Herman Melville, “Redburn”: Workplace Cultures

Melville named Typee and Mardi after the places that the narrator ran to from the ship.  Omoo simply refers to the “wanderers.”  These three earlier novels talk about searching, discontent, and mobility.  Reburn (and later White-jacket) is named after the narrator.  Redburn is not about escape but about a young man coming to terms with disciplinary regimens, alien workplace cultures, and brutal indifference in a foreign land.  With Reburn, Melville stops discussing the libertarian urge for autonomy and about the real world that most of us live in – a life of work, crushing authority, discipline and alienation.  In this world, evil is not an exceptional event but it is intertwined in the structures of everyday life.  To quote C. L. R. James, Melville is beginning to describe “the World We Live In.”   With this post, I am beginning the second volume of the Library of America‘s collection of Melville’s work, containing RedburnWhite-jacket, and Moby-Dick.

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Background and Summary
Redburn emerged from Melville’s frustration with the poor reception of Mardi.  It did not sell and Melville needed money since he was now married with a son.  The novel was written quickly and drew heavily on his own experiences.  Redburn tells the story of Wellingborough Redburn on his first voyage on the merchant ship.  He sails to Liverpool, experiences that industrial city, and is spirited away to London for a night by a bit of a vagrant who be befriends.  He returns to the ship and sails home to New York, where he is denied a salary due to his “escape.”  The vast majority of the novel focuses on Redburn’s naivety  and his failure to come to terms with the workplace culture, his observations of the crew, his horror at what he sees in Liverpool, and his attempts to gain the respect of the officers of the crew.  It is a coming of age tale, and one in which maturity is the result of repeated failures.

Workplace culture
Redburn’s first struggle is to enter the workplace culture of the ship.  Entering the ship as a “boy” Redburn is not respected by either officers or crew.  He did not understand any of the unwritten rules of ship life: the proper way to interact with officers, the meaning of workplace slang, the use of tobacco and drink (Redburn starts the novel as an advocate of temperance, which he abandons by the end of the novel), and even the proper, “manly,” ways to deal with fear.  Through his failures, the narrator describes the tension between individualism and culture.  Although naive, Redburn starts as a fairly self-assured individual, confidently sailing on a ship, a strong believer in temperance, and with a plan to gain the friendship of the captain, within the first few chapters the failures of this individualism is apparent.  It fails because it did not account for the way the world of the ship actually functioned.  Without these unwritten rules, beliefs and practices, the ship could not have functioned.  He only earns some baseline respect from the crew when he learns to integrate himself into this culture.

Needless to say, this workplace culture is authoritarian.   It demanded more from Redburn than the disciplinary structure of the ship.  Resisting or reforming this workplace culture is not possible for someone in Redburn’s position.  This brings us to Redburn’s antagonist in the novel: Jackson.

Jackson
Jackson is one force on the ship that isolates Redburn more than any other.  He has a forceful personality and if in a position of command reminds us of Ahab or Wolf Larsen from Jack London’s Sea-Wolf.  He understands the pyschology of others and willfully manipulates his knowledge.  His dislike for Redburn helped enforce the narrator’s isolation and account for many of his frustrations and anxieties.  “He was a great bully, and being the best seaman on board, and very overbearing every way, all the men were afraid of him, and durst not contradict him, or cross his path in any thing.  And what made this more wonderful was, that he was the weakest man, bodily, of the whole crew; and I have no doubt that young and small as I was then, compared to what I am now, I could have thrown him down.  But he had such an over-awing way with him; such a deal of brass and impudence, such an unflinching face, and withal was such a hideous looking mortal, that Satan himself would have run from him.  And besides all this, it was quite plain, that he was by nature a marvelously clever, cunning man, though without education; and understood human nature to a kink, and well knew whom he had to deal with; and then, one glance of his squinting eye, was as good as a knock-down, for it was the most deep, subtle, infernal looking eye, that I ever saw lodged in a human head.”  (67)  According to C. L. R. James, for Melville, Jackson is the product of a brutal working class culture.  “Jackson is a worker whose evil character Melville attributes to the suffering and misery which society imposes upon the class to which he belonged. . . . Melville knew workers and workers are not people who in revenge wish to destroy the world.” (James, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, 76-77).  The problem in the workplace is not so unlike the problem in intentional communities.  While it can be a place of worker self-management, it is also easily dominated by people of strong personalities.  Perhaps Jackson is reflecting the authority structure of the ship.  Melville has much more to say about the impact of authoritarian structures on the sailors in White Jacket.

Europe
Redburn sees in Liverpool harsh inequalities.  If he is speaking for Melville, then Melville is continuing the old American critique of Europe, in particular England, as a realm of inequality, decadence, poverty, and oppression.  As nasty as the ship is for Redburn, the poverty and indifference in Liverpool are a shock.  That the return “cargo” is made up of emigrants to America is not a coincidence.  It is Melville’s celebration of the relative democracy and equality of America (even if not always actualized on the ship).  Redburn witnesses the making of America as a multinational republic.  The U.S. imperialism dominating so much of Melville’s, Pacific writing disappears as he engages in a bit of American myth-making.  “You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. . . .Our ancestry is lost in the universal pageantry; and Caesar and Alfred, St. Paul and Luther, and Homer and Shakespeare are as much ours as Washington, who is as much the world’s as our own.  We are heirs of all time, and with all nations we divide our inheritance.”

The only hope for Europe is found in the figure of Harry Bolton, a reckless liar and gambler.  It is him who is responsible for Redburn losing his wages, by whisking him off to London for a night (this was the justification for the captain withholding his wages).  He also lies about his maritime experience.  This lie will eventually  cost him his life when he dies on a whaling voyage, he was likely unprepared for.  Harry Bolton is Redburn’s friend and returns his meager wages to Captain Riga in response to Redburn’s being withheld.  This act of solidarity in the face of a duplicitous captain can be contrasted with the way the police of Liverpool deal with the poor and starving.

In one of the most memorable parts of Redburn, the narrator comes across a family starving to death in a cellar.  Redburn smuggles them food, but also informs the local police and some other local people about the dire condition of this family.  Redburn’s generosity is not enough to save the family, who died some days after he begins aiding them.

