Home > Literature, Melville H., Philosophy, Plato, Prose > Melville contra Plato: a brief note

Melville contra Plato: a brief note

A couple days ago, I wrote a long piece about “The Piazza”, the first story in Melville’s The Piazza Tales. In this briefer post, I want to explore a (possibly unconscious) response to Plato’s cave analogy in that same story. Once again, I am using the version in the Library of America volume (mentioned in the previous post), and page references are to that version.

A brief review of Plato’s famous image, to begin. In Book VII of Republic, Socrates asks his interlocutors to imagine a group of people who inhabit a cave, able only to look in a certain direction. Far above and behind them there is a fire, which creates shadows on the wall of the cave—it is these shadows that the inhabitants see, and only these shadows. Naturally, the inhabitants of the cave hold truth to be about these shadows, the shadows of artificial things.

Yet imagine, Socrates continues, what would happen if a man were dragged out of the cave, into the light. At first, his eyes would not be accustomed to the light, but gradually he would come to see things for what they truly are, and he would come to pity those in the cave. (Incidentally, this also functions as an apology for the uselessness of philosophy: philosophers’ eyes are simply no longer accustomed to the darkness of contingent, material things, and so of course they seem useless.) This leads to an image of teaching: the sight is there, yet is turned in the wrong direction, and it is the philosopher who may turn it around, make it face rightly, and so come to know. Let me emphasize the importance of sight as the sense that dominates Socrates’ conception of knowledge here.

In “The Piazza”, there is a cottage, not a cave, but there are shadows and a fiery light, as well as interesting discussion of going outside. The narrator has arrived at Marianna’s cottage and is discussing with her her desire to see the house down in the field—the narrator’s house. She says, “You should see it in a sunset” (631), to which he replies, “No doubt the sunset gilds it finely; but not more than the sunrise does this house, perhaps.” Her response is to call the sun “a good sun”, but to say that it does not grace her: instead, it burns, blinds, sets wasps and flies astir, scorches, and rots.

We can begin to see some divergences in the Platonic and Melvillean pictures. For Plato, the sun, once you are accustomed to it, is a source of light, but for Melville’s Marianna, though she is certainly accustomed to it, as she is generally accustomed to her situation in the cottage, the sun is instead a source of intense discomfort, is no friend.

She does, however, have friends: the shadows. After the discussion described above reaches a lull, the narrator notes “a broad shadow stealing on” (631). With unsettling prescience, Marianna, without looking up from her work, says, “You watch the cloud.” Then, further, she knows when the shadow leaves and Tray, the dog, returns, all while her “eyes rest but on your work.” (632) The narrator is, naturally, flummoxed, and tries to work out an explanation:

“Have you, then, so long sat at this mountain-window, where but clouds and vapors pass, that, to you shadows are as things, though you speak of them as of phantoms; that by familiar knowledge, working like a second sight, you can, without looking for them, tell just where they are, though, as having mice-like feet, they creep about, and come and go; that, to you, these lifeless shadows are as living friends, who, though out of sight, are not out of mind, even in their faces—is it so?” (632)

This is a very Platonic way of thinking: she comes to take the shadows for things, knowing only her cave. Marianna’s response to this is astounding. She says, “That I way I never thought of it,” as if granting to his explanation a certain legitimacy—but then she goes on as if she absorbed nothing he said but a single word, ‘friend’. She does not deny his explanation, but in what follows disregards it. Her next sentence begins, “but the friendliest one…” With this, she continues thinking as she had; she is non-plussed with his version of things. She showed a similar attitude earlier, when, in response to his accusation that she has strange fancies, she claimed that her strange fancies reflect the things.

Now that these we have seen this exchange, we can go back and notice a crucial ambiguity in an earlier phrase. The narrator has just remarked, “The invading shadow gone, the invaded one returns. But I do not see what casts it” (632), which earns the responses, “For that, you must go without.” At first this response seems perfectly straightforward: in order to see what casts the shadow, he must go outside and look. This is a Platonic response, and it doesn’t seem to fit Marianna—to make it fit, we must imagine it said in a tossed off tone that does not accord with her general tone. But there is a second sense of going without, in which it not so much an activity as a forgoing of something: to go without meat for Lent, for instance.

This second sense is hidden: “going outside” is the most immediate interpretation, given the context and given our usual thought about knowledge. Beneath it sits the more subversive sense, which I take it is the one Marianna intends. Marianna goes without: she does not hear birds, does not see children picking berries, has no company (now that her brother has died): she simply sits and does her “dull woman’s work—sitting, sitting, restless sitting” (633), work that is inseparable from her weary wakefulness, and hence from the wheel of thinking she cannot stop from turning.

But why should we think this sense is the dominant one, even if subterranean and hidden? In the remark that prompts the narrator’s attempt at explanation quoted above, Marianna says, “ ‘Tray looks at you,’ still without glancing up; ‘this is his hour; I see him.’ “ (632) Though her eyes remain trained on her work, she says she sees him, and this is prefaced by the claim that “this is his hour”. Marianna is in touch with a natural order of which the narrator has no knowledge (which of course does not prevent him from attempting to explain it). Moreover, the narrator has no knowledge despite having come from without. What good would going without, i.e. outside, do him? How could it possibly be sufficient? That cannot be what Marianna means.

After having just critiqued the narrator for his presumption in trying to explain what Marianna knows, and for doing so hopelessly misguidedly, I will behave somewhat as a hypocrite and offer an explanation of my own. How does she know the sun? Not by its revealing light, but by its power to scorch, rot, and blind—she knows it viscerally. She knows when the shadow of a cloud dusks her work, which is, as said, intimately tied to her thought. She is in direct touch with the world as it relates to her work and thought. She says she sees Tray, but she might more accurately say she feels him—she has a much more intimate knowledge than is gained by sight, by going outside and looking. The knowledge she has, confined to her cottage, exceeds anything conceivable within Platonic dreams of going without.

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