Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”: Technology

As C. L. R. James has shown us, Ahab is the tyrannical rejection of civilization – and along with it progress and solidarity.  While he thought little of the oil wasted when the barrels started leaking, from the perspective of the working class this was an immediate threat to their livelihood – less profits means a smaller share at the end of the voyage.  Even when Stubbs discovered ambergris in a dying whale conned from some French whalers, Ahab cuts his profitable search short.  A significant symbol of this rejection is Ahab’s scorn for and violence against technology.  At the last moments, his struggle against the “white whale” is made even without the support of a small boat.  He is alone, straddled to the whale with only a harpoon and his words.

As readers of the novel know, much of the text is bound up with detailed descriptions of the whaling industry, its methods, science, and work regimen.  From the opening “exerts” until the final chapters, technology is a driving force of the novel, but it is always under the control of the collective knowledge of the crew.  Ahab shuns it.  He prefers to conduct his search in more primitive ways – following the mystical advice of Fedallah, asking other ships if they saw the “White Whale,” and sail by his senses.

The sailors indeed have a strong connection to the technological systems that they support with their labor and the technological systems that make their work possible: the harpoon that Queequeg shaves with is one example.  In a chapter called “The Lamp”, Melville describes the aura that an oil lamp holds for whalemen.  “Had you descended from the Pequod’s try-works to the Pequod’s forecastle, where the off duty watch were sleeping, for one single moment you would have almost thought you were standing in some illuminated shrine of canonized kings and consellors.  There they lay in their triangular oaken vaults, each mariner a chiseled muteness; a score of lamps flashing upon his hooded eyes. . . . See with what entire freedom the whaleman takes his handful of lamps–often but old bottles and vials, though — to the copper cooler at the try-works, and replenished them there, as mugs of ale at a vat.  He burns, too, the purest of oil, in its unmanufactured, and, therefore, unvitiated state.” (1249)  Melville’s descriptions of chopping up the whales, clearing up the ship after harvesting the oil, and filling barrels has a certain beauty that can only come from a artisan describing their craft.  Any other observer would pass over these details.  “Besides her hoisted boats, an American whaler is outwardly distinguished by her try-works.  She presents the curious anomaly of the most solid masonry joining with oak and hemp in constitution the completed ship.  it is as if from the open field a brick-kiln were transported to her planks.” (1244)  In chapter forty, when we see the entire crew engaged in revalry and discussion after hearing about Ahab’s mad plan.  This window into the stream of consciousness of the forecastle is not an image of technocrats, but they are worldly and practical.  They pine for women they do not have, they speak of work (“So, be cheery, my lads! may your hearts never fail! While the bold harpooneer is striking the whale!”).  Ahab’s stream of consciousness openly admits madness and irrationality.  While the crew is practical, Ahab is transgressive.  “What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do!  They think me made–Starbuck does; but I’m demonic, I am madness maddened!” (971)   Perhaps this is a powerful sentiment among those in resistance to power, but when held by those with absolute authority is it dangerous.

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He is indifferent to the crew but uses them.  He uses technology in the same way as when he has the carpenter create for him a new leg out of whale bone.

As the novel closes, Ahab’s rejection of technology and along with it reason is symbolized by his destruction of the quadrant.  “Foolish toy! babies’ plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains; the world brags of thee, of they cunning and might; but what after all canast thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee: no!  not one jot more!  Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with they impotence thou insultest the sun!  Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy: and curse be all the things that cast man’s eyes aloft to that heave, whose live vividness but scorches him, as these old eyes are even now scorched with thy light, O sun.” (1327)  Contrast this insanity with the narrators: “While now the fated Pequod had been so long afloat this voyage, the log and line had but very seldom been in use.  Owing to the confident reliance upon other means of determining the vessel’s place, some merchantmen, and many whalemen, especially when cruising, wholly neglect to heave the log.” (1348)

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Now I am not unaffected by Ahab’s transgression, force of will, and ambition, but the rejection of reason, progress, technology, and solidarity makes him a fully odious character and a poor model for radical transformation of society.  Do other characters help us any more?  Not likely.  Moby-Dick may, in the end, be little more than a warning against detached and ungrounded vision.

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.

 

 

Herman Melville, “Moby Dick,” The 300th Lay

The first thirty-six chapters of Moby Dick do much more than just set up the plot.  It is true that it is not until the 36th chapter that we are introduced to Ahab’s monomaniacal mission to kill the “white whale.” We are also introduced to the multi-ethnic crew of the Pequod, enjoy some fascinating discussions on religious relativism and its role in community, the exploitative economics of 19th century whaling, and the narrator Ishmael’s motives.