In a related event, even the impoverished sailors aid a wounded naval veteran who begs for coin on the docks.  This contrast teaches us that, as oppressive as the workplace culture can be to young sailors like Redburn, it is the working poor who can sustain real empathy.

Herman Melville, “Mardi” Serenia

One of the final and most tempting stops on Taji’s voyage throughout Mardi (the world), is Serenia.  Not only does it tempt Taji, who considers staying there, and Media and Babbalanja, who remain in Serenia, it tempts the reader as a possible alternative to the seemingly endless quest for Yillah.  Serenia is stateless and without evil.  The closest they have to an authority figure is Alma, a philosopher of peace and love.

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Like many people faced with utopia, our voyagers are skeptical at first.  Babbalanja says: “Methinks Sernia is that land of enthusiasts, of which we heard, my lord; where Mardians pretend to the unnatural conjunction of reason with things revealed; where Alma, they say, is restored to his divine original; where, deriving their principles from the same sources whence flow the persecutions of Maramma, — men strive to live together in gentle bonds of peace and charity; — folly! folly!”

Media is just as convinced that Serenia is a fool’s dream. “Much is said of those people of Serenia; but their social fabric must soon fall to pieces; it is based upon the idlest of theories.  Thanks for thy courtesy, old man, but we care not to visit thy island.”  (1284)  How often have we heard these criticisms of anarchism?  Utopian, unnatural, foolish, unsustainable.  And like Media, most of these critics choose not even to visit, face, or study the alternative dreamed up and made real by anarchists.

The first real impression we get of Serenia is its openness and generosity.  They are welcomed with song.  “Hail! voyages, hail! Whence e’er ye come, where’er ye rove, no calmer strand, no sweater land, will e’er ye view than the Land of Love. . . . Hail! voyagers, fail!  Be not deceived; renounce vain things; ye may not find a tranquil mind, thought hence ye sail with swiftest wings.” (1285-1286)  Like many church buildings, the visitor is welcomed in with hymns of praise.

They then learn about Alma, the Jesus-like philosophical leader of Serenia, known throughout Mardi and often poorly emulated.  We are reminded here of Christianity’s application of force and violence, often at odds with Jesus’ teachings.  Alma’s message is of universal love and brotherhood.  Although he proclaims an afterlife, he urges his followers to strive for perfection in this world.  When Media questions Alma’s followers on their postponement of paradise, he is quickly corrected.  “Would that Alma might once more descent!  Brother! were the turf our everlasting pillow, still would the Master’s faith answer a blessed end; — making us more truly happy here.  That is the first and chief result; for holy here, we must be holy elsewhere.  ‘Tis Mardi, to which loved Alma gives his laws; nor Paradise.” (1288-1289)

When they explain their social structure the voyagers learn that Serenia is not a communist utopia of total equality in conditions.  At the same time they “make not the miserable many support the happy few.”  (1289)  Bound by Alma’s philosophy of brotherhood and love, there is no need for a state.

The two skeptics are converted when they face truth.  Babbalanja cries out “Oh, Alma, Alma! prince divine!  in thee, at last, I find repose.” (1292)  Media sacrifices his title and position in becoming a follower: “No more a demigod, but a subject to our common chief.  No more shall dismal cries be heard from Odo’s groves.  Alma, I am thine.”  (1293)

These converts spend some time trying to convince Taji to remain in Serenia, calling Yillah a phantom or suggesting that Yillah (no longer a person but an ideal) can be found in this land.

Melville does not explain Taji’s decision to continue on.  We are not presented with a philosophical argument against Serenia.  It is enough that Yillah is not that that Taji moves on.  “But I was fixed as fate.” (1301)  A few lines later Taji considers abandoning the quest for Yillah and returning to Serenia but “then sweet Yillah called me from the sea.”  (1301)

In the context of the novel, Serenia is clearly an allegory for Christianity, which is often convincing and succeeded in converting many a ruler and philosopher.  If we strip away the religiosity of the followers of Alma, we can do much worse that Serenia, a land organized around principles of brotherhood and love.  Melville seems to doubt if that is possible without religious delusions.  Serenia lacks a state but it has a ruler in Alma’s philosophy.  Is there a place for people in Serenia who doubt Alma’s message?  It does not seem to be true.  Media and Babbalanja can only stay after a full conversion.

Thus as compelling as Serenia is, it is ultimately another failure.  Like Taji we need to keep searching for Yillah, whatever she is.  I admit there is little concrete that we can use in Mardi and this message could have been told with more clarity, ease, and persuasion.  (I tend to think Omoo does a better job.)  It works as a fairy tale without ending.  The lesson of the first three Melville novels is to be dissatisfied because something better is just over the horizon, and that it can be ours if we only have the bravery to venture out there.

Herman Melville, “Mardi”, Failures

Melville wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Lord, when shall we done growing?  As long as we have anything more to do, we have done nothing.  So, now, let us add Moby Dick to our blessing, and step from that.  Leviathan is not t he biggest fish;–I have heard of Krakens.”  In Mardi, Yillah may represent this unachievable goal.  The fact that she is not discovered after 700 pages is part of the novel’s greatness since it challenges us to always be discontent.  Those ideals in our mind (for that is where Yillah exists by the end of the novel) are never achieved fully and we are cowards for not striving for them.  Better to be the reckless fool, like Taji, than the content.

Only Taji succeeds in achieving this transcendent ideal.  It is him to ventures out at the end.  Many of his companions stayed behind in places that seemed “good enough.”  Some of these died as a result.

Who are these companions?  His first is Jarl (“The Viking”) who deserts from the whaling ship with him.  He is an old salt.  Melvilles narrators are often sailors who are inexperienced.  Characters like Jarl exist in all his novels.  They are the people who devoted their life to the sea.  He is left behind in the island of Mondoldo, ruled by King Borabolla.  He dies on the island, killed by the priest Aleema’s sons.

His next companion is Samoa, who he meets when he sets out on the all but abandoned brig.  He is a Pacific Islander.  His wife Annatoo is an early antagonist in the story.  He is a pilferer and risks the survival of the company on the brig.  She might suggest the blind drive for material gain.  Her death during the destruction of the brig opens up the way for the discovery of Yillah, an ideal woman for Taji — our protagonist.

