When T.S. Eliot characterized that peculiar mental life we and he call wit, he had in mind a metaphysical poet of the seventeenth century, Andrew Marvell, for whom “wit” would have encompassed “intelligence”; for Eliot, though, the wit of the seventeenth century was the highest species of intelligence:
With our eye still on Marvell, we can say that wit is not erudition; it is sometimes stifled by erudition, as in much of Milton. It is not cynicism, though it has a kind of toughness which may be confused with cynicism by the tender-minded. It is confused with erudition because it belongs to an educated mind, rich in generations of experience; and it is confused with cynicism because it implies a constant inspection and criticism of experience. It involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kids of experience which are possible…
As I’ve written before, Eliot’s statement is perplexing and beguiling. Reading Herman Melville has helped me to understand it as reading even Andrew Marvell could not; and thinking about Eliot’s words again reorients my reading of Melville, whose wit is skeptical, exuberant, patriotic, satirical, historical, and transcendental all at once.
Reading Moby-Dick and the great short stories, “Bartleby,” “Benito Cereno,” and “Billy Budd,” what seem to be different techniques of wit can be reconciled as variations of the same. The most salient instance of that wit can be found in Donne, even more than in Marvell: it is the sense that the pattern and logic of any object, argument, or belief might be taken as emblematic of a great many, even an infinity of others. Given context, given occasion, given need and emotional exigency, any design in the world is interpreted and understood; wit occurs when an author recognizes in the design, or articulates within it, an alternative interpretation or understanding, suggested by the design itself; hence, Donne can recognize alternative possibilities of experience in a given conceit.
It is both a mode of interpretation and presentation, different from both the startling clarity of Tolstoy and Homer and the nascent or half-awakened allegory of Dante, Virgil, Beckett. It is found in Donne, in Shakespeare, in Baudelaire, in Proust, and, on another level than simile, in Kafka. It requires that an author trace out, reading as it were, not significance (the mode of allegory), but the logic or structure of an object or thought, and then seek to apply that logic or structure elsewhere; it is to delight in the design and construction of the metaphorical imagination. At the other extreme from striking at inner significance lies the bold clarity of thought that would, as it were, set design and logic in the service of corporeal, material reality. The suggestion that the three extremes exist is not a ranking; they are three peaks.
More than Donne, Proust, or anyone else, and maybe even Shakespeare, Melville takes the emblematic method to an extreme, at least in Moby-Dick. From Carlyle, he seems to have realized that the emblems of poetic conceits could be accommodated into prose. At the same time, he goes further than Carlyle, accepting emblems that have historical, material realities, which themselves furnish Melville’s imagination with further designs and patterns to trace and extrapolate, without diminishing their historical and material realities. From Shakespeare, he learns that characters are capable of reading the world emblematically, and that taken to an extreme, it represents a form of madness. Perhaps from sermons and fables, he sees a third possibility: that the shape of a story and fable, the design of its action, conflict, and components may itself be emblematic, not interpreted allegorically, but applied broadly (this is the method that Kafka distills). Finally, Melville seems to discover for himself a last possibility: that the intentional actions of characters, their movements and attempts at communication, can similarly serve as emblems–emblems that we call “gestures,” motions that hearken towards a range of communicative possibilities (“Gesture” figures centrally in “Benito Cereno,” where Captain Delano fails to understand the gesture of a crewman on the slave ship; it figures also in the early portions of Moby-Dick).
If I had to hazard, as a matter of personal curiosity, a guess as to what Moby-Dick does in its technique that sets it apart from all over works of prose, I would say this: that it accommodates all four sorts of emblematic imagination into the vessel of a realist novel, and that it layers them within one another, so that in their relationship to one another, further emblematic possibilities are suggested.
An example: the final dialogue between Ahab and Pip, both of whom are mad, and both of whom, in their madness, assay to read the emblems of the world, but seem only, in their unhinged imaginations, to produce verbal emblems requiring further scrutiny; taken back another level, the interaction between the two is itself emblematic, with Ahab, the white monomaniacal captain, accepting the support and camaraderie of the black youth, who has lost his mind in a fearful leap to the sea, as Ahab has lost his leg, and his mind, in the jaws of the whale. On the level of gesture, the need for bodily support, the offer of it, Pip’s seating himself in the center of the ship, below deck–all might prove instances. The bearing on the history of slavery and abolition is impossible to ignore, but difficult to narrowly establish.
The level of gesture, I think, becomes most interesting to Melville in the short stories, where the presentation of action is more concentrated, with less narratorial digression away from character and plot; it is an emblem that emanates from the needs of characters, situations, and locations within the story, rather than, as it were, shaping the structure of the story itself. Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” is the clearest example.
Melville’s insistence on double-sidedness, or more-than-doublesidedness, is inseparable from the emblematic imagination; the failures of the characters are those who fail to see the other possible experiences contained in the design of life confronting them (Captain Delano, for instance), or those who would cling to the weight of significance without caring about its composition (Ahab). The former is a naive realist; the latter is a cracked Platonist.
Melville himself is a skeptic–not a cynic, but doubting the stability of an emblem, without discounting that it has a design that can be traced; like all skeptics, he cannot do without the possibilities which he must refute–but unlike most skeptics, he does not refute without supplying further possibilities. His erudition supplies him with a rich stock from which to construct them, and his touch of cynicism makes him willing to detach from former constructions.