Patterns of Recollections in Montaigne and Melville
William E. Engel
Published in Connotations Vol. 7.3 (1997/98)
The picture of history—be it the history of mankind, of the world of organisms, of the earth or of the stellar systems—is a memory−picture. "Memory," in this connexion, is conceived as a higher state … and it forms the necessary basis of all looking−backward, all self−knowledge and all self−confession.
Spengler, Decline of the West, III.1.v
What started out as a response has ended up as a full−fledged article, which is a tribute to the compelling case presented by Åke Bergvall regarding the extent to which "Renaissance and romantic poets were particularly eager to ascend both real and imaginary mountains" (44). By virtue of the judicious way the argument is staged, "Vision and Memory in Wordsworth and Petrarch" takes a cogent look at the inner experiences of these two poets writing about their ascents of actual mountains. The paradigm for analysis that is established works exceedingly well, irrespective of the extent to which "the fuller Augustinian context" (50) is evoked or assumed—and Bergvall even acknowledges there is no evidence that Wordsworth owned or read Augustine. Still, with the recent scholarship on the Church Father's place in English literature (and I am thinking here especially of Harold Weatherby's exposition of Spenser's theological allegory), Bergvall is wise to project a line of steady, if evanescent, influence.1)
[→page 33] In the essay climbing, along with the privileged perspective it affords, is discussed as an allegory of spiritual life. Though each poet uses it differently, what remains constant is that outer landscapes are translated into pictures of the poets' internal mindscapes (49). So compelling is Bergvall's theme that it inspired me to reflect on related cases so as to bring into higher relief other, similar peaks that are to be found in the sweeping panorama of the literary historical vista implicit in the thesis "Of Mountains and Men." Specifically, the strangely poetic prose sketches of Michel de Montaigne and Herman Melville can be seen to fit commodiously within the self−conscious autobiographical literary pattern so carefully demonstrated by Bergvall. In fact (as I will endeavor to suggest in what follows), Montaigne can be seen as the "mountain" situated between and linking Petrarch and Wordsworth; and Melville is the American range that passes just out of sight from the summit of Wordsworthian thought: "poetry" being understood as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, taking its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity (48). Thus, in much the same way as can be said of Petrarch and Wordsworth, Michel Eyquem, from the highest point of his ancestral chateau ("de Montaigne"), records his impressions of the enhanced if still fragmentary perspective he has gained of his surroundings and self; so too does Melville, whether he scales the Mast−head in Moby Dick or Rock Rodondo in The Encantadas only to descry that from such a towering observation point paradoxically comes, at best, a dizzying glimpse into the abyss of the human heart.
Memoria certe non modo Philosophiam, sed omnis vitae usum, omnésque artes una maxime continet. Assuredly memorie alone, of all other things, compriseth not onely Philosophy, but the use of our whole life, and all the sciences. Memorie is the receptacle and case of knowledge. Mine being so weake, I have no great cause to complaine if I know but little. I know the names of Arts in Generall, and what they treate of, but nothing further. I turne and tosse over bookes, but do not studie them; what of them remaines in me, is a thing which I no longer acknowledge to be any bodies else. Onely by that hath my judgement profited: and the discourses and imaginations, wherewith it is instructed and trained up. The authours, the place, the words, and other circumstances, I sodainly forget … .(II.17, 377−78)2)
[→page 334] It is with these words that Montaigne reiterated a Renaissance commonplace about "the case of knowledge" by reaching into his own storehouse of memory. He recycles a sentence from Cicero about the power of memory only to demonstrate, although perhaps self−ironically, that he has none. More specifically, he confesses that while he may have access to the names of things, he cannot claim knowledge of their substance; and further, that his recognition of this is the extent of what he can know despite of all his reading. The recollection and the subsequent application of those lessons and words from antiquity is what will wed theory to practice. So, despite Montaigne's claim to forget authors, places, and words, the seeds of the imported message, as mnemes, remained lodged within him and were capable of being situated in his discourse.3) And yet, he continues his confession of the extent of his defective memory: "as much as any thing else I forget mine own writings and compositions. Yea, mine owne sayings are every hand−while alleadged against my selfe, when God wot I perceive it not" (II.17, 378). Fortunately for Montaigne though, he could refer to his writings and compositions, review and revise them, and thereby make of them a kind of "artificial memory."4) Thus he records that: "For want of naturall memory I frame some of paper" (III.13, 356).5)
Attention to memory, even if it took the form of a preoccupation with having none, was central to the humanist program of rhetoric (Invention, Judgment, Memory, and Elocution) and to human learning in general. Francis Bacon placed additional emphasis on memory as the foundation of the intellectual arts: "the use of this invention is no other but out of the knowledge whereof our mind is already possessed, to draw forth or call before us that which may be pertinent to the purpose which we take into our consideration. So as, to speak truly, it is no Invention, but a Remembrance or Suggestion, with an application" (3:389)6). Moreover, his discussion of "Suggestion," as the second part of the "Art of Invention," reiterates the principles of the place−system method used in artificial memory schemes: "certain marks or places, which may excite our mind to return and produce such knowledge as it hath formerly collected, to the end we make use thereof " (3:391). Further, before launching his discussion of the theatre of the mind, that locality "wherein poetry" plays out its "feigned histories," Bacon describes history as "that part of learning which answereth to one [→page 335] of the cells, domiciles, or offices of the mind of man; which is that of the Memory" (3:342−43).
