Thursday, August 1, 2013

I attempt to celebrate, or spoil, Herman Melville's birthday by describing him as a conceptual innovator

Happy birthday, Herman Melville.  I honestly thought I was going to spend most of this week writing about Melville, about The Piazza Tales (1856).

Melville was a kind of conceptual writer.  He was not concerned with the process of creativity like Alvin Lucier or Andy Warhol or César Aira (“nowadays, art that does not use a procedure is not truly art”).  Who at the time would have understood that kind of gibberish?  But he was a self-conscious innovator in fiction and verse.

The forms of the novel that were standard in the late 1840s were not a good fit for Melville, so he struggled to find a form for himself.  By his third book, the crazy Mardi (1849) he had assembled the pieces of his style:  short chapters (Mardi has 195!), a wild mix of realism and metaphor verging on allegory, a literally poetic diction, and a de-emphasis on novelistic character.  The latter especially was completely contrary to the contemporary emphasis of English (and French and Russian) fiction, where authors were creating amazingly lifelike, sympathetic characters.  This still drives unsuspecting readers of Moby-Dick crazy, doesn’t it?  Where are the people?

The Melville “novel” I am reading now, The Confidence Man (1857), is even more extreme, with all of the characters replaced by allegorical figures moving in a kind of a procession in a pointedly artificial setting.  It is like The Fairie Queen.  It is slow going.  Perhaps it is no longer a novel, but some other still unnamed form of prose fiction.

I think this wild allegorizing is fairly new, although it is partly borrowed from Nathaniel Hawthorne.  I believe the prose as poetry is new, too, something no one had done to the same extent.  I should keep an eye out for more examples of that.

Curiously, since I am knocking his characterization, two of Melville’s most significant creations are characters.  Even more curiously, they both can be thought of as conceptual innovations.  What I mean here is that some fundamental part of Captain Ahab and Bartleby the Scrivener can be understood without reading the original text.  Heck, without knowing that there is a text.  Ahab is the crazy guy who obsesses over a pointless goal; Bartleby is the office drone who prefers not to do anything.

Whether or not these descriptions match what is in the text is incidental.  They have turned out to be valuable concepts.  Useful shorthand descriptions.  They join Don Quixote, Don Juan, Ebenezer Scrooge, Faust, Sherlock Holmes, and that poor sap who turns into a bug as characters who have escaped their novels, however narrowly, as ideas more than as people.

I feel that movies have muddled this entire line of argument in some way I do not yet understand.

I also have this idea that the ingenious ways novelists have found to plump up the seeming reality of their characters prevents them from becoming free-floating concepts.  So we could call a well-meaning busybody Emma Woodhouse, but Jane Austen’s Emma is too complex or ambiguous, or just too much a part of her own novel to escape it.  I don’t know.  Please substitute your own example.  Imagine Maggie Tulliver independently of The Mill on the Floss, Anna Karenina outside of her book, Charles Kinbote at large.  It seems pointless, almost impossible, but who knows.  Reincarnations of Don Quixote and Captain Ahab show up all over the place.  I know, I know, Captain Ahab is himself a version of Don Quixote.

I wonder what I am going to ramble about tomorrow.


  1. I often think of literary characters out of their books. Admittedly some can function better then others. I sometimes imagine them meeting one another.

  2. Yes, lot's of people imagine Elizabeth Bennet as their best friend and Darcy as their date, or vice versa.

    But I suspect they - maybe you - are in that case working with the character as created by the author, not the character transformed into metaphor.

    The ultimate level of success is when the character is turned into an adjective - quixotic, Faustian.

  3. I have Typee on my TBR shelves at home, so my contact with Melville is limited to Moby-Dick, Bartleby and Benito Cereno. BC is not brilliant, if you haven't read it. I have always assumed that the straightforward style of Bartleby was an exception, and that mostly Melville wrote books in the general shape of Moby-Dick, which is to say, a novel merged with an encyclopedia merged with scripture. I'm probably wrong about that. I have doubts that anything else Melville wrote will have the conceptual scope and daring of M-D.

    You're right about the characters melting down into the narrative to be part of the machinery of the novel, not leaping out at the reader (except Ahab, of course). Even the narrator dissolves into the narrative and there are long stretches where the point of view moves into the heads of other characters, scenes at which Ishmael was not present so could not have described for us. Just this moment I see that novel as the ocean, with things bobbing on the surface or caught in currents below, all moving at once, in no particular direction (except maybe towards that whirlpool).

