Melville in Jerusalem
The Moby-Dick author sought spiritual connection on an 1857 Holy Land trip. He found dust and rocks instead.
But Melvilleâs 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 authorâs 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. âHe can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief,â Hawthorne wrote of Melville in his journal. âHe 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.â This devotion to uncertaintyâbut affiliation with pious Christianityâaffected Melvilleâs 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 âthe mind can not but be sadly & suggestively affected with the indifference of Nature & Man to all that makes the spot sacred to the Christian.â The barren city, in combination with his bleak mood, left Melville feeling disenchanted; his outlook was markedly more optimistic upon departing for Rome.
Melville never returned to Jerusalem, but he did revisit the journals and notes from his trip, most notably in the 1876 publishing of Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. The longest American poemâlonger, in fact, than the Aeniad, Iliad, or Paradise LostâMelvilleâs epic tells the story of Clarel, a spiritually anxious theology student who arrives in the Holy Land in hopes of connecting to the divine. What he finds instead is a Jerusalem full of bizarre pilgrims and thieves. He makes some friends and travels with them to Mar Saba and Bethlehem, only to have his philosophical bewilderment and uncertainty deepen as the trip goes on.
While there are plenty of interesting characters in the poem, including a pious old Ethiopian Jew Melville calls âthe Black Jew,â and a young American Jewess (named Ruth) whom Clarel falls in love with, the theology studentâs experience of Jerusalem can be seen as Melvilleâs negative impression rendered in verse.
The bulk of the Americans that Melville and Clarel encounter fall into one of three categories: American tourists, like Melville and Clarel themselves; American Jews who live in Jerusalem out of devotion to the city as the Jewish homeland; and Christian missionaries from the United States who have come dutifully to pave the way for Christ. As a typology, this catalog, though by no means exhaustive, resonates today, and Melvilleâs insights can feel surprisingly contemporary. Melville and Clarel are not only in Jerusalem to see the sites, but also to connect to something largerâto feel closer to the divine. Similarly, many Americans visit Israel not solely to tour the Old City or German Colony but also in search of an authentic religious connection. This desire to have a meaningful religious encounter in Jerusalem is an essential aspect of the contemporary American Jewish experienceâone that is seen as a Jewish âbirthright.â But, alas, Jerusalem can be a place like any other, a pile of âarid rocks.â
So, when Clarel swats at flies while trying to feel Godâs grace, or when he sees the tourist traps that line the road to every holy site in the city, his ruminations ring true: âLittle here moves hearts of some âŚ pedlars versed in wonted tricks,/ Venders of charm or crucifix âŚ Is this Cairoâs bazaar/ and concourse?â Clarel is in part a beautiful reflection on the tensions of being an American in Israel and an even deeper consideration of âthe spirit in gulf of dizzying fable lost,â or of feeling like a metaphysical tourist.
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