Saturday, August 25, 2012

`Half Melancholy, Half Farcical'

Herman Melville saw Jerusalem for the first time around 2 p.m. on Jan. 6, 1857. As he notes in his journal, Melville took a room at the “Mediterranean hotel” run by “a German converted Jew, by name, Hauser. Hotel overlooks on one side Pool of Hezekiah (balconies) is near the Coptic Convent, is on the street called Street of the Patriarchs leading out of Street of David.” The next two days he spends “with dragoman roaming over the hills.” On Jan. 9, he writes:

“Thought I should have been the only stranger in Jerusalem, but this afternoon came over from Jaffa, a Mr Frederick Cunningham of Boston, a very prepossessing young man who seemed rejoiced to meet a companion & countryman.”
This entry, in which he meets and briefly befriends a fellow traveler and American, is uncharacteristic of Melville’s travel journals. In life he is one of the “isolatoes,” the term he invented to describe the crew of the Pequod. Melville customarily travels alone except when he hires a “dragoman” -- a guide, the editors of the Journals (1989), Howard C. Horsford and Lynn Horth, inform us. The sentence, but for a missing pronoun, is complete. Most of his notes are just that – syntax-free clusters of words, a hastily written telegraphese to be mined later as he writes Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), his book-length poem and one of the major unread works of American literature. For anyone wishing to venture beyond the traditional limits of Moby-Dick and “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and begin to understand Melville, both volumes are essential. David Sugarman writes in his Tablet essay, “Melville in Jerusalem,”:
“Melville had expected a place that felt closer to God than New York City or Massachusetts, a place of high sentiment and spirituality. Instead, he got dust and flies, and entry after entry indicates his chagrin: `How it affects one to be cheated in Jerusalem,’ he wrote early on in his weeklong stay in the city.”
The italicized headings Melville gives his notes suggest his state of mind, an allegory of desolation – “Village of Lepers,” “Ghostliness of the names,” “Thoughts in the Via Dolorosa,” “Wandering among the tombs.” Even the holiest sites spur Gothic musings:
“The Holy Sepulchre – ruined dome – confused and half-ruinous pile. – Laberithys & terraces of mouldy grottos, tombs, & shrines. Smells like a dead-house, dingy light. – At the entrance, in a sort of grotto in the wall a divan for Turkish policemen, where they sit crosslegged & smoking, scornfully observing the continuous troops of pilgrims entering & prostrating themselves before the anointing-stone of Christ, which veined with streaks of a mouldy red looks like a butcher’s slab…[all spellings Melville’s].”
Melville writes out of disappointment, not a desire to blaspheme. More than the arid wastes of the Holy Land oppress him: “The whole thing is half melancholy, half farcical, like all the rest of the world.”

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