The Perverse Novel (1): Herman Melville, Pierre, or the Ambiguities
My dealings with the publishing industry have historically ended in tears; the life cycle of the beast having once again entered the stage wherein I receive letters informing me that my correspondent or the hypothetical reading public was not or will not be "engaged in" or "compelled by" or "emotionally involved with" characters and events that do not "come to life on the page," I decided to cheer myself up by reading some books that do everything in their power to thwart such considerations. I am thinking not of books like Ulysses, which offer their own idiosyncratic reward once the reader has hacked through a great deal of surface frustration, but of those books where frustration is the point.
It’s hard to say what Melville was aiming at when he began Pierre in December 1851. Moby-Dick had been published the previous month to harsh reviews and disappointing sales, and pragmatism is on record in Melville’s letter informing his publisher that his next novel would be “calculated for popularity... being a regular romance, with a mysterious plot to it, and stirring passions.” But even if the early chapters bear some resemblance to a Gothic potboiler, it quickly becomes apparent that the main passion being stirred is Melville’s distaste for his protagonist. The florid descriptions of Pierre’s illustrious ancestry, admirable appetite, and physical brawn, when coupled with the general insouciance of his behavior, make him seem rather like a large and boisterous dog who by some accident was born into the landed gentry. Whenever the authorial pontifications cease long enough to permit the development of scenes, they immediately turn into terrible parodies of the domestic novel:
“Remove the toast-rack, Dates; and this plate of tongue, and bring the rolls nearer, and wheel the stand farther off, good Dates.”
Having thus made generous room for himself, Pierre commenced operations, interrupting his mouthfuls by many sallies of mirthfulness.
“You seem to be in prodigious fine spirits this morning, brother Pierre,” said his mother.
“Yes, very tolerable; at least I can’t say, that I am low-spirited exactly, sister Mary;Dates, my fine fellow, bring me three bowls of milk.”
“One bowl, sir, you mean,” said Dates, gravely and imperturbably.
We won’t dwell on the unfortunate treatment of the servant or the creepy flirtation by which Pierre and his mother routinely call each other “brother” and “sister”; at any rate, Melville can put a barb in the mother’s private reflection that her son is “a noble boy, and docile, he has all the frolicsomeness of youth, with little of its giddiness. And he does not grow vain-glorious in sophomorean wisdom. I thank heaven I sent him not to college.” Meanwhile, this is how our hero announces his engagement to his fiancée’s brothers:
“Pray be seated, gentlemen,” said Pierre. “Plenty of room.”
“My darling brothers!” cried Lucy, embracing them.
“My darling brothers and sister!” cried Pierre, folding them together.
“Pray, hold off, sir,” said the elder brother, who had served as a passed midshipman for the last two weeks. The younger brother retreated a little, and clapped his hand upon his dirk, saying, “Sir, we are from the Mediterranean. Sir, permit me to say, this is decidedly improper! Who may you be, sir?”
“I can’t explain for joy,” cried Pierre, hilariously embracing them all.
“Most extraordinary!” cried the elder brother, extricating his shirt-collar from the embrace, and pulling it up vehemently.
“Draw!” cried the younger, intrepidly.
It’s one thing for a Gothic hero to be an inexperienced youth who must learn of the world’s darkness; it’s another for him to be actually incoherent. Yet this is the Pierre who spends the next dozen chapters negotiating, as best he can, a conglomeration of plot tropes including the Hidden Stain on the Family Honor, the Secret Sibling, Shame and Disinheritance, and Flight to the Corrupt City. The chances are slim that any of these plot strands will resolve to our satisfaction; Melville’s narrator advises us, not encouragingly, to “let the ambiguous procession of events reveal their own ambiguousness.”
And yet Pierre’s character does deepen. This is less because he is learning from his experiences and more because Melville has decided that he wants to write a different kind of book: not only a book whose hero reads and reflects on Dante and Shakespeare and obscure philosophical pamphlets comparing God to a chronometer, but alsomost infamouslya book whose hero turns out to have been an author himself all along. The narrator introduces this sharp left turn with characteristic bravado:
Among the various conflicting modes of writing history, there would seem to be two grand practical distinctions, under which all the rest must subordinately range. By the one mode, all contemporaneous circumstances, facts, and events must be set down contemporaneously; by the other, they are only to be set down as the general stream of the narrative shall dictate; for matters which are kindred in time, may be very irrelative in themselves. I elect neither of these; I am careless of either; both are well enough in their way; I write precisely as I please.
This is hardly an apology to the reader who has been frustrated by the book’s development to date. And the reader is about to get a lot more frustrated, since from here forward, aside from some perfunctory attempts at resolution, the Gothic plot disappears. What takes its place, as Pierre settles down to make his living in the city by writing a masterpiece, is a richer and stranger meditation on the business of authorship: not only its hideous capriciousness and inadequate financial reward, but also its perennial inability to match the ambitions that inspire it. Melville’s narrator ascribes this failure to himself as much as anyone.
There is infinite nonsense in the world on all of these matters; hence blame me not if I contribute my mite. It is impossible to talk or to write without apparently throwing oneself helplessly open; the Invulnerable Knight wears his visor down. Still, it is pleasant to chat; for it passes the time ere we go to our beds; and speech is further incited, when like strolling improvisatores of Italy, we are paid for our breath. And we are only too thankful when the gapes of the audience dismiss us with the few ducats we earn.
Pierre starts as a self-hating potboiler and ends with a gesture toward the artistic greatness that neither Melville nor his protagonist will reach this time around; it is the continual vacillation between economic and spiritual pressures which lends particular melancholy to paragraphs like that above. Flaubert’s version is his famous observation that “the human tongue is like a cracked cauldron on which we beat out tunes to set a bear to dancing when we would make the stars weep with our melodies.” Pierre, then, beats its cauldron as hard as possible, to incite the most ridiculous dances, for the sake of whatever weird beauty might lie therein.