Bacon's treatment of the branches of human learning is based on conceits drawn from the classical ars memorativa and from allusions to Plato's theory of anamnesis—that all knowledge is predicated on remembrance.7) It is hardly surprising then that unlike Sidney and other apologists for poetry who maintained that it incorporated the best of, and thus was superior to, history and philosophy, Bacon did not view poetry as an integral part of true learning. Still, he was bound to use poetically oriented metaphors to express this point. For example his narrative ushers us along, as if strolling down a corridor within a Memory Theatre of his own making; our guide cautions us: "But it is not good to stay too long in the theatre. Let us now pass on to the judicial place or palace of the mind, which we are to approach and view with more reverence and attention" (3:206). The judicial place, or palace of the mind, refers to the seat of judgment or reason and, according to use of the metaphor in the late sixteenth century, it was one of three seats or faculties of the rational soul. The other two faculties, were imagination and memory, which corresponded respectively to poetry and history.8) History is, as the Ciceronian dictum put it, "lux veritatis, vita memoriae, magistra vitae, nuntia vetustatis [the light of truth, life of memory, judge of life, and herald of antiquity]." Thus Alexander Ross wrote in his continuation of Raleigh's History of the World, "History is a necessity to all, but chiefly to those who are set upon the Pinnacle of Honour … who being placed upon the Watch−Towers, had need of better eyes, and a longer Perspective than those who live below."9)
Montaigne was just such a man who, owing to fortune, circumstance and natural wit, was placed above many in his land. So too during each day of his "busy leisure," his retirement from public life, he scaled the stony pathway of stairs up to the top of "Montaigne" in both literal and figurative senses. By going up to his library in the tower of his ancestral chateau he gained a privileged perspective on his estate, as well as on his life and times. What is more, the same principles that informed the design of his library also animated his reflections and writing. He wrote from within a circular room that was filled with his numerous books and which was decorated with more than fifty sententiae on the beams overhead.10) [→page 336] The peculiar design of this room, while obviously quite personal with respect to the selected sententiae, reflects more generally the emblematic turn of mind typical of the Renaissance.42) It was from within this material Theatre of Memory that Montaigne could gain an enhanced view of things both in the world and in his mind. From here he could survey his entire household and grounds—and the ground of his experiences.
At home I betake me somwhat the oftner to my library, whence all at once I command and survay all my houshold; It is seated in the chief entrie of my house, thence I behold under me my garden, my base court, my yard, and looke even into most roomes of my house. (III.3, 49)
The locus of Montaigne's reflection, the site of his enhanced vision and writing, may be instructively seen in the light of Quintilian's words on the construction and aim of an artificial memory system.
The first thought is placed, as it were, in the forecourt; the second, let us say, in the living−room; the remainder are placed in due order all round the impluvium … all these places are visited in turn and the various deposits are demanded from their custodians, as the sight of each recalls the respective details.11)
It was from the imaginary retracing of one's steps through a familiar house that one could deposit and later retrieve bits of information. It was precisely from such a room that Montaigne ordered the apparent disorder of his thoughts and transformed them into the viable substance of his essays—and of his "essais," his trials or probings of the "self." Typical of a man who disdained pedants who recited words without understanding what they uttered (I.25, 138), he did not desire merely to accumulate information by means of his artificial memory, but sought to use such a system to order his thoughts, and ultimately to acquire knowledge and faithfully to represent the substance of what he discovered by virtue of this exercise. It was within this special room, he tells us, that his writing takes place in connection with his random perusing of books.
There without order, without method, and by peece−meales I turne over and ransacke, now one booke and now another. Sometimes I muse and rave; and walking up and downe I endight and enregister these my humours, these my conceits. (III.3, 49)
[→page 337] Then, as if taking the reader with him as he shuffles in his mind's eye from room to room, he describes what is to be seen—and what is to be remembered. The point of origin for this exercise, which is also the center of his Memory Palace, is his library.
