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.
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.