In this series, the First Things junior fellows share mini-essays on their current reading endeavors.
Sociologists and theologians give elaborate genealogies of liberal theology as we know it today in the abstruse terms of Continental philosophy. It's a fine tale, but all too highbrow to account for the rise and triumph of liberal Christianity in the intellectual hinterland of the United States. For that, there’s a marvelous bit of sophistry in the tenth chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick that not only condenses huge swaths of speculative philosophy into a pithy bit of internal dialogue, but even translates it into a familiar American idiom.
Our man Ishmael finds himself sharing a room at the Nantucket Spouter-Inn with a fearsome pagan prince, a Polynesian cannibal named Queequeg, who has abandoned his throne for the life of a hunter on the high seas. Any notion of Queequeg’s apparent “savagery” is quickly dispelled by his easygoing ways and friendly naiveté (just one among many now-familiar tropes of American multicultural literature that originates in Melville). Before long, the two are fast friends, and Queequeg has invited Ishmael to join him in his ancestral rites of idol-worship. Just one problem: Ishmael is “a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church.” Could the mark of baptism pose an obstacle to his communion with this poor sojourner? No, thank heaven, for Ishmael knows as well as any German bishop today that true Christianity consists in unshakable empathy and accompaniment to the peripheries:
Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth—pagans and all included—can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?—to do the will of God—that is worship. And what is the will of God?—to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man do to me—that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator.
Perhaps predictably, Melville has very little to say about Christianity hereafter, as Ishmael only spouts the vapid mantras of liberal Protestantism. He “cherish[es] the greatest respect toward everybody’s religious obligations” and maintains that “We good Presbyterian Christians should . . . not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to . . . pagans.” Above all, he believes that religion ought to be commonsensical, i.e. an aid to self-interest within the limits of the Harm Principle. It should be private, self-affirming, and never (heaven forbid!) inconvenient:
I have no objection to any person’s religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don’t believe it also. But when a man’s religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine, makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in; then I think it is high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him.
Melville’s emasculation of “organized religion” strikes a deep chord in the American psyche. He wanted, in part, to proclaim the new individualism of a democratic age, and its god who “has no robed investiture” but radiates “that democratic dignity” which consists in the “divine equality” of every man. Yet the deconstruction of Ishmael’s pieties is also Melville’s way of dismissing Christianity as an unserious solution to the central problem of the novel—the problem of death, and man’s response when he realizes the full extent of its sway over him.
“Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs,” Melville says. Confronted by our finitude, we seek transcendence. But faith in what? Not in the God of Abraham, nor his Incarnate Son. “The innermost necessities of our being,” he writes, “drive us on” toward the realization that the underlying substrate of all being is not heavenly, but demonic. Like colts foaled far from predators who nevertheless flinch at a shaken buffalo robe, man senses instinctively the spiritual dimensions of reality, and knows—though he may not admit—that even while “this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.”
Seen in this harrowing light, Melville’s grievance is not against the religious method of implicit reasoning about the manifest truths of human experience, culminating in an act of faithful assent to some narrative or revealed truth. Rather, the Christian religion can neither satisfy our deepest spiritual longings nor unravel the riddles of this earthly life because its comprehensive system of signs and symbols—its “complete act,” in Henri de Lubac’s phrase—does not actually accord with, does not fit, our elementary sense-data, the weightiest of which is death. Its doctrines are merely projections of man’s desire to color over the essential facts of his existence by putting an overly sanguine spin on things.
But the novel fails to present us with any viable alternative. Ahab’s rebellion against Providence—his “heaven-insulting purpose”—ends in his own destruction. Ishmael lives on, but leaves us only with the haunting words of Job’s servant as he delivers his terrible news: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” It is dissatisfying, because it gives inscrutable Fate the final word. Whereas Job teaches profound reverence for God’s sovereignty in the face of evil—“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”—Melville leads us to the grave awaiting a Manichaean dispensation that will never materialize.
