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Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (Penguin Classics) Paperback – January 1, 1996
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From the Back Cover
About the Author
Literary success soon faded; his complexity increasingly alienated readers. After a visit to the Holy Land in January 1857, he turned from writing prose fiction to poetry. In 1863, during the Civil War, he moved back to New York City, where from 1866-1885 he was a deputy inspector in the Custom House, and where, in 1891, he died. A draft of a final prose work, Billy Budd, Sailor, was left unfinished and uncollated, packed tidily away by his widow, where it remained until its rediscovery and publication in 1924.
William C. Spengemann is the Hale Professor in Arts and Sciences and Professor of English Emeritus at Dartmouth College. He edited the Penguin Classics edition of Nineteenth-Century American Poetry.
- Publisher : Penguin Classics; Reprint edition (January 1, 1996)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 416 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0140434844
- ISBN-13 : 978-0140434842
- Reading age : 18 years and up
- Item Weight : 11.8 ounces
- Dimensions : 7.7 x 5 x 0.9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #690,206 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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However, let’s look first at what Parker says in “A Note on the Text” (page xlvii): “Reclaiming the original Pierre means taking out any mention of Pierre as an author. Book-long deletions (Books XVII, XVIII, XXII) are indicated by three asterisks in square brackets. In Books XIX, XXI, XXIII, XXV, and XXVI, shorter deletions, from paragraphs to a few words, are also marked by three asterisks in square brackets. These notations guard against the illusion that this or any text can be exactly what Melville wrote.” Parker then goes on to note certain small emendations he has occasionally made to the text.
But where in Pierre (1852) is the Kraken that Melville had told his older and more famous friend Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) that he was writing about – the Kraken that Parker advertises in the subtitle of this 1995 edition of Melville’s 1852 novel? The Kraken are legendary sea monsters – reputedly more dangerous than the white whale featured in Melville’s 1851 novel. But his 1852 novel is not a sea story – it is a land story, so to speak, written with certain conventions of popular nineteenth-century sentimental and gothic novels. Those conventions would allow Melville to explore aspects of his psychological make-up that he could not have explored by writing another sea story. So is the Kraken the Anima archetype in Melville’s psyche – or perhaps both the Mother archetype and the Anima in his psyche – as Murray suggests (as we will see momentarily)?
Now, despite Parker’s references in his 1995 “Introduction” to Pierre as Melville’s Kraken book (e.g., pages xxi, xxvii, xxxv, and xlvi), Parker does not explicitly spell out what he thinks Melville may have meant by that boast in an 1851 letter to his older friend Hawthorne. However, like Murray (pages xix, lvi, and lxxxviii), Parker (page xlv-xlvi) singles out the Englishman E. L. Grant Watson for his detailed reading of Pierre in 1930. But Parker does not supply us with complete bibliographic information about Watson’s article – or about any other book or article he refers to in his “Introduction” – unlike Murray who provides footnotes.
Watson’s article “Melville’s Pierre” was published in the New England Quarterly, volume 3 (April 1930): pages 195-234. Incidentally, Watson subsequently published “Melville’s Treatment of Acceptance” in the New England Quarterly, volume 6 (June 1933): pages 319-327.
By the way, the 1995 Kraken edition of Melville’s Pierre is illustrated with Maurice Sendak’s “provocative and provoking pictures” (to quote Parker, page xlvi) – each of which is nicely printed on only one side of a page with the other side blank.
Now, in the second volume of Hershel Parker’s monumental two-volume Herman Melville: A Biography (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, pages 53-135), Parker recounts in far greater detail than he does in his 1995 “Introduction” to the Kraken edition the story of Melville’s volcanic wrath and ultimately self-defeating revenge after the hard-bargaining Harper brothers ruthlessly presented him with a humiliatingly unfavorable book contract to publish his new book Pierre, or, The Ambiguities that he couldn’t refuse if he wanted them to publish his new book. Because his most recent books had not sold well, Melville was not in a good bargaining position, and the Harpers knew that. He had no choice but to accept their unfavorable terms. However, in light of his eruption of volcanic wrath that followed, we also should consider his extraordinary (grandiose? megalomaniac?) sense of himself as a literary author – the author of the deep-diving novel Moby-Dick (1851), which was not a commercial success, to put it mildly, and of the deep-diving new novel Pierre, which did not strike the hard-bargaining Harpers as likely to sell well.
