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.

 

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One response to “Herman Melville, “Typee” Part One

  1. Pingback: One Year Anniversary | Neither Kings nor Americans

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