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A year before starting “Moby-Dick,” Melville wrote to his father-in-law, ‘So far as I am individually concerned, & independent of my pocket, it is my earnest desire to write those sort of books which are said to ‘fail.’’ But “Pierre” failed beyond Melville’s wildest dreams.This is arguably the least read work a major author ever wrote.” When attempting to elaborate either a reading or thesis-based-upon an apparently lesser, or minor text of a given, major author, the temptation is immediately to declare its obvious status as a masterpiece overlooked, and to base one’s reading/thesis muddle in this hyperbole to act as an excavator amid the ruins of literature.
This is a possible, initial temptation, anyway; but typically proves inept.
In approaching Melville, one can see this enacted in critical blips here and there, or in the tendency of contemporary publishers to unearth obscure late-era texts ceremoniously; and while this has its place—the marketplace, logically, a notion to which Melville was no stranger—it frequently elides critical rigor and—though doubtless bolstering sales—does little to deepen, or widen understandings of a given scrivener’s work.
Pierre and his mother Glendinning seem content to exist in their brand of intimacy in a quasi-prestigious—though fleeting, one suspects—social standing steeped in history not only of a European conquest of their homeland, but of the Native lives that existed there previously.
Parallels then abound between England and America, the Old world and the New, and a key curiosity that seems straightforward enough, but when prodded opens up a possible keyhole into Melville’s narrative tendency.
Pierre as a name, then, or as a thing needing a name, and this relationship forever begetting tension, ambiguity, and a slippery sense of just what it is Melville hopes to impart to a reader.
And yet, read at least a layer deeper than Melville simply cataloguing family histories and genealogies, so that the phrase and moment—the work itself, perhaps, and all his work—refer as well to the vying of words to encapsulate their referents, we find a richness worthy its author.We assume sophistication teleologically when writers like Ronald Sukenick and co deconstruct the novel in the late 60s through to now because, as a public, we’ve heard no shortage of death knells for the novel form and thus our fiction ought to reflect such an aporia.Looking back, then, we assume any such whiffs of self-interrogation must be accidental, inadvertent, or mere larks in otherwise rounded, logical careers. Only sixty short (in literary terms, anyway) years after Melville’s heyday came the loomings of Joyce and Eliot, and from then forward fiction was constantly a dance between states of consciousness and reflection thought brilliant because their surrounding times seemed ready for it.Because insanity was deemed the inverse of bourgeois normativity and conservative moral standards, those categorized as mad in America during mid-1800s were institutionalized in reformed mental asylums, establishments which sought to homogenize human behavior through moral treatment.Both Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville drew upon the cultural construction of mental abnormality during their time and formulated mad characters that worked to destabilize the medical perceptions of madness as behavioral deviations from social normalcies, and instead portrayed madness as a pathological form of genius or knowledge.Looking back, however, and even way back to Gothic works such as is not mere luck or accident, but something to he treated with textual seriousness that’s thence been granted his more readily-accepted masterpieces.What matters in this parallel between the 1960s and 70s postmodern crowd and our requires a brief metalepsis: more recently the despair over the state of the novel and readerships has led to interrogations of the form, the enterprise of reading itself, within the given texts of certain authors; looking back, there is absolutely no difference between that contemporary public climate, and Melville’s -era internal climate, and thus both, in their respective ways, might be permitted to give rise to texts interrogating the textual; objects to read cynically imbued with questions about the very act of reading.Hot on the misanthropic coattails of Nietzsche, Melville’s tendency toward excess, toward logorrhea, might be read as a critique or exploration of the very words employed to explore.“So perfect to Pierre had long seemed the illuminated scroll of his life thus far, that only one hiatus was discoverable by him in that sweetly-writ manuscript”.Because of this, and because of my own disruptive interpretation of , this present critique will need be written.If Melville inadvertently anticipated postmodern works involving rambling treatises on their genesis by such as Calvino, Borges, or even the cinema of Godard or Charlie Kaufman—and we’re lucky here to have Leos Carax’s , and potential critical lens—why are we so pressed to think his achievement inadvertent?