identity, literature

because they make true observations about human nature

Today my new boss asked me why we are made to read the really depressing stories as part of our education–Steinbeck, Orwell, Melville, Hemingway.

Last night I was reading Melville for homework–why else would I read him? I had to read Moby Dick for a class and it turned me off Melville. I swear they shouldn’t start students with Moby Dick. It feels impossible.

But Bartleby, the Scrivener–now that’s something different. I loved it. I came across this passage:

So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul be rid of it.

Up to that point, I’d been feeling sort of indifferent to the story–I wasn’t sure, exactly, what I was going to get out of it. But then I read that passage, and it was a turning point for me.I found myself nodding my head emphatically as I read, and something in my chest said YES YES YES.

I understand my own self better now.

2 thoughts on “because they make true observations about human nature”

  1. It’s stuff like this that makes me really appreciate the written word, and -dare I say it- miserable that so many people refuse to read for some misbegotten reason. I guess they haven’t ever read anything that gave them that moment.

  2. I read Moby Dick for fun just after college. The best advice I have? Skip the chapters on whales. Seriously. Melville was a cankerous crackpot. He wanted to write a tome that contained all known whale knowledge, which he basically did, but we didn’t know crap about whales, so those chapters are moot. Since each chapter is short, it is easy to do.

    I’m very pleased to hear you liked Bartlby! I love that story despite the fact that many find it as uncomfortable as “Heart of Darkness”. There really is no hero but it is such a, as you point out, true observation. I’ll save you my extending waxing on the story. Also, it is fun to say “I’d prefer not” and see who gets the reference.

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