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The Novelist as Failure, the Language as Failing: A Recursive Reading of Melville’s Pierre

By Grant Maierhofer.

“His time of thought was brief. Rising from his bed, he steadied himself a moment; and then going to his writing-desk, in a few at first faltering, but at length unflagging lines, traced the following note:”

Pierre; Or the Ambiguities

“But of all the books brought back by supplemental boosting, none, surely, are more unlikely than Herman Melville’s “Pierre; Or the Ambiguities.” The author of “Pierre,” vastly unpopular in his early career, flirted with the temptations of a non- or anti-popular mode of writing when he came to the fullness of his ambition. A year before starting “Moby-Dick,” Melville wrote to his father-in-law, ‘So far as I am individually concerned, & independent of my pocket, it is my earnest desire to write those sort of books which are said to ‘fail.’’ But “Pierre” failed beyond Melville’s wildest dreams. This is arguably the least read work a major author ever wrote.”

The Book that Ruined Melville, Richard H. Brodhead

When attempting to elaborate either a reading or thesis-based-upon an apparently lesser, or minor text of a given, major author, the temptation is immediately to declare its obvious status as a masterpiece overlooked, and to base one’s reading/thesis muddle in this hyperbole to act as an excavator amid the ruins of literature. This is a possible, initial temptation, anyway; but typically proves inept. In approaching Melville, one can see this enacted in critical blips here and there, or in the tendency of contemporary publishers to unearth obscure late-era texts ceremoniously; and while this has its place—the marketplace, logically, a notion to which Melville was no stranger—it frequently elides critical rigor and—though doubtless bolstering sales—does little to deepen, or widen understandings of a given scrivener’s work. Melville himself is touchy because as curious readers in the twenty-first century we already rely upon several waves of unearthings just to read his works and their grand accompaniments. Without this sense of rediscovery amid the ruins would Norton even nod the time of day at Moby-Dick? Perhaps not, and thus scholars-as-archaeologists will always have their place, but as the dust clears our given wave is tasked in many cases with simply resorting to reading (newly, closely) to perpetuate and revivify these works; a simultaneous shrug and call to arms, as it were—at least that’s been my own attempted take on matters.

All of this is to say that either praising the presently-discussed work as unsung genius—the work being his Pierre; Or the Ambiguities—or attempting to align this critique of Pierre with all past critiques and all works written by the man, is not of paramount interest here. What is, and ever is, is failure. William C. Spengemann speculates aptly in his brief introduction to the Penguin Classics Edition of Pierre that—based on evidence within Pierre—Melville’s works each paved the way for one another, and his closing statements for one novel served as opening remarks for the next, in so many words. The passage Spengemann refers to, however, is more concerned with the internal and external lives of written works as related to their authors, and less about some dual connective tissue between respective external works. Because of this, and because of my own disruptive interpretation of Pierre, this present critique will need be written. If Melville inadvertently anticipated postmodern works involving rambling treatises on their genesis by such as Calvino, Borges, or even the cinema of Godard or Charlie Kaufman—and we’re lucky here to have Leos Carax’s Pola X (“Pierre ou les ambiguities X” named after the tenth chosen draft of Carax’s screenplay) an immensely ambitious “adaptation” of Pierre, and potential critical lens—why are we so pressed to think his achievement inadvertent? We assume sophistication teleologically when writers like Ronald Sukenick and co deconstruct the novel in the late 60s through to now because, as a public, we’ve heard no shortage of death knells for the novel form and thus our fiction ought to reflect such an aporia. Looking back, then, we assume any such whiffs of self-interrogation must be accidental, inadvertent, or mere larks in otherwise rounded, logical careers. But why so? Only sixty short (in literary terms, anyway) years after Melville’s heyday came the loomings of Joyce and Eliot, and from then forward fiction was constantly a dance between states of consciousness and reflection thought brilliant because their surrounding times seemed ready for it. Looking back, however, and even way back to Gothic works such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, Northanger Abbey, or The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, we see that a sort of ouroboran, recursive literature has long existed right within the canon, and thus Melville’s sophistication in Pierre is not mere luck or accident, but something to he treated with textual seriousness that’s thence been granted his more readily-accepted masterpieces. What matters in this parallel between the 1960s and 70s postmodern crowd and our Pierre requires a brief metalepsis: more recently the despair over the state of the novel and readerships has led to interrogations of the form, the enterprise of reading itself, within the given texts of certain authors; looking back, there is absolutely no difference between that contemporary public climate, and Melville’s Pierre-era internal climate, and thus both, in their respective ways, might be permitted to give rise to texts interrogating the textual; objects to read cynically imbued with questions about the very act of reading. Pierre as a locus of perceived failure, then; as a physical embodiment of circumstantial conditions that required apt processing. It’s a lofty, convoluted idea perhaps—”ambiguities, indeed!” the reviews read—and thus one befitting its author entirely. Nina Baym’s conception of Melville’s literary life as broken up between two transformations seems key here. Although regarding Pierre only the second transformation—and the sequence of decisions and alterations in worldview—is fundamental, her autobiographical lens through which to view Melville’s fiction is indispensable.

