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.”