Monday, September 24, 2012

Let's Read Pierre: Books XV - XVII

First off: I recently remembered I have William Sedgwick's Herman Melville: the Tragedy of Mind sitting on my bookcase, heretofore unread. I make no pretenses of being a Melville scholar; I am only a dabbling fan. Sedgwick, however, is a Melville scholar. For remaining updates I will occasionally use his critical acuity as a sorely-needed supplement to my obtuseness.

We begin!

At the risk of comparing an apple to a pear, Pierre reminds me of Chrono Cross. Both came off the heels of works which are now exalted as true classics (Moby Dick, Chrono Trigger). Both begin in idyllic settings and end up in dark places. Both are well-intentioned, ambitious works by talented creators who, for whatever reason, couldn't synthesize the opus they imagined from the resources they had.

Also: Chrono Cross is a weird fuckin' game. And Pierre is a weird fuckin' book.

It's still probably too early for me to grade Pierre as a totally failed experiment. But with only about 25% of the book left to go, I'm wondering how well Melville can slam through the wall.

BOOK XV: The Cousins

This is where Melville finally plumbed the bottom of my patience. I will admit to skimming most of this chapter and not giving a damn. Melville's logorrhea is usually a lot of fun, but this is one instance where he could have greatly benefited from a pushy editor.

But it does have one really great line, which appears as a callback to Book 12.3:

Nor could he but now applaud a still subsequent letter from Glen, which abruptly, and almost with apparent indecorousness, under the circumstances, commenced the strain of friendship without any overture of salutation whatever; as if at last, owing to its infinite delicateness, entirely hopeless of precisely defining the nature of their mystical love, Glen chose rather to leave that precise definition to the sympathetical heart and imagination of Pierre; while he himself would go on to celebrate the general relation, by many a sugared sentence of miscellaneous devotion. It was a little curious and rather sardonically diverting, to compare these masterly, yet not wholly successful, and indeterminate tactics of the accomplished Glen, with the unfaltering stream of Beloved Pierres, which not only flowed along the top margin of all his earlier letters, but here and there, from their subterranean channel, flashed out in bright intervals, through all the succeeding lines. Nor had the chance recollection of these things at all restrained the reckless hand of Pierre, when he threw the whole package of letters, both new and old, into that most honest and summary of all elements, which is neither a respecter of persons, nor a finical critic of what manner of writings it burns; but like ultimate Truth itself, of which it is the eloquent symbol, consumes all, and only consumes.

(Cf. Ahab as a fire-worshiper.)

Anyway: at the end of this day, all this chapter's verbiage about Pierre, his cousin Glen, and their correspondence can be distilled to more plot thickening. How will Glen answer to Pierre’s unexpected and most indecorous demand for his hospitality? What will be his response to his cousin’s spurning Lucy?
Why do we ask when we already have an idea?

BOOK XVI: First Night of Their Arrival in the City

This one is fun: a fast, entertaining, and uncomfortable romp through the old Welcome to the Big City convention. I don't have much to say about it: Pierre's already losing a lot of money, his cousin Glen has evidently decided to screw him over, and he's is obviously in way over his head.

This is our harsh introduction to Pierre's almost unrecognizable new reality. It's more than a change of setting. When we first met Pierre, he was basically just coasting through life. The extent to which he was in control of his destiny is debatable, but anything he may have wanted or needed was within reach. With Isabel's appearance, he found that he had a choice to make -- he could take his destiny one way or another. Now that he's crossed his Rubicon, he is completely at the mercy of unswervable external forces -- and in addition to watching his own ass, he's got to care for his invalid half-sister and her vulnerable friend.

BOOK XVII: Young America in Literature

Okay, here's where it gets interesting -- and depending on who you ask, this is where Melville's anger, pride, and spite impel him to ruin his own book.

Among the various conflicting modes of writing history, there would seem to be two grand practical distinctions, under which all the rest must subordinately range. By the one mode, all contemporaneous circumstances, facts, and events must be set down contemporaneously; by the other, they are only to be set down as the general stream of the narrative shall dictate; for matters which are kindred in time, may be very irrelative in themselves. I elect neither of these; I am careless of either; both are well enough in their way; I write precisely as I please.

