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Life Arts    H4'ed 9/22/21

Geoffrey Sanborn on Melville's Value (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Herman Melville by Joseph O Eaton.
Herman Melville by Joseph O Eaton.
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Duluth Minnesota (OpEdNews) September 22, 2021: The seasoned American Melville scholar Geoffrey Sanborn (born in 1965) of Amherst College is the author of the distinguished 1998 book The Sign of the Cannibal: Melville and the Making of a Postcolonial Reader (Duke University Press).

In Sanborn's short 2018 book The Value of Herman Melville (Cambridge University Press), Sanborn, as a literary critic, exercises what C. G. Jung and his followers refer to as his feeling/valuing function.

Now, my favorite scholar is the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955) - who served as the president of the Modern Language Association of America in 1978.

I will refer to Ong's work from time to time below. As I usually do in my OEN review essays, I will here also write in an associative and digressive style.

Over the years, I took five courses from Ong at Saint Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri (USA). The Spanish Renaissance mystic St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) founded the Jesuit order (known formally as the Society of Jesus).

Many years later, I wrote an introductory survey of his life and work in my book Walter Ong's Contributions to Cultural Studies: The Phenomenology of the Word and I-Thou Communication, 2nd ed. (New York: Hampton Press, 2015; 1st ed., 2000), in which I also discuss what Jung refers to as the feeling/valuing function in the human psyche (see feeling/valuing function in the "Index" for specific page references [page 309]).

Sanford advertises his concern for "Value" in the very title of his book. But also watch his references to "feeling(s)" in my various quotations below.

In addition, in my book about Ong's life and work, in connection with I-thou communication, I discuss the learned psychiatrists Thomas Patrick Malone and Patrick Thomas Malone's self-help book The Art of Intimacy (New York: Prentice Hall, 1987). In it, they consistently operationally define and explain their terminology and use concrete examples of composite persons in personal relationships to exemplify their terminology. Just as the I-thou experience that Martin Buber and Gabriel Marcel describe involves person-to-person in face-to-face encounter, so too the experience of intimacy that the Malones describe involves person-to-person in face-to-face encounter.

The Malones say, "The self [as they operationally define and explain this term] experienced in impersonal intimacy may produce great art, but it does not directly deepen personal relationships, except slowly. . . . Impersonal intimacy may be experienced in art, music, sculpture, poetry, or literature, but it must be personalized by the viewer or reader to become truly changing of them. Not 'personalized' into closeness [as they operationally define and explain this term], but 'personalized' into self, which may well happen unconsciously" (page 164; their italics).

In other words, even if we as Melville readers were to follow the spirit of Sanborn's hints for reading Melville, we may not experience what the Malones refer to as the deeply nourishing experience of intimacy.

But, to Sanford's credit, he appears to be aware that the reading experience that he is urging Melville readers to experience is fundamentally impersonal. He says, "The whale [in Melville's experimental 1851 novel Moby-Dick] is The World [Sanford's caps]. . . . In the figure of Ahab, Melville externalizes the part of himself that is saddened and infuriated by the enticing/betraying structure of The World, in the hopes that at least some of his readers will feel spoken for, will feel their own sadness and fury flowing out [as they project part of their psyches onto Ahab]. . . . The central aim of the Ahab/Moby Dick story is to make us more aware of the parts of ourselves that have registered that shock, and, as a result, more aware of what we secretly have in common with each other. That can only happen, however, if we partially identify with Ahab and partially share his perception of Moby Dick" (pages 68 and 71).

Simply stated, all of us have experienced, to one degree or another, early childhood traumatization, as Alice Miller and John Bradshaw have reminded us.

However, in plain English, responsively reading Melville's experimental 1851 novel Moby-Dick may nourish us, but it clearly does not involve person-to-person and face-to-face I-thou encounter between two human persons.

But something else the Malones say in their 1987 self-help book can enlighten us about what certain nineteenth-century critics Melville's experimental 1851 novel Moby-Dick referred to as his extravagance (Sanford, quoted them on pages 89-91). The Malones say, "The classical description of play is by [Johan] Huizinga in Homo Ludens. The first and main characteristic of play is that it is free; second, it is not 'real' life; third, that it is limited (it contains its own course and meaning); fourth, that it creates order; and fifth, that a play-community generally tends to become permanent even after the game is over. Again, we would suggest that these are the qualities of the intimate experience, the ordinary, the self, and 'living in the world in good faith'" (page 143; their italics).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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