Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"I Saw Everything but Could Comprehend Nothing": Melville's Typee, Travel Narrative, and Colonial Discourse

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"I Saw Everything but Could Comprehend Nothing": Melville's Typee, Travel Narrative, and Colonial Discourse

Article excerpt

Typee is Melville's "preface to his brief against civilization" (Anderson 132), which he was later to develop more comprehensively and devastatingly in Moby-Dick, Pierre, and much of his later fiction. As the use of the word `preface' suggests, in Typee Melville explores the consequences and ideological implications of capitalism and imperialism, in fact of European civilization, in a preliminary manner, without the apparent depth of subtlety and complexity of his later works. The absence of a fully realized radical critique could be blamed on Melville's position within colonial discourse, (1) particularly as evidenced by his choice of literary genre (the travel story), but such a simplistic analysis fails to fully appreciate Melville's complex negotiation and interrogation of his position within both discourse and genre. Typee recognizes its own implication in the imperialist-capitalist project that is the subject of its critique, yet it maintains the possibility of transcending Melville's imperial subjectivity and, at the very least, of evading personal responsibility for the destruction that Europeans are causing and will continue to cause in the South Seas.

Typee works to negotiate this potential contradiction through a subversive misprision of one of the central literary genres of colonialist discourse, the travel story. However, although Melville's book does provide a powerful critique of European behavior in the South Seas in particular, and of European civilization in general, it must be recognized that Typee ultimately seems to work toward the reification of the consciousness of the imperial subject through its internalization of colonialist discourse. As a result, its anti-imperial critique is ultimately imbricated with imperial hegemony. In fact, the very nature of its critique reproduces the very conditions and assumptions that it seems to subvert. Typee, then, is the ambiguous story of Melville's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to subvert European civilization through a self-conscious participation in colonialist discourse, particularly through an often parodic and ironic (re)writing of travel narrative.

The travel story is one of the oldest stories of the Western literary tradition; both fictional and ostensibly factual accounts of travel have been produced with great consistency and recurrent popularity over the ages. The centrality of the travel story in the European imagination signals its ideological significance in the production and reproduction of European consciousness, particularly in the period of European expansionism that lasted from approximately the fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Mary Louise Pratt illustrates in detail "how travel books by Europeans about non-European parts of the world went (and go) about creating the `domestic subject' of Euroimperialism [and] how they have engaged metropolitan reading publics with (or to) expansionist enterprises whose material benefits accrued mainly to the few" (4). Travel writing was one of a number of literary practices (such as journalism, ethnographic writing, and the adventure story) that not only played a crucial role in representing `the world' to those at `home' but were made possible as a result of the infrastructure necessitated by the institutional support of European expansionism and imperialism. As Edward Said writes, "the arts and disciplines of representation ... depended on the powers of Europe to bring the non-European world into representations, the better to be able to see it, to master it, and, above all, to hold it" (Culture and Imperialism 99).

In addition to travel writing's institutional links to the administration of imperialism, travel writers actively participated in imperialism through their attempt to represent the world to the readers at home. The travel writer acted as what Pratt labels the "seeing-man" (7), classifying, assigning value, interpreting, exoticizing, and normalizing those cultures with which he comes into contact. …

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