I recently finished a book called Melville’s Quarrel with God. The author, Lawrance Thompson, makes the argument that Melville was even more anti-religious than I’d intimated in my own review of Moby-Dick, that Melville’s whole point in writing his “wicked book” was to explore a world with a malevolent, bullying god in charge.

Thompson makes a strong argument, but I think it falls down when we see how Melville’s hero Ahab ultimately fails as a person once he rejects God. I agree with Thompson when he says Melville quarreled with God throughout the book. What Thompson doesn’t quite touch, where both he and Melville swing at nothing but air, is this: once God is rejected, then what?

I also recently finished, once again, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, just because I wanted to. And I found myself forced to consider this same question with Mark Twain’s (and my own) hero Huck. Huck rejects God just as surely as Ahab does, when he says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” And now I see that Huck fails, too, just as surely as Ahab fails.

Huck’s failure comes from his primary character trait: he will not rise above. As a result, Huck goes along with all of Tom Sawyer’s ridiculous and dangerous plans. This makes me reconsider the Boggs-Sherburn incident earlier in the book, where Sherburn expresses his belief that people are cowards. Is Huck, despite his resolution on the raft, also a coward? Is that what Twain was getting at with his “Tom Sawyer” chapters?

When I wrote about the book a while ago, I was undecided on whether or not those final chapters, the ones taking place on the Phelps’ farm, were just Mark Twain giving in to the temptation to be funny, or were instead something deeper. Now that I see these chapters as an intentional failure, much like Ahab’s intentional failure, I think I like them even less. Are these failures necessary? Is it necessary for every hero to fail, just as Hamlet, Macbeth, Achilles, and all the rest fail? In this case Twain inserts a pat ending on Huck’s failure, showing that it was all OK in the end, a deus ex machina provided by Sawyer himself. I think here Twain is expressing his ultimate pessimism about humanity. While rejecting God, I think Twain is rejecting man, too. After all, as Twain knew all too well (though Melville either would not or could not face this ultimate horror), man created God in his own image. If God is a bully, it is only because man needed one.

That’s too depressing for me. Next I’ll write about a much more positive book, The Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark. Tegmark has some wild ideas, but also much in common with David Deutsch. Now I’m beginning a new book, Infinitesimal by Amir Alexander. Too early to tell, but it seems to be about a time when man refused to fail. I’ll let you know.