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Melville’s Measures
Measuring the (in)corporeal

Simultaneous Scales, Incommensurate Standards in Pierre; or, The Ambiguities

Michel Imbert


As he claims to make up for his father’s sins, Pierre Glendinning acts as a self-appointed Archangel and measures up to the Hidden God. He feels justified by Plotinus Plinlimmon’s pamphlet which highlights the discrepancy between human values that are bound to be relative and Divine Justice that is absolute and yet posits that no matter how local time may differ from universal time, there must needs be a single standard, the equivalent of Greenwich Mean Time. And yet, far from leading to a final conclusive revelation that might serve as a cornerstone, our latter-day Pierre is ultimately faced with an entangled maze of merely partial and transient perspectives.

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1Pierre; or, the Ambiguities is the story of self-styled angels who find themselves at a critical angle because they and the prevailing code of conduct of their social milieu are at cross-purposes. Pierre Glendinning acts as a self-appointed Savior, a self-begotten Son of God, as he attempts to atone for his father’s sins and to restore a measure of justice by breaking his engagement to Lucy and pretending to live with his half-sister as husband and wife (“a most singular act of pious imposture,” 173). In some respects, while he seeks to restore the honor of his half-sister, conversely, she acts as a surrogate mother that makes him a latter-day Redeemer, thus symbolically re-engendering him and displacing his own biological mother who had always endeavored to pass for her son’s kindred spirit to the point of being called “sister Mary” (14, 48) by her son at her own request. He undertakes to make up for his failing father as if his sense of family that entails enormous personal sacrifices were a religious calling: “Thus, in the Enthusiast to Duty, the heaven-begotten Christ is born” (106). When the abandoned bride-to-be, Lucy, finally joins the illicit couple at the ill-named Church of the Apostles in New York—a former church which, by 1850, had become the haunt of bohemians and radicals—, the threesome, which causes an outcry in their own genteel family, forms an unorthodox community. Pierre, now turned into the key-apostle and cornerstone of this minimal phalanstery, feels vindicated by Plotinus Plinlimmon’s pamphlet which contends that the customs of the country necessarily depart from the higher law of God just as local time (“horologicals,” 210) differs from Greenwich Mean Time (“chronometricals,” 210) and yet makes sense only in terms of that universal standard. It is not surprising therefore that “untimely” (360) prophets or Angels like him that act as God’s messengers should be misunderstood here below, given the necessary time-delay between God’s designs and their accomplishment by his earthly creatures. But instead of attaining a final, face-to-face revelation and fulfilling his work, as expected, Pierre is only left with tentative, ever-shifting angles of vision, so that, ultimately, his endeavor to found a new church like his biblical namesake is doomed to fail.

2Pierre and Isabel are deeply disturbed on discovering in an art gallery that the portrait of a stranger and their father’s image treasured in their memories look almost alike. At that juncture, the iconic image of the father, far from being the touchstone of truth, comes to be seen as a mere facet in a series of flickering lights depending on your angle of vision: after all, there may be no common ground between the dim memory cherished by his so-called half-sister and the fetishized chair portrait of his father that Pierre had enshrined in his closet. The picture of their common parent comes to be deflected into a series of uncanny doubles; Isabel’s mental image of her father does not necessarily correspond with the “precious memorial” of Pierre’s father (73) that he has burned, and both are oddly mirrored by the portrait of a stranger that hangs face to face with that of Beatrice Cenci who encapsulates in her own person the epitome of incest aggravated by parricide. Pierre and Isabel lose their bearings in such a dismaying hall of mirrors. All in all, the sole common denominator between Isabel and him might be the worship of an imaginary image raised to the rank of a template: they may have communed in the same fantasy by chance. Seen in such a phantasmagoric light, diffracted as through the lens of a kaleidoscope, the idolized chair-portrait which, according to Pierre, undeniably testified to his father’s secret life is re-envisioned as almost an exact replica of that of an utter stranger and as not unlike that of Beatrice Cenci. Those pictures, which are poles apart in the exhibition but have some kind of family likeness, afford many conflicting insights into the “empty x” (181) in the equation, the mystery shrouded in the inscrutable face of Pierre and Isabel’s putative father that will remain elusive till the bitter end. Finally, instead of constituting the solid bedrock of a kind of Fourierist phalanx, Pierre finds himself foundering in a dizzying vortex of distorted perspectives on his unfathomable father and at grips with decidedly unaccountable clues. Through the dire fate of a failed would-be Messiah, the novel hints at the belated recognition of the disappearance of a single God-like absolute standard in a world in which incommensurate scales of values coexist simultaneously. In this light, the novel dramatizes the sense of disorientation experienced by the eponymous hero who finds himself completely out of key with his own times. Let us retrace step by step or rather “unbuild” (304), stone by stone, the various stages in Pierre’s ill-timed unmaking.


