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  • Herman Melville’s Pierre; or, The Ambiguities and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: The Imperial Violence of the Novel of Manners
  • William V. Spanos (bio)


The perfect act of writing comes not from a power to write, but from an impotence that turns back on itself and in this way comes to itself as a pure act (which Aristotle calls agent intellect). This is why in the Arab tradition agent intellect has the form of an angel whose name is Qalam, Pen, and its place is an unfathomable potentiality. Bartleby, a scribe who does not simply cease writing but “prefers not to,” is the extreme image of this angel that writes nothing but its potentiality to not-write.

—Giorgio Agamben (1993, 36–37)

The fact that must constitute the point of departure for any discourse on ethics is that there is no essence, no historical or spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must enact or realize. This is the only reason why something like an ethics can exist, because it is clear that if humans were or had to be this or that substance, this or that destiny, no ethical experience would be possiblethere would be only tasks to be done.

—Giorgio Agamben (1993, 42)

On the occasion of Pierre’s “extraordinary emergency”—when the eponymous protagonist of Herman Melville’s Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852) has learned that his father, the patriarch of Saddle Meadows, has sired a daughter out of wedlock—the narrator writes about Pierre’s response: [End Page 191]

In her [Isabel’s] life there was an unraveled plot; and he [Pierre] felt that unraveled it would eternally remain to him. No slightest hope or dream had he, that what was dark and mournful in her would ever be cleared up into some coming atmosphere of light and mirth. Like all youths, Pierre had conned his novel-lessons; had read more novels than most persons of his years; but their false, inverted attempts at systematizing eternally unystematizable elements; their audacious, intermeddling impotency, in trying to unravel, and spread out, and classify, the more thin than gossamer threads which make up the complex web of life; these things over Pierre had no power now. Straight through their helpless miserableness he pierced; the one sensational truth in him, transfixed like beetles all the speculative lies in them. He saw that human life doth truly come from that, which all men are agreed to call by the name of God…. By infallible presentiment he saw, that not always doth life’s beginning gloom conclude in gladness; that wedding-bells peal not ever in the last scene of life’s fifth act; that while the countless tribes of common novels laboriously spin vails of mystery, only to complacently clear them up at last; and while the countless tribe of common dramas do but repeat the same; yet the profounder emanations of the human mind, intended to illustrate all that can be humanly known of human life; these never unravel their own intricacies, and have no proper endings; but in imperfect, unanticipated, and disappointing sequels (as mutilated stumps), hurry to abrupt intermergings with the eternal tides of time and fate.

(Melville 1971b, 141)

This famous passage, usually taken out of context, has been interpreted as Melville’s excoriation of narrative form and thus as an anticipation of the postmodern interrogation or dismantling of the beginning-middle-end or promise/fulfillment structure of Western literary art. I certainly agree with this reading.1 But I also think that this aesthetic generalization has obscured a more immediate and radically worldly intention on Melville’s part. Putting the passage back into the context from which it has been torn will show that in Pierre; or, The Ambiguities Melville, like most of the self-conscious “American” writers of that mid-century occasion, but far more radically, was attempting to think a novel form that would take its aesthetic directives from the inchoate democratic political world that had emerged or was emerging in the wake of the American Revolution against Old World tyranny and decadence. More specifically, it will show that Melville was attempting, symptomatically at least, to liberate American fictional form from...


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pp. 191-230
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