Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How little they ween of the Rudimental Quincunxes, and the Hecatic Spherula - such is Melville, such is Mardi

My invaluable commenters have made me feel not guilty - I feel guilty for inflicting more Mardi on everyone - but irresponsible. So a bit more on Mardi, and then a bit more tomorrow. The Jewish King Lear will have to wait.

Mardi (1849) is Herman Melville's third book, but first work of fiction. It's long - 654 Library of America pages. That's just slightly deceptive, because of the unusual amount of white space, the result of the book's 195 (!) chapters. Whenever I bogged down in Mardi, I sure did appreciate the short chapters.

For the first 159 pages and 51 chapters, Mardi is a seafaring tale (subgenre: boat), with a clear plot and an odd voice. Two sailors steal a ship's boat and desert a whaler on the open sea. The boat trip on the Pacific is completely unlike those of Captain Bligh or the Essex crew; it's almost an idyll. Since little happens, we get to know the narrator, an odd bird who gives us excurses like Chapter 13, "Of the Chondropterygii, and Other Uncouth Hordes Infesting the South Seas":

"It's famous botanizing, they say, in Arkansas' boundless prairies; I commend the student of Ichthyology to an open boat, and the ocean moors of the Pacific. As your craft glides along, what strange monsters float by. Elsewhere, was never seem their like. And nowhere are they found in the books of the naturalists."

The narrator proceeds, in this chapter, to mention Sir Thomas Browne, Buffon, Faust, the Essex, "the German naturalists Müller and Henle," Hagar and Ishmael, Samuel Johnson, Timon of Athens, and the cavalry painter Wouvermans. The descriptive writing is imaginative: the tiger shark is "a round, portly gourmand;" the white shark "steal[s] along like a spirit in the water, with horrific serenity of aspect." The chapter is four pages long.

Actually, any reader who can be bothered to pick up a Melville novel will be happy enough in the boat. There are even some events - a deserted ship, and the rescue of a blond-haired, blue-eyed sacrificial victim. And I think we're OK for another 36 pages, through Chapter 64 - we've reached the island chain of Mardi ("The World"), and have to spend some time getting acquainted with the locals. Then the fairy princess mysteriously vanishes, and Mardi takes a terrible turn.

The narrator begins a journey to find the missing woman, accompanied by the king of the island he's on, and three others - a poet, a historian, and a philosopher. All earlier characters are jettisoned, including, oddly, the narrator, who assumes a new identity and barely says a word for the rest of the book. It's kind of avant garde, actually. The tour, in which the narrator and the three new characters wander from island to island and debate a miscellany of abstruse issues, lasts 445 pages, leaving only 14 pages to return to and finish off whatever scrap of a story is still floating around. So that trip, really, is the book.

What do they visit? An island of gluttons, an island of thieves, an island of the Established Church, an island of True Religion. A miser; a book collector. There's an island of fossils, so Melville can bring us up to date on scientific matters. Between islands, the travelers debate life, death, free will, politics, poetry. If this sounds familiar, you may have read the equally tedious books 4 and 5 of Gargantua and Pantagruel.*

I had had plenty of this when, to my horror, I realized that the island they were visiting in Chapter 145, Dominora, was actually England. And then there's Zandinavia, Muzkovi, "the priest-king of Vatikanna." I think I might have audibly said "Oh no." The more general satire, thin enough, is replaced by topical satire. Absolutely deadly.

There's a revolution in "Franko." There are gold seekers in whatever Melville calls California - see, he's right up to date. Southern "Vivenza" has plantation slavery, and the overseer is Senator John C. Calhoun. Looking back now, it seems that the circumnavigation of the globe only took about 90 pages, but it felt like 200.

I'll end with a sample of the discussions or debates or whatever they are, just a taste, more than enough:

"'I mistrust thee, minstrel! that thou hast not yet been impregnated by the arcane mysteries; that thou dost not sufficiently ponder on the Adyta, the Monads, and the Hyparxes; the Dianoias, the Unical Hypostases, the Gnostic powers of the Psychical Essence, and the Supermindane and Plermoatic Triads; to say nothing of the Abstract Noumenons... Ah!' signed Babbalanja, turning; 'how little they ween of the Rudimental Quincunxes, and the Hecatic Spherula!'" (Ch. 170, p. 1218)

Yes, this is the worst of it, so in that sense I am cheating. But, man, is this ever Melville; unassimilated, unpalatable, but Melville. More of that tomorrow.

* Now I do feel guilty. Books 1 and 2 of Gargantua and Pantagruel are among the very greatest books ever written.


  1. Now I MUST read Mardi. You've given me no choice.

    My Woolf post (the one you inspired) is up.
    Stop by and check it out HERE.

    Thanks for adding me to your links!

  2. What is the Jewish King Lear? I'm intrigued!

  3. Still not seeing Clarel on the currently reading list.

    How about that crazy German Melville site, huh? I got sidetracked (into Hawthorne...) but there's a lot going over there, to say the least. And a lot of it seaworthy--some kind of special siren section.

    But I'm still in shock at making the blogroll... have to go work on my slumbering Blithedale-Bostonians post...

  4. Events at Prof. Myers' place inspired me to stop being so dang lazy and to push my RSS reader into my blogroll.

    I haven't quite made up my mind about Clarel or the Civil War poems. They were written so much later than the novels and stories. Melville took a break; maybe I will, too. But I'm certainly interested.

    Becca, I read "The Mark on the Wall" last night and see just what you meant. I'll leave a note at your site.

    As for The Jewish King Lear, that should fill a couple of days next week. And David Bergelson for the rest of the week. It will be second-tier Yiddish writers week, apparently.