Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Melville in Typee by D.H.Lawrence

Melville hated the world: was born hating it. But he was looking for heaven. That is, choosingly. Choosingly he was looking for paradise. Unchoosingly, he was mad with hatred of the world.

Well, the world is hateful. It is as hateful as Melville found it. He was not wrong in hating the world. Dalenta est Chicago. He hated it to a pitch of madness, and not without good reason.

But it is no good persisting in looking for paradise  ‘regained’.

Melville at his best invariably wrote from some sort of  dream self, so that events which he relates as actual fact have indeed a far deeper reference to his own soul, his own inner life.

So in Typee when he tells of his entry into the valley of the dread cannibals of Nukuheva. Down this narrow , steep, horrible dark gorger he slides and struggles as we struggle in a dream, or in the Act of birth, to emerge in the green Eden of the Golden Age, the valley of the cannibal savages. This is a bit of the birth-myth, or re-birth myth, on Melville’s part-unconscious, no doubt, because his running under-consciousness was always mystical and symbolic. He wasn’t aware that he was being mystical.

There he is then, in Typee, among the dreaded cannibal savages. And they are  gentle and  and generous with him, And he is truly in a sort of Eden.

Here at last is Rousseau’s Child of Nature and Chateaubriand’s Noble Savage called upon and found at home. Yes, Melville loves his savage hosts. He finds then gentle, laughing lambs compared to the ravening wolves of his white brothers, left behind in America and on the American whaleship.

The ugliest beast on the earth is the white man, says Melville.

In short, Herman  found in Typee the paradise he was looking for. It is true, the Marquesans were “immoral”, but he rather liked that. Morality was too white a trick to take him in,. Then again, they were cannibals. And it filled him with horror to think of this. But the savages were very private and even fiercely reserved in their cannibalism and he might have spared himself his shudder. No doubt he had partaken of the Christian Sacraments many a time. “This is my body, take and eat. This is my blood. Drink it in remembrance of me.” And if the savages like to partake of their sacrament without raising the transubstantiation quibble, and if they liked to say directly: “This is thy body, which  I take from thee and eat. This is thy blood, which I sip in annihilation of thee”, why surely their sacred ceremony was as awe-inspiring as the one Jesus substituted. But Herman chose to be horrified. I confess, I am not horrified; though, of course, I am not on the spot. But the savage sacrament seems to me more valid than the Christian: less side-tracking about it,. Thirdly, he was shocked by their wild methods of warfare. He died before the great European war, so his shock was comfortable.

Three little quibbles: morality, cannibal sacrament, and stone axes. You must have a fly even in Paradisal ointment. And the first was a ladybird.

But Paradise. He insisted upon it. Paradise. He could even go stark naked, as before the Apple episode. And his Fayaway, and laughing little Eve, naked with him, and hankering after no apple of knowledge, so long as he would just lover her when he felt like it. Plenty to eat, needing no clothes to wear, sunny, happy people, sweet water to swim in: everything that a man can want. Then why wasn’t he happy along with the savages?

Because he wasn’t.

He grizzled in secret, and wanted to escape.

He even pined for Home and Mother, the two things he had run away from as far as ships could carry him. Home and Mother. The two things that were his damnation.

There on the island, where the golden-green great palm trees chinked the sun, and the elegant reed houses let the sea-breeze through, and peoplde went naked and laughed a great deal, and Fayaway put flowers in his hair for him – great red hibiscus flowers, and frangipani – O God, why wasn’t he happy. Why wasn’t he?

Because he wasn’t.

Well, it’s hard to make a man happy.

But I should not have been happy either. One’s soul seems under a vacuum, in the South Seas.

The truth of the matter is, one cannot go back. Some men can: renegade. But Melville couldn’t go back: and Gauguin couldn’t really go back: and I know now that I could never go back. Back towards. Back towards the past, savage life. One cannot go back. It is one’s destiny inside one.