After the disappearance of Yillah, Taji is accompanied by four figures representing government (King Media), philosophy (Babbalanja), history (Mohi), and poetry (Yoomy).  Of these the most interesting and fully developed alternative to Taji’s quest for Yillah is Babbalanja.  He provides most of the novels discourses on life, death, good and evil.  Indeed, he is personally conflicted, housing an demon he calls Azzageddi.  He is the figure that attempts to convince Taji to stay in Serenia, which is an anarchist utopia based on peace.  Taji’s rejection of this option, promoted by his most vibrant companion suggests the ultimate failure of pure philosophy and the philosophically-ideal society.

Media is the model of a benevolent despot.  He exercises absolute control over his empire of Odo.  His is a powerful state, receiving envoys from many other islands in Mardi.  He accompanies Taji on the expedition and like Babbalanja stays behind in Serenia, renouncing absolute monarchy and his status as a god.

What about the many places that Taji visits?  None of them are satisfactory.  All of them reflect some of the evils of human nature.  Doxodox rules a small wooded island but cannot match Babbalanja in the philosophical arts and is clearly an inferior imposter.  In Padulla they meet a trickster salesman of oddities.  Tribonnora is a crazy prince who enjoys the sport of hunting humans.  Ohonoo of Uhia is a absolutist imperialist monarch.

Later in the novel, the travelers visit islands that resemble the great powers of Melville’s day.  Clearly none of these are aqueduct.  Dominora (England) is too busy in conflicts with Vivenza (America) and crushing internal revolts.    Even Vivenza, a great and expanding republic, is plagued with slavery.

I have no doubt that most readers will find these seemingly endless series of islands, each representing some of the worst characteristics of man, tedious and burdensome.  The novels is, as contemporary reviews noticed, a mess.  But it is  intriguing and courageous.  I think that Melville here is on a quest much like is protagonist to find a place where democracy and human freedom can exist.   His failure is certainly not due to his lack of imagination, which explodes on every page of Mardi.  Rather, Taji’s failure is due to the true impossibility of perfection in this world.  He asks us, from the first page until the last, to search for this, even if the journey is endless.

Herman Melville, “Mardi” Thematic Summary

As anyone who has attempted reading Mardi knows, it is a strange and largely opaque novel.  At best, it is allegorical and impressionistic.  At worst, it is a messy garble of ideas without any concrete center, theme, or message.  I will not attempt to find one in these posts.  Instead, I will attempt to highlight a few ideas to convince the brave to take another look at Mardi.

Its plot follows the narrator, who takes the name Taji after being deemed a demi-god, as he deserts from a doomed whaling ship.  Taji and his comrade take a boat out and eventually run into a brig, which they take and sail along with the two surviving members of an annihilated company.  That ship sinks, leaving them again on a small boat.  The survivors run into a priest and his sons carrying a imprisoned woman, Yillah, a Polynesian woman with bleached skin and hair.  She is to be sacrificed, so Taji kills the priest and saves her, but will be followed by his three cons throughout the novel.  The narrator falls in love with Yillah and begins to learn more about her story.  She believes her origins are supernatural.  They arrive in Mardi (“the world” in Polynesian and in the world of the novel a series of islands).  At the island of Odo, they meet king Media.  After a visit from the handmaidens of Queen Hautia.  Soon after this Yillah is missing.  For the rest of the novel, Taji searches for his love.  He is accompanied by his initial comrades, King Media, Babbalanja (a philosopher), Mohi (a historian) and Yoomy (a poet).  The plot of the rest of the novel is their travels through Mardi, visiting islands and meeting people that provided allegorical critiques of Melville’s own world.  During this voyage, Yillah becomes more and more of an abstract ideal.  The novel ends with their arrival at the island of Queen Hautia.  Here Taji is nearly seduced by the queen and her worldliness.  They never find Yillah and Taji ends the novel continuing his wanderings.  Taji becomes the ultimate “Omoo” (wanderer), traveling the entire world and seeking an unreachable ideal.  His travels expose him to numerous realms, kings, good, evil, wisdom, foolishness, violence, and peace.  As readers of this blog already know, I am a supporter of the rootless, the unsettled, and the malcontent, for until we are malcontent with the bravery to recreate ourselves and our worlds we are easily enslaved.

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Everyplace that Taji visited lacked Yillah.  What they all seemed to have were kinds, hierarchies, criminal foolishness, and slavery.  This is the reading C. L. R. James gives in Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways.  James believed that Melville was writing on the Revolutions of 1848 (Mardi was published one year after these tumultuous events).  “He was for example an extreme, in fact a fanatical democrat.  Some of his views he expressed would change in his next book.  But Mardi shows that he already believed that a future of continually expanding democracy was an illusion, for America as for the rest of the world, that he considered politics a game played by politicians.” (James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, 75)  If this reading is correct, Yillah suggests that vision of an expanding democracy which is  not achieved (and seemingly impossible) by the end.  “And thus, pursuers and pursued flew on, over an endless sea.” (1316)

In the next two posts, we will further explore Mardi.  First, we will consider the failed visions, including those provided by Taji’s companions.  Next, we will attack the one tempting island in Mardi, Serenia – a democratic and anarchist utopia.  On the final page, Taji is given the choice of Serenia or the “endless sea.”

Herman Melville, “Omoo,” Part 2: Transgression

The second part of Melville’s Omoo follows the narrator “Typee” as he and his fellow shipmate (and now jailmate) Dr. Long Ghost as they seek happiness and freedom in the South Seas.

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Part two begins with the mutinous sailors in the jail.  It is an easy-going jail.  They can come and go during the day as the please, interact with the local Polynesians, and are fairly well-cared for.  They decide to stay there even after their ship Julia leaves to continue its whaling voyage.  Melville devotes some of the time that his narrator is in jail to continue the anti-missionary and anti-imperial arguments that he started in Typee.  Melville argues for a degree of religious environmentalism suggesting that the missionaries are not only importing degradation into Tahiti but also that the Polynesians are incapable of being true Christian converts.  “There is perhaps no race upon earth less disposed, by nature, to the monitions of Christianity, than the people of the South Seas. . . . Added to all this, is that quality inherent to Polynesians; and more akin to hypocrisy than anything else.  It leads them to assume the most passionate interest, in matters for which they really feel little or none whatever.”  (500-501)  An incompatible religious is perhaps anodyne enough, but much more devastating to the Polynesians is the destruction of their economy: the depopulation by disease, the destruction of the tappa manufacturing industry, and the establishment of sugar plantations.  These sugar plantations pose one of the greatest threats to the Polynesian way of life.  This rejection of Western civilization is Typee’s first transgression in this part of the novel.

