Interregnum in Providence : the fragmentation of narrative as quest in the prose fictions of Heman Melville

De Villiers, Dawid Willem,1972- (2003-04)

Thesis (PhD)--University of Stellenbosch, 2003.

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: Herman Melville (1819-1891) remains a recalcitrant and enigmatic presence in the Western canon. This dissertation explores the radical narrative strategies engaged by Melville in the composition of his prose fictions. It is my contention that Melville's writings to an important degree constitute a subversive response to the privileged apocalyptic and teleological narratives of the day-national, ontological, metaphysical, and literary, or aesthetic-and that he primarily engages these narratives in terms of the archetypal symbolism of the romantic quest. Against this linear and goal-oriented, or plotted, progress, Melville's own narratives assert the nonredemptive forces of time, change, and natural flux, which the quest is symbolically meant to conquer and subject to a redemptive pattern. Melville's critique of the quest takes the shape of a radical fragmentation of its agonistic, evolutionary force-its progress-which is always directed towards a resolvent end. In this sense, most of his protagonists may be defined as questers, characters who seek, by some (individuating) action, to achieve a monumental point of closure. But the Melvillean narrative (even when narrated by the protagonist) always resists this intention. His rhetoric is digressive and improvisational, his style heterogeneous and parodic, and his endings always indeterminate and equivocal. Significantly, this same quality renders his prose fictions highly resistant to an apocalyptic hermeneutics that strives to redeem the monumental "meaning" of the work from the narrative itself. The destabilising questions raised in Melville's work with regard to redemptive plot and progress ultimately centre on the idea of Providence, in other words, the authorising telos that informs, governs and justifies the quest. By fragmenting this quest, Melville undermines the effective presence of Providence, clearing away what he perceives to be an illusion of control harboured in a dual but related image of the providential God and the providential author as external, "metaphysical" authorities directing their worlds in terms of a master plan toward final and meaningful closure. Melville's fiction, then, imaginatively (and philosophically) engages a world in which such stable authorising centres are absent. It is in terms of this absence that I intend to examine the nature of Melville's prose fictions. The focus in this dissertation is specifically on Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Redburn, White-Jacket, Pierre, Israel Potter and The Confidence-Man. Throughout, however, the canonical Moby-Dick and the unfinished and posthumous Billy Budd, are also drawn into the discussion in order to clarify and extend the points raised.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Herman Melville (1819-1891) bly 'n weerspannige en enigmatiese aanwesigheid in die Westerse kanon. Hierdie verhandeling ondersoek die radikale narratiewe strategiëe wat deur Melville ingespan is tydens die komposisie van sy fiksie in prosa. Ek gaan van die standpunt uit dat Melville se werk tot 'n groot mate gedefinieer word deur 'n ondermynende reaksie teen die bevoorregte apokaliptiese en teleologiese narratiewe diskoerse van sy tyd-nasionaal, ontologies, metafisies, en literêr, of esteties-en dat hy hoofsaaklik hierdie diskoerse ondersoek in terme van die argetipiese simboliek van die romantiese soektog of "quest." Teenoor hierdie lineêre en doelgerigte, of beraamde ("plotted"), vooruitgang, beklemtoon Melville se eie verhale die nie-verlossende kragte van tyd, verandering, en natuurlike stroming, dit wat die "quest" simbolies beoog om te oorwin en onderwerp aan 'n verlossings-patroon. Melville se kritiese beoordeling van die "quest" neem die vorm aan van 'n radikale fragmentering van die opposisionele, evolusionêre krag---die progressie-wat altyd op 'n beslissende slot gerig is. In hierdie sin kan ons die meerderheid van sy protagoniste as soekers ("questers") definieer, karakters wat poog, deur middel van die een of ander (individuerende) handeling, om 'n monumentale slot te behaal. Maar die Melvilliese verhaal (selfs wanneer deur die protagonis vertel) werk altyd dié voorneme teë. Sy retorika is uitwydend en improvisatories, sy styl heterogeen en parodies, en sy slotte altyd onbeslis en dubbelsinnig. Dit is aanmerklik dat hierdie einste eienskap sy fiksie hoogs weerstandig maak teen 'n apokaliptiese hermeneutiek wat poog om die monumentale "betekenis" van die werk uit die narratief self te herwin of "verlos." Die ondergrawende vrae wat in Melville se werk ten opsigte van die beslissende verloop ("plot") en progressie geopper word word uiteindelik grotendeels gekoppel aan die idee van die Voorsienigheid, met ander woorde, die outoriserende telos wat die "quest" beïnvloed, regeer en regverdig. Deur die "quest" te fragmenteer, ondermyn Melville die effektiewe teenwoordigheid van die Voorsienigheid, en verwyder daarmee dit wat hy ervaar as 'n illusie van beheer wat behoue bly in die dubbele beeld van die bestierende God en die bestierende outeur as eksterne, "metafisiese" outoriteite wat hulle wêrelde in terme van 'n uitgewerkte plan na 'n finale en betekenisvolle einde lei. Melville se fiksie, dus, op verbeeldingsryke (en filosofiese) wyse, stel 'n wêreld daar waarin sulke outoriserende sentra afwesig is. Dit is in terme van hierdie afwesigheid wat ek beoog om die aard van Melville se fiksies te ondersoek. Hierdie verhandeling fokus op Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Redburn, White-Jacket, Pierre, Israel Potter en The Confidence-Man. Die kanonieke Moby-Dick en die onvoltooide en postume Billy Budd word egter deurgaans in die bespreking opgeneem ter wille van die duidelikheid en uitbreiding van die argument.

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