“The second transformation [in Melville’s development], from truth teller to truth denier, took place during the writing of Pierre, when a domestic romance and bildungsroman turned into a two-pronged attack on the inadequacies of language for expressing truth and on fiction as a mode of discourse entirely unsuited for conveying language-embodied perceptions and insights. This attack completely undermined the ground on which Pierre had been constructed, and produced a work of fascinating modernity.”

Melville opens first with the whiffs of incest. Pierre and his mother Glendinning seem content to exist in their brand of intimacy in a quasi-prestigious—though fleeting, one suspects—social standing steeped in history not only of a European conquest of their homeland, but of the Native lives that existed there previously. Parallels then abound between England and America, the Old world and the New, and a key curiosity that seems straightforward enough, but when prodded opens up a possible keyhole into Melville’s narrative tendency. “But the magnificence of names must not mislead us as to the humility of things,” thus begins a long meditation on what seems to be a shifting nobility and the distinction between noted families of England, and those of the fairly nascent America—a distinction, we well know from Melville’s loving odes to Hawthorne, that very much concerned Herman Melville the writer. However, taken purely at the sentence-level, we here have a distinction between names and their associative things. Another view might be the world of the physical versus the ideal, or the linguistic construct of a sign being signifier and signified forever linked. Here then, amid the muddle of his list of peerages and familial lines, we also have a potential locus of concern for the external real world of Herman Melville the man, and the internal, quasi-fictive world of Herman Melville the novelist, the language manipulator. It’s possible to argue this requires a stretch of the imagination, however Melville has already referred to Pierre as a narrative construct, a “character” requiring “texture,” his life a “scroll,” which paves the way for such a reading. One is reminded of Melville’s exhaustive cetological passages versus the very thing-centric active chapters near the end of Moby-Dick, or the contentment with which his sailors rest at Typee‘s opening versus the anxiety with which the onslaught of things/situations/lifestyles overwhelms Tommo as the work progresses. Pierre as a name, then, or as a thing needing a name, and this relationship forever begetting tension, ambiguity, and a slippery sense of just what it is Melville hopes to impart to a reader. And yet, read at least a layer deeper than Melville simply cataloguing family histories and genealogies, so that the phrase and moment—the work itself, perhaps, and all his work—refer as well to the vying of words to encapsulate their referents, we find a richness worthy its author. Hot on the misanthropic coattails of Nietzsche, Melville’s tendency toward excess, toward logorrhea, might be read as a critique or exploration of the very words employed to explore. “So perfect to Pierre had long seemed the illuminated scroll of his life thus far, that only one hiatus was discoverable by him in that sweetly-writ manuscript”. Is Melville simply dressing up a string of sentences here that lead to the revelation that Pierre would “invoke heaven for a sister”? Or does the work get at something more, and Melville’s laying the groundwork for an interpretation of Pierre-as-novel, Pierre-as-literary-creation, this work as an interrogation of one’s life as a potential “sweetly-writ manuscript”?