After these digressions, the narrative continues with a scheme by Dr. Long Ghost to improve the living conditions in their jail.  With the Julia gone, there is no need to restrain the sailors any longer.  They are becoming an economic burden.  The sailors, content with a life of luxury scheme to demand higher rations.  Like many working-class people, turned off by the failure of work in the achievement of their dreams, choose the “dole” as a way to take advantage of a system that has exploited them for years.  The first scheme, by Long Ghost, is to fake a fit and blame his condition on poor rations and poor conditions.  This fails and they next march on Wilson.  With little hope in jail for an improved life, Long Ghost and Typee set off for the island of Imeeo, where they heard from two deserters that a pair of foreigners established a sugar plantation.  This way, they can at least leave on their own terms.  They are certain that Wilson will get rid of them someway.  Interestingly, and powerfully, Typee “longed for a change.”  It is these whims that drive so much of the plot of Melville’s first two novels.  A form of attention-defect-disorder that is a powerful tool of subtle resistance.  Allowing our whims to drive us is certainly better than allowing the bosses desires control us.  The name of the novel “Omoo” refers to a Polynesian word for “wanderer.”

A Sugar Plantation.  The gift of "civilization."

A Sugar Plantation. The gift of “civilization.”

They take up a job laboring on the plantation, but it is not long before they find the work too odious and seek to venture out to find the employment of a Polynesian queen.  He is searching for a pristine Polynesian way of life, perhaps closer to what he experienced among the Typee but was quickly being lost in places of greater European control, such as Tahiti.  They venture off by lying to their employers.  The second transgression of the narrator and his companion is their rootlessness and vagrancy along with their unabashed ability to take advantage of their captors and employers.

The remainder of the novel follows the “Omoo” as they go deeper into the areas of the Society Islands they hope are untouched by European empire.  Even in Tamai, the Western influence is visible.  A hermit salesman tries to sell them Western-style trousers and Westerners often populate the courts of local kings and queens, working in various fashions.  These people serve as other examples of “Omoo” seeking a place for themselves and averting work by any means possible.  Of course, the Polynesians can play this game too, taking advantage of the Western presence however they can.  Some, like the hermit, sell their artifacts.  Others made their living turning in deserting sailors for the bounty.

Their next stop is Imeeo, where they find a more pristine culture.  They are taken in by Marharvai, the local chief.  They enjoy a dinner party, the company of three girls, fishing, swimming, and relaxing.  Their next to last stop in the novel is a visit with a “dealer in the contraband,” a hermit called Varvy.  Long Ghost drinks heavily with him and losses his boots under suspicious circumstances.

Even in distant Partoowye, the European impact is felt.  Here it is reflected in the native Christian Ereemear, who takes in the “Omoo” as guests.  They also encounter a carpenter from a ship (another deserter) who falls in love with a native girl.  Long Ghost falls in love with Ereemear’s daughter Loo, who rejects his advances.  After a failed attempt to work from the Queen of Partoowye, the omoo part ways.  Long Ghost stays on the island and Typee sails off with a whaling ship.

The major theme of the novel is resistance to capitalism and empire through the individual acts of working people.  Sometimes it took the form of running away other times in fencing stolen goods.  For many it was just the refusal to work when other options presented themselves.  This is a strategy that has been used for centuries to oppose the alienation and exploitation of capital.  I think we should all become “Omoo.”

Herman Melville, “Omoo” Part One: Authority and Resistance

Omoo is a continuation of the story laid out in Typee.  Like the earlier work, it is semi-autobiographical and is based on Melville’s time in Tahiti and the Society Islands.  Like Typee, it is critical of the missionaries and challenges the division between “civilization” and “savagery” promoted by the Western imperialists in the Pacific.  It is also a tale of power, authority, resistance, and transgression.  It speaks of islands in rapid transformation due to the arrival of white “rovers,” who like “Typee” (the narrator takes on a new name here, sailor fashion) seeking a place for themselves in the islands.  For the modern reader, Omoo also works as a study in roving.  Typee never finds a place for himself in the South Seas but tries half a dozen places.

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The plot of the first half of the novel is as follows.  Typee signs onto an English whaler to escape the events of Typee.  The authority structure of the ship is dysfunctional and the sailors nearly mutiny.  Typee talks the crew into submitting a petition to the English consul.  This fails and on Papeetee, the crew is imprisoned in the “Calabooza Beretanee.”  They live a reasonable life in this “prison.”  The English whaler, Julie, finally leaves with a new crew.  During these events, Typee strikes up a lasting friendship with the doctor “Long Ghost,” who has earlier left the leadership structure of the ship and stayed with the sailors in the forecastle.  This act of class-betrayal in the book is important because it highlights the breakdown of authority on the Julia and solidarity overcoming difference (He is Australian and part of the old authority structure of the ship).

Much of the first part of the book is a dissertation on the failures and absurdities of the disciplinary regimen of the sailing ship.  The Julia‘s captain, Guy, is incompetent and often ill.  The first mate, John Jermin, who takes over the ship, is a drunkard but fairly effective, but is still unable to forestall a near-mutiny.  The second mate, Bembo, seems near mad in his blood-thirsty desire to hunt whales and fights with a common sailor, “Sydney Dan.”

The sailors explore three ways of resisting the their bosses.  One method is desertion.  Desertion plagues Jermin from the earliest pages.  Before the novel began, the Julia suffered from mass desertion leading to a low company.  In chapter five, five crew members desert only to be recovered.  Throughout the South Seas we see evidence of massive sailor desertions.  Many of the whites working in service to local chiefs deserted from ships.  Others, picked up to work on the passing whaling ships deserted form earlier ships.  A mobile and flexible labor force existed as a result of these desertions.  Deserters who frustrated one captain became the ready labor supply for another captain.  Like the post-modern worker, drifting from employer to employer these sailors left due to personal conflicts with employers or a fleeting desire for new adventures.  Those who fled the Julia did so out of frustration over low provisions, illness (in an interesting passage, a crewman with believed supernatural powers predicts the deaths of most of the crew), an incompetent captain, or a grim realization that they would remain at sea as long as it took to fill the ship with whale oil.  Deserters prove to be some of the most colorful characters in the novel, all having interesting histories and experiences, often lost to standard maritime history.