3The beginning of Pierre is steeped in an eerie atmosphere of spurious “angelicalness” (59): Lucy, Pierre’s fiancée, is the almost caricatural embodiment of the archetypal angel in the house, the household tutelary divinity of Victorian America that reigns supreme over her separate sphere (25, 28). Pristine, immaculate, sexless otherworldliness is supposed to be the hallmark of that gentrified upper-middle class. As Pierre sees through the hypocritical veneer of his social milieu and discovers his father’s secret sins of the flesh indisputably corroborated by “the chair portrait” (81) which, in his eyes at least, is fraught with the sexual innuendoes of “chair” (flesh) in French and as he undertakes to redeem the sins of the fathers, he too yearns to act as a guardian angel towards his half-sister, although, ironically enough, he will turn out to be an avenging angel who will only manage to exterminate his kith and kin in the end: “Then Pierre felt that deep in him lurked a divine unidentifiableness, that owned no earthly kith or kin” (89). Acting the angel or aping angels can unwittingly cause serious collateral damages: “[Man, proud man] like an angry ape, Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven / As makes the angels weep” (Shakespeare, II.2.123-125). Such is the lot of “impostors and baboons among the gods” (268). Making up for a frail father also named Pierre who has fallen short of the standard of their forefather, “grand old Pierre” (31), “fit image of his God” (30) whose name echoes the grandeur of the Russian Czar, Peter the Great, the founder of “St Petersburg” (305), Pierre Jr. strives to rise even higher than the New England counterpart of an aristocratic dynasty in the Old World. Somehow, by making up for his father’s lapse and assuming full responsibility, “so angelical a brother” (144) strives to measure up to God the Father’s sense of divine justice in the name of “enthusiastic egotism” (280), “an intense procreative enthusiasm” (353). And yet, by an uncanny twist of fate, ironically enough, he will only succeed in sacrificing every single member of his extended and blended family on the altar of his assumedly sacrosanct mission. Officiating as a self-proclaimed archangel, a self-appointed Savior and seeking to minister to his half-sister cum nominal spouse, he will only succeed in visiting punishment on his mother, his cousin, his half-sister and his former fiancée. The novel ends in the disastrous mass extinction of the whole family line: “mankind extinct in seraphim” (156). This is the heavy toll taken by “invisible angel-hoods” (156) and the desperate endeavor to reconfigure unorthodox love triangles into a semblance of the Holy Family.


  • 1 The phrase, “my sister, my spouse” is a recurrent one in the Song of Solomon, chapters 4 and 5.

4Nevertheless, the biblical proverb “A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country and in his own house” (Matthew 13:57) still holds true in the case of Pierre. Although it is potentially in keeping with the Gospel to pass off one’s own spouse for a sister (and vice versa) in the name of holy brotherhood (“Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles and as the brethren of the Lord?” 1 Corinthians 9)1 and the word “sister” in the loose sense of “sister in law” was fraught with a romantic aura in The Wide, Wide World, but incest between siblings remained unacceptable by the prevailing standards of Victorian America and a threesome (ménage à trois) like that of Isabel and Lucy and Pierre—even if it is unsullied by any sexual taint—is deemed outrageous by their relatives and, more largely, their social milieu. A fictitious sham marriage compounded by close bonds with the former fiancée who, of her own free will, chooses to live with the illicit couple after being abandoned by Pierre, undermines the very sanctity of wedlock in the eyes of genteel, Pharisee-like America. But even before embarking on his mission, Pierre had sensed that his decision was bound to be misinterpreted and yet, all the same, he felt vindicated by the perusal of Plotinus Plinlimmon’s pamphlet which argues that God’s messengers are doomed to be misunderstood on account of the inevitable discrepancy between their lofty standards and the conventional set of values that prevail in their parochial social circle. Pierre was especially struck by an expanded metaphor used by Plinlimmon: the widening gap between the ministering angel attuned to God’s innate sense of Justice and his benighted contemporaries is likened to the time-lag between Greenwich Mean Time which serves as a universal standard and local time in China, that is to say at the far end of the world. No wonder norms should vary across the wide, wide world since Greenwich and China are poles apart. Plotinus Plinlimmon suggests that the original sense of rectitude of God’s British envoy has coiled into a kind of Chinese noodle so to speak, by the time the angelical messenger reaches the Shanghaï time zone. God’s message sent from Greenwich hill is bound to be warped beyond recognition in the meantime, which proves that heavenly angels and the secular world are at cross-purposes and intersect at a right angle.

  • 2 Brad J. Ricca’s article underlines the conventionality of zero-degree meridian of longitude as oppo (...)

5In Billy Budd, Melville puns on the anagram (angles/angels), to suggest that angel-like Billy Budd is totally at odds with martial law: “‘Angles’ (meaning English the modern derivative) ‘Angles do you call them? And is it because they look so like angels?’” (Melville 1962, 121). Billy Budd is the angel of the odd sacrificed for the sake of real politics in a state of emergency. The seraphical sailor and the Articles of War cross perpendicularly like orthogonal planes, more or less in a cruciform way. But, interestingly enough, Plotinus Plinlimmon resorts here to a spatial metaphor to place God’s standards: by relocating God’s seat from the invisible Heavens to “the great Greenwich and tower from which the universal meridians are far out into infinity reckoned” (Melville 1971, 211), he projects horizontally God’s superior angle of vision. The all-seeing God is no longer compared to a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere or to a zenithal, overhanging light but rather to an oblique, low-angle one that is cast along the curve of the globe. And, by the same token, instead of intersecting at a right angle, God’s “heavens” and the earthly sphere are both projected horizontally and begin to slide along the surface of the globe, till they find themselves poles apart in terms of longitude.2