It is placed on the third storie of a tower. The lowermost is my Chapell; the second a chamber with other lodgings, where I often lie, because I would be alone. Above it is a great ward−robe. It was in times past the most unprofitable place of all my house. There I [passe] the greatest part of my lives dayes, and weare out most houres of the day. I am never there a nights: Next unto it is a handsome neat cabinet, able and large enough to receive fire in winter, and very pleasantly windowen. And if I feared not care, more than cost; (care which drives and diverts me from all businesse) I might easily joyne a convenient gallerie of a hundred paces long, and twelve broad, on each side of it, and upon one floore; having already, for some other purpose, found all the walles raised unto a convenient height. Each retired place requireth a walke. My thoughts are prone to sleepe, if I sit long. My minde goes not alone as if [legges] did moove it. Those that study without bookes, are all in the same case. The forme of it is round, and hath no flat side, but what serveth for my table and chaire: In which bending or circling manner, at one looke it offreth me the full sight of all my books, set round about upon shelves or desks, five rancks one upon another. (III.3, 49)
Montaigne displays here a well−developed sense of being able to create places within his mind as in his home. This enables him to claim for himself ample space to stretch out and exercise his body as well as his mind. In the same spirit as Petrarch's and Wordsworth's mountain explorations, Montaigne's words take us along with him as he describes the places he encounters. Each object that comes into view warrants further elaboration—even a non−existent gallery of a hundred paces long. Because of the physical design of this room, as well as the disposition of his books within it, he was able to take in all of his volumes at a single glance; and, perhaps in gazing upon one of the "five rancks" of his books he would remember some anecdote or tale that would inspire him to rise, walk to the shelf and "turne over and ransacke, now one booke and now another." The design of the shelves coincides with the decorum of artificial memory schemes which esteemed five as the basis for mnemonic organization.12) And so, whether glancing at the beams overhead or strolling through his library, Montaigne was put in mind of choice sententiae which fueled his "inventions," and which, in turn, furthered his program to "make trials" [→page 338] of and to plumb the depths of "the self" that constituted the groundwork of his literary endeavor. This, after all, Montaigne declares in II.6 (58−59), was the philosophical goal of his retirement (see also II.10, 94) Thus situated, as heir to the estate whence his celebrated pen−name of Montaigne derives, his library was indeed the central seat of his chateau.
It hath three bay−windowes, of a farre−extending, rich and unresisted prospect, and is in diameter sixteene paces void… . which pleaseth me the more, … that I may the better seclude my selfe from companie, and keepe incrochers from me: There is my seat, there is my throne. I endevour to make my rule therein absolute. (III.3, 49−50)
The surface correspondence, broadly speaking, between the three−windowed room mentioned in III.3 to the literary architecture of the three books of the Essais calls further attention to Montaigne's technique of introjecting his surroundings into his text even as he had projected textual elements onto the design of his library.13)
The double theme of recalling the words and deeds of others and of searching for the appropriate place to sit in judgment pervades Montaigne's essays both early and late in his career. It is figured emblematically on his celebrated medal of the scales shown in balance; and is also evident in his personal motto, "Qui sçai je" [What do I know?].14) In his "Apology for Raymond Sebond" (II.12), for example, Montaigne maintains that man is incapable of true knowledge—namely, that which goes beyond recollection or resemblance—especially when regarding himself. Academic philosophers held that while we cannot know what is true, we can recognize what is probable; however, Montaigne denied this, arguing that if we do not know the true (le vray), then surely we cannot know what resembles it (le vraysemblable).15) Another, more intimate, way of looking at this double−bind which is so much a part of Montaigne's inherited intellectual tradition and which his text seeks to disengage, comes in his address to Mme. De Duras: "For, al I seeke to reape by my writings, is, they will naturally represent and to the life, pourtray me to your remembrance" (II.37, 520). As Steven Rendall has observed of this passage, "the resemblance that makes re−cognition possible depends upon a previous knowledge … . The transparency of meaning Montaigne postulates in the face−to−face encounter is at once the cornerstone of his conception of a written self−portrait and the mark of its fragility."16)
[→page 339] Thus what distinguishes Montaigne's position from that of other upholders of the skeptical tradition in the Renaissance is his literary practice: the essays constantly move between the poles of "le vray" and "le vraysemblable." Consequently the essays themselves are used to wage an ongoing critique not only of the opposition between truth of higher forms and resemblances, but also of the age−old opposition between intelligible and sensible objects of knowledge. From his own textual practice, we know that Montaigne was a close reader of his own book, and his movement in and out of the different temporal strata of his Essais, just as his own text's movements in and out of those of others, kept in suspense the very structure of the opposition between truth and resemblance, between things apprehended by intelligence alone and things apprehended through sensation. Therefore, the author (or rather, some representation of what he aspired to portray of himself) is the matter ("la matiere") or substance, the groundwork, of the essays.17) Consequently his translation of the Platonic axiom "knowledge is remembrance" into the program of the essays, in both word and in spirit, links Montaigne's use of sententiae to the larger epistemological concern of the Renaissance with respect to how man came to know, and to view his place in the world. Further, in the spirit of Augustine and Petrarch as discussed by Bergvall, Montaigne's writing is concerned with how he can get language to convey the furthest extent of his luminous and scattered thoughts, memories, and sensations. To accomplish this, Montaigne arranged sententiae in the essays in a way that corresponded to the placement of images in the arts of memory. Just as the sententiae were placeholders in Montaigne's text, the imaginary places and rooms constituting the great palace of the mind were repositories, storehouses and treasuries of past images, words and deeds.