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The novel opens with several pages of “extracts” revealing the evolution of interpretations about whales in Western culture.  The opening extracts, from Biblical and Classical texts suggest an evil or malevolent force, much like Ahab’s interpretation of the “white whale” as a “inscrutable malice.” (967)  Later extracts paint a picture of a whale as a scientifically-examined mystery or as a victim of industrial exploitation.  As whaling expanded, whales and whale products became a part of daily life, but it is still used as a symbol, suggesting the inability of humans to fully understand the whale, despite its role in society and centuries of scientific investigation.  Of course, over the course of the novel we will learn that whalers have a unique perspective on whales (going so far as to oppose the scientific designation of whales as mammals).  The transformation of the natural world into commodities to be studied, used, and discarded does nothing to improve our understanding of the plants and animals that share this planet with us.  Managers may spend much of their day around workers, but know little of their needs, desires, or lives.  Meat-eaters consume flesh from animals they are indifferent to and utterly ignorant of.  A butcher may have some additional knowledge, but likely little understanding.  There is no guarantee that a farmer will have a more spiritual or honorable relationship to the land than an city-dweller.  As in most things, the problem is one of power.  In five thousand years of science and technological progress we go from the Bible’s “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah” to “he saw the distended jaws of a large Sperm Whale close to the head of the boat, threatening it with instant destruction.” (783, 792)

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The novel begins in some familiar territory, a worker (in this case a teacher) bored with his life and seeking a new adventure decides to go on a ship.  Reading only the first chapter, we recognize Ishmael as akin to Typee or Taji.  Redburn and “White-Jacket” were straight up workers, lacking some of these romantic journeying of the characters in the Pacific novels.  Nevertheless, we get a richer and more cynical picture of the human condition in the opening pages of Moby Dick.  Ishmael has no illusions about a better life at sea.  He even claims that all humanity is enslaved and slavery on a whaling ship is not worse than any other.  He addresses the “November in my soul” by becoming a worker.  There is no Typee for him, no Yillah to search for.  He is also resigned to “Fate.” “I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.” (799)  Ahad’s motives are, of course, different.  He is on a quest to destroy and evil and malevolent force.  Those on the top can always redirect the energies into hobbies.  Working folk are lucky if their labors affirm any of their values or pique their interests.

After introducing his motive, Melville introduces Ishmael to Queequeg, a Pacific Islander.  This is the first hint that the interracial, transnational working class community of the whaling ship will play a major role in Moby-Dick.  As in Typee, the narrator begins hesitant to interact with people he deemed a cannibal.  (The tattooing plays a similar role as a facade of savagery as it does in Typee).  Queequeg is not only a Pacific Islander, he is also a pagan, a fact that will test Ishmael’s solidarity and openness.  We are introduced to the rest of the crew in the two chapters titled “Knights and Squires.”  We are introduced to the officers first.  Starbuck is the pure reflection of American pragmatism and capitalistic logic.  Flask  reflects more of the adventuring spirit of the American frontiersman.  Stubbs is the epitome of American cheer and optimism.  These three “knights” had three squires: Queeqeug, Tashtego, and Daggoo.  Together they represent an international working class stretching from Africa to the South Pacific.  In Mardi, Melville took the world and recreated in as a series of islands.  In Moby-Dick, he takes the world with him as the crew of the Pequod.

Pay on the Pequod and other whaling ships was determined by a fraction of the total profits of the voyage, known as “lays.”  Ishmael had hoped his experience in the merchant service would have provided for him a 200th lay, that is 1/200 of the profits.  In one of the most memorable parts of the early sections of this book, we encounter two of the major owners of the ship, Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad, arguing about how severely to exploit Ishmael.  Ishmael, already having decided to sign onto a whaling ship, has little bargaining power.  At worst, he figured a 275th lay would have paid for his clothes.  Bildad wanted to pay Ishmael the 777th lay and Peleg countered with the 300th lay, the amount he eventually agreed to.  The much more valuable harpooner, Queequeg, received the 90th lay.

The same class distinctions that divided the crew of the Neversink in White-Jacket affect the Pequod, particularly in the contrast between the ordered hierarchy on the top and chaotic democracy among the workers.  “Now, Ahab and his three mates formed what may be called the first table in the Pequod’s cabin.  After their departure, taking place in inverted order to their arrival, the canvas cloth was cleared, or rather was restored to some hurried order by the pallid steward. . . . In strange contrast to the hardly tolerable constraint and nameless invisible domineerings of the captain’s table, was the entire care-free license and ease, the almost frantic democracy of those inferior fellows the harpooneers.  While their masters, the mates, seemed afraid of the sound of the hinges of their own jaws, the harpooneers chewed their good with such a relish that there was a report to it.” (953)

There you have it.  In these early chapters of Moby-Dick, Melville describes the dynamics of global capitalism in terms of power, the make-up of the working class, exploitation, and environmental destruction.  This is the setting of his epic.