    Miss Havisham is a possible addition to the list of characters who live outside their novels. Holden Caulfield maybe, too. Though they're certainly not on the level of Quixote and Faust.

  4. I have failed to say anything about the book you're actually talking about. Again.

  5. Nah, Melville's birthday. Anything Melville goes.

    Typee is a good book, but it is not yet written in the Melville style. The third book, Mardi, is where he discovers his style. It is not a good book - it is a catastrophe - although it sure has its pleasures.

    Then Melville retreats from his own excess for a couple of novels. This turns out to be a recurrent Melvillean move, of which "Bartleby" is an example.

    So Mardi, Pierre, The Confidence Man, and Clarel - also "The Encantadas" - are like how you describe Moby-Dick. And the other books are not. Very roughly.

    Holden Caulfield is an interesting candidate. Recognizable by name, standing in for an attitude, much imitated.

  6. If Clarel is anything like Pierre or The Confidence Man then I gotta get me some of that readin'.
    Borges wrote somewhere about characters in a book being merely a stream of words. Heck, in our memories other people are mostly a stream of words and a few snapshots. Years ago I read on an website long vanished this mistranslation of an obscure anime series' ending theme:

    'Love song of the android'

    I don't know
    What words can say
    The wind has a way
    To talk to me.
    Flowers emit
    A silent lullaby,
    I pray for reply,
    I'm ready.

    Please tell me
    Is it true
    that people are just their names?
    Please tell me
    Is it true
    that people are just words?
    Maybe I will know someday--

  7. Interesting comment about Don Quixote . I see Bartleby as in the tradition of stories about scriveners such as Gogol's "The Overcoat" and Dicken's A Christmas Carol. It must have been a terribly tedious thankless profession to copy by hand documents all day long.

  8. mel - oh so true. Human photocopiers. Awful. A number of Dostoevsky characters are also unfortunate enough to have improved their status by entering this profession, all with the hope of profession to something decent and livable, which of course no Dostoevsky character ever achieves.

    A couple of years ago bibliographing nicole and I ran the largest Clarel readalong event in the history of book blogging. Or so I would guess. I came away convinced that it is a great book, however obscure and aggravating it could be.

    Borges was right as usual. That is not the whole story, but it is a part that should not be forgotten.

  9. I see we also have Pierre on the shelf, so I've got that to look forward to.

    Another nomination for a character who's moved beyond his original fiction: Jekyll/Hyde. All of these characters are now metaphors. In a thousand years they might be myths.

  10. I was hoping to get to Pierre soon, but I now suspect The Confidence Man may sate my taste for crazy Melville.

    A contemporary review of Pierre was actually titled "Herman Melville Crazy," which all by itself makes the book sound hugely appealing, but there are, it seems, limits.

  11. Not too many of the larger than life, mythical characters are female. I don't think Mrs. Haversham quite makes it. Best candidate I could think of? Becky Thatcher.

  12. Good point. I almost have to reach back to genuine myths, to a character like Medea.

    But fiction - good question. I don't really think Miss Havisham has quite made the leap, either, although she is certainly a famous character.

    Daisy Miller was for a time a real pop culture reference, a label for a type, but I guess the name fell out of fashion.

    Maybe I have to go to film or children's literature. Mary Poppins. The Wicked Witch of the West. But I think film works in different channels.

    The big one I omitted was Robinson Crusoe. The example of Crusoe - man in isolation - has been so useful that the actual characterization of Defoe's character is all stripped away. The name stands in for the situation.

  13. How about Dolores Haze? Well, not really her but a mistaken image of her, certainly.

    Crusoe is good, yeah. And "man/girl Friday" used to be common, not so much now.

  14. Dolores Haze, huh? Very funny. How about Mrs. Richard Schiller? (For those wondering - to get this joke, see the John Ray, Jr. preface to Lolita, then read the novel, then read the preface again).

    It is very sad that Lolita can and likely has become a separable concept. These characters like Crusoe and Quixote detach from their novels because they embody a socially useful concept.

    When I was in Japan, I mentioned something like this to a well-read Japanese colleague. She had never made the connection between the Goth Lollies (Gothic Lolitas) and Nabokov's character.