Now, as a young man, Herman Melville (1819-1891) went to sea as a sailor in 1841, because he had no obvious prospects for work on land. In 1842, Melville aboard the Acushnet visited the Marquesas Islands, where naked female swimmers greeted the ship. With Richard Tobias Greene, Melville deserted. He lived inland with the Typee tribe of cannibals for a time -- but lived to tell the English-speaking world about his experience in his book Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846).
But what impact did that extraordinary first-hand experience of cultural relativity, admittedly brief as it was, have on him? For example, did that experience decisively shift his ego-consciousness in such a way that subsequently marked his basic subjective inner orientation to life? If that experience did somehow mark his ego-consciousness decisively, how does one go about processing such a psychological significant experience? Or did that experience, in effect, set off a chain reaction in his psyche?
Melville’s books Typee (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847) had enabled him to emerge in the English-speaking world of book-readers in the late 1840s as a popular writer of adventure tales. On the strength of the sales of his books, he had persuaded Elizabeth (Lizzie) Knapp Shaw (1822-1906) to marry him in 1847.
But Melville’s subsequent books had not sold well. For example, the intellectually adventurous Mardi and A Voyage Thither (1849) was a flop in terms of sales. But this did not stop Melville from writing further books that did not sell well: Redburn: His First Voyage (1849) and White-Jacket, or, The World in a Man-of-War (1850) and Moby-Dick, or The Whale (1851). With such a miserable sales record, Melville had no choice but to accept the humiliatingly unfavorable book contract that the hard-bargaining Harper brothers offered him for the publication of Pierre.
By the way, for the purposes of investigating Melville’s life and writings relevant to his 1852 novel Pierre, the 2018 Norton Critical Edition of his 1851 novel Moby-Dick, edited by the indefatigable Hershel Parker contains indispensable related materials. In Parker’s “Preface” (pages xi-xv), he sounds understandably triumphant. However, in Parker’s essay “Damned by Dollars: Moby-Dick and the Price of Genius” (pages 617-631), he reminds us of certain grim aspects of Melville’s life – financial, health, marital, and family aspects. But for an astute analysis of Melville and Moby-Dick, see the 1995 edition of Edward F. Edinger’s short book Melville’s Moby-Dick: An American Nekyia (Toronto: Inner City Books; orig. ed. 1978).
Now, Melville was understandably monumentally infuriated by the Harpers’ humiliating book-contract offer – and by the reviewers he blamed for the disappointing sales of his books after Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847).
Therefore, in the spirit of Moby Dick, the great white whale in his most recent book (1851), Melville turned and attacked the Harpers and the book reviewers in the literary world with verbal fury in the new parts of the extraordinary melodrama of young Pierre that he then added to his new book, after he had signed the humiliating book contract.
Not surprisingly, reviewers of the expanded published version of Pierre (1852) were understandably critical of what appeared to them to be a book whose unity Melville failed to work out explicitly by revising the Kraken part to foreshadow and anticipate the new part he worked out in expressing his volcanic wrath.
Parker’s 1995 Kraken edition of Pierre is a reconstruction of the text that Melville had completed when he entered into negotiations with the hard-bargaining Harper brothers for the book’s publication. In other words, it is the shorter version of Pierre that is, in effect, basically included in all the longer versions of the book.
Now, the fatherless nineteen-year-old Pierre may in certain ways resemble the fatherless nineteen-year-old Herman Melville (in 1838), whose father had died when he was twelve (in 1832). When Melville was twenty (in 1839), he went to sea for the first time. Young Pierre’s widowed mother may in certain ways also resemble young Melville’s widowed mother. In addition, young Pierre’s beloved young Lucy may in certain ways resemble Melville’s wife (whom he married in 1847). Isabel may physically resemble a certain woman in Melville’s extended family, but the portrayal of Isabel is a product of Melville’s imagination under the influence of the Anima archetype in his collective unconscious (in Jungian terminology).
Later in the nineteenth century, the British novelist Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925) published the novel She (1887), which is arguably the most famous novel about the Anima in a man’s psyche.
