Jul 29 2009

Paul Gilmore’s Aesthetic Electricity Chapter and Pierre

by at 10:40 pm

Because Paul Gilmore’s chapter is so long and contains a such wide variety of information, I’ve decided to portion out the important quotes into two separate blog posts. The first post, which precedes this one, includes more general quotes on Percy and the lightning rod. These will undoubtedly feed into my thesis and orals work. This post will include the passages from the very same chapter of Paul Gilmore’s Aesthetic Materialism that deal with Melville, more generally, and Pierre, more specifically.

Background on electricity, revolution, and the electric myth:

 Percy Shelley’s interest in electricity as signifying that the relationships among the individual mind, language, and society are unstable yet possibly productive of political change may have also derived from his hope in the revolutionary potential of electric technology. As Thomas Jefferson Hogg recalls in his remembrance of Shelley at Oxford, he contended that ‘The galvanic battery is a new engine; it has been used hitherto to an insignigicant extent, yet has it wrought wonders already; what will not…a well arranged system of metallic plates, effect?’ Linking Voltaic electricity to the balloon, Shelley concludes that such inventions would virtually emancipate every slave, and would annhilate slavery for ever.’ As I described in chapter one, with the invention of the telegraph, the emancipatory effects of electricity were elaborated at length as it either emblematized humankind’s ability to conquer nature (and primitive humans) and create a harmonious world or mirrored a spiritual community in which all were already one. James W. Taylor’s The Useful and the Beautiful perhaps best illustrates this point, demonstrating  how figures of art as electric merged with techo-utopian spiritualist accounts of the telegraph to produce a kind of aesthetic utopianism where all humankind would be joined together both by the network of wires encircling the world and by the cultivation og an enlightened, universal taste (Gilmore 77).

How Melville engages with the electric myth in Moby Dick:

Taylor’s lecture epitomizes the view of the telegraph as an emblem of American inventiveness and American promise, yet some dissenting voices, echoing Carlyle’s critique of the mechanical age, began to suggest that this network would destroy the individual self, with its particularized history, interests, and perspectives, by subsuming the self into a larger group. Thoreau’s comments in Walden are perhaps the most famous dissent from the nearly universal acclaim for the telegraph, but more to the point here is Herman Melville’s use of electric imagery in Moby-Dick. In ‘The Quarter-Deck,” Melville describes Ahab as attempting, by ‘some nameless, interior volition,’ to ‘have shocked into them [his crew] the same fiery emotion accumulated within the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life,’ going on to have Ahab refer to ‘mine own electric thing.’ The aesthetic nature of Ahab’s power over the Pequod’s whalers, hinted at throughout the text and especially in this scene, recalls Melville’s positive use of electric imagery in is celebration of Hawthorne’s genius as providing a ‘shock of recognition [that] runs the whole circle round’ the ‘brotherhood’ of genius. Ahab seems ot suggest the dark side of electric genius, the possibility of a charistmatic, magnetic personality leading the easily swayed for his own ends. With this attention to Ahab’s ability to manipulate the sailor’s economic interests, Moby-Dick emphasizes how the capitalist revolution tended to reinforce hierarchies instead of producing radical equality. Rather than creating a universal harmony based in human commonality, aesthetic electricity will transform the masses, as the imperialist language of techno-utopian discussions of the telegraph similarly hinted, into merely a reflection of one controlling personality, parts of a body controlled by one central authority, or as Ahab megalomaniacally puts it near the end, ‘Ye are not other men, but my arms and my legs; and so obey me’ (568) […] Electricity, in this way, not only served to represent the potential of aesthetic connection; it also registered fears about the aesthetic’s coercive potential to subordinate individuals in a league against their own interests (Gilmore 78).

Pierre, gaps, and aesthetic electricity:

…Parker’s story reiterates the importance of the mind/body, soul/physical self distinction to both spiritualist and techno-utopian readings of the telegraph, while suggesting that it is in the gaps themselves that we might find an alternative understanding of the telegraph’s potential. Those gaps, I want to argue, gaps created by the very materiality of the bodies, technologies, and codes involved in any sort of communication but shaped by the specific historical forces producing any cultural event or aesthetic experience, are at the center of what I am calling aesthetic electricity. No text I know of more fully invests those gaps with meaning (and indeterminacy) than Herman Melville’s Pierre, or the The Ambiguities (1852). In fact, the only ninteenth-century text that I’ve ecountered that employs electric language and imagery more than Pierre is John Neal’s Logan (1823), a bizarre gothic novel featuring multiple Byronic heroes, whose stories unveil the troubled foundation of Anglo-American claims to North America while featuring oedipal violence and incestuous desires. Pierre shares much in common with Neal’s nvoel, and in this and the following sections, I focus on Pierre in order to flesh out the ways that, despite the dominant faith in its reliability and speed and its ability to link the world together, the telegraph gave rise to questions about the limits of communication and sympathy. While Melville, often seen as the most Byronic of the canonical American renaissance writers, emphasizes those limitations, I return to Thoreau at the end of this chapter to outline how those limitations actually enable a re-reading of the telegraph as figuring the problematic of aesthetics, of what Kant defined as its subjective universality (Gilmore 86).

