Sunday, September 16, 2012

Let's Read Pierre: Books X - XIV

Shit just got real. And it got real fast -- which is rather a surprise, given the torpor with which Pierre has meandered along for the preceding 200 pages. For nearly half the book's length, Pierre just sort of plods about between his mother, Isabel, and Lucy, worrying, deliberating, and waffling over what's to be done.

And then all of a sudden, there's Book XI, "He Crosses the Rubicon." What a perfect title for this chapter.

In its abruptness, Pierre's expulsion from Saddle Meadows recalls the awesome Götterdämmerung at Moby Dick's conclusion. (Yes, I've just been slathering for an opportunity to use that word.) In that book, Melville spills gallons of ink across hundreds of pages constructing the Pequod, its crew, and the fantastic human (and/or) American ingenuity it represents, and then in the course of only eight paragraphs it's all erased from existence. In Pierre, Melville takes two hundred pages to create Pierre's idyllic home, charmed life of security and abundance, his loves, and then his dilemma and indecision -- and then after a single chapter, he loses virtually everything.

Now Lucy can't stand the sight of him: "drive it away from me!" she screams to her maid (italics mine). His mother immediately disowns him and severs him from the family fortune. The folks of Saddle Meadows groan about how awful a thing it is for Pierre to have gone so rotten, but none have any comfort or kind words to offer him. And now he's off to New York City with a bit of gold to pawn, zero experience living on his own, and absolutely no plan.

I wonder if this is the last we'll be seeing of Mary Glendinning, Pierre's queenly mother, who becomes a steely, icy empresses when her pride is touched. If she's to be bowing off the stage, she certainly does so on a strong note. You can definitely see a stroke of Ahab in her parting words to Lucy's maid.

From Moby Dick, Chapter 124:

'Men,' said he, steadily turning upon the crew, as the mate handed him the things he had demanded, 'my men, the thunder turned old Ahab's needles; but out of this bit of steel Ahab can make one of his own, that will point as true as any.'

Abashed glances of servile wonder were exchanged by the sailors, as this was said; and with fascinated eyes they awaited whatever magic might follow. But Starbuck looked away.

With a blow from the top-maul Ahab knocked off the steel head of the lance, and then handing to the mate the long iron rod remaining, bade him hold it upright, without its touching the deck. Then, with the maul, after repeatedly smiting the upper end of this iron rod, he placed the blunted needle endwise on the top of it, and less strongly hammered that, several times, the mate still holding the rod as before. Then going through some small strange motions with it -- whether indispensable to the magnetizing of the steel, or merely intended to augment the awe of the crew, is uncertain -- he called for linen thread; and moving to the binnacle, slipped out the two reversed needles there, and horizontally suspended the sail-needle by its middle, over one of the compass-cards. At first, the steel went round and round, quivering and vibrating at either end; but at last it settled to its place, when Ahab, who had been intently watching for this result, stepped frankly back from the binnacle, and pointing his stretched arm towards it, exclaimed, -- 'Look ye, for yourselves, if Ahab be not the lord of the level loadstone! The sun is East, and that compass swears it!'

One after another they peered in, for nothing but their own eyes could persuade such ignorance as theirs, and one after another they slunk away.

In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride.

From Pierre, Book 12.4:

So the lady moved to quit the room, saying that once every two hours she would send to know how Lucy fared.

"But where, where is her aunt, Martha?" she exclaimed, lowly, pausing at the door, and glancing in sudden astonishment about the room; "surely, surely, Mrs. Llanyllyn -- "

"Poor, poor old lady," weepingly whispered Martha, "she hath caught infection from sweet Lucy's woe; she hurried hither, caught one glimpse of that bed, then fell like dead upon the floor. The doctor hath two patients now, lady" -- glancing at the bed, and tenderly feeling Lucy's bosom, to mark if yet it heaved. "Alack! alack! oh, reptile! reptile! that could sting so sweet a breast! fire would be too cold for him -- accursed!"

"Thy own tongue blister the roof of thy mouth!" cried Mrs. Glendinning, in a half-stifled, whispering scream. " 'Tis not for thee, hired one, to rail at my son, though he were Lucifer, simmering in Hell! Mend thy manners, minx!"

And she left the chamber, dilated with her unconquerable pride, leaving Martha aghast at such venom in such beauty.

One of my favorite Mary Glendinning moments in these chapters is her exchange with the local priest Mr. Falsgrave. Much of Saddle Meadows' Eden-like facade has been breached in preceding chapters, and not even poor Falsgrave goes unspared. You'll remember how much, much earlier in Book V, Melville extols the clergyman's grace and godliness across three or four entire pages. And now Mary flat out calls him a useless sissy and kicks him out of the house in a just a few paragraphs. After Falsgrave's evasive exchange with Pierre back in Book VIII, we have reason to guess as much of the clergyman's true character, but Mary's icy dismissal of him conclusively punctuates this assessment and sends the man packing. I doubt we'll be seeing him again.

