Sunday, September 30, 2012

Let's Read Pierre: Books XVIII - XXIII

(Melville's writing desk plucked from Weekends in Paradelle.)

Our hero Pierre relocates from his lavish family home in upstate New York to an NYC tenement inhabited by poor young writers, artists, philosophers, and itinerants, where he slaves away at a book that, for any number of tangled reasons, he can't seem to get written.

My, how little things have changed in 160 years.

(I've heard that the Beats were fans of Pierre, which makes sense. Melville, to an equal or perhaps greater extent than Kerouac himself, rigorously applies the "first thought, best thought" maxim in his prose. But now that our hero is an impecunious young poet living in a church-turned-apartment building with scores of bohemian proto-Subterraneans calling themselves The Apostles -- well, the congruities speak for themselves.)

At any rate: I guess I knew it was coming.

Maybe I kept it a secret from myself, but I think one of my reasons for deciding to read Pierre now, of all times, rather than check out the Dickens or Prus novels on my To Read shelf was my understanding that Melville used it as a vessel for his grievances about writing and about Moby Dick's undeservedly poor reception. (Borrowing a turn of phrase from Sedgwick: "[Melville may have] conceived Pierre as a bomb to throw at the critics and the public to which they pandered and so to have done with them forever.")

It's probably no secret to anyone following this modest little blog that I put out a book earlier this year, and I certainly can't call it a success. After that Kirkus Indie debacle, I felt absolutely defeated. There was a week or two where I liberally referred to myself as a "failed writer."

Melville is one of my heroes. I wanted to read him writing the things that were on my mind, to see him give expression to the same kind of outrage I was feeling.

He did not disappoint.

But whatever my personal travails as an author, they are incomparable to Melville's. After all: I'm a bachelor with a day job who depends on writing as a means to preserve his sanity rather than his capacity to pay rent. Melville at this point was still a career author. Though he was in it for the love -- or, rather, for a brand of semi-religious devotion -- he wrote Pierre primarily because he needed the money. He had a wife and kids to feed; if he didn't write books, he didn't get paid. Problem was, the sort books he grew passionate about writing weren't the kind of books the public wished to read. ("[T]he world worship[s] Mediocrity and Common-Place...")

Pierre's sufferings as an author are Melville's own. As our author tries to bang out this novel so he can answer his bill collectors, his Hamlet-turned-novelist struggles to write a salable book to support himself and his sister. Unfortunately for both of them, they book they're able to write -- without marring their own integrity, which neither is capable of doing -- aren't the books that will make them bucks.

(Pierre's big hit, "The Tropical Summer," probably alludes to to the lush, South Pacific paradise which is the subject of Typee. Remember once more that Typee was Meville's best selling and most praised work during his lifetime, and is most certainly a lightweight compared to his later work.)

Though it came from left field, Pierre's attempts to support Isabel and Delly with his writing does make some sense. Cut off from the family estate and adrift in the city, our hero needed to seek out the means to sustain himself, but his upbringing as a carefree aristocrat hasn't prepped him for the urban labor force. I can imagine an exasperated Melville deciding that his hero's new occupation in his new life should be the worst, most grinding, degrading labor he could think of -- and so he made Pierre a writer, like himself.

But Jesus, we've really leapt through the funhouse mirror.

When we first met Pierre he was an 19th century American Hamlet; now he's a broke and embittered writer. The blonde, blue-eyed, angelic Lucy was once his sweetheart; now his dark half-sister has replaced her as his best girl. Early on, Pierre vivacity and naivete made him seem like a ten year old in a young adult's body; now he seems nineteen going on forty-five. In his moody raving, Pierre has come, at moments, to resemble Ahab -- a young, powerless, uncommanding Ahab.

Pierre becomes nearly unrecognizable -- and in such a short span of time. "Timonization" is an apt term for this transformation, inasmuch as Timon's turning to a misanthrope occurs almost instantaneously in Shakespeare. Though the news of his mothers' death hardly leaves him unaffected, we don't watch brood on it from every conceivable angle as we might have expected to in the earlier chapters. He goes for a walk and gets back to his book. He's got no time to grieve. That fucking book won't write itself.

It's like an awakening. Pierre dreamed he was a prince, but wakes up and realizes he's a desperate novelist who needs to write a book to feed his family.

Or: the hero of Herman Melville's novel suddenly discovers that he's actually Herman Melville.

(Do we notice that Melville is here a struggling author writing about a struggling author named Pierre who writes about a struggling author named Vivia?)

I've long been curious to know how it felt to be Melville at his writing desk. As it turns out, it kind of sucked:

With cheek rather pale, then, and lips rather blue, Pierre sits down to his plank.

