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jeff ford
Posted on Sunday, March 23, 2003 - 06:02 am:   

Michael: I hope you find this. I started a new topic here so we could go on about this stuff. To pick up on some of the things you brought up -- Clarell is very vague in my mind. I know it was a book length poem, maybe the one Melville wrote in conjunction with his trip to the Holy Land and that's about the most I'm registering. Is this the one dedicated to his wife? I never got that into the poetry too much. I believe there is more than one book length work of poetry, though. Fill me in on this if you have the time. I'm interested to hear what it is you like about it.
As for Thoreau, I admire Resistance to Civil Government immensely, but in his life and sometimes in his art, Thoreau seemed to me to be a guy who was trying too hard. I make a correlation between Puritanism and Emerson and Thoreau. Before Jonathan Edwards, in Puritanism, only the individual could know if they were elect or not. It was a private contract with God. This I liken to Emerson's brand of Transcendentalism where basically anyone who loves what they do and brings creativity and vitality to it, from the banker to the bum, can legitimately consider themselves transcendental. When Edwards came along, he objectified one's state of grace by calling those in his congregation to task for their actions and sitting in judgement of them. Whether one was elect or not now had the added burden of proving it to the community. Thoreau was like that, kind of a pain in the ass, always testing people to see where they stood etc. You know the saying about him among his colleagues -- "Everybody loves Henry, but nobody likes him." And this from the same Thoreau who despised reformers. Emerson was much more laid back, accepting of a range of possibilities, understood that at the bottom of it all Transcendentalism (I understand it was not his term)was murky at best.
Perry Miller -- all I can remember of Miller is some book -- something something In The Promised Land. I remember reading it in graduate school but that was way long ago. What do you think of him? I have gone with other sources for the Puritans in more recent times.

Best,

Jeff
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Michael Cisco
Posted on Sunday, March 23, 2003 - 02:07 pm:   

Clarel is dedicated to uncle Peter Gansevoort, who made its publication possible. I would call it a verse-novel, running to about 18,000 lines, recounting the pilgrimage of the eponymous American divinity student (!) in the Holy Land. I highly recommend it; in addition to one of Melville's incomparable monomaniacs, Mortmain, the cast includes representations of both Melville ("Rolfe") and Hawthorne ("Vine") that are highly illuminating.
While Melville had a great flair for rhetoric, I don't find his poetry especially accomplished. Workmanlike, I would say. In addition to Clarel (pronounced, according to family tradition, something like "clairl" and not, as I tended to say, "clair-ELL"), Melville published random verse now and then, including a long series on the Civil War (sadly, not at all in "Drum-Taps" league). See Poems of Hermann Melville, edited by Douglas Robillard, Kent State UP (2000). Clarel is available, as far as I know, only in the sky-blue Northwestern-Newberry edition. Big as a phone book.

I asked about Miller because I'm not sure what sort of repute he stands in; I think he's pretty conservative, but I've read about a dozen of his books and found them highly informative. He set out to write a sort of history of the American mind, but the immense gravity of Puritanism really drew him in and he became the great proprietor of that period. I myself am very highly interested in Puritanism - I'm reading Calvin right now.
Thing is, Congregationalist Puritans were required to prove the likelihood of salvation to enter the Congregation at all. There was an actual examination, and written confessions with an established formula were common. The private contact with God was not, as I understand it, a way to confirm election; in fact, strictly speaking, no one could claim to be elect except as a matter of probability. God could damn the whole Congregation and save someone who wasn't even a member, should it please him. Hawthorne was one of the first, it seems to me, to notice that what amounted to a suspension of judgement in Calvinist or Puritan theology resulted in a greater judgementalism in the society. (Sorry, I'm writing about Hawthorne just now and so it just comes spilling out - I think judgement is the key concern in Hawthorne, judgement and the operation of unconscious motives whereby the judgement is itself a kind of judgement on the judge, if that makes sense).
Miller also edited a wonderful collection of Transcendentalist writings which, simply to permit others to get a word in edgewise, minimizes the excerpts from Thoreau and Emerson. It's a wide-open window on the great diversity of the movement.
But oh boy, I don't agree at all with regard to Thoreau and proving oneself to the community. Community, for Thoreau, it seems to me, is equivalent to lotus-land; he was so acutely sensitive to the ways in which we accommodate our minds to each other, and in which subtle obligations hem us in and make us supress ourselves. This is, I believe, why he shuttled back and forth between the pond and the town; he liked the idea of community with a revolving door, such that one may enter when one has business to do, achieve discrete ends, like the expression of an opinion, and then leave again before anyone can try to clap some obligation or other onto you. (Sorry again! Wrote a long essay on HDT for Chelsea House recently!)
You know who loved Emerson? Nietzsche. We can't strictly say he was influenced by Emerson - he simply regarded Emerson as a reflection of what a wholesome philosophy might look like.
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jeff ford
Posted on Sunday, March 23, 2003 - 03:12 pm:   

