Sunday, May 20, 2012

'Mardi, and the Voyage Thither' Herman Melville

"I am intent upon the essence of things; the mystery that lieth 
beyond; the elements of the tear which much laughter provoketh; that
which is beneath the seeming; the precious pearl within the shaggy
oyster. I probe the circle's center; I seek to evolve the
inscrutable." (2.10)
This is the strangest, weirdest, queerest book I have ever read. What was Melville thinking?  Mardi, and a Voyage Thither, (1849) could also be subtitled as 'The Book that Cost a Career'. After the success of his first two novels, Melville astonished and dismayed his readers with this, his third, effort. During the writing of it, he wrote in a letter to his publisher: Proceeding in my narrative of facts, I began to feel an incurable distaste for the same, and a longing to plume my pinions for a flight, and felt irked, cramped, and fettered by plodding along with dull commonplaces, - so suddenly abandoning the thing altogether, I went to work heart and soul at a romance. Critical reception was almost uniformly negative, Melville's readership declined, and his career never really recovered thereafter. It is probably the least read of Melville's works: it is double the length of either of his first two novels, and practically unreadable in large parts.

It begins well enough, as another sea yarn in the vein of Typee and Omoo. An unnamed narrator abandons his whaling ship mid-ocean and mid-voyage after learning that the Captain is intent on extending the voyage indefinitely. He takes with him a companion, Jarl, and together, they steal a whale boat in the dead of night, and make for land, a cluster of islands in the middle of the Pacific, a thousand miles to the west, a voyage fraught with risk. Melville proceeds in his tried and trusted method. We are given information about the hazards of ocean sailing in a small boat, the anguish of being becalmed and watching ones water and food running out, the terrors of a gale, the huge variety of marine life, the psychological pressures of enforced co-habitation with another person in a space not much bigger than a large sofa.

The tussle of genres

Mardi may be seen as a tussle between various genres. It begins as a realist novel, but then looses all semblance of realism, and enters a purely allegorical space. Melville may have intended to write a romance, but it is more correct to say that the second two thirds of the novel have more in common with the Menippea of Swift, Voltaire, and Montesquieu. The first third of the novel is wonderful. When Melville is curbing his instincts to philosophise and act the prophet, his writing is unmatchable. His descriptions of the sea and its effect on character and mood are magnificent. This part of the novel teems with unforgettable images and incidents. The whaleman and Jarl encounter a derelict, described in ghostly terms that make your skin crawl. In the waters of a hostile archipelago they rescue a beautiful and mysterious albino maiden named Yillah from a canoe of natives, who are taking her to be sacrificed to one of their gods. And in one of the most memorable and beautiful descriptions in the whole of Melville, they come across a shoal of sperm whales spouting in a sea of phosphorescence: The sea around us spouted in fountains of fire, and vast forms, emitting a glare from their flanks, and ever and anon, raising their heads above water, shaking off the sparkles, showed where an immense shoal of Cachalots had risen below to sport in these phosphorescent billows. (1.37)

The first clue that things are going awry with the narrative, however, happens in Chapter 48 of Volume 1: Something Under the Surface, which begins normally enough as a description of marine life, but which then enters the minds of the fishes, giving us their thoughts (!): Swim away, merry fins, swim away! Let him drop that fellow that halts, make a lane, close in and fill up. Let him drown, if he can not keep pace, no laggards for us. They then break into a song and dance routine featuring some execrable poetry:
We fish, we fish, we merrily swim,
We care not for friend nor for foe:
Our fins are stout
Our tails are out
As through the seas we go. (1.48)

And so on, for three more stanzas. Things get increasingly weirder, until they arrive at a mysterious, unmapped archipelago, which they later learn is called Mardi. To create a good impression, the narrator decides to tell the credible natives that he is a demi-god named Taji come from the sun to roam in Mardi. (This was a common ploy when whites encountered natives: Captain Cook, and Pizarro both used the same lie.) They are brought to the King of the island, Media, and feasted and feted. During the night, the mysterious Yillah disappears. Distraught, Taji (as the narrator calls himself from here on) decides to visit all the lands of Mardi in search of her.

