- Sacred Uncertainty: Religious Difference and the Shape of Melville's Career by Brian Yothers
Sacred Uncertainty: Religious Difference and the Shape of Melville's Career
Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2015. xii + 244 pp.
Melville has been a key figure in "the religious turn" for some time, from Timothy Marr's careful analyses of Melville and Islam to investigations of Melville's Protestant interlocutors in studies by Jonathan Cook, Dawn Coleman, and others. Within this heady stream of scholarship characterized by increasingly fine-grained attention to the varieties of religion in Melville's thought and work, Brian Yothers's new book is a welcome addition, one that synthesizes much of the best recent criticism in its early chapters while offering an ambitious panorama of readings across Melville's works from Typee to Billy Budd.
Yothers's primary concern is with what he calls "religious difference." Religious belief is never one thing in Melville's world, Yothers argues; it finds its expression in Tommo's exoticizing yet sympathetic gaze at Typee cultic practices, Ishmael's canny use of "infallible Presbyterian" doctrines of love to share in Queequeg's idol worship, Robert E. Lee's parable of a "Moorish maid" to explain the conflicting loyalties of the slaveholding South, and Captain Vere's disconnection of legal authority from religiously informed moral intuition. As Yothers argues, Melville kept in mind, across genres and decades, this question: what difference does religious difference make? Through astute readings of Melville's biography and works, he persuasively explains that Melville's keeping this question open became the author's safeguard against cynical relativism on the one hand and stony orthodoxy on the other. In other words, the puzzle of religious difference kept Melville vital throughout his career.
The first chapter establishes the study's central concerns through a remarkable account of Melville's marginalia in a copy of The New Testament and Psalms. Yothers highlights Melville's sensitivity to the Gospels' narrative power, especially in Jesus's parables. The ethic of love in the "Sermon the Mount" in Matthew 5–7 and in I Corinthians 13 also receives some of the most extensive marking in Melville's book. Perhaps most telling in Yothers's reading are [End Page 112] the many cross-references he identifies in margins and on flyleaves throughout the volume, linking Goethe, Carlyle, Shakespeare, and a range of other philosophers and poets, including Asian sources, to the teachings of Christ and his early disciples. Some of Melville's responses may have unsettled his family members. Yothers notes that erasure, even occasional paper-trimming, obscures Melville's comments on some passages, even as select phrases survived this expurgation, as in one written in response to I Corinthians 7.40. Paul explains the ethical principles that should govern a widow's re-marriage, then states, "and I think also that I have the Spirit of God." Melville put an "X" next to this line and in the bottom margin wrote, whether coyly or in earnest, "I too am uncertain."
This word is a resonant one for Yothers. The title he gives his book, Sacred Uncertainty, comes from the "Prose Supplement" to Battle-Pieces, where Melville cautions his readers against being too sure of historical and moral dynamics in the aftermath of the Civil War. For Yothers, Melville's uncertainty is sacred, mysterious and inscrutable as well as of infinite worth and meaning. As he shows in the Battle-Pieces chapter, Melville had no qualms about the evils of slavery or the Confederacy's culpability in instigating a war to protect the peculiar institution; his doubts arose, rather, with respect to how to remember and respond to that evil, a delicate question that he believed required humility and gentleness as well as resolve.
In chapters on the fiction, Yothers shows that Melville was a long time coming to this reverence for righteous doubt, as he tried on a number of religious and anti-religious stances in his narrators and characters. His early critiques of missionary ventures in the Pacific, for instance, were rooted in a commitment to the ethic of radical love he saw in the Sermon on the Mount, an...