[KB] Desilet, Moby Dick, and Melodrama

brud0025@umn.edu brud0025 at umn.edu
Wed May 7 16:24:34 EDT 2008

On Ed’s comments regarding Greg Desilet “Our Faith in Evil: Melodrama and 
the Effects of Entertainment Violence.”

I’m sorry to say I have not read Greg’s work. I can only comment on his 
email to Ed and refer to past Moby Dick posts. I’m not really certain this 
can advance or enhance the conversation. I largely agree with Greg that 
hyperbola in public discourse tends to fan disagreements into firestorms. 
He seems to advocate clarity and precision in the identification of issues. 
But I also agree with Ed there are times when melodramatic rhetoric can 
draw attention to bias and serve as a corrective. It’s probably a matter of 
attitude, a difference between tragic and comic excess. I think Melville 
modulated the intensity of his ideas with the eloquence of his prose. His 
critics unfortunately objected to those ideas. Perhaps this was due to the 
Victorian era, I’m not sure. It is probable that readers then were not 
ready to entertain material so patently uncensored.

I am interested in exploring genre theory and a structural approach to 
Melville. Burke seems to deal with the genres of genre, not so much with 
gothic horror, the mystery and thriller, science fiction, romance, analytic 
detective fiction, spy, gangster, fantasy, etc. Instead Burke, Ed, Greg, 
etc., look at fiction and then public discourse from a slightly higher 
level of generalization. Epic, Tragic, Melodramatic, Satire, Comedy, 
Grotesque, I think are the main categories. Margerie Garber in Academic 
Instincts (David Beard’s contribution of 4/30/08), compares Burke to an 
amateur detective and I have been at pains to locate the few instances 
where Burke mentions this kind of literature (anyone have the references?). 
Burke is somewhat critical of proletarian literature, probably because it 
didn’t meet his standards for ingeniousness. Anyway, I am only familiar 
with a handful of structuralist and genre theorists: Levi-Strauss, Propp, 
Todorov, Marty Roth’s “Fair and Foul Play,” Greg Forter’s “Murdering 
Masculinities.” Perhaps I can include here John Rodden’s work on the 
reception of “George Orwell, The Politics of Reputation.” I’m curious if 
Desilet’s work is a contribution to genre and structuralist studies? I’d 
appreciate any other references as well.

I’m recalling Bob Wess’s (Feb 2nd, way back) reference to Burke’s essay on 
Surrealism ( Mr. Calas, 1940). There the question was of Melville as a 
precursor to surrealism. Burke began to trace this style to Melville’s 
encounter with the uncivilized world, a non-christian world of animistic 
demons, cannibalism, and inordinate freedoms which captivated his 
imagination. More than that, it triggered Melville’s discovery of the 
unconscious. Andrew Delbanco in “Melville: His World and Work,” mentions 
that the Jungian critic Henry Murray believed that Mardi, the work 
immediately preceding Moby Dick, was the book in which Melville discovered 
the unconscious. Melville: “I am full of a thousand souls,” and “I have 
swam through libraries.” (quotes taken from Hershel Parker’s foreward, 
Mardi, p. 180 and p. 116).

I think Melville’s identification with the ocean expresses this quite well. 
As the whale remained a mystery to the men who “cut in,” so the image of a 
surgeon applying his scalpel to the surface of the ocean remains a precious 
absurdity. I think Burke was right-on when he observed in Moby Dick the 
theme of something-living-on-its-own-substance. David Langston in his posts 
confirmed what Delbanco states: Melville locked himself away in an attic 
and there mined his experiences, his memory and his unconscious, and in the 
process alienated and frightened the members of his family, perhaps even 

If Moby Dick would have sold and provided Melville with the aristocratic 
leisure he dreamed of (both he and Poe were sort of cry-babies about this) 
we probably would have seen completely different work, on Krakens and who 
knows what else. Questions about what this might have been, Poe suggests, 
are not entirely beyond conjecture. As it was we didn’t see comparable 
adventure fiction again until Jack London and Frank Norris, two more 
writers who’s early death masks an emerging mythological character beneath 
sterile proletarian and political concerns.

Mardi is a much more surreal and fantastic work than Moby Dick. In both, 
but especially Mardi, the political and economic seems to be the oblique 
subject of his satire. By withdrawing into his imagination (and I’m not 
sure this can be distinguished from his unconscious) he quite 
ostentatiously abandons civilization and its concerns or “carping cares of 

Mardi is a fantastic production in my opinion and it is Melville’s answer 
to those critics who complained of the inauthenticity of his romances 
(melodramas?). But when Moby Dick crashed and the critics declared Melville 
burned out his volcano, he declared he would never again give the public 
“salt water” (an overly crude and masculine tale?). The following letter 
from Melville to Sophia Hawthorne, Jan. 1852, is taken from Delbanco p. 

“The Fates have plunged me into certain silly thoughts and wayward 
. I shall not again send you a bowl of salt water. The next 
chalice I shall commend, will be a rural bowl of milk.”

I think this was an unfortunate development for Melville. For one, the 
strategy of caving-in to his audience and serving up “melodrama-lite” in 
such works as Pierre and The Confidence Man didn’t work. He hadn’t really 
eliminated the salt water, but he did finish the work of emasculation which 
the critics and genteel readers began, and therefore drove himself into a 


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