Tag Archives: Herman Melville

Sympathetic Imagination

Sympathy, according to Dr Johnson, is “fellowfeeling; mutual sensibility; the quality of being affected by the affection of another.” That’s a lovely, generous definition, broader than we commonly allow the word. Today sympathy is often used as a synonym for pity, which at least in American usage has come to have a negative connotation (“I don’t want your pity!”). Empathy, a word which doesn’t appear in Johnson’s Dictionary, is sometimes employed to do the work that sympathy once covered, but it’s not as musical a word to my ear.

I think a lot about the idea of sympathetic imagination. By sympathetic imagination I simply mean the mental work of putting oneself in another person’s place, imaginatively entering someone else’s perspective. It’s the stuff of cliché (walking in another’s shoes, seeing through another’s eyes, etc.) but without it life and art, I think, become unbearable. Exercising sympathetic imagination means withholding judgment, extending charity, allowing (either by stepping forward or by not retreating) the gap that separates us from others to close at least a little, for a least a little while.

Lack of sympathetic imagination is a prevailing flaw of our civil discourse. It’s a negative temptation for international relations. The partisanship of perspective is total. We’re not only uninterested in the way our intellectual or political opponents view things, we’re doctrinally forbidden from granting their basic premises even for the sake of argument. We don’t dare allow ourselves to believe they can have anything other than hateful, destructive intentions. This is nothing new, I’m sure, but it has consequences.

If only we could learn to be better readers.

It’s strange to reflect that sympathetic imagination can be extended to fictional persons but it can. As readers we’re asked to do it all the time. Of course it helps when the prose is pleasant and the story a good one because characters can disappoint. Not all perspectives deserve sympathy (nor all books reading) but the effort is rarely a total waste. As an exercise of sympathetic imagination the reading of a book, no less than the writing of one, becomes a moral action. How well we read books can affect how well we read people. The library is a school for sympathy.

I recently read The Oregon Trail, Francis Parkman’s autobiographical story of the summer of 1846, which he spent in part with a band of Oglala Sioux in the Black Hills. For all his professed fascination with the “savages,” it’s remarkable how little curiosity he exhibits. He considers them occasionally amusing, physically impressive, but mostly stupid, cruel, stubborn, backward. There are a hundred questions we wish he’d asked or, if he did ask them, that he’d bothered to report the answers.

In his review of the book, Herman Melville gave Parkman some righteous chastisement for his lack of sympathetic imagination. In his own masterpiece, Melville largely avoids the pitfall. His Tashtego and Queequeg, among others, are equal possessors of earth and sea with Ishmael and Ahab. This is not to say that the things people share in common trump their differences. Quite the opposite; difference is always enlightening. But I suppose I believe, as Melville did, that human nature is one and that the accidents of culture and civilization can accrue or melt away in a mere few generations.

As Melville acknowledges after he’s put the stick away, The Oregon Trail is a wonderful book even so. It’s a rich, detailed, companionable travelogue, expertly written. Parkman has blind spots, but he still manages to see an awful lot. And though there’s less sympathy than we might have hoped for, there’s even less sentimentality. To my mind this illustrates the point I’m clumsily trying to make. Parkman’s limitations don’t let us off the hook. In enjoying the book it becomes necessary for us to exercise our sympathetic imagination, as readers, for the benefit of Parkman, who sometimes failed to exercise his own.

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Marginalia, no.133

…then over and over slowly revolved like a waning world.

~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick

The passage describes the death throes of a harpooned sperm whale.  I remembered it this past Saturday while sitting aboard my father-in-law’s boat, bobbing a few miles off the coast.  The dreadful revolutions I witnessed, however, weren’t those of the whales we sighted in the distance but those of my own stomach.  I managed to keep breakfast intact only by slow breathing and staring hard at the horizon, meanwhile providing comic relief for several sea otters that winked as we passed, and a half dozen Dall’s porpoises that circled the boat, chittering hilariously and gasping from their blowholes.  After seeing the headless, bloated carcass of a seal float by, I was sure I’d never eat again.  But no sooner were we back on terra firma than I recovered my appetite and took revenge on the ocean by consuming a generous slice of halibut cooked in a lemon, butter and caper sauce.  It was delicious.

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Marginalia, no.123

I look round to shake hands with Shem.

~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Shem, it turns out, had a firm handshake and was a little thicker in the chest and brow than expected.  The discovery that peoples of Eurasian ancestry trace a notable portion of their genetic inheritance to Neanderthals is no surprise to me, since I am one of those who accessorize their skulls with an occipital bun.  Ich bin ein Neanderthaler.

