“There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause… We trace the round again; and are… Ifs eternally.”
“The self is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth,” the poet Robert Penn Warren wrote in his impassioned and insightful challenge to the notion of “finding yourself” — something the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert captured half a century later in his memorable quip about our blind spots of becoming: “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”
It was a time earlier. Herman Melville (August 1, 1819–September 28, 1891) wove the everlasting questions of being and becoming into the heart of Moby-Dick (free ebook | public library) — the 1851 classic he composed as a 927-page love letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Two millennia before Plutarch probed what makes you you in his enduring thought experiment, two decades before Nietzsche admonished that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” and a century before James Baldwin turned to the sea for existential evidence that nothing in this world is fixed, including us, Melville considers the myriad twists and turns, the forward leaps and backward steps, the detours and digressions by which the story of life tells itself through us. He warns us to forget the idea that personal growth is an unstoppable stream, which allows us to glide indefinitely toward our final fullness and life without interruption. He wrote:
Mingled threads weave life’s complex web. They are made of warp and wool: storms for all calms. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: — through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’s doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. After we’ve completed our journey, the cycle is repeated and then, infants, children, and adults, are still Ifs forever. Is there a final harbor from which to unmoor?
As the novel nears its own last pause, Melville makes his most poignant and perspectival point about personhood — a reminder that we, wondrous as we each are in our individuality, are far less unlike one another than we like to believe, when viewed with impartial remove free from human vanity. “All sorts of men in one kind of world,” he marvels. But then he pivots to the underlying fact we — creatures born self-referential and raised to feel singular — are always uneasy facing:
Sit thyself in sultanical among the moons Saturn. Take high abstracted men alone. Take mankind as a mass and they will appear a bunch of duplicates.
Because we are all made from the same stardust, our basic needs and hopes, fears, and heart-quickenings can be almost identical. This, after all, is why a novel — or any work of art — that sprang from the imagination of a single individual can stir and enchant millions across time and space, across cultures and centuries and selves.
Complement with Melville on the value of being uncomfortable and Patti Smith’s cure for insomnia, inspired by Moby-DickThen, you can revisit Simone de Beauvoir to learn more about how choice and chance combine to create us.
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