What’s interesting and compelling throughout Pierre exists amid the blur of extant scholarship, and thus to imagine contextual circumstances by way of reviews, letters, or anecdotes seems slightly beside the point: it is a center, as all of Melville’s—and here one might posit any author’s—of certain tensions, attempts, figurings-out; and might be as aptly read for centuries based on little more regardless of Herman’s paternal yearn, or the lifelike skin of Queequeg in Moby-Dick beneath the counter-pane. This is not to say that such avenues are barren, useless to the student, but simply that my own approach to Melville has been by way of his white-knuckled approach to literature, his dissatisfaction as propellant, potentiality; and Pierre has proven rife with sweat when considered in this vein. The tension exists—and here the queer theorists deserve substantial nods—at the identity level for Melville. Pierre is his jest, his fragment, as well as his disjunctive interrogation of the fictive as a means to truth. Look only to the adventurous swelter of Typee, and its transfiguration into the encyclopedic seascape of Moby-Dick, and we can see that Melville’s well has run vitriolic toward the mere prospect of tale-telling. It will not suffice, and thus his following jab must go right to the very Radcliffean, Walpolean Gothic, the absurdity and familially-obsessed Hawthornean American muddle, to simultaneously call to task the barrenness of genre, the ineptitude of language in its vying toward the All, and his own efforts as author, husband, American, fictioneer, journalist, and failure. This perhaps most of all. His ambiguities are not dissimilar from Beckett’s lowly tramps, God-vying and linguistically-frustrated as they are. An impasse has been reached, and if all his scribbling had been for naught, let the naught imbue the lines.

One cannot, if approaching Melville as I have—by way of modern disaffecteds, contemporary interpreters of language’s gasps and yawns—ignore it when either the aforesaid theorists and critics make note of our Pierre, nor when modern-day fictioneers speak directly to the forested text. Jeffrey DeShell, the brilliant chronicler of language-as-death-knell-in-contemporary-America, responsible for the Grunge-era Speedboat-ish masterpiece In Heaven Everything is Fine, has penned a fiction providing constant commentary on Melville’s text, a reimagining: Peter, an (A)historical romance. And seen as a clearing of the air of contemporary critical takes on Pierre, it bears consideration: with the portrait of Melville’s father and the incestuous vein a persistent riff of queerness bobbles throughout the text. Acknowledging its merit, I’m nonetheless struck by strange parallels: DeShell’s work employs a Bret Easton Ellis-ish technique of endless brandnaming of everyone and thing, Ellis having famously employed this ad nauseam in American Psycho. American Psycho was/is a text read as violent in the utmost, but its justification barely amounts to a flyleaf’s length of the book’s full brunt. A few pages, graphic though they are, does not a Hogg make. Pierre, reread in the crossed-streams of DeShell, can be returned to by the Ellis-DeShell parallel as doubtless queer, but impossibly called a wholly-queer novel, romance, or otherwise—nor can its incestuous themes, foregrounded as they are in Pola X, be said to limit the novel’s reach or perceived ambition; to call it a story of incest would not only miss a potentially substantive point, but to reduce in turn the linguistic calamity of a Moby-Dick to a mere adventure story. A circuitous amble, and I apologize, but such thoughts—strange and desperate though they be in their subjectivity—aren’t readily ignored when assembling an armory aimed at such an odd little text. A failed primer to Peter, sure, but let us nonetheless appreciate its import in interpreting its forebear.

Again a sort of metalepsis need occur to further enhance this sense of Pierre as weary gesture. Regardless of their contexts, anyone familiar with the English language as a mode of discourse generative of meaning could easily read a page of Melville’s Pierre, and DeShell’s Peter, and sense each author’s self-conscious declaration of the ineptitude of the written word to their purposes or Truths by way of sheer exhaustion. With Melville it’s the labyrinthine landscape of incest, of family, of Saddle Meadows, of Pierre’s constantly shifting interiority and exteriority. With DeShell it’s the incessant wave of information plaguing Peter that makes his distillation as a literary character not only ridiculous, but impossible, a truth both authors, regardless of their historical surroundings, seem to have arrived at and embraced whole hog in a glorious novelistic self-destruction. Interesting as well that both authors should follow Walter Pater’s maxim in aspirations toward the musical in their literary artworks frequently following whatever revelations might exist in their respective texts: DeShell embracing a Schoenbergian mode in his deconstruction of the crime novel Expectation; Melville of course exploring the long poetic form as perhaps tapping deeper into the vein of linguistic reality than was possible in mere prose.

