Saturday, June 07, 2003

Drinking With Herman

"One of the strangest, maddest books ever composed by an American," says Carl Van Doren of Melville's Mardi, and it is that. It's an episodic story a bit in the mold of Typee, as Van Doren notes: set in a Polynesian seascape, in which a lone voyager takes to the sea, gets restless, and strikes out on his own. Our protagonist is joined by a Nordic Sailor named Jarl and, eventually, a couple they meet on what appears to be a deserted ship, Samoa and Aleema. Along the way they encounter a group of savages who are about to sacrifice the beautiful maiden Yillah, whom they also rescue.

The five eventually land on the archipelago of Mardi -- whose geography I have not quite mapped out in my head, and which if I'm not mistaken is ruled by King Media -- where the protagonist is recognized as the god Taji. Yillah suddenly goes missing, and a search for her ensues amidst the surrounding area -- a long and somewhat loping search in which Melville gazes and dreams and thinks and philosophizes on a great deal.

At the risk of sounding foolish, let me suggest here that there are two types of Melville: inspired and not. When he's off, he tries to pull words out of nothing to describe not much. When he's on, well, fasten your seatbelt: the rocks are knocked away by a flood-tide of words, of images, of pure language, and as a reader I find myself getting drunk on his prose, on his raw enthusiasm, even getting a bit senseless. There are times reading this book when I suddenly notice I don't quite know where I am or I forget who is who, but it's not confusion that's the primary sense -- the interest is still there, as well as a kind of rapture.

An example. This morning I had three hours to kill while my daughter took her SAT in Columbia. I was reading Mardi when I suddenly realized I didn't know what the hell was going on. It was Chapter 84 -- "Taji sits down to dinner with five-and-twenty kings, and a royal time they have" -- so I read it again and again, a little more enjoyably each time. Here is it's fascination: you find yourself getting drunk on a scene of drinking. It's one of the richest scenes of abandon I've ever read; one of the richest and most intricately detailed. The scene is a piece of literary ... porphyry!

Okay, here's the set-up. The search for Yillah has taken the group to the isle of Yuam, ruled by Donjalolo, who is basically imprisoned on the island by an old curse that prevents kings from ever leaving. The search is through and the group is about to leave but Donjalolo begs them to stay; he has prepared a banquet in their honor, with other kings from neighboring isles -- Donjalolo is starved for companionship and tales of other places, and so he treats his guests well.

The banquet is in the mouth of a grotto, known as the House of the Afternoon, beneath a waterfall, in the valley of Willamilla. There is drinking; wine of choice, Morando: "A nutty, pungent flavor it had; like some kind of arrack distilled in the Phillipine isles. And a marvelous effect did it have, in distilling the crystallization of the brain; leaving but precious little drops of good humor, beading round the bowl of the cranium."

The feast begins. Now get this, it's wonderful: a "porphyry-hued basin" is brought out, about the shape of a bathtub, filled with water from the cascading fall. The kings all gather round it, and plates of food are set sail on the water. The menu: "wild boar meat; humps of grampuses; embrowned bread-fruit, roasted in odoriferous fires of sandal wood, but suffered to cool; gold fish, dressed with the fragrant juices of berries; citron sauce; rolls of the baked paste of yams; juicy bananas, steeped in saccharine oil; marmalade of plantains; jellies of guava; confections of the treacle of palm sap; and main other dainties; besides numerous stained calabashes of Morando, and other beverages, fixed in carved floats to make them buoyant."

Donjalolo sits at the head of the basin, surrounded by other kings; Melville compares this tableaux to Mont Blanc and the basin to Lake Como: "flanked by lofty crowned heads, white-tiared, and radiant with royalty, he sat; like snow-turbaned Mont Blanc, at sunrise presiding over the head waters of the Rhone; to right and left, looming the gilded summits of the Simplon, the Gothard, the Jungfrau, the Great St. Bernard, and the Grand Glockner."

Everyone pigs out. The food finished, fruit is set sail on the basin, and the wine never stops flowing.

Taji is given Marzilla, a wine as old as Donjalolo's forebear from generations back -- a wine so old it has turned to syrup, and which, Taji is told, only gods like him can drink:

"This special calabash was distinguished by numerous trappings, caparisoned like the sacred bay steed led before the Great Khan of Tartary."

Everyone gets rip-roaring drunk -- "But ha, ha, ha, roared forth the five-and-twenty kings -- alive, not dead -- holding both hands to their girdles, and banging out their laughter from abysses; like Nimrod's hounds over some fallen elk."

Nimrod -- what a nice touch.

Taji likes getting drunk with kings -- "If ever Taji joins a club, be it a Beef-Steak Club of Kings!"

Donjalolo's party concludes with a party of dancing girls who lock arms and dance about the waterfall.

"Round the cascade they thronged; they paused in its spray. Of a sudden, seemed to spring from its midst, a young form of foam, that danced into the soul like a thought. At last, sideways floating off, it subsided into the grotto, a wave. Evening drawing on apace, the crimson draperies were lifted, and festooned to the arms of the idol-pillars, admitting the rosy light of the even."

The kings recline and "two mute damsels" arrive, one applying scented waters to their fevered brows, one daubing away moisture with a napkin. Incense burns.

"Steeped in languor, I strove against it long; essayed to struggle out of the enchanted mist. But a syren hand seemed ever upon me, pressing me back.

"Half-revealed, as in a dream, and the last sight that I saw, was Donjalolo; -- eyes closed, face pale, locks moist, borne slowly to his sedan, to cross the hollow, and wake in the seclusion of his harem."

The next chapter over, Taji has still not quite recovered: "...the thought of that mad merry feasting steals over my soul till I faint."

Ether. Melville's prose is like snorting ether.

"...together they had all got high, and together they must all lie low."

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