Monday, July 10, 2006


How can you laugh when you know I'm down?

Last night I was reading some excerpts from the journals Herman Melville kept during his disastrous tour of the Holy Land in 1857. The author was in a deep funk, convinced (accurately, as it turned out) that his literary career was over. Stopping in Liverpool en route to see his pal and kindred spirit Nathaniel Hawthorne, he famously noted that he had "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated." Cheerful, no? But his layover in wintry Liverpool sounds like Club Med compared to what awaited him in the Holy Land, to which he repaired for the sake of his "mental balance." His journals, scribbled on the fly and in a depressive agony, often flirt with illegibility--it wasn't until 1989 that a complete, accurately transcribed edition came out. And folks, this was no happy camper:
Pyramids from distance purple like mountains. Seem high and pointed, but flatten & depress as you approach. Vapors below summits. Kites sweeping & soaring around, hovering right over apex. At angles, like broken cliffs.... Precipice on precipice, cliff on cliff. Nothing in nature gives such an idea of vastness.
In that last sentence, at least, Melville seems to be regaining his balance. The vastness of the ocean--which he elsewhere called "the Potters fields of all four continents"--was very much his oyster. Yet his misery never abates. The flickers of animation in his journal are deceptive: as you look closer, they too flatten and depress. Melville is bottoming out:
Ride over mouldy plain to Dead Sea--Mountains on other side--Lake George--all but verdure--foam on beach & pebbles like slaver of mad dog--smarting bitter of the water--carried the bitter in my mouth all day--bitterness of life--thought of all bitter things--Bitter is is to be poor & bitter, to be reviled & Oh bitter are these waters of death, thought I--Rainbow over the Dead Sea--heaven, after all, has no malice against it--Old boughs tossed up by the water--relics of pick-nick....
That rainbow seems strangely out of place here: too pretty, bright, and benign for the Old Testament. Ditto for the leftover napkins and bits of wrapping paper from the picnic. We wonder whether Melville can survive another hour with such a taste on his tongue, like metaphysical Ipecac. Of course he survived another 34 years, still writing, still intent on self-erasure. According to the Census of 1880, he was alive and kicking:

He died in 1891, so thoroughly plunged into obscurity that the New York Times reported the demise of Henry Melville. The Morning Journal, a Pulitzer paper, managed to get his name right in its obituary of Tuesday, September 29. But I love the subhead, which proves that things haven't changed much after all: AUTHOR MELVILLE GONE: He Was Held by Cannibals, but He Made It Lucrative.

Good post.
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