Herman Melville, “White-Jacket”: Power and Work

Like Redburn, White-jacket considers the working-class experience in America.  Through Redburn, Melville tells us about the diversity of the American working-class, its potential for solidarity and cooperation, its strong internal culture, and the trauma of someone moving out of the world of childhood into the world of work.  The internal workplace culture does not lack in oppression, particularly for the uninformed newcomer, but it also provides a source of strength and commonality in the face of the oppressions of capital.  The leaders of this system remain far away and vague.  Their use of power is limited.  Indeed, in Redburn, it was a fellow worker much more than the captain that Redburn feared.  White-Jacket gives us this window into the workings of power.  By setting the novel in an over-crowded military ship, Melville is able to explore with more intensity, brutality, and anger the uses of power by the ruling class and its consequences for working people.

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I do not doubt that the novel portrays with some accuracy life on a man-0f-war.  Melville served on one for months as part of his life at sea.  The casual reader may be easily overwhelmed by the details of naval life.  Let me start by suggesting that this is not without its use, even if it lacks in efficiency.  Melville presents us with a microcosm of the division of labor in modern capitalism.  This division of labor divided the crew as well as dividing the labor.  Different jobs translated into slightly (and often radically) different lives.  Some crewmembers had the job of ideological control (the chaplain).  Power and status, it goes without saying, divided the crew into different lifestyles.  Even different eating schedules.   Normal crewmembers had to eat three meals within one watch, while officers eat normally, throughout the day.  This division is real and for the broader economy no less true in Melville’s day than in ours.

The crew’s hatred for the soldiers was one of the sharpest divides on the ship, only matched by class hierarchies of officers and crew.  This animosity seems to come from the soldier’s job as guard on the sailors, and their immunity from the normal work schedule.  “Surely, the crowd of sailors, who besides having so many sea-officers over them, are thus additionally guarded by soldiers, even when they quench their thirst — surely these man-of-war’s-men must be desperadoes indeed; or else the naval service must be so tyrannical that the worst is feared from their possible insubordination.  . . . But the mutual contempt, and even hatred, subsisting between these two bodies of men–both clinging to one keel, both lodged in one household — is held by most Navy officers as the height of the perfection of Navy discipline.  It is regarded as the button that caps the uttermost point on their main-thrust.” (742)  This division is also reflected in the attitude of the crew toward rumors of war.  For the officers and soldiers, it is a chance for glory.  For the crew, it bodes only death and sacrifice.

By staging these sharp divides (between the diverse crew and homogenous officers, between the libertarian tendencies of the crew and the guards assign to reign them in) Melville is describing the ongoing conflict between democracy and tyranny in capitalist societies.  The narrator takes to describing the crew as “the people.”  Every one of his numerous critiques of life in the U.S. Navy charged the military with its failure to sustain the democratic values of the nation, everything from enforced religion to punishment without a trial.  Freedom gives way for the need of the state and the requirements of work.  Whatever concessions that the officers give are merely to satisfy the needs of their power.  “Whenever, in the internals of mild benevolence, or yielding to mere politic dictates, Kings and Commanders relax the yoke of servitude, they should see to it well that the concession seem not too sudden or unqualified; for, the commoner’s estimation, that might argue feebleness or fear.” (584)

Melville advances a version of the Peter Principle in his critique of the ship hierarchy.  The “Peter Principle” suggests that in any institution people will be promoted until they are incompetent, but no further.   This is a result of nepotism and favoritism, also challenges to the principles of equality enshrined in the democratic republic of the early 19th century.

Other forms of control include the use of foreign laborers and the encouragement of internal spies.

Although we get pages of insight into the covert means for maintaining power on the naval ship, ultimately the system is sustained with brutal force.  White-Jacket is remembered most for its criticism of flogging.  The novel seems to have played a role in ending the practice.  When the chaplain, the jingoism, the force of tradition and authority all failed, even with the subtle threats from the armed guards failed, the commanders still had the ability to use force to bring the man to submission.  When flogging failed there was still “flogging throughout the fleet” and “keel-hauling” – the passing of a sailor under the ship’s hull.

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With Redburn and White-Jacket, Melville moves from describing the world as it should be (as he does in his Pacific novels) to describing life as it is for the vast majority of people in industrial society.

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.