Sunday, September 9, 2012

Let's Read Pierre: Books VII - IX

(Image borrowed from Michel McNinch)

Gentlemen! We still doin' Pierre?

Judging by the number of replies to the last post, several of our number have opted out. Well -- I can't say I'd blame anyone. So far Pierre has been just as prolix and melodramatic as Moby Dick, but this time there's no Lucifer-like Ahab, whale slaughter, or cannibal bedfellows to hold readers' interest between philosophical tangents and rhetorical flourishes, and the plot moves even slower.

I'm reminded of a Futurama episode in which Fry makes a tremendous fuss about not being able to get an anchovy pizza because the species has gone extinct. When he finally manages to get the last extant anchovy tin and puts them on a pizza for his friends, they're all repulsed. "No one likes them at first," a blithe Fry says, "but they'll grow on you!"

Melville is probably an acquired taste is all I'm saying, and Pierre is definitely not a good introduction to his work. I'm still enjoying the book, but that's probably because Melville has already grown on me and I went into it with a pretty good idea of what I could reasonably expect.

Readers should consider that Melville is somewhat out of his usual element here. We've already mentioned that Pierre is the first of his novels to have been written in the third person, but it also bears mentioning that it's the first that has nothing to do with sailors or sea voyages. Coming from an author who claimed "a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard" and was known during his lifetime as "the guy who wrote about living with the South Pacific cannibal tribe" and posthumously as "the guy who wrote about the insane sea captain and the white whale," Pierre seems rather incongruous with the rest of the Melvillian bibliography.

Melville had never taken his fiction very far inland before Pierre. I think we can forgive him if it took him a while to find his land legs.

But for all its incongruities, Pierre's points of contact with Moby Dick multiply as we press deeper into the text. Two spring directly to mind:

1.) The Shakespeare influence
2.) The America influence

Touching upon the latter: when Melville wrote the bulk of his novels, the United States had not even been a nation for four score years. As the fledgling nation of former British subjects tried to work out its identity, you often see it doing so by way of contrast: emphasizing its democracy (in several sense of the word) and its not having a nobility (which we saw in Pierre's Book I).

For many years, the subjects of Western fiction and drama were kings, princes, knights, and nobles. Melville, a reader of the classics, wanted to replicate the high drama of the old works while transplanting it into a society where royalty is saliently absent.

And so in Moby Dick there's an apology for his investment of a shaggy Nantucket whaling ship captain with the qualities of a godlike emperor. An in Pierre, our son of an 19th century landowner in upstate New York is treated as princeling; his mother as the severe and vain queen; his illegitimate, half-crazy sister as the downtrodden Cinderella princess waiting to be rescued; and the estate of Saddle Meadows as their royal kingdom.

Pierre reminds me of those modern Shakespeare productions where the director plants everything in a 20th century setting. The props look different, the context is tweaked, and there's some anachronistic dissonance when a sword is mentioned and a gun is drawn -- but the story and poetry are unchanged, and we're still dealing with a nobility's internal politics, mad princes, spurned princesses, and spiteful monarchs.

This thought conveniently brings us to the Hamlet connection, which Melville now makes explicitly clear in Book VII. Leading up to it are a pair of sequences which are implicitly drawn from Hamlet, which are...

1.) Mary Glendinning and Claudius

In Pierre 7.3, our hero's mother bares her teeth. If we want to keep drawing parallels between Pierre and Hamlet, I might hold it beside Claudius's confessional soliloquy in Hamlet 3.3.

The circumstances are different in such a way as to actually seem inverted. In Hamlet's scenario, the prince's suspicions about the king are verified. In the case of Pierre, the queen mulls over her own presentiments toward her prince's conduct. Claudius admits to an abominable crime; Mary suspects her son of a transgression she cannot forgive and awaits his confession.

Both monologues in both pieces are (a) the first we get a direct look into the monarch's mind (b) the first time we see that they pose a threat to our hero, or are at the least on course toward an irreconcilable conflict. (This happens fairly often in Shakespeare: at the very onset, the hero and his rival have no reason or desire to kill each other, but are ineluctably impelled towards it by the exigencies of their vital interests. Pierre's conscience allows him only take one course of action in response to his discovery of Isabel's existence; Mary's nature permits her only one course of action in response to Pierre's inexplicable behavior. And this conflict of interests will be what destroys the relationship between mother and son.)

