John Wenke teaches American literature and literary writing at Salisbury University. His books include J. D. Salinger: A Study of the Short Fiction and Melville's Muse. He has published numerous stories, essays, chapters, and reviews. "The Divine Inert" will be part of an essay collection called Culture and Anarchy, Part Two.
The Divine Inert
During the last years of his life North America’s greatest novelist frequently referred to politicians as “damn fools” (Parker 915). Herman Melville did not come late to such notions regarding elected officials.
Tucked away in a corner of Moby-Dick, in a kind of throwaway aside, Ishmael explains how Captain Ahab’s high intelligence has nothing to do with his “irresistible dictatorship” over the ship’s crew (147). What wins their frenzied endorsement is his manipulative power of coercion—the wild pep talk, the enticement to violence, the extra measure of grog (161-63). To fulfill his mission—to slay Moby Dick and thus rid the universe of evil—Ahab must descend into the practice of politics: “For be a man’s intellectual superiority what is will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always, in themselves, more or less paltry and base. This it is, that for ever keeps God’s true princes of the Empire from the world’s hustings; and leaves the highest honors that this air can give, to those men who become famous more through their infinite inferiority to the choice hidden handful of the Divine Inert, than through their undoubted superiority over the dead level of the mass” (147-48).
Melville is giving us good news and bad news. Yes, the Divine Inert—“the choice, hidden handful”—are out there, fully capable of governing in ways that befit “God’s true princes of the Empire.” There are people—men and women—who could solve, or at least productively engage, the problems that snaffle and baffle us.
The Divine Inert would not start wars we can’t win or spend money we don’t have or defer Tough Choices till after the next election or relegate impeachable offenses to the Judgment of History. You put the right handful in the right room for a few hours on a Monday morning and they would come up with a sensible and feasible plan for universal health care. After lunch they could look at the federal budget deficit and put the nation on a no pork diet. On Tuesday they could look into international terrorism and Wednesday—Hump Day—could be set aside for Iraq, which should not be confused with Tuesday’s problem of international terrorism.
The good news is that our country has the human resources to tackle and solve massive problems, but the bad news is that the system that markets American political leaders is programmed to exclude original thinkers with new, dynamic and threatening ideas.
It’s not simply that the Divine Inert remain temperamentally reluctant to dirty their hands with “paltry and base” practices (Melville 148). Some of them are already doing very well, running businesses or managing households or successfully teaching hitherto unteachable children. They are only politically inert—inert in matters pertaining to the social macrocosm—and don’t need more headaches. Even the Divine Inert, in the unforgettable words of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, “have sinned against you, my Lord” (Swaggart). And why would they want past indiscretions—actual and alleged—rooted out and blazoned across network and cable news, dissected in editorials and mocked in tabloids?
Among the “choice, hidden handful” (Melville 148) is the devoted mother of five, a brilliant homemaker, now forty, a registered Republican, who at the age of seventeen was arrested as a runaway, a prostitute and a drug mule. There is the male forty-something Director of Parks and Recreation for a San Diego suburb who at the age of twenty-two went once to Tijuana for the afternoon with his now estranged friend, a former journalism major. They were in a back room of a dive bar on the Avenue Revolucion. They were sloppy drunk. There was plenty of pot and plenty of Mexican girls for hire. How does the Director of Parks and Recreation know that his former journalism friend won’t want to score a big exclusive for People magazine? He doesn’t.
Even if you were capable of running things, would you want to be at the mercy of anyone who ever saw you at your worst?
Or there is the woman—she’s a hospice care nurse—who got furious one day, totally fed up, sick of all that misery and dying, and for the first and last time in her life she completely lost control and attacked her twelve-year-old son. She had a screaming fit and walloped the kid in Wal-Mart. For a good ten seconds she slapped him about the face and back. It was caught from a number of angles by those surveillance cameras in the ceiling. Somebody called the cops. She made the nightly news. She had a big hassle with Social Services about being an unfit mother. It was a bad six months. That was ten years ago, though not everyone has forgotten the incident.
Not only would members of the Divine Inert rather keep their sins to themselves, but they would also have basic problems getting into the game. The game of politics has everything to do with infrastructure—and political infrastructure starts at the grassroots. That’s where local hacks are warlords and anyone with new ideas or odd grooming is shunned as a dangerous freak.
Imagine one of the Divine Inert waking up in the morning with a spasm of zeal. He’s tired of working in a video game store and tired of doing all that reading. Now he wants to run for Governor of Maryland. He doesn’t care whether he goes as a Democrat or a Republican. He has perfect and practicable ideas for how to protect the Chesapeake Bay from nitrogen rich farm run-off without costing chicken farmers their livelihoods. He knows how to preserve wetlands and balance smart growth. He knows exactly how to put the state in the black without resorting to legalized slot machines. He’s been contemplating these problems for some time and his state needs him. But his speech is slightly garbled. He tries to say everything at once and has no knack for the sound byte. He’s forty-two and still lives with his mother. He wears stretched-out tee-shirts, floppy shorts and sandals. He looks like a deformed Albert Einstein. He doesn’t know the right people and the right people don’t know him. Maybe he’s fat, has bad breath and is losing his hair in an asymmetrical manner. He might be eminently capable of solving big problems, but he will have to go back to being inert. He may even be a vegetarian, but politically he’s dead meat. He went to one meeting and the local hacks are still laughing at him.
Herman Melville would not be surprised to find that back in 2004 mediocrities like George W. Bush and John Kerry conducted a close race for the presidency. Nor would he be surprised to find such extreme interest in the recently published book by Sarah Palin, the 2008 failed Republican vice-presidential candidate, former Alaskan governor, confirmed publicity hound, and comedic right wing extremist. Melville would laugh, one imagines, at the shenanigans of Rod. R. Blagojevich, the disgraced former Democratic governor of Illinois accused of trying to sell President Barack Obama’s former U. S. Senate seat. Melville would see today’s carnival of clowns as a pack of “damn fools” and note “their infinite inferiority to the choice hidden handful of the Divine Inert.” But the foibles of Bush, Kerry, Palin, Blagojevich, and others like them are not really the central issue. These politicians are merely success mongers out for what they can get. They are highly visible, bipartisan products of a political system doomed to supply a recurring cast of limited choices. The system has plenty of room for smiling lawyers, cartoon ideologues and Grade B movie actors; plenty of room for overachieving student council types, for sinister multinational business honchos, for second- and third-generation scions of wealth and privilege. The political infrastructure and even the politics of hair—(Melville had “good hair,” though there is no evidence that he ever voted in any election)—work relentlessly to exclude the very people who could make a difference but haven’t got a chance. The Divine Inert will have to console themselves with hidden excellence, with great victories in small matters. They will have to wait forever before they can run the world. They will have to hang loose until the big horn sounds and the final revolution begins.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick, or The Whale. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern UP and the Newberry Library, 1988. Print.
Palin, Sarah. Going Rogue: An American Life. New York: Harpers, 2009. Print.
Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville: A Biography, 1851-1891. Vol. 2. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2002.
Swaggart. Jimmy. “Reverend Jimmy Swaggart: Apology Sermon.” americanrhetoric.com. American Rhetoric, 21 Feb. 1988. Web. 21 Dec. 2009.
 Upon being exposed and disgraced in February 1988 for sexual liaisons with a female prostitute in a rundown motel, Swaggart achieved iconic, and for some comedic, status for his tearful, blubbering confession sermon, snippets of which played over and over on television news.