Melville’s Typee (1846) and the Case for Civilization

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Herman Melville (1819 – 1891)

My subject is Herman Melville, and more specifically Melville’s case for civilization, but I would like to approach his Typee (1846), where he makes that case, through a preamble having to do with the figure against whose arguments Melville stakes his own: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778).

I. There is a shadow-side in the Western tradition that takes the form of a recurrent rebellion against reality. Already in the early Fourth century BC Plato identified an impulse arising from the matrix of civilized life that is wildly uncivilized and which expresses itself, in animosity that can be either generalized or narrowly focused, against civic order, technical achievement, and social distinctions arising out of a consensual recognition of merit. In Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, the character named Callicles complains that the rule of law is tyrannical because it places restraints on strength and ambition and so protects the “weak,” as he terms them, from the “strong,” among whom he imagines himself.  When the weak dominate the strong, Callicles argues, nature herself is offended because under her order the reverse is naturally the case.  Nature, not culture, provides the authentic template of existence.  When Socrates points out the verbal flimsiness of Callicles’ syllogism – that it juggles rather too freely with the terms strong and weak and sneakily makes the case for the tyranny against which it lodges its complaint – Callicles accuses his critic of thinking too much.  Callicles warns Socrates that finding logical fault with people will land the philosopher in trouble.  Perhaps someday it will cost him his life.

At the heart of Callicles’ pathology stands his aversion to reason and commonsense.  Callicles’ denunciation of the civilized order stems from this aversion because it is the polity, as an expression of reason and commonsense – that is to say of human self-knowledge – that restrains his libido and forces him to respect the rights of others.  When someone like Callicles determines to rise to power, he must begin by disarming reason and commonsense – he must evade human self-knowledge.  He must also persuade others to join him in his distortion both of human reality and moral perception.  A ritualistic, magical character pervades such activity, linking it to archaic, pre-civilized practices.

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Poe and his Frenchmen and Baudelaire and his Americans

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Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867): Successor of Joseph de Maistre

The spectacle of decadence has appealed to poets since the time of Juvenal, the heyday of whose authorship came early in the Second Century AD.  The hypertrophy and grotesquery of the Imperial City thus provide the background for Juvenal’s remarkable Satires, which presciently mirror the cultural degeneracy of the early Twenty-First Century’s civic scene, quite as well as they do for that of their own Latinate-Imperial milieu.   Did Juvenal’s eyes witness him the Urbs on the Tiber or the City by the Bay?  Is he writing about Rome’s Stoic salons or UC Berkeley’s Philosophy Department during the visiting professorship of Michel Foucault or again about the disintegration of the humanities departments generally under Deconstruction?  “Infection spread this plague, / and will spread it further still… You will be taken up, over time / by a very queer brotherhood,” as Juvenal writes.  Rome had its mysteries two thousand years ago, but then so does West Hollywood today: “You’ll see one initiate busy with an eyebrow pencil [while] a second sips his wine / from a big glass phallus, his long luxuriant curls / caught up in a golden hairnet.”  Nor is the modern milieu less free than Rome was under Domitian, say, or Hadrian, of secret police, informers, and goon-squads.  A ready inclination to cry lèse majesté belongs to the ripeness of a politically and culturally corrupt scene.  So too do the insipidity of literature and the jejuneness of art.

Juvenal’s scathing wit, which approximates the metaphysical, has exercised its influence down through the centuries, the satirist’s spirit being noticeable, for example, in Samuel Johnson’s “London” (1738), which the learned doctor patterns after Satire III, and in contemporaneous prose passages from Jonathan Swift.  The “City” passages of T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land owe a debt to Juvenal, including the allusions to gross homosexual solicitation.  To invoke Eliot, however, is to invoke Eliot’s models, the French Symbolist poets, who took their vision from the eldest of them, their spiritual father as it were, Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867).  That keen-eyed king of flâneurs knew his Juvenal well, as he knew literature well, all of it.  Concerning Baudelaire’s prose poem “Portrait of a Mistress,” for example, Rosemary Boyd in her study of the poet (2008) remarks that the “Portrait” reads like an “urbane version of Juvenal’s sixth satire, with its attacks on women and its suggestion that a perfect wife, that rara avis, would prove not just tedious but infuriating in her ability to show up the faults of her husband.”

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