Michael: Clarel sounds a hell of a lot more interesting now then it looked back then. Finding a copy might be tough now, but I'd like to give it another try.
For me, Thoreau is like his pr concerning his writing style. He claims that the form will organically find itself if the impetus for experession is true. One gets the idea of the extemporaneous philosophy crystalizing into its appropriate form as it is written. In fact, Thoreau is very cunning and staged, well revised and well rehearsed. The structures of Walden, of Civil Disobedience, are ingenious and completely artificial. As for his movement in and out of society, I think this can only be achieved by someone who is getting a lot of lattitude from the community, which he did. Here's a man who can, through carelessness, burn down three hundred acrs of virgin forest belonging to a farmer, and then refuse to apologize for his stupidity. I live in the real world too much to applaud the affectations of dilettantes. There is more freedom in kindness toward others than there is in the solitary facade of the transcendental hero.
The fact that Emerson was admired by Nietzche makes sense to me, as Transcendentalism looks to overturn the status quo, and there is a real sense from Emerson's writing that he believes there is some manner in which the individual consciousness can mitigate reality to some extent. You insinuate that there is something unsavory about this. And if this bothers you about Emerson, it ought to bother you about Thoreau also. Transcendentalism, for me, is a philosophy meant to be implemented in society. If not, there is no need for it. I ultimately see it not as a goal, but a method of personal investigation as to understand one's motivations, relationships, course of action. Something to be practiced not in the woods, but in the mind.
Thanks for the info on the Calvanist Puritans. That's interesting and modifies my concept of what was going on. Now that you mention Miller, that is the way he struck me, very informational, but not much beyond. I haven't looked at his stuff in years and years though.

Best,

Jeff
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jeff ford
Posted on Sunday, March 23, 2003 - 04:47 pm:   

Michael: How do the depictions of Melville and Hawthorne fair in Clarel in relation to those of Emerson and Thoreau in The Confidence Man? Melville could be pretty funny and cutting. I'd like to know how he shows himself.
Points in favor of Thoreau -- he was a real abolitionist, active in the cause. Emerson couldn't really get it up for supporting the movement except for in his "mind".
Did you read The Night Inspector?

Best,

Jeff
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Michael Cisco
Posted on Sunday, March 23, 2003 - 04:51 pm:   

I hope I didn't come across as a hero-worshipper; certainly, HDT was able to take advantage of a highly convivial set of circumstances. Do you really think of him as a dilletante? I keep thinking, for example, of the way he improved his family's pencil-making business, such that they could become graphite wholesalers and therefore more prosperous, and then walk away without concerning himself about patents or remuneration. Or the way he was able to assist Agassiz in his taxonomical tabulation of native American animal and plant species with his own impromptu observations. He held himself aloof, was even a bit miserly, but I don't see him as being all posture. Naturally, I agree with you as regards the greater freedom of kindness over posturing.
I meant to insinuate nothing smacking of the unsavory with regard to Emerson, or to Nietzsche, nothing at all. The latter found in Emerson a lightness, a general absence of bad faith, which he utterly failed to find in the philosophical writings of his contemporaries. Being imbrued with this climate of resentment himself, and aware of it, he could not therefore read Emerson except as it were under glass.
Thoreau's operation in the woods strikes me as a sort of prophetic gesture, like Ezekiel (wasn't it?) who was ordered by God to marry a prostitute. Thoreau has a prophet's assurance (or affectation, if you prefer, although I don't find him dishonest) and bluntness.
I think he refers the action of transcendentalism to material conditions, the woods and the town, in order to keep it practical as a prophylactic against that ethereal, elusive tendency which characterized it. He used the term "experiment" to describe the entire project, his subjective observations in both places, and I think this is an instance of the transcendentalist investigation as acted out by one particular player. Hence the investigation would be the encounter of a mind and a place, a person, an object. Transcendentalism has always reminded me of Eastern philosophy, in fact I think there was some direct (as direct as translated literature gets, anyway) influence, and the Buddhist virtue of "mindfulness." (Oh brother is this ever scattered ... my apologies).

yours hastily -
MC
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Michael Cisco
Posted on Sunday, March 23, 2003 - 04:58 pm:   

Oh no, we're crossing messages in real time!

I could go on at some length about those portrayals, but in brief: Rolfe is always talking, talking too much, too enthusiastically, always rhapsodic (and I mean this is how HM treats himself) - Vine is the opposite ... somewhere the experience of speaking with Vine is described as addressing from the ground someone who stands atop a great rampart. Vine may be a genius, or he may be completely empty-headed; since he almost never speaks, and most often expresses himself in cryptic, possibly profound but always equivocal, gestures, it is not possible to tell. By the end, one begins to feel HM's frustration, softened by the years into a sad sense of the failure of his friend to come forward and really share something of himself.

What is "The Night Inspector"? The bell it rings in my mind is somewhere off in the blue distance ...

