Imperial misnomers: Herman Melville's subversion of narratives of exploration

de Villiers D.W. (2007)

Conference Paper

In his oeuvre the nineteenth-century American author Herman Melville engages critically with the role of narrative taxonomies in imperial praxis, particularly as they relate to his own country's emergence as imperial nation. The relativising influence of Melville's years at sea is an importantfactor in shaping the ontologically indeterminate and anti-teleological character of his narratives, which both critically and parodically recall the ways in which narrative representations serve imperial ends by bridging, or overwriting, epistemological lacunae. Melville's lectures 'On Traveling' and 'The South Seas' provide a useful introduction to his countervailing perspective: the former, by delineating a mode of travelling that remains open to that which is other, the latter by considering critically the introduction of the Pacific into Western historiography by means of several acts of misnaming and symbolic appropriation. Melville highlights the self-deconstructive nature of such acts, yet also shows a keen understanding of how nominal appropriation and exotic refiguration foreground and enable colonisation. This recognition informs Melville's first prose fiction, Typee, in which he launches a two-pronged critique of imperialism: by his first person narrator's polemic against missionary and naval activity in the Marquesas, but also, more tellingly, by exposing this narrator's own acts of misrepresentation, which suggest a deeper complicity in the discourse of empire.

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