6Plinlimmon resorts to another striking comparison. When God’s clock (synchronized with Greenwich meantime with chronometrical accuracy) reads 12 o’clock A.M, Chinese clocks indicate 12 o’clock P.M. So, God’s “high-noon” in Greenwich corresponds to “midnight” in China (211). But, disturbingly enough, the dials both indicate the selfsame digit 12 o’clock. Plotinus Plinlimmon draws from this striking observation the conclusion that “by their very contradictions they are made to correspond” (212). If Pierre is spellbound as he scans through the pamphlet, it is perhaps because he feels justified to follow his suicidal pursuit against all odds. He feels vindicated in his role as a would-be angel whose strivings are doomed to be misconstrued by his contemporaries. No matter what the divergence between the prevailing social code of conduct and his “mystic, transcendental persuasions” (353) may be, he remains convinced that his innermost standard of values makes sense not only in spite of the fact but because of the fact that it is at variance with the conventions of the world he happens to move in. Our extraordinary ambassador from the supra-terrestrial Otherworld is solely committed to God’s absolute higher law (“what my deepest angel dictates,” 65) which is diametrically opposed to contingent social rules. And their radical discordance testifies to God’s truth and conversely to men’s folly. To be worldly-wise and a time server means to be radically wrong from God’s standpoint. Pierre may be considered as a fanatical enthusiast but, oddly enough, his allegiance to transcendent norms tallies with the fundamental tenets of Christianity. “The heavenly wisdom of God [is] earthly folly to man” (212) and, conversely, worldly wisdom is at cross-purposes with the spirit of the Gospel. And the fact that they are at loggerheads only proves that they correspond somehow, although in an inverted way. In fact, divergences can be surveyed and gauged, judging by their degree of departure from that authoritative yardstick, just as the timeline in China can be assessed in terms of degrees, minutes, seconds, according to its distance from the Greenwich meridian. No matter how “dried-fish-like” (207) and threadbare, Plinlimmon’s pamphlet may seem to be, it strengthens Pierre’s conviction that his innermost beliefs “written not in tables of stone but in fleshy tables of the heart” (2 Corinthians 3:3) remain the sole universal bench-mark for all timetables across the world, no matter how variable they can be: “that monitor cannot be wrong in itself” (213).

Revolutionary Triangulations

  • 3 Edouard Marsoin insightfully remarks that Pierre, not his hermaphroditical half-sister, is impregna (...)

7As a self-appointed “Apostle,” Pierre not only acts as a substitute for his late father, but also replaces his nominal sister cum biological mother by his flesh and blood sister, as she is entrusted with the task of re-engendering him anew as a latter-day Savior. A self-begotten Son-of-God through the agency of his half-sister who displaces his Mother Mary to perform a ludicrous re-enactment of the Annunciation—the “unearthly, girlish shriek” (48) uttered by Isabel as he happens to pass by—, followed by a remake of the Incarnation.3 As he orchestrates that providential plan, Pierre (mis)appropriates the various parts of the Holy Family even as he is actually disinherited: he assumes the role of the Son of God begotten by Virgin Mary, impersonated by proxy by his half-sister in lieu of his mother Mary—a born-again, self-made deity, who not only measures up to God in person but is about to displace him as the universal measuring-rod: “He likes to be not only his own Alpha and Omega, but to be distinctly all the intermediate gradations” (261). By revolutionizing the Holy Family and his own family circle in the same breath, his re-engendering is reminiscent of the radical transformation undertaken by his near homonym, Robespierre who, during the French Revolution, instituted the cult of the Supreme Being in lieu of the Established Church of the ancien régime and revolutionized the age-old units of measures that had been used in the French monarchy hitherto. Another Pierre, Pierre-Simon Laplace was appointed at the head of a National Commission of Weights and Measures to implement a revolution in metrics that became effective in August 1793 only a few days after the instauration of the Comité de salut public. The meter became the universal unit of measure—superseding leagues, feet, inches as units of length, not to mention units of surfaces or capacity—and the meter—now defined as the equal to the distance travelled by light in a vacuum—was then calculated as an infinitesimal subdivision of the arc of the meridian, one ten millionth of the length of a quadrant of the meridian by reference to a standard kept in Paris. Playing the little god, conflating Robespierre and Pierre-Simon Laplace in his own person, our American Pierre decidedly breaks with the Ancien Régime under the tutelage of his mother Mary (a hint at Mary-Antoinette?) and re-enacts the revolution of 1789 and the more recent revolution of 1848. Our Pierre may not be unrelated therefore to Pierre Proudhon or Pierre Leroux whose followers had sometimes emigrated to the United States after Napoleon III’s December 1851 coup that took place while Melville was composing the novel. After all, “fugitive French politicians” (267) are involved in the “theologico-political-social schemes of the masonic order of the seedy-coated Apostles” (280). And Pierre redefines “brotherhood” not solely in terms of blood-ties but as “wide brother and sister in the common humanity” (273) in keeping with the republican motto Fraternité (Shell 14-16). Melville, after all, entitled his novel Pierre; or, The Ambiguities instead of plain Peter. Is it because the Biblical pun on Petros/Petra (in the Greek version of the Bible) is kept in French (“Thou art Peter [Pierre] and upon this rock [pierre] I will build my church,” Matthew, 18) but lost in translation in English or is it because the bawdy connotations of Peter, which in slang meant the penis, were already used in Moby-Dick: “Of erections, how few are domed like St Peter’s” (335)? The phrase “Lucky Pierre” was not yet commonly in use around 1850—it would take a hundred years or so to gain currency—and therefore, the title was much safer than Peter; or, the Ambiguities which could have been misconstrued as yet another variation in the vein of the coarse sexual puns in Moby-Dick. The rosy crucifixion undergone by Pierre and his two willing partners was to remain immune from the taint of beastly beatitudes, if only that were possible: “There is no sex in our immaculateness” (Pierre 149); “We will love with the pure and perfect love of an angel to an angel” (154). But to avoid straying away from the point at issue, we may wonder if Melville, thanks to his stay in Paris in 1849, was acquainted with the famous pantomime that featured Pierrot (immortalized by Nadar’s photograph of Debureau) performed at le Théâtre des Funambules and similar dumb shows at the Théâtre de l’Ambigu Comique. Is it a mere coincidence or is the very name Pierre chosen by Melville on purpose to suggest that his “half-mad” character (198) is a far cry from his biblical model and more of a misguided puppet even as he will no longer be his mother Mary’s marionette (the two words are cognate in French)? Does Melville insinuate that he merely parrots the Biblical Pierre in a paltry imitation of Jesus Christ at a second remove since Pierrot (the nickname for Pierre) is cognate in French with Perro(t) and “perroquet. ” Is the reader made to understand that by attempting to parrot St Peter, our muddle-headed hero tends to mistake the Paraclete for a parakeet, a confusion that underlies Flaubert’s novella “Un cœur simple,” in which a simple-minded servant fantasizes in her death-throes that the holy spirit (the Paraclete) has assumed the shape of her beloved parrot and is now hovering above her in the sky?

