Perhaps we should open up with a simple question, what is one to do with Pierre? Melville produced this novel a year after Moby Dick, ostensibly to produce a novel that was more in the tastes of the genteel reading public, the ‘milk’ in contradistinction to the ‘sea-salt’ of Moby Dick. And yet we are given this monstrosity. I choose the word monstrosity rather carefully, not as to indict the formulations of kinship that occur in the book, but instead to point to the strangely grafted quality of the text. Juxtaposed within the text, we find obvious references to Shakespeare’s tragedies, the poetry of Dante, rather badly read philosophy, Greek myth, etc. The book cuts abruptly to a digression of an assessment of Pierre’s literary career of which we are only just privy to through the digression.
However I plan on touching on three separate topics within the book. The first deals with the way that the family history of Herman Melville circulates within the text. This will then move into a discussion of the notion of ‘fate that is circulated through the book. I look at the connections that this has with Melville’s earlier novel Moby Dick, and look at how this connects to desire. From there I want to move into a discussion of the structures of kinship that work within the book, which are always within a state of transgression. All of these coalesce in the desire for individualism, a desire that is intimately linked to the repression of that which allowed for the subject’s production.
It’s difficult to discuss the book Pierre without noting some of the prominent similarities between the heritage of Pierre and Melville’s own life. I turn briefly to CLR James’ reading for some of these details.
Both his grandfathers were heroes of the Revolutionary War. His father was a merchant, an importer of foreign merchandise. Melville was thus by birth a member of that landed and commercial aristocracy which, even after 1776, held the first place in American society until Andrew Jackson gave it a mortal wound in 1828. The Melville family felt this personally. Herman’s grandfather, Major Thomas Melville, was removed as Naval officer for the Port of Boston by the new Jackson administration. Other calamities were in store. In 1832 a depression ruined his father and the blow caused his death. The Melvilles were ruined. Herman was then thirteen years old. Around him, henceforward, the old America was passing, and a new America was taking its place in a turmoil that grew increasingly.
Machine production was breaking up the old artisan industry. Between 1840 and 1850, far from the frontier offering an outlet for the bold and energetic in the East, there was a movement back from the farms to the cities. The old sense that men had of being members of an integrated community, which the winning of Independence had not destroyed, was now in process of dissolution. This is a society in which young Melville grew up. Unchecked individualism was coming to maturity and Emerson, a favorite author of Henry Ford, understood the change and celebrated it.
We find ourselves confronted with an image that is extraordinarily similar to the familial background of our main character, Pierre. I am, of course, aware of the injunction that we are not to read the biography of the author into the text, but Melville is a rather interesting case in this instance. Despite the failure of Moby Dick, Melville could be argued to be one of the first examples of what could be called a celebrity writer, and what’s more one that succeeds within this project through a certain project of self-mythologisation. The text of this history is not only written into the text of his novels, but also into a countless series of newspaper and magazine articles. I would argue that the figure of the history of Melville is a much of an act of intertextuality as the incorporation of the texts of Dante or Shakespeare.
Similarly Melville sites himself within his text. This can be found in the descriptions in the family life of Pierre, the reception of the critics to his works, and a number of other places. I would like to connect this with the torn pamphlet that Pierre reads in the middle of the novel, “Lecture First. Chronometricals and Horologicals.” “For peculiarly coming from God, the sole source of that heavenly truth, and the great Greenwich hill and tower from which the heavenly truth, and far out into infinity reckoned; such souls seem as London sea-chronometers (Greek, time-namers) which as the London ship floats past Greenwich down the Thames, are accurately adjusted by Greenwich time, will still give that same time, even though carried to the Azores.” The piece goes on with the analogy, arguing that the chronometer would act out of sync with the times of China. One could say that one is only a time-namer for a particular place, and perhaps even time.
I want to read Pierre within this notion that Melville introduces us to, that of the ‘chronometer, the time-namer.’ We have already touched on the notion of transition earlier in our discussion. James the good marxist that he is has already noted for us that there was a radical shift in the nature of the republic that was occurring at that time, this is marked by all the usual signs of industrial capitalism, the collapse of artisan production, communities, urbanization, etc. But more significantly for this narrative, he marked the production of a sort of unfettered individualism within this. Pierre, and indeed the rise of the figure of Melville, fits well into this narrative. There is an interesting reading of this within Wai-chee Dimock’s Empire for Liberty: Melville and the Poetics of Individualism that reads Melville symptomatically of these times. I am sympathetic to this reading, and never want to suggest that the text escapes this, but it seems that alongside this desire for unfettered individualism is a critical examination of it. After all, the text marks this passage, and notes that Pierre cannot understand it, even upon multiple readings. One cannot act as a time-namer of the collective desire for unfettered individualism and simultaneously recognize that fact.
