Home > Literature, Melville H., Prose > The Haunting of Language

The Haunting of Language

After reading Deleuze’s essay on Melville, and writing about it, I decided I should make a return voyage to Melville’s prose. Thus far, I have merely read (and re-read, and again) the first story in The Piazza Tales, “The Piazza”. This post is my attempt to make sense of the story at a broad, structural level, tracing its movements and understanding the nature of its composition. (I am using the Library of America volume: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Confidence-Man, Tales, & Billy Budd. All page references are to this volume.)

I’ll begin with the close: The narrator returns to his house and paces the piazza, haunted by what he has just described. This is bound to seem an unsatisfying ending, on a surface view. Probably the only lesson I remember from taking a course on creative writing in high school is that good writers show rather than tell—it is remembered, of course, because it is the only lesson that is repeated, incessantly, everywhere. And here Melville seems to flaunt it: the narrator tells us that he is haunted, and there the story ends. Could not Melville write five more pages and show us this haunting? This appearance of unsatisfactoriness is my jumping off point: in seeing why it is a false appearance, an illusion, we can come to better understand the structure of the story as a whole, and appreciate its richness.

If the ending is successful, it must not be the mere telling it seems to be, but must rather be something more like an invitation: go look further, and you may find this haunting. It must, in other words, be a signpost, a guide into the story, rather than a summation and ending of it. The reason it seems that it can’t play this role is that there is no story that follows it. Now we must reflect on the structure of the story at the broadest level: the narrator is recounting an event that happened to him, i.e. in the past. The story is written from the perspective of someone who has already had the haunting experience. Thus, in the a sense, the entire story (that is, the composition of it) takes place after this experience, so, if there is to be evidence of it, it should lie in the way the story is retold. The retelling itself should bear the marks of the experience retold.

This is all cryptic, however, since I have not mentioned what it is that he experienced and that he claims haunts him. To understand that, we need to dive deeper into the general movement of the story, both in terms of the plot and in terms of the changing imagery employed.

In broadest outlines, the story is about a man (the narrator) who moves to a house in the country, on the north side of which he builds a piazza. From this piazza, he spots a strange sight, a newly shingled cottage on one of the mountains. (He infers that it is a newly shingled cottage from the way the light reflects off of it. He does not see this directly.) He imagines it to be a fairy-land, and goes to visit (getting there is no easy voyage). There he converses with the lonely young woman who lives in the cottage—it is this experience that haunts him.

When he first sees the cottage, before going in, he gives it a very interesting description: “Truly, a small abode—mere palanquin, set down on the summit, in a pass between two worlds, participant of neither.” (629) What strikes me here is the phrase “between two worlds, participant of neither”—what are the two worlds? Why does the cottage participate in neither? There are several possible answers: between freedom and coziness, between this world and the other/after world, between the piazza and the regal mountain Greylock. To understand these we need to return to the beginning of the story.

In the very first paragraph, the narrator sings the praises of piazzas: somehow, they combine “the coziness of in-doors with the freedom of out-doors” (621), a phrase that immediately invites us to understand piazzas as getting “the best of both worlds.” The cottage, on the other hand, is anything but cozy, and its inhabitant is anything but free. We might, then, think of the cottage as strung between the two, participating in neither the coziness of a piazza nor the freedom of nature. Perhaps this seems dismal, but I think it will emerge that it is the piazza, purporting to get the best of both worlds, that is revealed to be truly dismal.

In describing the building of the piazza, with a nice bit of wordplay, the narrator writes, “No sooner was ground broken, than all the neighborhood, neighbor Dives, in particular, broke, too—into a laugh.” (623) Here we see the world of petty squabbles and neighborly jealousies, which is also the world of berry picking, of painting, and of law and judgment, of kings. Against this world is commonly set the other world, or the after world, the world were you go, for good or for ill, when you die. In recounting his journey to the cottage, the narrator relates two interesting episodes. In the first, a “wigged old Aries… came snuffing up”, wanting to lead the narrator down his “astral path” (627)—i.e. a path to some other, heavenly world. Shortly after resisting this temptation, there is a related encounter, this time with “Eve’s apples; seek-no-furthers” (628), in which his horse “tasted one, I another; it tasted of the ground.” Here is a definitive rejection of the other world: not just in eating of the apple, but in the fact that they tasted “of the ground.” We are dealing here with this world, and only this world. The journey to the cottage is not a journey to another world. And yet, the cottage, while not participating in that other world, neither seems to participate in ours: it is not a place for petty squabbles, and no boys come to pick berries there. It is strung between the two, participating in neither. It is nothing not of this world, yet it is, nonetheless, not of this world.