The sailors attempted a mutiny, the pinnacle of all maritime resistance.  Typee talks them down to a petition, which is rejected by the British consul, Wilson.

Another, weaker, form of resistance is that reflected in the massive consumption of Pisco – a locally-produced alcoholic drink.  It provides an escape from the fears of sickness. In the end, drink is used to help prevent the mutiny.  When ordered to return to the ship by Wilson, one justification is the full provision of Pisco on board.  This fails to convince the rebellious sailors.  A much more rebellious form of escape is Long Ghost’s escape from the cabin to the forecastle.  “Aside from the pleasure of his society, my intimacy with Long Ghost was of great service to me in other respects.  His disgrace in the cabin only confirmed the good-will of the democracy of the forecastle; and they not only treated him in the most friendly manner, but looked up to him with the utmost deference, besides laughing heartily at all his jokes.” (363)

The only resistance that has any real effect on the men is “opting out.”  Which is why it was so commonly used in the South Seas.  It was not a final solution.  For most, the best they could hope was a better captain in the future, but it was effective for creating  a zone of freedom in an otherwise hierarchical and oppressive environment.  The effectiveness of the “temporary autonomous zone” of sailor desertion is fully developed in the second half of the novel as Typee and Long Ghost seek out a permanent freedom.

The mutinous sailors are eventually sent to a jail with the help of the local French authorities and the English consul.  Believe it or not, the jail is an improvement from the Julia in many ways.  They are more well freed and enjoy considerable freedom during the day.  They can make full use of the citrus orchards.  When the Julia leaves the mutineers behind, they decide to stay for the time being in the jail, which offers more freedoms and security than the ship.

At the half-way point in the narrative, the sailors have achieved some successes.  Through desertion and resistance, they escaped the regimen of Jermin and the incompetence of Captain Guy.  At no point were their actions driven by ideological concerns.  They simply found themselves in a precarious, unsettling, or demeaning position and asserted their natural desire for liberty.  Perhaps the choice of many of us to desert, which might be mistaken by employers, the government, parents, or friends are rootlessness, recklessness, or vagrancy, is our way of unknowingly creating temporary spaces of individual freedom in an economic system that demands service.

Herman Melville “Typee” Part Two

C. L. R. James wrote: “In Typee [Melville] holds up to admiration the civilization of the Typees and makes the most damaging comparisons with Western civilization.  Melville says that during the weeks he lived among the Typees, no one was ever put on trial for any public offense.  As far as he could see there were no courts of law or equity.  No police.  Yet everything went on in the valley with a perfect harmony and smoothness.  He denounces missionaries, white traders and government officials for degrading and corrupting this ideal civilization, cannibalistic as it was.”  (James, Mariners, Renegades & Castaways, 71).

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Most of the second half of the novel Typee amounts to travelogue and ethnography, as Melville tells his readers about the society he lived with for around a month (four months in the time frame of the novel).  There is not much left to tell in respect to plot.  In addition to living among the Typee, Tommo considers leaving at times and attempts to convince the Typee to allow him to leave, but settles in.  When he catches his hosts with three severed heads, Tommo begins to fear for his life, living among cannibals.  Despite resistance and difficulty, Tommo is able to escape by signing onto a whaling vessel.  His adventures will continue in the novel Omoo, where he will take on the name “Typee.”  This novel does have two epilogues.  One examined a British occupation of Hawaii.   The second considered the adventures of Toby after his escape from the Typee.

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I want to focus on the world Melville describes.  As I discussed in my last post, he was making a critique of “civilization” by praising the successes of the savages.  He saw the missionaries and whites as a corrupting force.  This theme is even more strongly argued in Omoo.  What is so special about the Typee community?  What can we learn from them?  Perhaps not much, but there remains much that is admirable.  The Typee have achieved a post-scarcity society.  The cultivation of breadfruit and “cocao-nuts” ensured a steady supply of food at the cost of little apparent drudgery.  Abundance of necessities is one half of eliminating scarcity.  The other half is in the elimination of desires.   “In a primitive state of society, the enjoyments of life, though few and simple, are spread over a great extent, and are unalloyed; but Civilization, for every advantage she imparts, holds a hundred evils in reserve; — the heart burnings, the jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissensions, and the thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life, which make up the swelling aggregate of human misery, are unknown among these unsophisticated people.” (149-150)By needed little, the Typee did not need to invest much of their energy into production.  The benefits of this post-scarcity situation overflow on almost every page of the second half of the novel.  Let me just mention two: time and governance.

Time: Industrialization created a world defined by the clock.  One sells their labor by the hour.  Tasks in the day are measured by seconds and minutes.  More and more of our conception of reality is defined by the standardized time-keeping.  Melville describes the opposite process.  The Typee would not have been aware of it, but Tommo, coming from 19th century America would have notice how time became less important.  “Gradually I lost all knowledge of the regular recurrence of the days of the week, and sunk insensibly into that kind of apathy which ensures after some violent outbreak of despair.  My limb suddenly healed, the swelling went down, the pain subsided.” (148)  A simple thought experiment would reveal that given liberation from work, whether through a more egalitarian distribution of necessary work, a reduction in living standards, or the mechanization of labor most people would choose to organize their days in accordance to their desires.  Nonnegotiable schedules would quickly vanish.  An afternoon spent on family, drink, or hobbies would no longer be seen as time wasted, better spent on productive labors.  Clocks might remain, but they would be servants of humanity not the masters.