The figure of Melville operates within this poetics of individualism. He had operated within it for some time before the publication of Pierre. His earliest work was published as a memoir, and his most popular works were published under the authority of a man that has been to sea. He was the man who read into Hawthorne’s Mosses the production of a genuinely American form of art, one that orphaned itself from its European roots. At the same time, the desire to fulfill this narrative placed Melville in opposition to the audience that held that same myth in common. We can see a profound contradiction between the “I” of Melville that desires to be the “great artist” as opposed to the “I” that was desired by the publishers and the audience of the day, an “I” that is associated with a sort of authentic self, and its journeys.
We will need to return to this discussion of the circulation of the politics of the individual that circulates in such a vexed and complicated manner within the text, but we first need to deal with the method in which the plot moves forward, namely the question of fate. This term, which appears frequently within the text, is not unique to it. It also acts as an important feature of the narrative structure of Moby Dick. Ultimately, we will see that it both explains and undercuts the individualism discussed above.
What does it mean to enter into the formation of time, of the times I suppose that Pierre is naming? I want to enter into this discussion with the figure of Fate. Fate is one of the most interesting parallels between the text of Pierre and that of Moby Dick, both are driven by a mysterious force that is given the name ‘Fate.’ For Ishmael, fate is linked to the fatal voyage that he embarks upon. For Pierre (who is also marked as Ishmael within the text) fate enters with the entrance of the letter that will pull him from his old way of life. “He equivocated with himself no more; the gloom of the air had now burst into his heart, and extinguished its light; then, first in all his life, Pierre felt the irresistible admonitions and intuitions of Fate.”
This figure of Fate acts to drive him to secretly visit his illegitimate sister, abandon his finance and mother, marry his half sister and leave his home and city. We can see the intensity that comes from his initial connection with Isabel. “Never had human voice so affected Pierre before. Though he saw not the person whom it came, and though the voice was wholly strange to him, yet the sudden shriek seemed to split its way clean through his heart, and leave a yawning gap there.” Indeed Fate is presented as a powerful force, one that pushes through and beyond the individual. “So, though long previous generations, whether of births of thoughts, Fate strikes the present man. Idly he disowns the blow’s effect, because he felt no blow, and indeed, received no blow. But Pierre was not arguing Fixed Fate and Free Will, now; Fixed Fate and Free Will were arguing him, and Fixed Fate got the better of the debate.”
Indeed, I agree with Cesare Casarino’s reading of Fate within Melville’s economy. “Fate is desire. To catch a glimpse of the future one feels fated to fulfill is here understood as the form taken by the desire for that future, as a claim-staking over its as yet “unapproachable and unknown” territories: to foresee and to want are produced here as the Janus-headed process propelling the discourse of fate…. For Ishmael, fate is produced both as the materialization and as the displacement of a desire too great and unconfessable to be made manifest any form other than a policing exteriority, a ponomphean deus ex machina hovering and looming high above the stage on which the drama of whaling is about to unfold.”
The desire that Casarino is invoking doesn’t operate within the romantic economy even though it can be mystified into such a position. Instead this formation of desire is a productive force that cannot be conceived of either as an outside or a completely immanent force. It cannot be conceive within the economy of the outside because it is so linked to the becoming of the subject in question, but neither can it be conceived as immanent because it draws on the forces that produced the subject. As a force it is productive and overdetermined. It pushes the subject into a futurity that he does not even complete understand himself.
Just as Fate acts within the economy of Moby Dick, there is a comparable role played within Pierre. We can find the explosive nature of this very early within the structure of the novel.
Pierre now seemed distinctly to feel two antagonistic agencies within him; one of which was just struggling into his consciousness, and each of which was striving for the mastery; and between whose respective final ascendencies, he thought he could perceive, though but shadowly, that he himself was to be the only umpire. One bade him finish the selfish destruction of the note; for in some dark way the reading of it would irretrievably entangle his fate. The other bade him dismiss all misgivings; not because there was no possible ground for them, but because to dismiss them was the manlier part, never mind what might betide. This the good angel seemed mildly to say—Read, Pierre, though by reading thou may’st entangle thyself, yet may’st thou thereby disentangle others. Read, and feel that best blessedness which, with the sense of all duties discharged, holds happiness indifferent. The bad angel insinuatingly breathed—Read it not, dearest Pierre; but destroy it, and be happy. Then, at the blast of his noble heart, the bad angel shrunk up into nothingness; and the good one defined itself clearer and more clear, and came nigher and more nigh to him, smiling sadly but benignantly; while fort from the infinite distances wonderful harmonies stole into his heart; so that every vein in him pulsed to some heavenly well. (Melville 63)
In receiving the letter, Pierre has the intuition that this will some how radically change his life, and he is given the choice whether to stay in the place where he is, or move elsewhere. Within that, he decides upon opening the letter. It is curious that while the decision is a displaced one with the figures of angels acting as litigants, the joy that is gained from the decision is Pierre’s even if he cannot fully understand it. And what is contained in the letter but the thing that he has most wanted in the world, a sister. When one looks at the response that Pierre has to the letter, it is clear that his acceptance of its truth is a form of desire for that very truth. One can see this in his final acceptance of the letter.
