i’m on the look out for other ways to be with the world since I’ve put myself on a Lenten program of no political reading or discussions. Too bleak. Too close to hopeless. So here’ a bit of advice on “attainable felicity” from the author of our greatest American novel, even after all these years, Herman Melville (from a piece by Sean Kelly in the New York Times):
Writing 30 years before Nietzsche, in his great novel “Moby Dick,” the canonical American author [Melville] encourages us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity”; to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived. The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events.
In the way of a small homage to Melville, Jay Parini offered this paean to the master himself. (Parini’s latest historical novel, The Passages of H.M.: A Novel of Herman Melville, was recently released):
I believe Melville had his finger on the American pulse, understood our yearning, our ambivalences, our sense of being cut off from Europe yet somehow wedded to its traditions. Melville understood that Americans are all on a quest, for knowledge, for wealth, for “power” in all its broad expanses. Moby-Dick is our major novel. It is our Odyssey, and Melville our Homer. In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” an incomparable work of art in miniature, we learn all we need to know about the American experience of business and drudgery and obsession. Again and again, Melville holds a mirror up to our souls.
We won’t discuss the theory that the same Mr Melville may have actually pushed his wife down the stairs…