Melville wrote in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.” He seemed to grasp intuitively that the dissolution of New England Puritanism into transcendental universalism, political progressivism, and economic pragmatism had opened in the hearts of believers an awful void. As Americans, in whom Melville’s consciousness lives on, we should heed his warning that religion reduced to bourgeois niceties and liberal shibboleths is at best an opiate, at worst a life-sucking leech. Having renounced its originary truth-claims, it is useless in the face of the human ordeal—and soon yields to darker spirits.
Soon after moving to Manhattan last August to work at First Things, I sensed that my knowledge of the city’s myth and lore was sorely lacking. To remedy this sad state of affairs, I recently picked up The New York Stories of Henry James—an anthology that includes eight of James’s short stories and one of his short novels, all of them set in New York (at least in part).
It offers a delightful array of all the usual Jamesian motifs—idealists and realists, portrait-painting and jilted lovers, artists and pragmatists, Americans and Europeans—while providing insight into the author’s own complex relationship with the city. James (1843–1916) lived on Fourteenth Street from age five to twelve, but spent most of his life in England, eventually purchasing a home there in 1897 and obtaining British citizenship in 1915. For the rest of his days, he would nurse an inner tension between the New Yorker he might have been and the Englishman he had become—a split personality that routinely crops up in his writing.
James is often remembered for hating New York. The American-turned-Englishman tended to turn up his nose at his boyhood home, even penning a list in 1879 of what his native country and its cities lacked: “No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen . . . no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society.” When he returned to Manhattan for a visit in 1905, he found the situation had become even more dire. Industrialization had changed New York—and the rest of America—for the worse. The idyllic town of his boyhood (“a New York of better manners and better morals and homelier beliefs,” in which pigs and poultry could still be found on Fourteenth Street) was now “a vast crude democracy of trade, a heaped industrial battlefield,” with “impudently new and still more impudently ‘novel’ skyscrapers.” It was of all cities, he wrote, “the least endowed with any blest item of stately square or goodly garden . . . any deviation, in fine, into the liberal or the charming.”
But it would be wrong to take this as James’s final word on the place; as the stories in this volume reveal, his feelings were nuanced. In the autobiographical story “The Jolly Corner” (1908), protagonist Spencer Brydon returns to New York after living abroad for years and finds himself tormented by his unrealized American self and the wonders of a life that might have been. Though James may have hated modern Manhattan, the spectre of the New Yorker he could have become never quite ceased haunting him. The story ends with Brydon experiencing rebirth in the city of his youth: Love blossoms between him and a lovely Manhattan resident and the reader is left to imagine them starting a pleasant new life together in the city.
New York, for James, was rather like one of the duplicitous women prevalent in his fiction: Disappointing, unable to measure up to his imagined ideal, but never quite separable from the ideal all the same. The third story in this volume, “Crawford’s Consistency” (1876), perhaps best illuminates James’s conflicted feelings. The New Yorker Crawford enters two disastrous relationships chiefly because he is unable to separate his fanciful ideas of women from their actualities. His first fiancée jilts him; his second—whom he loves because she seems to embody a romanticized “type” he has encountered “in imagination”—is actually a vulgar, selfish woman who marries Crawford for material gain and becomes violent when he loses his money. Despite his disappointments, Crawford maintains his equanimity and composure—the “consistency” of his idealism—and remains with his wife. James ends the tale as he ends most of his tales: ambiguously, leaving it to the audience to determine whether Crawford’s romanticism was more a vice or a virtue. Crawford may not be a practical or realistic man, but the reader finishes the story unable to condemn his way of seeing the world. Refusing to see humans only as they are, he can also see what they ought to be—what they may, with patience and love and encouragement in virtue, become.
Like Crawford, James was unable in the end to separate what he imagined—and wished—New York to be from the industrial jungle it was in reality. Though not blind to the faults of his beloved boyhood home, he knew what it had been, and what it could perhaps be again. In these little stories, his memories of the old mid-century town mingle with his disgust at its modern, money-grubbing inhabitants and its numberless temples to wealth. Whether you love New York or hate it, this delightful little volume offers much to ponder.