The Value of Being Uncomfortable: Herman Melville on Privation as a Portal to Appreciation and Aliveness
By Maria Popova
“Anyone with any degree of mental toughness ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least,” Georgia O’Keeffe, impoverished and solitary in the desert, wrote in considering limitation, creativity, and setting priorities as she was about to revolutionize art while the world was crumbling into its first global war.
There are echoes of Stoicism, of Buddhism, of every monastic tradition in O’Keeffe’s core insight — that only in the absence of our habitual comforts, without all the ways in which we ordinarily cushion against the hard facts of our own nature and our mortality, do we befriend ourselves and discover what is most alive in us. The contrast, uncomfortable at first, even painful, becomes a clarifying force. Without the superfluous, the essential is revealed.
A century before O’Keeffe’s artistic heyday, Herman Melville (August 1, 1819–September 28, 1891) took up these questions of discomfort as a tool of discipline and contrast as a clarifying force in a passage from Moby-Dick (free ebook | public library) — the 1851 classic he composed as he was falling in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne.
In the chapter titled “Nightgown,” following one of the most sensual scenes in the novel — Queequeg “affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs” over Ishmael’s as the two lay in bed, “so entirely sociable and free and easy,” before rising naked into the unheated room — Melville writes:
To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.
With the austerity that inspired Patti Smith’s imaginative remedy for insomnia, he adds:
For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.
Complement with Rilke on how great privations bring us closer to ourselves and Oliver Jeffers’s wonderful illustrated fable about the difficult art of cultivating a sense of enoughness, then revisit Melville’s passionate, beautiful, heartbreaking love letters to Hawthorne and Maurice Sendak’s rare illustrations for Melville’s most creatively daring and commercially dismal book.
Published April 13, 2020