Green 0Sacred Uncertainty: Herman Melville’s Philosophy of PessimismIan GreenSubmitted in the Department of English, Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University.
Green 1Sword Points Presented on Every Side: Pessimism as a Disposition and in SyntaxIn his short story, “Ethan Brand,” Nathaniel Hawthorne sketches a portrait of a character in search ofwhat he calls “the unpardonable sin,” the most profound and unforgivable among the litany of every-daysocial transgressions that make up so much of human life. In the end, Hawthorne suggests that Brand doesindeed discover such a sin and he discovers it in his own incredulous heart. That is: he realizes that, of allpossible human wrongs, the sin of losing faith in humanity is the only one that can be described as trulyunpardonable. Brand, upon discovering this, ends his life in a ghastly self-immolation, leaving behind thestony relic of a heart turned to lime and then to ash. Many readers have wrongly interpreted this character asinspired by Hawthorne’s good friend and neighbor, Herman Melville. In fact, the story was written by 1849,and the two men did not meet until the summer of 1850.1Nevertheless, the confusion among readers betweenBrand and Melville is telling, for much like Brand, Melville is a character of deep-seated pessimism, a manwith a nearly perverse commitment to exploring the darkness and failure at the root of human experience andthe dread that accompanies the approach of future endeavors. Also like Brand, Melville made it his life’s workto probe the commonly-held beliefs of those around him, to test the strength of his contemporaries’ faith inthemselves and in their society and to challenge the mythologies of his age and place until the point when hediscovered their failure. Of all the diverse thematic strains in Melville’s body of work—mysticism, the law,commerce, politics, religion, cetology—pessimism is the band by which all are yoked together. Pessimism,uniquely self-styled and fashioned into a comprehensive philosophy that makes sense out of senselessness,finds meaning in meaninglessness and gives shape to the utter desolation of human life, is the one overridingargument that remains consistent in Melville’s work. It is the lens through which readers can and shouldreconcile his shifting convictions and personality, the one through which we may come to see the world asMelville himself saw it.An important distinction must be made between Pessimism as a movement and pessimism as adisposition. Movement Pessimism, practiced and promoted most famously by Arthur Schopenhauer, came tothe fore in Europe in the mid-19thcentury and based its foundational ethos largely upon a growing interest in1David B. Kesterson provides a useful summary of the cross-currents of influence between Hawthorne and Melville as well as a timeline anddebunking of this misconception in an essay appropriately entitled, “Hawthorne and Melville”.