Electric power and its ambiguities:

Earlier, I described Melville’s use of electric imagery in ‘The Quarter-Deck’ to figure Ahab’s power over the sailors on board the Pequod. But that chapter in Moby-Dick not only indicates the dangers of a kind of aesthetic, charismatic electricity; it also begins to reveal the ambiguity of this electrical power. Ahab attempts to ‘shock into them [his crew] the same fiery emotion accumulated with the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life’ (165), yet he recognizes, when his mates refuse to return his gaze, that has not fully succeeded, commenting that ‘ ’tis well. For ye did three but once take the full-forced shock, then mine own electric thing, that had perhaps expired from out me’ (166). The danger, for Ahab’s monomaniacal quest, is that in electrifying the crew he may fully discharge himself. In a complete electrical circuit, a circuit wherein Ahab’s electricity is returned to him in full by his crew, Ahab’s Leyden jar, rather than serving simply as a kind of re-chargeable battery, will be somehow depleted of its energy. These passages suggest that human contact, true connection with another, threatans to weaken Ahab’s quest to prove himself invulnerable to the world. This possibility comes to the forefront in ‘The Symphony,’ where, for a moment, Ahab actually identifies with Starbuck and seems swayed from from his course, before again turning inward (literally ‘avert[ing]’ his ‘glance’) to ask ‘Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it God, or who, that lifts this arm?’ (545). A complete electrical circuit of hatred or any other sentiment jeopardizes Ahab’s attempt to strik through the mask” (164), to answer or erase the metaphysical questions that torture him, because it reminds him of “that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers” (471-472), a problem Ahab describes as intrinsic to having a body–“I would be free as air…and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with” (472). For Ahab, the solution seems to be to make the electrified crew an extension of his body, and in the final chapter, as the conclusion approaches, Ahab proclaims that his sailors are “not other men, but my arms and my legs (568). Yet, if the primary problem lies in his interdependence upon his body, his connection to the world of pain thorugh that body, then the crew, rather than solving his problem, exacerbates it. Electrifying the bodies of his sailors with his own hatred will extend his body, making him more vulnerable to pain, while fostering his recognition of his interdependence on the world and other men.

Isabel-Pierre’s relationship and the ambiguities in of telegraphic electricity:

Pierre uses the telegraph and electricity to materialize the broader fields of ambiguities at the center of the novel. After referring to Pierre as having a “heavenly magnet” which “draws all [her] soul’s interior” to him, Isabel describes the hurt she suffered at the words and insinuations of the other farmers’ “girls.” At this point, she speaks of Pierre looking ‘so sadly and half-reproachedly upon” her, which leads her to contradict what she takes him to be thinking by stating that “Lone and lost thought I have been, I love my kind, and charitably and intelligently pity them, who uncharitably and unintelligently do me depsite.” In response, Pierre claims that his looks are “vile falsifying telegraphs of me,” for his “heart was only dark with ill-restrained up-braidings against heaven that could unrelentingly see such innocence as thine so suffer.” In this scene, Isabel misreads Pierre as questioning her sympathy for others who may have harmed her, when instead Pierre reveals his own lack of sympathy for those people she identifies as her kind. The telegraphic reference reveals that, despite the electrical connection Isabel and Pierre feel, they remain equally unable to fathom the depths of each other’s hearts (Gilmore 88).

Pierre’s imagination and possible misreading of Isabel as electrical:

Melville sets up this telegraphic misreading by inundating this scene, Pierre and Isabel’s second encounter with one another, with electric imagery. Amidst “the mild heat-lightnings and ground-lightnings” (149) of a summer evening, Pierre comes to view Isabel as electric herself: […] Melville clearly draws on the discoruse of spiritualism and mesmerism that Hawthorne uses in The House of Seven Gables, but reverses Hawthorne’s gendering, as it is the mysterious Isabel who nearly “deprive[s]” Pierre of “consciousness” (150). As with Hawthorne, this spell seems to melt their two souls in an eroticized union, but, where with Phoebe and Holgrave Hawthorne describes the encounter as the domination of a stronger (masculine) soul over another, his penetration into the most inner reaches of her soul, Melville emphasizes the role Pierre’s imagination plays in producing the electrical sensation. Pierre’s reading of Isabel as his sister is based less on any firm data or on any confirmation her story really offers than on his own desires–erotic and otherwise–for a sister. With the repeated use of “seemed,” the “as it were,” and the allusion to Pierre’s enthusiasm, Melville refuses both Pierre and his readers any firm knowledge of Isabel’s electric self. The telegraphic nature of the false signals Isabel recieves a few pages alter, then, not only indicates their electric nature, but reiterates the fallibilty of the earlier electric signals Pierre has recieved, emphasizing their codedness, their status as a knd of language in need of interpretation and liable to be misinterpreted (88-89).

