Why vainly seek to clasp a fleeting image

I’ve always assumed Melville’s reference to Narcissus (below) was of a very general sort – serving only as a means to activate a connection to his concluding ‘ungraspable phantom of life’ – but thinking on it a bit while reading Ovid’s version this morning it does seem an easy argument to push for a deeper connection. For instance, Ovid’s

quid frustra simulacra fugacia captas? (why vainly seek to clasp a fleeting image) is a more than suitable reply to Ahab’s All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks speech in The Quarter-Deck. But the argument makes itself for anyone who cares so here are the passages side by side.

From ch. 1 (Loomings) of Moby Dick:

And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

From Ovid’s Metamorphoses 3.430, in the Loeb translation:

What he sees he knows not; but that which he sees he burns for, and the same delusion mocks and allures his eyes. O fondly foolish boy, why vainly seek to clasp a fleeting image? What you seek is nowhere; but turn yourself away, and the object of your love will be no more. That which you behold is but the shadow of a reflected form and has no substance of its own. With you it comes, with you it stays, and it will go with you—if you can go.

quid videat, nescit; sed quod videt, uritur illo,
atque oculos idem, qui decipit, incitat error.
credule, quid frustra simulacra fugacia captas?
quod petis, est nusquam; quod amas, avertere, perdes!
ista repercussae, quam cernis, imaginis umbra est:
nil habet ista sui; tecum venitque manetque;
tecum discedet, si tu discedere possis!

According to Melville’s Marginalia Melville’s personal copy of Ovid no longer survives but there is a digitized copy of (a different printing) of that edition online at Hathitrust. Here’s the passage (pg 85, lines 495-500 of bk. 3, translated by Addison).

Nor knows he who it is his arms pursue
With eager clasps, but loves he knows not who.
What could, found youth, this helpless passion move?
What kindled in thee this unpitied love?
They own warm blush within the water glows,
With thee the color’d shadow comes and goes,
Its empty being on thyself relies;
Step thou aside and the frail charmer dies.

One would hope he also had access to the classic Arthur Golding edition – since it does a far better job of capturing the elements he’d want for Moby Dick:

He knowes not what it was he sawe. And yet the foolish elfe
Doth burne in ardent love thereof. The verie selfsame thing
That doth bewitch and blinde his eyes, encreaseth all his sting.
Thou fondling thou, why doest thou raught the fickle image so?
The thing thou seekest is not there. And if aside thou go,
The thing thou lovest straight is gone. It is none other matter
That thou doest see, than of thy selfe the shadow in the water.
The thing is nothing of it selfe: with thee it doth abide,
With thee it would departe if thou withdrew thy selfe aside.

A final note of passing interest- the Melville’s Marginalia site does preserve one bit of Melville’s engagement with Ovid – a marginal checkmark in Warton’s History of English Poetry next to the sentence which begins ‘The Elegies of Ovid, which convey the obscenities of the brothel in elegant language….’.

This world pays dividends

My father loves his dividends and his religion, though generally not in that order. He sidesteps the inconsistency by refusing to acknowledge corporate abuses so when the topic comes up I can’t help nettling him with the below – from Ch. 16 of Moby Dick:

Like Captain Peleg, Captain Bildad was a well-to-do, retired whaleman. But unlike Captain Peleg—who cared not a rush for what are called serious things, and indeed deemed those self-same serious things the veriest of all trifles—Captain Bildad had not only been originally educated according to the strictest sect of Nantucket Quakerism, but all his subsequent ocean life, and the sight of many unclad, lovely island creatures, round the Horn—all that had not moved this native born Quaker one single jot, had not so much as altered one angle of his vest. Still, for all this immutableness, was there some lack of common consistency about worthy Captain Bildad. Though refusing, from conscientious scruples, to bear arms against land invaders, yet himself had illimitably invaded the Atlantic and Pacific; and though a sworn foe to human bloodshed, yet had he in his straight-bodied coat, spilled tuns upon tuns of leviathan gore. How now in the contemplative evening of his days, the pious Bildad reconciled these things in the reminiscence, I do not know; but it did not seem to concern him much, and very probably he had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another. This world pays dividends.

I deal myself the best hand I can, and then accept it

From Montaigne 1.20 – That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die:

It is enough for me to spend my time contentedly. I deal myself the best hand I can, and then accept it. It can be as inglorious or as unexemplary as you please:

 Prætulerim delirus inersque videri,
Dum mea delectent mala me, vel denique fallant,
Quam sapere et ringi.
[I would rather be delirious or a dullard if my faults pleased me, or at least deceived me, rather than to be wise and snarling.]

Car il me suffit de passer à mon aise; et le meilleur jeu que je me puisse donner, je le prens, si peu glorieux au reste et exemplaire que vous voudrez,

praetulerim delirus inérsque videri,
Dum mea delectent mala me, vel denique fallant,
Quam sapere et ringi.

The Latin is from Horace – Epistles 2.2.126

I always hear an echo of this passage in a favorite line from Moby Dick’s opening chapter – I guess Melville would’ve had the Cotton translation or, less likely, the Florio.

