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Capital letter D. Genesis 3:9

CAT 26 Capital letter D. [No chapter or verse cited.] Taferelen. BA 47..jpg

CAT 25. Capital letter D. Genesis 3:9. Printed as the first letter of Tableau 4 (from the Book of Genesis) in Taferelen der voornaamste geschiedenissen van het Oude en Nieuwe Testament. The Hague: Pieter de Hondt, 1728, 1:7. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Inside the letter D, the sun’s rays radiate out from the Hebrew letters “YHWH,” the tetragrammaton which represents the unsayable reality of Yahweh or Jehovah. Accompanied only by dark, illuminated clouds suggesting all four corners of the earth, this image could indicate any of those moments in which God revealed himself to those Israelites most susceptible to revelation—from Adam and Abraham through to David and Daniel. This same letter D is used elsewhere in the 3-volume Taferelen; it is a “wild card” that moves freely and, unlike most images, never includes an engraved chapter and verse. The Dutch text on the verso of Melville’s engraving enables us to identify the Tableau which this particular D introduced: the Fourth Tableau from Genesis, the fall of man (which in Melville’s personal bible comes under the heading: “Man’s shameful fall”). Several of the Dutch words on the back of Melville’s engraving refer directly to the fall of man: “kruipende Slang” (crawling serpent) and “vygebladen” (fig leaves). They are part of Saurin’s commentary on the fall of Adam and Eve as related in Genesis 3:6-17. That commentary is accompanied in the Taferelen by Hoet’s full-page illustration of Genesis 3:7, in which Eve offers the forbidden fruit to Adam, the Biblical passage that inspired Ishmael’s reference to the “orchard thieves” in the opening chapter of Moby-Dick (NN MD 6). 

The abstract depiction of the voice of God radiating out to mankind through the letter D in Melville’s engraving relates to this moment in Genesis 3:9: “And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?” In Melville’s writing, the closest equivalent to this revelation of God’s power over Adam comes immediately after the highly abstract and metaphorical passage in which he accounts for the “great power of blackness” in “Hawthorne and his Mosses.” Melville attributes that quality to “that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin from whose visitation, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free. For, in certain moods, no man can weigh the world, without throwing in something like Original Sin, to strike the uneven balance.” He then makes this spiritual declaration visible through verbal chiaroscuro similar to that of the visual imagery just beyond the capital letter D in this engraving: “You may be . . . transported by the bright gildings in the skies he builds over you;--but there is the blackness of darkness beyond; and even his bright  gildings but fringe, and play upon the edges of thunder-clouds” (NN PTO 243). 

Similarly, Saurin’s commentary on the cloudscape of this capital D in 1728 directly anticipates Melville’s articulation of “the blackness of darkness beyond” in 1850: “Look, aye look, how clouds pitch-black and piled upon one another, clothe the heavens from bottom to top, and how they cover the face of the earth with the blackest night by day, unless the sparkling flashes of lightning, one by one shot up to the opened heavens, provide this ghastly darkness with some light.” For Saurin, even “this light, otherwise the most joyful of all creatures, is now the mark of a wrathful God who, living in an unapproachable light, covers himself with his glow as with a garment; and strikes all the living, yet senseless inhabitants of Eden’s old paradise unexpectedly with a horrible fear; while accompanied by roaring thunderbolts and a blaring thunderstorm, coming from all corners of the world” (1:7). Saurin’s “sparkling flashes” have the same Calvinistic import as Melville’s “bright gildings.” For additional “gildings” in a Dutch Biblical context, see Melville’s engraving after Rembrandt, CAT 199.