The paragraph above makes me wonder about the question of Isabel’s electricity. The reader never knows for certain if Isabel’s electric state is a mere figment of Pierre’s imagination, yet the heightened electricity in the surrounding atmosphere, spefically in the American landscape, seems to be true. That does not seem to be imagined. Electric storms seem to be occuring in these scenes, so what do we make of Pierre possibly transfering the outside environment onto Isabel in-doors?

Another important quote:

In this extended scene, [when Pierre reads Isabel as an electrical woman] Melville begins to hint at a very different picture of the telegraph from the one dominating antebellum American discourse and contemporary historiographical discussions. As described in chapter one, the spiritualist faith in the universal telegraph granting direct communication between disembodied souls corresponded with a techno-utopian idea of the telegraph creating a perfectly coherent, unambiguous, universal language that would enable a global commerce in ideas and goods, that would, in turn, lead to world harmony. But Melville’s figurative language suggests that rather than simply erasing differences and fostering the complete identification of interests and tastes, the telegraph and its network of bodily, technological interconnection were struck at the core by dissonance. If the telegraph potentially linked all of humanity in one network or one body, that network did not, as both utopian and dystopian accounts suggested, eliminate all noise, all miscommunication, all competing interests and interpretations (Gilmore 89).

Morse’s utopian idea that the code would eliminate all problems of miscommunication by reducing language to the most basic code:

Most historians of technology ascribe Morse’s success to his system’s use of just one line, rather than multiple ones as most plans called for. Morse’s one wire telegraph was advantegeous for it cut the largest cost in building a line–the expense of the wire itself. But this desire for cost-effectiveness came into tension with Morse’s republican-Enlightenment focus on perfect clarity, on eliminating all possible noise from the system in order to foster didactic ends. It quickly became evident that what made the telegraph revolutionary was its speed and its ability to reduce language through truncation, puns, suggestiveness, the fact that, like with instant messaging today, thoughts, ideas, data, could be transformed into an even more minimal code (Gilmore 90).

In actuality:

While the reliability of the telegraph became central to its success, stories of its unreliability, of the fact that reducing language and meaning to the opening and closing of a circuit increased rather than decreased possibile ambiguities, appeared with a regular frequency […] Fictive acounts similarly underlined the technology’s possible unreliability. Ella cheever Thayer’s herione-telegraphist in Wired Love (1879) repeatedly engages her over-the-wire interest in puns dependent on the fluidity of language Morse’s code was meant to circumvent, and her initial encounters, over the wire, with her eventual lover reiterate the technology’s limitations due to the human body and its senses, as she is simply not able to hear and respond to his message quickly enough. More significant, she tells her friends of a message that was supposed to read “John is dead. Be home at three,” but instead was read as “John is a deadbeat. Home at three,” a problem arising because “the sending operator did not leave space enough between the words” (Gilmore 91-92).

What developed, then, with the system of dots and dashes referring to different letters and numbers (as well as selected diacritical marks), while regulated and normalized by international conventions, was, despite its overall reliability, open-ended to possibilities for manipulating and transforming the code as well as more prone to miscommunication, misunderstanding, and misinterpretation (Gilmore 93).

Gaps in connection, again:

The analogizing of the nervous system with the telegraphic network resulted, for some at least, not in substantiating a mechanical model of the human body, of human communication, and of human society, but in problematizing any reading of the body communication, and society dependent on simple one-to-one correspondance or determinacy. The nerves, as media for stimuli to reach the brain, and the telegraph, as the medium for conducting thoguht from mind to mind, refused to disappear, insistently reuturning to give the lie to fantasies of complete identification, of sure communication of the mind with the world, of the individual with another self. The telegraph might render the United States one body, but that body, instead of being a unified whole, consisted of fragmented organs, nerves that never fully connected and inconsistent and unpredictable lines of communication, influence, and connection. Melville’s figurative uses of electricity to indicate both the possibility of connection and the incompleteness of that connection echo and build on these readings of telegraphy, as Pierre’s falsifying telegraphs and his electric presentiments foreshadow Benjamin’s [Walter Benjamin’s] account of modernity (Gilmore 99).