I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever. It is quite as much as I can do to take care of myself

The vulture that probes our inmost liver

A fragment of Petronius, quoted by Fulgentius (Mythologies 2.6):

[on Prometheus] although Nicagoras . . . records that Prometheus was the first to have embodied the image, and that he exposes his liver to a vulture, as if it portrays a metaphor for envy. From this Petronius also says: “The vulture that probes our inmost liver and tears out our heart and inmost entrails, is not a bird, as our witty poets claim, but the evils of our heart, envy and lust.”

[de Prometheo] quamvis Nicagorus . . . primum illum formasse idolum referat et, quod vulturi iecur praebeat, livoris quasi pingat imaginem. unde et Petronius Arbiter ait

“qui vultur iecur intimum pererrat
pectusque eruit intimasque fibras,
non est quem lepidi vocant poetae,
sed cordis <mala>, livor atque luxus.”

Reminiscent of Ishmael’s analysis of Ahab in ch.44 of Moby Dick:

God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.

Jonah’s prodigy of ponderous misery drags him drowning down to sleep

From chapter 9 of Moby-Dick, Father Mapple’s sermon on Jonah:

All dressed and dusty as he is, Jonah throws himself into his berth, and finds the little state-room ceiling almost resting on his forehead. The air is close, and Jonah gasps. Then, in that contracted hole, sunk, too, beneath the ship’s water-line, Jonah feels the heralding presentiment of that stifling hour, when the whale shall hold him in the smallest of his bowels’ wards.

“Screwed at its axis against the side, a swinging lamp slightly oscillates in Jonah’s room; and the ship, heeling over towards the wharf with the weight of the last bales received, the lamp, flame and all, though in slight motion, still maintains a permanent obliquity with reference to the room; though, in truth, infallibly straight itself, it but made obvious the false, lying levels among which it hung. The lamp alarms and frightens Jonah; as lying in his berth his tormented eyes roll round the place, and this thus far successful fugitive finds no refuge for his restless glance. But that contradiction in the lamp more and more appals him. The floor, the ceiling, and the side, are all awry. ‘Oh! so my conscience hangs in me!’ he groans, ‘straight upwards, so it burns; but the chambers of my soul are all in crookedness!’

“Like one who after a night of drunken revelry hies to his bed, still reeling, but with conscience yet pricking him, as the plungings of the Roman race-horse but so much the more strike his steel tags into him; as one who in that miserable plight still turns and turns in giddy anguish, praying God for annihilation until the fit be passed; and at last amid the whirl of woe he feels, a deep stupor steals over him, as over the man who bleeds to death, for conscience is the wound, and there’s naught to staunch it; so, after sore wrestlings in his berth, Jonah’s prodigy of ponderous misery drags him drowning down to sleep.

Wisdom and wilderness are here at poise

Two from Yvor Winters on Herman Melville:

To a Portrait of Melville in My Library

O face reserved, unmoved by praise or scorn!
O dreadful heart that won Socratic peace!
What was the purchase-price of thy release
What life was buried, ere thou rose reborn?
Rest here in quiet, now. Our strength is shorn.
Honor my books! Preserve this room from wrack!
Plato and Aristotle at thy back,
Above thy head this ancient powder-horn.

The lids droop coldly, and the face is still:
Wisdom and wilderness are here at poise,
Ocean and forest are the mind’s device,
But still I feel the presence of thy will:
The midnight trembles when I hear thy voice,
The moon’s immobile when I meet thine eyes.


To Herman Melville in 1951

Saint Herman, grant me this: that I may be
Saved from the worms who have infested thee.

I just could not put that hose and bra on the Son of God

On the excesses of symbolist readings by critics – from Dan McCall’s The Silence of Bartleby (pg24)

Years ago I read an essay suggesting that in The Sound and the Fury, when Jason enters his niece’s room on Easter Sunday and finds her underwear strewn about, we should remember Jesus’ burial clothes after the stone was rolled away from the Tomb.  I just could not put that hose and bra on the Son of God.

It was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach

From Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener:

Revolving all these things, and coupling them with the recently discovered fact that he made my office his constant abiding place and home, and not forgetful of his morbid moodiness; revolving all these things, a prudential feeling began to steal over me. My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion. So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul rid of it. What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.

I love all men who dive

From a letter of Herman Melville’s – March 3, 1849, pages depend on which edition of correspondence you pull from but it’s also heavily quoted elsewhere.

Now, there is a something about every man elevated above mediocrity, which is for the most part instantly perceptible … I love all men who dive.  Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs file miles or more; and if he don’t attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena can’t fashion the plummit that will.  I’m not talking of Mr. Emerson now, but of the whole corps of thought-divers that have been diving and coming up again with blood-shot eyes since the world began.

Let him cheerfully allow himself to spend and be spent in that way

From ch.5 of Moby Dick – Ishmael’s morning-after response to what he terms the  innkeeper’s ‘skylarking … in the matter of my bedfellow.’

However, a good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing; the more’s the pity. So, if any one man, in his own proper person, afford stuff for a good joke to anybody, let him not be backward, but let him cheerfully allow himself to spend and be spent in that way. And the man that has anything bountifully laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for.

Which accords nicely with Mr. Bennet’s lovely “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” from ch.57 of Pride and Prejudice.