Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Salamanders, unknown; Devils, ditto - Melville's Enchanted Islands

“The Encantadas” (1954) is a strange hybrid of fiction and travel writing, or strange for writers besides Herman Melville, who had been writing fictionalized memoiristic allegories for almost ten years at this point.

The Encantadas are better known as  the Galápagos Islands.  The symbolic attraction of the Spanish name is obvious.  Melville reinforces the enchantment by giving each chapter an epigram from The Fairie Queene, such as:

Most ugly shapes and horrible aspects,
Such as Dame Nature selfe mote feare to see,

and so on before “Sketch Second,” which is all about giant tortoises.

“The Encantadas” has chapters, ten of them in fifty pages, telling multiple stories.  It really feels more like a tiny little book.  I don’t know what it is.

Melville’s fairy-land sounds suspiciously like hell (“A group of rather extinct volcanoes rather than of isles; looking much as the world at large might after a penal conflagration,” or “Like split Syrian gourds left withering in the sun, they are cracked by an everlasting drought beneath a torrid sky”), or an abandoned cemetery, or a city in ruins,  or the Dead Sea.

Now that is curious.  Everything has been from “Sketch First,” by the way.  Melville’s massive 1876 poem Clarel is about a trip to the Holy Land, include a long visionary descent to the Dead Sea that is perhaps the highlight of the book.  Yet, here several years before Melville’s trip, we have:

Nothing can better suggest the aspect of once living things malignly crumbled from ruddiness into ashes.  Apples of Sodom, after touching, seem these isles.

So much of Melville’s writing comes from his own experience that it can be surprising how much comes from his reading, with his imagination stirring it all together.  Thus he describes a strange place he has actually visited with a strange place he has only read about, but will, in fact, someday visit.  I suppose this is no more strange than the way he constantly compares the Holy Land to the sea.

As “The Encantadas” progresses, Melville adds inhabitants, first tortoises, then birds, then, surprisingly, given his insistence on uninhabitability, people.  This point is borrowed from bibliographing nicole.   Also strange given this census, from “Sketch Fourth”:

Men,                         none
Ant-eaters,            unknown
Man-haters,          unknown
Lizards,                   500,000
Snakes,                    500,000
Spiders,                   10,000,000
Salamanders,        unknown
Devils,                      do.

Making a clean total of 11,000,000,

exclusive of an incomputable host of fiends, ant-eaters, man-haters, and salamanders.

But this is just one island.  The men live elsewhere.  I have no idea what the joke about the ant-eaters is supposed to be.  I assume it is a joke.

The strangest thing of all is that “The Encantadas” is Melville’s second text that explores an archipelago.  The first was his massive, mad 1849 novel Mardi, Melville’s first attempt at an omnibook, where a group of travelers debate the meaning of everything while exploring an island chain representing the world and including everything – countries, religions, book collectors.  “The Encantadas” is the tame version of Mardi, with a “real” setting, “real” reptiles, and stories based on “real” events.  The result is another surprise, a small, clear, readable Melville masterpiece.  Just look at the tortoises.  Maybe tomorrow I will look at the wonderful tortoises.


  1. Men, none
    Ant-eaters, unknown
    Man-haters, unknown
    Lizards, 500,000
    Snakes, 500,000
    Spiders, 10,000,000
    Salamanders, unknown
    Devils, do.

    Making a clean total of 11,000,000

    No, making an unclear total of more than 11,000,000. Four categories of inhabitants are present in unknown numbers, so there must be some.

  2. That is what the next sentence is for - "exclusive of an incomputable" etc.

  3. 'That is what the next sentence is for - "exclusive of an incomputable" etc'
    As I noticed- to my immense embarrassment- a few seconds ago.
    It confirms my view that it's better to read books then screens.