By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

4. Great Short Works of Herman Melville, pp. 98-150

Great Short Works of Herman Melville (Perennial Classics)The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles
Long before ecotourism, and even before the impact of Darwin's discoveries there was felt, in 1854, Melville wrote about the Galápagos Islands in this collection of ten "Sketches," based on his visit to them on the whaler Acushnet in 1841 and, as scholars have dutifully discovered, on various written sources. It's a shrewd and artful blend of fact and imagination -- even its geography is not to be trusted.

Melville's Galápagos is not the tenderly preserved ecosystem or the biological laboratory we now venerate, but a cruel and forbidding landscape whose "enchantment" is a curse, a place where "change never comes" -- a statement that has some irony in the light of what Darwin discovered there, but which Melville elaborates upon by adding "neither the change of seasons nor of sorrows." In its "emphatic uninhabitableness" it is for Melville a kind of testing ground for humanity, because humanity is alien there. It is a kind of anti-Eden, a reptilian place: "the chief sound of life here is a hiss.... In no world but a fallen one could such places exist."

The inaccessibility of the islands was, in the age of sail, compounded by the complexity and unpredictability of the currents around them -- mapping them was so difficult, Melville says, that for a while maps showed the one group of islands as two discrete groups. "And this apparent fleetingness and unreality of the locality of the isles was most probably one reason for the Spaniards calling them the Encantada, or Enchanted Group." But they achieved their current name because of the presence of the great tortoises, Galápago in Spanish.

Melville's treatment of the tortoises in the second sketch has none of our reverence for the great animals. For him, the tortoise is an emblem of duality, "both black and bright": "dark and melancholy ... upon the back," with a "bright side" on its breastplate. Encountering them after five months at sea, when "all things of the land wear a fabulous hue to the dreamy mind," he sees the three tortoises brought aboard ship as "transfigured. I seemed to see three Roman Coliseums in magnificent decay." But they soon become demystified, as he hears them scraping across the deck at night, bumping into things on the deck, cursed by "their drudging impulse to straightforwardness in a belittered world." But eventually they dwindle from emblems of ruined magnificence, of baffled stubbornness, into mere sustenance: "tortoise steaks and tortoise stews," their great shells turned into "soup-tureens" and their bright breastplates into "three gorgeous salvers."

Melville's "Rock Rodondo" seems to be modeled on Genovesa Island, also known as Bird Island. Again, Melville's perceptions of wildlife differ from ours: He encounters penguins there, and regards them as "without exception the most ambiguous and least lovely creature yet discovered by man" and speculates that "Nature keeps this ungainly child hidden away at the ends of the earth." The pelican is "A penitential bird ... fitly haunting the shores of the  clinkered Encantadas, whereon tormented Job might have well sat down and scraped himself with potsherds."

They ascend to the top of the island, where he likens the view to that of "the universe from Milton's celestial battlements" and, rather more oddly, to "A boundless watery Kentucky. Here Daniel Boone would have dwelt content." The Boone legend is that of a man forever fleeing an encroaching civilization. The impression the islands "give to the stranger pulling close up in his boat under their grim cliffs is, that surely he must be their first discoverer, such, for the most part, is the unimpaired ... silence and solitude." (The ellipsis is Melville's.)  Melville proceeds to enumerate the other major islands, and concludes that the Galápagos is "for the most part an archipelago of aridities, without inhabitant, history, or hope of either in all time to come."

But there are exceptions, one of them being Barrington Isle (now Santa Fe Island), "the least unproductive isle of the group," with its fresh water, trees and grass. It was, Melville says, favored by buccaneers, but he quotes "a sentimental voyager" who came upon the evidence of some seats made of "stone and turf" that show signs of artificialness and age," and concluded that the buccaneers may not have been an entirely bad lot. "Could it be possible, that they robbed and murdered one day, reveled the next, and rested themselves by turning meditative philosopher, rural poets, and seat-builders on the third? Not very improbable, after all. For consider the vacillations of a man." The quoted passage by the "sentimental voyager" is based on the visit of James Colnett to the Galápagos in 1792, but most of it is, of course, Melville himself.

The seventh sketch is the tale of "a certain Creole adventurer from Cuba" who takes his reward for fighting for Peru in its war for independence from Spain by asking to be made "Supreme Lord" of Charles's Isle (now Floreana), as inhabitable as Barrington and twice its size. The Creole recruits eighty or so "subjects," and trains an army of dogs to keep order. Eventually, he's overthrown and flees back to Peru, and the island becomes "a permanent Riotocracy, which gloried in having no law but lawlessness."

