Tag Archives: Evolution

Herman Melville’s ‘Mardi, and a Voyage Thither’

One of the consequences of quantitative literary theory gaining ground over the past while is the growth of mediating theories that attempt to account for stylistic development when so-called empirical evidence now exists to justify it. Hence the emergence of what you might call a selfish gene theory of literary history. I’m a bit dismayed to see how many critics have made hay of a eugenic concept in literary criticism and while Frederic Jameson is one of the more peculiar converts, it is through his and others’ writings that I have become aware of the term ‘ideologeme’, a term meaning a single unit of ideology, used as a means of giving a name to the operationalising of formal tropes in hegemonic, or counter-hegemonic projects.

If I’m dubious about the overall thrust of this I’m definitely unsure how to talk about ideology in discrete units, though it is probably the least offensive thing about the new formalism. Nevertheless it makes for an interesting framework for discussing Herman Melville’s novel Mardi, and a Voyage Thither (1849), a picaresque account of a voyage around a sequence of islands in the pacific ocean. The formal logic of Mardi is straightforward enough to characterise. Its nested narratives, extended diversions into philosophical dialogue, lists, songs and poems, historical archetypes, esoteric vocabulary, flighty metaphors, circumambulatory and self-conscious prose style over-inflated with alliteration and wordplay — medieval and Latinate diction make themselves known occasionally— moving easily from from picaresques to weighty reflections on the nature of time, puts one in mind of some culmination of Quixote, Jonathan Swift and Voltaire’s Candide.

On a thematic level these comparisons too remain apposite; Mardi’s assault on narrative authority and formal logic, its dismissal of organised systems of power and ambivalence regarding human rationality, shows Melville beating a path for Pynchon before the twentieth century had even begun (complete with his Orientalism ofc) his extreme prescience is contained within a sequence of tropes dating from previous centuries.

All this serves to remind me that in my undergraduate days, I chose classes with texts set later than 1922, under the assumption that literature written in modern or contemporary contexts were more experimental or outré than medieval or early modern texts. It was the most wrong I’ve ever been about anything and tells us why, in my opinion, any credible account of literature’s ‘evolution’ must contend with how capitalism has made it worse.