An apt tie-in and critique here—there are several—is that of Paul Hurh, whose writing on “The Sound of Incest” parses out two prime functions in Melville’s text: a preoccupation with the English language and sounds therein, and a preoccupation with incest. Interpretations of the incest have taken many forms, but Hurh hints at the political potential of such antinomian subject matter. One might extend this to Melville’s open disregard—his “fuck you”—to mid-nineteenth century literary circles and concerns. To Hurh, this is inextricable from Melville’s simultaneous use of language, and sound, in constructing this troubling text. What I infer here—and it may be my choice, my bias based on the life circumstances of Herman Melville, novelist, and a desire to contextualize Pierre in favor to the man behind it—concerns more than sound, but the broader language itself. Melville, in delving into such unsavory, flagrant subject matter, might very well have experienced an anxiety unlike his anxiety to construct the Great Leviathan Text in Moby-Dick, whereas in that his concern was simultaneous economic worry, and deference to the mythos of the whale, the natural, and our human relationship to it, here in Pierre Melville seems to choose incestuous themes as cultural critique, as literary critique, as American/class critique; all of this generating the anxiety of the antinomian, an outsider’s anxiety. Melville is pushing against so many grains that readers thought he’d lost his mind in writing Pierre—and many still do—and thus it serves as the perfect locus of Melville’s (dis)interests at the time: fiction was inept to his Truth, the book was inept to his sustenance, his reading public was inept to his concerns, and the English language was inept to some more fundamental spirit behind the words. He’s been compared to the Modernists with Pierre, and this is just: from Eliot to Joyce to Stein to Beckett, and Beckett’s comment on Joyce that the form is the content, the content the form, Melville’s seemingly scatterbrained narrative is only as scatterbrained as the notion of book-length fictive works and their public engagement. He is Jackson Pollock discovering the drip method. He is John Cage stripping music to mere sound and silence. He is Joyce allowing the anxieties of his age and place to permeate his prose. He is the consummate artist rejecting his art, writing as interrogation of what writing fails to do. The choice of incest then, seems willful. He is seeking—perhaps unsuccessfully in toto—a form that suits his needs, as always he’d done in his career. He is adapting.

Considering the Gothic tradition Melville’s toying with, one might again jump ahead in years and recall that oft-praised—heaped, one might argue—novel by an Italian semiologist later in life, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Eco’s work toys with the Gothic in more straightforward ways, with “found” texts and mysterious environs, but William of Baskerville’s tendency as monkish detective in that work to sort of “read” the world around him lend the work a simultaneous futurity, and antiquity. Look for instance at the trope of “critical” works of fiction by Sukenick and co. in recent years, novels and stories featuring in-depth literary analysis as a component of their fiction, or more recently a work like Mathias Enard’s Zone—a work equally as trying as Pierre, for a more formal reason, being made up in large part of a single 500-page sentence—whose structure is only broken up by pages from an imagined story collection—and this interpretive prompt propels the run-on portions significantly. Eco’s work, though, also reaches into the past along with Pierre, with analysis of religious texts and architecture not dissimilar from the Gothic works of Radcliffe—and the protracted image of the strange figure in the glass case of Udolpho—or Walpole with his massive knight’s regalia and Stokerian castle landscape filled with troubling scenes.

Melville enacts this, to my mind, in two prominent ways and each to slightly different effect. The first is Pierre’s preoccupation with his father’s youthful portrait, hung in a secret closet as his mother vastly prefers the more elderly image in a common room downstairs. Pierre’s preoccupation here seems quasi-sexual, and various writers have argued the possible queer reading that might aptly be imposed. There’s no disagreement here, but it does seem worth noting that Pierre enters the closet to consider its provenance on finishing his sister’s letter; the picture having been given him by his aunt—his father’s sister—and thus the apparent intimacy between them might be seen as a sort of nod of approval for Pierre’s growing incestuous desire for his sister. Including analysis of an art object is always a loaded affair in literature, and should here be seen as part and parcel with Melville’s overall goal of reaching Truth by way of the novel form, simultaneously—as noted—reaching toward a more critical-literary fiction of the future, a self-analyzing one, and a less-scathingly picked-at form than the present literature of Melville’s era.

“If when the mind roams up and down in the ever-elastic regions of evanescent invention, any definite form or feature can be assigned to the multitudinous shapes it creates out of the incessant dissolvings of its own prior creations; then might we here attempt to hold and define the least shadowy of those reasons, which about the period of adolescence we now treat of, more frequently occurred to Pierre, whenever he essayed to account for his mother’s distaste for the portrait. Yet we will venture one sketch.”

