[KB] Desilet, Moby Dick, and Melodrama
brud0025 at umn.edu
Wed May 7 16:24:34 EDT 2008
On Eds comments regarding Greg Desilet Our Faith in Evil: Melodrama and
the Effects of Entertainment Violence.
Im sorry to say I have not read Gregs work. I can only comment on his
email to Ed and refer to past Moby Dick posts. Im 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. Its 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, Im 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 Beards 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
didnt meet his standards for ingeniousness. Anyway, I am only familiar
with a handful of structuralist and genre theorists: Levi-Strauss, Propp,
Todorov, Marty Roths Fair and Foul Play, Greg Forters Murdering
Masculinities. Perhaps I can include here John Roddens work on the
reception of George Orwell, The Politics of Reputation. Im curious if
Desilets work is a contribution to genre and structuralist studies? Id
appreciate any other references as well.
Im recalling Bob Wesss (Feb 2nd, way back) reference to Burkes essay on
Surrealism ( Mr. Calas, 1940). There the question was of Melville as a
precursor to surrealism. Burke began to trace this style to Melvilles
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 Melvilles 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 Parkers foreward,
Mardi, p. 180 and p. 116).
I think Melvilles 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 didnt see comparable
adventure fiction again until Jack London and Frank Norris, two more
writers whos 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 Im 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 Melvilles 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 didnt work. He hadnt 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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