“This letter is not a forgery. Oh! Isabel, thou art my sister; and I will love thee, and protect thee, ay, and own thee through all. Ah! Forgive me, ye heavens, for my ignorant ravings, and accept this my vow.—Here I swear myself Isabel’s. Oh! Thou poor castaway girl, that in loneliness and anguish must have long breathed the same air, which heaven hath placed in my hands; sweet Isabel! Would I not be baser than brass, and harder, and colder than ice, if I could be insensible to such claims as thine? Thou movest before me, in rainbows spun of thy tears! I see thee long weeping, and God demands me for thy comforter; and comfort thee, stand by thee, and fight for thee, will thy leapingly-acknowledging brother, whom thy own father named Pierre!”
Pierre’s entrance into this fate is begun through an act of self-narration, a beginning if you will. It is crucial that Pierre has produced this full structure of desire out of the slightest of notes delivered to him. He enters on the scene not only having decided on the truth of her statements, but in many ways what he is going to make of them. The entire arc of the narrative in both its ambiguously incestuous and its self-sacrificial motivations is already here. Perhaps the only thing that cannot be discussed is the relationship that this desire takes in regards to the history of Pierre’s family, or the structure of his family. We will need to look at that now.
Obviously when we look Casarino’s formulation of desire, there is something of the unconscious contained within this. To touch on this dimension, it seems crucial to deal with some of the ways that kinship works within the story. We can begin with the first relationship that is constructed fully within the novel, that between Pierre and his mother. We are informed that Mrs. Glendinning was widowed when Pierre was very young, and that the relationship with Pierre is very close. More specifically we are also informed that Pierre responded with what could be considered violent jealousy. Very well, it shouldn’t take an expert in psychoanalysis to recognize an Oedipal, incestuous element to this. But there is something else within this relationship that disturbs this comfortably pathological view of the family romance, the pair refer to each other as brother and sister. We are already in a position that puts us out of the range of an easy Freudian reading of the scene.
Beyond that ambiguity of the family structure, we are informed that the primary romantic attachment (other than his mother) is his cousin Lucy. What’s more he also had a youthful romance with his cousin Glen, which seems to have been dissolved because of their mutual desire for Lucy, and the fact that Pierre succeeded in winning her over. This transforms this relationship into one of mutual antagonism. We are in more of an economy that would be best described by Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality Pt. 1. “The family, in its contemporary form, must not be understood as a social, economic, and political structure of alliance that excludes or at least restrains sexuality, that diminishes it as much as possible, preserving only its useful functions. On the contrary, its role is to anchor sexuality and provide it with a permanent support.”
If I were going to put it in another way, I would say that the family relations that Pierre already is within act as the preconditions for the new structures of relations that he creates. In place of his mother turned sister, he takes on another illegitimate sister. He also reproduces the relations of the family that he ostensibly rebelling against by adding more and more female relations. The relations that are posited as legitimate and based in a mode of aristocracy are already illegitimate and illegible. The transgressive nature of Pierre’s act can only be tied unveiling the structure that already is in existence.
But we need to recognize that for Pierre, there is something new in creation, some genuine form of transgression. To understand that, we need to return to the question of individualism. In effect, this will allow us to bring the discussions of fate/desire and kinship towards their conclusion. This is because, although they are the prerequisites for Pierre to be produced, they also need to be repressed in order for Pierre to operate. We once again return to the figure of the time-namer, and the question can the time-namer for the age of ‘unfettered individualism’ recognize his position?
In reading the letter, Pierre is driven to make a number of reassessments of his the world that he lives in, from his father to his mother and his community (most prominently in the form of the priest.) He was clearly a product of the system that is linked with the seduction and abandonment of Isabel’s mother, slavery, and the extermination of American Indians. (Both of these are mentioned in the hallowed past of his ancestors.) The description that is offered captures this sense of despair. “The cheeks of his soul collapsed in him: he dashed himself in blind fury and swift madness against the wall, and fell dabbling in the vomit of his loathed identity.”
