What Advance in Happiness?

The following is from Chapter 18 of Melville’s Typee.  The character Marnoo is a “tabu” person who can travel relatively freely among all the tribes without eliciting historical animosities due to his “exceptional” qualities (one being his ability to speak English after being aboard a ship for several years and then returning to the island).

In this excerpt Melville’s protagonist and narrator, Tommo (how the islanders pronounce Tom), insists his eagerness to escape amidst what has been a “captivity” of Edenic proportions–he is hand-fed, he is carried about, he is often in the company of many beautiful women and one who is his particular favorite, he has full access to a respected chief/elder–but he is still clearly a captive and he is, from his preconceptions of the “savagery” of the people, as well as his depictions of their “momentary” responsiveness to emotion, still extremely wary of his safety.

But below, inside of that “captivity narrative,” Tommo offers a kind of counterargument to one proposed by J.S. Mill in his philosophy of Utilitarianism and the greater utility value to be placed on the “higher pleasures of mind” set against mere “animal” pleasures (text in bold below).  Melville, in the previous chapter, has already elucidated what “higher” orders of thinking may proffer in war machines and “civilized” cruelties.

It is interesting that the “childish pleasure” that Tommo shares is a prototype weapon.

Of course we can’t be “unmodern”–the mind is of its particular moment.  This is something of what D. H. Lawrence meant when he said this in his essay on Melville’s to “books of Paradise” (Typee and Omoo).

“We can’t go back. We can’t go back to the savages: not a stride. We can be in sympathy with them. We can take a great curve in their direction, onwards. But we cannot turn the current of our life backwards, back towards their soft warm twilight and uncreate mud. Not for a moment. If we do it for a moment, it makes us sick.

Note though, “we can take a great curve in their direction, onwards.”  This we have not done.

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THE knowledge I had now obtained as to the intention of the savages deeply affected me.

Marnoo, I perceived, was a man who, by reason of his superior acquirements, and the knowledge he possessed of the events which were taking place in the different bays of the island, was held in no little estimation by the inhabitants of the valley. He had been received with the most cordial welcome and respect. The natives had hung upon the accents of his voice, and, had manifested the highest gratification at being individually noticed by him. And yet despite all this, a few words urged in my behalf, with the intent of obtaining my release from captivity, had sufficed not only to banish all harmony and good-will; but, if I could believe what he told me, had gone on to endanger his own personal safety.

How strongly rooted, then, must be the determination of the Typees with regard to me, and how suddenly could they display the strangest passions! The mere suggestion of my departure had estranged from me, for the time at least, Mehevi, who was the most influential of all the chiefs, and who had previously exhibited so many instances of his friendly sentiments. The rest of the natives had likewise evinced their strong repugnance to my wishes, and even Kory-Kory himself seemed to share in the general disapprobation bestowed upon me.

In vain I racked my invention to find out some motive for them, but I could discover none.

But however this might be, the scene which had just occurred admonished me of the danger of trifling with the wayward and passionate spirits against whom it was vain to struggle, and might even be fatal to do so. My only hope was to induce the natives to believe that I was reconciled to my detention in the valley, and by assuming a tranquil and cheerful demeanour, to allay the suspicions which I had so unfortunately aroused. Their confidence revived, they might in a short time remit in some degree their watchfulness over my movements, and I should then be the better enabled to avail myself of any opportunity which presented itself for escape. I determined, therefore, to make the best of a bad bargain, and to bear up manfully against whatever might betide. In this endeavour, I succeeded beyond my own expectations. At the period of Marnoo’s visit, I had been in the valley, as nearly as I could conjecture, some two months. Although not completely recovered from my strange illness, which still lingered about me, I was free from pain and able to take exercise. In short, I had every reason to anticipate a perfect recovery. Freed from apprehension on this point, and resolved to regard the future without flinching, I flung myself anew into all the social pleasures of the valley, and sought to bury all regrets, and all remembrances of my previous existence in the wild enjoyments it afforded.