There are these peoples, these “savages”. One does not despise them. One does not feel superior. But there is a gulf. There is a gulf in time and being. I cannot comingle my being with theirs.

There they are, these South Sea Islanders, beautiful big men with their golden limbs and their laughing, graceful laziness. And they will call you brother, choose you as a brother. But why cannot one truly be brother?

There isan invisible hand that grasps my heart and prevents it opening too much to these strangers. They are beautiful, they are like children, they are generous: but they are more than this. They are far off, and in their eyes is an easy darkness of the soft, uncreate past. In a way, they are uncreate. Far be it from me to assume any “white” superiority. But they are savages. They are gentle and laughing and physically very handsome. But it seems to me, that in living so far, through all our bitter centuries of civilization, we have still been living onwards, forwards. God knows it looks like a cul de sac now. But turn to the first negro, and listen to your own soul. And your own soul will tell you that however false and foul our forms and systems are now, still, through the many centuries since Egypt, we have been living and struggling forwards along some road that is no road, and yet is a great life development. We have struggled on, and on we must still go. We may have to smash things. Then let us smash. And our road may have to take a great swerve, that seems a retrogression.

But we can’t go back. Whatever else the South Sea Islander is, he is centuries and centuries behind us in the life-struggle, the consciousness struggle, the struggle of the soul into fullness. There is his woman, with her knotted hair and her dark, inchoate, slightly sardonic eyes. I like her, she is nice. But I would never want to touch her. I could not go back on myself so far. Back to their uncreate condition.

She has soft warm flesh, like warm mud. Nearer the reptile, the Saurian age. Noli me tangere.

We can’t go back. WE can’t go back to the savages: not a stride. WE an be in sympathy with them. We can take a great curve in their direction, onwards. But we cannot turn the current of our life backwards, back towards their soft warm twilight and uncreate mud. Not for a moment. If we do it for a moment, it makes us sick.

We can only do it when we are renegade. The renegade hates life itself. He wants the death of life. So these many ‘reformers” and “idealists” who glorify the savages in America. They are death-birds, life haters. Renegades.

We can’t go back, and Melville couldn’t. Much as he hated the humanity he knew. He couldn’t go back to the savages, he wanted to, he tried to, and he couldn’t.

Because, in the first place, it made him sick; it made him physically ill. He had something wrong with his leg, and this would not heal. It got worse and worse, during his four months on the island. When he escaped, he was in a deplorable condition – sick and miserable, ill, very ill.


But there you are. Try to go back to the savages, and you feel as if your very soul was decomposing inside you. That is what you feel in the South Seas, anyhow: as if your soul was decomposing inside you. And with any savages the same, if you try to go their way, take their current of sympathy.

Yet, as I ay, we must make a great swerve in our onward-going-life-course now, to gather up again the savage mysteries. But this does not mean going back on ourselves.

Going back to the savages made Melville sicker than anything. It made him feel as if he were decomposing. Worse even than Home and Mother.

Ad that is what really happens. If you prostitute your psyche by returning to the savages, you gradually go to pieces. Before you can go back, you have to decompose. And a white man decomposing is a ghastly sight. Even Melville in Typee.

WE have to go on, on, on, even if we must smash our way ahead.

So Melville escaped, and he threw a boat-hook full in the throat of one of his dearest savage friends, and sank him, because the savage was swimming in pursuit. That’s how he felt about the savages when they wanted to detain him. He’d have murdered them one an all, vividly, rather than be kept from escaping. Away from them – he must get away from them – at any price.

And once he had escaped, immediately he begins to sigh and pine for the “Paradise” – Home and Mother being at the other end of his whaling voyage.

When he was really Home with Mother, he found it Purgatory. But Typee must have been even worse than Purgatory, a soft hell, judging from the murderous frenzy which possessed him to escape.

But once aboard the whaler that carried him off from, Nukuheva, he looked back and sighed for the Paradis he had just escaped from in such a fever.

Poor Melville! He was determined Paradise existed. So he was always in Purgatory.