With this in mind, we can see in a new light a key passage usually read as the author's most cogent statement of his union with his book:
In framing this pourtraite by my selfe, I have so often beene faine to frizle and trimme me, that so I might the better extract my selfe, that the patterne is therby confirmed, and in some sort formed. Drawing my selfe for others, I have drawne my selfe with purer and better colours, then were my first. I have no more made my booke, then my booke hath made me. A booke consubstantiall to his Author: Of a peculiar and fit occupation. A member of my life. (II.18, 392)
[→page 340] It may well imply a union, but one that refers to the constitution of the character created as result of the essays—seen as they are as a composite element tacked onto the essayist's being and having a power over it. The resulting image he saw of himself was a fractured body which, like his book, was a pastiche, willy−nilly, of disparate apothegms and appendages collected and rearranged to suit his ends.
To the end I may in some order and project marshall my fantasie, even to dote, and keepe it from loosing, and straggling in the aire, there is nothing so good, as to give it a body, and register so many idle imaginations as present themselves unto it. I listen to my humors, and harken to my conceits, because I must enroule them … . I never studie to make a booke; Yet had I somewhat studied, because I had already made it (if to nibble or pinch, by the head or feet, now one Author, and then another be in any sort to study) but nothing at all to forme my opinions: Yea being long since formed, to assist, to second and to serve them. (II.18, 392−93)
Montaigne saw, and could recognize, aspects of himself in the books he read and in the book he spent the last part of life writing and rewriting. Through fragments of the voices of others he sought to collect and represent the scattered and disjointed nature of the "self" he had sought to document and observe and come to know. It is in this sense that knowledge for Montaigne was based on re−collection. His interior terrain was that which the essayist sought to survey and scale through the process of writing. From atop his chateau, Montaigne sought to "register so many idle imaginations as present themselves" (II.18, 392). Thus his quest to recollect and, literally, to re−member, and thus to give a body to the membra disjecta of his experience, runs parallel to what Bergvall discusses in terms of Augustine's spiritual autobiography and Petrarch's ostensible goal in his Rime sparse of "trying to collect the scattered pieces of his life and love into a coherent and harmonious whole" (52).
It was during the more pleasant weather, that in due rotation with the other seamen my first mast−head came round… . Let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit that I kept but very sorry guard. With the problem of the universe revolving around me, how could I—being left completely to myself at such a thought−engendering altitude,—how could I but lightly hold my [→page 341] obligations to observe all whale−ships' standing orders, "Keep your weather eye open, and sing out every time." … [B]ut lulled into such an opium−like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of the deep, blue bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half−seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly−discovered, up−rising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space.
Melville, Moby−Dick, "The Mast−head," XXXV
Morris W. Croll observed in his discussion of Montaigne, Pascal, Burton, and Browne, that it was characteristic of the fragmented "baroque" prose style, so reminiscent of epigrammatic poetry:
that an idea separated from the act of experiencing it is not the idea that was experienced. The ardor of its conception in the mind is a necessary part of its truth; and unless it can be conveyed to another mind in something of the form of its occurrence, either it has changed into some other idea or it has ceased to be an idea, to have any existence whatever except as a verbal one.18)
And so too for Melville, who like Petrarch and Wordsworth, sought to communicate something of his effort to re−collect and then arrange the membra disjecta of his experience, especially as pertains to scaling precipitous heights. Like Montaigne before him, Melville sought ingeniously to recycle the words of others so that they might be made to speak beyond their original contexts and thus serve double−duty according to his own purpose. And what was the purpose toward which Melville's reinscription of Renaissance and Baroque topics and themes, sententiae and exempla, tended? In his turning to aphoristic turns of phrase (as the etymology of "trope" implies), Melville so thoroughly turned his attention to literary artifice that "for a time, indeed, his imitation of Browne's style bordered on ventriloquism."19) Further, Melville's stylistic eccentricities, which throughout his literary career take him from the world of realistic descriptions to "symbolic thresholds," are rooted in his "discovery of Rabelais, Robert Burton, and Sir Thomas Browne."20)
[→page 342] Given Melville's well−known affinity for Renaissance and Baroque literature, it is not surprising to discover just how often he applied to his own tales the dominant themes and techniques associated with ambling, encyclopedic essayists like Montaigne and Burton. This is especially true in Moby−Dick and Mardi, and yet can better be seen at a glance in The Encantadas (one of the five Piazza Tales) because, in effect, this short story is a mnemonic mirror in miniature, an abstract, of the journey toward self−discovery and −loss that is typical of the longer ocean−going novels. Compacted tightly within the loose structure of the ten sketches making up The Encantadas we can see evidence that Melville was conscious of and, at times, self−ironic about, his debt to Baroque allegory and the themes, techniques, and world−view most often associated with the Montaignean mounting of the heights of the self to survey what is to be found there. But most importantly, the ten sketches can be seen as a "decade" of ten background images displayed in a Memory Theatre, like those way−posts placed and disposed along a mnemonic route which thereby provides fertile topics of invention.21)
It is with melancholy intimations that Melville acquaints his readers with the subject, scene, and tone of the ten sketches of the Enchanted Isles, couched as a digressive travel narrative.
