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Melville’s Secrets CALEB CRAIN Brooklyn, NY [Y]ou can’t fool us. It is the easiest thing in the world for a man to look as if he had a great secret in him. Moby-Dick, Ch. 19 I first read Moby-Dick in college, my junior year, when I persuaded a professor to let me read just three books for a semester-long tutorial: Paradise Lost, Ulysses, and Moby-Dick.1 I fell in love that year with a straight friend of mine, and lacking any idea what to do with my feelings, I sometimes stayed home alone in the evening, got drunk in a miserable way, and found a not-quite-comfort in reading and re-reading a passage from Moby-Dick that spoke to me strangely. My old paperback still opens naturally to the page. The passage seemed disarmingly candid about the sort of desires that were troubling me, but it also seemed in touch with an occult understanding of those desires as an existential challenge that all human beings face. On the surface, the passage concerns a chore that whalemen used to perform: squeezing lumps out of oil tapped from a sperm whale’s head.2 As Melville jokes about men touching hands in the liquid—called sperm because for a long time that was what it was erroneously thought to be—he seems at first merely to be winking at the reader behind the back of Victorian censors. But as he continues, his tone changes, deepening from bawdy humor to something close to tragedy: Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti. (NN MD 416) To me, in my youthful misery, these sentences seemed to convey a secret meaning. They said that people like Melville and me had to accept that we were not going to be happy; we were going to have to settle. The closest we were ever going to come to what we really wanted was a metaphor. c  2012 The Melville Society and Wiley Periodicals, Inc. 6 L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S M E L V I L L E ’ S S E C R E T S W hat is a secret meaning? It is not obvious that a novel should have one. The novel is, after all, a popular art form, and it succeeds with its readers by giving them stories and by playing on their feelings. Why should it withhold anything? Jane Austen keeps secrets from her readers only temporarily, for the purpose of suspense. Early in Barchester Towers, Trollope famously gives away the ending of his book in order to prove that the pleasure he is offering has nothing to do with puzzle-solving. Yet Melville does induce in many readers the sense that he hints at more than he says. Indeed, scholars have devoted careers to figuring out his hints. Is the pursuit worth so much effort? In the service of a fuller aesthetic appreciation of Melville’s writings, the pursuit may be its own reward, but Melville convinces some readers that much more is at stake—that he may know and be on the verge of imparting what he calls “the old State-secret” hidden underneath the human soul (NN MD 186). This is strange. Why should Melville be credited with access to a truth revealed only to a few? Sociologically speaking, that kind of credit would be more fitting for a mystic, a guru, or a religious leader...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 6-24
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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