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Homosexuality and Spiritual Aspiration in Moby-Dick T. WALTER HERBERT, JR. There is now widespread agreement that Melville depicts homosexual affection in the passages of Moby-Dick that treat Ishmael's developing friendship with Queequeg and in a later chapter entitled "A Squeeze of the Hand." Among critics who have sought to deal directly with the homosexual motif there is the further agreement that psychoanalytic concepts offer the greatest promise of yielding a persuasive interpretation .1 Psychoanalytic doctrine is attractive as a way of illuminating the significance of these passages because of its claim to describe powerful unconscious forces; and the critics who have followed this line typically present the homosexual materials as embodying meanings of which Melville was only partly aware. Newton Arvin and Leo Marx, for example, hold that the homosexual theme emerges from a depth of Melville's mind where psychic opposites clash. Arvin conceives Ishmael, and Melville himself, to be plagued by an obscure inward contest between Eros and Thanatos; to him the homoerotic passages convey love's victorious battle against death.:i To Marx the issues have a collective social significance; he finds in Moby-Dick the divided mentality of American culture generally, its partition into "two kingdoms of force," a realm of mechanistic aggression opposing a pastoral world of idyllic sentiment. In treating" A Squeeze of the Hand," however, Marx offers a Freudian interpretation of pastoralism itself; he sees the chapter as Melville's "deepest penetration into the psychic sources ... of sentimental pastoralism .... The basis of this feeling, it now appears, is what Freud no doubt would have called an infantile pleasure ego." 3 Both Arvin and Marx deal in portentous issues. The warfare of love against death has an imposing spiritual significance, as does the bifurcation of American consciousness into technocratic and pastoral realms. These critics do not demean Melville by suggesting that his mind was grasped by these profound issues, and that the passages in which he explores them contain revelations of a psychic depth that he did not entirely comprehend. But one effect of such readings remains manifestly THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. VI, NO. 1, SPRING 1975 problematic: they surround the homosexual passages with a sacred hush, whereMelville intended a fair measure of ribald amusement. 4 This paper argues that Melville had explicit literary purposes in presenting the homosexual motif and pursued them by essentially comic means;it further argues that these purposes and means can be illuminated when we recognize how Melville employs the meaning attributed to homosexuality by Calvinist theology. I don't mean to claim that Calvinism asa system of ideas is somehow funnier than Freudianism; deciding which of these two august and magnificent intellectual constructions is the grimmermay be pursued by others as they wish. My point is that Melville had a firm grip on Calvinist theory and knew how to use it whereas exponents of Freudian doctrine generally consider that it adumbrates psychic patterns that hold a writer captive. The truthfulness of Freudian teachings is not an issue here, any more than the truthfulness of Calvinism. Psychoanalytic interpretations often present very convincing accountsof a writer's inward strife and the reflection of such strife in their works. My purpose is a different one; it is to determine the meanings that Melville explicitly conveys and to illuminate the artistry by which he doesso. Calvinist believers interpreted homosexuality as a result and a sign of the tendency toward idolatrous worship that the fallen human race everywhere displays. Viewing it as a moral perversion, they followed Saint Paulin tracing its source to the universal impulse of man to abase himself before some object within the created order instead of paying appropriate adoration to the Creator himself. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul gave a long list of the vices and degeneracies that he held to result from this essential spiritual failure. "God gave them up unto vile affections," he declared, " ... the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly" (Romans 1: 26-27). Melville's early exposure to Calvinist teaching probably sufficed to make him familiar with this doctrine, 6...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 50-58
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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