Aug 15 2009

Samuel Otter, Melville’s Anatomies, Chapter 4: “Penetrating Eyes in Pierre”

by at 11:13 am

“For many viewers in the 1850s, the American land was not the site of historical struggle between competing interests but an Eden paradoxically urging its own manipulation and destruction. By contrast, the landscape of Pierre presents a hyperbolic version of the American picturesque, in which the tropes of visual possession are pressed to revealing–and rupturing–limits” (Otter 173).

Pierre, the eye, and the American landscape:

In the opening books of Pierre, Melville focuses on the eye, examining its structures while the pupil is dilated under the stimulation of the American landscape. Continuing his cognitive inquiries, he shifts emphasis in Pierre from the faculty psychology in Moby-Dick, which imagined that the powers of the mind were embedded in the brain, to an associationist psychology, which saw the contents of consciousness as linked by principles of relation, such as similarity, contiguity, and frequency. Associationist ideas influenced nineteenth-century painters, writers, and nationalists who exalted the American scene. Turning to landscape, Melville expands his scrutiny of the links between the individual, the natural, and the national (Otter 173).

In Pierre, Melville delves behind the eyes and deep into the cavity of the chest. He further tests the epistemology of character and characteristics, first in the body of the landscape and then in the hidden landscape of the body. In the end, the narrator and author pull back from their intimate exposures. Pierre begins by gazing outward, at Saddle Meadows, and ends by staring inward, at the seared landscape of Pierre character and writer. Ultimately, Melville turns the figure of the eloquent body inside out. In the most encumbered prose of Melville’s career, his narrator reads the lines written not on Pierre’s face, skin, or head but on his own heart. In the next two chapters, I will chart these movements outward and inward and suggest how such unfolding concludes the first phase of Melville’s career (Otter 174).

Landscape Painting and the Antebellum Period:

In examining representations of the land in the antebellum period, we need to remember that the very terms of the discussion–“landscape,” “scenery,” and “picturesque”–are aesthetic constructions, particular orientations of perspective and detail that became current during the rise of landscape painting in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and in America during the early nineteenth century. They are painters’ terms, separating observer from view and abstracting land from labor or occupancy. E. H. Gombrich argues that landscape painting is more a conceptual than a visual art, privileging aesthetic attitude over subject matter an requiring “some pre-existing mould into which the artist could pour his ideas.” The rise of landscape painting marks what Dieter Groh and Rolf-Peter Sieferle call “an epochal transformation” in the cultural meaning of nature: nature is made alien while the capitalistic manipulation of the world is naturalized. As the natural world was objectified and contracted, nature appreciation was discovered and manifested in landscape painting, prints, and gift books, travel literature, lyric poetry, prose sketches, and fiction (Otter 175).

In America, it is the first decades of the nineteenth century that we find such an “epochal transformation”–what the influential New York City editor and writer Nathaniel Parker Willis referred to as “a direct revolution” in American perspective. In the northeastern United States, and especially among New York academicians in the 1840s and 1850s, there was an urgent call for American viewers to turn their attention to the distinctive, defining qualities of American scenery (Otter 176).

Mind-eye connection, landscape painting:

Both British and American understandings of the picturesque drew upon associationist psychology, following Hobbes and Locke. Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight argued that aesthetic ideas resulted from the transformation of sensory data through mental associations. Writers disputed the origin and quality of these associations. Agreeing on the predominant role of abstract visual qualities in shaping aesthetic response, Price argued that associations with line and color had their source in human feelings, while Knight maintained that the associations with light and color were defined and sharpened ed by the viewer’s experience of the art of painting. In contrast to Price and Knight, the landscape gardener Humphrey Repton stressed the role of personal or historical circumstances in determining aesthetic response. These theorists were interested in visual training. In a resonant passage, Knight described the complex act of perception: “The spectator, having his mind enriched with the embellishments of the painter and poet, applies them, by the spontaneous association of ideas, to the natural objects presented to the eye, which thus acquire ideal and imaginary beauties: that is, beauties that are not felt by the organic sense of vision, but by the intellect and the imagination through the sense.” Knight sought to analyze the ways in which the eye becomes a vehicle for the mind (Otter 176).

