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.


  1. No need to apologize. I'm not reading Pierre along with you guys but learning about this work and Melville's life has been fascinating. I'm glad you noted your personal resonance with Melville too, that was touching.

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


  2. And sadly I have to drop out right at the finish line as well, I made it to i think chapter 22 or 23 but I'm in the middle of moving to lovely Los Angeles and so don't have the time, not to mention having to return the book to the library. I'll pick it up and finish once I'm settled in, but till then I'll just enjoy yer thoughts.

    From what I did make it to, though...loved the chapter where they arrived in the city and Pierre made an ass out of himself over and over, what a great way to show how out of his element he is. it almost read like Dickens to me, though that could've been the accents. Hamlet's inaction lead to things ending up much more bloody and vicious than they could've been, but at least his goal was somewhat realized; Pierre's just blundering though everything to the point that it's almost painful.

    Didn't get to the point where Mary died, it's too bad but I suppose that her type of antagonism doesn't really have a place in the story at this point anymore. I still say her last speech was the high point of the novel.

    1. Oooh. Finish it when you get a chance. It gets worse. So much worse.

      Is it a bad time to repeat a joke I read?

      Q: What's the difference between Los Angeles and yogurt?

      A: Yogurt has an active, living culture.

      (Actually, I've never been to LA. I'm sorta curious about what it's like.)