Prismatic icons

8Trying to triangulate aspiring Angels, the Revelation to come and the Revolution in progress is not an easy task for a young man like Pierre. It is in fact as self-defeating as an attempt to square the family circle. As Pierre, Isabel and Lucy visit the exhibition, they come across the picture of a stranger that, oddly enough, looks like the perfect likeness of Pierre and Isabel’s father (supposing they have the same father). Pierre feels disturbed as he is forced to acknowledge either that his father remains “a complete stranger” (353) or that the iconic chair-portrait that he misinterpreted as the telltale sign of his father’s frolics could be the portrait of someone else or even that of an imaginary character. He comes to tell himself that “then, the original of this second portrait was as much the father of Isabel as the original of the chair-portrait” and that “perhaps there was no original at all to this second portrait” (353). The unobtrusive albeit omniscient narrator comments on the widening gap between Pierre’s and Isabel’s respective viewpoints even as they both fall prey to the same sense of confusion: 

though both were intensely excited by one object, yet their two minds and memories were thereby directed to entirely different contemplations; while still each, for the time—however unreasonably—might have vaguely supposed the other occupied by one and the same contemplation. Pierre was thinking of the chair-portrait; Isabel, of the living face. (352)

  • 4 The motives for that autodafé are equivocal enough since they can be put down either to filial piet (...)

9A single object (the portrait of the stranger) identified as the likeness of the father comes to be envisioned through the lens of two distinct subjectivities and, to compound the fact that both of them see double, the portrait of the stranger is uncannily reflected as in a pier-glass by the “strangely dissimilar” (72) painting of Beatrice Cenci that is hanging on the opposite wall and they seem “in secret […] pantomimically talking over and across the heads of the living spectators below” (351). What was held as the icon of their father’s face and a warrant of Isabel’s identity by the same token (“the portrait’s painted self seemed the real father of Isabel,” 197) and what was considered as the proof of “the strange relativeness, reciprocalness, and transmittedness between the long-dead father’s portrait, and the living daughter’s face” (197) come to be diffracted into a series of distorted figures or figurations like a hologram or the composite split picture obtained by means of a vortiscope: the portrait of a stranger bears some likeness to the chair-portrait that Pierre has destroyed.4 The picture also looks like the dead ringer of Isabel’s haloed memory of her father. So it is the haunting ghost of a picture that no longer exists materially as well as the picturing forth of a dim mental image dating back to Isabel’s earliest childhood memories, “concentringly condensed” (50). The chair-portrait that was hitherto regarded as an incontrovertible piece of evidence comes to be seen as a mere prop for superstitious beliefs or the figments of a diseased imagination. As the image of their dear father is confronted with the portrait of a stranger and that of Beatrice Cenci (who killed the terrible father that had abused her sexually), it is not merely halved but split asunder into a spectrum of uncanny counterparts set in counterpoint. Pierre thus gains an unsettling insight into their separate misrecognition of a complete stranger mistaken for their common parent. The belated awareness of their mutual misunderstanding that dawns upon his mind at that point seems to widen the gap that already loomed large in the ambiguous smile of the chair-portrait: his father’s parted lips already seemed to hold in store the future rift between the so-called brother and sister: “Probe, probe a little—see—there seems to be one little crack there—a wedge, a wedge” (84). In-between, to add to the confusion, Pierre has caught a glimpse of the face of Plotinus Plinlimmon that, to him, conveys such a sense of contemplative detachment that it seems to be disembodied and to levitate apart from his physical head like a mask or a vanishing apparition (not unlike the smile of Lewis Carroll’s vanishing Cheshire cat); and the transient view of “that remarkable face of repose […] a repose separate and apart—a repose of a face by itself” (291), that leer “curtained like a portrait” (293) also seems to mock somehow the treasured image of the father. Between the acts (akin to axes of symmetry), “manifold and inter-enfolding” (353) anamorphic doubles loom into view in the interval so that the face-to-face final Revelation to come, in keeping with the Biblical promise (“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known,” 1 Corinthians 13:12) is indefinitely postponed (till Hell freezes over, jusqu’à la saint glin-glin that almost resounds in Delly’s stammering “Glendin-din,” 320), “dilated”—distended and extended—by an open-ended series of perplexing duplicates. Those duplicates could permutate with the fabled “original” and those “cunning duplicate[s]” (Melville 1988, 340) perform the task of dubious go-betweens like fallen angels that continually intervene and get interpolated between the revered icon and its debased doubles, for instance that of Beatrice Cenci’s evil father implicitly embedded in the portrait of his daughter. The visit to the exhibition is an “inverted visitation” (Melville 1988, 265) that enables Pierre to see the Cenci through the seeming “translucencies” (33) in the light of which Lucy, Isabel and him have bathed so far. All in all, the result is an utter sense of disorientation: “Good Angel and Bad Angel both! For Pierre is neuter now!” (360)

Conic Sections Without a Point of Convergence

10This is a pivotal, epoch-making scene in a novel that unfolds like a diptych but with a set of echoes and chiasmatic inversions that are nested within one another, as shown by Jonathan Crimmins (458). As the three of them (Pierre, Lucy, and Isabel) stand midway between the portrait of the stranger and that of Beatrice Cenci opposite, all previous milestones begin to rock, to “slide and fluctuate” (165) and, by and by, to spin in a dizzying round.