2.) The Terror Stone and the Bare Bodkin

Pierre 7.4 and 7.5 functions as our hero's "to be or not to be" moment. An indecisive Hamlet thinks about ending his dilemma by falling on his own dagger. An anxious and unsure Pierre crawls under a tenuously balanced boulder and dares it to fall on him. Hamlet's own indecisive, metaphysical waffling convinces him to stay alive and continue his waffling; Pierre's petitions to destiny fail to save him from having to embark on a course which he is helpless to resist choosing. In both cases the hero is confronted with a murky future that only promises pain, and neither of them are getting off easy. Both test the viability of suicide and find that it isn't an option.

(Note that Melville takes time to mention that climbing the massive Terror Stone isn't so awful, but crawling under it is. Suggestion: Pierre's destiny won't win him fame and glory as did that of his great-grandfather, the revolutionary hero. His trial will be the act of debasing and burying himself for the sake of his family's honor. This probably isn't a case of literary apophenia: Melville loved  his symbolism.)

Directly after the Terror Stone sequence comes Melville's "Hamletism" digression. The chapter is rather short, so let's just slap the whole thing up on here:

For, not to speak of the other and subtler meanings which lie crouching behind the colossal haunches of this stone, regarded as the menacingly impending Terror Stone -- hidden to all the simple cottagers, but revealed to Pierre -- consider its aspects as the Memnon Stone. For Memnon was that dewy, royal boy, son of Aurora, and born King of Egypt, who, with enthusiastic rashness flinging himself on another's account into a rightful quarrel, fought hand to hand with his overmatch, and met his boyish and most dolorous death beneath the walls of Troy. His wailing subjects built a monument in Egypt to commemorate his untimely fate. Touched by the breath of the bereaved Aurora, every sunrise that statue gave forth a mournful broken sound, as of a harp-string suddenly sundered, being too harshly wound.

Herein lies an unsummed world of grief. For in this plaintive fable we find embodied the Hamletism of the antique world; the Hamletism of three thousand years ago: "The flower of virtue cropped by a too rare mischance." And the English tragedy is but Egyptian Memnon, Montaignized and modernized; for being but a mortal man Shakespeare had his fathers too.

Now as the Memnon Statue survives down to this present day, so does that nobly-striving but ever-shipwrecked character in some royal youths (for both Memnon and Hamlet were the sons of kings), of which that statue is the melancholy type. But Memnon's sculptured woes did once melodiously resound; now all is mute. Fit emblem that of old, poetry was a consecration and an obsequy to all hapless modes of human life; but in a bantering, barren, and prosaic, heartless age, Aurora's music-moan is lost among our drifting sands, which whelm alike the monument and the dirge.

(There is much more we can say about this touching its context within the American character and modern literature, but let's rather stay on track and allow the excerpt to just speak for itself for now. As I progress through Pierre I find more and more and more that could be examined at length, but I'd rather keep these as half-baked blog posts instead of developing them into half-baked essays.)

So what else is there to discuss?

Oh, right.

Mystery! Mystery!
Mystery of Isabel!
Mystery! Mystery!
Isabel and Mystery!

Isabel. I don't know how at all how to feel about her, but I'm certain she unnerves me. Melville obviously intended her to be the otherworldly "dark lady" in contrast to Lucy, the sweet blonde girl next door (cf. Age of Innocence, May and Ellen). And Isabel brings an exotic presence to Saddle Meadows, to say the least.

An angelic-looking woman with the brain of a half-addled child. Very strange.

I imagine Melville wished for the reader to be as bewitched by Isabel as Pierre, but I'm having a hard time feeling it. I'm fascinated by her, but I wouldn't say I'm captivated.

I can think of two related reasons for why this might be.

Reason #1: I will now admit that Melville probably could've toned down the siblings' dialogue. Pierre and Isabel's interactions are melodramatic even by Melvillian standards.

Reason #2: Isabel is female, and Melville has as little experience writing about women as he has writing landlocked novels.

I can't claim to have read all of Melville's fiction (yet), but women usually don't figure into his stories. Now and then a lady or a girl will pop up, but never for very long and rarely with much consequence. In Pierre, three of the four major characters we've seen so far are female. This is a very unusual thing in a Melville book.

Melville is great at writing about (a) men dealing with themselves (b) men dealing with other men. Male/female relationships -- well, he seems to handle them rather maladroitly. But you could have surmised as much from the early Pierre/Lucy sequences.

We'll see what happens, though. Perhaps changing circumstances will strain the siblings' relationship. This wouldn't be much of a drama if Pierre's and Isabel's wills never clashed, and Melville is definitely working toward something.

