Academic journal article Leviathan

"You Cannot Run and Read It": Melville's Search for the Right Reader

Academic journal article Leviathan

"You Cannot Run and Read It": Melville's Search for the Right Reader

Article excerpt

With his eyes strained by long hours of close work in the winter of 1850, Melville wrote to Evert Duyckinck that he spent his evenings "skimming over some large-printed book" that would not tax his eyesight. (1) No one has ever claimed that the book he himself was writing that winter was susceptible to skimming, or, as the saying goes, that one could "run and read" it. But Melville did not trust his readers with the difficult and heterodox material he presented to them in Moby-Dick--at least not without some guidance from the author himself. As Robert Milder has argued about Moby-Dick, and John Bryant has extended to The Confidence-Man, Melville often used genre in his novels to "instruct" and "educe [in readers] a better way of thinking" and reading. (2) He was, in this regard, an elusive preceptor. His pedagogy in the novels is rarely open and on the surface; it is complicated and embedded in the texts. This paper proposes to explore Melville's ideal of what it means to be a discerning reader--a notion that these, and other, critics have usefully opened up and that Melville himself explored in his later work. I do not pretend that Melville in 1856 is the same as Melville in 1851, and I do not wish to "read back" onto Moby-Dick with inflexible interpretive tools borrowed from the later work, but rather to suggest how we might use the more explicit reading protocols in the later work to generate a vocabulary, originating in Melville himself, with which to discuss the earlier novel.

Melville worries out loud, in the stories of his later career, about inattentive readers. In "The Piazza," he addresses them directly on the subject of reading: "you cannot run and read," the story's narrator says. (3) By this point, Melville had adjusted to the problem of focusing readers' attention by making his protocols more explicit. But he can also be seen to be implicitly adjusting--subtly searching for the right reader--in Moby-Dick. By managing a shift to drama, both modally and generically, Melville conditions readers of the novel to slow down and pay more attention by getting in close to the text and staying there. But, knowing the dangers of undue attention, he also conditions readers to keep some distance. When it comes to reading, be it texts, or characters, or actions, he seeks a paradoxical middle way. (4)

Melville positions us as both witnesses and participants such that we see in others and experience for ourselves the diminishment of critical attention brought about by a mind that becomes absorbed by an object; the sympathetic entrance of readers into a scene; and the awakening from that participation into a fuller, more balanced--engaged and critical--attitude. In other words, Melville does with his readers' experience of Ahab what Milton does, in Stanley Fish's famous treatment, with his readers' experience of Satan (5): he lures the reader to fall for a damnable figure and then prompts the reader's recovery to some awareness of his fall. And he manages this phenomenon in a bold, new way, in advance of his time--through a lapse of genre. He conditions the reader, in the passages centering around the "Midnight, Forecastle" play, through two generic "levels": Ahab's monologic theater, and Melville's embedded dramatic interludes. With these levels, Melville helps us to appreciate more fully, and to navigate more constructively, the challenges facing a reader: he provides experiences of misreading--and of reading's repair. And "The Piazza," I will argue, provides a useful, under-studied vocabulary for the unearthing and clarification of the submerged reading protocols of Moby-Dick.

"You cannot run and read it"

Reflecting on the historical moment (the Massachusetts Berkshires, circa 1856), the narrator of "The Piazza" explains his need for building a piazza on his property. Mankind, he implies, must cease insisting on speed and immediacy in aesthetic matters, must stop believing they can "run and read" beauty at a glance, and must rather build a piazza from which to view beauty and contemplate it absorbedly. …

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