Searching In The Holy Land

Andrew Sullivan —  Aug 26 2012 @ 2:52pm

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After Herman Melville "all but lost his readership with the publication of Moby-Dick; or The Whale," which sold only 3100 copies during his lifetime, he traveled to Europe and the Middle East "in the hopes of finding some clarity, inspiration, and cheer." David Sugarman describes Melville's visit to Jerusalem during the trip and the complex spirituality he brought with him:

Melville’s view of the place was certainly clouded by his financial and artistic troubles, as well as the religious tensions he felt as a Christian traveling in 19th-century Jerusalem. While Melville was not a traditionally religious or observant man, theological questions dominate the author’s work. The philosophically inclined child of a Christian father and pious Calvinist mother, Melville held a complex theology, best described as something like devout agnosticism. “He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief,” Hawthorne wrote of Melville in his journal. “He is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential.”

This devotion to uncertainty—but affiliation with pious Christianity—affected Melville’s view of Jerusalem in a number of ways: He felt uninspired by the city and disappointed to find himself feeling this way. Additionally, he was saddened to see the sites associated with Christian history in such poor condition. He wrote that “the mind can not but be sadly & suggestively affected with the indifference of Nature & Man to all that makes the spot sacred to the Christian.” The barren city, in combination with his bleak mood, left Melville feeling disenchanted; his outlook was markedly more optimistic upon departing for Rome.

(Image of Herman Melville via Wikimedia Commons)