Friday, April 1, 2011

Meville and Domination

Revision of Melville’s take on We, Civilized Folk: (2/26/2011).

What is dominance? Is it a lack of freedom, or more commonly accepted, the opposite of liberty? Well, according to Hobbes, Liberty is the absence of opposition (1651). That logic creates the familiar idea that dominance is the existence of compliance – the mass’s compliance. So, liberty and justice for all then, right? Justice distributed by a court system founded on the very same government that has told us to “live and die rationally and productively…business must go on” (Marcuse 1964). – I digress.

More to the point, Hobbes defines Dominion as “the [authority] of possession” (1651). Marcuse defines dominance in advanced civilizations as a dependence on economic and market laws (1964). There is a continued and perverse presence of domination in all of Melville’s books – the portrayal of which paints a horrifying picture of how we’ve lost our humanity to the goals of society. Furthermore, it is the savages and cannibals of the old world that are liberated, not us – not the one-dimensional society. Melville could never simply state anything as straightforward as that, but it’s in there.

Typee, chapter three; a militant take-over by the French Navy on the small island, Nukuheva, demonstrates the use of force that Western powers have become known for, “Four heavy, doublebanked frigates and three corvettes to frighten a parcel of naked heathen into subjection! Sixty-eight pounders to demolish huts of cocoanut boughs, and Congreve rockets to set on fire a few canoe sheds!” (1846). Like most Eurpean/American Imperialists of the era, this Francaise army brandishes firepower capable of destroying its target ten times over. What is going on here? Carnally, French expansion has set its rocket-sights on an ignorant tribe that’s armed to their filed teeth – with spears. Let’s suppose that this powder keg erupts into violence. The blatant one-sidedness permits an assumption that the navy will win and the soldiers will celebrate their “victory”. They celebrate, not because their country has just amassed millions of francs in exports from the ensuing resource binge of the island, they celebrate because they faced and withstood the perpetuated danger that their government has assigned them; tomorrow they will press inland to further that assignment and make France richer, bigger, and better (Marcuse). They will callously rape, kill, and loot the indigenous just because they were told so. That’s progress. You know where else you can find progress? Eliot does:

Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet (1922).

Progress breeds greed. To get more Loose­-Fish one must throw his barbed harpoon into whatever thing he wants; achieve dominance. This lust is the push behind the French militants that plan on sacking Typee. Lust for dominance (and a failure to attain it) was the motive for such atrocities “committed by Capt. David Porter and his men from the U.S. frigate Essex who some years earlier attempted unsuccessfully to subjugate the Typees” (Adler 1981). En route – in retreat – the invaders “[set] fire to every house and temple” on their way back to the sea (Typee). Ahab handles rejection/resistance much the same way.

To include The Pequod in this set of ideas, it is important to understand that militancy and force, while a forefront theme in Typee and Marcuse, it is not the only way in which Melville portrays Dominion. “War imagery characterizes not only these scenes of battle with [Moby Dick] but all portrayals of ship and crew; roles and relationships; of goals, machinery, and methods” (Adler 1981). A scene that truly draws lines in the sands and defines relationships is Ahab’s humiliation of Stubbs. Whalers, being “chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways”, do not typically stand for such things as “Below to thy nighty grave; where such as ye sleep between shroud, to use ye to the filling one at last. – Down, dog, and kennel!’” (Melville 1851). Without a hint of exaggeration, I would say the blast of that demand equals the firepower of all the war ships of the Marine Francaise. Ahab exerts a mental advantage over the uneducated and submissive members of the crew and uses to this his ends. Just as with the French’s exploitation of a weaker, less advanced tribe, Melville develops a theme that with great power is a great tendency to abuse it. The goal of implementing dominance is of course, an end. It’s of no surprise that the crew is subjected to mental annihilation in the face of the peg-legged Xerxes and then become the soldiers to which he will wage his doomed war with. “This is the pure form of servitude: to exist as an instrument, as a thing” (Marcuse 1964). As Marcuse enters, we have to wonder whose side Ahab is on – the machine’s or his own. It is quite clear that Starbuck (given his name presumably from the great whaling family) represents capitalism, which aligns him with the owners of the ship and profiteering. Having said that, Ahab and Starbuck clash quite often, most importantly when Ahab exposes his true intentions for the voyage. So Ahab is on his own side and in complete control, separated from economic pressures, and supported by a willing (though coerced) mass. He is a the “conqueror and martial commander”; he is the warlord; he is every bit a madman, but he is dominant (Adler 1981).

There were no kings or captains or cities in Nukuheva. There was no corruption and there was no crime. The opportunity cost – I, too, fall prey to the system’s economic mindset – of progress: peace.

Civilization does not engross all the virtues of humanity: she has not even her full share of them. They flourish in greater abundance and attain greater strength among many barbarous people. The hospitality of the wild Arab, the courage of the North American Indian, and the faithful friendship of some of the Polynesian nations, far surpass anything of a similar kind among the polished communities of Europe. If truth and justice, and the better principles of our nature, cannot exist unless enforced by the statute-book, how are we to account for the social condition of the Typees? So pure and upright were they in all the relations of life, that entering their valley, as I did, under the most erroneous impressions of their character, I was soon led to exclaim in amazement: 'Are these the ferocious savages, the blood-thirsty cannibals of whom I have heard such frightful tales! They deal more kindly with each other, and are more humane than many who study essays on virtue and benevolence, and who repeat every night that beautiful prayer breathed first by the lips of the divine and gentle Jesus.'

