Harding lecture explores the depths of Melville's secrets

Unconventional academic and award-winning blogger Caleb Crain took the podium last Thursday in the College Union Ballroom to deliver Geneseo's annual Walter Harding Lecture.

After a humble tribute to the lecture's namesake, Crain plunged into a winding and immersive exploration of Herman Melville's sexual philosophy, juxtaposing Moby Dick and other works with platonic perspectives on sexuality.

Crain said that he was drawn to Melville because of a certain passage in Moby Dick that seemed to speak to his longing for one of his heterosexual friends. "People like Melville and me," he said, "would have to settle for less."

In Moby Dick, Melville claimed to know the "old state secret hidden underneath the human soul," but Crain said that the author is not always conscious of the secrets buried within his narrative, much like the title character in Melville's Pierre who misplaces a cryptic pamphlet in his jacket and cannot find it or its meaning even though he's carrying it with him the whole time.

The secret Crain chose to explore was the influence of Platonism on Melville's life and writing. Platonism holds that men who have a bodily yearning turn to women, but those with soul yearning seek out souls in beautiful bodies - often young men. Relationships with women are considered vulgar, and relationships with young boys are "celestial."

Crain suggested that Melville's repressed desire for fellow author Nathanial Hawthorne combined with his conscious or unconscious fixation on Platonic ideals may have been at the root of his cryptic writing.

According to Crain, Melville might have better disguised his homoerotic longings by changing the sex of the love interest in Pierre, creating an incestuous relationship between a brother and a sister instead of a relationship between a man representing Melville and a man representing Hawthorne.

Crain also said that Ahab's pursuit of the white whale in Moby Dick parallels Melville's pursuit of Platonic immortality through Hawthorne. As Melville told Hawthorne in a letter, "Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality," referencing the idea that love between men is "celestial."

Crain suggested that later in his life, Melville became increasingly conflicted in his ideas concerning Plato's immortality, wondering if "Platonic homoeroticism transcends or is subject to carnality" and if living by "heaven's laws in this world" could only lead to sin.

English professor Alice Rutkowski said she developed the idea to invite Crain after assigning one of his articles for her Major Authors class that focused on Melville. While researching Crain, she was intrigued by the unusual academic path he'd taken with his award-winning blogging career.

"If Thoreau was alive today, he'd be a blogger," Rutkowski said. It seemed like the natural decision, then, to ask someone of Crain's background to speak at the Harding Lecture, which pays homage to Harding, a Henry David Thoreau scholar and former Geneseo English professor.

"I don't think it's a stretch to think that certain authors were homosexual but not acting on it," said junior David Alliger, adding that though he found the lecture interesting, "There's no way of knowing."

Crain has a doctorate in English from Columbia University and has authored a book and numerous articles and essays. His blog, Steamboats are Ruining Everything, is accessible at steamthing.com.