February 26, 2006

Pictures of Myself; Or, The Ambiguities

In front of me lies a copy of Melville’s forgotten novel, Pierre; Or, The Ambiguities - among other objects, of course. This edition, checked out today from the Cornell University Library, contains a host of dirty illustrations by Maurice Sendak (of Where the Wild Things Are fame), every one of which accentuates the sexual regions of the subjects, & not subtly. The titular character wears a red cape & a monochrome blue onesy, every perfect muscle exaggerated thru the clothes like a Blake Illumination. As Melville lovers love to find innuendos in his books, there is much hidden sexual content, sometimes repressed, sometimes easily extracted from ambiguous imagery (“the waves curling & hissing around us like the erected crests of enraged serpents.” -Moby-Dick), sometimes blatant. I’ve only heard one Sendak scholar give a lecture, at a Lewis Carroll Society conference in Princeton, & he spoke at length about these series of dirty cartoons of Alice, which looked to me more like doodles, where she’s screwing the rabbit, &c.; then he set to a Freudian reading of Higglety Pigglety Pop!

Pierre so far has a lot for Sendak to be Freudian about. Pierre doesn’t have a sister, so he insists on calling his widowed mother “Sister Mary”, & they have quite a flirtatious relationship. She, in return, much admires her own beauty in his. (Later, after much meditation on his father’s nature, he realizes that he is his father... see the quote at the end of this posting.) Pierre is affianced to a gay little blonde named Lucy, & his life seems to be on track, but he keeps thinking about this face he once saw. (In typical Melvillian psychology, fifty or so rambling & excited pages are devoted to the nature of obsession.) The face in question is a girl’s, full of haunting, lovely sorrow (“...he seemed to see the fair ground where Anguish had contended with Beauty, & neither being conqueror, both laid down on the field.”) Of course, the reader thinks he must have some dark crush on her, but then he receives a letter from her in which she admits to being his cursed bastard sister. Of course, his obsession is somehow rooted in the mysteries of ancestry, already a prominent theme in many of Melville’s tangents. The bachelor life of one’s father is one of those existential impossibilities, failures of the imagination to know the truth, like Shakespeare’s Leontes on the impossibility of inalienable certainty that you are the biological father of your children.

Anyway, Pierre then unravels the mystery in his mind, based on what little he knows of his father. The are two portraits of his father, one large public one which his mother prefers, & another one which, because of her dislike, Pierre keeps hidden in his closet. There is something mysteriously ambiguous about it, & his aunt told Pierre her brother was tricked into sitting for it, back in the days when he was courting this French girl whom the town thought below his marrying. His artist cousin had pretended to be painting something else whilst the elder Pierre told of his exploits. & altho his mother probably never knew the story of the picture; hence, why she didn’t think it was a very good likeness of him - she never saw that side of his face! Why, Aunt Dorothea, did he initially resist being painted?

[The artist Cousin Ralph] “‘used to tell me, that being in your father’s room some few days after the last scene I described, he noticed that there was a wonderful work on Physiognomy, as they call it, in which the strangest & shadowiest rules were laid down for detecting people’s innermost secrets by studying their faces. And so, foolish cousin Ralph always flattered himself, that the reason your father did not want his portrait taken was, because he was secretly in love with the French young lady, & did not want his secret published in a portrait; since the wonderful work on Physiognomy had, as it were, indirectly warned him against running that risk.’”

Revelatory faces, like the first one that possessed Pierre, which stir gloom into his pristine life, uncovering family secrets, often with perverse sexual overtones. All these conclusions on very little evidence - a gossipy aunt, a lonesome face seen once, a painting by an amateur artist. Melville himself casts doubts on the authenticity or reliability of these clues - again like the aforementioned Leontes, who needs no Iago to convince him of his wife’s infidelity & the bastardship of his son (“But to be paddling palms & pinching fingers, As they now are, & making practiced smiles, As in a looking-glass...” -A Winter’s Tale, I.i). Or, like Starbuck, vainly reasoning with Ahab that the evil is not in the beast Whale but in the human mind which projects it.

What then of the information age, where we are surrounded by millions of images with ambiguous glances & implications? Pierre needed only two to possess him. I once got in trouble for a picture taken of me in England with a drunk Welsh girl, with whom I had barely ever spoken. If the circumstances, emotions, dramas, behind the taking of the photograph were impossible to imagine to my current friends, what will my children make of it, or my poor biographer, or if the lost girl or any of her friends or relatives gets a hand on it, now or whenever. I think my innocence lies in the hesitancy of my right hand, not holding her in any familiar way. I can hardly recall what I was thinking or doing what itwas shot. Our faces are ambiguous.

"And now, by irresistible intuitions, all that had been inexplicably mysterious to him in the portrait, and all that had been inexplicably familiar in the face, most magically these now coincided; the merriness of the one not inharmonious with the mournfulness of the other, but by some ineffable correlativeness, they reciprocally identified each other, and, as it were, melted into each other, and thus interpenetratingly uniting, presented lineaments of an added supernaturalness.

"On all sides, the physical world of solid objects now slidingly displaced itself from around him, and he floated into an ether of visions; and, starting to his feet with clenched hands and outstaring eyes at the transfixed face in the air, he ejaculated that wonderful verse from Dante, descriptive of the two mutually absorbing shapes in the Inferno:

"Ah! how dost thou change,
Agnello! See! thou art nor double now,
Nor only one!"


Grace said...

Well written, friend. send it to the New Yorker, you might make a wad and start a Melville revival.

James Welsch said...

I prematurely blew my wad, on what you might call a dry run... Plus I don't think the New Yorker takes reviews from people who have read half the book...