- Melville's Philosophies ed. by Branka Arsić, K. L. Evans
New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. xii + 410 pp.
If it was once true, as Branka Arsić and K. L. Evans argue in their superb new collection, that Melville could be dismissed as a wandering dabbler in philosophy, he has now become contemporary philosophy's most favored literary author. In an essay on "Bartleby among the Philosophers" in Jason Frank's A Political Companion to Herman Melville, Kevin Attell shows that Melville's tale "has generated [so] much critical attention over the last half century . . . from such a wide array of disciplinary perspectives" that it is possible to taxonomize entire schools of "Bartleby" thought in ways that seem ripe for Melvillean parody: e.g., the School of French Non-Preference, the Italian Potentiality Philosophy. Melville's singular status in philosophy is the subject not only of numerous Bartleby-in-theory essays like Attell's, but also of Corey McCall and Tom Nurmi's similarly titled new collection, Melville Among the Philosophers. And just as Melville's place "among" contemporary Continental philosophers seems secure, so too is the study of philosophy's centrality to Melville's writing. From Sharon Cameron's influential account of Melville's response to Schopenhauer, to previous work by many of the contributors to this volume (Maurice Lee, K. L. Evans, Branka Arsić, Paul Hurh) elaborating his readings in Hobbes, Kant, Rousseau, Edwards, Descartes, and so on, the portrait of Melville as philosophical dilettante is happily obsolete.
The result is that Melville's Philosophies is freed from the burden of making the case for the depth and mutuality of Melville's engagement with philosophical traditions. Instead, the sixteen essays that Arsić and Evans gather here proceed from the assumption that "Melville was a rigorous philosopher, a thinker of great caliber" in order to pursue "a new engagement with Melville's writing" (2–3). What unites this volume is thus not a claim about Melville's relationship to philosophy as a discipline, nor a proposed canon of philosophers whose work he engaged or anticipated. Rather, as Arsić and Evans frame it, each of these essays seeks to discern the philosophies that appear in and through Melville's prose and poetry: "they try to hear the philosophical arguments themselves—often very strange and quite radical—that Melville never [End Page 105] stopped articulating and reformulating" (3). The fruits of such close listening are impressive and often dazzling. Taken together, they make both nuanced and expansive claims for the originality of Melville's thought, while demonstrating the centrality of Melville's work to recent materialist, ontological, and aesthetic turns in literary criticism, which, as the editors note, are often only loosely grounded in philosophy. But even as these essays detail the ways "Melville used every resource of thought and language of the time in order to make philosophical contributions that belong to all time" (3), Melville's Philosophies is not a methodological manifesto for a particular model of philosophically inclined criticism. These authors share a commitment to listening for "the philosophical arguments" across Melville's corpus of writing, but they do not share assumptions about the primacy or even the independence of such arguments from Melville's experimental aesthetic forms. What is particularly admirable in this collection is that the editors allow these essays to stage, without purporting to resolve, the myriad tensions between thought and form in Melville's work that are also central to key philosophical debates the work has generated, perhaps most vividly in Jacques Rancière's response in The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing to Gilles Deleuze's readings of "Bartleby" and Pierre.
Arsić and Evans formalize their claims for the radicalism of Melville's thought in the very structure of the book, organizing the sixteen essays according to rough generic divisions within philosophy—epistemology, psychology, aesthetics, politics—but renaming these according to what they call Melville's larger project of "decentering" philosophy's animating problems: "World-Making," "Love Stories," "Art," and "Communities." Essential to this decentering is Melville's suspicion about binaries of mind and matter, subject and object, word...