the last year of his life, he wrote Billy Budd, he penned what has been called his “testament of acceptance.” See E. L. G. Watson, “Melville’s Testament of Acceptance,” New Engl. Quar., VI (June, 1933), 319-27.  The daemonic titanism of Ahab has given way before a sense of resignation to the inscrutable laws of the universe and acquiescence in the wisdom of God that remains still past man’s finding out, but that is no longer hateful. In what degree this change of heart is attributable to the growing influence upon him of the Christian tradition, the mediating and humanizing experiencing of life and old age, a re-examination of and a pondering upon Kantian ethics, or other influences is conjectural.

What can be asserted with fair assurance is that his heaping of abuse upon the “new Apostles . . . muttering Kantian categories through teeth and lips dry and dusty as any miller’s, with the crumbs of Graham crackers” (Pierre, p. 418) proceeds less from any dissatisfaction with Kant than from the persistence of certain “reconcilers” of the “Optimist” or “Compensation” school (ibid., p. 385)—that is, philosophers who pretend to have found the talismanic secret. The group includes all those from Plato and Spinoza to Goethe and Emerson “and many more” who belong to “this guild of self-impostors,” together with “a preposterous rabble of Muggletonian Scots and Yankees, whose vile brogue still the more bespeaks the stripedness of their Greek and German Neoplatonic originals” (ibid., p. 290). It is noteworthy that Kant is never mentioned in this company. He probably had in mind men like Fichte, Schelling, and Schleiermacher among the Germans, and Carlyle and Emerson among Scotch and Yankee disciples. The transcendentalist philosopher Plotinus Plinlimnon in Pierre, the spineless Rev. Mr. Falsgrave in the same book, and the chaplain in White-Jacket, who is genial, well bred, and learned in Plato and in the German philosophers, but who preaches sermons wholly unsuited to the crew—these are not attacks on Kant but on false disciples and traducers of honest divers after the truth like Kant. But even Emerson, whose optimism Melville could not stomach, and whose reputation for expounding unintelligible “transcendentalisms, myths and oracular gibberish” had predisposed Melville to question his sincerity— even this Emerson, granted that he be a humbug, seemed to Melville “no common humbug”. For the sake of argument (he wrote to Evert Duyckinck) let us call Emerson a fool: “Then had I rather be a fool than a wise man—I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more    He does not credit Emerson precisely with this ability, but he improves the occasion to honor “the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving and coming up again with blood-shot eyes since the world began.” (See Thorp, op. cit., pp. 371-72). For Melville, Kant was one of those thought-divers, and there is not an instance among the dozens of passages that belittle his disciples of all kinds which impugns Kant’s sincerity or depreciates his philosophic abilities, The passage in Moby-Dick (II, 59), in which Melville recommends that Ahab, rather than balance Locke against Kant, throw both overboard if he wishes the Pequod to “float light and right,” is not so much a condemnation of either Locke or Kant, or both, as an expression of discontent with all philosophy. It is of the same order as Emerson’s asking, “Who has not looked into a metaphysical book? And what sensible man ever looked twice?"—Works, II, 438. [—> main text]

259.  Pierre, p. 233. [—> main text]

260.  Of the German post-Kantians Melville appears to have known little beyond what he learned from his conversations with Taylor and Adler respecting them. Schleiermacher and the Schlegels are mentioned once, and Schelling not at all; there are in Moby-Dick (II, 190) and notably in Mardi (I, 268; II, 279; see also Julian Hawthorne, op. cit., I, 387-88) passages emphasizing the Ego in a manner suggesting Fichte, but the ideas need not have come directly trom Fichte. A single reference to Hegel is made en passant in Clarel (I, 246) and has no particular significance. Herder is passed over altogether. Zimmermann on solitude is twice mentioned in The Confidence Man—pp. 75, 180. [—> main text]