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Book Porn, no.3


In the final track of the classic Smiths’ album, The Queen is Dead, Morrissey croons his tardy discovery that “some girls are bigger than others.”  The same is true of paperbacks.  And size, as they say, matters.  There’s a power of attraction in gratuitous endowment.  By force of its own mass, and regardless of subject matter, a large paperback generates a kind of gravitational pull.  Do laws of physics place any ultimate constraints on size?  At what point will glue binding simply fail?  And is that fail-point determined by the total number of pages or the total weight of pages?  Such are the mysteries of love.  But while oversized hardbounds revolve in our eyes like solemn Jupiters of desire, absurdly thick paperbacks draw us in like insatiable black holes, concentrating acquisitional lust in objects deliciously balanced between virginal modesty and button-bursting extravagance.

Note how careful I am not to crease their spines in the act of love.  Clarel, Herman Melville (Northwestern University Press): 893 pages; The Bible with Apocrypha (Oxford World’s Classics): 1824 pages; Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton (New York Review of Books): 1382 pages; Tales and Sketches, Nathaniel Hawthorne (Library of America): 1200 pages.

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Dick/Moby

Why read Amazon customer reviews of 19th-century literary masterpieces?  In order not to miss out, I suppose, on enlightened comments like this anonymous reader’s response to Moby Dick:

For readers of good fiction (Rushdie, Conrad, Steinbeck etc.) this outdated and outmoded novel is an arduous and pointless effort. There are many better books on sea adventure.

(Rushdie, Steinbeck… Really?)

People tend to feel strongly about Moby Dick one way or the other.  I keep a picture of Melville on the wall in my office where he rubs genial shoulders with Shakespeare and Cervantes.  Passersby who manage to recognize him will either burst into applause or pretend to vomit.  The book works like an incantation, conjuring up spirits from across the full angelicodemonic spectrum to possess readers with fierce adoration or hellfire spite.  To steal a phrase from the author, most responses “partake more of significant darkness than of explanatory light.”  For some it’s the One and Only Great American Novel, for others a messy, damnable abortion of a book.  Finding Melville’s humor inaccessible, persons forced to read it prematurely – in high school, say, or for an undergraduate survey course – are among the most painfully scarred.  On the other hand, it was his shame at not having read Moby Dick that launched Leonard Zelig on his troubled career.

It’s not that lovers of Moby Dick love it for reasons overlooked by detractors, or vice versa.  Those who love Moby Dick tend to love it for precisely the same reasons others hate it.  Some among the latter would split the book into two separate volumes: one for the rollicking whale story, the other for the lunatic metaphysical ravings.  But Moby Dick has a schizophrenic unity.  The pleasure and the pain of the book are one: it’s a churning tropic sea of prose that scorches and stings, or warms and refreshes, according to the flesh of the bather.

In 2007 Orion Books in the UK (Phoenix in the US) infamously printed an abridgment of the novel, Moby Dick in Half the Time.  The point was to strip it down to bare plot and make it accessible to the general reader. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker quipped: “All Dick, no Moby.”  Last year Damion Searls jumped into the fray with the ironical publication of ;or, the Whale, another abridgment, this one made up only of those elements (punctuation, words, phrases, whole chapters) left out by Orion – which I suppose makes Searls’ version (forgive me) Dickless, by contrast.

Abridging Moby Dick for an imaginary ‘general reader’ – trimming out all digressions on symbology, cetology and the mechanics of cutting tackles and try-pots – is a terrible idea, of course.  But no matter how you slice it, it’s not going to be the “book on sea adventure” the Amazon reviewer was apparently hoping for.  Melville is only superficially concerned with superficialities and Moby Dick has less to do with front-and-center elements of plot and action than with Melville’s own restless quest for “the surrounding infinite of things.”

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Marginalia, no.93

What made Stubb such an easy-going, unfearing man, so cheerily trudging off with the burden of life in a world full of grave-peddlers, all bowed to the ground with their packs; what helped to bring about that almost impious good-humor of his; that thing must have been his pipe.

~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick

It was Ahab’s discarding of his pipe – his inability to take pleasure in it – that prefigured his doom.  Never trust a man with no observable vices.  The smoker, the drinker, the gambler are all seasoned to an easy, fraternal sympathy.  The abstinent, the strict, the grimly ascetic man is a monomaniac in embryo and no lover of mankind.

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