Chips from the Hanging Spar – Melville’s Last Works

Melville would seem to have had a fairly miserable old age, ending with his death of cardiac failure at the age of 72.  No wonder his heart gave out.  After an initial success with books about sailing in the South Seas (Typee, Omoo, among others), Melville struck out with Moby-Dick (the greatest American novel that the NYTimes misspelled the title of in his obituary) and then again with Pierre (“Herman Melville Crazy” read a headline).  At the age of 38, he seemed to be washed up.  His last full novel, The Confidence-Man, didn’t help his reputation.  It is, however, a novel worth reading and a book of our time, of illusion and disillusion.  Not long ago, Philip Roth said that “the relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man, the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville’s last—that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’ ”

The characters in Melville’s novel are either scammers or those who are just asking to be scammed.  It asks the brilliant question as to why we are so prone to believe what we want to believe and not to look for the truth.  One of the most interesting passages in this regard involves an old person and is worth quoting here.  A “confidence man” is talking to a man from Missouri (no one seems to have names) about the conning of an old man on the steamer they all are traveling on.  The Missourian has just finished telling the old sick man that he shouldn’t trust in the natural remedies sold to him by the doctor/con man and the con man argues that it would be “pitiless” to take away the old man’s hope:

“Yes, poor soul,” said the Missourian, gravely eyeing the old man – “yes, it is pitiless in one like me to speak too honestly to one like you [the old man].  You are a later sitter-up in this life; past man’s usual bed-time; and truth, though with some it makes a wholesome breakfast, proves to all a supper too hearty.  Hearty food, taken late, gives bad dreams.”

Truth is too hard to bear in old age – and so we turn to religion, medicine, what? One might think of Jung’s call for religion as a source of “psychic hygiene” for one approaching death.  But of more interest here is Melville’s disillusionment with life.  There is none of that in Moby-Dick.  While there is the evil of Ahab, Moby-Dick is a tale of the cooperative effort of a shipload of very different men who work together to a common end.  Something has changed for Melville with time and age.  The taste of life has gone sour. 

But this was not Melville’s final statement.  I prefer to think of Melville’s unfinished novella Billy Budd as his last judgment on life.  There is still disillusionment, but there is also handsome, honest, innocent Billy.  Billy Budd has been called “Melville’s Testament of Acceptance” of life as it is (Fogle).  It has also been called a work of tragic irony.  I prefer to think that, after being buffeted about for decades, Melville shows us he remembers innocence, he remembers Eden.  And he has accepted that it is inevitably lost.  One thinks of Beethoven’s inscription to the last movement of one of his last works (String Quartet Opus 135): “The Difficult Decision.”  Over the notes he wrote the question, “Must it be?”  He then responds to himself as the movement lightens and quickens: “It must be.”

In Melville’s story, Billy must be hung even though his action was provoked by a psychopath and the whole crew is on his side.  But in the British Navy one could not get away with flaunting the rules.  It would be bad for discipline.

Melville flaunted the rules and paid the price in many ways.  I have no idea whether he had regrets in his old age, but it seems he was not particularly content.  In 1850, he had written an enthusiastic piece about Hawthorne (whom he had yet to meet), and in it he talked about how great writers did not avoid difficult topics.  And he says that “he who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great.  Failure is the true test of greatness.”  Melville himself was about to be tested.

He wrote the piece about Hawthorne in 1850, while he was working on Moby-Dick.  That great novel was published in 1851 to mediocre (at best) reviews.  In 1852, he published Pierre, which induced reviewers to doubt his sanity.  The Confidence Man  – Melville’s last full novel – was published in 1857 when Melville was only 38.  Eventually unable to sustain himself as an author, he took a job as a customs inspector in 1866 and worked at the New York Customs House for 19 years.  And then he started Billy Budd, which was published many years after his death.

According to the biographers, Melville entered a long silence at the end of his life.  Some thought he was crazy; but he was writing Billy Budd and, perhaps, came to the conclusion that we are all crazy and had to be to live this absurd life.

Melville had early success, which dwindled into an undeserved neglect and failure in his old age.  It happens.  We all have things (or marriages or children) which did not turn out as we hoped.  The question is what we do with all of that in our old age.  I wish I could tell Melville how much I love Moby-Dick; how well he read human nature in The Confidence Man, and how Billy Budd is one of the grandest of tragedies.