Governance: The system of government among the Typee is described in chapters 25 and 26.   Melville was impressed with its simplicity and its lack of authority.  Deference was seemingly given willingly by the people and was not forced because the chief has no real say over the affairs of the community.  “During the festival I had not failed to remark the simplicity of manner, the freedom from all restraint, and, to a certain degree, the equality of condition manifested by the natives in general.” (219)  (I cannot help but notice the similar language used by Tocqueville in describing 1830 U.S.A.)  This simplicity was replicated in the marriage system.  Melville describe the use of polyandry and the lack of extended and tedious courtships.  Divorces are common and mostly amicable.  “As nothing stands in the way of a separation, the matrimonial yoke sits easily and lightly, and a Typee wife lives on very pleasant and sociable terms with her husbands.” (226)  I wonder how much of this can be explained by the lack of the interference of property in marriage.  With property comes greater concerns about fidelity, paternity certainty, and, of course, divorces become more complicated.  Often what makes divorce so traumatic for individuals and communities is a direct outgrowth of our atomized, unequal, capitalist society. Who will care for the children?  Who will get to keep the marital assets?  These are questions that did not plague the Typee.  The raising of children was as straightforward and simple as everything else in Typee life.  And with no property to divide up, divorce could not threaten any man or woman’s survival.  If we stopped looking at our relationships through windows of ownership and property, perhaps divorce would be less common.  Adultery is a threat only to those who think love, sex, emotion, happiness, and joy are scarce and marketable commodities.  (Only the one who “paid the price”, i.e. got married, should enjoy those things.)  Conflicts amongst the Typee were rare.  Tommo claimed to have seen none.

“Civilization does not engross all the virtues of humanity; she has not even her full share of them.  They flourish in greater abundance and attain greater strength amongst many barbarous people.  The hospitality of the wild Arab, the courage of the North American Indian, and the faithful friendships of some of the Polynesian nations, far surpass any thing of a similar kind among the polished communities of Europe.  If truth and justice, and the better principles of our nature cannot exist unless enforced by the statute-book, how are we to account for the social condition of the Typees?” (238)

Herman Melville, “Typee” Part One

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Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life evolved from Herman Melville’s experiences in 1841 and 1842 in the South Seas.  It is semi-autobiographical.  This work began the literary career of who I see as the greatest American artist.  If I cannot locate the blogs themes in the work of Melville, I expect I could wrap up this blog as a failure.  While waiting in detention in Ellis Island, C. L. R. James wrote: “What Melville did was to place within the covers of one book [Moby Dick] a presentation of a whole civilization so that any ordinary human being today can read it in a few days and grasp the essentials of the world he lived in.  To do this a man must contain within his single self, at one and the same time, the whole history of the past, the most significant experiences of the world around him, and a clear vision of the future.  Of all this he creates an ordered whole.  No philosopher, statesman, scientist or soldier exceeds him in creative effort.” (James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, 115)

 

I will work through Melville’s work with a degree of humility and patience, both to the master and the many dozens of scholars who understand his words better than me.  I will, of course, focus my energies on what Melville has to say about freedom, empire, community, solidarity, progress, the environment, democracy and other questions of interest in anarchists.

Typee tells the story of sailor deserting from his ship with a friend, his struggle for survival on the island, his discovery of a native community (which he feared was the “cannibal” Typee), the society, culture, economy, and politics of the people he met, and his return to European and American “civilization” represented by the ship.  It parallels, broadly, experiences Melville himself went through while on a whaling voyage.

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To start, the ship is Tommo’s (the narrator is named Tom but identified as Tommo by the Typee) connection to the West.  It has a degree of security and comfort for him.  Despite choosing to flee the ship, for a long time he remained fearful of the “cannibal” Typee.  He remains anxious throughout his time with the Typee.  This anxiety was symbolized in his aching leg, which seemed to heal as he got closer to assimilation and pained him during his bouts with anxiety and fear.  The ship reflected a world of inequality and want.  “We left both law and equity on the other side of the Cape; and unfortunately, with a very few exceptions, our crew was composed of a parcel of dastardly and mean-spirited wretches, divided among themselves, and only united in enduring without resistance the unmitigated tyranny of the captain.” (31)  Stories of whaling ships remaining in the Pacific for years despite low provisions helped convince Tom to flee with his companion Toby.

The ship is also a zone for the imperial domination of the Pacific islands, a theme Melville often returns to.  He was critical of French imperialism in the Pacific, with the degradation of the lives of islanders, and the tendency of Europeans and Americans to paint themselves as civilized and the Islanders as “savages.”  The ship, was the initial hammer of empire.  Much of the early part of the book engages these themes of desperation and want on the ship and the colonial conquest.  When discussing the arrival of women to the ship, he critiqued the tendency of Westerners to take advantage of their innocence.  “The grossest licentiousness and the most shameful inebriety prevailed, with occasional and but short-lived interruptions.  . . . Unsophisticated and confiding, they are easily led into every vice, and humanity weeps over the ruin thus remorselessly inflicted upon them by their Europeans civilizers.” (25)  Now, I tend to think that this over-emphasizes the naivety of Pacific island women, it does suggest the hypocrisy of empire – the bringing of “civilization” covering up the use of violence, manipulation, or corruption.  Melville reserves his harshest critiques of the French, who he describes as “insolent” and “arrogant.”  He also praised at times the ability of the Typee to resist full domination by the French.

The entire narrative is just one of many examples in the American tradition of people choosing to escape European and American settler colonialism for the relative equality and freedom of “hidden places.”  Starting with one of the first colonies in North America at Roanoke, people have fled capitalism, monarchical hierarchies, and slavery. Some joined Indian tribes.  Slaves fled and formed the “maroon communities.”  Sailors fled in other ways.  By fleeing at the right moment they could await the arrival of new ships to sign on with.  These ships may be on the way home, better provisioned, or just have a new captain.  Many sailors fled simply to escape personal conflicts with officers.  Armed resistance and mutiny were only a last resort.  It seems to me one explanation for the lack of armed resistance to capitalism in American history is that so many people found alternative ways to resist, often by opting out.  This is what Melville did and it is what he has Tom and Toby attempt.  Better to be free and starving and on the run from cannibals than to be degraded into submission by the authoritarian structure of the whaling ship.

