Thursday, August 26, 2010

Unfathomably shallow! – No! - Melville argues against me

I could go on about the imagery in Clarel.  I’d like to – the rose images, and the palm.  There’s this short canto (2.35) titled “Prelusive” which begins with a detailed description of a Piranesi prison print, perhaps the one on the left.  “In gibe of goblin fantasy - \ Grimace – unclean diablery” – what?  The human heart is like the Piranesian prison, and all of this is related to St. Paul’s “mystery of iniquity.”  Melville ends the passage by suggesting readers who “retain \ Childhood illusions” skip the next canto, because it will be too scary.  What, what?

That canto, “Sodom,” involves bibliographing nicole’s favorite character sitting on a salt-encrusted camel skull on the shore of the Dead Sea and orating on Doom and Death and Wickedness and Mammon.

Unfathomably shallow! – No!
Nearer the core than man can go
Or Science get – nearer the slime
Of nature’s rudiments and lime
In chyle before the bone. Thee, thee,
In thee the filmy cell is spun – (2.26.94-99)

What nonsense have I been spouting about prosaic Melville?  This whole section is wonderfully wild.  The ends of each of the four sections typically build to vivid and bizarre climaxes.

Anyway, this character, Mortmain, is one of a string in Clarel who Go Too Far.  Our hero, a young divinity student, is searching for meaning and truth, and the other characters provide competing models or temperaments.  Mortmain is a failed revolutionary who now sees the world as irredeemably evil.  Another dark character with another lost cause is a former Confederate officer, now an international mercenary.  Others are religious fanatics or martyrs or miserable wanderers.  These characters are what-not-to-do models for Clarel, yet somehow, within the ethics of the book, they are also heroic.

The truly negative models, amusingly, are people like me.  The fact that I find this amusing is, in Clarel, an example of why I’m a bad model.  Derwent, an easy-going Anglican priest (oddly like the hero of Margaret Oliphant’s The Perpetual Curate) is, on Clarel’s own terms, a figure of suspicion because he wants to smooth over conflicts, because he is, though a clergyman, not spiritually restless.  Then there’s Vine, who is an awful lot like Nathaniel Hawthorne, an aesthete and an ironist, often bored by the religious arguments of the other characters.  Melville takes these characters’ refusal to be tormented by religious doubt as weakness, as avoidance.  My interest in the style of Clarel – which is all Melville’s fault, since he wrote the book – is an indictment against me.

The third commonsense character comes off a lot better, for some reason, but he is an ass, by which I mean a donkey, whose great final action is to drink the holy water in Bethlehem.  Clarel is a deeply serious, even ponderous, book, but Melville will still have his jokes.

The ultimate answer Melville provides, I think, is one of constant struggle and endless searching, an eternal Gnostic agon (I’m pretending to be Harold Bloom).  One’s spiritual doubts and yearnings have no simple answers, and the solutions others find are likely to be little help.  Still, Going Too Far is preferable to Not Going Far Enough.

Even death may prove unreal at the last,
And stoics be astounded into heaven. (4.35.25-6)

This seems wise to me, even if I am one of the weak-willed, like the priest or Hawthorne, who prefer to look away.


  1. What nonsense have I been spouting about prosaic Melville?  This whole section is wonderfully wild.

    Exacty! So true.

    Isn't it a bit funny that Melville's readers, or at least two of them, are so much more What Not To Do than otherwise? I mean, I want to read about this stuff, but, by and large, not live it. I found myself feeling very bad for Derwent at times too.

  2. I forgot the Piranesi! Well, you've seen it. It's up there now.

    The ebb and flow of sympathy in this poem is so complicated - and I don't see why the reader has any obligation to agree with Clarel. I think that's built in, actually - skepticism about Clarel's decisions or interpretations of the other characters is legitimate.

    Are there any actual villians? I was sure the mercenary would be, but I was wrong. Margoth, maybe, the geologist? No, he's just another extreme.

  3. Oh, the Scottish Presbyterian. No one gets along with him, he gets along with no one.