Friday, February 17, 2017

astonishment at the tangled web of some character

If reason be judge, no writer has produced such inconsistent characters as nature herself has. It must call for no small sagacity in a reader unerringly to discriminate in a novel between the inconsistencies of conception and those of life as elsewhere. Experience is the only guide here; but as no one man can be coextensive with what is, it may be unwise in every ease to rest upon it. When the duck-billed beaver of Australia was first brought stuffed to England, the naturalists, appealing to their classifications, maintained that there was, in reality, no such creature; the bill in the specimen must needs be, in some way, artificially stuck on.

But let nature, to the perplexity of the naturalists, produce her duck-billed beavers as she may, lesser authors some may hold, have no business to be perplexing readers with duck-billed characters. Always, they should represent human nature not in obscurity, but transparency, which, indeed, is the practice with most novelists, and is, perhaps, in certain cases, someway felt to be a kind of honor rendered by them to their kind. But, whether it involve honor or otherwise might be mooted, considering that, if these waters of human nature can be so readily seen through, it may be either that they are very pure or very shallow. Upon the whole, it might rather be thought, that he, who, in view of its inconsistencies, says of human nature the same that, in view of its contrasts, is said of the divine nature, that it is past finding out, thereby evinces a better appreciation of it than he who, by always representing it in a clear light, leaves it to be inferred that he clearly knows all about it.

But though there is a prejudice against inconsistent characters in books, yet the prejudice bears the other way, when what seemed at first their inconsistency, afterwards, by the skill of the writer, turns out to be their good keeping. The great masters excel in nothing so much as in this very particular. They challenge astonishment at the tangled web of some character, and then raise admiration still greater at their satisfactory unraveling of it; in this way throwing open, sometimes to the understanding even of school misses, the last complications of that spirit which is affirmed by its Creator to be fearfully and wonderfully made.

At least, something like this is claimed for certain psychological novelists; nor will the claim be here disputed. Yet, as touching this point, it may prove suggestive, that all those sallies of ingenuity, having for their end the revelation of human nature on fixed principles, have, by the best judges, been excluded with contempt from the ranks of the sciences—palmistry, physiognomy, phrenology, psychology. Likewise, the fact, that in all ages such conflicting views have, by the most eminent minds, been taken of mankind, would, as with other topics, seem some presumption of a pretty general and pretty thorough ignorance of it. Which may appear the less improbable if it be considered that, after poring over the best novels professing to portray human nature, the studious youth will still run risk of being too often at fault upon actually entering the world; whereas, had he been furnished with a true delineation, it ought to fare with him something as with a stranger entering, map in hand, Boston town; the streets may be very crooked, he may often pause; but, thanks to his true map, he does not hopelessly lose his way. Nor, to this comparison, can it be an adequate objection, that the twistings of the town are always the same, and those of human nature subject to variation. The grand points of human nature are the same to-day they were a thousand years ago. The only variability in them is in expression, not in feature.

But as, in spite of seeming discouragement, some mathematicians are yet in hopes of hitting upon an exact method of determining the longitude, the more earnest psychologists may, in the face of previous failures, still cherish expectations with regard to some mode of infallibly discovering the heart of man.
From one of several essays about literature worked into Melville's The Confidence-Man. This is most of "Chapter XIV: Worth the Consideration of Those to Whom it May Prove Worth Considering." I must say that Melville hits the nail pretty squarely on the head here.

5 comments:

  1. not long to go, now... i read the excerpt three times and still am not quite sure what he was saying... i need some kind of "Flowers of Algernon" pill, or maybe just stick to reading old Pogo books... interesting, tho, whatever it was...

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  2. The language in this novel is deliberately difficult; the narrator tosses out strings of conflicting claims that negate themselves as they go along so that the reader is pushed into a buzzy cloud of satirical doubt. The passage quoted above is one of the most straightforward bits of the book!

    Anyway, Melville says that real people are not consistent in their thoughts and behavior, and we all ought to know this, but if a writer of fiction makes his characters inconsistent he's accused of being a bad writer; meanwhile, writers who offer up simple (unrealistic) characters are praised as having a real understanding of human nature.

    All of this is a dodge on Melville's part to get us to accept that his characters are going to take on a variety of personalities over the course of the book, as the ideas driving the story require. I think this is a fine attitude for a writer to take.

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    1. writing is such a mystery... i had something to say about that but decided it was dumb... i've got The Confidence Man; i'll check it out... tx for the elucidation...

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  3. I am intrigued and -- like Mudpuddle -- befogged by Melville's syntax and diction (not atypical for so many writers in the past). Sometimes, though, I think such a writer gets too far ahead of his readers. I guess I've become too muddy minded for Melville's extravagances. Nevertheless, thank you for sharing and explicating the excerpt. I really did learn something! Yep, even old dogs can do more than scratch pesky fleas.

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    1. rt: i rather gathered that Melville was purposefully using confusing, positive-negative clauses, to amplify the content of his book: running scams on victims... no?

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