King Media and three companions decide to accompany Taji on his quest, while Jarl decides to stay behind, whereupon he is promptly discarded by the narrative, as the last representative of realism in the text. The three companions are the chronicler Mohi (aka Braid-Beard), the philosopher Babbalanja, and the poet Yoomy. These four men, together with Taji, and their retainers and crewmen, set out on three canoes to visit the other islands in the archipelago. During their travels they discourse, discuss, bicker, spat and hold forth on a range of topics. Here is a list of some of them:

the relative merits of poetry, philosophy and history as a means of knowledge
fame and reputation
death and the afterlife
categorising and naming
faith and knowledge
psychology and the nature of the self
bodily aging
the soul
the purpose of art
art or entertainment
the nature of artistic inspiration
recent European history
the American scene
the individual's place in society
the pleasures of smoking
the nature of consciousness
the law
the folly of war

Melville attacks various sacred cows with what we can call satirical allegory. Let's look at two of his targets in more detail: religion and the law. Melville's method is to use episodes on the quest, and discourses among the party, for his satirical ends.


In Chapter 5 of Volume 2, the travellers arrive at Morai, the burial place of the Pontiffs. They encounter a group of pilgrims, each one of whom expresses and embodies an attitude towards religion. A sad-eyed maiden falls to her knees murmuring: "Receive my adoration, of thee I know nothing but what the guide has spoken... These things are above me... I am afraid to think." (2.5) embodying the blind faith argument. A rich matron showers the guide with gifts, embodying the argument that religion is a social function, and implying a criticism of the wealth of organised religion. A wilful young man who refuses the ministrations of the guide says: "I may perish in truth, but it shall be on the path revealed to me in my dream" (2.5), embodying the personal mystical experience of religion. The guide, who is blind and led by a child, stimulated by the wilful young man's fervid visions, then launches into a long meditation on his blindness, which becomes an allegory: "Blindness seems a consciousness of death." He is riven by doubt: "The undoubting doubter believes the most." (2.5)

Later they arrive at a place where idols are manufactured out of tremendous logs. Babbalnaj asks the idol maker whether he believes in his idols, and receives this response: "When I cut down the trees for my idols," said he, "They are nothing 
but logs; when upon those logs, I chalk out the figures of my images, 
they yet remain logs; when the chisel is applied, logs they are still; 
and when all complete, I at last stand them up in my studio, even then
 they are logs. Nevertheless, when I handle the pay, they are as prime 
gods, as ever were turned out in Maramma." (2.10) (The idol maker has a nice side line in canoes, in which he has cornered the market.)

Later, in a discourse on what they have seen, Babbalanja, who is usually the chief vehicle for Melville's satire, offers an anecdote which satirizes the stupidities of theology. Nine blind men undertake to find the main trunk of a huge Banyan tree. Each one feels among the roots and tendrils, exclaiming: "Here it is! Here it is!" They begin to fight, and in doing so change places around the tree, each one still claiming that he and he alone has found the main trunk.

The Law

The chronicler Mohi tells the party of an island in the archipelago called Minda, which is plagued by sorcerers. If a Mindarian 
deemed himself aggrieved or insulted by a countryman, he forthwith 
repaired to one of these sorcerers; who, for an adequate
 consideration, set to work with his spells, keeping himself in the 
dark, and directing them against the obnoxious individual. (2.40) The obnoxious individual then hires his own sorcerer to cast his own spells, until things get out of hand, and some effort is made to curb the sorcerers. But 
fruitless the attempt; it was soon discovered that already their
spells were so spread abroad, and they themselves so mixed up with the 
everyday affairs of the isle, that it was better to let their vocation 
alone, than, by endeavoring to suppress it, breed additional troubles. (2.40)