There is some concern with pseudo-scientists like Lavater, whose Physiognomy Melville purchased in 1850. Lavater is directly mentioned several times (Mardi, I, 294; II, 227; Moby-Dick, II, 81, 83; Redburn, p. 351), and there are some allusions to his characteristic ideas (Mardi, I, 113; Moby-Dick, II, 83; Pierre, p. 109; The Confidence Man, p. 309; Clarel, II, 56). The same is true of Gall, Spurzheim, and Mesmer) Mardi, II, 227; Moby-Dick, II, 81; Billy Budd, pp. 72-73; Meade Minnigerode, Some Personal Letters of Herman Melville, N.Y., 1922, p. 75), but concern with phrenology, physiognomy, and mesmerism in the periodical literature of the day and popular interest in them was so widespread that no special importance attaches to such references as Melville makes to them.

261.  Julian Hawthorne, op. cit., I, 401. In 1856, in Constantinople, he recalled Schiller’s Ghostseer (Journal up the Straits, p.32), and four years later he reread some of Schiller’s ballads (Sundermann, op. cit., p. 111). In The Confidence Man (p. 251) he expressed some doubt about Schiller’s tenet that “beauty is at bottom incompatible with ill.” A final reference occurs in his lecture on “Travelling.” See also Leon Howard. Herman Melville. A Biography (N.Y., 1951), p. 333. Obviously Schiller did not provide a vitally inspiring force for Melville. [—> main text]

262.  Julian Hawthorne, op. cit., I, 406. Professor Leon Howard (op. cit., pp. 171, 179, 194; also p. 299) finds unmistakable evidence that Melville read Goethe’s Autobiography with special reference to his own inner unfolding while he pondered the allegorical ambiguities of Mardi, Moby-Dick, and Pierre. He alludes to Eckermann’s Gesprache several times (Mardi, I, 204; Moby-Dick, I, xix; II, 119; Pierre, p. 284); he mentions Werther twice (Clarel, p. 284; The Confidence Man, p. 22); and he appears thoroughly familiar with Faust (Mardi, I, 45; White-Jacket, p. 23; Moby-Dick, I, 174; Israel Potter, p. 163; The Confidence Man, p. 223; Billy Budd, p. 315). He repeats Goethe’s “See Naples, and—then die!” from the Italian letters (Poems, p. 384), and Dr. Sundermann has discovered a similarity between Goethe’s “Mohamets Gesang” and Melville’s poem “The Muster” (Poems, pp. 108-9), written in 1865. Following an argument in Clarel (II, 12-13) turning upon the Christian concept of Heaven as a haven for the oppressed, the theme of love as presented in the Sermon on the Mount, and evil in human nature, Melville remarks: “We’ve touched a theme! From which the club and lyceum swerve, / Nor Herr von Goethe would esteem.” Here is reflected the popular American conception of Goethe as a worldly, hedonistic pagan, characterized by Pierre as a “gold-laced virtuoso” and an “inconceivable coxcomb” (Pierre, pp. 421-22; but see Moby-Dick, II, 119).

Goethe’s claim that he found the “Talismanic Secret” but proves Goethe a pretentious quack who belongs, with Plato and Spinoza, to the “guild of self-imposters” (Pierre, p. 290). Hateful as he found Goethe’s “pantheism,” he found even more detestable his optimism: “Goethe’s ‘Live in the all”’ leads him to expostulate, “What nonesense!” Yet he added this postscript: “This ‘all’ feeling, though, there is some truth in it. You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth.... This is the all feeling. But what plays the mischief with the truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion."—Julian Hawthorne, op. cit., I, 406. Here speaks Melville the intellectual skeptic who has come to see truth as so partial or many-sided that he regards the assertion of its pretensions and even the search for it ridiculous. [—> main text]

263.  op. cit., pp. 113ff. [—> main text]

264.  Pierre, p. 74; see also pp. 57, 235-39. [—> main text]

265.  Ibid., p. 297. [—> main text]


SOURCE: Pochmann, Henry A. German Culture in America: Philosophical and Literary Influences 1600-1900 (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1961), pp. 436-440, 755-760.


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