In my various wanderings through the vale, and as I became better acquainted with the character of its inhabitants, I was more and more struck with the light-hearted joyousness that everywhere prevailed. The minds of these simple savages, unoccupied by matters of graver moment, were capable of deriving the utmost delight from circumstances which would have passed unnoticed in more intelligent communities. All their enjoyment, indeed, seemed to be made up of the little trifling incidents of the passing hour; but these diminutive items swelled altogether to an amount of happiness seldom experienced by more enlightened individuals, whose pleasures are drawn from more elevated but rarer sources.

What community, for instance, of refined and intellectual mortals would derive the least satisfaction from shooting pop-guns? The mere supposition of such a thing being possible would excite their indignation, and yet the whole population of Typee did little else for ten days but occupy themselves with that childish amusement, fairly screaming, too, with the delight it afforded them.

One day I was frolicking with a little spirited urchin, some six years old, who chased me with a piece of bamboo about three feet long, with which he occasionally belaboured me. Seizing the stick from him, the idea happened to suggest itself, that I might make for the youngster, out of the slender tube, one of those nursery muskets with which I had sometimes seen children playing.

Accordingly, with my knife I made two parallel slits in the cane several inches in length, and cutting loose at one end the elastic strip between them, bent it back and slipped the point into a little notch made for the purse. Any small substance placed against this would be projected with considerable force through the tube, by merely springing the bent strip out of the notch.

Had I possessed the remotest idea of the sensation this piece of ordnance was destined to produce, I should certainly have taken out a patent for the invention. The boy scampered away with it, half delirious with ecstasy, and in twenty minutes afterwards I might have been seen surrounded by a noisy crowd—venerable old graybeards—responsible fathers of families—valiant warriors—matrons—young men—girls and children, all holding in their hands bits of bamboo, and each clamouring to be served first.

For three or four hours I was engaged in manufacturing pop-guns, but at last made over my good-will and interest in the concern to a lad of remarkably quick parts, whom I soon initiated into the art and mystery.

Pop, Pop, Pop, Pop, now resounded all over the valley. Duels, skirmishes, pitched battles, and general engagements were to be seen on every side. Here, as you walked along a path which led through a thicket, you fell into a cunningly laid ambush, and became a target for a body of musketeers whose tattooed limbs you could just see peeping into view through the foliage. There you were assailed by the intrepid garrison of a house, who levelled their bamboo rifles at you from between the upright canes which composed its sides. Farther on you were fired upon by a detachment of sharpshooters, mounted upon the top of a pi-pi.

Pop, Pop, Pop, Pop! green guavas, seeds, and berries were flying about in every direction, and during this dangerous state of affairs I was half afraid that, like the man and his brazen bull, I should fall a victim to my own ingenuity. Like everything else, however, the excitement gradually wore away, though ever after occasionally pop-guns might be heard at all hours of the day.

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4 Comments

  1. focus June 11, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    the choice of a weapon is disturbing to me. I haven’t read the book (and now I am curious, darn it) to see if this affects this population in more than just an amusement factor. Has this “toy weapon” changed them in some way forever, not for the better?

    Reply
    1. Douglas Storm June 12, 2012 at 3:58 pm

      I’m not quite finished with the book yet, so I can’t say, but that’s not Melville’s style. The chief, Mahevi, has an old musket in disrepair that he asks Tommo to repair. Tommo can’t and this seems to reduce Tommo’s status a bit–ie, he’s not a very smart white man!

      Reply
      1. focus June 14, 2012 at 10:30 pm

        I just wondered if it would lead to an unexpected unfortunate outcome.

        Reply
        1. Douglas Storm June 15, 2012 at 7:30 am

          it has nothing to do with the rest of the book. You might read Lawrence on Typee and Omoo in his Studies in Classic American Literature.

          Reply

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