He was born for Purgatory. Some souls are  purgatorial by destiny.

The very freedom of his Typee was a torture to him. Its ease was slowly horrible to him. This time he was the fly in the odorous tropical ointment.

He needed to fight,. It was no good to him, the relaxation of the non-moral tropics. He really didn’t want Eden. He wanted to fight. Like every American. To fight. But with the weapons of the spirit, not the flesh.

That was the top and bottom of it. His soul was in revolt, writhing forever in revolt. When he had something definite to rebel against – like the bad conditions on a whaling ship – then he was much happing his miseries. The mills of God were grinding inside him, and they needed top grind on.

When they could grind on the injustice and folly of the missionaries, or of brutal sea-captains, or of governments, he was easier. The mills of God were grinding  inside him.

They are grinding inside of every American. And they grind exceedingly small.

Why? Heaven knows. But we have got to grind down our old forms, our old selves, grind them very small, to nothingness. Whether a new something will ever start, who knows? Meanwhile the mills of God grind on, in American Melville, and it was himself he ground small” himself and his wife, when he was married. For the present, the South Seas.

He escapes on to the craziest, most impossible whaling ships. Luckily for us Melville makes it fantastic. It must have been pretty sordid.

And anyhow, on the crazy Julia, his leg, that would never heal on Typee, began quickly to get well. His life was falling into its normal pulse. The drain back into the past centuries was over.

Yet, oh, as he sails away from Nukuheva, on the voyage that will ultimately take him to America, oh, the acute and intolerable nostalgia he feels for the island he has left.

The past, the Golden Age of the past – what a nostalgia we all feel for it. Yet we don’t want it when we get it. Try the South Seas.

Melville had to fight, fight against the existing world. Against his very own self. Only he could never quite put the knife in the heart of his paradisal ideal. Somehow, somewhere, somewhen, love should be a fulfilment, and life should be a thing of bliss. That was his fixed ideal. Fata Morgana.

That was the pin  he tortured himself with. Life is never a thing of continuous bliss. There is no paradise. Fight and laugh and feel bitter and feel bliss: and fight again. Fight, fight. That is life.

Why pin ourselves down on a paradisal ideal? It is only ourselves we torture.

Melville did have one great experience, getting away from humanity: the experience of the sea.

The South Sea Islands were not his great experience. They were a glamorous world outside New England. Outside. But it was the sea that was both outside and inside: the universal experience.

1 comment:

  1. What should I say? The book is racist, misogynist, even xenophobic. Perhaps its presentation should be prefaced with a 'trigger warning', curriculum vitae in the study of such things in the canon of English Literature. And my friend, my god, Melville on Typee, am or was I not also this character, another New English madman, just so?
    It's not that simple.
    People say they want to understand the tragedy of Orlando. But can they go all the way down, see 'the top and bottom of it'? Lawrence does, here: figuralitas, a universal mime, representations that reach forward from the past and land precisely here, now, right on our doorsteps.
    "He’d have murdered them one an all, vividly, rather than be kept from escaping. Away from them – he must get away from them – at any price."
    Do not talk about the criminal. Mailer showed us the trap- Jack Abbot. But like Gilmore, Mateen is dead, I will not unleash him to kill again, only kill myself. This is not for you to 'like', I do not want you to like it. The liked ones are my inferior works, usually.
    Love the victims, the heroes who cling still to Paradise, not like the monster, the troublesome genius, Lawrence. Go on, frame it as a moment in the campaign, as a matter of choice in the next election. Whose half-truth is better? I will not, I cannot blame you for that. How could I? I would not have you blame me.
    Oh, there's butter on Lawrence's bread all right, but he spreads it thin. Perhaps it would be better to ban it altogether, 'hate speech'. OK, we are civilized now, a cultured people, we have 'moved onward', best not dwell in the past, the fight will be over, paradise will be regained, soon. The midwife of the American humunculus is boiling the water and winding the sheets just now.