Tuesday, August 19, 2014

More thoughts and facts about Christopher Freeburg's "major intervention"

So for light summer reading I bought Christopher Freeburg's book Melville and the Idea of Blackness and Johnathan Cook's Inscrutable Malice but I kind of bogged down and still had to finish The False Heir and Zanoni, and Corinne (in progress, still). One positive result from reading Freeburg already is my identification of Parke Godwin as the author of several unsigned articles related to Manifest Destiny in Putnam's Monthly Magazine. Allan Moore Emery and others have discussed the articles but nobody recognized the hand of Godwin. (Yay for Google!)

Before trying to finish Corinne and start another of Bulwer's novels (probably The Last Days of Pompeii), I have a few more thoughts on Freeburg's book. One chapter of which, on "The Encantadas," comes highly recommended as the 2012 winner of the Hennig Cohen Prize.

To start with, my favorite passage is from the chapter on blackness in Moby-Dick which does not so much end as erupt in this eloquent protest:
Critics interested in racial difference in this novel too often limit Melville's disquieting critique to various idolators  of white supremacy. What I submit about the pitfalls of mastery is not relevant only for advocates of imperialism and slavery; it also suggests that all advocates for antiracist progressivism and abolitionism should come to grips with their own human frailty, weakness, selfishness, and potential to be consumed by the Truth they espouse, which no political or social paradigm has yet been able to traverse.--Christopher Freeburg, Melville and the Idea of Blackness p60
Freeburg's volcano blast at hitherto unassailable agendas and criticism to me is the best part of his recent book, along with fine insights into the associations in Melville's writings of blackness with existential panic and, crucially, the problem of self-mastery. In other words, it's not always or just about race.  Freeburg sees how Melville's game is bigger than many politicizing critics imagine. The welcome focus on self-mastery reminds me of Melville's own notion, thinly veiled in Mardi as a "voice from the gods":
"Thus, freedom is more social than political. And its real felicity is not to be shared. That is of a man's own individual getting and holding. It is not, who rules the state, but who rules me." --Mardi; and a voyage thither
Freeburg pursues his theme of self-mastery and agency in the chapter on "Benito Cereno" ("Thwarting the 'Regulated Mind'") where he argues in part against "social death" theorists and for the shocking idea that so-called "slaves" might have been human beings who could not be so totally controlled (by other human beings who were not, after all, God) as some academic commentators think. Now get this. On exactly this point, Leviathan reviewer Jeannine Marie DeLombard complains, albeit gently. According to DeLombard, Freeburg needs to engage scholarship after Orlando Patterson "on the legal culture of slavery." Especially, DeLombard counsels, Freeburg needs to learn the legal terms, so he won't confuse legal person-hood with humanity and mistakenly think that, legally speaking, persons are necessarily real people.

But guess what? Freeburg gets that, and more. It's just that he does not necessarily or uncritically accept the primacy of law and legalese:
Scholars discuss how despite designating slaves as property, in order to ensure masters' interests slaves also had to be recognized as people. Interestingly enough, this "double character" does not produce two separate stable categories of "human" and "property," both under the master's total control. In my view, once the law acknowledges the "human" in the slave in order to  protect the masters' economic, social, and political interests, the enslaved "property" is marked as someone who cannot be rendered effectively under another's total control; the law contains an antagonism that undermines the very notion of the power it authorizes. --Melville and the Idea of Blackness, p99
In support of her mild critique, DeLombard cites the calculated exploitation of a mother's loving attachment to her children as recognition of her humanity. Honestly that idea struck me as evilly sick, leading me to think I must be missing something. What better example of men and women as merchandise? But then I find pretty much the same claim from similar-sounding evidence made in the introduction to DeLombard's book, In the Shadow of the Gallows:
“Far from dismissing blacks’ affective ties on purely ideological grounds, masters and mistresses manipulated these human relationships so as to maximize slaves’ tractability and profitability.”
Notice DeLombard's focus, which is absolute control over slaves (however regarded) by masters. Absolute control, considered in beautifully calm scientific detachment. DeLombard's review and book intro actually bear witness to Freeburg's point that
"even with the abundance of scholarly arguments affirming slaves' agency, Patterson's social death model still thrives under various guises as a viable sociological, theoretical, and historical concept." (98)
What DeLombard seems not to grasp is what Freeburg nails, how distressing and discomfiting Melville's revolutionary blackness can be.

DeLombard thus chooses to fault Freeburg for one of his best and strongest arguments.

Well! In my roundabout way I am starting to get what William Gleason means--or could mean, or maybe should mean--by favorably designating Freeburg's Melville and the Idea of Blackness "a major intervention in Melville studies."

Intervention is sorely needed, particularly in the arena of academic criticism dogmatically driven by theoretical and political agendas. I say nothing here of scholarship. Freeburg seems content with the honorable role of Critic and makes no pretensions to scholarship in this book. Its real weakness is not the failure to comprehend any special critical bias or revelation.

No, the great and glaring weakness of this book is Freeburg's astounding failure to quote Melville's words correctly. I want to say it's a scandal. Here I may be wrong, having been out of the game so long. What is this? Vast to the point of being laughable carelessness in a new expensive book from the Cambridge University Press? I'm thinking the only way it's not a scandal is if everybody gets to do it now. Whatever you want to call it, nearly every longer quotation from Melville's writings is wrong somewhere--as are most of the shorter ones. A couple of examples for now. . . .