The eighth sketch is the best-known, being the one most excerptable: the story of the "Chola widow," supposedly found by the crew of Melville's ship on Norfolk Isle. (Santa Cruz Island has apparently been called Norfolk Island, but it bears no resemblance to the one in Melville's story.)  Her name is Hunilla, and she tells them she went there with her husband and brother, hired by a Frenchman to obtain "tortoise oil, a fluid which for its great purity and delicacy is held in high estimation wherever known." The Frenchman promises to return for them in four months, but, as Melville observes, "naught else abides on fickle earth but unkept promises of joy." The weeks go by, the husband and brother set out on fishing trip, and Hunilla witnesses their death offshore as a rogue tide demolishes their handmade catamaran. She views the event through a frame made by the branches that surround where she's sitting: "Death in a silent picture; a dream of the eye; such vanishing shapes as the mirage shows."

Her husband's body washes ashore and she buries him, but her brother's body is lost. "Time was her labyrinth, in which Hunilla was entirely lost." But she begins to mark the days as they pass on a piece of cane she finds on the beach, making notches for each day and a deeper one every tenth day. She shows the captain the cane, and he notes that the last mark made was for the one hundred and eightieth day -- the faintest mark. But there were more days after that, the captain observes, and asks why she stopped. She tells him not to ask about them. Were there other boats that passed? Did any whale-boats come near? But the narrator breaks off at this point.
I will not file this thing complete for scoffing souls to quote, and call it firm proof upon their side. The half shall here remain untold. Those two unnamed events which befell Hunilla on this isle, let them abide between her and her God. In nature, as in law, it may be libelous to speak some truths.
The horror of what Hunilla seems to have endured when some men reached the island is left unstated.

As for her rescue, the narrator's ship was on the far side of the island from where Hunilla was living. She was mysteriously brought to their side to hail them when "something came flitting by me. It touched my cheek, my heart, Señor." And only by slim chance did a sailor on their ship spot her waving her handkerchief. On her side of the island they discover her only companions, "some twenty moaning tortoises," surrounded by hundreds of tortoise shells. And "Some ten small, soft-haired, ringleted dogs, of a beautiful breed,  peculiar to Peru," the offspring of the two dogs Hunilla and her husband and brother had brought with them.

Hunilla prostrates herself on her husband's grave before leaving and then returns to them.
There was something which seemed strangely haughty in her air, and yet it was the air of woe. A Spanish and an Indian grief, which would not visibly lament. Pride's height in vain abased to proneness on the rack; nature's pride subduing nature's torture.
She can take only two of her dogs with her on the ship, so she takes her favorites. The remaining dogs howl as they leave. "Had they been human beings, hardly would they have more vividly inspired the sense of desolation." But Hunilla assumes a stoic calm. "She seemed as one who, having experienced the sharpest of mortal pangs, was henceforth content to have all lesser heart-strings riven, one by one." And at the end, when they reach the port in Peru, she rides off on a small gray ass toward her native village.

The next story, a sharp contrast in tone and sentiment, is that of Oberlus, the hermit of Hood's Isle (now Española). Melville's title, "The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles," suggests Shakespeare's The Tempest, and Oberlus is Melville's Caliban. Oberlus's "only companions ... were the crawling tortoises, and he seemed more than degraded to their level." ( In the play, Prospero calls Caliban "thou tortoise.") More explicitly, Melville has Oberlus say, "This island's mine by Sycorax my mother." And observes that "He acted out of mere delight in tyranny and cruelty, by virtue of a quality in him inherited from Sycorax his mother." Like Caliban, too, he delights in drunkenness.

Somehow he gains possession of an old musket, and uses it one day to capture a negro who had been sent ashore from a ship to gather wood. But the negro overpowers Oberlus and the crew of the ship plunder his vegetable garden, take his tortoises and the money he has stashed away, and whip him. He "now meditates a signal revenge upon humanity," and begins to lure seamen who visit the island to drink with him. When he gets them drunk enough, he ties them up, steals their weapons, and presses them into serving him. He "converts them into reptiles at his feet -- plebeian garter-snakes to this Lord Anaconda." Eventually, he gathers enough of them to build an army of men who were "prepared for almost any eventual evil by their previous lawless life, as a sort of ranging Cow-Boys of the sea, which had dissolved within them the whole moral man, so that they were ready to concrete in the first offered mold of baseness now."

Finally, Oberlus overreaches himself with an attack on a ship, but he becomes an emblem of the workings of Melville's Enchanted Isles on the human spirit -- or rather of the raw essence of humanity: "Probably few parts of earth have, in modern times, sheltered so many solitaries." And for Melville, to be solitary is to be damned.

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