[regarding Rolfe's endless talking: I think it was Sophia Hawthorne who described a visit from Melville, how he told them a story about some fight or other involving clubs and shillelaghs - after he was finished and went away, they actually looked around the room for the club he had been swinging, before they remembered it had been imaginary!
That's the Melville I fell in love with!]
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jeff ford
Posted on Sunday, March 23, 2003 - 06:44 pm:   

Michael: Yeah, my calling Thoreau a dilletante is a bit of the old hyperbole. You make a good point about the work as a Naturalist that he did. Also was one of the very first thinkers to consider the concept of ECOLOGY in his work THE DISPERSION OF SEEDS, which has been published but under a different title. That stuff is all very visionary. In addition, his respect for the Ojibwa and their way of life and his interest in interacting with them when they came out of the forest to winter on the banks of the Concord. There's also the fact that his journals are filled with his sketches of amanita muscaria, the red capped mushroom. I haven't gotten to him in the semester yet, but your messages on him have made me think to really give him a better look this time around.
The Night Inspector is a novel written by Frederick Busch. Melville is a character in it. In the days when he is older and a customs inspector in Hoboken. I liked it for about 3/4s the way through. Overall, pretty good and if you like Melville an extra added pinch of interest.
I know that Mrs. Hawthorne was not altogether fond of Herman, and one of the great disappointments in his life was that Nathaniel never returned the enthusiasm of his friendship. His life, these things along with the suicide of his son and not such great relations with his wife, seems a sad one. He did stay true to his fiction though. When he wrote Billy Budd, he had a little piece of paper on his work table that said, "Always stay true to the dreams of your youth." Heartfelt or ironic in conjunction with Billy Budd, its hard to tell, but that's the beauty of Herman.
I was hoping you might be able to, even if a simple explanation, help me to understand how Plotinus figures into Pierre. I know Plotinus is a Platonist, and I understand the plot of Pierre and its use of the romance tradition, but what the hell does Plotinus have to do with it. To get to the bottom of it, I bought the Penguin edition of the works of Plotinus and then proceeded to use it as a door stop for many years.

Best,


Jeff
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Michael Cisco
Posted on Monday, March 24, 2003 - 01:56 pm:   

I don't think the references to Plotinus indicate any really rigorous engagement with his philosophy. It seems to me that Melville invokes him as a representative of abstruse metaphysics, and specifically the mysterious cosmology of neoplatonism. The One, God, overflows into a series of emanations of increasing grossness until we reach the level of the material world, so the universe is an onion. The world is a mere epiphenomenon of some more essential activity going on in the far Beyond. Melville, as I'm sure you've noticed, always needs to turn philosophical speculation into a narrative, put it into action, give it to people. Melville anticipates so much of modernism it's no wonder he only returned to public consciousness in the twenties (I mean, the Confidence Man reads like Virginia Woolf in places for pete's sake) - here he is registering the consequences of the withdrawal of any objective moral guarantees into a luminous, infinitely distant obscurity, and he uses "Plotinus" as his code name for all that. I think this element is the strongest part of the book, or the most interesting to me anyway - the moral labyrinth ... one would expect the Men of Wisdom to have some guidance to impart, but they don't, or rather, their wisdom proves to be of another sort. They don't know the answers, but they accommodate themselves to ambiguity to such an extent that they become in some way identified with it. It's as if the quicksand of ambiguity becomes the bedrock of a new philosophy, but at the cost of certain fatal compromises.
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MC
Posted on Monday, March 24, 2003 - 01:59 pm:   

It's also interesting to note that Plotinus did not believe it possible for man to reach any communion with the One except through ecstatic self-surrender - human reason, in other words, being far too inadequate a tool for the task. This harmonizes with the action of the novel well, I think - Isabel certainly has her moments of oracular/sybilline communion over the guitar! - but Pierre, on the other hand, makes his noble self-sacrifice only to see it all crumble into consummation in the mortal sense.
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jeff ford
Posted on Monday, March 24, 2003 - 09:27 pm:   

Michael: Terrific! Thanks. This actually makes sense in relation to the entire novel. Also makes sense when I think of that depiction of Emerson and Thoreau as spiritual confidence men on the River Boat. Melville had his doubts about the Transcendental philosophy, no doubt.
Also, I'm enjoying the Sunday sermons.

Best,

Jeff
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Michael Cisco
Posted on Thursday, March 27, 2003 - 09:33 pm:   

Dr. Mellaart sends his thanks.

Not to harp on Perry Miller - he wrote a book, The Raven and the Whale, about the rather catty New York literary scene in the 1840s, centered around Duyckinck's Young America.
And let me recommend again his Transcendentalist collection. You'll encounter the volatile Orestes Brownson, a self-educated man from rural Vermont who was ordained a Presbyterian minister, then a Universalist, then later a Unitarian (I think), all before converting to Catholicism in 1844. He was one of the earliest American authors to articulate the idea of alienation in the modern industrial-urban sense.
Also Frederic Henry Hedge (Emerson used to call the Transcendentalist Club the Hedge Club), George Ripley (who set up Brook Farm), and Margaret Fuller. Poe once said - there are three kinds of people in the world: men, women, and Margaret Fuller. A nasty joke, but I wonder if Ligeia, with her unsurpassed learning, isn't a version of Margaret ...?
Here she is in her own words:
"This is the dart within the heart, as well as I can tell it: - At moments, the music of the universe, which daily I am upheld by hearing, seems to stop. I fall like a bird when the sun is eclipsed, not looking for such darkness. The sense of my individual law - the lamp of life - flickers ..."

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