- Magnificent Decay: Melville & Ecology by Tom Nurmi
Magnificent Decay: Melville & Ecology
Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2020. xiii, 276 pages.
Tom Nurmi's Magnificent Decay insightfully recasts Melville as an unheralded literary ecologist. A "writer of relations, networks, and systems that we now term 'ecological'" (xi), Melville pursued a lifelong investigation of "how 'Nature' is made legible and at what scales" (26), Nurmi argues. At a moment when responding ethically and effectively to the Anthropocene requires us to grasp the complex place of humans within the planet's various spatial and temporal histories, we need to read Melville, a writer who made "the complexity of human-planetary relations accessible to a broad spectrum of readers" (5). Nurmi pursues this ecological reframing of Melville by reading descriptions of spirals, flowers, stones, corals, shells, skeletons, trees, birds, honeycombs, and other more-than-human entities as more than metaphorical. By following their manifold appearances across Melville's work and outward, into the larger scientific and cultural contexts that Melville engaged, Nurmi illuminates the ecological contours of Melville's thinking—and, thereby, some unexpected ontological, philosophical, and even political claims.
Interestingly, Nurmi's ecological reframing of Melville does not center on Melville's most "obviously ecological" (40) work, Moby-Dick (1851). Rather, Nurmi primarily attends to the form and content of major texts that have received comparatively less consideration: Mardi (1849), Pierre (1852), The Piazza Tales (1856) taken as a whole, and John Marr (1888). Each text becomes relevant to the pressing and intersecting crises of the Anthropocene, Nurmi shows, when we dispense with well-worn reasons for not reading them—Mardi as plotless, Pierre as absurd and repellent by turns—and instead approach each as a complex, meditative reflection upon ecological processes and the forms of life they produce.
Accordingly, the book is arranged around four compellingly titled chapters: "Pearl: Mardi," "Tendril: Pierre," "Honeycomb: The Piazza Tales," and "Pebble: John Marr." Each explores a particular set of neglected substances and materials, and each offers "fresh sets of coordinates" (227) through which to perceive Melville's ecological orientations. The bones, pearls, and [End Page 93] gold of Mardi urge us toward ever closer attention to our profound entanglements with geological materials, and the processes shaping them, until we verge upon "mineral unconscious" (68), the knowledge that "we are our shared minerality" (79)—that we are inseparable from, similar to, and ever emerging with forms of nonlife both visible and invisible to us. Pierre's spirals, foams, and "vegetal structure" (84) encourage us to attend to life forms that resist human use and cultivation, and thus typically remain overlooked, while also informing us of our own vegetality—both our barely perceptible entanglements with entities living and dead, and our relative lack of agency as organic bodies within an ever-changing ecological system. The Piazza Tales is "a series of modern fables about dwelling among, and as, animals in the Anthropocene" (146). Unlike readings that separate out the individual stories and sketches of this collection, Nurmi treats it as a complete work. In both well-known tales (such as "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and "Benito Cereno") and lesser-known pieces (such as "The Piazza" and "The Lightning-Rod Man"), Nurmi finds that the collection's honeycombs, chimneys, ships, and tombs (among other structures) prompt us to understand that dwelling may take a number of forms beyond the violent displacements of settler colonialism. And John Marr "compresses a lifetime of ecological thought into a single collection of linked poems" (201). "Pebbles," the title of the sequence of poems that concludes John Marr, are a clue to the meaning of the whole, Nurmi argues; rather than seeking an overarching coherence, we should approach the text as a work as "non-additive" and "emergent" as the pebbles that make up the planet itself (224). By reading each poem both individually and also in relation to all others, while following out the "interlinked energy pathways" of particular materials such as sharks and kelp, dust and wind, Melville's readers experience nothing less than "our planet's mineral-vegetal-animal-atmospheric complexity" (202, 224).
These and other novel claims are supported with sustained, frequently...