Friday, August 9, 2013

Melville's ghost tortoises

Tortoises, I was going to write something about the tortoises in “The Encantadas.”  I suppose television has made Galápagos tortoises less exotic and bizarre than they would have been in 1854 when Herman Melville published this little whatever it is.

Melville makes the tortoises strange.  He is doing what he always does, mixing a naturalist’s accuracy with a metaphorical fantasia.  The tortoises are like the whales in Moby-Dick.  They are meant to mean everything, or as much as Melville is able to pack into them.  He is riffing on the Galápagos tortoise.

So the tortoise is food for the hungry sailor: “a merry repast from tortoise steaks, and tortoise stews”.  The tortoise is erotic: “remember the sudden glimpses of dusky shells, and long languid necks protruded from the leafless thickets”.  It is a text, a record of history:

lantern in hand, I scraped among the moss and beheld the ancient scars of bruises received in many a sullen fall among the marly mountains of the isle – scars strangely widened, swollen, half obliterate, and yet distorted like those sometimes found in the bark of very hoary trees, I seemed an antiquary of a geologist, studying the bird-tracks and ciphers upon the exhumed slates trod by incredible creatures whose very ghosts are now defunct.

They are the turtles that carry the earth on their backs.  They are the ruins of the Roman Coliseum.  They are

the victims of a penal, or malignant, or perhaps a downright diabolical enchanter, seems in nothing more likely than in that strange infatuation of hopeless toil which so often possesses them.  I have known them in their journeyings ram themselves heroically against rocks, and long abide there, nudging, wriggling, wedging, in order to displace them, and so hold on their inflexible path.  Their crowning curse is their drudging impulse to straightforwardness in a belittered world.

Not all of the metaphors are easily extendable to humans, but I suspect that this one is a self-portrait, Melville as tortoise, ramming each new book against the indifferent rocks.  The writer has been cursed.

In the strangest turn, the writer suspects he has been cursed by the Galápagos, the enchanted nightmare islands.  Even today, he is haunted by ghost tortoises. 

For, often in scenes of social merriment, and especially at revels held by candle-light in old-fashioned mansions, so that shadows are thrown into the further recesses of an angular and spacious room, making them put on a look of haunted undergrowth of lonely woods, I have drawn the attention of my comrades by my fixed gaze and sudden change of air, as I have seemed to see, slowly emerging from those imagined solitudes, and heavily crawling along the floor, the ghost of a gigantic tortoise, with "Memento * * * * *" burning in live letters upon his back.

I never get invited to revels  held by candle-light in old-fashioned mansions.  Maybe they are out of fashion.  Regardless, those asterisks are a wonderful mystery.  “Memento mori”?  A strange message from the long-lived tortoise (“What other bodily being possesses such a citadel wherein to resist the assaults of Time?”), and anyway there are too many asterisks.

No wonder everyone thought Melville was crazy.


  1. The quote about hopeless toil and ramming against rocks is great prose. Good point about it being a metaphor for Melville himself, though it certainly has wider meaning relating to humanity.

  2. You'll have to excuse my dumbing down of the level of discourse here, Tom, but your Melville tortoise post reminds me of The Family Guy episode where Stewie made a crack about "the turtle: nature's D-student." Of course, Melville's "erotic" tortoise description of "dusky shells" and "long languid necks" itself seems like it could almost have been written for Mad magazine! "What, Me Worry?"

  3. Was it guilt for eating the tortoises that caused the 'ghost tortoises' to visit? I'm a tortoise freak and think they are marvelous creatures. I always think of the poor jewel encrusted tortoise in Against Nature (Huysmans). They really are incredible animals--not the best pets for a 5 year old but fascinating to study. I have a giant tortoise in my back garden and everyone thinks I'm nuts too.

  4. Guy, I think you are right, Melville is haunted by his soup, except that his insistence on the cursed nature of the islands expands the scope of the haunting, so to speak. As Brian says, it has a wider meaning. I guess.

    I love tortoises too. You have one? I do not think you are nuts.

    The erotic tortoise, I know. I read that and did a kind of double-take - wait, what did he write?

    Stewie dogs turtles.

    1. I have a giant sulcata, and a colony of Greeks. I have three new Greek hatchlings--all female (you get a different sex if you set the incubator temp--higher for females,lower for males). Unfortunately Tortoises are undervalued and often treated very badly. A turtle activist was recently murdered in Costa Rica by poachers.

      They are very interesting for the hobbyist (like me).

  5. Wow, I've only ever thought Melville slightly nutters but this does toss him into the completely crazy category. Perhaps between writing and all those long days at sea did him in. Tortoises as erotic is, er, weird, but I suppose when you are a lonely seafaring man their gentle curves can be rather exciting and reminiscent of other things. I love tortoises and turtles too and anyone who eats them should be haunted by it. My aunt had a desert tortoise for 35 years that made for great show-and-tell at school when I was a kid. I had a red-eared slider for 20 years. I was very sad when she died a few years ago. Such fascinating animals!

  6. I assume it is an act, but still. Haunted by ghost tortoises at dinner parties, that's far out.

    I had to look up the red-eared slider. It seems I can't have one - invasive species, you know.

  7. Red ears are kept for pets and then dumped in rivers and streams when they grow too big for the tanks people keep them in. The females can breed once and produce eggs for the next 6-7 years, so they are prolific little things.

  8. What a nice hobby. I do not believe I would want to mess with an invasive species at this point. There is always an alternative.

  9. I don't have red ear sliders--just land torts, and yes a very good hobby.

  10. Sorry, I was thinking in two directions at once. I doubt that those land tortoises are invasive in any way! They would probably not do well in your climate without human help.