Academic journal article Critical Studies

Opaque Encounters, Impossible Vicinities

Academic journal article Critical Studies

Opaque Encounters, Impossible Vicinities

Article excerpt

The neighbor, both as a sociological reality and as an ethical ideal, interested Herman Melville, who questioned whether one's life may re-present the moral failure to comply with the religious and secular obligation of loving one's neighbor as oneself In his "The Piazza," the impossibility of the community results from the characters' (the narrator and his female neighbor) inability to give an account of themselves as lovable neighbors. In the chapter "The Pequod Meets the Rachel" of Moby-Dick the refusal to respond to a neighbor and fellow father in the middle of the ocean constitutes a denial of the political "space in between" which lays the foundation for the possibility of the humanitarian. In both texts Melville proves that the ocean or the valley which both unite and separate physical or metaphorical islands in real or imaginary archipelagoes should be a/the space (in Arendtian terms) for the political and the ethical.

"Desert more fearful to look at than ocean."

(Note in Herman Melville's travel diary during his visit to Egypt in 1857)

"Feeling secure makes the fearsome ocean separating 'us' from 'them' seem more like an inviting swimming pool."

(Bauman Community)

In 1952 Albert Camus stated what I believe has still to be fully assessed: that Melville's work is about "unconquerable and endless love" (qtd. in Delbanco xiv). I share the belief that few writers have articulated as eloquently as Melville did the challenges, negotiations, commitments, risks and gifts with and to the Other and, above all, with and to oneself, that the experience of loving another human being may/does often involve. However, it is also true that Melville's novels, short stories, poems, correspondence and personal diaries explore not so much the happening of love, but the mechanisms, both social and psychological, that prevent the flourishing of love when and where love may be, or even has already been, happening. Thus the phrase that seals the fate of beautiful Billy Budd in Billy Budd, Sailor. "Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban" (365) is not only the crux of the plot of that novella, but a recurring and underlying motif in Melville's entire literary production.

I have elsewhere argued my belief that Herman Melville's main investigations are on the nature of the fears that motivate the violent response of characters who happen to detect the subversively democratizing potential their love for somebody placed in a lower rank in the hierarchy has, whether that love occurs on a ship, in the workplace, in the colony, or in any militarized, racialized, heterosexualized and class-stratified social structure. The panic-ridden lovers become victimizers both of their loved ones and of themselves, and live ever after in a haunted loneliness monologically and monomaniacally1 devoted to trying to justify the victimization of the loved one. That justification implies the refusal to examine their fear of the power that the socially disempowered loved one could possibly have held over them. In the next pages, however, I am not going to discuss the impossibility of love taking place in an impossible community between two human beings who happen to be the underdog in, and the beneficiary of, a hierarchically structured social body. My intention is to analyze Melville's fascinating explorations of the nature of the rejection of love precisely when it happens in a theoretically hierarchy-free community between peers, namely within the community of neighbors, who, according not only to religious but also to secular dictates alike in most known cultures, should love one another as they do themselves.

The Neighbor

Sigmund Freud had already posed in Civilization and its Discontents the question of how the great monotheistic religions could coincide in demanding something not only impossible but also as unreasonable as the precept formulated in Leviticus 19:18 and in the Christian teachings: "love thy neighbor as thyself," an old Hebrew command which, by the way, as Hannah Arendt reminded us {Responsibility 115), would only be further radicalized in Jesus' teachings: "But I say unto you love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you" (Matt 5:44, qtd. …

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