Melville’s Pip and the Dark Side of the Biocentric Experience
The river is within us, the sea is all about us…
“The Dry Salvages,” T.S. Eliot
Wherever there is other, there is fear.
The Upanishads, cited by Ken Wilber in Up From Eden (Shambles, 1983, p. 58)
The black head bobs on the wide expanse of the sea, and from a distance it appears no more a head than a mere shadow of a wave, temporarily and hauntingly suggesting the dark abyss of a submarine world that lies beneath the brilliant reflections of the sun on the translucent spaces of the water. But a head nonetheless—seeing, thinking, fearing. The man’s eyes face the heavens above circumscribed by the ringing line of the horizon while below him swirls a world of strange and multitudinous forms, a world that Melville implies is as hard to see and comprehend as the face of God. It is Pip, Melville’s sailor, desperately staying afloat to avoid fully immersing—and losing—himself in the moiling chaos of the sea. Mountains, deserts, forests—these too offer their challenge to the experience of human exceptionality as they dissolve and confuse the boundaries of the human body and make their persistent and silent arguments for the utter materiality of human biology. But Melville suggests that perhaps the sea makes the strongest argument for the ultimate “other” to human form, personality, and individuality, filling almost 70 percent of the earth’s surface and placing humanity precariously between buoyant human difference and sinking human dissolution, between stars and starfish.
The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom; and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God (321-22).
There are few passages in literature that express more powerfully humanity’s troubled and troubling difference with the natural world and the perpetually ambiguous meaning of our biology. Almost in a kind of precognitive and experiential way, literature enacts our difficulties in coming to terms with our place in the cosmos and in trying to define the precise nature of our relation to all physical life. And, as Melville insists here, precision is elusive. Although the salty water keeps Pip’s body afloat and presumably sustains his hope of retaining his living human form, the experience of seeing an expanse above and apprehending an expanse below threatens to baptize or perhaps merely swallow Pip into utter dissolution. As a result, literary language performs an imagined confrontation with the strangeness and perhaps strange beauty of our unusual, if not exceptional, circumstance. Pip’s human consciousness achieves an unanticipated union with the cosmos, an achievement of his own now more biocentric imagination, and this provides at least a temporary balm to the wound of human consciousness that feels itself separate from the world. The paradox is that from the specter of death—the possibility that the particular form of matter that we are will be reorganized and recycled into something else—emerges, like smoke from the ashes, the exceptional activity of human metaphysical hope. Just at the moment of the greatest threat of oblivion, human imagination asserts itself with a determined outline, and a surprising argument for the soul emerges.
The Biocentric Experience Revealed
Many environmentalists have argued that humanity has insisted on its difference, even its exceptional difference, with the physical world to our own detriment, and have proposed instead a new cosmology of biocentrism, a new way of understanding ourselves in the deepest and broadest of biological contexts. But they have often romanticized a biocentric self as one that safely returns to the harbor of our biological kinship with all life and thus rediscovers a more authentic sense of home in the world. Melville seems to insist, however, that Pip’s adventure on the wide ocean—a necessary step in a biocentric direction—only highlights humanity’s inevitable discomfort with nature’s otherness and its implication of our own destruction.
Aldo Leopold’s land ethic is not the biocentric manifesto it is sometimes made out to be. He famously insisted that “we can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in” (214). He implies that in order to find solutions to the problem of environmental degradation, we must increase our powers of perception so that the cosmos we think we live in—the one we see, feel, understand and love—more accurately reflects what science tells us empirically about the universe and thus more precisely delineates our role within it. Perception, of course, is an act of imagination as much as it is an opening to the world. And what if what we think we love proves more complex and unknown, less predictable, and more indifferent than we imagine? What if science depicts a world increasingly diverse, contingent, and strange to our human predilections and imaginings? What then becomes the basis for care or ethical response to such a place as this planet? Perhaps we destroy what we don’t understand. Perhaps we act out in repressed anger at a world that does not cooperate as we expect or demand. This is perhaps why we might need to give Leopold’s notion of faith more attention than it has received. We can see, feel, understand, and even love a great deal about the world, but when it finally reveals its immense and unspeakable complexity, its haunting and untraceable interconnections (as it must when we truly begin to imagine a biocentric universe), we must fall upon a very human invention: trust in the unseen. That is, we must if we mean to retain hope in the possibility of meaningful and even ethical action. This, anyway, seems to be what Melville implies when he figures the strange and sinuous movements of submarine life as “God’s foot on the treadle of the loom.” It is a way—mad though it seems—of insisting on a kind of majesty, order, and grandeur to life in the face of its utter strangeness. That is the dream of literature, since it aspires to give order and shape to all things, where nothing, no element of the tale no matter how odd or particular, remains extraneous.