Melvillesco: Travel and Bellezza

Melville’s first day in Rome seemed simple enough: he arrived, visited two sites, and went to bed. But in tracking that day and writing it up, I found myself taking far more time than I had imagined, and ended up writing two postings for that one day.  Apparently, living life through someone else is not as efficient a way of getting through a day as you might think. Better to live your own life.

We are always told, in America at any rate, that “imitation is suicide” (thank you, Emerson) and that true “manhood” (I think today Emerson would say “personhood”) means living in such a way so that you may find our “aboriginal self.”  I say “our” because for Emerson this “Self”—this “essential man” (there he goes again)—is the shared substratum of a universalized identity.  This “oversoul” is not “above” us; it is deeply embedded. Transcendence is not rising up; it is going inward to where all humanity is. Very Platonic. This “aboriginal” Self, so says Emerson, is the thing we must rely upon and trust.  If we can only find it.  Finding this Self means peeling away the social life that distracts and confines you.  Better, then, to live “essentially,” without society. And to do this, you do not need to travel; you do not need Rome or Naples, Emerson said. Just stay put and stay within in order to focus your energy on finding this Self. A very appealing anti-materialism for a materialist democracy.

Emerson and I may not see eye to eye on all these matters of self and life and travel and imitation.  I am imitating Melville’s itinerary in Rome in order to write something that passes for a biography, and I can only do this through a form of research that involves reading Melville’s words and devising ways of placing myself, self-consciously, in the critical role of re-enacting certain moments of Melville’s creativity.  So if he travels, I travel, too.  But travel was also his way of getting away from family, which he loved and needed and wanted, but which distracted from his own desire to grasp at the Essential, or what he and Emerson would have called “Beauty,” and Melville’s search for beauty seems to have culminated in Rome. But Melville took transcendentalism and platonism as desire rather than reality, and  what exactly Melville meant by beauty is not entirely clear.  It is what I hope to discover. Perhaps, too, my re-enactment of Melville’s itinerary is my way of finding something essential in me, though I also find it hard to see beauty as an essence, or if it is an essence, hard to grasp in me.

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