Aug 12 2009

Samuel Otter’s Introduction to Melville’s Anatomies

by at 7:07 pm

Typee, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick, and Pierre:

At the center of Melville’s texts in the first phase of his career is the human body, tangled in lines of knowledge and desire. In Typee (1846), a sailor hiding in a valley on one of the Marquesan islands is troubled by the tattoos on the bodies of his hosts. He violently recoils at the prospect of having his own face marked. In White-Jacket (1850), a sailor serving on a regimented naval vessel wears a white cloak that becomes unedurably scarred and burdensome. He slices himself out of his own skin. In Moby-Dick (1851), all eyes focus on the massive corpus of the whale. Associating cetology with ethnology, and especially of the head, which engrosses narrator, characters, and writer. In Pierre (1852), the narrator links the exterior landscape of the nation to the interior landscape of his young American heir. This narrator holds out his character’s heart to his readers, and crushes it (Otter 2).

Melville and the ninteenth-century imagination:

While benefiting from the invaluable work of Melville scholars, I also extend the notion of sources to include patterns of representation in which Melville participates, even if we have not been able to demonstrate that he owned or read particular volumes. I press the relationship between Melville and his sources as Melville himself does, treating them not as informal ballast or dross to be transmuted into literary gold, but as revealing structures that show how nineteenth-century Americans articulated their world (Otter 2,3).

Outline of Melville’s Anatomies:

In the first three chapters, I argue that the corporeal fascination in Typee, White-Jacket, and Moby-Dick¬†are changed by nineteenth-century efforts to know the racial body. In these texts, Melville examines how the parts of the body–face, skin, and head–become invested with world historical meanings. In the last two chapters, I argue that in Pierre Melville explores the operations of ideology, in the visual education of the early chapters and in the narrator’s scrutiny of his protagonist’s heart and mind over the course of the book. Melville restages crucial scenes in antebellum United States culture, exposing and analyzing their characters, properties, scripts, and motivations. He brings exorbitant pressure to bear on the fraught figures of antebellum discourse. In Typee, the key figure is the sacred symbol of the Caucasian face, whose impeccable features secure identity; in White-Jacket, it is the analogy with slavery, the pivot upon which antebellum debate about individual rights turns; in Moby-Dick, it is the synecdoche of the head, seen as the key to politics, aesthetics, and history; in Pierre, it is the catachresis of the eloquent heart, the organ which comes to have a voice and to assume material form on the surface of the printed page (Otter 3).

Otter and his departure from previous trends in Melville scholarship:

I discuss the attractions but resist the formulations of Melville as outcast, the “isolato” striving for original expression against the constraints of conventional antebellum America (the traditional critical view of Melville), and of Melville as the product of circumstance (the newer “historical” view). I argue for a Melville fascinated with the rhetorical structures and ideological functions of antebellum discourse. Melville offers neither a transcendent critique nor a symptomatic recapitulation, but an inside sense of the power of ideology, its satisfactions and its incarcerations. Thus I argue for a notion of verbal doubleness in Melville that is different from the deus ex machina of irony too often used to redeem him from the taint of his culture or from the too-easy ambivalence used to describe an author said to see “both sides.” Melville is critical but does not claim, or rather realizes that he cannot sustain, an outsider’s privilege. Instead of dismissing contemporary beliefs about race, nation, and self, he acknowledges their appeal and probes their sources and sway (Otter 4).

What Otter means by “anatomy:”

I offer the term “anatomy” to invoke the literary genre whose forms and gestures Melville drew upon, to describe Melville’s concerns with ideology, and to emphasize his examination of the body and its parts. The first Melville critic to use the term “anatomy” was Fitz-James O’Brien, who, in a sympathetic but exasperated review in 1857, laments that Melville had demonstrated that he was capable of writing “good, strong, sweet, clear English” but persists in “distorting the images of his mind, and in deodorizing the flowers of his fancy; a man born to create, who resolves to anatomize; a man born to see, who insists upon speculating.” O’Brien argues that Melville’s works register “the conflict between resolute nature and stubborn cultivation,” with nature calling for an unobtrusive representation of “the realities of life and man” and cultivation responding “No! you shall dissect and divide; you shall cauterize and confound; you shall amaze and electrify; you shall be as grotesquely terrible as Callot, as subtly profound as Balzac, as formidably satirical as Rabelais.” O’Brien’s insights about Melville’s conflicted impulses and formal mixtures will be developed by twentieth century-critics. He suggests a restless dissecting consciousness that will be the focus of this book (Otter 4).

Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism and Melville:

“Ever since Northrop Frye revived scholarly interest in the genre of the anatomy in Anatomy of Criticism (1957) and identified Moby-Dick as part anatomy and part romance, critics have placed Melville’s texts in the tradition of Lucian, Petronius, Erasmus, Rabelais, Burton, Bayle, Swift, Voltaire, and Sterne. I am less concerned here with the history of genre than with the functions of the form in the antebellum United States. My claims about Mevlille have been shaped by theoretical accounts of the anatomy provided by Frye and by Mikhail Bakhtin: the hererogeneous, omnivorous, encyclopedic, rhetorically experimental, stylistically dense form, in which linguistic features–diction, syntax, metaphor–become the vehicle for intellectual inquiry. According to Bakhtin, these features express orientations toward society, time, nation, and tradition that are laid bare in the literary anatomy (Otter 5).

Anatomy and Meville, again:

I use the term “anatomy” to describe the material analyses of consciousness conducted by Melville in the first phase of his career. From Typee through Pierre, Melville attempts to provide what Antonio Gramsci has called an “inventory” of the verbal contents of consciousness. The relentless borrowings and turnings in Melville’s prose give heft to thought: the incorporate passages, incessant allusions, layered symbols, and eerie personifcations. The excess in Melville’s anatomies derives, in part, from the scope and reach of this task. Melville analyzes what Raymond Williams has called “structures of feeling,” the complex dynamics through which form and response shape meaning and value. Such an effort elicits the remarkable intimacies of Melville’s first phase–the theatrical confessions, exuberant embrace of readers, pressing of boundaries, and bodily exposures. “Race” is a key epistemological category for Melville, as it was for his culture and continues to be for our own. In his meticulous anatomies, Melville insists that readers acknowledge “race” not as an abstract property of others but as the grammar book of graded meanings that United States culture had assigned to the features of human bodies. He details what Focault has called “the nomination of the visible.” Melville shows how a world of definition, coherence, and difference became located in the skin and in the skull (Otter 5).

Melville, antebellum discourse, and shared structures of feeling:

In inhabiting the structures of antebellum discourse, Melville comes to occupy an increasingly precarious position. He is not transcendent but an immanent manipulator, subject to entaglement and complicity. Melville’s closest attention is not directed toward the form or features of another. The face whose contours he outlines, the skin whose substance he examines, the head whose contents he inventories, and the heart whose motions he traces are his own. Laying himself open, he exposes shared structures of feeling and belief. Across the chapters, I trace Melville’s development, climax, and retreat from his anatomy project (Otter 6).

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