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“Tis double death to drown in ken of shore”: melville and the politics of spectatorship

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From Andrew Delbanco’s discussion of The Encantadas in his Melville: His World and Work:

In the eighth of the ten Encantadas sketches… This time the fated woman is not a Nantucket bride but an Indian woman, Hunilla, dropped off by a whaleship with her husband and brother on an expedition to gather Galapagos tortoises, prized for the sweetness of their meant. While awaiting the ship’s return, the two men are caught in a squall that capsizes their catamaran:

Before Hunilla’s eyes they sank. The real woe of this event passed before her sight as some sham tragedy on the stage. She was seated on a rude bower among the withered thickets crowning a lofty cliff, a little back from the beach. The thickets were so disposed that in looking upon the sea at large she peered out from among the branches as from the lattice of a high balcony. But upon the day we speak of here, the better to watch the adventure of those two hearts she loved, Hunilla had withdrawn the branches to one side, and held them so. They formed an oval frame, through which the bluely boundless sea rolled like a painted one. And there the invisible painter painted to her view the wave-tossed and disjointed raft, its once level logs slantingly upheaved, as raking masts, and the four struggling arms undistinguishable among them, and then all subsided into smooth-flowing creamy waters, slowly drifting the splintered wreck, while, first and last, no sound of any sort was heard. Death in a silent picture, a dream of the eye, such vanishing shapes as the mirage shows.

 With this harrowing passage, Melville joined a number of ninteenth-century writers who were drawn to the theme of what Shakespeare had called, in The Rape of Lucrece, “double death” (“‘Tis double death to drown in ken of shore”). In David Copperfield, which [Melville] and Lizzie had read aloud in the winter of 1850-51, Dickens describes a schooner foundering just off shore while helpless spectators watch until the last man clinging to the mast goes down in a shower of splinters and spray. Melville now followed his own version of “double death” with a protrait of the surviving witness eviscerated by what she has seen: year after year, Hunilla “trod the cinder beach” with “her spell-bound eye bent upon the incessant waves,” hoping without hope for the sight of a sail.

Delbanco continues this line of thought in a note:

In her novel The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862), Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a similar scene of closely witnessed shipwreck; a variant of the theme occurs in one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, probably composed in the early 1860s, in which the promise of salvation is described as God’s cruel lie to man: “To lead Him to the Well / And let Him hear it drip / Remind Him, would it not, somewhat / Of His condemned lip?” The greatest nineteenth-century work on the theme of the shipwreck close to shore was Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem The Wreck of the Deutschland (1876).

So a pervasive nineteenth-century literary trope, one that echoes the strange fascination of the images on the news lately of a ship overturned within meters of shore. But it’s one that’s perfect for Melville, given his persistent preoccupation with the politics of spectatorship – what it means, and what it takes, to look on at suffering without “being able to do anything about it.” Suffering in the form of slaves on a slaveship dying of scurvy or suffering in the form of a young clerk deranged by his time at the Dead Letter Office and the precarity of his work. Delbanco is excellent in this book on the moral and political contorsionism that came in the aftermath of the so-called “Compromise of 1850″ in America and the adoption of the Fugitive Slave Law, which made ostensibly clean-handed Northerners spectatorially implicated in the viciousness of slavery. But of course, the spectatorial implication only rendered tangible what was already the case: what sort of money was it, after all, that was filling the coffers of all of those big Northern banks? And what filled the smuggling ships that docked stealthily at Northern ports?

In short, with scenes like Melville’s in the Encantadas - or in genealogies of the trope at large per Delbanco’s – there is something that we can begin to see about our own seeing and what we are shown. That the affective pull of such scenes and images is on one level obvious, based on a dark but easy irony – to drown in sight of shore. But on another level, these scenes are cryptically cleansed echoes of the It can’t be helped that we attempt to down out our I prefer not to (… see, do, whatever) each time we are present, at whatever distance or proximity, at a scene of human suffering. Our I prefer not to is, in the end at once entirely like and entirely unlike Bartleby’s.

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January 18, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Posted in catastrophe, melville

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