Here we have the focalizing of Pierre on the portrait and the portrait of his father’s history within their family. Not only it is a bit of textual analysis, however, but a statement on the nature of interpretation itself. Melville seems to anticipate deconstruction with his “multitudinous shapes” and “incessant dissolvings,” and by placing the portrait between two blood-linked characters he illustrates the range of interpretation possible when gazing upon artworks. Mileage in the past has been gained in seeing the portrait as a “wink,” a tie to Pierre’s paternal incestuous drive; yet we needn’t even delve that deeply to see the precarious ground on which literary lives and texts reside, something to which Melville seems to prod our interest. The eventual burning of the portrait before Pierre’s departure from Saddle Meadows invigorates him, and there we have both a destructive gesture toward his past familial ties, and a text-within-the-text that lent itself to prominent interpretive moments for Pierre, his aunt, and his mother.

The other bit of textual analysis incorporates a pamphlet by one Plotinus Plinlimmon. This, following Paul Lewis’s mode of reading Pierre, in some ways opens doors for Melville to allow his madman protagonist a life in letters. Much ado has rightfully been made regarding the contrived development of Pierre Glendinning’s literary exploits, and one would hardly be deemed outlandish in viewing Pierre’s occupation as little more than Herman Melville’s attempt to rail against literature and writing and the writer within his text without too much discomfiting rearrangement and explanation. What’s doubly compelling here, though, is the Gothic mode and its tendency to slap together esoteric texts from apocryphal locales to move plot. Melville does this, and yet the moment we might feel some cohesion between Plinlimmon’s plight and our Pierre’s, the pamphlet has proven hastily ripped and we the reader can know nothing. Here the Gothic, Melville, and any writer engaging in the literary act by way of willful fragmentation—especially with some gesture tied to it (the work was ripped, burned, destroyed, and this is merely a recollection, e.g.)—are getting at the precariousness not only of printed text in their vying toward an illusory reader, but language itself as communicated from one practitioner to another. There will inevitably be losses. The texts of the bible have been so scattered and torn to bits as to create disparate religions depending on the vintage and locale of their discovery and its potential tie-ins to that area’s myths. By allowing the fictive work to be “real-ly” ripped, and hence partially unreadable, Melville is not only limiting our sight of things to express his discontent at the reach of printed discourse, but communicating with an endless swath of texts misinterpreted and mistranslated and misunderstood throughout the centuries. Melville’s works themselves received such treatment, the U.K. editions featuring noted disparities from the U.S. editions published in their apparent definitive state in the very same year. One can only wonder at the sea of misreadings our Pierre Glendinning has received, and enacted for himself within his mad writer’s world, and it’s this hinting that gives Melville’s approach regarding Plinlimmon its relative heft.

 “[…] Christ was a chronometer; and the most exquisitely adjusted and exact one, and the least affected by all terrestrial jarrings, of any that have ever come to us. And the reason why his teachings seemed folly to the Jews, was because he carried that Heaven’s time in Jerusalem, while the Jews carried Jerusalem time there. Did he not expressly say—My wisdom (time) is not of this world? But whatever is really peculiar in the wisdom of Christ seems precisely the same folly to-day as it did 1850 years ago. Because, in all that interval his bequeathed chronometer has still preserved to its original Heaven’s time, and the general Jerusalem of this world has likewise preserved its own.”

Now Plinlimmon’s pamphlet has its place in the Gothic milieu, with works such as Matthew Lewis’ The Monk or the aforesaid Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the Gothic has long harbored a fascination with alternative, or even warped understandings of traditional Christian doctrine. Here, however, Melville’s inclusion of this pamphlet—as well as his eventual depiction of Plinlimmon alongside an increasingly miserable Pierre in New York—seems less to do with the doctrine being analyzed than its potential metaphorical reach—that is, if “(time)”=”wisdom” in Plinlimmon’s writing. Until this section of the work, there’s really been no qualm with introducing religious themes and considerations, and Melville could’ve as easily allowed Pierre another digressive line of theistic thinking if that were his end goal in entertaining the subject matter of Plinlimmon’s pamphlet; and thus such a reading seems to miss something. Plinlimmon’s concern is arguably the disparity between the everyday world of the familiar, and the world beyond, the All, the Real, or the Heavenly that humans can only understand through mediated discourse. His emphasis is on time, on “chronometers and horologicals,” and our perception of time compared with—as illustrated above—the godly or even purely Christian as understood through the figure of Christ himself. We humans are perpetually at one remove from understanding this, and thus rather than adhering more strictly to some doctrine that gets ever closer to the point of understanding, we’re better to accept this disparity and live in accordance with that knowledge.