No sooner does Pierre recognize the ambiguities of the lineage that he comes from then he tries to escape it. The portrait comes down only to leave a small impression of its existence. He is drawn to Isabel, his half sister out of the mystery that is contained in her parentage, and the fact that she is all but without parents in practicality. This is best exemplified by the tautological lyrics that draw Pierre in. “Mystery! Mystery/ Mystery of Isabel!/ Mystery! Mystery!/ Isabel and Mystery!” We see this desire to destroy the past, to create the sense of individuality without parentage that is advocated in Melville’s small article on Hawthorne. On being disowned, he calls for the remnants of the past to be brought to them, and on their reception he destroys them.
A small wood-fire had been kindled on the hearth to purify the long closed room; it was now diminished to a small pointed heap of glowing embers. Detaching and dismembering the gilded but tarnished frame, Pierre laid the four pieces on the coals; as their dryness soon caught the sparks, he rolled the reversed canvas into a scroll, and tied it, and committed it to the now crackling, clamorous flames. Steadfastly Pierre watched the first crispings and blackenings of the painted scroll, but started as suddenly unwinding from the burnt string that had tied it, for one swift instant, seen through the flame and the smoke, the upwrithing portrait tormentedly stared at him in beseeching horror, and then, wrapped in one brad sheet of oily fire, disappeared forever.
Yielding to a sudden ungovernable impulse, Pierre darted his hand among the flames, to rescue the imploring face; but as swiftly drew back his scorched and bootless grasp. His hand was burnt and blackened, but he did not heed it.
He ran back to the chest, and seizing repeated packages of family letters, and all sorts of miscellaneous memorials in paper, he threw them one after the other upon the fire.
“Thus, and thus, and thus! On thy manes I fling fresh spoils; pour out all my memory in one libation!—so, so, so—lower, lower, lower; now all is done, and all is ashes! Henceforth, cast-out Pierre hath no paternity, and no past; and since the Future is one blank to all; therefore, twice-disinherited Pierre stands untrammeledly his ever-present self!—free to do his own self-will and present fancy to whatever end!”
Pierre tries to reformulate himself, and recreate himself within this profound act of destruction. We obviously cannot ignore the Oedipal elements contained in this scene, Pierre is clearly engaged in an act of patricide, and the image of his father all but cries out at this act. But it doesn’t work within this economy as that Pierre burns his father to also reject his mother. He is more properly engaged in the revolutionary act of tabula rasa, but I think if we return to the removal of the painting, and the trace that remains, we can see the ultimate failure in this act. The trace points to the path already trod and repressed. It cannot be removed.
His acts of writing continue within this goal, but in the end they become failures as well. His editors refer to them as monstrosities and imposters. One is tempted to read the later output of his work as the production of so many symptoms. In trying to escape from his past, he winds up accomplishing only its repetition. We end in a sort of return of the repressed, with the ship sinking with the murder of Pierre’s cousin, and his suicide. That act ends the novel within the most trod upon tropes of the romance, one that can be found within Romeo and Juliet.
The novel then acts both within the desire for individualism, and, in a sense, an analysis of the symptoms produced. To return briefly to the figure of fate, it both produces the trajectory for Pierre’s narrative arc into the romantic individualism that he takes, and it undercuts its premises because, after all, it points to larger social forces that completely undercut the autonomy of the individual. The novel operates within the crisis of Jacksonian democracy, which seeks to create a radical democracy through the repression of what created it. One can find the diagnosis here, even as it itself is inured in the crisis.
 C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (London: University Press of New England, 2001), 92.
 Herman Melville, Pierre, or The Ambiguities, Ed. Harrison Hayford, Herschal Parker, G. Thomas Tanselle (Easton, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1971), 211.
 Herman Melville Pierre, or The Ambiguities, Ed. Harrison Hayford, Herschal Parker, G. Thomas Tanselle (Easton, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1971), 62
 Herman Melville, Pierre, or The Ambiguities, Ed. Harrison Hayford, Herschal Parker, G. Thomas Tanselle (Easton, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1971), 45.
 ibid., 182
 Cesare Casarino, Modernity at Sea: Melville, Marx, Conrad In Crisis (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).
 Herman Melville Pierre, or The Ambiguities, Ed. Harrison Hayford, Herschal Parker, G. Thomas Tanselle (Easton, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1971), 66.
 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volumen I: An Introduction, Trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 108.
 Herman Melville Pierre, or The Ambiguities, Ed. Harrison Hayford, Herschal Parker, G. Thomas Tanselle (Easton, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1971), 171.
 Herman Melville Pierre, or The Ambiguities, Ed. Harrison Hayford, Herschal Parker, G. Thomas Tanselle (Easton, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1971), 126.
 Herman Melville Pierre, or The Ambiguities, Ed. Harrison Hayford, Herschal Parker, G. Thomas Tanselle (Easton, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1971), 199