Monday, August 19, 2013

"You female lechers in the plain countries have no such tails." Melville reads Rabelais

I'm about fifty or sixty pages into the home defense weapon that is the Franklin Library edition of Francois Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, a hoot and a half in five books written between 1532 and 1564. It's delightful and obscene and socially penetrating and all that good stuff. It's Tristram Shandy and the Ubu plays. It's Don Quixote. It's the comedies of the Elizabethan stage. It's a great many things. I will give you an extended example. In chapter ten of Book One ("Of that which is signified by the colours white and blue"), we find this passage:

Read the ancient, both Greek and Latin histories, and you shall find that the town of Alba (the first pattern of Rome) was founded and so named by reason of a white sow that was seen there. You shall likewise find in those stories, that when any man, after he had vanquished his enemies, was by decree of the senate to enter into Rome triumphantly, he usually rode in a chariot drawn by white horses: which in the ovation triumph was also the custom; for by no sign or colour would they so significantly express the joy of their coming as by the white. You shall there also find, how Pericles, the general of the Athenians, would needs have that part of his army unto whose lot befell the white beans, to spend the whole day in mirth, pleasure, and ease, whilst the rest were a-fighting. A thousand other examples and places could I allege to this purpose, but that it is not here where I should do it. 

By understanding hereof, you may resolve one problem, which Alexander Aphrodiseus hath accounted unanswerable: why the lion, who with his only cry and roaring affrights all beasts, dreads and feareth only a white cock? For, as Proclus saith, Libro de Sacrificio et Magia, it is because the presence of the virtue of the sun, which is the organ and promptuary of all terrestrial and sidereal light, doth more symbolize and agree with a white cock, as well in regard of that colour, as of his property and specifical quality, than with a lion. He saith, furthermore, that devils have been often seen in the shape of lions, which at the sight of a white cock have presently vanished. This is the cause why Galli or Gallices (so are the Frenchmen called, because they are naturally white as milk, which the Greeks call Gala,) do willingly wear in their caps white feathers, for by nature they are of a candid disposition, merry, kind, gracious, and well-beloved, and for their cognizance and arms have the whitest flower of any, the Flower de luce or Lily.

"Huh," says I, "that sounds familiar."  Up I leap from our comfortable sofa and fetch down a volume from the bookshelves in the bedroom (where we keep fiction M-R), in which I find the following passage:

Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title "Lord of the White Elephants" above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial colour the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides, all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things--the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honour; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the Vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great-white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honourable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.

That is, of course, from "The Whiteness of the Whale," Chapter 42 of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

"Aha!" I cried, "I knew I'd seen it somewhere," and then naturally I thought I was on to something, some new Melvillian discovery, that Herman had read Rabelais, and from him he had taken not only the idea of a chapter on whiteness, not only some of the very imagery used in that chapter, but also the formal idea of a digressive novel that mixes essays about alleged facts with a dramatic narrative. Also, the Rabelais has an immense white baby of some evil. Yes, I rubbed my hands together and congratulated myself on my contribution-to-be to American letters. Then I spent a couple of minutes reading the introduction to my copy of Moby-Dick, wherein I learned that this was very old news, and possibly it's because a few years ago I read this introduction that I'm now reading Gargantua and Pantagruel. So the joke's on me.

Still, this is one of the reasons why I so love reading the classics. You get to see how the genetic material of literature is passed on, mutates, survives the ages and finds new bodies in which to live and reproduce. It also bucks me up, because I can't help but put whatever I'm reading into whatever I'm writing.

I have noticed that this post is getting a lot of hits. Is there some sudden interest in Melville in public schools, maybe? I have no idea. But for those interested in more Melvilleana, you could do a lot worse than reading these 40 posts and all the articles linked thereto. That will give you something interesting to do for your three-day weekend.


  1. If you want to follow this path, put Sir Thomas Browne in the queue. What a brilliant thief Melville was.

  2. Never heard of him, but thanks to Google...oh, that's great stuff: "OF THE FISHES Eaten by OUR SAVIOUR WITH HIS DISCIPLES After His Resurrection from the Dead." Totally nuts. We'll see what's available at the library.