There’s plenty to unpack there, but the notion of language seems key. We as people are forever distanced from our understanding of things by language, a notion much discussed by aforementioned philosophers and contemporary linguists. What’s more, we bias our understanding because it’s based in subjective human experience, and thus language as a means of conveying this experience to someone else is perpetually at one remove. Pierre misunderstands this, or at least feels discontent to let this govern his practices, as he continues to search, continues on to aspire toward greatness as an author, but Melville-as-author seems well aware of this notion in revisiting these themes by way of Plinlimmon’s pamphlet and further hammering home this notion of language; of human mediation in any capacity, to get at the fundamentals of our experience. His understanding focuses on the godly, as something we humans cannot fully attain by way of language, by way of our faulty clocks, or mediation, but this can be applied essentially to anything in life that bears considerable heft and seems to just slightly elude our understanding. Melville enacts all of this by way of an included text, a “found” document—literally plucked from Pierre’s seat in the stagecoach and clenched in his emotive clutch for pages—thus allowing his text to embrace fragmentation, to embrace imperfection, even while his prime character might not.

“The irony is that what Melville’s contemporaries did with Pierre the novel, Pierre the character does with life itself. Repeatedly Melville’s adolescent hero reveals his immaturity by failing to accommodate startling experiences, failing to learn from them. An anti-Bildungsroman, Pierre defines maturity inversely by showing us a character’s inability to grow. With unsettling precision Melville traces his inability to its elements: a lack of humor and, in spite of Pierre’s intellectual depth, an unwillingness to entertain profound questions for long. The tension between our sense of how Pierre ought to respond to his experiences and how he actually does respond creates an unbearable fascination.”

What Lewis posits is essentially that Pierre the character’s unwieldiness leads to an unwieldy text that critics then and now fail to entirely comprehend, or comprehend improperly assuming the work is a mere botch. Pierre the character interests me here slightly less than his textual surroundings as they seem to indicate a great deal about Melville’s methods and the efficacy of contrarian thinking for those damned to exact meaning from life by way of the printed word.

Pierre the novel is most certainly unwieldy. Incongruous absolutely. Incestuous without the comeuppance expected when such themes are invoked, arguably—Pierre’s demise seems strangely disconnected from the narrative proper. Scatterbrained surely, but only insofar as our thoughts as living beings are scatterbrained. Melville’s failure is not to transcribe experience, or to transcend language, but to do so in a way that registered comfortably alongside literary works not only of his day, but for days and years thereafter. Did Melville anticipate deconstruction? Poststructuralism? These lenses are indispensible when making head or hind of Pierre but there needn’t be an aforesaid teleological link to make one’s reading whole. What has happened since Melville’s day? Since the days that have proven to make a serious, rigorous, literary reading of Pierre possible? An abundance, a veritable sea of texts have washed over our attempts to study literature and when balancing Melville’s strangenesses against this anti-canon’s reach it’s quite easy to ingest Pierre’s particular concoction, and thus before a brief further exploration of the text itself and its failure bon mots, we might do well to simultaneously praise the scholars who’ve kept this wounded ship aloft; while mourning the loss of countless works in this vein that might expand our consciousness.

“While using language to persuasively undermine itself, this passage [from Journey to the End of the Night] captures the essence of Céline’s deepest comedy: the energy of the writing versus the sense of utter futility he conveys. The sheer stylistic exuberance with which he puts forward character is often in devastating contrast to the pointless, calamitous schemes in which they are caught up.”

Readers familiar with Pierre and Céline’s work might already have made note of certain interior parallels—not to mention Melville’s occasional anti-Semitism, though this is largely absent from Cline’s fictive works—but this description of the Frenchman’s quarrel with language seems perfectly suited to Melville’s plight. If content, or subject matter, rears its head in Pierre it is largely in matters of family, and intimate love, or the human’s place in the cosmos with particular relationship to God. Considering, however, our jagged trip from Saddle Meadows to Pierre Glendinning’s writerly interior a la Poe in the gutters, subject matter registers hardly as much as form, and therein Melville’s attempts to shatter formal strictures placed upon the novelist. What we’re left with is manic interiority, to such an extent that our narrator’s consciousness frequently bleeds over into Pierre’s, and the work becomes a kind of performative tour de force, a subjective landscape unparalleled in nineteenth century fiction.