Isabel side note #1: In 8.2, Isabel says:

Now I resolved to learn my letters, and learn to read, in order that of myself I might learn the meaning of those faded characters. No other purpose but that only one, did I have in learning then to read. I easily induced the woman to give me my little teachings, and being uncommonly quick, and moreover, most eager to learn, I soon mastered the alphabet, and went on to spelling, and by-and-by to reading,

I wonder if Melville had read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass?

Isabel side note #2: In 8.4, Isabel says:

Out of yon chamber, Pierre, Delly hath not stepped, for now four weeks and more; nor ever hath she once lain upon her bed; it was last made up five weeks ago; but paces, paces, paces, all through the night, till after twelve; and then sits vacant in her chair. Often I would go to her to comfort her; but she says, 'Nay, nay, nay,' to me through the door; says, 'Nay, nay, nay,' and only nay to me, through the bolted door; bolted three weeks ago -- when I by cunning arts stole her dead baby from her, and with these fingers, alone, by night, scooped out a hollow, and, seconding heaven's own charitable stroke, buried that sweet, wee symbol of her not unpardonable shame far from the ruthless foot of man...

Another reminder that Saddle Meadows is not the American Eden it appeared at the onset.

Two Words that Mean Different Things Than You Might Think:

1.) Enthusiasm. Melville frequently employs this word. To us it usually means something like "glad eagerness." Melville uses its classical definition. The word is originally from Greek, and referred to instances when a person is possessed or inspired by a god. When Melville calls Pierre an enthusiast, he has a very specific meaning in mind.

2.) Electric. Melville uses the word "electric" a few times in Book VIII during Pierre's one-on-one with Isabel. The connotations must have been entirely different in Melville's time, before the invention of the light bulb and when science was still struggling to understand exactly what electricity was and how it worked.

I think that’s all I got for now. I’m not certain how many folks are still reading along, but I’ll continue posting my Pierre thoughts once a week. (After all, it spares me from having to think of update topics.) Keep reading along if you’d like. And if not, that’s groovy too. 

Next time: Books X - XIV

Postscript: my favorite Melvillian flight of fancy from this section was:

Still wandering through the forest, his eye pursuing its ever-shifting shadowy vistas; remote from all visible haunts and traces of that strangely willful race, who, in the sordid traffickings of clay and mud, are ever seeking to denationalize the natural heavenliness of their souls; there came into the mind of Pierre, thoughts and fancies never imbibed within the gates of towns; but only given forth by the atmosphere of primeval forests, which, with the eternal ocean, are the only unchanged general objects remaining to this day, from those that originally met the gaze of Adam. For so it is, that the apparently most inflammable or evaporable of all earthly things, wood and water, are, in this view, immensely the most endurable. (7.2)


  1. A few things that caught my attention...

    1. Yeah, I'm loving the Hamletisms popping up now. One of the things that attracted me most to Moby-Dick was the Shakespearean quality of the writing, something that, at first, Pierre seemed to have lacked, instead attempting romantic schmaltz. Since book 3 or so though, the story has really opened up, sweeping and epic even if thus far it still takes place in Saddle Meadows. If other readers really have given up, it's their loss.

    2. Mrs. Glendinning's brief chapter(?) in the spotlight was excellent; beyond being the harbinger of discord between Pierre and his mother, I also caught what seemed to be a bit of seething madness behind the seams, Mrs. Glendinning might have a bit of Ophelia in her as well, she seems to be coming unhinged rapidly.

    3. I'm unsure what to make of the guitar scene with Isabel, it seemed like metaphysics out of nowhere. Not that there's anything wrong with fantastic realism, of course, it's probably my favorite genre, but it wasn't expected.

    4. Speaking of Isabel, I hope I'm not thinking too much in a metafictional context, but her story seems a little contrived. I want to see where Melville's going with this, but Pierre really is taking everything at face value with her.

    I'm actually enjoying the book more every week. I've told my wife she should try it when I'm through, she's normally an Austen fan but she might get something out of Saddle Meadows' setting.

  2. Even though I'm not reading Pierre or contributing to the discussion, I do really enjoy reading your write ups. Don't stop!

  3. I'm reading Pierre, but because I was only able to get my hands on a copy a few days ago, I'm not nearly up to speed with your posts. I'll probably contribute when I've got something to say about the book itself, but I certainly intend to go along with you.