Meville's Quarrel With God by Lawrence Thompson, Princeton University Press, 1952. $6.00
The theme of this book is briefly stated (p. 332) by the author:
My suggestion is that Billy Budd should be viewed
as Melville's most subtle triumph in triple-talk;
that it was designed to conceal and reveal much
the same notions as are expressed years earlier in
Moby Dick and Pierre and The Confindence-Man: that
Melville came to the end of his life still harping
on the notion that the world was put together wrong
and that God was to blame and that only the self-
profiting authoritarians pretend otherwise, in
order to victimize the stupid . . . . his chronic anti-
Christian pessimism did not abate during the forty-
five years which elapsed between Confidence-Man
and Billy Budd.
Phrased that way, Melville's case sounds typical enough. Spelt out by Professor Thompson, however, this very typical attitude of our time is shown to have profound historic dimensions. Melville's diabolism, like that of Byron, Blake, Milton, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, was directly linked to the old gnostic tradition of the Ophites and Parsees. God and the devil are one. But only the enlightened, the illuminate, know this. For the populace another version of the facts is expedient. Writing in Blackfriars of Karl Marx (July-August, 1952) Father Victor White provides a handy description of the myths of Marxist religion and counter-religion which corresponds exactly with the politics of the Marquis de Sade and with the views of Herman Melville -- namely that conventional religion and secular humanism are a swindle to put a benign countenance on the devil-god of reality. Through revolution and tribulation men can perhaps mend the hideous defects of the dualistic divine being. Mankind can be the saviour of a helplessly malignant deity. From this point of view, the greater the criminal, the greater his efficacy as saviour. The error of our age has been to regard its diabolical figures and politics as the fruit of impersonal causes and to disregard the historic continuity of devil-worship, with its perennial appeal to the ambitious intellects of every age. Our situation enters its present phase with the eighteenth century 'attack' on belief in the personality of the devil.
As Father White points out, Marxism does not repudiate religion, but channels it against Christianity: "Marxism, in short, only denies God in the sense of setting on record that He is, in our society, in practice denied and ineffectual, and in the sense of echoing the Satanic assurance, 'You shall be as God'. Its power against contemporary Christianity lies in the fact that it has stolen Christ's thunder . . . . But just because it is the ape of God and His Christ, the Christian must see in Marxism a supreme embodiment of the Antichrist . . . ."
A good portion of this book is concerned to show from Melville's letters and journals, as well as from his stories and poems, his theory of communication as it is linked to his diabolism: "An uncommon prudence is habitual with the subtler depravity, for it has everything to hide."
Melville appears in this book as a conventionally devout Calvinist who happened to get initiated into the esoteric meaning of Calvinism. He got a youthful shock on learning that Calvinistic Christianity was a deliberate swindle, or a popular disguise for the ancient pagan cult of devil worship. For the rest of his life this revelation tormented him. He was torn between rage at the deceit that had been practiced on his youth and innocence, and exultation in a secret knowledge which gave him vast superiority over the majority of mankind. The point is this, that, as with Milton and Byron, the secret initiation which Melville underwent performed a violent intellectual operation on a genuine core of grace in his soul.
Melville chose Carlyle as his intellectual twin and antagonist. Professor Thompson is very helpful in lining up the two main traditions of European Manicheanism as they have been nourished and transmitted by the secret societies. Carlyle and Melville are major representatives of the twin currents. Carlyle, Professor Thompson links to Goethe and Platonism; but Melville is linked via Byron and Milton to the great Eastern masters of the dark arts. Carlyle represents the Platonic tradition which views man as a spirit fallen into a fallen world. Here in the 'Cave' we can by unremitting moral effort, by dialectic persistence and self-denial build within our hearts that divine pyramid or temple of Solomon which wil enable us to be free of subsequent incarnations. In the Plato-Goethe-Carlyle axis we have the cult of 'humanism' and moral moderation. The Zoroaster-Melville axis, however, scorns moderation in favour of heroism. It prefers the irrational leap of Empedocles to the classical croonings of Callicicles. The condition of men in this world is that of a Prometheus betrayed by a devil-god. Instead of a cautiously conducted retreat from the horrors of existence, it is preferable to rush on any course that promises physical and spiritual annihilation.
Melville's works are mainly concerned with dramatizing this heroic attitude against the numerous variants of 'moral cowardice and mediocrity' represented by Christianity, common sense and popular traditions. Throughout, Professor Thompson presents us with a Melville who is primarily a diabolic priest and theologian. He presents Melville as a major exponent of a great cult which has long existed in the world but never so powerfully as today.
Any reader who would wish to see Melville in the main tradition of the secret cults can consult such recent books as Kurt Seligmann, The Mirror of Magic; Stephen Runciman, The Mediaeval Manichee; Walton Hannah, Darkness Unveiled; A. E. Waite, HIstory of Freemasonry, and also his work on the Grail cults. Perhaps Seligmann is most helpful, although like Waite, he writes in double-talk and triple-talk.
