Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Reflections on Mardi

The "Melville, Pennsylvania" Project, Book I

Here begins an occasional series, taking place during 2010 as I conduct my year-long sabbatical in “Melville, Pennsylvania”, reading and attempting to make some sense out of the works of Herman Melville. The central premise, once again, is to read books either by or about Melville exclusively throughout the entire year. The first book in the series, which I just completed, is Mardi, Melville’s third novel, published in 1849.

The reason I started with Mardi is because just last year I read Melville’s first book, 1846’s Typee, and at first I was unable to locate even a used copy of his second, Omoo, which seems as though it was a kind of sequel to the first (I finally found a copy, which is en route). So I decided to take the Melville books that I did have on hand and read them in the order they were published. I will almost certainly read Typee over again, especially if I run out of material to read before the end of this year; but I thought it would be interesting to return to that first novel again only after having experienced his later works.

Here’s what I know about what led to Mardi in Melville’s canon, and it isn’t a whole lot. He had done some sailing as a crewman on whale boats and other vessels as a young man. His first two novels, mentioned above, were both set in the South Pacific, and were thinly-veiled autobiographical stories with embellishments here and there to the best of my understanding. They were critical and commercial successes, the only books Herman Melville wrote that you can say that about, at least while he was living. His readership, such as it was, identified him with these swashbuckling stories and seemed to enjoy them immensely, but many of them did not believe that the novels were based on real experiences.

For his third novel, officially titled Mardi: And a Voyage Thither, Melville set out to write about the South Pacific region again, but this time, his idea was to deliberately make up the story from start to finish, instead of basing it on his own real experiences. As he says in his very pithy introduction (the only pithy portion of the book!), he wanted to “see whether, the fiction might not, possibly, be received for a verity: in some degree the reverse of my previous experience.”

Aside from that, it’s pretty difficult to determine exactly what Melville’s intentions were for this strange, rambling, episodic novel. It almost goes without saying to point out that people certainly don’t write novels like this one anymore, but I can’t imagine many people even of that actual time really setting their teeth into this story and being enthusiastic about it – not the general public, anyway. One reviewer even said that the book contained “ideas in so thick a haze that we are unable to perceive which is which”, according to a book by Perry Miller called The Raven and the Whale from 1956.

That reviewer, it must be noted, had it about right, from what I can tell. Readers seemed to be expecting another rip-roaring adventure, but that’s not what this novel is. It springs from a fairly conventional set-up, where a young white man deserts his whaling ship with a Scottish companion, saves a Polynesian woman from becoming a human sacrifice, falls in love with her, and then tries to hunt her down when she suddenly disappears – a voyage that takes more or less the rest of the 550-page novel. But once the unnamed protagonist heads out to try to track down the woman, by searching the entire archipelago of small, wild islands that form the grouping known as "Mardi" one island at a time, the novel drifts further and further away from adventure and more deeply into lore, obscure tribal rites, primitive theology and philosophy.

One might have seen this coming if they were astute enough, or if, like me, they had read about the book previously somewhere. After all, the small group of men the narrator bands together with to seek out Yillah, the lost woman, all of whom are native “Mardian” islanders, consists of: a “minstrel” or a singing bard, a “demigod”/monarch, an historian, a midget-like outcast who says nothing, his fellow deserter (descended from Vikings!), and a philosopher. This rollicking circus, traveling by three canoes, flits from island to island, obstensibly searching for Yillah, but also encountering bizarre kings; strange rituals; a mining colony where the slave laborers do not have souls, according to their handlers; an “Isle of Cripples”; a troupe of gold hunters; blind prophets; banquet tables at which the corpses of dead kings are seated; warriors with missing limbs; one whole island where the population is controlled by means of frequent sessions of gladiator-like games designed to kill people off; savage men who “snarl like boars”; and other oddities.

While inbetween these places, the group engages in rather elevated, and sometimes sarcastic and utterly hilarious, dialogue about everything from why we are all here to the afterlife to the virtues of smoking tobacco to the opposite sex, and all and sundry subjects otherwise.

It all makes for a very colorful mosaic of a book, fascinating material for those inclined to contemplation or for those who enjoy 19th century-style novels in which writers could, and did, feel free to wax lyrical on anything and everything. Looks like I fit into both of those categories, somehow. You learn more about exotic islands and Polynesian life than you may have ever thought possible. But to explain what it all amounts to is a gargantuan job, and certainly not one I am qualified to take on.

As the novel goes on the tangents and the language both get increasingly enigmatic and ebullient. By the time I reached one of the final chapters, where the philosopher mentioned above, called Babbalanja, is attempting to describe a religious vision he has had, I was cracking up laughing because the language became so colorful, bizarre and over-the-top that it almost seemed to be some kind of parody. The philosopher, having experienced these visions, determines that he will remain on the island where he saw them; it would be pointless, from his perspective, to continue searching for anything else no matter what it is. Eventually, the group arrives on an island where a kind of witch/female demigod figure named Hautia, whose spectre-like image and voice have been haunting the protagonist throughout the novel, reveals what actually happened to Yillah, the woman he has ostensibly been pursuing for the entire journey. It comes as an anticlimax. The reader has accepted long before this point that the search for the lost woman is a ruse, a kind of flimsy set-up.

Set-up for what, is the question. And I’ve already stated that I can’t answer it. But I can make some observations in a broad way about this novel. It certainly did make for an intriguing way to open up this experiment, because it seems to be one of Melville’s most obscure and misunderstood works. Yet he did nothing to make this novel easy to understand!

It works best, I think, as a kind of bridgework to the great Moby-Dick, and I certainly am not the first to point that out. This is because it’s not the simple, straight-up adventure narrative that Typee is and they say Omoo is also (I’ll be reading that later this year). Melville had set his novel in that region, possibly because that’s what readers had come to expect of him, but it’s clear too that he also set out to expand the reach of his novel as far as themes and ideas go. He had greater ambitions in Mardi than in his previous books; he was going to go to places “average” readers would not necessarily follow. He stated before writing the follow-up novel Redburn that he was drawn to write novels that were “bound to fail”.

But it would be a while before he tried to write that type of story again, because Mardi was a commercial and critical flop, and Melville, with a new son and a young bride, needed to make good on his literary promise in worldly terms. His next two novels, Redburn and White-Jacket, were much more conventional narratives based on his experiences cutting his teeth as a young sailor. Indeed, Redburn (Book II in my experiment), is a completely different read (and a much less arduous one, it must be said). My next installment in this blog series will contain reflections on this coming-of-age story that Melville was already discounting when he went on to write Moby-Dick in 1849-1850.

Which, indeed, brings us to the masterpiece Melville produced after the two “commercial” outings mentioned above. There’s no way to understand Mardi better than as a first attempt to combine the thrilling adventure yarns Melville was known for writing out of the gate and the philosophical/moral/religious dilemmas he became increasingly interested in as he educated himself more and continued to explore, as the back of my copy of Mardi puts it, “man’s estate on earth”.

It’s indisputable that Moby-Dick was the novel in which Melville set out to, and thrillingly accomplished, morph these two artistic pursuits together into one towering, staggering work of fiction – probably the greatest produced by an American novelist. But he never could have done this had he not written Mardi first. You don't need to be an accomplished literary critic to figure that one out. So thank God for the latter novel; if for no other reason for siring the former.

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