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"March of Intellect" by Robert Seymour, to illustrate the blog post "Melville’s wisdom: making the past speak to the present" by Damien B. Schlarb on the OUP blog

Melville’s wisdom: making the past speak to the present

Using and applying wisdom seems both a necessary and an outdated proposition in today’s information and media landscape. Those of us working in jobs where we process and create information and knowledge often feel tethered to communication technology. We are awash in streams of data we have neither hope nor time to process. As seemingly invisible hands perpetually refill our private and professional to-do-lists, many may pose what we used to call “wisdom quandaries”: how do we lead engaged lives in the world while simultaneously feeling connected to larger causes, be they spiritual, ethical, or social? How can we distinguish information from opinion? And how do we reconcile countenancing injustice and inequality with those higher ideals? The debates about which measures we should take to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, cast into sharp relief how we float in a sea of contradictory information, clinging to makeshift rafts of trusted—or at least familiar—sources. And while we still make up our minds about past events, technology and those who control it seem poised to transform significant chunks of our working and private lives across economic sectors, be it by dint of self-driving cars or AI-automated coding

Looking back to the nineteenth century, we see people who found their lives accelerated and, in many cases, catastrophically upended at the dawn of industrialization. People who struggled to chart a course through thickets of information (the invention of the telegraph, the proliferation of magazines and newspapers) as well as those victimized by the racism, sexism, and exploitative thinking that technology carries and spreads when used indiscriminately. 

Then as now, I want to suggest here, literary fiction and cultural history potentially offer ways of comprehending—if not mitigating—the implications of the technical world we birth. But how can we make the past speak to the present?

Herman Melville, the famous (and sometimes infamous) American literary writer, undertakes such a feat of wresting present-day solutions from ancient texts and presenting his findings to a modern audience. In Melville’s Wisdom, I chronicle this undertaking and show how Melville spent his career effectively writing an extensive commentary, in the form of literary fiction, on the wisdom books of the Christian Bible (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes). Think of the wisdom books as Bronze-age self-help literature. They address question such as, why is my neighbor rich despite pursuing morally onerous business practices? Am I wrong to covet adequate compensation for good work? Why do bad things happen to me, even as I try to lead a virtuous life? (The latter implicitly asks whether God can be simultaneously all-good and all-powerful). These queries are less interesting for their content than for the moments of personal, spiritual crisis they mark. 

“Literary fiction and cultural history potentially offer ways of comprehending—if not mitigating—the implications of the technical world we birth.”

What Melville arguably found appealing in these texts is that wisdom does not gainsay religious doubt but rather frames it as a part of the human experience that must be integrated into everyday life. Far from a conservative truth-teller, he advocated neither backwardness nor did he promote a lapse into recidivist ignorance. Melville was seeker. A writer and thinker who accepted—begrudgingly—that new ways of looking at the world may rankle our sense of entitlement to intellectual comfort as we sit nestled in our knowledge bubbles. He famously wished the historical critics of the Bible (e.g., David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus) “to the dogs” for their acumen, but still proceeded to adopt many of their analytical sensibilities in his writing (in his Journals). For example, the Chapter “Jonah Historically Regarded” in Moby-Dick (1851) holds up different versions of the Jonah story—from biblical myth to empirical measurements of a whale’s esophargus to sailors’ yarns—without reconciling them one way or another. He took from biblical wisdom an inquisitive attitude paired with a tolerance for complexity.

A timely insight, for Melville was one of the first literary writers to fully comprehend that analysis had become a necessary way of seeing the world and of navigating modern life. In lieu of direct answers to spiritual and moral questions, traditionally delivered by religious orthodoxy and dogma, he uses literary fiction and poetry as a go-between to show his readers the kind of critical stance necessary for making seemingly antiquated texts speak to the present moment. If we can no longer simply believe, we may as well accept analytical suspicion as our default mental setting. With a defiant attitude towards simple answers, we may inquire energetically to forge ahead, in hopes that the path we walk at least feels like the vindication we used to receive from faith. 

The wisdom books distinguish being wise from being smart. Wisdom is not about saying the right thing at the right time. It rather constitutes an inquisitive attitude that puts one on a path, a search—sometimes an impossible one—for comfort, humility, and even humor. Confronting the complexity of the modern world, whether in the nineteenth or the twenty-first century, means countenancing the perennial preliminariness of one’s knowledge about the world. Hester Blum recently wrote that Moby-Dick’s appeal lies in this very commitment to “incompletion.” Wisdom is, finally, a story about the technologies we built for communicating and understanding our ideas and motivations to ourselves and others. 

Melville makes this clear in his last published novel, The Confidence-Man (1857), named after a notorious shyster who conned New Yorkers in 1849. He takes this case as a symbol of the uncertainties that soak every aspect of American life. He paints the picture of an America as a crowded Mississippi steamer, housing an undulating, ever-changing stream of confidence men, all gladhanding, and cajoling, and tricking each other, with no one able to determine who is the genuine article and who the counterfeit. Importantly, the ultimate form of the confidence man, the cosmopolitan, a smooth operator, tempter, and diabolic trickster, deals in arguments and persuasion. His power, arguably, lies in his understanding of the human tendency to outsource the arduous task of interpreting the world to trusted authorities. As such, the novel ends with the cosmopolitan confusing an old man, not just about the meaning of the Bible in his hand but also about the authenticity of the various dollar bills in his pocket before, in a symbolic gesture, turning down the light on the old keeper of faith below deck, as the ship rolls down the river.

“Melville was one of the first literary writers to fully comprehend that analysis had become a necessary way of seeing the world and of navigating modern life.”

The problems we face today, many seem to agree at least rhetorically, require that we carve out spaces for contemplation to find sustainable solutions rather than quick fixes. Part of our problem, as cultural critic Evgeny Morozov notes, seems to lie in what he calls solutionism, that is, “the firm conviction that we are living through unique, revolutionary times, in which the previous truths no longer hold, everything is undergoing profound change, and the need to ‘fix things’ runs as high as ever” (To Save Everything Click Here, 15-16). In postindustrial western societies many have become what former labor secretary Robert Reich once called “symbolic analysts.” Yet the communication environs in which we live and perform that analytical work favor quick fixes and leave little room for careful consideration. Instead, these spaces nudge us (e.g., via gamification of work and political decision-making processes) to quickly adopt ready-made opinions, lest we miss deadlines or fail to be in the conversation on the latest trend. 

These mechanisms in turn increase stress, favor absolutist positions, and heat up public discourse. Author and scholar John Ralston Saul writes provocatively in Voltaire’s Bastards, that the twenty-first century is marked by our replacing doubt and thought with “rational, managerial methodology” (xii). He argues that our quasi-religious devotion to closed-circuit processes with clear outcomes has narrowed our political, creative, intellectual imaginations at the cost of our ability to contemplate ponderously and tolerate complexity.  

Melville adapts this idea in Moby-Dick with Ishmael’s inexhaustible sense of wonder and his determination to ferret out the secret of the white whale by deliberate collation of all available information (books, myths, personal experience). Being willing to take the long, ponderous road around, for Ishmael, flings open “the gates of the wonderworld” that is the pursuit (not the capture) of the whale. Ishmael’s inquisitiveness allows him to derive meaning and joy from his journey, see the world from various points of view, rather than—like Ahab—fixate on one definitive end. Wisdom, then, is a quest for dignity, community, and harmony—with other human beings and the biosphere—in the face of injustice, folly, and destruction.

Featured image credit: public domain via Wikipedia Commons.

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