Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Loose Baggy Monster and the Great White Whale

I am usually much more of a connoisseur of the obscure than this--I recall a former colleague of mine some fifteen years ago riding me for not writing about 'major figures'--but I have been reading Tolstoy and Melville a lot recently, both in relation to fall activities at the New School--Melville for an 8 AM (!) single-book class on Moby-Dick I am teaching, Tolstoy because I am speaking at the international Tolstoy conference and celebration being organized, in a truly herculean effort, by my treasured colleague Inessa Medzhibovskaya. Aside from writing books of great size--indeed, if Henry James thought Tolstoy an author of loose, baggy monsters, it is interesting what he would have said of Moby-Dick--whose revival did not occur until after the Master had gone off to the great drawing-room in the sky--Tolstoy and Melville have little in common. Indeed, the gravamen of my paper is that Tolstoy is de-romanticizing or even 'novelizing' the novel, whereas Melville  deliberately incorporates huge masses of seventeenth-century prose and allusions in his work, as if to deliberately keep alive a link to an earlier time in which writing was more curiously wrought. (Russia of course had no equivalent of the 'Metaphysical' period in its literature, which was, as I will argue, one of the cards Tolstoy held in his hand). Although both men lived complicated lives, had vexed relationships with their national identities, came from families of repute in their respective lands, their courses on this planet were quite different, Tolstoy being one of the most famous and admired men in the world, whose very death was an event, Melville dying in obscurity.

Yet I kept on having two feelings about them. One is, that as an American I knew what Melville was 'driving at' much more, but felt a far greater affinity to Tolstoy in terms of what was important to me. (I am not presuming to at all compare myself fin stature with either, believe me). But the second is that, as simple as this might sound, there was actually something in common in them--a quest for social justice. I mean this both manifestly, in that Tolstoy, after 1880, obviously put his moral and ethical work above his literary, and even Melville, in Billy Budd--one of the books included in my university’s Core course and always pleasure to teach--made a final plea for humanity and equity, aboard ship and, implicitly, on land as well. But there is also a call for social justice in their celebration of the unusual, their nonconformity, their spurning of conventional social expectations. Melville hailed Hawthorne for saying "NO--in thunder"; Tolstoy thundered in a different, more hopeful  key, and thundered not at world-affirmation but at those greedy for power and control. but I think his motivation for thundering was fundamentally the same.


Anonymous said...

Nicholas Birns the "Great"!

What a Dazzling piece on Dostoevsky, and Melville-!189470917ahjka4yuriqiur9803494810398589423///////////////////+-/_+/+_-

Richard S.Y.A.CC B.W Kim,

George Guida said...

Both were keen observers of human vanity as a driver of tragedy, and were able also to satirize such vanity, without settling for easy morality. Both were seekers of truth in the face of cosmic uncertainty. And they got that joke.