11First of all, Pierre intuits that there may be no such thing as a crucial point of reference, a “point d’appui,” “a Realometer” (Thoreau 98) that could serve as a common ground between his so-called half-sister and himself. He realizes that maybe they have been reciprocally giving credence to their innermost fantasies, in their fond dream of substantiating his suspicions of his father’s double life or her nostalgia for her departed father: “by some ineffable correlativeness, they [the two portraits] reciprocally identified each other” (85). Their prospects are correlated “in a measure” (176) and endlessly revolve around one another like two bi-punctual coordinates rotating around each other without a central axis; but they are not grounded on solid rock for all that; and, ultimately, Pierre and Isabel lack a trustworthy picture of their father’s real face, a tangible proof of the naked truth to transcend their limited points of view. For lack of this all-embracing bird’s eye view that could serve as a stable landmark, they are locked in a labyrinth of vagaries. Leibniz’s theory of pre-established Harmony posited a central, all-encompassing supra-terrestrial vantage point at the pointed end of a cone that embraced the whole range of partial viewpoints—a myriad oblique “conic sections” (Melville 1970, 606) that crisscross one another from every possible angle. The all-seeing, ever-watching God was compared to the tapering point of convergence of the slanting lines of the cone (Leibniz 1985, 339); or, resorting to another metaphor, Leibniz likened it to the apex of a pyramid whose base of incompossible contingencies was infinite. Both the hidden God at the summit and the indefinitely widening base of “ifs eternally” (Melville 1988, 535) that indefinitely receded into an infinity of “impossible adjuncts” (Melville 1971, 171) were beyond human reckoning, beyond man’s measure according to Leibniz. But the assumption was that such a point of convergence that is also a vanishing point must needs exist.

  • 5 Lloyd Pratt has brought to light the overlay of temporalities (“more than one temporality”) within (...)

12Agamben has evoked Theodorus’s dream in connection with “Bartleby” (Agamben 68-72): the primacy of negativity, the shadowy possibilities that characterize “negative capability” (in Keats’s words) and dwindle down into an effective providential design akin to countless stories upon stories of rooms inside God’s pyramidical palace that narrow down to a few predestined lines and, ultimately, to a single commanding point. Leibniz argued in his Discourse on Metaphysics (Leibniz 2020, 17-18) that Caesar’s resolution to cross the Rubicon was a possibility that did not preclude God’s necessity whose opposite is not contingency but imperfection. Nevertheless, if Pierre “crosses the Rubicon” in his turn (182), the possibility of a single unifying perspective sub specie aeternitatis and, therefore, of a Providential design or a Messianic mission, is called into question. Pierre identifies with Hamlet and repeats the famous lines: “The time is out of joint; —Oh, cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” (352). The entangled lines of divergence radiating in all directions seem to rule out the possibility of a single unifying point of convergence. The simultaneous if desynchronized temporalities do not hinge on a single “joint” and are therefore disarticulated and dislocated. By the end of the novel, Plinlimmon’s metaphor in his lecture “Chronometricals and Horologicals” which involved a single universal time in an infinite variety of places has been belied; the exhibit has taught Pierre on the contrary that a single room can encapsulate the entangled mesh of simultaneous “cotemporary” temporalities (168): Pierre’s quest for his father and that of Isabel intersect but diverge rather than conjoin. Lucy’s own pursuit is tangential to theirs. Touching “the corresponding chord” (Melville 2006, 38), “the secret monochord within his breast” (Pierre 173) does not mean being perfectly in unison, as Paul Huhr has pointed out (258). Again, the portrait of the stranger and that of Beatrice Cenci which accidently meet their eyes point in widely different directions. Instead of a single universal time for a multiplicity of time-zones, what we have here is some unity of place but a superimposition of distinct temporalities taking place irregularly at their own pace. One place, numberless paces, countless rhythms that ruin the unification of space through a single unit of time. Can that random encounter within the precinct of a circumscribed room be ascribed to a Providential design or does it testify on the contrary to the free play of contingency at work in history? Coeval lines continually twist and fork in every direction like fault lines and their erratic zigzag seems anything but the smooth blossoming of a genealogical tree that branches out from the roots in a traceable way. Everything meets and mates by chance and history adds up to a series of mismatches (faux raccords), a patchwork of transient and local connections without an overall panoramic view. In those conditions, no synoptic concordance is possible, given the non-alignment of simultaneous, discontinuous, haphazard time-lines whose tempo can accelerate or slow down occasionally.5 Captain Ahab still claimed to be a hub and compared the crewmen to cogs that were to rotate in unison, as if his pinion were enmeshed in their screw: “my one cogged circle fits into their various wheels, and they revolve” (Melville 1988, 183). But, as in Moby-Dick, what emerges instead is the unaccountable possibility of a plurality of wheels within wheels that that no longer revolve around a central axis, that can therefore no longer be figured out as subordinate “Epicycles” (Melville 1970, 460) within a main cycle. Instead, they eddy, spiral in and out obliquely in a dizzying way.

“Descartian Vortices”

  • 6 Elizabeth Duquette points out that “the starry vault” in Pierre is underpinned by “our soul’s arche (...)