No one understands the spells the sorcerers use, and they deliberately obfuscate their clients: when interrogated concerning their science, would confound the 
inquirer by answers couched in an extraordinary jargon, employing 
words almost as long as anacondas. (2.40) The sorcerers never attack each other: If from any cause, two sorcerers fell out, they 
seldom exercised their spells upon each other; ascribable to this,
 perhaps,--that both being versed in the art, neither could hope to get
 the advantage. (2.40) The satire is mixed with wisdom: On all hands it was agreed, that they derived their
greatest virtue from the fumes of certain compounds, whose 
ingredients--horrible to tell--were mostly obtained from the human 
heart (2.40), and it's this mixture of satire and wisdom which is one of the key characteristics of the allegorical part of the novel.


Melville achieves a strange effect with his use of language in these allegorical satires, in which one lexical field (sorcerers on tropical islands) is used to describe another (lawyers in the Republic), so that the reader is forced to simultaneously maintain two distinct and yet connected areas of meaning. This technique is most clearly seen in two places in the novel, first, when Mohi is describing the quarrels between a group of islands, namely Porpheero, Dominora, Franko, Vatikanna, Hapzaboro (and more), which of course are Europe, Great Britain, France, The Vatican and the Habsburg empire respectively. Mohi then goes on to give a run down of the contemporary European scene in terms of war between these islands. The satire is wicked: here is the description of the king of Franko: a 
small-framed, poodle-haired, fine, fiery gallant; finical in his
 tatooing; much given to the dance and glory (2.41) and the Pope: --the 
priest-king of Vatikanna; his chest marked over with antique 
tatooings; his crown, a cowl; his rusted scepter swaying over falling 
towers, and crumbling mounds; full of the superstitious past; askance, 
eyeing the suspicious time to come. (2.41)

This technique is most brilliantly done in the section where Babbalanja is describing the current scientific theories of the origins of the universe, in terms of food: My lord, then take another theory--which you will--the celebrated 
sandwich System. Nature's first condition was a soup, wherein the
agglomerating solids formed granitic dumplings, which, wearing down,
 deposited the primal stratum made up of series, sandwiching strange
 shapes of mollusks, and zoophytes; then snails, and periwinkles:--
marmalade to sip, and nuts to crack, ere the substantials came.
"And next, my lord, we have the fine old time of the Old Red Sandstone
 sandwich, clapped on the underlying layer, and among other dainties,
 imbedding the first course of fish,--all quite in rule,--sturgeon-
forms, cephalaspis, glyptolepis, pterichthys; and other finny things, 
of flavor rare, but hard to mouth for bones. Served up with these,
 were sundry greens,--lichens, mosses, ferns, and fungi.
"Now comes the New Red Sandstone sandwich: marly and magnesious,
 spread over with old patriarchs of crocodiles and alligators,--hard
carving these,--and prodigious lizards, spine-skewered, tails tied in 
bows, and swimming in saffron saucers." (2.28)
This blending of lexical fields prefigures the discourse collage of David Foster Wallace.


There are innumerable parodies scattered throughout the book. Babbalanja, the old philosopher is the chief vehicle for these. Here are two that I recognised, but I daresay there are many more. Here is Babbalanja parodying Locke in dialogue with Media and Mohi:
"To begin then, my child:--all Dicibles reside in the mind."
"But what are Dicibles?" said Media.
"Meanest thou, Perfect or Imperfect Dicibles?"
"Any kind you please;--
but what are they?"
"Perfect Dicibles are of various sorts: Interrogative; Percontative;
 Adjurative; Optative; Imprecative; Execrative; Substitutive;
 Compellative; Hypothetical; and lastly, Dubious."
"Dubious enough! Azzageddi! forever, hereafter, hold thy peace."
"Ah, my children! I must go back to my Axioms."
"And what are they?" said old Mohi.
"Of various sorts; which, again, are diverse. Thus: my contrary axioms
 are Disjunctive, and Subdisjunctive; and so, with the rest. So, too,
 in degree, with my Syllogisms."
"And what of them?"
"Did I not just hint what they were, my child? I repeat, they are of
 various sorts: Connex, and Conjunct, for example."
"And what of them?" persisted Mohi; while Babbalanja, arms folded,
stood serious and mute; a sneer on his lip.
"As with other branches of my dialectics: so, too, in their way, with 
my Syllogisms. Thus: when I say,--If it be warm, it is not cold:--
that's a simple Sumption. If I add, But it is warm:--that's an
_Ass_umption." (2.47)