Now whether Melville himself saw precisely his goals in composing Pierre is in large part impossible to know. We have from letters his sense that his career was now resigned to penning failures, but attempting to elaborate an entire world view by way of the work proper—and even this is trying considering the multiple editions published in ensuing years—seems impossible. What we have are the characters, the work, the language.

Although Pierre’s literary decline is on par with the very best of headstrong figures in literature, the plummet in the latter portions of Pierre concern me less here than the perfect middle. Already having discussed Plinlimmon and his import, I’ll wrap things up with a glance at a moment between two books. Paul Lewis asserts that Pierre’s reading of Isabel’s letter is the most significant moment in the work. I don’t disagree per se, but I feel Pierre’s reaction to that letter, and his determinism thereafter to live in line with the right, or the Truth, really presents the most significant narrative thread in Pierre.

In the book couched between Isabel’s stories, “Intermediate between Pierre’s Two Interviews with Isabel at the Farmhouse,” we’re given perhaps the greatest reach of Melville’s language toward subjectivity, interiority, and yet Pierre’s outright intransigence thereafter would seem to offer a look at Melville’s own sense of the limitation in the literary work to reach effectively toward Truth.

“Now the wide and vacant blurrings of my early life thicken in my mind. All goes wholly memoryless to me now. It may have been that about that time I grew sick with some fever, in which for a long interval I lost myself. Or it may be true, which I have heard, that after the period of our very earliest recollections, then a space intervenes of entire unknowingness, followed again by the first dim glimpses of the succeeding memory, more or less distinctly embracing all our past up to that one early gap in it.”

Isabel’s story presents any number of questions as to Melville’s motive in writing this book; many of said questions interrogated by Pierre himself in the intervening moments between her telling. If it’s reasonable to assume that Pierre becoming a novelist presents a convenient literary tool for Melville’s interrogating the literary life itself, we might discern a microcosm of this in Isabel’s telling, and Pierre’s scatterbrained attempt to make sense of her words.

Isabel’s autobiography is nearly as concerned with the nature of language and communication or signs as Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols,” or the aforesaid Eco’s first novel. She’s concerned in a Proustian manner with the slippages of memory, with the phases in one’s interior development, and with the potential of multiple languages existing in an individual’s life. Now one might easily note here the possibility of her being raised in a bilingual environment, but her description of the older gentlemen’s use of this language has more to do with its characteristics of description—and ability therein—and less to do with its distinct sounds; and might thus be either a depiction of so-called elevated language typically assigned to educated adults, and more developmental, playful language more often associated with children or uneducated persons. She’s concerned with this, with the naming of things, with fragments if memory that might be distilled to construct a whole life. Her telling, then, embodies an approach offered by narrative fiction, largely untapped until the modernists, and embraced whole hog in the latter twentieth century with the aforementioned examples as well as figures like Renata Adler with her Speedboat, Joan Didion and her Play it as it Lays. Melville, vying as he is toward the telling’s potential, taps into this mode of fictive discourse and yet must couch it; and thus he embraces genre the same way Jim Thompson did crime or David Markson did in early career with hard-boiled detective narratives; and thus not only is there at least a mild expectation of the Gothic genre’s apparent disarray, but the safety of Isabel’s story being within the narrative proper, thus ready for interpretation by our reader stand-in Pierre.

In the “Intermediate” section where Pierre attempts to make sense of Isabel’s “enigmatical story”—itself an invocation of the reading/interpretation process and thus a small commentary on these matters—we’re given all the great earmarks that persist throughout the book as a whole: the natural world and man’s relationship with it; intimate love and the pangs of incest; and though it lingers in mere hints until Pierre’s unveiling as a novelist and the Plinlimmon work we also have an attempt to read the landscape, and find beauty in things apparently mundane—failures, it could be argued—to the wealthy, forward-looking citizens of Saddle Meadows. Just before his treatise on the fictive and written works, Pierre comes upon his “Memnon Stone,” an apparently overlooked piece of nature only appreciated by Pierre and an elder gentleman. Pierre, in a sense, reads history into this stone and ponders initials carved into it that the old man eventually reveals might mean “Solomon the Wise,” as his familiarity with the Old Testament informs him. Now knowing this, and knowing Melville’s then longstanding concern with utilizing language to encapsulate the heights of human experience or spirituality, we might again see parallels with the very act of reading, and further lucid self-awareness by our Glendinning-Melville duet in “naming” this otherwise prosaic, forgettable piece of nature, and generating a story where once there was none. Perhaps the ongoing perplexity for readers in taking the raw materials of Pierre and perceiving brilliance has to do with Melville’s tendency to take such asides and use his characters as ciphers for interrogating language on a level beyond mere narrative quirks. Think for instance of the acceptance with which we imbibe Stevenson’s Strange Case for its Gothic fragmentation and episodic scatter; Melville’s aspiring to something similar here: melding the quandaries of incest, of love, of literature, of nascent Transcendentalism, of interpretation, of Otherness; and though he’s thus concocted a more overpowering chowder than even Queequeg might keep down—a Melville milk bowl over salt water, tinged with all the bloods and sweats its author could enact—when seen as something “intentionally incoherent,” as “incongruous” but reveling in that state, we’re able to transcend Pierre’s perplexity and tragic end and experience a text as expertly complicated and willfully unctuous as all its author’s heralded classics, if you’ll pardon the hyperbole.

