Saturday, October 6, 2012

Let's Read Pierre: Books XXIV - XXVI

Pierre lies arbored in ebon vines, and we have finally arrived at The End.

Those who stopped reading out of frustration for the novel's slothlike pace might be interested to know that it does gain momentum halfway through and continues accelerating. Problem is, the final chapters speed by almost too fast. The tension between the bizarre Pierre/Lucy/Isabel triangle doesn't have much time to simmer; Pierre is given little opportunity to mull over and soliloquize about Isabel and his fresh doubts regarding her origins; the situation with Cousin Glen barely conveys a sense of real menace before Pierre up and guns him down.

Actually, that last one works out rather well. The fact that Pierre just puts down his cousin's nasty letter, finds a couple of guns, and goes out looking for the jerk with hardly any reflection or deliberation at all demonstrates just how low our hero has been brought. He's snapped. He's angry at the world and his asshole cousin is good a scapegoat as any to take it out on. (If this were a novel written and set in a period with modern automatic weapons, Pierre would probably just start spraying bullets into everyone standing around Glen as well.)

"'Tis speechless sweet to murder thee!" is such a perfect line for an execution. I hope that anyone reading immediately flipped back to the first page of the book, as I did, to measure the depth of Pierre's plummet.

In these final chapters we also see the last of Pierre at his purgatorial writing desk. Melville's personal anguish is now, with no possibility for doubt, on full display.

Meantime Pierre was still going on with his book; every moment becoming still the more sensible of the intensely inauspicious circumstances of all sorts under which that labor was proceeding. And as the now advancing and concentring enterprise demanded more and more compacted vigor from him, he felt that he was having less and less to bring to it. For not only was it the signal misery of Pierre, to be invisibly -- though but accidentally -- goaded, in the hour of mental immaturity, to the attempt at a mature work, -- a circumstance sufficiently lamentable in itself; but also, in the hour of his clamorous pennilessness, he was additionally goaded into an enterprise long and protracted in the execution, and of all things least calculated for pecuniary profit in the end. How these things were so, whence they originated, might be thoroughly and very beneficially explained; but space and time here forbid.

At length, domestic matters -- rent and bread -- had come to such a pass with him, that whether or no, the first pages must go to the printer; and thus was added still another tribulation; because the printed pages now dictated to the following manuscript, and said to all subsequent thoughts and inventions of Pierre -- Thus and thus; so and so; else an ill match. Therefore, was his book already limited, bound over, and committed to imperfection, even before it had come to any confirmed form or conclusion at all. Oh, who shall reveal the horrors of poverty in authorship that is high? While the silly Millthorpe was railing against his delay of a few weeks and months; how bitterly did unreplying Pierre feel in his heart, that to most of the great works of humanity, their authors had given, not weeks and months, not years and years, but their wholly surrendered and dedicated lives. On either hand clung to by a girl who would have laid down her life for him; Pierre, nevertheless, in his deepest, highest part, was utterly without sympathy from any thing divine, human, brute, or vegetable. One in a city of hundreds of thousands of human beings, Pierre was solitary as at the Pole.

Melville acknowledges the novel's incongruities and apologizes for them, but he's also explaining himself. He wrote this the year after Moby Dick. Just one year later. Maybe Shakespeare could bang out masterpiece after masterpiece in his best years -- but Shakespeare was arguably a mutant of a more evolved strain than Melville, and his plays were much shorter than Melville's novels, besides. (Hamlet runs a little over 30,000 words, and is a rather long play. Pierre is five times that length, totaling something like 150,000 words.) It's much easier to shape a piece within the confines of a comprehensive vision when it's on the small side -- and when the exigencies of a breadwinner role aren't forcing you to rush the thing out the door.

If you're ever reading an S-tier literary masterpiece, it probably wasn't the result of a panicked rush job by an exasperated author at the end of his rope.

Melville was all too painfully aware of Pierre's shortcomings, but he couldn't do anything about it. He couldn't go back and change the beginning to better suit the shape taken by the end because he didn't have time. He had debts to pay, and this bizarre, imperfect, disturbing book was his only means of settling them.

The first two thirds of Pierre are an homage to Hamlet, but during the final third it shifts toward King Lear. This isn't about a prince's dilemmas and resolutions anymore. Now it's about bad things happening to good people. Now it's about the world beating down and deforming a noble soul with all the appearance of deliberate malice. Now it's about nothing working out for anybody. Now it's about the wanton gods killing Pierre and friends for their sport.

Toward the end of the Pierre's "Hamlet" section of the book, the Plinlimmon pamphlet acts as a sort of condensed, allegorical take on the plot. After the plot changes course, Melville uses the Enceladus hallucination to sum up the new state of things:

Nor did Pierre's random knowledge of the ancient fables fail still further to elucidate the vision which so strangely had supplied a tongue to muteness. But that elucidation was most repulsively fateful and foreboding; possibly because Pierre did not leap the final barrier of gloom; possibly because Pierre did not willfully wrest some final comfort from the fable; did not flog this stubborn rock as Moses his, and force even aridity itself to quench his painful thirst.

Thus smitten, the Mount of Titans seems to yield this following stream: --

Old Titan's self was the son of incestuous Coelus and Terra, the son of incestuous Heaven and Earth. And Titan married his mother Terra, another and accumulatively incestuous match. And thereof Enceladus was one issue. So Enceladus was both the son and grandson of an incest; and even thus, there had been born from the organic blended heavenliness and earthliness of Pierre, another mixed, uncertain, heaven-aspiring, but still not wholly earth-emancipated mood; which again, by its terrestrial taint held down to its terrestrial mother, generated there the present doubly incestuous Enceladus within him; so that the present mood of Pierre -- that reckless sky-assaulting mood of his, was nevertheless on one side the grandson of the sky. For it is according to eternal fitness, that the precipitated Titan should still seek to regain his paternal birthright even by fierce escalade. Wherefore whoso storms the sky gives best proof he came from thither! But whatso crawls contented in the moat before that crystal fort, shows it was born within that slime, and there forever will abide.

