Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"Typee" & "Omoo" Herman Melville

Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) form a diptych describing the narrator's adventures in the South Seas. Their structure is the same: the first third of the story covers a period on board a ship, followed by time spent on land. Typee is hermitically sealed, with the narrator a guest (prisoner?) of the cannibal tribe of the Typees on one of the Marquesas Islands. The narrator is the only white man (at least after his friend Toby leaves him). The scene is limited to this setting. Omoo is more open, with the narrative taking place on several islands in the Society Islands group. The narrator is part of a group of white men.

Both novels were the only works of Melville's to achieve some measure of success within the lifetime of the author, but this notwithstanding, they were both centers of controversy as to their truthfulness. Readers were particularly sceptical of Typee's claim to be a truthful account of life among the cannibals. This scepticism says more about the naivety and illiteracy of Melville's audience than it does about the book. (It's worth remembering that this was an audience who believed that the height of sophistication and art were contained in the trashy, tawdry tales and even worse verse of Edgar Allen Poe, so it's not surprising that their appreciation of a real master was hopelessly skewed.)

Any narrative is a weaving of fact and fiction, in the sense that the author builds on his own experiences and incorporates other texts. Inherent in the act of writing itself is a fictionalising of reality, in the sense that writing involves the selection, omission and presentation of details from the manifold; it fixes the flux of reality and memory; indeed it is in the very nature of language to distort reality. To expect, then, that any text be a purely truthful account is to misunderstand the nature of writing, language and narrative. Melville's original readers might have paid more attention to the subtitles of both works: Typee is A Peep at Polynesian Life: 'peep' is a highly metaphorical word which signals its metaphorical meaning quite openly; Omoo is A Narrative of Adventure, a subtitle which also signals quite openly its place in a fictional genre already mined by the picaresque and castaway novels of Smollet and Defoe. In fact, in Omoo, the crew discover in a chest a collection of Smollet's novels, and they rejoice at this luck.

The Anonymous Book

In S/Z Barthes posits the existence of a Cultural Code: another text (or texts) which form a subterranean layer, to which the text refers, directly, or indirectly, an Anonymous Book. In Typee, this cultural code is very buried, but it might consist of Melville's own diaries on his experiences, his notes on the Marquesas Islands in general, and other texts from the genre of adventures in the South Seas, for which there was a vogue in the young Republic. There are also echoes of Smollet and Defoe. (In fact, in one sense, both these two first novels, along with their sequel, Mardi, may be read as Melville's dialogue with Smollet and Defoe, in which he gradually works his way out from under their influence.) In Omoo, this subterranean reference rises to the surface, and is named in the text as accounts by missionaries, explorers and travellers, which Melville cites and quotes: he refers to Russell, Kotzebue, Captains Cook, Beechy, Turnbull and Wilson, Wheeler, Ellis, and more.
Melvillian Themes

Both novels contain seeds of ideas and preoccupations which find their fullest expression later in Moby Dick. The presence of these themes gives the lie to the myth that at this stage in his career, Melville was a naive writer, just a common sailor who
had put to use his gift for yarning in order to make money and satisfy his friends. Both works, in the way they handle these themes and in the way they use the Cultural Code, show a writer who was fully literate, accomplished and completely aware of what he was doing.

Knowledge, narrative and exposition, language

Throughout both books, an effort is made to distinguish between written accounts which are based on other written accounts and those which are based on personal observation and experience. In Typee the narrator remarks that accounts of Polynesian life are coloured just as much by the preoccupations and interests of the readers as they are reflections of an objective state of affairs: The fact is, that there is a vast deal of unintentional
humbuggery in some of the accounts we have from scientific men
concerning the religious institutions of Polynesia.  These
learned tourists generally obtain the greater part of their
information from retired old South-Sea rovers, who have
domesticated themselves among the barbarous tribes of the
Pacific.  Jack, who has long been accustomed to the long-bow, and
to spin tough yarns on the ship's forecastle, invariably
officiates as showman of the island on which he has settled, and
having mastered a few dozen words of the language, is supposed to
know all about the people who speak it.  A natural desire to make
himself of consequence in the eyes of the strangers, prompts him
to lay claim to a much greater knowledge of such matters than he
actually possesses.  In reply to incessant queries, he
communicates not only all he knows but a good deal more, and if
there be any information deficient still he is at no loss to
supply it.  The avidity with which his anecdotes are noted down
tickles his vanity, and his powers of invention increase with the
credulity of his auditors.  He knows just the sort of information
wanted, and furnishes it to any extent. (T24)  This theme surfaces again in Moby Dick and the later novels as a preoccupation with the validity of various forms of knowledge: knowledge based on book learning, and knowledge based on practical experience.

Both texts, like Moby Dick, swerve between expository writing, in which knowledge is presented, and narrative, in which adventures are described. Like Moby Dick, this is alternation between aims is seen as essential for the overall project: Having made up my mind, I proceeded to acquire all the information I could obtain relating to the island and its inhabitants, with a view of shaping my plan accordingly. The result of these inquiries I will now state, in order that the ensuing narrative may be better understood. (T4)Typee especially at times reads like an anthropological case study, with detailed descriptions of the arts and crafts of the Typees, tattooing, cuisine, architecture, language, customs and festivals.