Is “opting out” still an option for us.  We lack the wild places to flee too, but there are other ways people continue to opt out of the system.  Maybe many of these options are inauthentic.  Someone can drop out of school but still take a job at Wal-mart.  But remember, Melville was not fully authentic either.  He got his one month of peace from the whaling ship before returning.  (He gives Tom four months in the novel.)  In the same way, slaves who ran away often had to return after a brief respite.  True escape was difficult then and impossible now.  I suggest we not dwell on purity and focus on the power of “opting out” by cultivating options for people looking for escape  from the state and capital, the moral law and religion.  Maybe the Temporary Autonomous Zone is all we can ask for.

In Chapter 17, Melville makes his most full critique of the concept of civilization.  He does this by harnessing different values.  Certainly, Melville was romanticizing the Pacific islanders a bit, but I reckon the broad strokes are correct.  The Typee were more free and more happy than the Westerners.  “In this secluded abode of happiness there were no cross old women, no cruel step-dames, no withered spinsters, no lovesick maidens, no sour old bachelors, no inattentive husbands, no melancholy young men, no blubbering youngsters and no squalling brats.  All was mirth, fun, and high good humor.” (151-152)  Much of this happiness evolved from their post-scarcity situation.  Work was limited and breadfruit readily available.  For a sailor like Melville, this must have been a strong contrast to the daily violence and drudgery of work on the sailing ship.

This has a strong parallel with Denis Diderot’s “Supplement au voyage de Bougainville.”  The Bougainville voyages of the later 18th century, explored the South Seas for the French and led to encounters with Tahiti.  In his “Supplement” Diderot fictionalized this encounter between a Christian and a Taihitian man.  The Christian initially offended the man by refusing to sleep with his daughter.  The discussion that follows from this is a perfect example of the proper way to deal with cultural differences.  In simple language, both men express the reasons for their belief, but for the reader, the Taihitian cannot but look the more mature and wise.  That he argued for the anathema (for Europeans) of non-monogamy, makes the clarity and persuasiveness of his position all the more striking.   His argument rests on the hypocrisy of a civilization based on control, institutional order, unchanging rules, and inflexible customs running contrary to human nature is more oppressive than a civilization based on our natural freedoms and desires.

 

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “The Seance and Other Stories” (Vegetarianism)

Many of Singer’s stories speak directly to his vegetarianism.  Earlier stories in this collection (Collected Stories: Grimpel the Fool to The Letter Writer) addressed animal rights. This theme becomes stronger in the collection Seance and Other Stories, published in translation in 1968.  In “Blood”, collected with other stories in Short Friday, Singer connected sexual perversion and excess to the indiscriminate slaughter of animals.  He also case doubt on the entire profession of kosher slaughtering.  No matter how much education the slaughterer acquired, he was still one step from a murderer and easily seduced by criminal behavior.  I think he was casting doubt on the possibility, in the modern world, of kosher butchering.  Behind closed doors, with just the slaughterer and his victim the rules of ritual slaughter cannot be enforced.  (I understand that this is the heart of Jewish vegetarianism as a movement, which argues that all industrial and modern meat processing is inherently against God’s laws.)      In his preface to Food for the Spirit by Steven Rosen, Singer wrote: ” Vegetarianism is my religion. I became a consistent vegetarian some twenty-three years ago. Before that, I would try over and over again. But it was sporadic. Finally, in the mid-1960s, I made up my mind. And I’ve been a vegetarian ever since.  When a human kills an animal for food, he is neglecting his own hunger for justice. Man prays for mercy, but is unwilling to extend it to others. Why should man then expect mercy from God? It’s unfair to expect something that you are not willing to give. It is inconsistent.  I can never accept inconsistency or injustice. Even if it comes from God. If there would come a voice from God saying, “I’m against vegetarianism!” I would say, “Well, I am for it!” This is how strongly I feel in this regard.  In orthodox religious circles, this would be considered heretical. Still, I consider myself a religious man. I’m not against organized religion, but I don’t take part in it. Especially when they interpret their religious books as being in favor of meat-eating. Sometimes they say He wants sacrifice and the killing of animals. If this is true, then I would never be able to comply. But I think God is wiser and more merciful than that. And there are interpretations of religious scriptures which support this, saying that vegetarianism is a very high ideal.  Whether the mass of people accept the vegetarian interpretation of religion or not really doesn’t matter. At least not in my life. I accept it implicitly. Of course, it would be wonderful if the world adopted vegetarianism, on religious grounds or any other. But this is not likely. I am a skeptic, it’s true, but I’m also realistic. In any event, what the people in general do will not affect me. I will continue to be a vegetarian even if the whole world started to eat meat.”

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Now, while I have little patience for the religious path to vegetarianism.  Like Singer, I find God’s existence, non-existence, or revealed guidelines for life irrelevant.  Without too much trouble, one can get to vegetarianism from utilitarian and environmental arguments just as easily, without clouding the question with dubious God-claims.  While I find moralism about vegetarianism and veganism tiresome and unlikely to persuade, I am a vegetarian because the killing and eating of animals reinforces hierarchical sensibilities between people, and between men and women, and between people and the natural world.  If we want to crush authority, we must address authority in our daily lives and the most common for of violence most humans participate in is the consumption of meat.

There are a handful of stories that speak to Singer’s disgust with the production of meat.  “The Slaughterer” is the opposite of “Blood.”  In “Blood” a brutal slaughterer turns from his profession – and meat eating – only after being driven to the depths of violence, thievery, and sexual indiscretion.  In “The Slaughterer” the title character (Yoineh Meir) was unwillingly appointed the town’s ritual slaughterer.  He suffered at the death of every animal he caused.  He was the exception to the rule mentioned in other Singer tales, that for some people slaughtering or murdering are the only two possible professions.  His job forces Yoineh Meir to meditate on death, to engage in deep study of religious texts, and the morality of his profession.  “Verily, in order to create the world, the Infinite One had had to shrink His light; there could be no free choice without pain. But since the beasts were not endowed with free choice, why should they have to suffer?  Yoineh Meir watched, trembling, as the butchers chopped the cows with their axes and skinned them before they had heaved their last breath.  The women plucked the feathers from the chickens while they were still alive.” (548)  His disgust with the horrors of his job eventually leads him to suicide.  His point seems to be, that if ritual slaughtering can cause so much suffering in a good man, how can participation in that system be moral?