But is Pierre packed in the mail for St. Petersburg this morning? Over his boots are his moccasins; over his ordinary coat is his surtout; and over that, a cloak of Isabel's. Now he is squared to his plank; and at his hint, the affectionate Isabel gently pushes his chair closer to it, for he is so muffled, he can hardly move of himself. Now Delly comes in with bricks hot from the stove; and now Isabel and she with devoted solicitude pack away these comforting stones in the folds of an old blue cloak, a military garment of ,the grandfather of Pierre, and tenderly arrange it both over and under his feet; but putting the warm flagging beneath. Then Delly brings still another hot brick to put under his ink-stand, to prevent the ink from thickening. Then Isabel drags the camp-bedstead nearer to him, on which are the two or three books he may possibly have occasion to refer to that day, with a biscuit or two, and some water, and a clean towel, and a basin. Then she leans against the plank by the elbow of Pierre, a crook-ended stick. Is Pierre a shepherd, or a bishop, or a cripple? No, but he has in effect, reduced himself to the miserable condition of the last. With the crook-ended cane, Pierre -- unable to rise without sadly impairing his manifold intrenchments, and admitting the cold air into their innermost nooks, -- Pierre, if in his solitude, he should chance to need any thing beyond the reach of his arm, then the crook-ended cane drags it to his immediate vicinity.

Pierre glances slowly all round him; every thing seems to be right; he looks up with a grateful, melancholy satisfaction at Isabel; a tear gathers in her eye; but she conceals it from him by coming very close to him, stooping over, and kissing his brow. 'Tis her lips that leave the warm moisture there; not her tears, she says.

"I suppose I must go now, Pierre. Now don't, don't be so long to-day. I will call thee at half-past four. Thou shall not strain thine eyes in the twilight."

"We will see about that," says Pierre, with an unobserved attempt at a very sad pun. "Come, thou must go. Leave me."

And there he is left.

Pierre is young; heaven gave him the divinest, freshest form of a man; put light into his eye, and fire into his blood, and brawn into his arm, and a joyous, jubilant, overflowing, up-bubbling, universal life in him everywhere. Now look around in that most miserable room, and at that most miserable of all the pursuits of a man, and say if here be the place, and this be the trade, that God intended him for. A rickety chair, two hollow barrels, a plank, paper, pens, and infernally black ink, four leprously dingy white walls, no carpet, a cup of water, and a dry biscuit or two. Oh, I hear the leap of the Texan Camanche, as at this moment he goes crashing like a wild deer through the green underbrush; I hear his glorious whoop of savage and untamable health; and then I look in at Pierre. If physical, practical unreason make the savage, which is he? Civilization, Philosophy, Ideal Virtue! behold your victim!

. . . . . .

From eight o'clock in the morning till half-past four in the evening, Pierre sits there in his room; -- eight hours and a half!

From throbbing neck-bands, and swinging belly-bands of gay-hearted horses, the sleigh-bells chimingly jingle; -- but Pierre sits there in his room; Thanksgiving comes, with its glad thanks, and crisp turkeys; -- but Pierre sits there in his room; soft through the snows, on tinted Indian moccasin, Merry Christmas comes stealing; -- but Pierre sits there in his room; it is New Year's, and like a great flagon, the vast city over-brims at all curb-stones, wharves, and piers, with bubbling jubilations; -- but Pierre sits there in his room: -- Nor jingling sleigh-bells at throbbing neck-band, nor swinging belly-band; nor glad thanks, and crisp turkeys of Thanksgiving; nor tinted Indian moccasin of Merry Christmas softly stealing through the snows; nor New Year's curb-stones, wharves, and piers, over-brimming with bubbling jubilations: -- Nor jingling sleigh-bells, nor glad Thanksgiving, nor Merry Christmas, nor jubilating New Year's: -- Nor Bell, Thank, Christ, Year; -- none of these are for Pierre. In the midst of the merriments of the mutations of Time, Pierre hath ringed himself in with the grief of Eternity. Pierre is a peak inflexible in the heart of Time, as the isle-peak, Pico, stands unassaultable in the midst of waves. He will not be called to; he will not be stirred. Sometimes the intent ear of Isabel in the next room, overhears the alternate silence, and then the long lonely scratch of his pen. It is, as if she heard the busy claw of some midnight mole in the ground. Sometimes, she hears a low cough, and sometimes the scrape of his crook-handled cane.

Here surely is a wonderful stillness of eight hours and a half, repeated day after day. In the heart of such silence, surely something is at work. Is it creation, or destruction? Builds Pierre the noble world of a new book? or does the Pale Haggardness unbuild the lungs and the life in him? -- Unutterable, that a man should be thus!

When in the meridian flush of the day, we recall the black apex of night; then night seems impossible; this sun can never go down. Oh that the memory of the uttermost gloom as an already tasted thing to the dregs, should be no security against its return. One may be passibly well one day, but the next, he may sup at black broth with Pluto.

Is there then all this work to one book, which shall be read in a very few hours; and, far more frequently, utterly skipped in one second; and which, in the end, whatever it be, must undoubtedly go to the worms?