In many places the coast is rock−bound, or, more properly clinker−bound; tumbled masses … forming dark clefts and caves here and there, into which a ceaseless sea pours a fury of foam; … screaming flights of unearthly birds heightening the dismal din. However calm the sea without, there is no rest for these swells and those rocks; they lash and are lashed, even when the outer ocean is most at peace with itself … a most Plutonian sight. In no world but a fallen one could such lands exist.22)
The scene described, which is populated by "unearthly birds" is all too earthly; in fact, quite literally, it is nothing but earth. How then is the traveller to describe this apparently alien landscape, the product of a fallen world? As Bergvall points out in this regard though with respect to Petrarch: "neither images nor language were always reliable, partaking as they did in the Fall" (53). Thus the depiction of the restlessness of this locale, paralleling a subdued restlessness within the soul of the speaker, was a fitting challenge to Melville as a "self−conscious symbolist."23)
[→page 343] The short story begins with fragments of Spenserian verse and then launches into a description of the nature of the Enchanted Isles. Similar fragments preface each of the sketches, and, coincidentally, "Sketch Fourth" uses lines from Faerie Queene (I.10.53−55) quoted in part by Bergvall (44). The Encantadas concludes with lines ostensibly by a lone grave−marker that at once are emblematic of Melville's self−conscious literary design and also indicative of the Montaignean view that any construction is, as the etymology implies, the piling up of parts and, as such, necessarily marked by artificiality and transience. The text reminds us of this from the first sketch to the last. For example, the final sketch rhymes its way awkwardly and ludicrously toward a final word.
It is but fit that … the Encantadas, too, should bury their own dead, even as the general monastery of earth does hers… . The interment over, some good−natured forecastle poet and artist seizes his paintbrush, and inscribes a doggerel epitaph … as a specimen of these epitaphs, take the following, found in a bleak gorge of Chatham Isle:—
"Oh, Brother Jack, as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I.
Just so game, and just so gay,
But now, alack, they've stopped my pay.
No more I peep out of my blinkers,
Here I be—tucked in with clinkers!" (207)
Indeed, it is fitting that, at the end of the ten sketches, we are left with "clinkers!" to echo in the chamber of our mind, like a rock chink−clinking its way down a ravine. The verse, framed by the conceit of "grave−stones, or rather grave−boards" (206), is inscribed by one who has imagined himself to be another: the "good−natured forecastle poet and artist" gives words to and presumes to speak for another, for the one who is dead. He assumes the voice of someone who, from the vantage point of the future, would be in a position to say (had he breath to speak) that he was "tucked in with clinkers." The conceit of the grave−board which brings to a close the tenth sketch, and which is the last "voice" we hear from the Enchanted Isles, at once functions literally and allegorically. It is quite literally a memento mori emblem, and, as part of the larger allegorical structure both animating and giving shape to the more encompassing work, it enacts and depicts [→page 344] the very process by which such an emblematic conceit conveys its meaning and then passes away into silence, into the dark night of "Nothing which we scarcely know."24)
The good−natured artist (the anonymous forecastle poet, who is "Salvator R. Tarnmoor," who is Melville—a topic I can only introduce here but which will be discussed more thoroughly at the end of this section), through his craft, shows us an intimation of our own future passing. Such a graphic calling out to the passer−by from that bleak gorge of Chatham Isle is also, and more properly, a calling out to the reader who, in a moment, will have completed the text, and, like the passer−by will leave that marker behind and go on with his affairs. This moment of being about to pass beyond the text is figured as having been inscribed on the mocking sign−post of death, which suggests there is literally "nothing beyond the text" in question. This grimly ironic memento mori episode is facilitated by virtue of a host of fairly typical baroque framing mechanisms. The whole work, as macrocosm, defies and mockingly spurs the limits of mortal vision ("No more I peep out of my blinkers"), while alternative perspectives are represented in the smaller worlds, or islands, of the Enchanted Group in ways that undercut any pretense of ever being able to accede to a vantage point that affords a totalizing view. From first to last, the literary strategy characterizing The Encantadas is citation, combined with the exhaustive juxtaposition of copious descriptive tropes. Put in more philosophical terms, the text tacitly and repeatedly poses the question of how one goes about describing the nature of description.25)