13The likeness of the chair-portrait that comes to be diffracted into a phantasmagoric spectrum of uncanny doubles (“cunning duplicates”) in the art gallery and dissolves into a sea of faces unsettles the would-be Apostle who claimed to build anew the community from scratch: “for him, the fair structure of the world must, in some then unknown way, be entirely rebuilt again, from the lowermost cornerstone up” (Melville 1971, 87). Far from being the copestone of that edifice and “capping the fame column, whose tall shaft had been erected by his noble sires” as he expected (8), Pierre seems doomed to sink lower and lower as he seeks to unbury the secret of his father’s identity, “descending into which is as descending a spiral stair in a shaft, without an end” (289). Again, the metaphor of the pyramid is taken up, but this time the exploration in search for “the central room” (285) where the mummified remains of the father could be hidden seems doomed to failure. The quest for one’s genealogical origins reveals an endless superimposition of strata; and laying bare the mummy beneath the superinduced layers of linen proves unavailing: “nothing but surface stratified on surface […] nothing but superinduced superficies” (285). If this is an archaeological excavation, it does not reveal an original foundation-stone, an arch, let alone an ark, but only an emptiness.6 And whereas in the Bible the empty sepulcher is perceived as the token of Christ’s resurrection and an incentive to believe in the Son of God unreservedly for those who cannot see the Lord with their own eyes (unlike St Peter who was the first eye-witness of Jesus Christ’s transfiguration after the Resurrection), in this case, the cenotaph only spells out a sense of nihilistic vacancy (Bercovitch 257) and only betokens the spirit of “anarchy” (Melville 1971, 205).

  • 7 Meredith Farmer has amply documented Melville’s sources on Descartes’ theory expounded in his Princ (...)

14If Lucy’s translucency encapsulates within itself Isabel’s darkness—as in Goethe’s theory of light, colors are only visible against a background of darkness—, if Isabel then is “darkness visible” (Milton 5), groping one’s way in the dark for one’s genealogical origin only leads from one cave to another empty vault within the Pyramid. Lucy contains Isabel’s “thick darkness” (170) and is reciprocally embedded in her, while Isabel who “has nearly always gone by the name of Bell” (148), which is another name for a masked Baal, proves to be Pandora’s box rather than the black box, the sacred Black Stone (the Kaaba) worshipped by Ismaelites, which our latter-day Pierre embraces by espousing the cause of his half-sister in order to redeem the other half estranged in the name of Israel, for the sake of the covenant made by Abraham on behalf of Isaac: “A nothing is the substance, it casts one shadow one way and another the other way” (274). The pyramid turns out to be “appallingly vacant” (285). And far from discovering the father’s true face, the would-be founder of an unparalleled community, has to fumble like a stone-blind man trapped in prison walls and finally collapses amid nauseating relics: “The cheeks of his soul collapsed in him: he dashed himself in blind fury and swift madness against the wall and fell dabbling in the vomit of loathed self” (171). Pierre’s excavation seems to lead him to dive deeper and deeper into an inverted pyramid of sorts, towards the tapering end of the downward cone which is the reverse of the promise of the father’s icon which pointed upwards to the invisible heavenly Father. Pierre gradually zeroes in on the abyss below: “There is no street at his feet; like a profound black gulf the open area of the quadrangle gapes beneath him” (271). “The vacant whirlingness of the bewilderingness” (122) gradually plunges the main characters into a vortex of perplexities. “Sucked within the maelstrom, man must go round” (182); significantly enough, references to maelstroms and “the descartian vortices” (266) surface again, not literally as in Moby-Dick (177) but only figuratively.7 This mock romance, in which the melodramatic turn of events is always undermined by a scathing sense of irony, retraces Pierre’s descent and the inexorable downfall of fallen angels. The walls of the edifice he endeavoured to build up cave in and turn into a well, crumble as “firm Faith’s rock” (205) begins to rock and to vacillate. Far from becoming a fisher of men and of building his father’s church with living stones made of men, Melville’s Pierre seems fated to “angle” forever in a well for some crucial clue: “Not yet had he dropped his angle into the well of his childhood, to find what fish might be there” (284).

  • 8 Ronan Ludot-Vlasak has shown how the armless statue in Pierre’s dream is more disfigured and missha (...)

15Whereas he intended to rise to the stature of a self-reliant demi-god, he is doomed to founder and to lie prone like a precipitated Titan half-buried in the ground, already petrified and stone-dead without being aware of it. The novel retraces not a scalar ascent up Jacob’s ladder to “regain his paternal birthright” but a “fierce escalade” (347) that ends with a dramatic downfall and a lapse to some infernal deep. Is Enceladus, the defeated Titan Pierre dreams of in a nightmarish vision, another name for that nothingness that has Encelled-us from time immemorial, the common fate met by mortals doomed to subside into the bowels of the earth like the statue of the Titan “writhing” (345), “fast frozen” from grotesque cavities in the middle of a fountain in the Versailles gardens (345-346)?8 Lying prone on the ground is the tragic fate met by the would-be hero who envied the Gods who were all-too-prone to mate with human creatures (“like the Greek gods themselves, prone we descend to earth,” 180). Death is the dead angle, the blind spot that lies hidden from view in the lining of Pierre’s vestment (294) and it ruins beforehand his so-called “investiture” (141) as a would-be Redeemer. The threesome all end tragically like Bartleby immured within the prison walls of the Tombs in New York, and the empty vial which recalls a “run-out sand-glass” (362) seems to suggest that time has come to a standstill.

  • 9 Michael Jonik highlights the importance of that myth in Hegel’s aesthetics (Jonik 100-102).

