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StevenFrye Melvillean Skepticism and Alternative Modernity in “TheLightning-Rod Man” In an 1851lettertoNathanielHawthorne,Herman Melville writes,“Thereason the mass of men fear God, and at bottom dislike Him, is because they rather distrustHis heart, and fancy Him all brain like a watch.” In his Palestine journal, further lamentingtheseemingabsenceof enchantmentin mattersmetaphysical,he takeson secularscholars and major figures of biblical higher criticism, who emphasized mythocritical and historical rather than spiritual treatments of the Bible. He found himself “sadly and suggestivelyaffected” by the “indifference of Nature and Man” to all that was sacred and imbued with a sense of the transcendent, disenchantedby the “greatcurse of modem skepticism.”Regarding Barthold Georg Niebuhr and David Friedrich Strauss specifically, he writes: “Whenmyeyerestedon the arid heighth [sic], spirit partook of the barrenness.-Heartily wish Niebuhr and Strauss to the dogs.-The deuce take their penetration and acumen. They have robbed us of the bloom.”’ There is little questionthat Melville isamongthe mostquotable of American authors, especially in his journals and letters to Hawthorne, and these particular statementshave been cited severaltimesby critics concernedwith Melville’stheologicalspeculations. They illuminate the psychological trauma that plagued his contemplative life, particularly as it relates to “skepticism”broadly conceived. More often than not, in the long and distinguished history of critical inquiry into Melville’s religious sensibility, the author’s various comments are employed to highlight his questioning of the religious perspective imbibed in childhood. Lawrance Thompson, for example, places his skepticism firmlywithin the Protestant tradition, arguing that “Melvillecame to view God as the source from whom all evils flow, in short, the ‘Original Sinner,’ divinely depraved.”2Similarly, William Braswell acknowledges the pervasive influence of PresbyterianCalvinismon Melville’s early life and contends that this experience was largely negative. He suggests that Melville expressed from the earliest stages of his writing careeran unfavorableattitudetowardChristianity, not only in theological figurations that challenge the notion of God as ultimate Good, but in his treatment of Christianity’spolitical manifestation in SouthSeasmissionaryprojects.sIn a readingof Piem, Braswell points to the moral conundrums Melville faced in attempting to reconcile the ways of God to humanity. He asserts that Melville “indictsthe principlesof Christianethicsby telling in great detail how a high-minded youth brings disaster on himself and several others by trying to live by the ethical teachings of Christ.“*Given the tone of parody that pervades the novel, one wonderswhetherMelville islesscriticalof Christian idealismitselfandmoreconcernedwith the (inhis view) inarticulatemannerinwhich thesentimental “Christian”novels of his time reflect those values. Certainly, it was during this period that Melville experienced the criticalsetbackof Moly-Dick, and he waskeenlyawareofwhatsoldandwhat did not. He had taken more than one blow from Christian conservatives,whocommented in vitriolicreviews on the blasphemy of the novel. Jenny Franchot considers the complications of Melville’s outsider status relative to orthodox religion,and in doings o observesa malleabilityof perception figured in the trope of the ”traveling God,”in which “the dead body of Christianity is remobilized...asmetaphor by Melville’scircular procedure of return and depart~re.”~ In Franchot ’sview, Melville can be seen as the perpetual traveler who journeys continually between the 116 Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism realms of belief and unbelief and back again. In doingso,he confronts multiple and varied figurations of God: the fragmented and thus renewed God of monotheistic Christianity as well as the polytheisticgodsof theSouth Seaislands.Thismalleabilityinvolvesan unending search for religious meaning even in the ruins of what for many had become a “mere”mythology. But we may further shed light on Melville’sreligous crisis if we focus on his aforementioned comment to Hawthorne and hisjournal entry carefully,if we parse his language thoroughly and contextualize it historically. Taken on their own terms and located within the fluid intellectual culture of the mid- and late nineteenth century,his ruminations on the “heart”and the lost “bloom”of religiousexperience shed even further light on Melville’stortured metaphysical speculations. The author’s emphasis on affective modes of epistemic revelation is conventionally taken as a pronouncement of “romanticism,”but his debt to British and American predecessors in the philosophical and the literary tradition r e p resents only part of the psychological picture. In his commentregarding the heart and mind of the divine, Melville does not question the existence of God per se. Instead, an unconventional...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1754-6095
Print ISSN
1947-4644
Pages
pp. 115-125
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-07
Open Access
No
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