Saturday, March 08, 2003

Promised Land

"Your mom has good taste."

So reads a recent e-mail from Hershel Parker, who apparently saw a note on this site -- or somewhere -- where I said that my mom had given me the first volume of his massive Herman Melville biography. I look forward to the book; for now, I continue to commit myself to an ass-backwards Melville reading program: very casual and at whatever pace I choose. Having started with Pierre and the later works, I have proceeded to the very beginning and will work my way up to where I first arrived. This way I wind up at Moby Dick.

Melville is a writer of great symphonic depths, and he's sometimes a dull one; Faulkner is the same way. People who push the limits can push your patiernce, too. Typee is neither a dull book nor a masterly one, but there's no question a master wrote it. Part of the excitement of reading it is that you know the author has greatness within his reach; it's lovely in and of itself, but there's also a sense you have of how those talents would blossom; you can see a style that has found itself and is ripening. You see someone born to write.

Typee is a superb book of travel and recollection and amused thoughtfulness, and it suggests the full, restless, unquenchable and unsatisfied spirit oif a writer who can never plunge deep enough into experience, and will tax his memory and imagination to the last dreg to bring his art into fruition. It has an easygoing but muscular style; casually philosophical and not that complex. It's the work of a young man, sticking to what he knows, drawing out of the material all he can, which is a lot.

The book is about life amidst a strange sort of paradise: a Tahitian society that is the opposite of 19th Century life, and of civilized life since. Melville arrived in such a place when he and a felllow sailor, Toby, ditched the ship Acushnet in 1842; in this purportedly true "peep at Polynesian life," Melville is Tommo and Toby is Toby and how accountably true the book is is, I suppose, anyone's guess. The island of Nukaheva where they arrive is one ruled by the most casual joys and easy amusements, a land of milk and honey, of manna, a land generously blessed with breadfruit for food and trees whose bark can be rendered into clothing. People don't wear themselves out with work or trouble themselves all that much with God; the Deity is somewhat iffy, religion as a formalized practice is largely unknown and the enforced customs and taboos seem to have been chosen at random. People run around naked, the sex (Melville suggests) is free and easy, and people are happy -- happier, certainly, than the missionaries who are so intent on civilizing them and the armies who exploit and terrorize them.

It's no wonder why Melville's debut was the most popular of his books in his lifetime. It describes in rich detail every custom, from how breadfruit is processed into food to the uses of tree bark to make cloth to the intricacies of using a shark's tooth as a tattooing needle. It's like a National Geographic special with a touch of Rousseau, as our narrator reflectively ponders whether this new world is more or less savage than the one he grew up in. Cannibals they are, but cannibals who only eat their enemies, and who only respond violently when their way of life is threatened: "Thus it is that they whom we denominate `savages' are made to deserve the title."

Among the characters are the servant Koro-Koro -- in whom one sees shades of Queequeg -- his father Marheyo, the chief Mehevi, and the thoroughly delightful Fayaway, a bare-breasted tropical houri:

How captivating is a Peruvian lady, swinging in her gaily-woven hammock of grass, extended between two orange-trees, and inhaling the fragrance of a choice cigarro!

But Fayaway, holding in her delicately formed olive hand the long yellow reed of her pipe, with its quaintly carved bowl, and every few moments languishingly giving forth light wreaths of vapour from her mouth and nostrils, looked still more engaging.

We floated about thus for several hours, when I looked up to the warm, glowing, tropical sky, and then down into the transparent depths below; and when my eye, wandering from the bewitching scenery around, fell upon the grotesquely-tattooed form of Kory-Kory, and finally, encountered the pensive gaze of Fayaway, I thought I had been transported to some fairy region, so unreal did everything appear.

I'll leave it to scholars to say where truth ends and imagination begins in Typee; whatever this book is, it unfolds like a dream.

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