And so with a note of bitter pugnacity, Melville takes the blowtorch to his own canvas.

It really does come out of nowhere. "Oh, by the way, I know I've never even suggested anything of the sort in the last 300 pages, but our nineteen-year-old Pierre is also a literary talent with clout in the publishing world, and before all this stuff with Isabel began, he had distanced himself the public and publishers out of disgust for their inane demands."

What? Really? And Melville couldn't have even mentioned this once, in passing, at any time during the last three hundred pages?

Given Melville's profligate prose style, I doubt he could have defended such an omission on the grounds of economy. If he thought six freaking pages was the minimum he required to describe the closing salutations throughout the correspondence between Pierre and Glen and the profound significance therein, then surely sometime during Books I or II he could have allowed Lucy to say "how's the writing going, honey?" or have Mary mention a new letter having arrived from some bootlicker associated with the magazines.

(Surely Melville could have gone back and amended his manuscript if he wished, but it was likely a case of not having enough time. After all, the man but was trying to make a living as a novelist -- he had so many god damned mouths to feed -- and to rewrite the first 75% of the book to accommodate an impetuous change to the fundamental character of its protagonist would be to test the patience of his publishers and forestall his getting paid. I guess that's what he gets from writing a book in the time before word processors.)

(Devil’s advocate: what if he did plan the whole thing? The reintroduction to Pierre as a young author was obviously precipitated by Melville's own experience as an acclaimed young author whom the critics suddenly turned on; Melville wrote this not to please, but to appall. Maybe he thought it better to wait until he was toward the end of the book to vomit up his bile at the press and publishers. Do we suppose the editors of what is now HarperCollins, would have been keen on publishing Pierre if the book immediately leapt into its insinuations of the publishing industry being full of shit?)

(Okay, that’s not very likely.)

To me, what most suggests this chapter's having been born of a sudden, bitter impulse (aside from the obviousness with which it was born of a sudden, bitter impulse) is a line appearing before Pierre socks the literary magazine editor in the face:

Though the sweetest-tempered youth in the world when but decently treated, Pierre had an ugly devil in him sometimes, very apt to be evoked by the personal profaneness of gentlemen of the Captain Kidd school of literature. 

Where did this come from? It seems absolutely at odds with the Pierre we met at the beginning of the book.

Curiously, Sedgwick (our on-hand Melville scholar) doesn't breathe a word about the suddenness with which Melville reveals Pierre as an author. Guess #1 is that he takes Melville at his word when he says he didn't mention Pierre's literary successes simply because he didn't feel like it. Guess #2 (probably the better one) is that Sedgwick, as a critic, is more interested in examining the work as it is than speculating on the correspondence between the author's personal life and the shape his work assumes.

Wise policy: the Pierre in our hands is the book Melville that wrote for us to read, so all we can do is keep rolling with it.
This chapter just begs for an annotated edition. I lack the knowledge and the resources to pick it apart myself. The scene Melville pillories is a very contemporary (circa 1850) one; but putting aside all the temporalities of Pierre/Melville’s 1850s, this diatribe against the publishing industry -- sounds very familiar. If it seems odd that a young writer would be as hounded by the public and industry pimps to nearly the same extent as a famous actor or pop star, recall that in the 1850's, print was the mass media. If you wanted to be passively entertained in your own home, you were probably reading a book or magazine. This meant the print industry flourished from high demand, and the public and printers were always on the lookout for The Next Big Thing.

(Remember that Melville's first novel, Typee, was a runaway success that made him instantly famous. When he narrates Pierre's rise as a literary star, he writes from personal experience.)

