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literature

Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-B  C-E  F-L  M-Z

     
Melville, Herman (1819-1891)  
 
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Redburn greets Harry with enthusiasm, finding in him the European version of the tayo or ideal friend. The physical description of Harry emphasizes his "womanly" qualities and gives him an androgynous beauty. Although Redburn exclaims, "I now had a comrade . . . . Harry . . . shared with me his purse and his heart," he resists giving his "whole soul" to Harry, even as he insists that he is still searching for "the unbounded bosom of some immaculate friend."

Harry takes Redburn to Aladdin's Palace, a mysterious den of unspecified iniquity that is probably meant to suggest a male brothel as well as a gambling den. Redburn's naiveté is such that he cannot grasp the nature of the "Palace" (ironically named) or indeed of Harry's place as a prostitute in a world of "molly houses."

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Melville no longer seems content to depict the ideal world of the South Seas; he must locate his male friends in a real social space. But where will that be? And how will they inhabit it? These questions were almost impossible to answer in the 1840s. The marginalization of the homosexual, which as Foucault suggests, follows on the creation of a homosexual identity, makes all friendship suspect.

Harry is also a figure of the artist, another marginal figure in the new social structure. His Orphic voice has the power of undermining the authority of the ship, of returning his listeners to a pastoral world of untrammeled desire.

In that pastoral, there is another musician, the young Carlo, who is described as a young wine god, Caravaggio's Bacchus, perhaps. As the beautiful adolescent, Carlo is permitted a degree of gender ambiguity that would be impossible even for Harry. He offers a long paean of praise to his hand organ, a remarkable celebration of masturbation that would later be echoed in the sperm-squeezing scene in Moby-Dick.

Carlo's music has extraordinary power to "make, unmake me; build me up; to pieces take me." Even as he celebrates this remarkable music and its creator, Redburn the narrator must sacrifice his friend Harry, described as a "hunted . . . zebra . . . pursued from bowsprit to mainmast."

Harry's refusal to climb the mast a second time marks his cowardice and lack of masculinity for the crew. The "girlish youth" is too much like the Lord Byron to be able to survive in the new world of New York.

Redburn returns home, apparently finding no place in his life for his friend Harry, just as Melville could not write a text in which the two friends could find a life together. The world of Byron was over, replaced by a new American democratic reality of economic competition and masculine energy.

Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick, Melville's greatest work, brings together almost all the themes of his earlier work. The character of Queequeg takes on many of the qualities of the Polynesian figures, whereas the captain, Ahab, is a culmination of all the versions of evil captains abusing power, even as he is pitied in his loneliness and isolation.

The incisive political commentary on American imperialism and the failure of democracy is given an ever sharper edge, as Melville imagines an America driven by a madman toward destruction, just retribution for racial crimes. Once again male friendship offers an opportunity for resistance, and here that opportunity comes closest to realization.

The first sections of the novel concern the preparation for a whaling trip. On the way to Nantucket, Ishmael, the narrator, has to spend a night in New Bedford. Since the inn is crowded, he has to share accommodations in the landlord's wedding bed with a harpooner, Queequeg. The thought of spending the night with a cannibal arouses comically inflated fears in Ishmael.

Finally reluctantly going to bed, Ishmael awakens the next morning to find "Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife." Their friendship is maintained throughout, until Queequeg's coffin becomes the means of Ishmael's survival from the wreck of the Pequod.

The language of the first scenes featuring the two men is filled with imagery of marriage as well as with a sense of sexual and racial transgression. Ishmael remembers a crime for which he had been punished by his stepmother, and he finds "hugging a fellow male in that matrimonial sort of way" "unbecoming."

The male domestic idyll is interrupted by chapters that depict the chapel and the sermon of Father Mapple, reminders of the source of the fear of otherness and particularly of male friendship in Christianity. Ishmael concludes, "I'll try a pagan friend . . . since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy."

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