In what follows then, my necessarily truncated examination of several key moments from the opening sketches of The Encantadas will serve to flesh out how this vexed issue of seeking faithfully to represent description was integral to Melville's philosophy of composition. As if setting before himself the challenge of a commonplace−book exercise, Melville took as the subject of his narrative rocks−clinkers. Following a pastiche of Spenserian citations concerning "The Wandering Isles," which sets the pace and tone of the entire work ("For whosoever once hath fastened ⁄ His foot thereon may never it secure ⁄ But wandreth evermore uncertain and unsure") "Sketch First" begins:
[→page 345] Take five−and−twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot; imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea; and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles; looking much as the world at large might, after a penal conflagration. (149)
The image opening the narrative is one which imports to a familiar urban setting an utterly alien natural world. The vacant lot of the sea becomes the chief background in this deserted Memory Palace, with its enchanted five by five heaps (a number and a sequence traditionally esteemed by mnemonists). The "chief sound of life" there is "a hiss" (150). Thus this "Plutonian" region is, by nature, incommodious to narration, and, indeed, to human life itself; further, it defies even the gaze which makes speaking about its differences possible.26) But, as the ten sketches bear out, this in itself makes the Enchanted Group well suited for being adorned with distinctive and memorable tales imposed on the various isles from the outside—much in the same way as images conventionally are used in the classical ars memorativa.
Indeed, there are seasons when currents quite unaccountable prevail for a great distance round about the total group … . The difference in the reckonings of navigators produced by these causes, along with the light and variable winds, long nourished a persuasion that there existed two distinct clusters of isles in the parallel of the Encantadas, about a hundred leagues apart. Such was the idea of their earlier visitors, the Buccaneers; and as late as 1750, the charts of that part of the Pacific accorded with the strange delusion. And this apparent fleetingness and unreality of the locality of the isles was most probably one reason for the Spaniards calling them the Encantada, or Enchanted Group. (152)
The "unreality of the locality" poses an epistemological problem of how one might come to know and then describe, and thus to represent, this most substantial, most material, and most "grounded" of subjects—rocks. One resolution is to attribute supernatural qualities to these rocks. But this does not solve the problem, because the label "the unreality of the locality" does not make it unreal or supernatural. By presenting the reader with the history of "the delusion of the double cluster," of positing two distinct groups, Melville brings into view the double issue of description and self−representation so prominent in the writings of Montaigne. While [→page 346] The Encantadas is constructed with this in mind, the tale is more than just an ingenious literary exercise illustrating how the problem of attaining knowledge of an object is also the problem of narration, and of literature broadly conceived. Still, given the syncretic structure of the Encantadas (as a chain of islands) and of The Encantadas (a text, recall, that is mnemonically and allegorically composed of ten sketches), the possibility of there being a discrete, coherent "whole" is frustrated at every turn.27) The Enchanted Group, like the text, may be compared to the description of a Galapagos penguin in "Sketch Third" as "neither fish, flesh, nor fowl … though dabbling in all three elements, and indeed possessing some rudimental claims to all … at home in none" (160).
This problem of description with respect to the nature of the space from and about which the narrator represents a land figured as "outlandish," has been addressed more generally by Walter Benjamin when he noted of the baroque allegorical mode, the self−confessed inability to possess the Truth, "its signifying technique is to represent Truth in its total act."28) It is, perhaps, in accord with this view, that part of the narrative strategy mobilized in "Sketch First ⁄ The Isles at Large" is description through negative attributes.
