The Thousand Fibers

Herman Melville, obsessed with whales and nanocivics.

It fell to the granddaughter, Eleanor Metcalf, of this long-forgotten and unsuccessful author to thrust, after his death, his works back upon the public.  Although a prolific writer, he found success not with his novels, or poetry, but on the travelling lecture circuit. Victorian audiences thrilled to his stories of travel and he extolled them to attend to the simple relationships of personal life.

Ironically, his great work, which couldn’t crack 3,000 sales in his lifetime, is now a staple of high school and college literature classes; while his advice regarding how we live linked to one another goes unheeded.   Who was he?  Before we find out, let’s look at the dissolution of bonds that he wished to cultivate:

Joel Kotkin describes an unraveling:

Increasingly, family no longer serves as the central organizing feature of society.  An unprecedented number of individuals — approaching upwards of 30% in some  Asian countries — are choosing to eschew child bearing altogether and, often,  marriage as well…

The  widespread movement away from traditional values — Hindu, Muslim, Judeo-Christian,  Buddhist or Confucian — has also undermined familialism. Traditional values  have almost without exception been rooted in kinship relations. The new  emerging social ethos endorses more secular values that prioritize individual  personal socioeconomic success as well as the personal quest for greater  fulfillment.

Likewise, family dissolution in Seoul, South Korean leads to a bitter end:

Once a country where filial duty and a strong Confucian tradition saw parents revered, modern day South Korea, with a population of 50 million, has grown economically richer, but family ties have fragmented. Nowadays 1.2 million elderly South Koreans, just over 20 percent of the elderly population, live – and increasingly die – alone.

Writing of Huntsville, Alabama, Hazel Borys of Better! Cities and Towns offers:

On my last trip to see my aging parents, I was struck again by the loneliness that comes from diminished connections. They are both inspiring people, and in their younger years were notably adept at making connections with and for others…

However, over time those connections are slowly dissolving….

What if our family home had been in a more walkable neighourhood, where they would have been prone to walk the easy thirty minutes a day that is proven to increase memory and decrease the risk of dementia?

These sorts of places are the ones rich in social networks, which – interestingly – build neural networks. Loneliness is as dangerous as smoking, and more dangerous than obesity or inactivity.

These three perspectives on isolation show us a bleak path for modern culture – lose  religion, lose family, lose neighbors, and gain but lonely senior years.

Let’s visit the failed author’s advice:

“We cannot live only for ourselves.  A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”

Fitting it was then that the ‘sympathetic thread’ of a loving granddaughter led to discovering the unpublished yet now classic Billy Budd and to resurrecting the stillborn Moby Dick.  For Herman Melville, that’s the power of nanocivics, one generation harvesting what another has planted.

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