Some thoughts on Pierre’s aristocratic background:

Melville takes great care to establish the socioeconomic situation giving rise to Pierre’s (and Isabel’s) feelings of belonging and alienation. The last in a long line of artistocratic Americans, Pierre, in his youth at Saddle Meadows, seems to stand oustide the America “where all things irreverently seethe and boil in the vulgar caldrom of an everlasting uncrystalizing Present” (8). Echoing Marx and Engel’s description in The Manifesto of the Communist Party that in capitalism “all that is solid melts into air” (adter Pierre reads Isabel’s letter, in fact, “the physical world of solid objects now slidingly displaced itself from around him” [85], Melville contrasts the aristocratic veneer of the Hudson Valley patroons with the urban center of New York where “families rise and burst like bubbles in a vat. For indeed the democratic element operates as a subtile acid among us, forever producing new things by corroding the old” (9). (Gilmore 101).

Isabel’s lack of identity and ambigous history, in contrast to Pierre’s known lineage:

For Pierre’s mother, his marriage to Isabel constitutes “Mixing the choicest wine with filthy water from the plebian pool, and so turning all to undistinguishable rankness” (194). Yet Melville suggests this “undistinguishable rankness” already reflects the reality of American society, a fact embodied by Isabel’s very existence–if we beleive her claims about her paternity–as well as by Charlie Millthorpe, Pierre’s childhood friend who is a product of the “political and social levelings and confoundings of all manner of human elements in America” (275). Pierre delineates an American society in flux, where the social, economic, and political upheavals of the age destabilize any and all individual identities. Isabel’s constant feeling of “vacant whirlingess of the bewilderingess” (122) of her life is, in fact, a product of her flotsam life of being tossed back and forth across her near lack of identity as an orphaned working-class girl, who barely discerns the difference between herself and the object-world around her. In accepting Isabel as his half-sister, Pierre recognizes that the “Revolutionary flood” (11) reveals his life in Saddle Meadowns to be a lie, and this it is Pierre’s willingess to cross those class boundaries–boundaries enforced by sexual standards–and his mother’s unwillingess that finally leads to his leaving Saddle Meadows and despairing over the”heart-vacancies of the conventional life” (90). (Gilmore 101, 102).

 Aristocracy versus Democracy:

Pierre empahsizes the damage of literal and figural deterritorializatin, as it is Pierre’s removal from his ancestral home, the anachronistically feudal structures there, and the libidinal flows unleashed by breaking from his mother that lead to his, Isabel’s, and Lucy’s deaths in the topsy-turvy urban environment of New York. Yet the moral center of the nvoel guides us to sympathize with Pierre’s Quixotic journey to becoming a “thorough-going Democrat” (13) and to view his mother and Glen Stanly, the most through-going aristocrats in the novel, as the chief villains. Drawing yet again on electrical imagery, Melville fleshes out this tension between a democratic erasure of boundaries and an aristocratic defense of them most fully in his famous letter to Hawthorne from May, 1851. There, he muses that one can be “earnest in behalf of political equality,” while still believing in an “aristocracy of the brain,” an idea he associates with Schiller.  Melville believes he can see “how a man of superior mind can, by its intense cultivation, bring himself, as it were, into a certain spontaneous aristocracy of feeling…” (Gilmore 103).

While Gilmore doesn’t track the materiality of the atmosphere in Pierre (which I find surprsing, by the way, given that this is ALL over Pierre), this passage on Thoreau and the materiality of the atmosphere particularly relevant to my argument in my writing sample and overall thesis, in which I’ve become particularly interested in the “invention” of the “air” or “atmosphere” for understanding Americaness:

Speaking, in “Sounds,” of the trains as “bolts” shooting to “particular points of the compass,” Thoreau contends that these bolts make the people of Concord “steadier,” a positive effect because “The air is full of invisible bolts. Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then” (118). This idea of invisible bolts humming through the air calls to mind images of the spiritualist invisible telegraph, an image Thoreau more explicitly invokes in his journal on the occasion of the first telegraphic message conveyed through the Concord: “The atmosphere is full of telegraphs equally unobserved. We are not confined to Morse’s or House’s and Bain’s line.” “Atmosphere,” here, seems to correspond with its use in spiritualist conceptions of the universal teleraph. Yet the quotation form “Sounds,” where there is something “electrifying” in the “atmosphere” of the train depot, hints that that atmosphere might be the physical product of the actual technology and its commercial uses” (Gilmore 108).


Creating new desires, extending the body out in new directions, the telegraphic system within capitalism defies the idea of the natural, contained self; becoming a model for exploring the diffusion of the self through material forces, language, commodities, the body itself, electricity represents the potential of this new self. It is this new self and its reconfigured relations of body, society, and world, that lie at the heart of what I call aesthetic electricity. By recognizing how that aesthetic electricity unites figures as various as Percy, Shelley, Herman Melville, and Henry David Thoreau, we can begin to recover American romanticism, specifically transcendentalism, asn an endeavor at grounding transcendence in the material, social, biological realities, and can thus open up our long-standing definitions to see the influence of American romanticism in new ways (Gilmore 110).

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