To understand Melville’s 1851 novel Pierre, Henry A. Murray’s astute “Introduction” to the 1962 Hendricks House edition of Pierre, or, The Ambiguities (reprint of the 1949 ed., pages xiii-ciii), mentioned above, is our most helpful guide. Briefly, Murray sees the unwieldy novel unfolding in what he describes as three acts.
Act 1, covering roughly 1837-1840 in Melville’s life (before he went to sea the second time [late 1840-1843] and the third time [1843-1844]), begins with the beginning of the novel.
Act 2, covering roughly 1845-1847 in his life (when he courted and married his wife -- after he had gone to sea earlier and had returned to land and started writing Typee  and Omoo ), begins with the shift of attention to Isabel (the Anima figure).
Act 3, covering roughly 1850-1852 in Melville’s life (when he wrote Moby-Dick , met Hawthorne, and wrote the Kraken version of Pierre ), begins with Pierre and Isabel in New York City, where we meet a new character named Plotinus Plinlimmon. What a name, eh? Sounds like a lemon. But will Melville make lemonade with this lemon? Murray suggests that Melville is basing his portrayal of Plinlimmon on his friend Hawthorne (see esp. pages lxxvii and lxxviii).
But the entirety of what Murray refers to as Act 3 is exactly what Parker has omitted from the 1995 Kraken edition of Pierre.
Now, Murray also perceptively suggests that Hawthorne in The Blithedale Romance (1852) is, in effect, critiquing Melville through the character Hollingsworth, whom Murray characterizes as the villain of Hawthorne’s romance (see esp. pages lxxvi, lxxvii, lxxviii-lxxix, lxxxiii, and lxxxviii). Of course, it is likely that Hollingsworth is a composite figure, not a straightforward portrayal of Melville alone.
As Murray knew (page lxxviii), Melville later portrayed his then-deceased friend Hawthorne again in the character Vine in his long 1876 centennial poem Clarel. In the 1960 Hendricks House edition of Melville’s Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, edited by Walter E. Bezanson, Bezanson advanced his famous claim that Vine is based on Hawthorne (see esp. pages 548-549). Bezanson’s lengthy “Introduction” (pages ix-cxvii) and “The Characters: A Critical Index” (pages 529-549) are reprinted, slightly revised, as “Historical and Critical Note” (pages 505-613) and “A Critical Index of Characters” (pages 613-635) in the 1991 authoritative edition of Melville’s 1876 centennial poem, edited by Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Northwestern University Press and Newberry Library).
In other words, Murray faced the challenges posed by the 1852 published version of Pierre by focusing attention on Melville’s ego-consciousness and his psyche, with special attention on certain attachments in his life (except for his attachments during his years at sea).
Now, the British psychiatrist Dr. John Bowlby, M.D. (1907-1990), and others developed what is known as attachment theory. In the terminology of attachment theory, an infant and toddler may form an optimal secure attachment with his or her primary caregivers – but an infant and toddler may not form an optimal secure attachment. Because Melville’s sub-title signals the orientation of his 1852 novel, it is tempting to speculate that he did not form an optimal secure attachment bond as an infant and toddler, but what is known in attachment theory as an anxious-ambivalent attachment bond – perhaps with his mother.
However, in Jungian terminology, both the secure and the non-secure attachment patterns would all involve accessing the Mother archetype and the related Anima archetype – the archetypal patterns most relevant to Melville’s 1852 novel Pierre. Of course, both the secure and the non-secure attachment patterns would also involve the Father archetype that is central in Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick.
In any event, the other non-secure attachment patterns are known as avoidant attachment and dismissive-avoidant attachment and fearful-avoidant attachment. In the book Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper, 2007, esp. pages 199-204), the American psychiatrist Justin A. Frank, M.D., intimates that the fearful-avoidant pattern tends to orient the person toward accessing and expressing hate – which strikes me as what Melville portrays in Captain Ahab. Perhaps as an infant and toddler, Herman formed a fearful-avoidant attachment bond with his father – who later died in 1832 when Herman was twelve. However, as an infant and toddler, Herman most likely formed an anxious-ambivalent attachment bond with his mother.