“Cockadoodledoo” is told from the perspective of a chicken and we are reminded that celebrations for humans are often the end of the line of beasts.  “I have seen a rooster castrated and force-fed.  I know the end all too well: death.  Whether they’ll make a sacrifice of me for Yom Kippur, whether they’ll put me aside until Passover, Succoth or for the Sabbath of Moses’ Song of the Red Seas, the slaughterer waits, the knife is sharp, everything is prepared: the tub for soaking, the salting board, the gravy bowl, the stew pot, or maybe the roasting over.”

In “The Letter Writer,” a sick, bachelor who was left mostly alone by the Nazi crimes against European Jews meditates on many things but in a striking and often-quoted passage is able to feel empathy for a mouse.  He also is one of the first to contrast the meat-packing industry with the Nazi death camps.  “All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated.  In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.  And yet a man demands compassion from heaven.” (750)

This completes some of my thoughts on the first volume of Singer’s work.  I have decided to set aside the remaining two novels.  I have acquired a book contract and this will require me to review Melville in detail.

L’Orfeo (1607)

Instead of attending a Christmas Dinner, I spent some time re-listening to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607)today and thought I would post my commentary.  I suspect we all have heard this story from Greek mythology, codified in Ovid’s Metamorphosis.  Orpheus, one of the Argonauts, marries Eurydice.  After she dies, Orpheus descends into the underworld, using his gift of music to tame the beasts guarding the way.  Hades grants Orpheus his wife back if he can return to the world of the living without looking at her.  He fails in this task and Eurydice returns to Hades.

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As we listen to the first act, we need to recall that Orpheus is completing his labors as a warrior and an adventurer.  This fact is alluded to a few times throughout the first act such as when the chorus sings “Here is Orpheus, for whom but recently sighs were food and tears drink: today he is happy that he had nothing more to long for.”  Orpheus is settling down to marry Eurydice and the entire countryside is rejoicing this fact. Nymphs and shepherds participate in retelling the triumph of their love.  The shepherds also post an ominous warning that is not spoken commonly enough at weddings.  “Let there be no one who, in despair, gives himself up in prey to grief, though at times it may powerfully assail us and darken out lives.”  Ah, but what an orientation to have with fate.  While we know sorrow and loss and frustration and suffering stand in front of us, we go in boldly each day for that slim hope of happiness.  Too many of us either expect only happiness and face frustration and pain with disbelief.  Others so expect pain that they do not risk joy.

Being an Italian opera, we do not need to wait long for fate to return Orpheus to his sorrows.  (But we are gifted with a nice little aria celebrating his happiness. Sometime else most of us do too infrequently.)  “The Messenger” brings news that Eurydice has died after suffering from a snake bite.  Orpheus’ response here is key to the entire opera and its lesson for us, in my opinion.  He refuses to accept destiny.  Fate for him is something to struggle against, not passively accept or blindly follow.  “You are dead, my life, and I still breath?  You have gone from me, never more to return, and I remain?  No, for it my songs have any power at all I will surely descent to the deepest abyss and, having softened the heart of the King of Shadows, will bring you back with me to see the stars again.  Oh, if malign destiny denies me this, I will remain with you in the company of death.”

Hope (Speranza) takes Orpheus to the gates of the underworld but warns him of the futility of his mission.  “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate [Abandon all hope, ye who enter]”  With that, Hope abandons Orpheus.  Hope is a useless companion when wrestling with fate.  Hope is the bastion of the weak.  Enter Charon: “Hey, only dead people should be here.  Don’t make me get the dogs.  Wait, are you here for Persephone?”  Orpheus explains but cannot get him to break the rules.  Fortunately, Orpheus is such a brilliant singer, Charon falls asleep, allowing our hero to steal the river boat.  With this, the chorus makes an important Promethean statement.  “No enterprise by man is undertaken in vain, nor can Nature further defend herself against him.  He has ploughed the waving fields of the uneven plain and scattered the seed of his labour, whence he has reaped golden harvests.”  Historically this may suggest the optimistic humanism of the Renaissance or even portend the emergence of European capitalism.  For me it just as strongly foreshadows Wagner and the “Destruction of the Gods” and the emergence of a self-confident and autonomous humanity.  Orpheus, by overcoming Charon and entering the underworld take the realm of the divine for himself.  By refusing to accept fate, he has conquered the means by which the gods keep us in control.  The afterlife separates the past from the present and makes loss our greatest fear.  Orpheus destroys this boundary, undermining natures hold over us.

The next act opens with Persephone convincing Pluto to return Eurydice to her husband.  Persephone misread Orpheus and feels pity for his sorrow.  Pluto knows better than to contradict his wife, but he also understands that Orpheus is not the pitiable figure his wife takes him for.  He attaches the condition that “he may not once turn his eager eyes toward her, for a single glance will inevitably bring about her eternal loss.”  Orpheus leaves with Eurydice behind him.  The libretto (by Alessandro Striggio) is clear that Orpheus turns to gaze on her with defiance at the rule of the god.  It is not a mistake brought on by recklessness, forgetfulness, or haste.  Orpheus chooses to defy the gods and accept fate – as horrible as it is.  Let’s take a look at this defiant passage.  “Perhaps the gods of Avernus, impelled by envy, so that I should not be fully happy down here, prevent me from looking at you, blessed and radiant eyes, which can bless others with a mere look?  But what do you fear, my heart?  What Pluto forbids, Love commands.  I must obey a more powerful divinity who conquers both men and gods.”   The chorus at the end of Act IV want to put a damper on this victory by saying that a true hero can achieve victory over himself as well as others.  But still, his conquest of Hades is doubtless.

The opera ends with Orpheus rejecting other women (in the original libretto this rightfully inspired the ire of Bacchus).  He ascends into the skies with Apollo and has his image preserved in the stars.  While this ending seems to undermine my reading of Orpheus as a Promethean figure as he finally accepts the advice and rules of the gods, even this was an act of defiance.  My refusing the love of other women, Orpheus remained in rebellion until his end.  Orpheus has a lesson to teach us about how we orient ourselves to a world that is almost always outside of our control.  Fate is with us, but should be a force we wrestle with.  Not something to despair over or accept meekly.

Note: Translations from the recoding booklet by Lionel Salter.  See the production conducted by John Eliot Gardner (1987)