So Pierre is finally rolling. Our hero has committed his first transgression by not being completely, totally, 100% honest with his dear old mum for the first time in his hypercharmed little life, and I'd wager he'll be doing much less savory things in much less savory circumstances before long. The young Mr. Glendinning has also gotten his wish and discovered he has a sister -- a strange, dark, illegitimate half-sister, but nevertheless his father's daughter and Pierre's own flesh and blood.
He seems a bit infatuated, doesn't he? After fixating on the image of Isabel's face for however many pages, Pierre goes nearly apoplectic with devotion after discovering the girl's identity. This should be interesting. After all: if there's one thing the guy who wrote Moby Dick understands, it's obsession.
Did anyone else notice the shift? Melville is starting to sound like Melville again: ornate, but not excessively flamboyant. The first paragraph of 4.1 is a shining example of Melville writing as only Melville can:
In their precise tracings-out and subtile causations, the strongest and fieriest emotions of life defy all analytical insight. We see the cloud, and feel its bolt; but meteorology only idly essays a critical scrutiny as to how that cloud became charged, and how this bolt so stuns. The metaphysical writers confess, that the most impressive, sudden, and overwhelming event, as well as the minutest, is but the product of an infinite series of infinitely involved and untraceable foregoing occurrences. Just so with every motion of the heart. Why this cheek kindles with a noble enthusiasm; why that lip curls in scorn; these are things not wholly imputable to the immediate apparent cause, which is only one link in the chain; but to a long line of dependencies whose further part is lost in the mid-regions of the impalpable air.
Melville wields the language as eloquently as any English bard, but this isn't just pretty-sounding fluff. He has such an astounding talent for tracing out abstractions and painting them across the canvas of the reader's mind. Logopoeia. It flashes in the brain and makes the tissues tingle. (Shakespeare does the same thing, for instance. Tennyson, for another instance, usually doesn't so much.)
Also in 4.1:
There had long stood a shrine in the fresh-foliaged heart of Pierre, up to which he ascended by many tableted steps of remembrance; and round which annually he had hung fresh wreaths of a sweet and holy affection. Made one green bower of at last, by such successive votive offerings of his being; this shrine seemed, and was indeed, a place for the celebration of a chastened joy, rather than for any melancholy rites. But though thus mantled, and tangled with garlands, this shrine was of marble -- a niched pillar, deemed solid and eternal, and from whose top radiated all those innumerable sculptured scrolls and branches, which supported the entire one-pillared temple of his moral life; as in some beautiful Gothic oratories, one central pillar, trunk-like, upholds the roof. In this shrine, in this niche of this pillar, stood the perfect marble form of his departed father; without blemish, unclouded, snow-white, and serene; Pierre's fond personification of perfect human goodness and virtue. Before this shrine, Pierre poured out the fullness of all young life's most reverential thoughts and beliefs. Not to God had Pierre ever gone in his heart, unless by ascending the steps of that shrine, and so making it the vestibule of his abstractest religion.....
When Pierre was twelve years old, his father had died, leaving behind him, in the general voice of the world, a marked reputation as a gentleman and a Christian; in the heart of his wife, a green memory of many healthy days of unclouded and joyful wedded life, and in the inmost soul of Pierre, the impression of a bodily form of rare manly beauty and benignity, only rivaled by the supposed perfect mold in which his virtuous heart had been cast. Of pensive evenings, by the wide winter fire, or in summer, in the southern piazza, when that mystical night-silence so peculiar to the country would summon up in the minds of Pierre and his mother, long trains of the images of the past; leading all that spiritual procession, majestically and holily walked the venerated form of the departed husband and father. Then their talk would be reminiscent and serious, but sweet; and again, and again, still deep and deeper, was stamped in Pierre's soul the cherished conceit, that his virtuous father, so beautiful on earth, was now uncorruptibly sainted in heaven. So choicely, and in some degree, secludedly nurtured, Pierre though now arrived at the age of nineteen, had never yet become so thoroughly initiated into that darker, though truer aspect of things, which an entire residence in the city from the earliest period of life, almost inevitably engraves upon the mind of any keenly observant and reflective youth of Pierre's present years. So that up to this period, in his breast, all remained as it had been; and to Pierre, his father's shrine seemed spotless, and still new as the marble of the tomb of him of Arimathea.
