Sunday, February 23, 2014

Herman Melville: Typee (revisited)

Mardi has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years, and I finally decided I'm going to read it. But first I wanted to re-read Typee and Omoo, since Mardi continues on from them.  This actually makes my third time through Typee;  not many books that aren't in my line of research have I read that many times.

It never fails to entertain, this book.  Even though the narrator's situation is static for most of the book, and the writing is given over to descriptions and ruminations of a naturalistical, anthropological, political, and almost philosophical nature, the book is always lively, vivid, and eminently readable.  Its aspirations to scholarship make it deeper than a mere sea-yarn, but it never loses its sea-yarn urgency.  A curious hybrid, Typee.

What struck me most this time through was how little time and energy Melville puts into convincing his readers that he was justified in jumping ship at Nukuheva.  It seems to have been common enough - even from the internal evidence of his narrative what he and Toby were doing was unusual but not unthinkable, and whalers short of men seemed to know they could pick some up among the deserters in the Pacific islands.  Nevertheless it's clear that Melville signed a paper saying he'd serve on his whaler, and he was breaking a contract by absconding;  he knew that if he was caught before his ship gave up looking for him that he'd be taken back by force, and that the French navy occupying parts of Nukuheva wouldn't consider it an injustice worth intervening in. 

He presents himself to us from the outset, then, as someone breaking faith with his employer and his shipmates.  So one might expect him to go to great lengths to justify his behavior.  And indeed he does mention the harsh discipline, short commons, and bleak prospects that obtained on his ship.  But all of this is dispensed with in a single, short chapter, most of which is taken up with general descriptions of the hardships of the whaler's life, as opposed to particular indictments of the Dolly and its officers.  All he really says in his own defense is that "in all contracts, if one party fail to perform his share of the compact, is not the other virtually absolved form his liability?"  I.e., he considered his captain to have been cruel and unfair enough to justify Melville in breaking his contract.  And he expects us to believe him, with only the most cursory of evidence.

I think Melville is willing to be seen as a deserter.  He could have made himself out a victim, but instead he lets us see him as someone who just runs away.  Which puts his adventure in the Typee valley into a new light, for me.  He's not presenting this as a series of tragedies (out of the whaler's frying pan into the cannibal's fire) so much as a choice that led to unexpected but not wholly negative consequences.

Because of course life among the Typee is presented as utopian:  it's an ideal society (except for the unpleasant custom of delectating upon ones defeated foes), and one perfectly hospitable to the narrator (except that they won't let him leave).  All of Melville's naturalistical, anthropological, political, and almost philosophical descriptions and ruminations are devoted to delineating this utopia.  And of course the pretense is that he found it by accident.  But the weak defense of his desertion suggests that on some level he is, and is willing to be seen by his readers as, someone who's looking for utopia, willing to find it here.

I think of Melville back home in New York, writing this book, conscious, as he must be conscious, that he's explicitly rejecting Euro-American civilization's claims of supremacy, and all the religious and military domination justified by those claims.  He must have been perfectly willing to define himself as an outsider in American polite society:  there's something pugnacious about this book.  And that starts with his desertion from the Dolly.  He's deserting American society and all its legal and ethical trappings when he deserts his ship.  He's willing to enter the noncivilized world and stay there for as long as it takes him to find something better - a better ship, ideally, but maybe a better society. 

Outsider status permeates every aspect of this book, though.  It starts with the narrator making himself an outsider to his ship's company by deserting them.  For the bulk of the book he's an outsider in Typee - as welcome as they make him, he never even contemplates the possibility that he might one day belong among them, even though late in the book he presents us with the specter of a Euro-American who has become naturalized into island society.  From the moment-of-narration standpoint, as one who has returned to America and elected to tell his tale, he's setting himself up as an outsider to those institutions (the missionary and military apparatus steadily spreading through the Pacific) he criticizes, and to the society whose values they epitomize.  But then isn't he already an outsider before he ever writes the book?  He's an educated man laboring on a whaler - he's a sailor capable of the most informed and refined reflections on his condition - and then he's a member of polite society who has been salted by life as a common sailor, and then life among the cannibals.  Nowhere has he fit in.  And he's fine with that.

The first move of Melville's literary career was one of desertion.