American Landscape:

The discussion of American scenery became comparative and nationalistic. European and especially British writers asserted that American scenery lacked the historical or cultural associations of high civilization and that the picturesque scenery of the eastern United States was insufficient to stimulate thoughts of the sublime. Americans debated the character of their landscape and nation. Some, such as Walter Channing, Jared Sparks, and George Bancroft, agreed that American scenery was wanting and hoped for future development. Others, such as William Tudor, Samuel Gilman, W. H. Gardiner, and William Cullen Bryant, felt that American national associations could stimulate aesthetic response and support literary and artistic production. Often such associations had a manufactured quality, such as the “fanciful associations” put forth by the contributors to The Home Book of the Picturesque (1852). In a powerful synthesis of the two positions, some observers validated the “absence” of historical associations and celebrated the American land as a divinely inscribed tabula rasa. In the redemptive Edenic landscape was written not the burden of the past but divine assurance of the nation’s glorious future. Spared the scars of the aristocratic Old World, Americans would write their own history. In these nationalistic visions, aesthetics, religion, and politics were conflated, and the sublime promise of the United States was seen as fulfilled in the cultivated scenery of picturesque America (Otter 176, 177).

Americans and their own views on their landscape (note contrast to Volney’s more cynical view of the varying climates in the American landscape!):

In the “Essay on American Scenery,” Cole [the American landscapist) provides a feature-by-feature gazetteer for American landscape appreciatation: mountains, lakes, waterfalls, rivers, and forests (102-108). These natural sights may not evoke the range of European historical allusions, but they are unmatched in their religous and moral associations. Cole asserts the American difference is an asset. He climaxes his catalogue with a paean to America’s “skies,” which out-Europe Europe’s encompassing the entire geographical and visible spectrum:

as we have the temperature of every clime, so we have the skies–we have the blue unsearchable depths of the northern sky–we have the upheaped thunder-clouds of the Torrid Zone, fraught with gorgeousness and sublimity–we have the silver haze of England, and the golden atmosphere of Italy. And if he who has travelled  and observed the skies of other climes will spend a few months on the banks of the Hudson, he must be constrained to acknowledge that for variety and magnificence American skies are unsurpassed (108) (Otter 181).

 …And, yet, Americans are still unsure about the landscape and their future there:

In “Essay on  American scenery,” the claims seem strained and the faith too fervent, as though Cole were attempting to talk himself into a confidence that he could not see. Such ambivalence about American prospects is on display in his famous 1836 oil painting of the Connecticut River 1836 oil painting of the Connecticut River, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Mass., after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow), composed at the same time as the “Essay” […] Yet as Angela Miller observes, the circle of land in the center of the painting forms not only a stage or yoke but also a question mark. The storm, like the river, might reverse its course. The clouds still cast shadows over the land. The divine writ may not be good news (Otter 182, 183).

 Antebellum Alchemy:

The “aptness” of the analogy between “the democratic element” and a “subtle acid” lies in its apparent incongruity yet functional success. Progress is linked with corrison in a narrative of “natural law.” Out of revolutionary “Death” comes new “Life” for old institutions. Pierre is steeped in language of such antebellum alchemy (Otter 196).

The American Landscape and American Spectres:

The landscape of Saddle Meadows, then, is not merely embellished with images of Pierre’s ancestors–“on thsoe hills his own fine fathers had gazed; through those woods, over these lawns, by that stream, along these tangled paths, mnay a grand-dame of his had merrily strolled when a girl” (8)–nor cloaked in the qualities of “this new Canaan” (33). It is saturated with reminders of those who were dispossessed […] These associations thicken the atmosphere of Saddle Meadows. They seep into the soil. They point to the past, not to the future” (Otter 201).  

Facial Landscape parrallels the physical landscape (IMPORTANT!):

The analogies between facial and landscape features are not accidental or occasional in these sections of Pierre. Such analogies structure the representation of character. Lightning forks upward from Pierre’s brow. Pierre sees stars and clouds in Lucy’s eyes and the seasons in her face. Lucy’s eyes contain unparalleled scenic wonders: “All the waves in Lucy’s eyes seemed waves of infinite glee to him. And as if, like veritable seas, they did indeed catch the reflected irradiations of that pellucid azure morning; in Lucy’s eyes, there seemed to shine all the blue glory of the general day, and all the sweet inscrutableness of the sky” (35). Like Cole’s American skies, Lucy’s eyes reflect the unique variety and magnificence of America. Lucy is a walking encyclopedia of landscape features–clouds, seasons, waves, seas, lakes, skies. In Melville’s picturesque twist on the sentimental effictio, or “fashioning” of a female figure, Lucy is an overstocked embodiment of individual, natural, and national characteristics. The land does not merely lie before Pierre; it rises up and embraces him in the form of an inordinate, geomorpic angel (Otter 203).

