Herman Melville, “Moby Dick,” Ahab and C.L.R. James

One of the best guides to understanding the character of Melville’s Ahab is C.L.R. James, from his 1953 Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In.  In this work, James explores Melville’s works through the lens of mid-century totalitarianism.  James begins with the profound contrast between Ahab and Starbuck – which is in essence a conflict in the American spirit.  Starbuck represents sober capitalism, pragmatism, and prudence.  Ahab, on a  great mission, is quick to reject the economic principles of capital for his vision.  This leads James to suggest that in his time, Ahab would have been investigated by the FBI for subversive activities.  He sees totality, not the petty concerns of daily life.  “Ahab was a part of this striking growth of material progress, of trade and of money.  By his energy, his skill and his devotion to his work, he becomes captain of his own vessel like so many other gifted and energetic young men.  In fact, he is a master of his difficult craft.  But having become a captain, Ahab finds himself in continual revolt against his work, his personal life, and the opinions of the people around him.” (MRC 6)

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This is Ahab’s danger, according to James, who is “the most destructive social type that has ever appeared in Western Civilization.” (MRC 9).  To quote James at length here: “For generations people believed that the men opposed to rights of ownership, production for the market, domination of money, etc. were socialists, communists, radicals of some sort united by the fact that they all thought in terms of the reorganization of society by the workers, the great majority of the oppressed, the exploited, the disinherited.  . . . Nobody, not a single soul, thought that in the managers, the superintendents, the executives, the administrators would arise such loathing and bitterness against the society of free enterprise, the market and democracy, that they would try to reorganize it to suit themselves, and, if need be, destroy civilization in the process.” (MRC 9)  Indeed, James explains, Ahab is in revolt against the very Promethean spirit that his profession embodies.  “Fire, power, mechanical creativeness, he doe snot reject.  He knows that they have made him what he is.  He rejoices in that.  But as long as it means an inhuman existence such as he has lived, he will defy it.”  (MRC 10)  What makes this so insidious is Ahab’s individualism and alienation from his crew.  This makes him an alienated tyrant and very dangerous.  His loss of a leg pushes Ahab to full rejection of the world and civilization.  Bear in mind, Ahab always had a fragile relationship with civilization to begin with.  He spent most of his life at the sea and barely knows his wife.  This is reflected in his relationship with his workers.  “The crew are not human being but things, as he called them, ‘manufactured men.’  For him their permanent condition is sordidness.  For a moment he has lifted them out of themselves by the crusade for achievement of his purpose.  And even then he brided them with a doubloon and grog and ritual.” (MRC 16)

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James feels that this is the perfect representation of a Hitler or a Stalin,  indifferent to the potential and abilities of the people he uses and consumed by a hatred for the world and a desire to destroy it.  If we accept James’ argument we should approach Ahab with caution the same way we might approach Lucifer in Paradise Lost.  The suggestion is that we should fear totality, because it risks the very Promethean spirit that promises equality, solidarity, and freedom.

 

 

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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” 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 “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)