Another feature in these isles is their emphatic uninhabitableness. It is deemed a fit type of all−forsaken over−throw, that the jackal should den in the wastes of weedy Babylon; but the Encantadas refuse to harbor even the outcasts of the beasts. Man and wolf alike disown them. Little but reptile life is here found: tortoises, lizards, immense spiders, snakes, and that strangest anomaly of outlandish nature, the iguana. No voice, no low, no howl is heard; the chief sound of life here is a hiss. (150)
This "woebegone landscape," the object of narration, which never occasioned human life and can only accommodate it at the price of great hardship, is a space naturally devoid of human reference and referents—and so anything human that comes into contact with it stands out from the rocky background most emphatically. To speak about any of the petrific places requires that they be visited and their details noted and scrutinized: they must be invaded visually. And it is precisely in this movement that we are implicated with the narrator as transgressors in a realm unvisited and unviewed by humans. Our vision of these [→page 347] memorable places however is conditioned by the movements of the narrator's roving eye, which ushers us through what amounts to an inversion of Dante's infernal descent, "as we ascend from shelf to shelf" (159). And so—as was seen to be the case with Petrarch and also Montaigne—the human eye can never take in the extent of subject in question from a single, albeit privileged or elevated, perspective; the same applies to the Enchanted Group which we can view from its egregious center (if center it can be said to have).29) Therefore, in "Sketch Third," Rock Rodondo "takes on a metaphoric quality that gives it a poetic as well as geographical command of its surroundings. Like 'The Bell−Tower' of a great Italian Cathedral, which was to form the subject of a later story, the Rock rises precipitately to yield a view."30)
Following our guide, we are taken up Rock Rodondo, only half−aware that it is another of Melville's mnemonic moral microcosms. In the instant when the prospective panorama is about to come into full view, we are told that we have reached an impasse. We can go no farther, and where we are is not far enough to accomplish all that we had desired from our prospective and steady ascent.
To go up into a high stone tower is … the very best mode of gaining a comprehensive view of the region round about … . Much thus, one fancies, looks the universe from Milton's celestial battlements … . Having thus by such distant reference—with Rodondo the only possible one—settled our relative place on the sea, let us consider objects not quite so remote. Behold the grim and charred Enchanted Isles … . If you could only see so far, just to one side of that same headland, across yon low dikey ground, you would catch sight of the isle of Narborough. (158, 163, 165−66; my emphasis)
Reminiscent of Montaigne's projection of a gallery one hundred paces long, Melville's description of what we would have been able to see puts into practice a description of allegory, like that discussed by Benjamin, as representing one thing in terms of another while pointing out the limitations of this procedure.31) Consistent with this motif, the first five sketches outline in different ways the recognition that narrative description, no matter how encompassing or copious, is bound to fall short. In the face of this recognition (which parallels the acknowledgment of one's mortality) our guide, identified as "Salvator R. Tarnmoor," narrates "Sketch Fourth [→page 348] ⁄ Pisgah view from the Rock" with a sense of playfulness reminiscent of Montaigne's interweaving of sententiae and exempla and of the satirical whimsy of Burton as "Democritus Junior" in The Anatomy of Melancholy. Much of the humor in "Sketch Fourth" turns on the ironic association of this vantage−point with Mount Pisgah (Deuteronomy 34) where Moses, prior to his death, is permitted by God to glimpse, although he cannot enter, the promised land.32) This image describes our case as well with respect to the realm of Truth, where projected metaphors of exactitude must be used emphatically to supplement the natural limits of mortal vision.
Did you ever lay an eye on the real genuine Equator? Have you ever, in the largest sense, toed the Line? Well, that identical crater−shaped headland there, all yellow lava, is cut by the Equator exactly as a knife cuts straight through the centre of a pumpkin pie. (166; my emphasis)
At each turn in the narrative—whether through the contemplation of the impossibility of figuring, let alone of seeing, the complete archipelago; or, through what is actually described as having been seen of the "grim and charred Enchanted Islands"—there are hints of irremediable melancholy. The hyperbolic dryness of these "five−and−twenty heaps of cinders" is reminiscent of the notion of "Melancholy adust," the corruption of any humor by excessive heat, which was a main subject in Robert Burton's Anatomy.33) From Dürer's celebrated visual epitome which allegorizes the heavy humor to Shakespeare's "melancholy Dane," this state−of−mind brought about by an excess of dry elements was among the most codified syndromes of the Baroque.34) Melancholy, as both a temperament and an emotional preoccupation, was a central psychological concern of the age—a preoccupation well known to Salvator R. Tarnmoor. And this raises the issue of the nature and character of the author of the ten sketches. Melancholy characterizes and that helps account for Tarnmoor's disposition and his yearning to travel and to scale great heights and look around at the surrounding landscape and within his own mindscape (as Bergvall puts it); so too does it account for Ishmael's need to forsake dry land and "see the watery part of the world" as a way of "driving off the spleen" in Moby Dick. But the course of melancholy runs [→page 349] deeper still, for even though there is no doubt that Melville visited the Galapagos Islands, The Encantadas marks the only time in his literary career when he used a pseudonym.
