Monday, April 26, 2010

Reflections on Pierre

“Melville, Pennsylvania” Project – Book V

Quick! Raise your hand if you’ve seen that one Star Trek movie from the 80s – I want to say it’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock – where the titular character (let’s assume I guessed right) has indeed been located on this remote planet, but in a larvaic state, i.e., as a youth. Fear not, for soon enough he will be transformed once again into the wise sage all those Trekkies venerate; otherwise, how will they go on to produce a hundred more sequels? But to do so, the youthful version of Spock must first endure an accelerated growth process, “aging” years in a span of a few hours. He writhes; he agonizes; he screams. But in the end, he has been painfully transformed into a new version. Spock 2.0, one night say.

Here endeth the agonizing-in-its-own-right relation between Star Trek lore and the work of Herman Melville, except to say: the present novel in my year-long project, Pierre, or The Ambiguities, kinda reminds me of that sequence from the aforementioned celluloid gutterball.

If I may now shift the tone of this discourse, the preceeding is one way to introduce the idea that Pierre is what is sometimes called a transitional work. It is an unadulterated “hash”, to use Melville’s own word, of many different themes and styles, thrown together in an odd way. As William C. Spengeman notes in his Introduction to Pierre, Melville is “painfully divesting himself of literary habits that had become like his second skin”. Just like Spock did, in another way, on the big screen! You cannot say that Melville was unwilling to step outside of what we might call today his “comfort zone” when he wrote Pierre.

Melville must have been aware of how disjointed the book would seem to most audiences, as it attempted to appeal to readers of a certain kind of contemporary novel (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple from the late 1700s), yet at the same time seems to be lampooning them with its excessive gloominess and extremely inflated language. But this is the book where Melville transformed into something else, and he seemed willing to play that out on the printed page.

He certainly seemed to pay an exorbitant cost for doing so. Pierre flopped in just about every way an artistic endeavor can. One modern-day critic notes that the book sold only 2,000 copies, and that, thirty-five years after its publication, there were crates of it still in the publishers’ warehouse. You couldn’t give it away, as the saying goes.

Not only did the reading public fail to embrace it, but it was also met with a critical bombardment that very few novelists in our history have had to endure. Some of the criticisms are themselves famous, such as the New York Herald’s lambasting of the novel as “the dream of a distempered stomach, disordered by a hasty supper of half-cooked pork chops”. Other critical assaults took on similar tones: “a dead failure”, a “crazy rigmarole”, a “literary mare’s nest”, “an incoherent hodge-podge”, “objectionable”. How did Melville even pick himself off the canvas after such a drubbing?

Why did the novel get treated so harshly? What about it is that horrible? These were some of my questions going in. And I knew I would have some degree of difficulty answering them with objectivity, because of my overall esteem for Melville, especially coming right off of the extraordinary experience of re-reading Moby-Dick. Indeed, it is impossible for me to look upon Pierre as a terrible book that serves no purpose and is revolting or even offensive. But having said that, after reading it, it is easy to see why very few people enjoyed it or even bothered to read it. Pierre strenuously resists an agreeable reception.

This is a novel, after all, that is written in a dense, ornate prose style, loaded down with exaggerated descriptions and philosophical musings; it is sometimes overwhelmingly dark and gloomy; it attempts to be both a domestic sampling of “ladies fiction” while satirizing the genre at the same time; it traffics in unappetizing subjects such as insanity and incest; it abruptly changes its plot, if it can be said to have one, a little over halfway through the story; it invents characters when it needs them for reasons of coherence (a “life-long” childhood companion of Pierre’s is introduced late while having had zero mention in the first two-thirds of the book); it forks off on strange tangents into quack philosophy or obscure mythology (half a chapter late in the book muses about Encedalus the Titan, “the most potent of all the giants”-!!???); and, if all the preceding is not enough, the whole story ends in a dismal tragedy worthy of William Shakespeare, at least in terms of the body count.

Having spelled all that out (in one egregiously long sentence!), can I recommend Pierre on any grounds? Absolutely. But, unfortunately, I know of very few people who would take me up. My personal response to Pierre is a combination of fascination, admiration, and sympathy. I will take these on in reverse order.

I am sympathetic towards Pierre, coming at it a century and a half later, because of the merciless pounding it took and the difficult circumstances under which Melville wrote the novel – he had a young son and a financial imperative to earn money to protect his family, and the magnificent achievement of Moby-Dick had recently been misunderstood. At least the first part of this situation resonates with me where I now stand; it would be nice to have the second problem!

I am also sympathetic to the book for literary reasons. Melville had to do something different after Moby-Dick. He realized, as all great artists do, that certain moments in one’s career call for a complete re-invention. You cannot just remain in one place creatively and continue to further advance your art.

Melville wasn’t very interested in sitting in one place, even for monetary reasons. He’d already tried that with Redburn and White Jacket, novels he had written quickly and competently, but within a year was dismissing as “mere cakes and ale”. Hadn’t he, furthermore, reached the apex of the adventurous sea-tale with Moby-Dick? Indeed, no one had ever ascended higher.

Melville might have tried to take on a lighter, simpler, or more consumer-friendly tale, but his curiosity and artistic vision would not allow it. For him, writing a novel was an epic quest; a philosophical and spiritual journey. As he expresses in Pierre, “the devouring profundities now opened up in him, consuming all his vigor; would he, he could not now be entertainingly and profitably shallow in some pellucid and merry romance”.

I admire the novel, if not for its clarity of vision or precision, for the courage it took to plunge headlong into such “profundities”, knowing that it would not be well received. Melville took on subjects that were considered quite taboo at the time and was willing to weave them into his story. Not that I can condone incestuous behavior, for example; nor can I understand what compelled Melville to hint so strongly towards it in his novel; but I do respect the guts it took to weave such elements into the book when it would only shock and repel readers. Melville was uncompromising. If he was consumed by fear and darkness, he was a writer with enough fortitude and confidence to enter into and try to demystify those same elements.

Thirdly, and lastly, I find Pierre to be an all-around fascination. What drove Melville, ultimately, to write such a strange, unruly, provocative, and baffling novel? Why did he choose above all else to explore those dark corners and expose them to readers who had no willingness to wallow in such things? In at least one place, Melville, seeming to channel his own thoughts through Pierre as he sits in a chamber trying to write his own novel, wonders about similar matters:

Here surely is a wonderful stillness of eight hours and a half, repeated day after day. In the heart of such silence, surely something is at work. Is it creation, or destruction? Builds Pierre the noble world of a new book? or does the Pale Haggardness unbuild the lungs and life in him?

Later on, the author seems to be aware of how it will all end for both himself and his creation: “His soul’s ship foresaw the inevitable rocks, but resolved to sail on, and make a courageous wreck”.

When Pierre finally lunges to its inevitable conclusion, the thoroughly unhinged man at the heart of the story resolves himself irreversibly to terminate his nightmares in a dramatic explosion of maniacal violence. The feeling one gets reading this tragedy is that Melville has launched himself as from a cliff into some unplumbed abyss, unaware of what lies at bottom, but unwilling to turn his eyes away from the ugliness, the horror, but also, sometimes, the crystalline surface shimmering below – at the very floor of the Mystery.


1208茹宣dinoreale said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
0802RicoLisi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.