16No orphic music can restore a sense of musical harmony in that “Mute Massiveness” (134): Isabel’s mournful strains as she plays the guitar, “vibrating to the hidden heart-strings” (149) are a far cry from the musical measures supposedly emitted by the “Memnon stone” at daybreak (135).9 Just as in “The Encantadas,” the shells of tortoises, so reminiscent of headstones or tombstones can no longer be transformed into a wonder-working lyre or cithara (Scheid, 109-110), so nothing can raise the dead thanks to the magic of a musical instrument. Ultimately, even music, “the mosaic of the air” in Marvell’s words (in “Music’s Empire”) is muted and engulfed in the overwhelming petrifying stillness. The characters who were sensitive to that angelical music, to vibrations as “musical as water over pebbles” (14), end stone-blind, stone-deaf, and by and by, stone-dead. “Memnon’s sculptured woes did once melodiously resound; now all is mute” (136).

Sounding Vaults

  • 10 “But why then does God now and then send a heavenly chronometer (as a meteoric stone) into the worl (...)
  • 11 Marc Amfreville has underlined this process of “calcification” (Amfreville 1300) and Philippe Jawor (...)

17“Is faith dead now, / A petrifaction?” (Melville 1991, 3.5.79-80). Pierre; or the Ambiguities already intimates that it might be the case. Pierre’s disastrous descent is not that of a meteorite fallen from the heavens, as is suggested by Plinlimmon’s pamphlet,10 but rather that of a more down-to-earth stumbling-block (Isaiah 8:14), or rock of offence (lapis offensionis, Romans 9:32; 33:1; Peter 2:8) that involves his so-called half-sister and his former fiancée in his own scandalous “backsliding” (Jeremiah 3:22). They are all fallen angels, prone to “anguish” (49) and epitomes of downward mobility from the heavenly spheres and they may embody in their own person the various stages of material decay ranging from gaseous “evanescence” (Lucy, 58) to insubstantial liquefaction (“entirely fluid,” Isabel, 324), precipitated into petrified deposits (Pierre): “calme bloc ici-bas, chû d’un désastre obscur” [calm block fallen here below from a mysterious disaster] (Poe/Mallarmé 33).11 Pierre riveted to his writing-desk is also a free spirit locked in all-too “sullied”/solid flesh, and therefore liable to the penalty of incarceration entailed by Incarnation. His unsettled state of mind is subject to “slidings of rocks undermined” (110). Isabel’s mental awakening, her gradual emergence from the mineral and the vegetable kingdoms—that “made me sensible that I was different from stones, trees, cats” (122)—, is reversed as Pierre is turned to stone behind the prison walls of the aptly named “Tombs”—“the long tiers of massive cell-galleries above seemed partly piled on him” (360). His claim to be “the measure of the universe” (Shelley 249) and to rise to the stature of a Savior on account of some “angelical plume of humanity” (311) fails to rekindle the sacred fire, to “relume” (358) the faith of the illuminati of the Church of the Apostles like a refractory stone.

18In mid-century America, in the aftermath of the failed 1848 revolutions in Europe, the eschatological expectation of “some unknown great political and religious Millennium” (Melville 1971, 269) seems doomed to peter out. The novel is steeped in a twilight atmosphere as it mourns beforehand the non-occurrence of the return of the Messiah to come. History does not unfold linearly from Genesis to the Millennium; unlike Puritan typology based on a system of concordances between the Old and the New Testament and, in addition, cross-sectional correspondences between the Sacred and the Profane planes such as Magnalia and Mirabilia; it no longer makes sense in terms of the overall Providential design that assumedly continually crossed the straight chronological line at a right angle, so that it cannot be “transferringly measured” (Melville 1988, 521), judging by translations from that vertical axis alone.

19History in short is not cruciform; it appears to be vorticiform. Every single vertex (every point at which two sides of an angle meet) that connects the temporal and the spiritual spheres that intersect like two perpendicular planes is rounded off to a vortex, whirled away into “a ring of panics” (359) and “broken on the wheel” (336). Angels and angles finally curl and curve like a coil in a sailor’s line, called une glène in French, a loop within a glenoid hollow. The word glen (in the sense of valley, vale, dale, depression) connoted by the Scottish-sounding family name Glendinning, stems from the greek glênê and from the French Glenne, which has survived as Glène. Glène, like the English word “glene,” refers to the socket of the eye but also designates in French a ring made by a rope (in “life’s cord” 176). “All men live enveloped in whale-lines” (Melville 1988, 306); “wind in within my ribs,—if so thou canst,—that one frame may be the continent of two” (Melville 1971, 333). Was it an intentional bilingual pun on the part of Melville encoded in Pierre’s patronym, Glen-dinning, some dissonant harmonic, ringing like some background noise, the rumbling din made by the real thing (das Ding in German)? More largely, does the English language in the novel form an adjacent angle with contiguous foreign languages, notably French (Dutoit 332, Derrida 62-63)? Or, more likely than not, are we as readers of the text doomed to get lost in translations that could go on endlessly round and round, from one name to “Another name for the other name” (Melville 1971, 274) and thus prevent us from telling the real thing even slantwise?

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Agamben, Giorgio. Bartleby ou la création. Paris: Circé, 1995.

Amfreville, Marc. “Pierre ou les ambiguités. Notice.” In Moby-Dick, Pierre ou les ambiguités. Ed. Philippe Jaworski. Paris: Gallimard, 2006. 1277-1301.

Arsić, Branka. Passive Constitutions or 7 ½ Times Bartleby. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus. 1833. Ed. Louis Cazamian. Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1973.

Crimmins, Jonathan. “Nested Inversions: Genre and the Bipartite Form of Herman Melville’s Pierre.Nineteenth Century Literature 64:4 (2010): 437-464.

Derrida, Jacques. “Fors, les mots anglés de Nicolas Abraham et Maria Torok.” In Le verbier de l’homme aux loups. Paris: Flammarion, 1976. 9-73.

Duquette, Elizabeth. Pierre’s Nominal Conversions.” In Melville and Aesthetics. Ed. Samuel Otter and Geoffrey Sanborn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 117-135.