Melville's masquerading as Salvator R. Tarnmoor, the author of "The Encantadas" when it was first published in Putnam's Magazine (1854), is reminiscent of Burton's intruding "upon this common theatre to the world's view … arrogating another man's name," and publishing his work under the "vizard" of Democritus Junior (I, 12−13). Salvator R. Tarnmoor, like Democritus Junior, is represented as melancholic; moreover, Tarnmoor is billed as a craftsman determined to provide the reader with several sketches, or draughts of draughts, describing an oceanic phenomenon which seems to pass all description. He is a sailor−turned−raconteur. Such a description of the narrator, and the thematization of the problem of narrative description, recalls Ishmael in Moby−Dick as well. The author's "authority" to tell the tale and reveal aspects of himself to the reader is not altogether undermined though by his use of an alter ego;35) it does not detract from the power of this expression of what, in another context, Steven Greenblatt has termed "the will to absolute play."36) Rather the result is a redoubled significance of the terms which Melville set up in his artwork, which he set in play through his journey of self−discovery and self−description, and which parallels his narration of the tour of the Enchanted Islands.
The name Melville chose for himself, the locus from which he enunciates his memories of a voyage to the Galapagos mixed with his filchings from Porter's Journal and other texts as well, is one brimming over with allegorical implications. "Salvator" conjures up the most mystical notion of Christianity: the Savior, who by a supreme act of caritas suffered to live among men and die on the cross. Thus was the Word made flesh.37) The ultimate salvation of the individual, and of mankind, culminates in a final, "penal conflagration" like that alluded to in the opening of The Encantadas: "In no world but a fallen one could such lands exist" (29). "Salvator" suggests ironically one who heals or cures, and also one who would be saved or cured.38) The Baroque tradition of writing as a curative both to writer and to reader figured most prominently in the projects of Montaigne and Burton, and to some extent in Browne's essays.39) The inclusion of [→page 350] middle initial "R" mediates the two parts of his alter−ego, Salvator and Tarnmoor. Further "Salvator R." encourages us to presume that his pseudonym recalls the Baroque artist Salvator Rosa (1615−1673), known best for his tenebrous allegorical landscape paintings, among the more well−known is one called "Melancholy."40) As already suggested, the "R" is a phonemic hinge for "Salvator" and "Tarnmoor"; it echoes the terminal letter of his (rather) Christian name, and a medial and the final sound in "Tarnmoor."
The patronymic "Tarnmoor" calls to mind both a "tarn," a glacial lake left atop a mountain as the ice recedes, and "moor," a flooded and barren ground or a wasteland. Moor might also evoke the pathos of an Ishmael−like outsider, one who is out of place among the world of Whiteness, whether regarding people or whales. When taken together, these geological terms (tarn and moor) suggest the double image of a land which is antithetical to that of the arid, seasonless Encantadas: the tarn is water enclosed by land and the Enchanted Isles are surrounded by the open ocean. Both however intimate "desolation above Idumea and the Pole" (150). And Melville, a seaman himself (and a self−conscious allegorist), may well have been playing on the verb moor, meaning to secure a vessel (on the shore abutting the vast sea of meaning). The fixing of the location of the Isles, like the mooring or fixing of an image of the Isles in a narrative—like the fixing of one's identity in and through words—remains a fleeting mast−head dream at best, a delusion at worse.
When all is said and done, and there are no more metaphorical mountains left to conquer, Wordsworth's like Petrarch's effort to account for what was discovered about his place in a grander scheme from the experience of gaining an elevated perspective ultimately comes down to what Melville, in his way, represented as the "fleetingness and unreality of the locality" that was but "one reason for … calling them the Enchanted Group" (152). What for Augustine is characterized as mystic union, for Melville is reduced to "the feeling that in my time I have indeed slept upon evilly enchanted ground. Nay, such is the vividness of my memory, or the magic [→page 351] of my fancy, that I know not whether I am not the occasional victim of optical delusion concerning the Gallipagos."41)
Melville's sketchy narrative about rising above fragments of ruin ("ropes now, and let us ascend. Yet soft, this is not so easy" concludes "Sketch Third") models and enacts a philosophy of composition, one based on re−collection and on the tentativeness of reliable vision whether concerning external or internal things, one that is predicated on the merging of memory (the human faculty associated with the recording of history) and poetry (associated with fancy). Petrarch on Mount Ventrous, Michel Eyquem from "Montaigne," Wordsworth on Snowden, and Melville as Tarnmoor on Rock Rodondo, each in his own way, illuminates a corner of the central chamber in the Memory Palace of the history of literary autobiography that is projected—and sketched—in Augustine's Confessions (X.8):
I rise by stages towards the God who made me. The next stage is memory, which is like a great field or a spacious place, a storehouse for countless images if all kinds which are conveyed to it by the senses… . In the memory everything is preserved separately, according to its category. Each is admitted through its own special entrance… . All these sensations are retained in the great storehouse of the memory, which in some indescribable way secrets them in its folds … . All this goes on inside me, in the vast cloisters of my memory … . In it I meet myself as well.