Professor Thompson's book raises a major question for the teacher of literature, poetry and the arts. Since the arts are manifestly linked to the pagan rituals of 'rebirth' as understood in the secret societies, what is to be the Christian and Catholic attitude to them? The Catholic Church severed its lines of communication with the secret societies in 1738. Since that time, has there been any 'Catholic' art except that produced by previously initiated converts? The arts from Homer to the present day indeed form an ideal order, as Mr. Eliot has said, because they have been representations of the spiritual quests of the pagan rebirth rituals. 'Rebirth' in pagan ritual amounts to retracing the stages of descent of the soul in the hell of matter and chaos which is existence. As such, the pagan rituals are in reality representations of the process of abstraction, of the stages of human apprehension. From this point of view, may not the pagan rituals be valid as art and metaphysics in spite of their own assumptions, but impotent as religion? James Joyce seems to have been the first to grasp all of these relationships.
Professor Thompson makes us fully aware of the traditional ritual symbolism of Melville's ships questing over the sea. He is aware of all the other tropes and types of the spiritual quest such as constitute the major art forms of mankind. But in particular, he is aware of the links between Moby-Dick the white whale, and the albatross of The Ancient Mariner. As Porphyry explains apropos of the blinding of the cyclops in Homer's Odyssey, the cyclops is the type of man's earth daimon. To kill the whale or albatross is to blind the cyclops, to kill one's earth daimon, to seek an immediate spiritual metamorphosis with all its violent consequences.
The novel as a form of ritual quest had its antecedents in the epic and the Romances. But the Renaissance tale and novel carry on the tradition with all the sectarian differences and distinctions. In his History of Freemasonry, A. E. Waite explains how the Gothic romances and science fiction of the later eighteenth century were a direct projection into 'art' of the reviving hermetic rituals of that time. Such is presumably the origin of the detective story of the past century, with the sleuth in the role of magus.
Howe's book Wilhelm Meister and His English Kinsmen is a guide to the nineteenth century novels which are directly tied to Goethe's ritual, incantation novel. Any reader of Wilhelm Meister will also see at once the true ritual character of Alice in Wonderland (a correlation underlined in Hannah's Darkness Unveiled). And in The Atlantic Monthly for January, 1953, Thomas Mann explicitly links the spiritual quests of his novels to the rituals of hermetic or 'Eastern' and revolutionary wing of the secret societies. That is the wing to which Melville belonged and which his novels explain in detail. As Norbert Wiener has written of the atomic bomb that the only secret which could have been preserved about it was the possibility of splitting the atom, so with the invisible church of the Antichrist. The only secret that hides it and which it hides, is that of its very existence. The mere hint of its possible organized existence is sufficient to unveil it today, when the massive documentation provided not only by such books as Professor Thompson's Melville and Fyre's Blake, but the laborious testimony of the Romantic poets, is openly available. The symbolists, the surrealists, and all the journalists of revolution point to the existence of this church. Its adherents have never hesitated to profess Christianity when pressure has made such a profession expedient. The irony of such 'profession' as it appeared in Melville is, in fact, the main theme of Professor Thompson's book.
On every page of this book there appears the inevitable conclusion of a devil-god resulting from a univocal approach to existence and the problem of evil. Unassisted by grace, the human mind seems to be radically incapable of any but a univocal approach to the problem of evil. Such is the history of all secular society, high and low, ancient and modern. Chaos and suffering can only proceed from a malignant god or else from a spririt god -- one part of whom is malignant and one part benign. This attitude presupposes the simple continuity of the Existence and the Divine. Again, these univocal misconceptions seem to have brought into existence all the magical and expiatory rituals and arts of mankind. And the art, archaeology and anthropology of the modern world have brought them all home to roost at once.
It is this which makes the modern Christian's position so much harder that that of the early Christians and the Fathers. They knew about devil-worship and yet they were confronted with only that small segment of it which was active in their immediate time and neighborhood. Modern communication, written and mechanized enormously extends the range of pagan experience and practice past and present in which, willy-nilly, we participate today. Moreover, the modern Christian is subjected to the pagan symbols and rituals in novels, poems, operas, radio plays and movies, in entire innocence of their efficacious and magical character. Do we have a communication theory adequate to this situation? Is innocence protection? As Father White wrote concerning "Jung and the Supernatural" (Commonweal, March 14, 1952, p. 561): "A living symbol does something to us; it moves us, shifts our center of awareness, changes our values. Whether it is just looked at, or heard, acted out, painted out, written out, or danced out, it arouses not only thought, but delight, fear, awe, horror, perhaps a deeper insight." In other words, the symbols of our environment, commercial and artistic, are not just signs whose reference has to be understood for them to be efficacious. That is Cartesian and Lockean theory of communication which never fitted the facts. But Catholics today still hold to that theory of communication, and it hands them over bound and helpless to the consciously manipulated pagan rituals of art, literature and commerce. The measure of our unawareness and irrelevance can be taken from the fact that no Thomist has so far seen fit to expound St. Thomas's theory of communication by way of providing modern insight into our problems.