Dutoit, Thomas. “Jacques Derrida, Anglicist.” Oxford Literary Review. Angles on Derrida 25 (2003): 323-336. 

Farmer, Meredith. “Melville’s Ontology.” University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2016.

Greiman, Jennifer. “Melville and the Conceits of Theory.” In The New Melville Studies. Ed. Cody Marrs. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 138-150.

Huhr, Paul. “The Sound of Incest: Sympathetic Resonance in Melville’s Pierre.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 44:2 (Summer 2011): 249-267.

Jaworski, Philippe. Melville. Le désert et l’empire. Paris: Presses de l’Ecole Normale Supérieure, 1986.

Jonik, Michael. Melville and the Politics of the Inhuman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Practical Reason. Werner S. Pluhar trans. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhem. Discourse on Metaphysics. Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra trans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

---. Theodicy. Ed. Austin Farrer. E.M Huggard trans. La Salle (Illinois) : Open Court Publishing Company, 1985.

Ludot-Vlasak, Ronan. Essais sur Melville et l’Antiquité classique. « Etranger en son lieu ». Paris: Honoré Champion, 2018.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Poèmes. Stéphane Mallarmé trans. Paris: Gallimard, 1982.

Marsoin, Edouard. “Le roman hermaphrodite: genre et genres dans Pierre ; or, The Ambiguities (1852) de Herman Melville et The Hermaphrodite (c.1847) de Julia Ward Howe.” In Genres/Genre dans la littérature anglaise et américaine. Eds. Isabelle Alfandary & al. Paris: Michel Houdiard Editeur, 2015. 98-113.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative). Ed. Harrison Hayford and Merton Sealts Jr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

---. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. 1857. Ed. Mark Niemeyer and Hershel Parker. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006.

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---. Pierre; or, the Ambiguities. 1852. Eds. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press/The Newberry Library, 1971.

---. Clarel. 1876. Ed. Hershel Parker, Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press/The Newberry Library, 1991.

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Pratt, Lloyd. Archives of American Time: Literature and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

Ricca, Brad J. “‘Strange Imperious Instantaneousness’: Mysteries of Space/Time in Pierre; or The Ambiguities.” Leviathan 8:2 (June 2006): 3-16.

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1 The phrase, “my sister, my spouse” is a recurrent one in the Song of Solomon, chapters 4 and 5.

2 Brad J. Ricca’s article underlines the conventionality of zero-degree meridian of longitude as opposed to the zero-degree parallel of latitude which is “fixed by the laws of nature” (Ricca 7). Jennifer Greiman underscores the inaccuracy of even the best clockwork mechanisms so as to highlight the underlying contradiction of Plinlimmon’s “conceit” (Greiman 149).

3 Edouard Marsoin insightfully remarks that Pierre, not his hermaphroditical half-sister, is impregnated (Marsoin 104): “these things were foetally forming in him. Impregnations from high enthusiasms he had received; and the now incipient offspring which so stirred, with such painful, vague vibrations in his soul” (Melville 1971, 128).

4 The motives for that autodafé are equivocal enough since they can be put down either to filial piety or on the contrary to his eagerness to purge his father’s stain by committing the incriminating portrait to some purifying fire.

5 Lloyd Pratt has brought to light the overlay of temporalities (“more than one temporality”) within a single span of time (Pratt 21) and Edward Sugden has shown the discrepancy between Captain Maury’s timekeeping and alternative temporalities in Moby-Dick (Sugden 26). Both show that time is far from being universal and homogeneous.

6 Elizabeth Duquette points out that “the starry vault” in Pierre is underpinned by “our soul’s arches” which “thus prevent the upper arch from thus falling on us with unsustainable inscrutableness” (Pierre 51). She draws a very interesting parallel with Kant’s architectonics of wonder in Critique of Judgment (Duquette 131). This is corroborated by the lines from the conclusion of Critique of Practical Reason in which Kant contends that “two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe […] the starry heavens above and the moral law within” (Kant 203). Bruce Rosenstock points out another relevant metaphor in Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus in which the sense of wonder is elicited “as through a magical Pierre-Pertuis” (Carlyle 426), that is to say, through a cleft in a rock (Rosenstock 426).

7 Meredith Farmer has amply documented Melville’s sources on Descartes’ theory expounded in his Principles of Philosophy, notably the entry “Vortex. Whirlwind” in Chambers’ Cyclopaedia (Farmer 152-156). Branca Arsić had already shown Melville’s interest in Descartes’s theories on meteorogical phenomena and fluid, shapeless matter in general (Arsić 160-161).

8 Ronan Ludot-Vlasak has shown how the armless statue in Pierre’s dream is more disfigured and misshapen than that of Marsy’s Enceladus (Ludot-Vlasak 79).

9 Michael Jonik highlights the importance of that myth in Hegel’s aesthetics (Jonik 100-102).

10 “But why then does God now and then send a heavenly chronometer (as a meteoric stone) into the world” (212).

11 Marc Amfreville has underlined this process of “calcification” (Amfreville 1300) and Philippe Jaworski has shown how this is heightened by the use of clusters of substantives, most of them of Melville’s own coinage by grafting a suffix (Jaworski 325-327): “descendedness” (9), “inscrutableness” (49), “angelicalness” (59), “unidentifiableness” (89), “unknowingness” (117), “bottomlessness” (283).

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Electronic reference

Michel Imbert, “Simultaneous Scales, Incommensurate Standards in Pierre; or, The AmbiguitiesMiranda [Online], 26 | 2022, Online since 14 October 2022, connection on 25 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Michel Imbert

Maître de conférences en littérature américaine
Université Paris Cité
LARCA, CNRS, F-75013 Paris, France

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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