Herman Melville, “Pierre” (1852): Part One. Old America, Young America

“Love was first begot by Mirth and Peace, in Eden, when the world was young. The man oppressed with cares, he cannot love; the man of gloom finds not the god. So, as youth, for the most part, has no cares, and knows no gloom, therefore, ever since time did begin, youth belongs to love. Love may end in grief and age, and pain and need, and all other modes of human mournfulness; but love begins in joy. Love’s first sign is never breathed, till after love hath laughed. Love laughs first, and then sighs after. Love has not hands, but cymbals; Love’s mouth is chambered like a bugle, and the instinctive breathings of his life breathe jubilee notes of joy!” (41–42)

It has been almost a year since I started my series on Melville, but I abandoned it after completing my reading of Moby-Dick. One of my goals this year is to roll up all these lose threads and starting looking at authors in complete sets. (We will see about Henry James—fourteen volumes—when we get there.) The third volume of the Library of America collection of Herman Melville includes his final three novels (Pierre, Israel Potter, and The Confidence-Man), the short-story collection The Piazza Tales, various prose writing—including some of his awesome stories and reviews—, and finally the posthumously published Billy Budd. Only the final work represents a return to sea fiction. Notice with me that Melville produced his six works of sea fiction between 1846 and 1851 (ponder that G.R.R. Martin). Pierre came out a year later in 1852. He had another period of rapid production between 1855 and 1857. During the rest of his life—he died in 1891, over twenty years after his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne died—he published only poems and some small pieces. Reviewers and his family thought Melville insane during this period. In order to meet expenses, Melville took a job from 1866 until 1885 as customs inspector for New York, following Hawthorne’s path. But while the position served as a temporary measure for Hawthorne before he produced his great novels, the customs house would be were America’s greatest writer would spend the rest of his days. He made only $10,400 from the sales of his books. How many great works are lost to us because of that job in the custom house?

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Pierre, or the Ambiguities begins with Melville’s praise for the “Majesty” of the Berkshires, followed almost immediately with the genealogical history of the tale’s protagonist Pierre Glendinning, rooted in an aristocratic family. The contrast between the monarchical and aristocratic England with the democratic America is one of the major tensions through the story. While in Hawthorne we see the endurance of family traditions, in Melville’s America these legacies are more distant and seem to have less hold, or at least are overwhelmed by the tide of democracy. In the first chapter is the quite political statement: “In our cities families rise and burst like bubbles in a vat. For indeed the democratic element operates as a subtile acid among us; forever producing new things by corroding the old.” (13) A few pages later, he makes clear that the American elite migrate to the cities and build houses, while in Europe they would build country estates. Pierre was of the European type¬¬—a country aristocrat—in urbanizing America. What is left of Pierre’s family maintains the symbols of aristocracy, but are truly a family in decline. The past generations are even taller, with more grand careers, and more “majesty.” Moby-Dick thrust us right into the multiple, democratic world of the whaling whip. Pierre starts us someplace more static but moves us into the city, transforming the young Pierre Glendinning in the processes.

As the novel opens he is slated to marry Lucy. Soon enough Pierre learns that he has a half-sister Isabel, announced in the form of a letter. She announces her desire to see him and the deep connection she shares with him. The letter has a profound impact on Pierre who wants to seek out his sister rather than pursue the marriage with Luck. “Well may this head hang on my breast,—it holds too much; well may my heart knock at my ribs,—prisoner impatient of his iron bars. Oh, men are jailers all; jailers of themselves; and in Opinion’s world ignorantly hold their noblest part a captive to their vilest.” (110) With his commitment to seek out his sister, Melville shifts to telling the back story of Isabel. Unlike Pierre, who was raised by a matriarch intensely interested in dynasty and family reputation, Isabel was thrust into the world detached and in the wild. “Pierre, the lips that do now speak to thee, never touched a woman’s breast; I seem not of women born. My first dim life-thoughts cluster round an old, half-ruinous house in some region, for which I now have no chart to seek it out. . . . It was a wild, dark house, planted in the midst of a round, cleared, deeply-sloping space, scooped out in the middle of deep stunted pine woods.” (137)
Isabel seems to be a metaphor for America. In her early years, her only company were “an old man and woman,” both all but silent toward her and only mumble about her to each other. Like Europe looking on the infant America. Isabel began to speak her own polyglot, language (again, like America). Isabel is eventually taken in by a woman, who educates her, especially in music. She still lacked any ties to her heritage, but her father was sending money in support.

In many ways, Pierre and Isabel seem to represent two sides of America. Isabel is longer in the wilderness, primal, free, musical, lacking the need for guidance of adults, liberated. Pierre is younger but closer to the mythical traditions of his family, more obedient to his family, and more civilized, growing up under relatively strict guidance. There is the America that could not entirely break free of European traditions of hierarchy, obedience and power: the side of America that was never quite comfortable with freedom.

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After hearing the story of Isabel, Pierre decides to redeem her place in the family, which is attempts by marrying her. By telling her story, Isabel is able to pull Pierre away from his family and lead him on a path to rebellion.

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.