- Melville et l’usage des plaisirs by Édouard Marsoin
Melville et l’usage des plaisirs
Paris: Sorbonne Université Presses, 2019. 592.
The aim of Édouard Marsoin’s impressive study is to elaborate the nature of pleasure in Melville’s texts. Moving thematically through the whole of the writer’s corpus, Melville et l’usage des plaisirs explores the poetic, epistemological, ethical, and political valences of Meville’s engagements with the topic, revealing them to be unexpectedly vast. At the same time, the nature of Melville’s explorations of pleasure resembles other mobile and varying aspects of his corpus. Melville was not a writer known for seeing things just one way, and so, pleasure appears in his writings in a number of different, non-identical registers. The labile possibilities of eating human flesh in Typee echo the sumptuous banquets of Mardi or the ship-board dietetics of Moby- Dick, just as the ecstasies of squeezing spermaceti resonate with, but remain distinct from, the so-called business friendships aboard the Fidèle. Even asceticism, that form of self-denial that is not without its own pleasures, appears across Melville’s texts in considerable variety, with the world Ahab sacrifices standing next to the frozen garret Pierre writes in or the tasks Bartleby prefers not to perform.
What might accordingly seem like Melville’s career-long capacity to riff on the topics that preoccupy him, looks instead in Marsoin’s account like the writer’s systematic transformations from one way of accounting for experience to another. That the experience of pleasure comes in kinds is not an idea that predominates in English-language writings on the topic. But surely any reader of Freud can imagine that eating and copulating are comparable versions of bodily enjoyment, even as some bodily sensations meaningfully overwhelm us more than others (297). And as Marsoin reminds us in a clear-eyed reading of The Confidence-Man, philosophers have long understood love, which is to say attachment itself, in its variety, from eros to philia (418). Though the possibility of varieties of pleasures is therefore not something Melville invented, these varieties are something his texts can be understood to explore with animated and sustained determination. One of Marsoin’s more exciting suggestions is that what may look like varieties of experience are in fact transformations in [End Page 129] Melville’s conception of pleasure from text to text, transformations that add up to a complex representational project.
While pleasure has been well theorized (Roland Barthes and Frederic Jameson being only two of its prominent theorists whom Marsoin cites), and easily enough experienced under proper conditions, pleasure is substantially more difficult to represent, because there is never a guarantee that a representation of pleasure will provoke feelings of pleasure. Many, in fact, do the opposite. More than other topics, pleasure can drive a wedge between substance and representation, between theme and form. And so, if Marsoin shows us across the more than 500-pages of his study that Melville represents pleasure in its different valences thematically, he also insists, in the study’s first substantial section, that Melville represents pleasure with multiple writerly techniques. Pleasure finds its expression in Melville’s corpus through evocations and representations of sensation, affect, and signification. Melville offers his reader pleasure by using metaphors of taste and touch, sweetness and bitterness, whose denotations evoke even as they describe. Though Melville et l’usage des plaisirs uses the concept of ekphrasis sparingly, that concept’s transferential logic, wherein one aesthetic or sensory representation is meant to evoke another, emerges tacitly through the study as a far more expansive conceit in Melville’s writings than has been previously recognized.
It is not only in this formal examination that the book marks a provocative departure from received understandings of Melville. As deeply engaged with Melville’s texts and the scholarship surrounding them as Melville et l’usage des plaisirs is, the premise itself is unusual. Unlike Melville’s contemporary Walt Whitman, for whom ecstatic embodiments and metaphysical materialism are indisputable poetic signatures, Melville studies has long associated its author less with pleasure than with fleeting feelings and dark theology. This...