Academic journal article Leviathan

Multitudinous, God-Omnipresent, Coral Insects: Pip, Isabel, and Melville's Miltonic Sublime

Academic journal article Leviathan

Multitudinous, God-Omnipresent, Coral Insects: Pip, Isabel, and Melville's Miltonic Sublime

Article excerpt

In certain chapters of Moby-Dick, as Nancy Fredricks, Barbara Glenn, and Richard S. Moore point out, Herman Melville strives for sublimity. (1) Pip, for example, experiences the overwhelming depth and extension of the sea and is, as a result, transported into an "unwarped primal world" in which he sees "God's foot upon the treadle of the loom." (2) The incident displays Melville's turn to "that play of freedom & invention accorded only to the Romancer & poet," (3) and its heightened rhetoric, to use a Longinian hyperbole, "shatters everything like a bolt of lightning and reveals the full power of the speaker." (4) Pip provides a clear instance of a textual mode popular during the century and a half preceding the appearance of Melville's masterwork. (5) Less clear is Melville's understanding of how the sublime works and its implications for his developing art. Pip, like Fedallah, traduces Melville's own apparent decorum; Romantic as Moby-Dick is, its events are presented as falling within the realm of possibility. Ishmael often goes out of his way to offer rational explanations of apparently strange phenomena. Pip's experience thus works against the realism of the novel. In breaking through the pasteboard mask that separates the supernal from the sensible, he signals a shift in Melville's literary method from symbolism to allegory--the intrusion of an aesthetic register related to, but defined differently and employed more movingly than in the "metaphysics" of Mardi and Redburn. (6)

Melville's turn to sublimity and to allegory in Moby-Dick go hand in hand; this turn indicates an understanding of sublimity at odds with his Romantic milieu, and its ultimate source is Milton. (7) The sublime became important to aesthetic theory in Europe following Boileau's translation of Longinus, appearing in 1674, seven years after the initial printing of Paradise Lost. As a result of Boileau's influence, Longinus's [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (hupsous) got rendered into English as "sublime." In enthroning Milton's epic as a prime English example of sublimity, Joseph Addison, who along with John Dennis popularized the term in Britain, singled out for praise the "allegorical" characters Sin and Death in Paradise Lost. (8) From the early eighteenth century well into the Romantic period, the idea of sublimity in British and American letters was both shaped and complicated by responses to what was seen as Miltonic allegory. Yet, as recent studies by Theresa M. Kelley and Catherine Gimelli Martin admirably demonstrate, not only did neoclassicism read Milton in terms of its own aesthetic predilections but also Milton's version of allegory was itself radical enough to "ruin" (Martin's term) the genre as it had been traditionally defined. (9) The sublimity and corresponding allegory prominent in Moby-Dick, and to an even greater extent in Pierre, depart from the more conventionally allegorical sections of Mardi. The Melvillean allegory draws directly on both Milton and neoclassical readings of Milton, with which Romantic theorists like Wordsworth and Coleridge continued to contend. Melville's comment about Moby-Dick to Sophia Hawthorne, that "I had some vague idea while writing it, that the whole book was susceptible of an allegoric construction, & also that parts of it were," suggests his awareness of his aesthetic turn (NN Correspondence 219).

Pip demonstrates Melville's engagement with a tradition of sublimity reaching beyond the well-known formulae of Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke and into what Samuel H. Monk, citing Croce, calls the "chaos" of Enlightenment British aesthetic theory (Monk, The Sublime, p. 3). (10) Fredricks bases her intelligent reading of Melville's sublime on Kant, although she admits he "probably never read" the German philosopher (19). Indeed, nothing in Melville's enthusiastic 1849 conversations with Germanist George Adler, nor in the contrast of Locke and Kant in chapter 73 of Moby-Dick suggests familiarity with the Critique of Judgement. …

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