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  • MLA 2019—ChicagoMelville’s Quarrel with Modernity
  • K. L. Evans, Chair

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Participants in the “Melville’s Quarrel with Modernity” panel at MLA 2019. Top row from left to right: Willis McCumber, Jason de Stefano, Timothy Sweet, and Michael Puett. Bottom row from left to right: Pilar Martínez Benedí, K. L. Evans, and Joseph Conway. Photo courtesy of Samuel Otter.

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Melville’s writing has meant many things to many people, but it has yet to be seen as a way to unite or bring into conversation the growing number of theorists resisting the modernity narrative by making an effort to knock down the edifice of dualism, think carefully about where the nature-culture binary has come from (and what we might imagine in its place), cast doubt on the view that the body is inessential to mind, and in other ways question the account of the world offered by the moderns. Thus we begin this energized year in Melville studies not by casting Melville once again as a writer anguished by the dualism of the modern era, but by seeing in him someone who disavows modernity’s oppositions. For Pilar Martínez Benedí, Melville advocates for “the incorporeal dimensions of the body,” while for Willis McCumber, Melville follows Aristotle in thinking “the human body is the best picture of the human soul.” According to Timothy Sweet and K. L. Evans, Melville finds in the whale a form of life that “cannot finally be rendered in terms of the nature/culture distinction.” Jason de Stefano investigates the philosophy of feeling that Melville developed through his experience in Europe and Palestine and his experiments with poetry, and Joseph Conway shows how the non-western, “pre-modern” subject as represented in Melville’s writing “does not even distinguish between those most special categories of the human and the non-human—a founding binary, according to Bruno Latour and others, upon which the Western claim to being modern rests.” Together we assemble a compelling portrait of Melville’s quarrel with modernity and continue the project of seeing Melville as an interventionist in the landscape of nineteenth-century.

To set the stage, we were extraordinarily fortunate to have help from Michael Puett, Walter C. Klein Chair of Chinese History and Anthropology at Harvard University. Michael is not a Melville scholar but a brilliant, accomplished theorist of the modernity narrative and a great friend to those who would question the account of the world offered by the moderns. He set the tone for the panel (convivial, but with the sense that there is work to be done!) and showed how Melville’s theorizing can energize current critical discourse. Michael began by sketching the basic set of dualisms associated with the modernity narrative (soul/body, nature/culture, linguistic/material) and showed how, when absolutely everything is considered through this modern lens, even pre-modern and non-western thinking is analyzed in these terms. The result is that we unfit ourselves from taking seriously the way different traditions wrestled with these problems. If we want to think past the modernity narrative, Michael claims, we need people who are trying to rethink the accepted frameworks. Melville is one of these figures. [End Page 154]


Melville’s Weird Feelings
Jason de Stefano
University of California, Berkeley

If it is not clear why Melville turned almost exclusively to writing poetry after returning from his 1856–57 trip to Europe and Palestine, this uncertainty may be because what he found there exceeded rational explanation. Readers have tended to see Melville’s poetry as stereotypically melancholy meditations on secularization, that process of rationalization that supposedly made the modern age one of disenchantment and doubt. Here I suggest instead that Melville sought through poetry to redeem what modernity relegated to reason’s opposite: namely, feeling. Melville declared shortly after his return that art should recreate “the feeling of the artist that created” the work, and his poetic project aims to represent the feelings he experienced on his trip, which he describes as not melancholy but weird. Melville’s feelings are weird in the common sense because they collapse modern philosophy...


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pp. 153-158
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