Since I am short on time, three quick notes:

1.) The critics' praise for Pierre's early work is all, of course, vacuous bullshit. "Characterized throughout by Perfect Taste" translates to "writes the kind of stuff that's popular right now." "Highly respectful youth" might as well be a phrase Bill Hicks used in a variation of his tirade against New Kids on the Block. And then there's "[h]e has translated the unruffled gentleman from the drawing-room into the general levee of letters; he never permits himself to astonish; is never betrayed into any thing coarse or new; as assured that whatever astonishes is vulgar, and whatever is new must be crude. Yes, it is the glory of this admirable young author, that vulgarity and vigor -- two inseparable adjuncts -- are equally removed from him." This makes me throw up a little in my mouth and is probably what the record company execs were saying to each other when Matchbox 20 submitted their demo tape. (Sorry for not having a more modern reference handy.)

2.) In his characteristically wryly hamfisted (or hamfistedly wry), Melville describes Pierre being solicited by a publishing outfit founded by a couple of former tailors who don't know shit about books except that they can be printed and sold for money.

3.) Yes, yes -- I had to look up Daguerreotype too. (It's a camera.) 260 years later, it seems absurd that an author -- or anyone else on the planet, save the paranoid or eccentric -- would object to having their photograph taken and distributed. Pierre’s attitude is similar to that of those “eccentric” types who refuse to go on the Facebook. He doesn't want strangers and the hoi polloi gawking at him. He doesn't want his image to be public domain; he feels it devalues his image. (What an outlandish attitude!)

"Timonism" and "Timonize" are two words that pop up in this chapter. I actually went ahead and read Timon of Athens so I’d know precisely what Melville meant. (But you can just check the Wikipedia article, if you’d like. It’s an unusual specimen within the Shakespearean menagerie, but its titular character is pretty much the greatest hater in all literature.

Timon turns misanthrope when his nominal friends in the Athenian elite show themselves for the duplicitous, cynical slobs they are. Pierre's Timonization is precipitated by the collision between his ideas of Beauty, Truth, and Art, and the coarse realities of the publishing world.

A contemporary nonfictional parallel spring to mind: the story of Joel Hodgson (of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fame), his swift rise through the tiers of showbiz, and his abrupt exodus from the up and up. From the MST3K Wiki:

Joel's standup was a prop-comedy-orientated act. He developed a persona called "Agent J."

He began performing locally in the Minnesota area. He performed regularly at the Minneapolis Cabaret Club. Later, he was booked to headline the opening of The Comedy Gallery on March 18, 1982. On September 26, 1982, he won the First Annual Twin Cities Comedy Invitational, beating some well-known comedians in the process. He took this opportunity to move down to Los Angeles.

Joel was given a gig at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles within a week and had arranged an audition to be on Late Night with David Letterman. He got booked and made his national television debut on February 15, 1983. He was then booked on a few HBO and Showtime comedy specials.

He made his debut on Saturday Night Live on November 12, 1983, with host Teri Garr. An infamous prop during the performance was a time bomb. During the act, Joel would announce that he only had three minutes to perform. He would then reveal the time bomb and proclaim that "we ALL have three minutes."

. . . .Joel continued appearing on David Letterman and Saturday Night Live through the next year. In one SNL appearance, he mentioned his Mystery Science Lab. In the summer of 1984, NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff offered him a role in a sitcom called High School USA. Joel turned down the project because he believed it wasn't funny. Believing it to be a negotiation ploy, NBC doubled the money. At this point, Joel believed that Los Angeles was phony so he decided to return to Minnesota.

And then he built some robot puppets and talked the folks at local UHF station KTMA to let him do a show about cheesy horror movies.


Our drowsy friend in the red jumpsuit is clearly too jolly to have contracted a strain of Timonization. Will Pierre detoxify as well as Joel? (My guess is not.)

Again, it’s very hard not to read this as Melville unintentionally letting his cards slip from his hand. He’s in a bad mood, and this chapter begins to explain it. Pierre’s Timonization is modeled on Melville’s Timonization. After Pierre, it only got worse.

From Sedgwick:

Mrs. Melville left a brief record of her husband’s life in which she noted: “Published White-Whale in 1851 – wrote Pierre, published 1852. We all felt anxious about the strain on his health in the spring of 1853."