The highlight of these chapters, as far as I'm concerned, is Plinlimmon's pamphlet in Book XIV, and probably because of its similarities to my favorite chapter in Moby Dick: Chapter 9, "The Sermon."

Similarity #1: I get the impression that Melville's take on the Book of Jonah and the excerpt from Plotinus Plinlimmon's "Chronometricals and Horologicals" were composes independently of the novels in which they appear. I could very easily be mistaken about this -- but even from a writer with such a predilection for digression as Melville, these chapters rather seem to me like foreign materials inserted and integrated into the larger narratives. I imagine what Melville presents as an excerpt from a philosophical tract was just some half-finished essay he had sitting in the drawer of his writing desk. Why else would he take such a tone of tongue in cheek deprecation in introducing it to the reader -- which appears all the more directed toward himself by his unusual use of the authorial "I" in doing so? And why else would he give the writer his permission to skip over it?

The pamphlet rather reminds me of the textual interludes between chapters in Watchmen. You can skip over them and the narrative will lose no coherency, but the significance of certain events will be lost without the historical context the interludes provide. And by the same turn, the reader who passes over Plinlimmon's pamphlet in Pierre (of course, if he's already slogged this far through the book, why would he start skipping around now?) deprives himself of some crucial metaphysical context.

Similarity #2: Both sequences (the sermon in Moby Dick, the pamphlet in Pierre) more or less encapsulate the pith of the novel containing them.

What Mapple's sermon means to/says about Moby Dick is a chat for elsewhere. But what does Plinlimmon's pamphlet say about Pierre?

If I had to venture a guess without having read the rest of the novel -- which is exactly what I'm doing -- then I'd say the answer is: pretty much everything.

You can read (or hopefully reread) the pamphlet here. But here's the short of it, by my understanding:

Heaven and God are basically unattainable ideals in this world. That which is of the Earth is fundamentally out of tune with that which is of God.

Sometimes delivers a person called chronometer to the world; Melville/Plinlimmon names Jesus as an example. This special soul is attuned to Heaven's "time," making him an incorruptible, sinless, sacrosanct soul, and therefore compelled to bring the Earth more in tune with God and Heaven. He usually suffers for it and he can never wholly succeed, but he does set an example, deliver a message, and reverse the tide to some small extent.

The chronometrical soul is absolutely exceptional and extremely rare, as it's obviously impossible for most people to lead a life more saintly than the saints'. God and the Bible set impossibly lofty standards, but these aren't the standards to which most people should necessarily be held:

Nevertheless, if a man gives with a certain self-considerate generosity to the poor; abstains from doing downright ill to any man; does his convenient best in a general way to do good to his whole race; takes watchful loving care of his wife and children, relatives, and friends; is perfectly tolerant to all other men's opinions, whatever they may be; is an honest dealer, an honest citizen, and all that; and more especially if he believe that there is a God for infidels, as well as for believers, and acts upon that belief; then, though such a man falls infinitely short of the chronometrical standard, though all his actions are entirely horologic; -- yet such a man need never lastingly despond, because he is sometimes guilty of some minor offense: -- hasty words, impulsively returning a blow, fits of domestic petulance, selfish enjoyment of a glass of wine while he knows there are those around him who lack a loaf of bread. I say he need never lastingly despond on account of his perpetual liability to these things; because not to do them, and their like, would be to be an angel, a chronometer; whereas, he is a man and a horologe.

In books 5.5 and 5.6, Melville insinuates that Pierre's motives and ambitions are Christlike; his strivings are patently chronometrical. To illustrate vis-à-vis Hamlet...!

Crime and justice in Hamlet: Prince Hamlet has reason to suspect his uncle Claudius -- the recently-throned king of Denmark, his mother's beloved new husband, and a thus far pretty gracious stepfather -- of having murdered the late King Hamlet. Hamlet cannot let this crime stand. Eventually, after a lot of waffling, he resolves to murder Claudius at any cost.

Crime and justice in Pierre: "Prince" Pierre discovers that his father secretly impregnated a poor French woman and then abandoned her for Mary. He finds his lost half-sister, Isabel, drifting through toil and poverty. Pierre cannot let this crime stand. Absolutely refusing to leave Isabel in her current situation, and yet equally unwilling to drag his father's name and mother's pride through the mud by revealing Isabel's identity and paternity, Pierre (eventually, after a lot of waffling) takes the responsibility for the fruit of his father's sins upon his own shoulders.