But if we consider Melville holistically, even though he created Ahab, he does not himself seem to me to embody the hate that Dr. Frank links up with the fearful-avoidant pattern – nor does Hawthorne. Consequently, if we join Murray in seeing Melville as portraying Hawthorne as Plotinus Plinlimmon in the expanded version of Pierre and as Vine in Clarel, then we would have to adjudicate whether Melville is portraying Hawthorne as manifesting the avoidant attachment pattern or the dismissive-avoidant attachment pattern.
Now, Melville is undoubtedly exploring more deeply in his psyche in his 1852 novel than he did in his 1851 novel Moby-Dick – figuratively speaking, he is exploring the Kraken in his 1852 novel. But it is dangerous to explore such depths in one’s psyche, even if one processes one’s explorations by writing about them in novels. We should remember that Melville turned thirty-two in 1851, the year in which Moby-Dick was published, and thirty-three in 1852, the year in which Pierre was published. If we basically accept what Edinger and Murray say about Melville’s psychological explorations in Moby-Dick and Pierre, respectively, we should recognize that Melville was diving deep into his psyche and undertaking a dangerous exploration of his psychological depths – which we should take into account when we consider the eruption of his volcanic wrath after the hard-bargaining Harpers offered him such a humiliating book contract for Pierre.
Describing Pierre's library, Melville writes, "Uppermost and most conspicuous among the books were the Inferno of Dante, and the Hamlet of Shakespeare." They are also, it seems to me almost a superfluity to mention, the books Melville most had in mind whilst penning this odd, ponderous work. All comparison to other writers and works - including Melville's own - only hinder the reader.
The plot is indeed threadbare and trite, the dialogue is fusty and the narrative zigs and zags from extremity to extremity with no seeming order. - Actually, quoting Hamlet, "Seems, madam! Nay, it is;" - no real narrative thread to recount but that is tired and worn.
The significance and worth of the book is what transpires in Pierre's mind, just as Hamlet would be nothing without his soliloquies. But the work is emphatically NOT philosophical, as the term is commonly understood, "Plato, and Spinoza, and Goethe, and many more belong to this guild of self-impostors...those impostor philosophers pretend somehow to have got an answer; which is as absurd, as though they should say they had got water out of a stone; for how can a man get a Voice out of Silence?" I suppose the word to describe it is psychological or epistemological, but it is the dark psychology of the Inferno and the epistemology of the doomed Dane.
Everything in the perceptible world is indeed vertiginously ambiguous. As Pierre meditates in the early goings:
"Not immediately, not for a long time, could Pierre fully, or by any approximation, realize the scene which he had just departed. But the vague revelation was now in him, that the visible world, some of which before had seemed but too common and prosaic to him, and but too intelligible, he now vaguely felt, that all the world, and every misconceivedly common and prosaic thing in it, was steeped a million fathoms in a mysteriousness hopeless of solution." In other words, Pierre discovers that he lives in a world of ambiguities so disorienting that coming to any sort of terms with it or its inhabitants is a lost, hopeless endeavour.
The book is essentially a recounting of the soul plagued and blessed by intimations of another, spiritual realm and the loss of anything that measures up to them in what becomes, by the end of the book, an Inferno of ambiguities which our wildered 19th Century Hamlet is more than happy to depart.
I do not say that the book measures up in its execution to the two works from which it takes its theme. The wonder is that the theme of our precarious position in this shape-shifting world is braved at all.
Admittedly, "Pierre" is very odd for a mid-nineteenth-century work -- so odd, in fact, that I'm surprised anyone even agreed to publish it. It starts out as a gothic but then about mid-way becomes a loose mixture of satire and philosophy, in much the same way that "Mardi" suddenly changes from seafaring adventure to satire/allegory. But throughout the book we find Melville's sharp insights and unique turns of phrase, while getting a view of 1850s America that's unique, to say the least.
Penguin's Kindle edition of "Pierre" has very few typos and includes a linked table of contents, a good critical introduction, and helpful explanatory endnotes. For some reason, however, the endnotes are not linked or even indicated in the text. This oversight is hard to excuse, since Penguin charges top dollar for its Kindle editions.