Excerpt from Typee 1846

Melville is adamant about showing us the raw passion that those called savages have kept while we toil away all such feeling to the wind. Queequeg is a constant source of praise and admiration of Ishmael – whom speaks truth as the story’s narrator. “There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits” (Melville 1851). I go out on a limb when I perceive the symbolism of an entire aspect of all his works, but Melville envies the tribes of Nukuheva, Queeqeq, and Babo. Their state of mind and soul is the ideal state. Ishmael, amid the chaos and death, is saved by his lover’s coffin after transcribing the religious mapping of Queeqeg’s people onto the entirety of his own body. And I alone am escaped to tell thee (Job 1:15). Ishmael has been saved by divinity and bares a message of what good is left in the world – but more pressing, how fast it is being destroyed by the ever-spreading tide of a “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom”; the like of which does not stop at submission; it presses on until it attains complete dominance. The people of what we call third-world countries are the lucky ones. They are not subject to the oppression that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is fueled by. It is interesting to note that Melville makes his admiration and curiosity quite obvious:

“To all appearance there were no courts of law or equity. There was no municipal police for the purpose of apprehending vagrants and disorderly characters. In short, there were no legal provisions whatever for the well-being and conservation of society, the enlightened end of civilized legislation. And yet everything went on in the valley with a harmony and smoothness unparalleled, I will venture to assert, in the most select, refined, and pious associations of mortals in Christendom. How are we to explain this enigma? These islanders were heathens! savages! ay, cannibals! and how came they without the aid of established law, to exhibit, in so eminent a degree, that social order which is the greatest blessing and highest pride of the social state?”

Excerpt from Typee 1846

This utopia is something Melville and Marcuse both show considerable interest in, but Hobbes makes one his brilliant and logic connections when he says, “Where there is no common Power, there is no Law: no Law, no Injustice” (1651). I think the most sad aspect of the differences between those dominated by the imperialistic military/political forces of advancing nations across the globe and those that are working in the cogs of those machines, is “consciousness of servitude” that Marcuse makes note of (1964). The essence of the idea is this: one cannot escape from something that they unaware of. The people of Nukuheva; they were free; their way of life was that of perfect harmony. When that is crushed and burned, the pain and loss, not only to survivors, but to world; for some of this dwindling good is lost; this is a permanent loss. Queeqeg was living for the prevention of this tragedy, being “actuated by a profound desire to learn among the Christians” as to save his people, like the Czar Peter (Melville 1851).

It is truly a shame that the power the machine has been building and exerting is so strong. While Marcuse and Melville offer escapes from this things we call life, the truth is, the system gets stronger the more we perpetuate it. Things don’t get better. I'll see you at work tomorrow.

“The condition of man . . . is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”

-Thomas Hobbes

Melville, Herman. Typee: A Romance of the South Sea (eBook). The Project Gutenberg.


Melvill, Herman. Moby Dick or the Whale. New York, New York: Crown Publishers. 1987.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press: 1964.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. 1651.

Adler, Joyce. War in Melville’s Imagination. New York: New York University Press, 1981

1 comment:

  1. The second full-length biography of Melville to be published was Lewis Mumford's *Herman Melville*. Mumford, incidentally, was an important influence on Marcuse (keep that in mind), and wrote a number of books that would, or will, keep you up nights - try the Myth of the Machine for starters. Anyway, his biography is so obsessive, and he's so thoroughly identified with Melville, that he does this weird thing where he kind of slant-plagiarizes, seamlessly mixing Melville's words with his own - it's an odd book and an odd effect.

    Minus the actual slant-plagiarism, I feel some of that effect here. You synthesize so well - drawing connection after connection between Marcuse and Melville, with Adler's extraordinary and under-appreciated book always in the background. Melville and Marcuse slip and blur together (with, unknown to you, Mumford perhaps standing between them).

    That extraordinary effect, which has great rhetorical force, has a flip side, of course - it can be hard to distinguish your voice and your agenda. At the end, I decide that you don't have one: you're adopting a synthesis of Mumford and Melville *as* your voice, with a nihilistic emphasis.

    I'd never deny that voice, especially since it reminds me of my own, and I thoroughly endorse much of what you're doing here - your use of Adler, your good understanding of Typee, your initial grappling with Hobbes (that could use some work). I have some nitpicks - I think you're sloppy with dominion vs. domination which aren't, after all, precisely the same thing.

    What I yearned for though, was some kind of voice talking back - a counterargument, perhaps - perhaps a voice from the machine (perhaps making the case for the Machine against, say, Queequeg's people; say what you will about America, our babies rarely die in infancy!), or perhaps a more moderate or mixed voice from within Melville or Marcuse.

    In other words, you understand, capture, and echo Melville, Marcuse and Adler ably - but perhaps this would be improved by being more multi-voiced (heteroglossia is a word I hope to use on you some time, to explain more of what I mean).