Herman Melville is one of my favorite authors. Top ten for sure. I had a love-hate relationship with him as a young person—probably because his writing reached me too deeply and I didn’t like being exposed in that manner. Bartleby haunted me. How could someone that awkward, that ineffectual, that ‘nothing,’ scar me so deeply? Maybe because I related too well…someone who didn’t fit in, didn’t fit the mold, couldn’t fit the mold, and didn’t care to or didn’t have a way to adjust the settings or the environment that would make the mold fit better…just had to keep reiterating that I “preferred not to,”—not to participate in this version of the world that didn’t fit, not to be someone I wasn’t but was demanded to portray, not to… not … no … And what would happen to me? Would I just sit in the corner ignored by all as I plodded through the things I had to do until I just faded away, and then was forgotten by a world that had mistakenly invented me in the first place?
These are the things that Melville thought about—a transcendence above the mundane necessities of daily life, while still plodding through the necessities of life; the anxieties of the autonomous soul unsupported by the social dictums of faith. They are hard things, scary things, often nightmarish things when we let ourselves be subsume by them and our thoughts. And Melville wasn’t afraid to go there.
Melville also ‘painted’ in images rather than in so much dialogue, to lasso our emotions or to create uncomfortable visions that forced us to look. His main characters don’t—really—talk a lot. His narrators are witnesses rather than protagonists. Billy Bud hasn’t much to say in defense of himself—he simply becomes the emblem of his action, of innocence, of justice, of fortune, fate, and faith. Bartleby’s office mate becomes the sole candle lit in memory of the silent scribe’s brief protest against the status quo. Likewise, Ishmael surprises himself as a surviving storyteller of a phantasmagorical tale he hardly believes himself—an admitted mouse watching the Passion from a crevice in a stone wall and seeing the bloody Christ stumble to the ground under the crushing weight of the lumber he carries. He knows it’s of immense import, but knows he has no control over its playing-out…a kind of helplessness that we want to have control over, but can’t. It’s the pictures painted by these character sketches and narrators that haunt us or inspire our emotions or induce our outrage.
John Bryant’s introduction in his edited book, Herman Melville: Tales, Poems, and Other Writings (New York: The Modern Library [a trademark of Random House, Inc.], 2001), touches on not just how by writing Melville ‘processed’ through the human struggles he contemplated, but describes something that sounds not dissimilar to what tarot readers do while meditating on the cards or looking to the images for inspiration about complex issues. With regards to Mr. Bryant, here is the opening of his introduction:
“Melville could not keep from writing. He was not compulsive about it; he did not have to do it every waking hour or even every waking day. Nor was he a spontaneous writer, who never had a block and could let it all just flow. Writing did not come easily, but he had to do it.
“Often Melville wrote to find out what he wanted to write about. He wrote in order to ‘unfold,’ as though the leaves he scrawled upon were the blank fabric of his being. Although he is known for only a few works with stirring plots—a famous whale hunt; the hanging of a sailor—he preferred not to entangle himself in the intricacies of plotting. He wrote about people. More precisely, he liked to create characters and situate them in front of great ponderables: Tommo ‘baffled’ by the ‘savage mind,’ or a Wall Street lawyer trying to get Bartleby to work, or the marooned widow Hunilla gazing at the sea. So much of Melville’s creative genius lies in his careful building of character and landscape into something so daringly symbolic that dialog seems to exist only to tease us: ‘I would prefer not to,’ repeats Bartleby; ‘The negro,’ whispers Benito Cereno. And then silence.
“Melville wrote about certain districts of the mind: faith and doubt; beauty, sex, and art. And about certain problems: politics and poverty, war and race. He also wrote about consciousness itself, and then, too, nothingness; hence he wrote of the sea. Transcendence was the driving problem: getting beyond the nothingness, if you could; sustaining a ‘vacant unconscious reverie’ for more than just a moment; or living without ever achieving that Zen-like moment, half-knowing that transcendence can never be, and yet forced by faith-inducing imperatives of mind always to anticipate it. For Melville, ‘Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs,’ so that death nourishes life, and all is one. Or so says Ishmael, one of Melville’s many voices struggling with the problem of transcendence, faith, and death. For Melville himself, writing was a process that put him somewhere else; it afforded him certain ‘repose of If’ as he contemplated the possibility of hope of some ‘spirit above the dust.’ Writing was Melville’s transcendence.”
(italics and emphases mine.)
Some people process through writing—like Melville—and others process by using tarot cards. The mind does most of the heavy lifting work, and writing or the tarot are useful tools to focus our thoughts and ideas. Different writers and different tarot readers have different writing and reading styles. It doesn’t mean they can’t get to the same discoveries and answers through those different styles. But some have an artistry that makes a stab at that transcendence a little more eloquently or profoundly. And we appreciate that artistry…