So he enacts a new life under a noble lie: "hello Lucy, hello mother. Sorry, but I've just eloped with a dirt-poor servant girl named Isabel. Sorry!"

He frees Isabel from servitude (at least temporarily) and gives her a family, and does so without tarnishing his father's memory, but sacrifices his own honor and happiness in the doing. If this isn't Christlike, it's certainly at least saintly.

But if I had to guess, our man Pierre is no chronometer. And if you're not a chronometer (and you almost definitely aren't), it's not your business to try acting like one:

By inference it follows, also, that he who folding in himself a chronometrical soul, seeks practically to force that heavenly time upon the earth; in such an attempt he can never succeed, with an absolute and essential success. And as for himself, if he seek to regulate his own daily conduct by it, he will but array all men's earthly time-keepers against him, and thereby work himself woe and death. Both these things are plainly evinced in the character and fate of Christ, and the past and present condition of the religion he taught. But here one thing is to be especially observed. Though Christ encountered woe in both the precept and the practice of his chronometricals, yet did he remain throughout entirely without folly or sin. Whereas, almost invariably, with inferior beings, the absolute effort to live in this world according to the strict letter of the chronometricals is, somehow, apt to involve those inferior beings eventually in strange, unique follies and sins, unimagined before. It is the story of the Ephesian matron, allegorized.

And so Pierre finds himself getting sort of uncomfortably turned on by his own sister. And so Pierre burns the portrait of his young father along with all of his family letters and keepsakes, thereby severing and cauterizing his every last bond with the family whose honor meant more to him than his happiness. And so Pierre Ophelizes his beloved (now-ex) fiancee Lucy. And so Pierre and Isabel head toward a tenebrous future in New York City, cut off from the Glendinning fortune and without any viable long-term prospects, and they're taking poor ruined Delly along for the ride.

Things are going to get a lot worse a lot faster from here on out.

If anyone out there is still reading along, what are your thoughts?

Postscript Passage of interest: perhaps it's because I've been spending so much time with Quakers lately, but the first couple paragraphs of Book XIV jumped out at me:

All profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence. What a silence is that with which the pale bride precedes the responsive I will, to the priest's solemn question, Wilt thou have this man for thy husband? In silence, too, the wedded hands are clasped. Yea, in silence the child Christ was born into the world. Silence is the general consecration of the universe. Silence is the invisible laying on of the Divine Pontiff's hands upon the world. Silence is at once the most harmless and the most awful thing in all nature. It speaks of the Reserved Forces of Fate. Silence is the only Voice of our God.

Nor is this so august Silence confined to things simply touching or grand. Like the air, Silence permeates all things, and produces its magical power, as well during that peculiar mood which prevails at a solitary traveler's first setting forth on a journey, as at the unimaginable time when before the world was, Silence brooded on the face of the waters.


  1. A while back someone wrote something about reviewing things other than games, like books or movies, on your Formspring. You immediately shot it down, and made some joke about how no one would enjoy "Let's Read Moby Dick!"

    While this isn't Moby Dick, these last few blog posts you've done about Pierre have been pretty awesome. They've made me start thinking about trying out Pierre again, maybe after reading through Moby Dick or Typee.

  2. Things certainly sped up this time around. And when you're only sort of meandering along, the sudden acceleration is all the more jarring.

    This metaphor stuck out to me for some reason: Strike at one end the longest conceivable row of billiard balls in close contact, and the furthermost ball will start forth, while all the rest stand still; and yet that last ball was not struck at all. So, through long previous generations, whether of births or thoughts, Fate strikes the present man. Idly he disowns the blow's effect, because he felt no blow, and indeed, received no blow.

    1. I earmarked the page precisely because of that passage. It's an S+ grade metaphor.

  3. Due to life annoyingly involving me in it, I'm actually about 20 pages behind this time, but I had such a good time with what I did read I figured I would post something, at least.

    Loved, loved, LOVED the scene with Mrs. Glendinning, she's rapidly become my favorite character (not difficult, since there's really only 4 major characters so far, 5 if we're counting Falsgrave...not that Dates isn't pretty keen). I'm hoping that she continues to play a role in the story, and I feel I was hasty last week writing her off as becoming unhinged; I would in fact say that she seems in as right a mind as could be. The whole scene was masterfully written, I've always loved the Shakespearean technique of muttering sinisterly to oneself with determination.

    The pace has really gone into overdrive and the book is becoming hard to put down, I can't wait to see just what Melville's gotten in store for his hapless gentleman once they make it to the city.

    1. Yeah dude. Mary's a grand character. Even when Melville's doing Hamlet it doesn't feel quite so Shakespearean as the scenes during which she shines.