Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Melville and Typee: sex, cannibalism, tattooing, taboo

Typee was Herman Melville’s first novel, and his first best-seller. It was all downhill from there for poor Melville. The editor of the New Riverside edition of Typee, Geoffrey Sanborn, helpfully tells me that:

“Its destabilization of white consciousness was probably not one of the things that made it a best-seller...” (p. 11)

No, probably not. I suspect the nekkid ladies had more to do with it. The internet informs me that Prof. Sanborn is or was at Bard, and that he has written a book called Sign of the Cannibal: Melville and the Creation of a Postcolonial Reader, and that this book “Extend[s] the work of Slavoj Zizek and Homi Bhabha...” Yikes. Run for it! Suddenly, compared to those terrors, Sanborn’s introduction seems extremely readable, almost conversational.

Sanborn does not really treat Typee like a novel, nor quite as non-fiction. To him, the book is more like an embodiment of attitudes or ideologies. The extra material in the back of this edition is split into four sections: sex, cannibalism, tattooing, taboo. There are some really useful illustrations of Polynesian tattooing, and some interesting old travellers’ accounts. This does some damage to the book, ignoring its fictiveness, but I can’t say the editor is wrong.

At some point or another during the past few years, reading around in Captain Cook’s Journals, or the chapters about Hawaii in John Kirk Townsend’s Across the Rockies to the Columbia, or the books about the U. S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 (William Reynolds’s Private Journals and Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory), I have picked up the notion that Polynesia had a larger influence on American and European ideas about race than I would ever have guessed.

To the Americans and Europeans, and to Melville, the Polynesians were the living examples of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Noble Savage, I think even moreso than Native Americans. There was some combination of elements that fit the ideology the Europeans had brought with them – the climate, the easy availability of food, the sexual habits and undress of the women, the cannibalism. It’s all very complicated. Add to this the sudden importance of the central Pacific in the global economy (whaling, the China trade).

I’ve reached the limit of my thinking, and competence, here. When I read the Philbrick book, I made a Polynesian history reading list. The humanist Typee, of its time but hardly typical, rightly topped the list.

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