Freeburg quotes Melville on Silence:
All profound things and emotions of things are preceded by Silence. What a silence is that with which the pale bride precedes the responsive I will, to the priest's solemn question, Wilt thou have this man for thy husband? In silence, too, the wedded hands are clasped. Yea, in silence the child Christ was born into the world. Silence is the general consecration of the universe. Silence is the invisible laying on the Divine Pontiff's hands upon the world. Silence is at once the most harmless and the most awful thing in all nature. It speaks of the reserved forces of Fate. Silence is the Voice of our God.  (--as quoted by Christopher Freeburg p127)
Melville, from p204 of the cited Northwestern University Press text of Pierre:
ALL PROFOUND THINGS, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence. What a silence is that with which the pale bride precedes the responsive I will, to the priest's solemn question, Wilt thou have this man for thy husband? In silence, too, the wedded hands are clasped. Yea, in silence the child Christ was born into the world. Silence is the general consecration of the universe. Silence is the invisible laying on of the Divine Pontiff's hands upon the world. Silence is at once the most harmless and the most awful thing in all nature. It speaks of the Reserved Forces of Fate. Silence is the only Voice of our God.
Freeburg's quotation omits Melville's italics and key capital letters; and also drops words in three different places: "and attended"; "of"; and "only."

Freeburg also quotes from the pamphlet of Plinlimmon in Pierre:
That in things terrestrial (homological) a man must not be governed by ideas celestial (chronometrical); that certain minor self renunciations in this life his own mere instinct for his own every-day general well-being will teach him to make, but he must by no means make a complete unconditional sacrifice of himself in behalf of any other being (like Christ), or any cause, or any conceit. 
The cited Northwestern-Newbery text of Melville's Pierre:
That in things terrestrial (horological) a man must not be governed by ideas celestial (chronometrical); that certain minor self-renunciations in this life his own mere instinct for his own every-day general well-being will teach him to make, but he must by no means make a complete unconditional sacrifice of himself in behalf of any other being, or any cause, or any conceit.
Here Freeburg's faulty transcription makes "homological" out of Melville's "horological" and adds an explanatory comment in parentheses that is not in the original.

At p32 Freeburg incorrectly and misleadingly applies what is stated conversationally and hypothetically about any misanthrope as a statement about the "Indian-Hater" Moredock:
Melville's description of Moredock's final moments fully exposes the effects of his relentless Indian hating. Melville paints this moment in dark terms: Moredock is "alone, at the dead of night," besieged "by fusillades of thunder" (158). Under assault in total darkness, he feels naked to the elements.
Not true. Moredock gets forwarded in Melville's book as paradoxical proof of something else, "that nearly all Indian-haters have at bottom loving hearts; at any rate, hearts, if anything, more generous than the average." The lines Freeburg quotes are from dialogue in which Melville's cosmopolitan, as a professed lover of mankind, wonders hypothetically how a misanthrope feels:
"What sort of a sensation is misanthropy?"

"Might as well ask me what sort of sensation is hydrophobia. Don't know; never had it. But I have often wondered what it can be like. Can a misanthrope feel warm, I ask myself; take ease? be companionable with himself? Can a misanthrope smoke a cigar and muse? How fares he in solitude? Has the misanthrope such a thing as an appetite? Shall a peach refresh him? The effervescence of champagne, with what eye does he behold it? Is summer good to him? Of long winters how much can he sleep? What are his dreams? How feels he, and what does he, when suddenly awakened, alone, at dead of night, by fusilades of thunder?" --The Confidence-Man
Freeburg mishandles Moredock elsewhere, when for example he asserts (employing added italics for emphasis) at p31:
His antisocial reality, despite his confrontations with Indians, becomes his own oblivion. Moredock drowns within "straggling vapors that droop in from all sides. . . . An intenser Hannibal, he makes a vow, the hate of which is a vortex from whose suction scare the remotest chip of the guilty race may reasonably feel secure. . . . "
Melville's twice-repeated word in The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating chapter from The Confidence-Man is "troop" not "droop"; and Melville wrote "scarce" not "scare."

(Moredock is himself the metaphorical vortex that drowns others, Moredock's vortex figuratively drowns Indians his victims. I would feel bound to make that explicit first, before attempting the finer sort of "Myself am hell" claim for Moredock as victim of his own hatred.)

Freeburg does not mishandle only Melville's words. Even that preferred chapter on The Encantadas erroneously gives Parke Godwin's phrase "savage and intractable race" as "savage and untraceable race."

What makes things worse there is that Freeburg's wrong reading "untraceable" subtly enhances (unintentionally and unnecessarily, to be sure) his claims for unhistorical, non-progressive "timelessness" as a theme in the writings of Manifest Destiny champions. Furthermore the contrast Parke Godwin draws between warlike enemies and "stationary" friends would undermine Freeburg's argument--if he had not glossed over what the writer most likely means by "savage and stationary tribes who are nearest to us."

Hopefully that's enough to show the embarrassing unreliability of Freeburg's quotations. Let me know if you need more.

So far, the Leviathan review and early blurbs make me think readers have sailed over so happily and fast they missed seeing all these wrecks of quotations littering Melville and the Idea of Blackness.

O! what a shame the author did, too. I am praying hard for a second edition.

Related melvilliana post:

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