Thursday, March 10, 2011

An 'Insular' Higher Being

" . . . one insular Tahiti . . ."
"For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life."

I first came across this gem of poetic prose when listening to the audio version of Wayne Dyers' "There Is a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem." Dyer devotes a chapter in his book, "Wisdom of the Ages," to this snippet from Herman Melville's masterpiece, "Moby Dick," prompting me to once more attempt - and this time finish - what is one of the singular masterpieces of English/American literature. (D.H. Lawrence, himself a master of the deep and thoughtful spiritual novel, called it, "one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world.")

A fuller quote containing the same passage, witnesses Melville comparing (as always, metaphorically) the deceptive, hidden 'dangers' of the sea with the peaceful and 'docile' land. He writes:
"Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all of whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?
For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!"
Herman Melville (1819-1891)
"Do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?," he asks. Here, as in so much of his quirky adventure-tale/natural-history/ metaphysical-treatise, Melville is addressing the double nature of man's being: the "ego" and the "soul."

Our ordinary way of experiencing the world, flitting from pleasure to pleasure as we try and gratify the desires of the ego, seems pleasant. Yet, underneath "the loveliest" of these seemingly "azure" pleasures, lurks the fears, anger and unquenchable lusts that too-often cause so-called "normal people" to hurt themselves, others and especially their closest loved ones with their thoughts, words and actions. (As it says in the Book of James: "A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways;" James:1-8.)

Underneath, enshrouded and obscured by the raging waters of this 'egoic' sea is the true "Self,' or the 'soul,' if you prefer. And the 'soul,' what one spiritual master called the "kingdom of God,"  is by its very nature eternal, or "green," gentle and "docile." Hence, the same teacher said that one had to become "as a little Child" to enter into that "kingdom of God (that) is within you." (Luke: 17:21)

Of course, these are universal observations of humankind's nature. However, Melville, who was more of a free-thinker than most, was a product of his time and culture, and so it makes some spiritual sense to refer to the widom tradtion he was immersed within. But, Melville was very much a product of his times and, though perhaps unrecognized as such, his writing and seeming philosophy is very much in the tradition of the American Transcendentalists who came of age around him.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
In his essay, "The Over-Soul," Ralph Waldo Emerson, the dean of American Transcendentalism, had this to say about man's double nature, about the ordinary and egoic, human self-consciousness and the enlightened nature of the higher 'Self,' or soul:
". . . (T)he soul in man is not an organ, but animates and exercises all the organs; is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of comparison, but uses these as hands and feet; is not a faculty, but a light; is not the intellect or the will, but the master of the intellect and will; is the background of our being in which they lie - an immensity not possessed, and that cannot be possessed. From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all. . . .What we commonly call man . . . does not, as we know him, represent himself, but misrepresents himself. Him we do not respect, but the soul, whose organ he is, would he let it appear through his actions would make our knees bend. When it breathes through his intellect it is genius; when it breathes through his will, it is virtue; when it flows through his affection, it is love. And the blindness of the intellect begins when it would be something of itself. The weakness of the will begins when the individual would be something of himself."
 Or, as Melville cautions: Once one embraces the intellect of the ego, one "pushes off" from "the insular Tahiti," and becomes ensnared in "the half known life" that obscures the soul. Be wary, he warns us. "God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!"

As many an inmate knows, once one listens to the voice and desires of the ego, he undertakes a dangerous journey from which few ever return. Only Ishmael survived the great white whale. The ego-driven Captain Ahab led all the rest of the Pequod's crew - including the noble savage and master harpooner, Queequeq, who sensed Ahab's inevitable folly - to their death in what proved to be very "treachorous" seas, indeed.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
Our faith comes in moments," Emerson notes, "our vice is habitual." Melville was not, per se, a full-fledged Transcendentalist likes his closest literary friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne. He was too cognizant of the allure of man's lesser nature. In a letter to Hawthorne, Melville reflects that he had come across and rejected Goethe's dictum, "Live in the all." Yet, in a postscript to the letter he bends to the sensed "Unity" that is the hallmark of the Transcendentalists' experience. "N.B.," he writes to Hawthorne, as an afterthought to that which he has just disavowed:
"This 'all' feeling, though, there is some truth in (it). You must have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer's day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the 'all' feeling. But what plays the mischief with the truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion.

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