 In Billy Budd, the spar that Billy is hung on turns into a holy relic of sorts, with sailors chipping off bits surreptitiously because they know that there died a noble soul.  I have no chips of the spar or the true cross, but I have Melville’s books.

 If you are interested in thinking about what to do with a sense of failure in old age, you might look at my stories “A Balm in Gilead” or “A Perfect Ending.”  Or you might look at an earlier post, A Dimished Thing?.

An Aging Hippie Considers the Chaos in Washington

 

I protested the War in Viet Nam.  I marched and watched young men burn their draft cards and participated in sit-ins.  Young men of my generation objected to being forced to carry guns, perhaps be killed, in a war that seemed senseless.  That turned out to be senseless.  The rioters in the Capitol on Wednesday were angry with the thought that someone might take their guns away and they did not seem to mind a little killing. 

I am old and those rioters were (mostly) young.  I would like someone to succinctly tell me what their grievance is  – other than the unproven belief that Trump had somehow won the election despite certifications, audits, and polls leading up to the election showing that Trump would probably lose.  When I protested in the sixties (and again when we entered Iraq), I did it grimly.  These young men clearly seemed to be having a good time.  What is going on here?

I live in the south.  My state voted for Trump.  In my neighborhood, mostly made up of retired folk, there were probably (judging from the lawn signs) an equal number of  Trump and Biden supporters – so Trumpism is surely not just for the young.  But with every generation, I think, it is the young who insert the energy into every new movement.  It was so with civil rights, women’s rights, voter rights. 

Are the current Trumpists the children or grandchildren of the people who doused the protesters of my era with water hoses or called us communists?  Their brand of patriotism was tough to take then, and it is killing this country now.  But here is a difference.  I don’t think we were disagreeing about the facts in those days.  The other side might have been saying that we should be out there battling the Reds in Viet Nam, but they weren’t saying that  George McGovern or Eugene McCarthy were running child pornography rings.  Something has changed.  Something is worse.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am old and old people tend to be conservative, to think things were better in the good old days.  We don’t like things to change a whole bunch.  But we have also learned some things along the way, including that the flag doesn’t legitimate all efforts made under its banner or that elected officials don’t always do the right thing.

This morning, I went to the local convenience store to get my Sunday New York Times.  The very nice young man who works the early shift there asked me if I had had a good week as I paid for my paper.  I pointed to the pictures of the ransacked Capitol Building on the front page and said, “Except for this.”  He quickly pointed out to me that there had been protests when Hillary lost.  He is right; I even attended one in Asheville.  “But we didn’t do this,” I said.  “We didn’t carry weapons.  We didn’t deny the results of legitimate elections. We didn’t destroy property or try to upset our democracy.”  The young man just smiled and went on to the next customer, not much interested in what an old lady had to say.

This has been a hard year for all of us.  The old have been particularly hard-hit by Covid, by infection and death and the isolation it has forced us into.  We watched a President disregard – and even belittle – the protocols like mask-wearing that could have kept us safer, while he got drugs when he got ill that we would probably never have access to.  When people I know got Covid, they were told to monitor their breathing and call 911 if their oxygen level got so low they couldn’t function.  That was all.  And now all of the rules of democracy and civilization that we have prided ourselves on are being disregarded.

In 1920, Robert Frost wrote the poem “Fire and Ice,” inspired, it is said, by a conversation he had with an astronomer at Harvard about how the world will end:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

We have the fire of passions and global warming; we have the ice of hate and destructive thinking.  Either would “suffice,” but we must somehow fight both at once.  And the old must do their part.

But please don’t think that I just blame the young.  Our generation must have done something wrong in order to produce such massive disregard for truth, science, moral balance.

I have been counting the days until January 20, but that will not be the end of it.  It will be the end of neither Trumpism nor Covid.  I wrote a piece a while back entitled, “What Are the Old to Do?” where I concluded  that we should remain civil, participate in lawful and peaceful protest, and continue insisting that facts be verified.  I am much afraid these things will not be enough, but other suggestions are welcome.

Next week I will get back to last novels.  Melville, I think.