Milder, Robert. Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine.
Pardes, Ilana. Melville's Bibles. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2008. 206 pp. Cloth: $60.00; paper: $24.95.
The aesthetic turn in Melville studies has arrived. While interest in Melville and the visual arts has been strong over the past twenty years, thanks in large part to the work of scholars such as Robert K. Wallace and Douglas J. Robillard, the question of what it means for Melville's texts themselves to be aesthetic--to be works of art as well as commentaries on art--has at times given pride of place to cogent historicist and postcolonial studies of those texts, exemplified by Samuel Otter and Geoffrey Sanborn.
In recent years, however, as interest in Melville's poetry has grown and as the New Formalism has led scholars to reassess the value (yes, value) of form in literary criticism, Edgar Dryden's compelling Monumental Melville has used Melville-as-poet to refashion the author as a visionary proponent of close reading. In the case of Moby-Dick, Eyal Peretz's Literature, Disaster, and the Enigma of Power brings together poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, and most originally trauma theory to respond, as she says, both to Melville's novel and to the crisis in our understanding of literature at the turn of the millennium. All these various strands intersect richly with Robert Milder's Exiled Royalties and Ilana Pardes's Melville's Bibles, two very different studies that nonetheless share an unabashed and delightfully conveyed pleasure in the Melvillean text--not just as a driving force to move the reading along but as a critical principle that re-infuses classic texts with at times surprisingly new and provocative readings.
Milder's work is somewhere between a unified monograph and a collection of related essays, each of which work on their own terms but collectively help to construct a critical biography of Melville. Or, perhaps more accurately, a biographical criticism, if such a phrase can express the dynamic relationship between author, text, and reader that Milder evokes to reframe Melville's works as a lifelong project in creating their author's life, much as Milder argues Byron does in works like Cain and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Exiled Royalties is itself the result of some thirty years of writing and rewriting insights into Melville's entire corpus, from Typee to Billy Budd, and the book bears its own witness to the critical histories in which it has been formed. The opening chapter on Typee engages with postcolonial studies by reconsidering Freud's understanding of eros as a nineteenth-century baseline for Melville's meditations on sexuality and empire in the South Seas, seeing the two as entirely intertwined and looking for innocent eros as an escape from the "snivelization" of the West that Melville criticized throughout his life. At the other end of the spectrum, the three chapters revolving around Moby-Dick are aesthetic, or at least New Critical, in at times extreme ways; Milder continually cites by name a pantheon of mid-century critics--Matthiessen, Sealts, Zoellner, Vincent, Berthoff, above all Bezanson--as if to position his theory of "democratic tragedy" as a kind of retrospective thought-piece, rather than the literary response to political readings along the lines of Michael Rogin and Joyce Appleby that it might in fact be.
Milder is at his best when he uses psychoanalytic treatises lightly to suggest, rather than articulate, the complex dynamics involved in Melville's thinking about his relationship to Hawthorne, for instance (whatever attraction exists is really about Melville finding his own self, not finding a soulmate). However, the chapter focused on their friendship, "The Ugly Socrates," is the most uneven in the entire book. While Milder begins the chapter by stressing, in the context of Melville's alleged homosexual attraction to Hawthorne, that sexual and psychological categories should not be anachronistically mapped onto nineteenth-century relationships, he draws heavily from late-twentieth-century psychoanalysis (not psychoanalytical criticism) to, in fact, map the dynamics of Pierre. The only figure in the entire book, a diagram of the progression of "narcissistic personality disorder," appears in this chapter to explain the nature of Pierre's morbidity. The title chapter deals with the weird erotics of Ahab's grandeur, which draws not only Ishmael but also the reader into the quest in such a way that the moral valences of what is clearly an evil quest become strangely blurred. This chapter is one of the best recent essays on Melville's "wicked book," and offers a striking contrast to Milder's quietly meditative readings of the late poems and a painstaking reconstruction of Billy Budd's composition by layer of genre to show Melville's changing craft as a writer. Milder shows Melville as a man and writer constantly evolving, yet centered on the everlasting questions of human relationships to each other and to the divine--an image that might be seen as nostalgic if it were not so compelling in an age in which thinking about God is once again seen as a fruitful exercise in literary studies.
Pardes's book even more explicitly engages with this new "religious turn," using the terms "exegesis" and "aesthetic-hermeneutic" to describe Melville's project in both its nineteenth-century context and in the centuries-old (and pan-religious) traditions that Pardes traces through Melville's engagements with sacred text in Moby-Dick. Building on Lawrence Buell's argument that Melville was in fact intending to write a new Bible for the United States, Pardes, a biblical scholar new to Melville studies, adapts the historicist methodologies of Samuel Otter's Melville's Anatomies to make a case for reading Moby-Dick as both a "commentary of commentaries" and a sacred text in its own right. Each chapter of her compact, rich study focuses on one biblical character (from the Hebrew Bible specifically) and one exegetical trend in the nineteenth century. In one of her most intriguing leitmotifs, Pardes shows that each biblical character in fact splits across several of Melville's own characters--if Ishmael can be a Jonah, so can Pip or Fleece or Queequeg. Job and Jonah of course feature largely, and serve as telling occasions for looking at the intersections of aesthetic criticism and historical geography in Melville's thinking. Ishmael as a biblical figure offers profound insight not only into Moby-Dick's narrator but also into the interplay between inside and outside throughout the book, which Pardes reads through the genre of Holy Land travel literature. By moving away from Clarel as the center of Melville's thinking about the genre, Pardes shows how Moby-Dick itself functions as a pilgrimage that ultimately undoes itself through tropes of unbelonging, begun by the figure of Ishmael. The chapter on Ahab and political polemics is less integrative, treating contemporary works like Theodore Parker's use of the Ahab-Naboth debacle in his "Scripture Lesson" as almost an opening act, rather than an exegetical key, for the complex politics of Ahab's quest that Pardes articulates. This is also the point where Milder's and Pardes's books seem to talk to each other most, as the attractiveness of Ahab for the reader in Milder's reading pushes further the implications for Pardes's interrogation of Ahab's biblical status as a "wicked king." Where Pardes sees noble vulnerability, Milder sees heroic defiance fueled by pain. In both cases, Ahab allow us to reconsider the place of art and morality in our reading practices today.
Pardes's final chapter, focused on Rachel and the rise of what she calls "women's Bibles" (which includes commentaries by women), adds powerfully to the traumatic reading of Moby-Dick articulated by Peretz; the figure of the woman in constant mourning appears in subtle ways throughout Melville's book, and the forlorn mother turns out to be the unexpected goal for Ishmael, the abandoned boy who survives an abandoned quest made by abandoned people. In one of the most powerful moves in her book, Pardes shows that the female is only marginalized in Moby-Dick because it is so central to the action and thematics at work in the "man's world" of whaling.
As it turns out, Pardes seems to mean "mythic" when she says that Moby-Dick is a sacred text; the reception history she traces in her epilogue shows that Melville's "mighty book" has become a shared touchstone in American culture, but one could say the same for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet without claiming sacred status for the play. Nevertheless, the intense pleasure of reading Melville that both she and Milder convey also raises the stakes for reading Melville, because only after becoming absorbed in his writings do we find how much they still have to say to us today, in imagining our lives, those of the past, and those of the future. Both writers are fittingly spellbound by their subjects, and they show that both veteran Melville scholars like Milder and incisive non-specialists like Pardes are still finding much to enjoy--and to discover--in texts that we keep assuming that we know.
Christopher N. Phillips
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|Title Annotation:||Melville's Bibles|
|Author:||Phillips, Christopher N.|
|Publication:||Studies in American Fiction|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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