Monday, August 15, 2016

`Reverence for the Archetype'

Antipodal, at four lines, to Moby-Dick, “Greek Architecture” is from the last book (in an edition of twenty-five) Melville published during his lifetime, Timoleon and Other Ventures in Minor Verse (1891):

“Not magnitude, not lavishness,
But Form—the Site;
Not innovating wilfulness,
But reverence for the Archetype.”

No bloat here, Melville’s epigram reads like distilled wisdom rooted in hard-won experience. It may be his finest single poem. The wild man of American literature, who sailed on whaling ships and consorted with cannibals, praises classical balance, art at home in its setting, an ideal he achieved at least once, in Moby-Dick. When Melville spent three days in Greece in 1857, he seemed to think otherwise during his visit to Athens. In his Journals (Northwestern University Press, 1989) he writes in the entry for Feb. 8:

“Acropolis—blocks of marble like blocks of Wenham [a pond near Salem, Ma., renowned for the purity of its ice] ice—or like huge cakes of wax.—Parthenon elevated like cross of Constantine. Strange contrast of rugged rock with polished temple. At Stirling—art & nature correspond. Not so at Acropolis. Imperceptible seam—frozen together.—Break like cakes of snow.—”

In another poem from Timoleon, “The Attic Landscape,” Melville expresses an ideal similar to that in "Greek Architecture": “The clear-cut hills carved temples face, / Respond, and share their sculptural grace.” And in “The Parthenon”: “In subtlety your form's defined.” Eva Brann, steeped in Greek thought, uses the final two lines of “Greek Architecture” as the epigraph to her new collection of aphorisms, Doublethink/Doubletalk: Naturalizing Second Thoughts and Twofold Speech (Paul Dry Books). Nowhere in the book does Brann comment directly on Melville’s poem. She notes with approval Socrates’ idea of beauty expressed in Phaedrus: “incarnate visibility.” Beauty, she says, “is not in but to the eye of the beholder.” And this: “Beauty then is a Form that does not lose its `looks,’ its `aspect,’ its `form’ (Greek eidos, Latin species) when it enters the realm of sensed objects.” In another entry she defends beauty (how sad defense is required) while appreciating its nuances:

“Why literati, cognoscenti, intellectuals, etc., have put a ban on beauty (now being slowly lifted): These folks are essentially critics. Critics must deprecate, while beauty demands reverence—worshipful regard. Critics must also domineer, that is, sit in judgment over their object, while beauty requires submission to it. Which doesn’t mean that the `O, que c’est beau!’ school of exegetes did better.”

I hear an echo of this in “Not innovating wilfulness, / But reverence for the Archetype.”

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