Judge, then, how all-desolating and withering the blast, that for Pierre, in one night, stripped his holiest shrine of all overlaid bloom, and buried the mild statue of the saint beneath the prostrated ruins of the soul's temple itself.
Melville probably could have written "Pierre revered his deceased father and was really bummed out to find out he secretly fostered an illegitimate daughter," because that's really the gist of the situation. And it's probably a situation that had been written about at least once in human history before 1852.
Other writers can touch upon the same or similar themes, but Melville's treatment of them is unique. But no more nor less unique is the character of the individual human creature. Remember, Melville has demonstrated here (as Mr. Johnathan pointed out) and elsewhere his fixation with conveying the particulars of a situation. It's not enough for him to to just flat say that his protagonist is upset by the airing of his father's dirty secret. No two sets of circumstances are ever exactly the same; no two psyches are ever exactly the same. Melville goes to such trouble to enumerate at these details and paint all these scenes because he wants us to understand precisely what's happening inside Pierre Glendinning.
We're seeing the old "show, don't tell" writer's maxim being taken perhaps much farther than its prescriber suggested. If Melville were a painter, his work would be rendered in such baroque detail as to tear across the line between verisimilitude and overwhelming hyperrealism. But one of Melville's greatest strengths as a writer is in the stark vividness and ferocity of evocation with which he renders the inner lives of his characters. There's something Captain Ahab says in Moby Dick:
O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives in matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.
Phenomena in the interior world color perceptions of the outer world; objects and events in the outer world become the recognizable forms of the interior world's nonphysical occurrences.
Everything is grand in Melville's world. Or -- maybe we should say Melville's worlds. Inner and outer. Such rich and lofty thoughts billow in his characters' brains; and what a magnificent world he's furnished them with, and from which he can weave suitably royal metaphors to clothe their ideas in forms we can perceive.
He is a mutant. I don't know how he writes like he does. As you've surely noticed, he's not a terribly polished author -- but I think he gets away with his excesses because excess is his essential medium. He uses overstatement like Jimi Hendrix uses a fucking guitar. We've already seen how a pared-down Melville isn't nearly as exciting or beautiful or fun as logorrheic Melville.
Speaking of metaphors, do you enjoy his similes as much as I do?
As the vine flourishes, and the grape empurples close up to the very walls and muzzles of cannoned Ehrenbreitstein; so do the sweetest joys of life grow in the very jaws of its perils.
In the cold courts of justice the dull head demands oaths, and holy writ proofs; but in the warm halls of the heart one single, untestified memory's spark shall suffice to enkindle such a blaze of evidence, that all the corners of conviction are as suddenly lighted up as a midnight city by a burning building, which on every side whirls its reddened brands.
Love is built upon secrets, as lovely Venice upon invisible and incorruptible piles in the sea.
[T]o Pierre it rolled down on his soul like melted lava, and left so deep a deposit of desolation, that all his subsequent endeavors never restored the original temples to the soil, nor all his culture completely revived its buried bloom.
And (I will admit to laughing out loud at this one)
Now, from his height of composure, he firmly gazed abroad upon the charred landscape within him; as the timber man of Canada, forced to fly from the conflagration of his forests, comes back again when the fires have waned, and unblinkingly eyes the immeasurable fields of fire-brands that here and there glow beneath the wide canopy of smoke.
And (from Moby Dick, which might be one of his most ridiculous)
But those wild eyes met his, as the bloodshot eves of the prairie wolves meet the eye of their leader, ere he rushes on at their head in the trail of the bison; but, alas! only to fall into the hidden snare of the Indian.
So yeah, Melville has a tendency to occasionally overshoot his mark. But you sure as hell can't say his analogies fall flat.
(Tangential consideration: it is commonly regarded as a mark of both genius and madness to possess a heightened perception of the connections uniting disparate phenomena. Maybe the difference between them is measured by the capacity for other people to see them once they've been pointed out.)
So yeah, that's all I've got to say tonight. I'm already moving ahead into Book IV, and I'm digging where Pierre seems to be headed. What about you guys? What are you thinking? Any favorite passages you'd like to share? Anything that tickled or rankled you in particular? SPEAK UP, DAMN IT.
Extra credit project for the duration of Pierre: post your favorite metaphors and similes, whether they be eloquent or overblown!
Postscript: One of my favorite lines in Book III:
This history goes forward and goes backward, as occasion calls. Nimble center, circumference elastic you must have.
Translation: "Yeah, we're jumping around a bit. Deal with it."