The OF Blog: Herman Melville, Mardi

Monday, January 25, 2016

Herman Melville, Mardi

Her name was Yillah.  And hardly had the waters of Oroolia washed white her olive skin, and tinged her hair with gold, when one day strolling in the woodlands, she was snared in the tendrils of a vine.  Drawing her into its bowers, it gently transformed her into one of its blossoms, leaving her conscious soul folded up in the transparent petals.

Here hung Yillah in a trance, the world without all tinged with the rosy hue of her prison.  At length when her spirit was about to burst forth in the opening flower, the blossom was snapped from its stem; and borne by a soft wind to the sea; where it fell into the opening valve of a shell; which in good time was cast upon the beach of the Island of Amma.

In the dream, these events were revealed to Aleema the priest; who by a spell unlocking its pearly casket, took forth the bud, which now showed signs of opening in the reviving air, and bore faint shadowy revealings, as of the dawn behind crimson clouds.  Suddenly expanding, the blossom exhaled away in perfumes; floating a rosy mist in the air.  Condensing at last, there emerged from this mist the same radiant young Yillah as before; her locks all moist, and a rose-colored pearl on her bosom.  Enshrined as a goddess, the wonderful child now tarried in the sacred temple of Apo, buried in a dell; never beheld of mortal eyes save Aleema's. (pp. 799-800, Library of America edition)
After the successes of Typee and Omoo, with their exotic locales and wondrous marvels, it might have been expected by contemporary readers that Melville's third novel, Mardi, might mine this rich narrative vein one more time.  At first, there were indeed some similarities to the first two novels, as the protagonist, Taji, accompanied by a fellow sailor, Jarl, have relieved a captain of one of his lifeboats, as they set sail for new adventures.  For the first third of Mardi, the tone and prose resemble that of his earlier works.

However, after a little over one hundred pages into this 654 page novel, the narrative shifts wildly into something that is much, much more complex than what any might expect.  As Taji and his companion begin exploring islands in the region, it becomes clear that these new discoveries are as much representations of philosophical ideals and political allegories as they are adventure tales.  Melville's prose shifts from a more expository form to a denser, allusion-rich style, with islands such as Dominora, Porpheero, and Vivenza representing divers nations and their world-views.

At the heart of this allegorical "world" narrative (the word "Mardi" means "world" in certain Polynesian dialects), lies the story of Yillah, whose origin is quoted above.  She is Taji's la belle dame sans merci, minus the cruel capriciousness.  She is an ideal woman, or perhaps it is better to say that she is the Ideal after which Taji quests, despite being haunted by the shades of those he has killed in the past.  There is a touch of Captain Ahab to his character, especially in the single-mindedness of his yearning to find Yillah, yet Taji's afflictions are not as clear-cut as those of Moby Dick's hunter.

Mardi requires a great deal of patience from the reader, as it necessitates a greater willingness to not just suspend disbelief, but also to parse the plethora of allegories to political and social customs.  At times, the reader will be rewarded for her efforts, as Melville certainly supplies several fascinating takes on literal matters of life and death, of love and desire.  However, there are also many troughs where the reader might find herself wondering if the author has lost his way and has been swallowed up in his tempestuous sea of words.

On the whole, Mardi is a rather uneven narrative.  The joins are at times quite visible, especially as Melville shifts from a straightforward action/adventure tale to a more metaphorical one.  Readers desirous of a linear plot might find themselves baffled by his chapters-long ruminations on certain points of philosophy, yet for those of us who find delight in being confronted with such passages, there are many gems nearly as valuable as those found in his magnum opus.  The Taji/Yillah quest, although not the only one found in the narrative (there are several ancillary ones, some of which dovetail into this central one), in particular is a symbolism-laden tale that leads the reader to consider the battle of Will and Fate, of Love and Desire, of Truth and (self) Deception.  The dream-like qualities of the latter half of the novel certainly bring these themes to the forefront.

However fascinating these themes are, they unfortunately are not always integrated well into the text.  The Yillah arc, for example, is introduced nearly 150 pages into the story and there is the acute sense of prior plot developments either being abandoned or otherwise reduced in seeming importance.  Furthermore, the chapters devoted to the relations between the fictitious islands at certain key times fails to impress upon the reader their full potential power.  Yet despite these shortcomings that make Mardi as much an essay and failure than a fully-realized achievement, it certainly is a novel that deserves multiple reads and careful consideration.  It may be no Moby Dick, but within its pages can be seen the evolution of thought that led to that masterpiece.  For those brave enough to engage it, Mardi can be the sort of challenging, mindblowing sort of fiction that is all too rare these days.  If only more "failures" were akin to it.

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