This essay takes up two conceptual formations of great consequence to Herman Melville: “religion” and “literature.” Part of what binds them so tightly for Melville is a set of transformative upheavals in liberal culture that we have lately come to know by a different name: “secularism.” Melville helps us think secularism not as the extirpation of religion in modernity but as an ensemble of broadly disciplinary interventions, whose aim was both to exalt Protestant Christianity as the authorizing sign for planetary white dominion and to demote theology itself into a practice of gentle suasion, private consciousness-raising, influence. Moby-Dick is a novel shouting not into the void of a world abandoned by God—or not only—but into the empty space where the theocratic authority of the pulpit once was, where words fired by the titanic power of Godliness itself narrated, shaped, made history. In his fury and his despair, Melville maps out in cartographic detail the solidification of what would become “literature” as such as a by-product of secular discipline.

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