Monday, February 29, 2016

Typee by Herman Melville

During the time I lived among the Typees, no one was ever put upon his trial for any offence against the public.  To all appearances there were no courts of law or equity.  There was no municipal police for the purpose of apprehending vagrants and disorderly characters.  In short, there were no legal provisions whatever for the well-being and conservation of society, the enlightened end of civilized legislation.  And yet everything went on in the valley with a harmony and smoothness unparalleled, I will venture to assert, in the most select, refined, and pious associations of mortals in Christendom.  How are we to explain this enigma?  These islanders were heathens! savages! ay, cannibals! and how came they, without the aid of established law, to exhibit, in so eminent a degree, that social order which is the greatest blessing and highest pride of the social state!

Brent expressed to me the other day the opinion that Melville gets something of a bad rap based on Moby Dick.  Truthfully, Melville was better known in his day for adventure novels like Typee, which details the life of a man who has abandoned his service in a whaling boat, only to fall captive to a native group of Polynesian islanders.  You can see that in Moby Dick, of course, which is an adventure novel that became something else entirely.  Typee doesn't have the explosive virtuosity of Moby Dick, but it does have the special benefit of being kind of true--Melville himself spent months marooned among the Typee, renowned for their vicious cannibalism.

For the narrator, Tommo, the Typee islanders fail to live up to their bloodthirsty reputation.  To the contrary, what he finds in the Typee valley is a utopian paradise with abundant food, natural beauty, no crime, and a life marked by leisure and camaraderie.  The Typee adopt him as, if not one of their own, something more sacred, marked by the mysterious "Taboo" that structures their religion and habits.  Tommo even has a gal Friday, a beautiful native named Fayaway who is devoted to him.

The Typees are your typical "noble savages," and Melville goes out of his way to point out that they lack institutions of law, as well as Christian theology.  What good is civilization, if the most prosperous places lack it?  He compares the Typees to the native Hawaiians, suffering under the introduction of white colonialism, disease, and social unrest.  Yet Tommo is unable to devote himself completely to the Typee lifestyle--he refuses, for instance, to let his face be tattooed in a scene that approaches slapstick comedy.  He schemes to get away, despite his ready admission that Typee society is far superior to his own.  Tommo's inability to relinquish his European life is another facet of Melville's criticism; why, he asks, can we not let go of what we know does us no good?

But the noble savage hypothesis is stupid, and it does the complexity of pre-colonial civilizations no real favors.  Typee is awesome not because of its politics but because it's a rousing adventure story, and a comedy of manners, although the manners are unfamiliar ones.  If you can go for the ride--unlike Tommo--it's a lot of fun.

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