Skip to content

Of Herman Melville: “He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief”

The renowned American novelist Herman Melville is best known for literary classics like Moby Dick. Yet throughout his life, Melville privately wrestled with profound questions of faith, belief and doubt.

As his friend and contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne observed, Melville relentlessly grappled with matters of “Providence and futurity” that extend beyond human understanding. Melville doubted divine providence, frankly acknowledging to Hawthorne that he “had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated’” upon death.

Yet Melville found little comfort in this bleak prospect. As Hawthorne noted, Melville “does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief.” Melville was too philosophically honest and courageous to simply accept agnosticism. His inquisitive mind could not stop searching for definitive answers, however elusive.

This struggle between belief and doubt, faith and reason, became a running theme in Melville’s writing. In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab wrestles with forces larger than himself, raging against the limitations of human knowledge and perception. Like his creator, Ahab is unable to find peace in resigned agnosticism.

“Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.”

Moby Dick Chapter 132

Over a century later, Melville’s restless struggle still resonates. The human impulse to understand the unfathomable mysteries of our existence persists. Between confident faith and resigned disbelief lies a vast ocean calling for exploration. Melville invites us to embrace that journey with courage and honesty. Though certainty may remain elusive, the quest itself gives light.

“Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be anihilated’ ; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists — and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before — in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts . . . He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief ; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.”

https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.187055/2015.187055.Journal-Of-A-Visit-To-Europe-And-The-Levant-1856–1857_djvu.txt

In 1982 the New Yorker ran a piece on Herman Melville, written by the John Updike: “John Hoyer Updike (March 18, 1932 – January 27, 2009) was an American novelist, poet, short-story writer, art critic, and literary critic. One of only four writers to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once (the others being Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner, and Colson Whitehead), Updike published more than twenty novels, more than a dozen short-story collections, as well as poetry, art and literary criticism and children’s books during his career.

Hundreds of his stories, reviews, and poems appeared in The New Yorker starting in 1954.

Describing his subject as “the American small town, Protestant middle class”, critics recognized his careful craftsmanship, his unique prose style, and his prolific output – a book a year on average. Updike populated his fiction with characters who “frequently experience personal turmoil and must respond to crises relating to religion, family obligations, and marital infidelity”

Mr. Updike’s theory is that “Melville shrank from atheism, and from all facile theisms.” The whale’s head is a ‘dead, blind wall, without a single organ or tender prominence of any sort whatsoever.” Moby Dick represents the utter blank horror of the universe if Godless. Melville has been described as a mystic, but to Mr. Updike he was a “rational man who wanted God to exist.” He wanted God to exist for the same reasons we all do: to be our rescuer and appreciator, to acts as a confidant in our moments of crisis and to give us reassurance that, over the horizon of our deaths, we will survive.”

Pip is a character in Herman Melville’s novel “Moby-Dick.” Pip is a young African-American boy who serves as a cabin boy on the whaling ship Pequod, which is the central vessel in the story. He is depicted as a cheerful and lively character at the beginning of the novel, known for his singing and dancing.

However, as the story progresses, Pip experiences a traumatic event when he falls overboard from the ship and is left stranded at sea. Although he is eventually rescued by the ship’s crew, the experience profoundly affects his mental state. After his rescue, Pip becomes increasingly withdrawn and is described as behaving like an “idiot” by his shipmates.

“The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.”

Moby Dick The Castaway Chapter

Ahab’s relationship with Pip reflects a tension between rationality and faith that Melville himself grappled with. Ahab seems drawn to protect and encourage Pip’s trauma-induced “madness,” which takes on spiritual overtones, even as he exploits Pip’s irrationality in his obsessive hunt for the white whale. In Pip, Ahab sees flickers of meaning and faith that his cold rationality cannot provide, yet he ultimately remains trapped in his vengeful quest. Melville’s sympathies lie with both – recognizing the mystical appeal of Pip’s condition while also lamenting the genuine absurdity of supernatural belief. Thus Pip represents the alluring but also painful irrational unknown that Melville himself reaches for but cannot grasp.