The story actually goes much further than I detailed above in showing how the cottage and its inhabitant are not quite of this world, but of another world within it, in a sense. To understand this, we need to understand Melville’s use of imagery in characterizing nature, to my mind one of the greatest triumphs of the story. We can start, however, with a bit of cartography. The reason the narrator’s neighbors scoffed at him is that he built his piazza on the north side of his house. “Piazza to the north! Winter piazza! Wants, of winter midnights, to watch the Aurora Borealis, I suppose; hope he’s laid in a good store of Polar muffs and mittens.” (623) Why does he build his piazza to the north? He canvases the view in each other direction, but finds all wanting. Not intrinsically wanting—the views to the east, south, and west are, respectively, a “goodly sight,” “very fine” and “sweet, indeed” (622-623)—but wanting in relation to what lies to the north, “nothing less than Greylock, with all his hills about him, like Charlemagne among his peers” (621). Greylock, the king, had the casting vote, and so “he carried it.” (623) The cottage is seen from the piazza, on one of the hills about Greylock. It thus lies between the piazza and Greylock in a purely physical sense.

This physical relation is deeply significant, as emerges when you pay close attention to the imagery the narrator uses to describe nature. There are four dominant images: nature as a picture-gallery, full of paintings; nature as a kingdom; nature as a monastery; and nature as a sea or ocean. These interact in complex ways. We have already seen nature as a kingdom, with Greylock as its Charlemagne. There is also a recurrence of the color purple, suggesting royalty, and the narrator, before building his piazza, speaks of sitting in a “royal lounge of turf.” (622) At the same time, nature is described as a picture-gallery: “for what but picture-galleries are the marble halls of these same limestone hills?—galleries hung, month after month anew, with pictures ever fading into pictures ever fresh.” (622) (The context is a comparison between nature without a piazza to a picture-gallery without a bench.) Likewise, “the country round about was such a picture” (621), and the “hermit-sun” is said to “just steadily paint one small, round, strawberry mole upon the wan cheek of northwester hills.” (625)

These two images are, we will see, allied, and allied specifically in their opposition to the other two images, nature as monastery/sea. Nature first appears as a monastery in same paragraph as the narrator speaks of his royal lounge of turf. He writes:

Very majestical lounge, indeed. So much so, that here, as with the reclining majesty of Denmark in his orchard, a sly ear-ache invaded me. But, if damps abound at times in Westminster Abbey, because it is so old, why not within this monastery of mountains, which is older? (622)

The reference is to Hamlet, specifically to Hamlet’s father being murdered when Claudius poured poison in his ear. Nature the monastery is thus immediately set in opposition to nature the kingdom: nature the monastery is a king killer. It is this event that drives the narrator to build his piazza—the next paragraph is a single emphatic sentence, “A piazza must be had.” (622) This opposition continues later, when the narrator arrives at the cottage, and finds it “capped, nun-like, with a peaked roof.” (628) One side of this roof, that facing the piazza, is newly shingled—recall from above. The other slope, the northern slope, is “deeply weather-stained” and “no doubt the snail-monks founded mossy priories there.” (628) The side facing Greylock, the king of nature as kingdom, is old and rotting, and it is that side that is like a monastery. The cottage presents its “bad” side (we can question just how bad it really is) to the king: a direct affront. It is also worth noting that his first sighting of the cottage is preceded by his seeing two sportsmen crossing a field, who seem to him “guilty Macbeth and foreboding Banquo” (624)—certainly a threatening image for kings.

Nature conceived as a sea also stands in contrast to nature conceived as a kingdom. Standing on the piazza in winter, the narrator imagines himself pacing “the sleety deck, weathering Cape Horn” (623), and “In summer, too, Canute-like, sitting here, one is often reminded of the sea.” The reference to Canute, the over-ambitious king who thought his dominion extended even over the sea, emphasizes nature as a king-killer. The voyage to the cottage is likewise conceived (at least at times) as a sea voyage, as, for instance, when the narrator declares his intention to visit: “No more; I’ll launch my yawl—ho, cheerly, heart! And push away for fairy-land.” (626) These two images of monastery and sea are less directly opposed to the picture-gallery image, but there is one indication that the opposition exists: the cottage, on its north side, is described as “innocent of paint” (628)—particularly striking is the word “innocent”, as if here, in this place, to be painted is to be guilty of something. In this way, we are led to read all of the images of nature as a picture-gallery as imbued with this guilt, a guilt that is, to my eyes, closely allied with the notions of judgment and law implicated in conceiving nature as a kingdom. (Shades of Deleuze.) The physical location of the cottage between Greylock, the king, and the piazza, the picture-gallery bench, suggests, then, that it is strung between judgment and law on the one side, and the guilt of painting on the other.

