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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Pip and the Kohinoor Diamond


The Illustrated London News - May 31, 1851
"This Engraving represents the Koh-i-Noor, or Mountain of Light, once the property of Runjeet Singh, now exhibited by her Majesty, and which, for the purpose of better inspection, is mounted upon pillars, within a gilt iron cage, prepared for the occasion by Messrs. Chubb. The machinery connected with it is so arranged, that, at the close of each day's exhibition, this valuable gem is lowered into an iron case for security during the night. Below the jewels themselves are exhibited the settings in which they originally stood" (496). [Picture and caption describe the Kohinoor exhibit before the addition of gaslight and mirrors.]
The "Castaway" of chapter 93 in Moby-Dick is Ahab's black cabin boy who goes by the nickname "Pippin." Pip, for short. Pip falls overboard and then goes kind of crazy. Beloved of Captain Ahab, Pip will play the wise Fool to Ahab's Lear. To foreshadow Pip's transformation to a major Shakespearean player in the high tragedy of The Whale, Melville compares Pip to a diamond that sparkles most dazzlingly when on display, artificially ("fictitiously") illuminated by gaslight.

Nor smile so, while I write that this little black was brilliant, for even blackness has its brilliancy; behold yon lustrous ebony, panelled in king's cabinets. But Pip loved life, and all life's peaceable securities; so that the panic-striking business in which he had somehow unaccountably become entrapped, had most sadly blurred his brightness; though, as ere long will be seen, what was thus temporarily subdued in him, in the end was destined to be luridly illumined by strange wild fires, that fictitiously showed him off to ten times the natural lustre with which in his native Tolland County in Connecticut, he had once enlivened many a fiddler's frolic on the green; and at melodious even-tide, with his gay ha-ha! had turned the round horizon into one star-belled tambourine. So, though in the clear air of day, suspended against a blue-veined neck, the pure-watered diamond drop will healthful glow; yet, when the cunning jeweller would show you the diamond in its most impressive lustre, he lays it against a gloomy ground, and then lights it up, not by the sun, but by some unnatural gases. Then come out those fiery effulgences, infernally superb; then the evil-blazing diamond, once the divinest symbol of the crystal skies, looks like some crown-jewel stolen from the King of Hell.  --Moby-Dick, Chapter 93 - The Castaway
Lit up with the right machinery, Melville's metaphorical diamond proves to be no ordinary diamond but a "crown-jewel." The Devil's crown jewel, that is, since the "fiery effulgences" emitted by the sparkling diamond figure madness--in Pip, and in crazy Ahab, too. As Melville conceives it, this devilish diamond appears to have been "stolen from the King of Hell."

Melville's figurative diamond in "The Castaway" chapter of Moby-Dick has a famous contemporary analogue in the Koh-i-noor Diamond.

Called
"the brightest jewel in Queen Victoria's crown" (A Chapter on Diamonds, New Monthly Magazine 89 - August 1850; reprinted in Littell's Living Age, January 18, 1851).
the Kohinoor or "Mountain of Light" was on exhibit in London at the Crystal Palace in June 1851, just when Melville was finishing his whaling epic--writing the last chapters, editing and proofreading others.



Like Melville's metaphorical one, the real Kohinoor was the matchless prize of successive wars, a "crown jewel" that was "stolen" and really did need the help of artfully contrived lighting to display its most dazzling effects.

London Observer, June 15, 1851
From The Times of London, June 13, 1851:
Another point of public interest relates to the Koh-i-Noor. After all the work which has been made about that celebrated diamond our readers will be rather surprised to hear that many people find a difficulty in bringing themselves to believe from its external appearance, that it is anything but a piece of common glass. Amid all the adventures that have befallen it, there is, perhaps, none more odd than that its genuineness should now be doubted. Yet so it is. The fact is, that the "Mountain of Light" has been shockingly ill-used in the cutting, and that when placed in the open light of day, without any arrangements to draw forth its brilliancy, it does not sparkle and gleam like other jewels of the kind. To obviate this disadvantage, and demonstrate to the world that the Koh-i-Noor is a veritable diamond, it is to be surrounded with a canopy or tent, the interior of which is to be lighted with gas, and the idea is that this will develop its beauties as a gem of the purest water, with a certainty and splendour which undoubtedly are not attained at present.
Fifteen days after the above item appeared in the London Times, it was reprinted in the Boston Evening Transcript (June 28, 1851). By the second week in July the news had traveled as far west as Milwaukee.

Found on Newspapers.com

Context makes me think Melville probably had seen the latest news about the Great Exhibition in London when he expanded on the role of Pip near the start of chapter 93 in Moby-Dick. The celebrity of the Koh-i-noor diamond as preeminent spoil of war and its very public status as actual, literal "crown jewel" seem to underlie Melville's image of the artfully illuminated diamond as "some crown-jewel stolen from the King of Hell." Then, too, Melville prefaces the diamond figure with an interesting reference to ebony cabinets. Real cabinets of ebony and alabaster were featured in the "Indian Saloon" of the London Exhibition. Ebony cabinets and the Kohinoor are described together in one report from London correspondent "Quantum," published in The New York Tribune on June 23, 1851.

More formally, the talk of ebony and diamonds occurs in the third paragraph of an introductory narrative sequence that seems tacked on (much of it anyway) for the purpose of foreshadowing. Melville evidently wants to prepare readers better for the development of Pip's character, as Pip changes from merry entertainer to disturbed soulmate. Pip's "brilliancy" was formerly "blurred" and "subdued." So it was with the Kohinoor diamond which almost "seemed paste" and needed "arrangements to draw forth its brilliancy" before it could "sparkle and gleam like other jewels of the kind." The tacked-on feeling of Melville's set-up seems acknowledged, implicitly, in the transition back to the main narrative:
"But let us to the story."  --Moby-Dick, The Castaway
For more on the Kohinoor, check out this informative blog post on the Victoria and Albert Museum website by Archivist Nicholas Smith:
Smith opens by citing a new book that I have to get now:
Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, (Bloomsbury, 2017).

Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion - October 25, 1851

1 comment:

  1. That looks like a real source discovery to me, just right for Notes & Queries or Leviathan. Who would have a more blue-blooded neck than Queen Victoria? The clear air of day / the open light of day. Pure-watered / purest water, etc. And it's important because it places a very narrow date on that passage.

    RJO

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