Jeff won’t fall for pie in the sky. But he may fall for poison in the void.
I was, for many of my formative years, convinced that life was essentially tragic. Death, evil, suffering, these were the basic truths of existence. All that was redemptive in life—beauty, intimacy, justice—these were figments of man’s wishful imagination, or else, the straws at which he was forced to clutch. People like Samuel Beckett looked into the void and announced what others refused to admit, that it was all for naught.
Of course, there were those like Ralph Waldo Emerson who looked into the void and exalted. But Emerson was hiding something—the horror of existence—in other words, everything Beckett wasn’t. Beckett too was hiding something, the sublimity of existence. But he wasn’t hiding anything unpleasant. I gravitated toward Beckett then because he guaranteed a kind of intellectual integrity. No one could accuse me of believing in him because of how he made me feel.
Then I came across a passage in an essay by Leo Strauss. In discussing the conflict between messianism and Heidegger, for whom “there is…no happy ending,” Strauss writes, “The controversy can easily degenerate into a race in which he wins who offers the smallest security and the greatest terror…But just as an assertion does not become true because it is shown to be comforting, it does not become true because it is shown to be terrifying.”
Herein lay my error. I had ascribed truth to a value in which it could not inhere. The emotional appeal of a proposition had no bearing on that proposition’s truth or falsity. Feeling bad about Beckett was no better than feeling good about Emerson. Of course, this didn’t mean Beckett was wrong; it just meant he wasn’t necessarily right. When I encountered works like Melville’s Moby-Dick I became convinced that both Beckett and Emerson had missed the mark.
Melville’s universe was characterized by horror and sublimity alike. He disavowed nothing. While engaging a grand armada of whales Ishmael’s boat is pulled into its center. It is here that he discovers the nursery of the shoal, an island of calm amid the tumult of the hunt. As he watches the calves frolic about their mothers Ishmael muses:
And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the center freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yes, serenely reveled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still forever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.
It was the way Moby-Dick did justice to both sides that made Melville’s portrait of existence so persuasive. There was never a moment in the novel when a “circle of consternation” was not pitted against one of “dalliance and delight.” Melville made no attempt to resolve the tensions that animate existence; instead he depicted them in all their dynamism.
For me, Beckett and Emerson committed the same fallacy; they reduced life to only one of its features. Melville expanded life to two, incorporating more of his object in the process. It must be noted that Beckett and Emerson never claimed to offer their readers an exhaustive account of reality. Their works are not wrong about life so much as they are interested in exploring certain aspects of it. For me though, Melville’s work always seemed to explore more than the others.
Together, Strauss and Melville solidified my take on how existential outlooks ought to be formulated. And ultimately, Melville persuaded me to abandon the monism of Beckett and Emerson because I recognized the world Moby-Dick described as the one I inhabited, one in which tragedy and comedy have an equal share.
– D. Schwartz