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Parvenu à un certain stade de son roman, il me paraît impossible de croire que Melville n'ait pas su que son projet initial était mort et qu'il était en train d'accoucher d'un monstre littéraire. Il le laisse entendre d'ailleurs assez clairement en parlant par la bouche de son héros, ventriloquisme dont il est coutumier, ou par un de ces commentaires de texte dont il n'est pas avare au cours du roman. En réalité le destin de son livre est le même que celui de Pierre et il ne fait guère de doute que Melville est le premier à le deviner.
En théorie et selon les principes de toute bonne règle littéraire, ce roman devrait être impossible à aimer, impossible même à lire jusqu'à la fin. Voici, pour ce qui me concerne, les dix-sept raison qui font que ce roman aurait dû me tomber des mains (mais il n'est jamais tombé) :
- le style : hétéroclite, compliqué, désordonné (il faut le lire dans la version originale pour “admirer” ces phrases en forme de puzzle où le labeur de remettre les mots à leur place naturelle vous fait souvent perdre le sens de ce que vous êtes en train de lire), enflé qui plus est par une rhétorique monstrueuse et omniprésente,
- la psychologie fantastique des personnages face à certains événements (et c'est bien un des domaines où le fantastique a le moins sa place),
- le goût immodéré de Melville pour l'allégorie : on le savait déjà,
- Les digressions incessantes : si on les enlevait, il ne resterait qu'un quart du livre, et encore…
- les commentaires de texte dans le texte : je déteste ça,
- les essais philosophiques et/ou métaphysiques inclus dans la narration : ça aussi, je déteste,
- l'auteur qui est à certains moments son héros et qui ne l'est plus du tout à d'autres, ce qui crée des effets pour le moins bizarres, que je ne peux comparer qu'à certains mauvais rêves où on est parfois l'acteur et parfois le spectateur, mais jamais les deux à la fois,
- le narrateur omniscient ou complètement ignorant selon l'intérêt bien compris de l'auteur
- les "forgeries" de l'auteur : des expressions ou locutions brèves que personne semble-t-il n'est capable de comprendre, même après un siècle et demi d'études érudites,
- dans le même esprit, des références nombreuses à des événements ou des personnages censément célèbres mais dont personne n'a gardé trace (il est possible que ce soit encore des inventions de l'auteur),
- le mélo le plus débridé, que dis-je, le plus délirant,
- l'inceste : peut-être l'idée la plus bizarre de tout le roman (car il ne fait aucun doute, malgré l'ellipse victorienne, que la première chose que font le frère et la sœur, à peine réunis et mariés pour de faux est de se sauter dessus l'un l'autre ; voir les aberrations psychologiques dont je parlais plus haut ; l'idée même de se marier avec sa sœur bâtarde, tout en ne se mariant pas vraiment, pour lui donner le statut social auquel elle aurait droit est une idée incroyablement saugrenue et totalement improductive, surtout dans le contexte d'une Amérique puritaine,
- les ellipses outrancières : je n'ai rien contre l'ellipse en principe mais dans le cas de Melville, je ne sais pas si on peut encore parler d'ellipse : l'histoire s'arrête ici et reprend là sans solution de continuité claire pour le lecteur, une fois encore, un peu comme dans certains rêves,
- les mystères irrésolus : je ne suis pas de ceux qui aiment les mystères que l'auteur résout au prix d'explications aussi laborieuses que superflues lors des cinquante dernières pages de son roman ; néanmoins par loyauté envers le lecteur, il ne semble pas excessif d'attendre de l'auteur qu'il nous donne quelques pistes, quelques indices, quelques clés au détour d'une page pour percer quelques-unes de ses énigmes les plus haletantes ; Melville ne fournit rien de la sorte ; il est possible, en fait, pour ne pas dire probable, que Melville n'en sache pas plus que le lecteur,
- sa désinvolture : je ne sais pas si on peut vraiment parler de désinvolture pour un livre aussi soigneusement écrit, pensé, pesé, conscient de lui-même ; mais c'est l'impression qu'il peut donner.
Voilà, j'ai donné toutes les raisons pour lesquelles je ne saurais aimer un tel livre. Mais je n'ai pas donné celle, l'unique, pour laquelle je l'aime. Pour une raison très simple : je n'en ai toujours aucune idée.