“[…] Like all youths, Pierre had conned his novel-lessons; had read more novels than most persons of his years; but their false, inverted attempts at systematizing eternally unsystemizable elements; their audacious, intermeddling impotency, in trying to unravel, and spread out, and classify, the more thin than gossamer threads which make up the complex web of life; these things over Pierre had no power now. Straight through their helpless miserableness he pierced; the one sensational truth in him, transfixed like beetles all the speculative lies in them. He saw that human life doth truly come from that, which all men are agreed to call by the name of God; and that it partakes of the unravelable inscrutableness of God. By infallible presentiment he saw, that not always doth life’s beginning gloom conclude in gladness; that wedding-bells peal not ever in the last scene of life’s fifth act; that while the countless tribes of common novels laboriously spin vails of mystery, only to complacently clear them up at last; and while the countless tribe of common dramas do but repeat the same; yet the profounder emanations of the human mind, intended to illustrate all that can be humanly known to human life; these never unravel their own intricacies, and have no proper endings; but in imperfect, unanticipated, and disappointing sequels (as mutilated stumps), hurry to abrupt intermergings with the eternal tides of time and fate.”

Now although this manifesto-esque passage exists in the middle of Pierre, it nonetheless seems logical to discern thematic elements here that ought to be more clearly pronounced than, say, Pierre’s proclivity toward incest, or the mere landward narrative couched in Gothic rhetoric as an answer to his prior adventurous endeavors. One doesn’t, for instance, question the passions of a reader reciting the opening “Loomings” of Moby-Dick compared to the drawling tone of someone making their way through the whale’s biology. Nor does one question the richness discerned in Looby’s reading of Moby-Dick’s “Counter-Pane” as missing some larger point simply because it hones in on one particular. Pierre has proven no different for readers attempting to “systematiz[e] eternally unsystemizable” strains emanating from this work. My contention, then, is that not unlike those later texts mentioned here, Pierre lends itself nicely to being read recursively because the text itself seems built in a more self-reflexive manner—ouroboran, as stated previously—and Spengemann’s invocation of Jackson Pollock’s endless/beginningless works seems entirely to fit. Pierre works on its own terms, perhaps as novel, perhaps as anti-novel, but certainly as text curious about the limits of text, the limits of printed, literary discourse.

Only with warred-over fragments like Plinlimmon’s aforesaid torn treatise, or the neuroses-inducing story of Isabel—for Pierre, anyway—are we given space from Melville’s formal shoves, and it’s considering that spatial component of Pierre—its sections, its structure, its apparent plotting flaws—that one feels duly safe in praising this simultaneous ode to and burning of the creative, literary life; and though it renders one tidy reading quite impossible, it gnaws at the human consciousness and spirit so voraciously, perhaps misguidedly, that one might easily acclaim its linguistic-literary leviathan status, and bask in the vyings of its author. When we consider the tagline wit of Bartleby, and his resignation, as balanced against the sprawl of the early works, a biographical reading seems perhaps inevitable. Pierre, indeed, is another sort of animal to consider in the life of a proven-brilliant novelist, however with its apparent links to contemporary fiction and their coincident concerns with language—its import, its use, its flux—it seems inarguable that Pierre must nonetheless be considered, ambiguities abounding, ineptitudes all.

Grant Maierhofer
is the author of Postures, Marcel, and PX138 3100-2686 User’s Manual, forthcoming from Solar Luxuriance. He lives and works in Idaho.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, February 20th, 2016.