In these three ways, then, the cottage is strung between two worlds, participating in neither. Yet it does have its own world, in which it does participate. As we have seen, it must be this-worldly, not other-worldly, and yet not this-worldly in the way we have seen it, characterized by judgment, law, painting, berry-picking, and petty squabbles. What sort of world is it, then? Running through the story is a “how we’ve fallen” narrative. Why does nature the picture-gallery need a bench at all? Because we have fallen from reverence to indolence, and so, “in these times of failing faith and feeble knees” (622) instead of religion we have the pews, and instead of standing and adoring, we have piazzas. Further, in giving a brief history of his new house, the narrator mentions that it used to be in a forest, but that now, “of that knit wood, but one survivor stands—an elm, lonely through steadfastness.” (621) Only later did the house come to be situated in a picture-gallery—and now we know, perhaps, why paint is associated with guilt.

Thus the world within this world but not quite of this world in which the cottage is located may be expected to be associated with this World We Have Lost. For reasons I will make clear, I think this lost world should be associated with wakefulness, and this world with languidness. In coming into contact with this world, in being forced to be located within it, the world of wakefulness becomes, not languid, but weary. The difference between languidness and weariness is crucial to the story.

In his journey to the cottage, the narrator comes across “a lone and languid region” (627) in which “drowsy cattle […] less waked than stirred by day, seemed to walk in sleep.” Languidness, then, is a sort of walking sleep: directed movement that is nonetheless not quite awake. It is “drowsy”—I take it we all know the feeling. Against this image of languidness and drowsiness, there is the term ‘weary’, which appears in the first words the inhabitant of the cottage, Marianna, says to the narrator:

“You must find this view very pleasant,” said I, at last.

“Oh, sir,” tears starting in her eyes, “the first time I looked out of this window, I said ‘never, never shall I weary of this.’ “

“And what wearies you of it now?”

“I don’t know,” while a tear fell; “but it is not the view, it is Marianna.” (630)

Later, Marianna diagnoses the source of her “strange thoughts” (633) as lying in “this weariness and wakefulness together.” And again: “Thinking, thinking—a wheel I cannot stop; pure want of sleep it is that turns it.” (633) Unlike the cattle, which move in sleep, she cannot sleep, though she is weary: she is cursed with wakefulness. There is a further difference: the cattle move. Against this, hers is “dull woman’s work—sitting, sitting, restless sitting.” (633)

The narrator thinks he knows a cure for this wakeful weariness—prayer and a fresh pillow—but this is a cure from the world of languidness, a world that does not know either wakefulness or weariness, indeed cannot know the latter, because to be weary at all, one must be awake.

(Recalling my post on Deleuze on Melville, we can see his offer of a cure as an offer of charity instead of confidence, and indeed Marianna cuts him off as he tries to give the advice.)

Interestingly, the first appearance of the word ‘weary’ in the story is earlier. After having seen the cottage, the narrator falls ill. His next sighting of the cottage comes during his “weary convalescence” (626), and it is this self-diagnosed weariness that leads him to visit the cottage, for he expects that he will find the queen of fairies, or “at any rate, some glad mountain-girl; it will do me good, it will cure this weariness, to look on her.” Needless to say, this hope is not granted, for she is not at all a glad mountain-girl—at least she is not glad. She expresses a parallel wish to be cured of her wakeful weariness by viewing the happy inhabitant of the house in the meadow (the narrator’s house, of course). The narrator does not spoil the illusion, does not reveal himself as the unhappy inhabitant. Before, he might have called himself happy, but now he cannot, after what he has seen.

Now, finally, we can see how the narrator is haunted by his visit to the cottage. Recall that the story leaves off with him pacing on his piazza, claiming to be haunted. Recall also my suggestion that any evidence of the haunting should lie in the composition of his tale. In his conversation with Marianna, she uses certain key terms: ‘weary’, ‘lone’/’lonesome’/’lonely’, ‘wakeful(ness)’. In reading the story again, after having read the end, it becomes apparent just how much the language used is informed by this visit. Why does he call his convalescence weary? Why else than because he recognizes later that the condition awakened within him is the same as Marianna’s condition? Why does he describe the cows as drowsy and languid? Precisely because they are not in this same condition. Why is the one surviving elm from the old forest “lonely”? Because it partakes in Marianna’s loneliness. Even the imagery of nature as a kingdom has its roots in this conversation: when Marianna expresses her admiration of the narrator’s house (not knowing that it is the narrator’s), he looks out the window and finds, “the mirage haze made it appear less a farm-house than King Charming’s palace.” (630)

Thus we can how the very language of the story—the conflict between monasteries/seas and kings/paintings, the weariness and loneliness, the events selected for recounting—all of it is infused with the remnants of his visit. The very language is haunted. The ending of the story, then, is indeed an invitation: “Look closer!”

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  1. 2013/06/08 at 12:32

Kindly perturb

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