And here is a parody of Buddhism: However, my lord, these gods 
to whom he alludes, merely belong to the semi-intelligibles, the
 divided unities in unity, this side of the First Adyta." (2.6)


One of the problems with Mardi is that it is extremely hermetic. The range of references, both overt and covert, is enormous; and unless one is familiar with them, much of the book goes over the reader's head. You get the feeling that in this novel, Melville simply abandoned the reader (like Jarl) and wrote the book he wanted to write, for himself, stretching his art to the limit, both in terms of his linguistic resources, and in terms of what he wanted to say about his reading and his thinking. Reading it then becomes almost a pure exercise in the hermeneutics of Melville's private obsessions and interests - a Herman-eutics, as it were. This is complicated by the presence of many layers: the narrative voice consists of Taji telling us what Babbalanja said his hero the poet Bardannia said, and sometimes Babbalanja is possessed by a devil called Azzageddi, who holds forth. Even the narrator is not fixed, as he is referred to sometimes as 'Taji' (a provisional, temporary name for an unnamed narrator) and sometimes as 'I'.

Throughout, however, and this is one of the chief pleasures of a novel which is not really successful, the language is glorious. The text is studded with profound and witty epigrams and aphorisms, and constantly displays a kind of playfulness which catches the reader always by surprise:

Wherein he resembled my Right Reverend friend Bishop Berkely - truly, one of your lords spiritual - who, metaphysically speaking, holding all objects to be mere optical delusion, was, notwithstanding, extremely matter-of-fact in all matters touching matter itself. Besides being pervious to the point of pins and possessing a palate capable of appreciating plum puddings: - which sentence reads off like a pattering of hailstones. (1.22)

It veers between biting parody, sarcastic asides, which are the common reaction of the members of the party to Babbalanja's discourses, song and dance routines of really quite awful poetry (Melville was absolutely no poet, but he made up for this deficiency by being one of the very greatest prose stylists in the language), miraculously beautiful descriptions of nature, especially of sunrise at sea, and wild prophetic utterances which could have come from a Symbolist text, or from the pen of his great contemporary Whitman:

And like a frigate, I am full with a thousand souls; and as on, on, 
on, I scud before the wind, many mariners rush up from the orlop 
below, like miners from caves; running shouting across my decks;
opposite braces are pulled; and this way and that, the great yards 
swing round on their axes; and boisterous speaking-trumpets are heard; 
and contending orders, to save the good ship from the shoals. Shoals,
 like nebulous vapors, shoreing the white reef of the Milky Way,
 against which the wrecked worlds are dashed; strewing all the strand,
 with their Himmaleh keels and ribs.
Ay: many, many souls are in me. In my tropical calms, when my ship 
lies tranced on Eternity's main, speaking one at a time, then all with
 one voice: an orchestra of many French bugles and horns, rising, and 
falling, and swaying, in golden calls and responses.
Sometimes, when these Atlantics and Pacifics thus undulate round me, I 
lie stretched out in their midst: a land-locked Mediterranean, knowing 
no ebb, nor flow. Then again, I am dashed in the spray of these sounds: 
an eagle at the world's end, tossed skyward, on the horns of the tempest.
Yet, again, I descend, and list to the concert. (2. 15)

1 comment:

Sam said...

Truly wonderful write up here; love the idea of Herman-eutics. Most of my Melville streams of thoughts right now (including my half-done readings of Mardi and Redburn) are taking a break while I delve into Chinese poetry and its English language permutations, but I am working through "Melville's Quarrel with God" and will have some thoughts on it soon.