The eye, escaping pupils, and savage, animalistic love:

(My Note: I wonder if the escaping pupil is in anyway connected to Laura Otis’s work on membranes? The eye is the place where outside and inside meet–light from the outside penetrates the pupil into the retina, but what does it mean for the pupil to attempt to escape? Does this rupture the safe and comforting idea of the eye as receptacle–the body here is actively penetrating the environment, instead of the environment penetrating the eye, as nature usually works):

When Pierre observes the atmospheric effects in Lucy’s eyes, he cannot contain himself–or, to be more precise, he cannot contain their pupils: “Then would Pierre burst forth in some screaming shout of joy; and the striped tigers of his chestnut eyes leaped their lashed cages of fierce delight. Lucy shrank from his extreme love; for the extremest top of love is Fear and Wonder” (35). Here, the pleasures of perception are rendered disturbing through the insinuating amalgam of adjective and noun (“screaming shout of joy,” “fierce deligh,” “extreme love”). The love in Pierre’s eyes is given a savage shape and appetite. Melville represents the blinding fulfillment of the picturesque goal of feeling through the eyes, as Pierre’s eager pupils threaten to rupture the acqueous humor, tear through the lashes, break out of their ocular confinement, and pounce upon their victim. The extremes are taken to their extremity, as Melville maps the contours of the sublime and ambivalent peaks of love (Otter 203, 204).

Active Eye in Pierre:

As eyes look into eyes in Melville’s defamiliarizing passage, the intervening medium is filled with ridiculous creatures. In this heightened and revealing version of the “loving gaze,” the eye is not at all a receptive organ but becomes an active, violating force, and its projections are absurdly literalized. Neither particle nor wave, the “light” from the lover’s eye is composed of “strange eye-fish with wings.” The mood is broken here. The mystifications are materialized. Love’s eyes are “holy things,” Melville insists, after representing them as profane fish ponds. The eye is “Love’s own magic glass,” he proclams, and then he shatters the delicate vessel. Visual penetration is compared to the sinking of mine shafts, and visual transaction threatans to become a literal “driving through”: when eyes bore into eyes, the shaft, one assumes, must be sunk through the cornea (Otter 204, 205).

The Emersonian “transparent eyeball:”

In the first section of “Nature” (1836), Emerson, too, joins an absurd visual figure with praise of the landscape. After an exalted account of the poetic possession of the land (“There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all th eparts, that is, the poet”) and immediately following the assertion that the visual faculty is the sine qua non of human existence–“In the woods…I feel that nothing can befall me in life,–no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair”–Emerson offers his famous catachresis: “I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Yet the bizarre physicality of Emerson’s “eyeball” does not interfere with the metaphorical dynamics of the passage. The “transparent eyeball” stands as a desire for all-encompassing vision, for the removal of barriers to visual participation in the world, for the ultimate “integrity of impression made by manifold objects” (Otter 205).

 Isabel’s unreadable face :

(My Note: THIS PASSAGE IS REALLY IMPORTANT. Like Pierre and Lucy, Isabel’s face does synch with the landscape–think of the electrical storm moment when Isabel is actually described as being electrical–and yet her face remains an enigma throughout the text. In the beginning, before her identity is known, she is even described as “the face.”  Pierre’s fixation on Isabel’s unreadable face is undoubtedly due to her ambiguous beginnings–she is raised on a ship, the most transitory space possible–and yet her body appears as if it’s beginning to “become” American. Additionally, Isabel represents the foriegn and the familiar: she is both foriegn, but has Glendingning blood and resembles Pierre’s father as a young man, which may be another reason for Pierre’s fixation. She is unreadable but also very familiar. I must, MUST address this in my writing sample):

The phaeton ride ends abruptly, when Pierre and Lucy flee the hills encircling Saddle Meadows to the level safety of the plains. Fearing that “too wide a prospect” meets them on the slopes, Lucy insists they descend (38). Lucy’s anxieties are spurred by her thoughts about the mysterious face Pierre saw at the Pennie sister’s sewing circle. Remembering, she loses the inspiration of the morning and sheds some tears. This is the first of Melville’s many references to the “riddle” of Isabel’s face (37). Associated with Europe, with the lordly sins of the fathers, and with ilegitimate acts of possession and dispossession, Isabel’s features weigh on Pierre’s mind. Under their pressure, the enamel of Saddle Meadows cracks. The “discovery” of an abandoned sister cases Pierre’s patrimony in a new light (Otter 206).

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