Spinoza, Melville and Identity Politics

“The structure of reality demands
a rethinking of the reality of the self.”

Still not managed to get myself a copy of Rebecca Goldstein’s essay on “Literary Spinoza” that forms the Coda to The Oxford Handbook of Spinoza by Michael Della Rocca. [It’s very expensive to buy, even in Kindle form, there are precious few used copies to be had and I’ve not got myself sufficiently organised to find it in a library yet, not even through my British Library membership. UPDATE Good news received a copy as a birthday gift Feb 2023.]

But I picked-up on it in an interview I first mentioned in the long list of bookmarks I brain-dumped here. And having read it (the interview transcript) again, this one Q&A pasted below is effectively Goldstein’s fascinating precis of the Melville / Spinoza / Identity connection:

3:16: I’m a great fan of Moby Dick – so can you tell us why Ahab is the great literary anti-Spinozaist! (I love your essay on this btw!) And how do you you answer your own question: does Melville side with Spinoza in the end, acknowledging that the structure of reality demands a rethinking of the reality of the self? And do you agree with that conclusion – and if so, what do you think we should think of the self?

RNG:Yes, Moby Dick. What a novel! There were always passages in it that made me suspect that Melville knew his Spinoza, in particular, Spinoza’s views on personal identity, so I set out to trace the trajectory. It goes from the Pantheism Controversy, which made Spinoza such a central figure in Germany a hundred years after his death, and then to England by way of Coleridge, who closely followed what was going on in German intellectual and artistic circles, and himself took to studying Spinoza, becoming preoccupied with Spinoza’s views about personal identity. He wrote about his struggles with Spinozism in his Biographia Literaria, which Melville in turn studied.

Let me just say a brief word about the difficult view of personal identity which Spinoza presents. He requires us to be sufficiently attached to the reality of the self to be motivated to do all the difficult work of understanding, as far as is humanly possible, the true nature of reality in all of its deterministic necessity. But if we are successful in understanding, then, in the end, we will come to identify less with the finite self, a mere implication from the vast implicate order, and rather identify more with the implicate order itself, as more and more of the ideas that constitute Deus sive natura become our own ideas. Our identification with the whole order ought to become so complete that we can accept our own mortality with the kind of equanimity that the person of faith, believing in his own personal immortality, experiences. Therein, in more or less yielding our grip on our own identities, lies our redemption.

It might help to compare what Spinoza is saying about personal identity to what Wittgenstein says near the end of the Tractatus. ”My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them —as steps—to climb beyond them. He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.” In Spinoza, we follow our own individual flourishing, pushed on by the conatus that constitutes our identity, and when we grasp as much of reality of which we’re capable we see that our identity is not exactly a nothing but not exactly a something either. We must kick the ladder—our identification with our own self—aside. Is this the robust denial of the reality of the self that we associate with Buddhism or with Derek Parfit? Not quite, but close. So that is the aspect of Spinozism with which Melville struggled, just as Coleridge did, finding it difficult to reconcile “personality with infinity.”

Maybe Reality really is inconsistent with the reality of the self, and maybe then, driven by our conatus, we ought to resist Reality. That’s the path that Ahab takes, and it doesn’t end well for him, nor for those under his leadership, who have relinquished their wills to his. After all, why is it even worthwhile to struggle to know Reality, to struggle after anything at all, if the self that’s motivating the struggle is ultimately nothing at all? That seems to be what Ahab is declaring in his most philosophically interesting passages. Those passages strike me as similar to the most philosophically interesting passages in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, where the narrator rails against 2 +2 =4 as diminishing him. One reason why a writer may turn to fiction with an irresolvable metaphysical dilemma deeply roiling within them is precisely because they feel it to be irresolvable.

That’s the case for me with my fiction. I don’t think Melville gives us an opinion in Moby Dick as to how the dilemma presented by Spinoza ought to be resolved. I think rather that he magnificently dramatizes the dilemma and makes it live inside his readers.The coffin that floats the narrator alone to safety belonged to Queequeg, the “cannibal” who initially had terrified the narrator we’re instructed to call “Ishmael.” (The mystery of personal identity is flagged in the first sentence of the book.) Part of Queequeg’s “frightful” appearance is the result of his being tattooed all over his body with strange hieroglyphics that tell of all the mysteries of the heavens and the earth and a “mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth.” Queequeg, being illiterate, can’t read these symbols he’s covered with, but they’re so intimate to his own sense of himself that, after recovering from a mortal illness, he builds himself a coffin and transfers all the symbols to it—”so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them.” Melville is a mysterian, and so am I.

This quote in particular – Goldstein’s own words after Spinoza and Wittgenstein – is breath-taking. Surely related in some profound way to McGilchrist’s latest?

“In Spinoza, we follow our own individual flourishing, pushed on by the conatus that constitutes our identity, and when we grasp as much of reality of which we’re capable we see that our identity is not exactly a nothing but not exactly a something either.”

Yes, I had to look up “conatus” too: ‘Conatus is an innate inclination of a thing to continue to exist and enhance itself. This “thing” may be mind, matter, or a combination of both.’ (Almost a definition of life itself?)


[Aside, don’t tell anyone, but ... Part of my personal fascination is that Ahab’s wife > daughter > grandson is a literary jumping-off point for my own writing aspirations. An everyday story of Quaker folk. “Quaker Roots” even. But this “identity” connection is a newly found additional string to that bow. I love it when a plan comes together.]

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