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boundary 2 28.3 (2001) 133-155

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Pierre’s Extraordinary Emergency:
Melville and “the Voice of Silence,” Part 2

William V. Spanos

Silence permeates all things, and produced its magical power, as well during the peculiar mood which prevails at a solitary traveler’s first setting forth on a journey, as at the unimaginable time when before the world was, Silence brooded on the face of the waters.

—Herman Melville, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities

In the first part of this essay (published in boundary 2 28, no. 2 [summer 2001]: 105–31), I undertook a reading of Pierre; or, The Ambiguities that focused on Herman Melville’s critique of the hegemonic discourse of America as that imperial and totalizing discourse is reflected in his devastatingly ironic treatment of the American cultural memory’s will to monumentalize the American past in its obsessive effort to annul—to silence—the ambiguities that would undermine its authority—and the national consensus on which it relies. In the last section, I noted that Melville’s fundamental intent in thus interrogating the American discourse of hegemony is not only to thematize—to give voice to—these hitherto invisible and unspeakable ambiguities but also to endow them with a positive ontological force. In [End Page 133] so doing, I claimed, Melville’s novel was anticipating the Copernican revolution Martin Heidegger inaugurated when he retrieved “the nothing” that the discourse of modernity “wishes to know nothing about.”1 Taking my point of departure from this reconstellation of Melville’s novel out of the discursive domain in which it has hitherto been imbedded by Americanists into the postmodern context, I want, in this second installment, to think Melville’s attunement to “that profound Silence”—“that divine thing without a name” from which “those imposter philosophers pretend somehow to have got an answer”2—in terms of the directives for thought and practice suggested by the most recent explorations of the “other” silenced by the triumph of “the world,” often referred to as the “Americanization of the planet.”


What about this resonant silence? As I have suggested, the passages on the metaphysics of monuments and on narrative from Pierre quoted in the previous installment of this essay are written by the narrator in the context of Pierre’s “extraordinary emergency.” They constitute dis-closures of the dark underside of—the shadow that belongs to—the luminously white truth discourse of America. I mean this not simply in the sense of the negative effects of a totalized thinking/saying that claims to be positively ameliorative but also in the sense of precipitating into visibility the “ambiguities” that, in its will to power over difference, this thinking/saying finally—that is, essentially—cannot accommodate to its discourse of Presence: the spectral non-being, as it were, that haunts the dominant discourse of Being. As Pierre puts this resonant, if unspeakable, revelation in lines immediately following the second passage on the metaphysics of monumentalization, quoted in my first installment, lines, not incidentally, that conflate the metaphorics of memorialization and narrative:

As for the rest—now I know this, that in commonest memorials, the twilight fact of death first discloses in some secret way, all the ambiguities [End Page 134] of that departed thing or person; obliquely it casts hints, and insinuates surmises base, and eternally incapable of being cleared. Decreed by God Omnipotent it is, that Death should be the last scene of the last act of man’s play;—a play, which begin how it may, in farce or comedy, ever hath its tragic end; the curtain inevitably falls on a corpse. Therefore, never more will I play the vile pygmy, and by small memorials after death, attempt to reverse the decree of death, by essaying the poor perpetuating of the image of the original. (P, 197–98)

What Pierre is intuiting in discovering the irreducible and thus dreadful ambiguities subsuming his father’s portrait—the hitherto totally charted temporal and spatial world of Saddle Meadows—is precisely what Ishmael dis-closes in his narration of Ahab&rsquo...


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pp. 157-189
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Archived 2004
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