Both texts show a sophisticated awareness of the nature of language which echoes to some extent Locke's warning that words refer to ideas in the mind not to things in the world: Now, as a meaning is generally attached to these two words no way flattering to the individual to whom they are applied...(T4) remarks the narrator in Typee about the words ' jump ship'. In Omoo, the narrator remarks about the difference between things and words: all the world over, facts are more eloquent than words. (O48) and then goes on to give an account of the huge gap between the missionaries' stated intentions, and their real impact on Tahitian life.
Sexuality: Taboo! Taboo!
Both texts articulate an interest in sexuality in general, and in homoerotic friendship in particular. Apart from the overall eroticism of the naked 'savages' - whose nakedness is repeatedly emphasised- in Typee, there is the notorious description of masturbation, the only one of its kind in canonical 19th century literature, disguised as a description of how a cannibal makes fire: At first Kory-Kory goes to work quite leisurely, but gradually
quickens his pace, and waxing warm in the employment, drives the
stick furiously along the smoking channel, plying his hands to
and fro with amazing rapidity, the perspiration starting from
every pore.  As he attains his climax, he pants
and gasps for breath, and his eyes almost start from their
sockets with the violence of his exertions.  This is the critical
stage of the operation; all his previous labours are vain if he
cannot sustain the rapidity of the movement until the reluctant
spark is produced.  Suddenly he stops, becoming perfectly
motionless.  His hands still retain their hold of the smaller
stick, which is pressed convulsively against the further end of
the channel among the fine powder there accumulated, as if he had
just pierced through and through some little viper that was
wriggling and struggling to escape from his clutches.  The next
moment a delicate wreath of smoke curls spirally into the air,
the heap of dusty particles glows with fire, and Kory-Kory,
almost breathless, dismounts from his steed. (T14)
In Omoo, the narrator describes how the native boys 'adopt' mariners as their 'special friends' in terms that conflate sexual activity with economic practice: Filled with love and admiration for the first whites who came among them, the Polynesians could not testify the warmth of their emotions more strongly than by instantaneously making their abrupt proffer of friendship. Hence, in old voyages we read of chiefs coming off from the shore in their canoes, and going through with strange antics, expressive of the desire. In the same way, their inferiors accosted the seamen; and thus the practice has continued in some islands down to the present day. (O39) The narrator describes an idyll of friendship on another island, an inset narrative in which his special friend, one Pokey, is particularly assiduous, but in which the economic motive is deliberately ambiguated: Though there was no end to Poky's attentions, not a syllable did he ever breathe of reward; but sometimes he looked very knowing (O39). The inset narrative ends with a haunting vignette, suggesting that the friendship was genuine and not paid for: The anchor was soon up; and away we went out of the bay with more than twenty shallops towing astern. At last they left us; but long as I could see him at all, there was Poky, standing alone and motionless in the bow of his canoe. (O39). On Tahiti, the narrator accepts the advances of a comely youth called Kooloo. In the description of this friendship, the economic motive is laid bare: As for Kooloo, after sponging me well, he one morning played the part of a retrograde lover; informing me that his affections had undergone a change; he had fallen in love at first sight with a smart sailor, who had just stepped ashore quite flush form a lucky whaling-cruise. (O40) The metaphor of the jilted lover is a wonderful irony, in that it only poses as a metaphor: it is in fact a description of a relationship which is reminiscent of the 'money boy' practices of modern day South East Asia.
Civilisation and its depredations

Both texts display anger at the activities of the missionaries, and describe the death of a primitive culture when faced with a more sophisticated one.

In Typee the narrator remarks: The enormities perpetrated in the South Seas upon some of the inoffensive islanders will nigh pass belief. (T4) is bitingly sarcastic about the benefits of civilisation:  In a word, here, as in every case where
civilization has in any way been introduced among those whom we
call savages, she has scattered her vices, and withheld her
blessings. (T26), and asserts that the 'savages' have been made so by the cruelties visited upon them by the white man: Thus it is that they whom we denominate 'savages' are made to deserve the title. (T4)

In Omoo, Melville goes further, describing the ravages of syphilis on the island population of Tahiti, introduced, he claims, by the missionaries; and the system of apartheid maintained by the invaders. He comments: Who can remain blind to the fact that so far as mere temporal felicity is concerned, the Tahitians are far worse off now, than formerly; and although their circumstances, upon the whole, are bettered by the presence of the missionaries, the benefits conferred by the latter become utterly insignificant when confronted with the vast preponderance of evil brought about by other means. (O49) Melville's attacks on missionary activities caused outrage, and had to be toned down for the second edition. Omoo in particular remains an important and moving document in the record of the interaction between the Pacific Islanders and the white man.


Both texts show flashes of the glorious prose style that later became Melville's hallmark. There are sentences that take one's breath away with the beauty of their rhythm and balance. We close with two examples:

The frigate, immediately upon coming to an anchor, got springs on
her cables, and with her guns cast loose and her men at their
quarters, lay in the circular basin of Papeete, with her
broadside bearing upon the devoted town; while her numerous
cutters, hauled in order alongside, were ready to effect a
landing, under cover of her batteries.  (T3)

So to Hytyhoo, with all our canvas spread, and coquetting with the warm, breezy Trades, we bowled along; gliding up and down the long, slow swells, the bonettas and albicores frolicking round us. (O3)

1 comment:

Sam said...

Fantastic, and right on target. So many people miss the sophistication of the early Melville. Well-Read!