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L’Imaginaire-Melville

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Viola Sachs

Introduction

Viola Sachs

Texte intégral

1The articles of this collection (except for one) were first presented at the Congress of the Italian Association of American Studies in commemoration of the centennial anniversary of Melville’s death (Rome 1990).

2They stem out of materials accumulated during twenty years of research on the American imaginaire carried out with successive generations of students at the University of Paris VIII-Vincennes. Our research on Moby-Dick constitutes a “monstrous” by-path in our attempt to delineate the basic structures of the American imaginaire as it manifests itself in what I call mythic texts, that is, texts that overtly or not, center around the myth of America as a New World, that is, as a world re-created anew, a new cosmogony. Given the importance of colour and gender in the construction of American identity we have limited our choice to texts by white American male writers, in the hope that later on we would be able to confront these with the imaginaire of women writers and with Afro-American writers of both sexes.

3Our mythocritical minutious analysis is deeply indebted to Gilbert Durand’s Structures anthropologiques de l’imaginaire and to Mircea Eliade’s writings.

4At the deepest level, Melville’s text reveals intricate webs woven by associations, analogies, correspondences between all sorts of images and signs. The linear order of the surface text gives place to another mode of organisation where every sign can potentially become a polyvalent symbol depending upon the different “symbolic constellations” (Durand) in which it functions. Marked by polarities and fragmentation the surface English text with its geographic, historical, cultural references, realistic details functions as a veil which conceals a holistic sacred world (whatever its nature be) expressed by means of a non-verbal language. This analysis requires a constant to-and-fro confrontation not only with the surface text but also with the historical, social and cultural context.

5By penetrating like Jonas into the labyrinthine bowels of the whale-text the reader perceives multiple convergences articulating at different levels of the text.

6Numerous hints, devices and signs of all sorts beckon the reader to set off on an initiatic voyage through the author’s text: explicit references to hidden meanings, to clues, enigmas, riddles; numerous allusions to the writing of the book – “a careful disorderliness [being] the true method” –, to letters, hieroglyphs, cabalistic signs; the unaccountable use of all sorts of forms of notation to express numbers; abusive use of capital letters, italics, asterisks. To these should be added striking omissions, the proliferation of errors, many being intentional hinting that the reader is condemned to err forever in Melville’s labyrinthine writing, and that, if truth exists, it lies in error, with all its gnostic implications. The symbolic meaning of names, linguistic and translinguistic word puns involving all sorts of plays on different languages, the typographical disposition of the text, the use of numerology and alchemical symbols current in the popular culture of the age; the interplay of light and darkness and the dynamic of colours, such are among others the techniques to which Melville resorts to create his hermetic hidden text.

7By means of these and other devices the author invites the reader to participate in what I have called an initiatory voyage-reading during which the English text, and all the constructions of which it is an expression break down. This reading leads through a movement backwards in time – hence the importance of etymology – to the roots of American identity. “Labyrinth”, “maze” and labyrinthine images (bowels, brain, lungs) function not only as symbols but above all as an element of form. The labyrinth leads from the English surface text, with its printed alphabetic letters so isolated one from the other and imprisoned on the space of the page, to other means of communication: to a fluid non-verbal natural elemental corporeal tongue meant to convey the New World in the process of becoming. The interplay of light and darkness, of colours, of shapes and geometrical forms suggested by numbers weave into a dynamic flux of signs continuously dissolving into each other to emerge anew in an “endless” “bio-graphical’ process of writing of life. The weight of imprisoning structures (linguistic included) give place to images of mobility, constant re-volution and continual re-form. The numerous allusions to the times of the Reformation and Revolution (s) not only lead back to the religious and political origins of American identity but also conceal a key to Melville’s writing.

8This form which abolishes all boundaries, all concepts of classification, definitions gives full expression to the ideological concept of boundlessness and to its spirit and yet by undoing the basic values and structures upon which the nation rests, it dismantles its identity and thereby, in the final instance, denies its very existence.

9Moby-Dick; or, The Whale carries this subversive initiatic form to its extreme limits; yet similar constructions with important variations are to be found among others in The Scarlet Letter, Walden, Leaves of Grass, The Great Gatsby, Absalom! Absalom!, Go Down, Moses, Mailer’s An American Dream, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Paul Ulster’s Moon Palace.

10These texts question and dismantle the representations of American identity. In this sense they stand at the opposite pole of the major ideological currents which though virulent and explicit in their critical appraisal of American reality, remain faithful to “The American Way”.

11The environment, with its codes and values functions as a prison, a death-house. Writing becomes the author’s individual 4th of July Declaration by which he affirms his right to life, freedom and happiness. Hence the explicit or concealed recurrence, under different guises, of the date of Independence which marks the birth of the United States of America.

12The backward quest to the roots of American identity leads to the Reformation and beyond, to chapters 16 and 17 of Genesis so important according to these writers for the elaboration of the concept of the Chosen People, and the rejection of the Other and otherness.

13Among the most important historical and cultural facts that partly account for this fascinating literary phenomenon unique on the “new” continent the following should be listed: the authority of the Bible, of Scriptures and its hermeneutics; the ideological construction of an identity right from the outset of the settlement of New England both in relation to the Old World and to the Other; the romantic theory that language expresses the genius of a nation; the contradiction of a purified New World, expressing itself in a language of the corrupt Old World became only too flagrant. Similarly a need of scriptures of the New World was felt at all levels of society. Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon (1830) precedes Emerson’s call for a Bible of the New World (1838). This book written in English but claiming to be a translation of “reformed hieroglyphs” inscribed upon buried golden tablets which Joseph Smith pretends to have seen, relates the story of the native Americans who were the descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel. The following pattern emerges:

Identity -> hidden language/script -> sacred Scriptures of the New World expressed by the Other (Native American/Red Man/Wild Man/Black Man).

14Moreover, the romantic theory that language appears at the time of Creation, accounts for the importance of etymology, which to a certain extent goes beyond the romantic period because of the continuous desire to create a natural language, language of wildness, of another or other worlds in the process of becoming.

15The question arises to what extent the presence of the Native Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century with their diversified modes of communication and expression, and that of the Africans stimulated and influenced the imaginaire of the writers in quest of a non-verbal tongue. What was the impact of the subversive undertones concealed beneath the apparent discourse of the Africans and later Afro-Americans? Could there be a confluence between the rosicrucian esoteric symbols and signs so widespread in North-Eastern popular culture in the first half of the nineteenth century and the ways of communication of the Others?

© Presses universitaires de Vincennes, 1992

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