. . . . .

“The period of Melville’s life stretching from the publication of Pierre, or from within a short of this event to his death, has been called by one of his biographers ‘The Long Quietus’ and by another ‘The Long Seclusion.’ ‘He acted very much as if he were dead, so far as the business of literature was concerned,’ writes a third. In New York he shunned literary dinners and foregatherings. He did not give lectures. He declined all the means to publicity which to the run of authors then and now it would incomprehensible not to cultivate. . . .

According to [some critics and biographers] what Melville wrote for publication after Pierre was no more than a series of stop gaps in the interim of finding different employment. . . .As we know, Melville was obliged to continue writing to support himself and his family. When the opportunity for other employment offered, he took it and put writing aside.

At the risk of redundancy: Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick, which is, as far as I’m concerned, the greatest novel America has ever produced. Afterwards he wrote Pierre, which fell far short of his intentions and precipitated the destruction of his grand literary ambitions. Pierre wasn't Meville's last novel, but from what I understand, it was the last one he really put his guts into.

As someone who tells himself he is or pretends to be a writer, I'm finding that Pierre’s use as a lens into this process of unraveling makes it well-worth reading and scrutinizing.

So what's expected to happen to Hamlet next?

Well, I anticipate our hero's suddenly being an author instead of a "prince" skewing things to such an extent as to ruin the congruency between Pierre and Hamlet.

Both heroes cross their Rubicons. Hamlet catches Claudius in "The Mousetrap," recklessly murders Polonius, and goes into exile. Pierre gives Lucy the shove-off for Isabel's, sake, slights his mother, and goes into exile.

And now?

Question #1: How will Pierre attempt to fulfill his objective?

Hamlet had it easy. All he had to do was kill Claudius. One stab wound, and he's done. Pierre, on the other hand, has taken it upon himself to love and care for his sister Isabel. This is an open-ended commitment. As long as Isabel lives, Pierre's obligation stands. If something happens to Isabel, Pierre has failed.

Melville explicitly compares Pierre to Christ in Book V. "Christ-like" isn't a descriptor Melville would use loosely. By orthodox standards, he might not be a Christian writer -- but he is indisputably a mystical one in his finest moments, and Melville's mysticism is colored by a kind of transcendentalist Christianity. When he compares Pierre to Christ, he does want us to examine Pierre's progression and find points of contact with the life of Christ (as purported in the Bible).

The lesson here is that true Christianity is the best way (an argument Melville makes elsewhere, and implicitly emphasizes the word true), but it is also the most difficult. A Hamlet's quest for vengeance is an straightforward, easily-resolved affair compared to sacrificing yourself to atone for the sins of the world and receiving only peoples' scorn in return.

Pierre's being compared to Christ and Timon suggests some dark potential ramifications. I see a perverse metaphorical chain function at work here....

Wait, wait. What am I saying this means? The rate at which Pierre changes with respect to Christ is equivalent to the rate at which Pierre changes with respect to Timon multiplied by the rate at which Timon changes with respect to Christ?

Okay, fine. I should have quit while I was ahead after that little quip about obtuseness, acuity, and supplements. This has been the last math metaphor I will ever try to write.

Anyway, I'm envisioning Pierre as a Timonized Christ: sacrificing himself for the sins of the mankind and coming to despise the very world and people he saved.


Question #2: Who will Pierre be when it's all over?

"To be, or not to be," asks the Prince of Denmark in Hamlet 3.1. "Let it be," he says in 5.2. The void stares back into Hamlet, and he comes away simultaneously resigned and resolved.

I expect a civil war to break out within Pierre's soul. I'm not too optimistic about the prospects of his emerging from it as gracefully as Hamlet (or Joel, for that matter).

1 comment:

  1. I think even if I didn't know beforehand that Melville added in the "Pierre is an author" part, I still would have realized it was tacked on. It really doesn't fit at all with the surrounding material, and Melville's own voice is pretty clearly recognizable when the narrator is describing Pierre's life as an author.