Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Oedipus in the South Seas: The Case of Herman Melville's 'Typee.'

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Oedipus in the South Seas: The Case of Herman Melville's 'Typee.'

Article excerpt

Despite Melville's avowal that the account of his first voyage to the South Seas was the "unvarnished truth," Typee (1846) is in fact an exemplary demonstration not only of Melville's early capacity for poesis, for arranging the incidents of his narrative with an artfulness alien to if not unknown in real life, but also of the young Melville's impressive assimilation of the writings of other people. Disappearing down the maw of Typee's intertextuality are not just those works of earlier visits by various naval officers and missionaries to the South Seas - David Porter, C. S. Stewart, and William Ellis - but also more familiar classics - Book II of Plato's Republic, with its distinctions between the healthy and luxurious city, Montaigne's account "Of Cannibals," genially subversive of the savage/civilized binary, and Diderot's notions of Tahitian free love in the Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville.(1) In fact whole libraries of "great books" were apparently necessary to the writing of this simple "factual" account. One writer who has the honor of actually being cited by Melville is Jean-Jacques Rousseau (in Typee, Chapter XVII), generally simplified in Melville criticism as the beatnik celebrant of neo-primitivism.(2) In fact, the degree to which Melville's ambivalence toward "natural" man is also Rousseau's own not only shows the care with which Melville read Rousseau, but also suggests a peculiar sort of affinity between them.

The experience of reading Rousseau is perhaps best described as the effort simultaneously to entertain on any given subject at least two irreconcilable points of view. "It would be frightful," says Rousseau in a familiar passage, "to be obliged to praise as a beneficent being him who first suggested to the inhabitants of the banks of the Orinoco the use of the slats he ties to the children's temples, and which insure at least a measure of their imbecility and of their original happiness."(3) He is not praising the inhibition of the mental development of Orinoco children; to do so would be frightful. But he does clearly imply that while Orinoco children are happy, those who are happy can only be imbeciles. A little later in the same "Discourse" one finds a primitive compassion so natural and instinctive that even the animals show evidence of it, while in uncanny proximity to this passage we find compassion flowing, not out of the hollow combs of the heart to a distressed fellow creature, but from the civilized artificialities and unreal situations of the stage to melt the flinty cockles of even the most murderous tyrant (160-61). In effect, pity is natural and pity is engendered by artifice: two irreconcilable points of view.

Melville's reflections on neolithic village life in the Marquesas have a similar ambivalence. It is not enough to divide the readings of Typee between glorifications of the "happy valley" and melancholy critiques of it, nor even to suggest the ideal is somehow, like the rambling kannaka Marnoo, to have access to both. Tommo generally finds his commitments to civilization intensify precisely to the extent that he approaches the perfect freedom of savagery. He never completely registers the beauty of neolithic life until its jeweled lakes and euphoric natives are lost to him forever. Never does he feel such oppression as when he should be happy in the fairy regions with Fayaway, whose laughing mouth is an "arta fruit," milk-white teeth imbedded - rather uneasily, come to think of it - in an otherwise inviting "cleft" of "red and juicy pulp": that which is to be devoured itself displaying an uncanny capacity to devour. And never does he have such a favorable opinion of human nature as when he has lost the company of his simple native friends and has fallen again among his mean-spirited, syphilitic, civilized fellow men. To notice these and other hesitations and conversions is not by any means to denounce either Rousseau or Melville as incoherent, but simply to affirm once more the "trembling," which is characteristic of any merely human project, the "extremely fatiguing instability," as Blanchot would call it, of the way things are the closer one comes to them. …

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