wood on melville


In the Goncourt journals, Flaubert is reported as telling the tale of a man taken fishing by an atheist friend. The atheist casts the net and draws up a stone on which is carved: “I do not exist. Signed: God.” And the atheist exclaims: “What did I tell you!” Flaubert, the bitter master of nullification, enjoyed these kinds of jokes: in his world, atheism is as much of a received idea, as much of a platitude, as theism. Melville, writing at the same time as Flaubert, and most fertile in the same decade as the French writer (the 1850s), had no comparable worldly ease. Indeed, he may be seen as less the knowing teller of Flaubert’s joke than its butt. For Melville was trapped in the self-arrest of the atheist believer: his negations merely confirmed God’s tormenting existence.

more from James Wood at TNR here.