I have to read this as Melville licking the wounds in his soul -- or a very poetic act of self-flagellation. Either way, you're bogged in the filth and mud of the world. If you've got a noble spirit, well, sucks to be you: all you'll do is make things worse for yourself, and by your own nominal choice.

There is a difference between the gist of this and of the Plinlimmon tract. "Chronometricals and Horologicals" is a sort of cheat sheet for understanding the protagonist's tragic situation. The Enceladus digression is about Melville's own foundations cracking under his thwarted ambitions, all projected onto Pierre.

I can't be certain I'm not plagiarizing Mr. Sedgwick, but I'd like to think the thought would have occurred to me anyway: what's most striking about Pierre's end is its absence of tragic grandeur. Hamlet went out having bested Laertes, taken out Claudius, and avenged his father. Timon manages poetical justice in death, making vast Neptune weep for aye on his low grave, on faults forgiven (partial quote). Ahab and the Pequod go down like Lucifer, although in torrents rather than flames.

Pierre commits suicide in ignominy and obscurity after failing completely at what he set out to do, which might have actually been done for nothing.

About that...

The real sand in the eye here comes from the revelation regarding Isabel. Should we even call it a revelation? It might more fairly be called a rethinking. Much earlier, savvy reader Ivan pointed out that Pierre accepted Isabel’s claims without the least incredulity. Now, the dispirited but wiser Pierre finds some reason to doubt that Isabel is truly his sister -- or at least to back up and reexamine the evidence he accepted as verification of her claims.

“Ambiguities” indeed. Maybe Isabel is Pierre’s sister; in which case the well-meaning brother gives his best shot to a right and true cause. And maybe is Isabel is just some confused orphan with no relation to the Glendinning family, and the whole drama was actually a magnificently sick cosmic joke.

To use one final analogy from Hamlet, this would be comparable to Hamlet’s discovering – after he's been poisoned by Laertes’s rapier, but before he takes out Claudius -- that the joking gravedigger sometimes likes to get loaded, dress up like a ghost, and go outside after dark to fuck with people's heads. It would admit the possibility that his enterprise of great pith and moment was all for nothing. Worse than nothing: it would have made him the undisputed villain of the story. As it is, Hamlet comes out responsible (directly or indirectly) for a pile of mostly innocent corpses, but at the last avenges a regicide that would have otherwise gone unpunished. Whether or not the ends justified the means is up for debate.

Pierre’s momentous choice sets off a succession of events and subsequent decisions leading to the deaths of Mary, Lucy, Isabel, Glen, and himself. If it was all for the sake of his sister’s honor, well – good intentions and the service to a just and true cause paved another road to hell. But if Isabel isn’t his sister...

What a frightful thought.

When a lot of people use the word "ironic," what they actually mean is something more like "ain't that some shit."

Lucy's reappearance. Ain't that some shit?

She sacrifices her honor and her well-being for her beloved Pierre's sake as earnestly as Pierre sacrificed his honor and well-being for his beloved Isabel's sake. She and Pierre truly deserve each other, don't they?

Too bad that weirdo Isabel is in the way now.

In the end, what are we to think of Isabel?

Melville, as we know, relishes metaphor, allegory, and symbolism. This is a drama carried out between walking, talking archetypes. We have Pierre the tragic prince, Mary the vain queen, Lucy the angel, Glen the spiteful rival, and so on. But in the equation of Pierre, what does Isabel quantify?

"Bad angel" and "dark lady" are not satisfactory answers. She's something more anomalous than that -- but I certainly can't guess what. And there's another ambiguity. Isabel the ambiguity.

What is ironic are Isabel's last words. "All o'er, and ye know him not!" Spoken about someone whom the reader knows pretty bloody well by now, and spoken by somebody who will always remain a mystery.

And the rest is silence!

That's it for Pierre. Thanks again for joining me if you've been reading along, and for bearing with me if you haven't. We'll be returning to our regularly-scheduled, haphazard content next week. After this, I think I need to read a cheerier and more contemporary novel. I'm thinking The Monkey Wrench Gang, maybe...?


  1. Ah drag, sounds like I chose the worst possible time to take a break. Well once I've moved in I'll finish the last few chapters and post my thoughts up here.

    Thanks for the great time, Pat. I have to be honest, prior to this starting I hadn't even heard of Pierre, and I like to think that I'm a pretty big Melville fan. The book ended up a lot more interesting than the first few chapters had led me to think, and just reinforces my view that he is America's greatest writer.

    As for next? Hmm, nothing like an angry work and election year to get the blood boiling. The Monkey Wrench Gang, maybe Germinal or a Philip Dick book?

  2. This book certainly got better as it went along. It does kind of suck that arguably the best dynamic in the whole book (the Pierre-Isabel-Lucy creepy love triangle) was a bit rushed; and given the way things play out for the rest of the book, it's kind of odd that he so suddenly decides to murder Glen (and I can't help but think that Glen went by his last name to more further illustrate both Pierre's being disowned by his whole family, and Pierre's ending the family line by killing the last surviving relative), but that seems to be the way Melville likes handling things. He laboriously sets up a single domino at a time, then knocks them all down in an instant. Anyway, it's hard to know exactly what to think of this book, but I enjoyed it.