Not so; that which now absorbs the time and the life of Pierre, is not the book, but the primitive elementalizing of the strange stuff, which in the act of attempting that book, has upheaved and upgushed in his soul. Two books are being writ; of which the world shall only see one, and that the bungled one. The larger book, and the infinitely better, is for Pierre's own private shelf. That it is, whose unfathomable cravings drink his blood; the other only demands his ink. But circumstances have so decreed, that the one can not be composed on the paper, but only as the other is writ down in his soul. And the one of the soul is elephantinely sluggish, and will not budge at a breath. Thus Pierre is fastened on by two leeches; -- how then can the life of Pierre last? Lo! he is fitting himself for the highest life, by thinning his blood and collapsing his heart. He is learning how to live, by rehearsing the part of death.

Who shall tell all the thoughts and feelings of Pierre in that desolate and shivering room, when at last the idea obtruded, that the wiser and the profounder he should grow, the more and the more he lessened the chances for bread; that could he now hurl his deep book out of the window, and fall to on some shallow nothing of a novel, composable in a month at the longest, then could he reasonably hope for both appreciation and cash. But the devouring profundities, now opened up in him, consume all his vigor; would he, he could not now be entertainingly and profitably shallow in some pellucid and merry romance. Now he sees, that with every accession of the personal divine to him, some great land-slide of the general surrounding divineness slips from him, and falls crashing away. Said I not that the gods, as well as mankind, had unhanded themselves from this Pierre? So now in him you behold the baby toddler I spoke of; forced now to stand and toddle alone.

Now and then he turns to the camp-bed, and wetting his towel in the basin, presses it against his brow. Now he leans back in his chair, as if to give up; but again bends over and plods.

Twilight draws on, the summons of Isabel is heard from the door; the poor, frozen, blue-lipped, soul-shivering traveler for St. Petersburg is unpacked; and for a moment stands toddling on the floor. Then his hat, and his cane, and out he sallies for fresh air. A most comfortless staggering of a stroll! People gaze at him passing, as at some imprudent sick man, willfully burst from his bed. If an acquaintance is met, and would say a pleasant newsmonger's word in his ear, that acquaintance turns from him, affronted at his hard aspect of icy discourtesy. "Badhearted," mutters the man, and goes on.

He comes back to his chambers, and sits down at the neat table of Delly; and Isabel soothingly eyes him, and presses him to eat and be strong. But his is the famishing which loathes all food. He cannot eat but by force. He has assassinated the natural day; how then can he eat with an appetite? If he lays him down, he can not sleep; he has waked the infinite wakefulness in him; then how can he slumber? Still his book, like a vast lumbering planet, revolves in his aching head. He can not command the thing out of its orbit; fain would he behead himself, to gain one night's repose. At last the heavy hours move on; and sheer exhaustion overtakes him, and he lies still -- not asleep as children and day-laborers sleep -- but he lies still from his throbbings, and for that interval holdingly sheathes the beak of the vulture in his hand, and lets it not enter his heart.

Morning comes; again the dropped sash, the icy water, the flesh-brush, the breakfast, the hot bricks, the ink, the pen, the from-eight-o'clock-to-half-past-four, and the whole general inclusive hell of the same departed day.

Ah! shivering thus day after day in his wrappers and cloaks, is this the warm lad that once sung to the world of the Tropical Summer?

I'm really enjoying these chapters, perhaps more than the the rest of the book. Melville's astounding intellect suffuses throughout, but not until now has he splayed his guts out onto the page. I can't imagine how the edited "Kraken" version could be at all complete without the awkward "Pierre is a writer" twist.

But it's also these chapters that throw the whole novel out of alignment. It's as though Melville began writing one book, and then glued on the ending to a completely different book at the end. It's impossible for me not to read it as the author imploding on himself 2/3 into the thing and composing much of the remainder as a sort of meta self-documentary of his collapse.

I see in Pierre fragmented glimpses of the same grand and terrible phantom conjured in Moby Dick, but Melville fails to establish a cohesion among them; the rendering is incomplete. We could guess this fact is as much a contributory impetus for Melville's retconning Pierre as a result of it.

A novel beginning as an allegory or a case study cannot properly end by becoming superlatively personal. Not like this, anyway.

(Sedgwick, once again too good not to quote: "Melville transfixed his own heart on the point of his tragic vision.")

Pierre's imperfections make it so extraordinarily interesting, but they're also what keep it from vaulting to the same heights as Moby Dick. One wonders what a masterpiece it would have been if Melville had managed to transcribe more of the larger, infinitely better book into the bungled version.

Well, we wrap this up next week. Thanks for reading along if you're been keeping up with your own copy of the book, and thanks for bearing with me if you haven't. And if you started reading along and dropped out midstream, my apologies -- I promise that if I do something like this again, I'll choose a much more accessible novel.

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).