Melville and Visualization

Something from the attic, if you will– a post from four months ago that never got finished and sat around in draft limbo. I’m going to spend the next week or so emptying out that attic and getting the half-finished stuff out there and published, even if it’s not perfect.
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I was talking to a friend of mine, a Melville scholar, about Bartleby the Scrivener a while back, and the first thing he told me was, “You have to remember– it’s not about about Bartleby.”

I thought back to the Wordle visualization of Moby Dick I posted a while back, went to Project Gutenberg, and decided to check out what Wordle thought of this theory.

Apparently, Wordle would disagree:

Wordle: Bartleby the Scrivener

Now, I understand what my friend was arguing– that it’s actually about the narrator, the lawyer, and his reaction to Bartleby. But I disagree. Or at least, I think it’s a bit reductionist. At its heart, the story is about Bartleby, even if it’s about him as an enigma. He’s at the center of the text, and from the above, it shows that this is at the very least the case numerically.

You have to wonder about whether this is just another case of the phenomenon that Dan Cohen discussed a while back about the limits of the possibilities of text mining– basically, that if you don’t ask the right questions about a text, you end up finding out that the Bible is a book about Jesus and that War & Peace is a book about Russia.

Is Wordle too simple a tool to help us really rethink or explore a text? Does it really only offer the simplistic answers? Was I using it as a crutch for my overly-simplistic reading of the story when I saw it as endorsing my feeling that a story that uses the name Bartleby that many times has to be at least somewhat about Bartleby?

So I went to another shorter work by Melville– Benito Cereno.

Wordle: Benito Cereno

Again, proper names dominate– the large incidence of “Benito,” “Delano,” and “Babo,” not to mention the titles of “Captain” and “Don,” should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read the novella. Likewise, in this tale of a slave insurrection, the commonness of terms like “Negro,” “Negroes,” “Blacks,” “servant,” and “master” is not surprising.

However, where I noticed the frequency of use of terms that indicated the race of the rebelling slaves, the frequency of terms indicating the “Spanish” origin of the San Dominick’s crew surprised me– if combined, “Spanierd” and “Spanish” would be approximately the size of “Negro.” This actually ended up shifting my reading of the story.

The entire story works on the tension created by Captain Delano’s inability to parse what was going on on the San Dominick. He is constantly shifting views, sensing something sinister and then convincing himself that nothing outside the ordinary was occurring. That the inscrutability of the events is in part due to his perceiving the African slaves as deeply other is obvious– he is constantly shifting around in the deep illogic of racism, seeing the slaves as alternatively threatening and deeply dependent.

But there’s something else going on here, too. The New England-born Delano is likewise confused by the ethnic otherness of the San Dominick’s “Spanish” crew. These men are almost as othered to him as the slaves are– a deep divide that creates an inscrutable situation. If the crew had been from New England, Delano would have surely sensed that an insurrection was occurring. But with the strange cultural difference of a crew from the southern hemisphere, he could not be sure. These people had different ways of interacting with blacks than they had in New England, the racial hierarchies– might they not be a little less distinct down there?

One senses that the drama of the situation partially comes from Delano’s ethnic ambivalence– his own sense that the crew of this ship might not be completely “white” themselves. Spanish-ness is just as much a part of the tensions of the book as blackness and whiteness.

This isn’t the most sophisticated reading in the world of the novella, and it may seem patently obvious to someone else. But to me, it came as a revelation. In this case, a simple tool like Wordle was just enough to make me reframe my reading, look sideways at a text that I might not have given quite as much thought to.

The most simple visualization tools can provide some very basic information, but sometimes even that is enough to make you reconsider a text that had previously seemed uncomplicated. Even when they provide painfully obvious answers, there might be other interesting nuggets in those results– you just have to look and sift around a bit.

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2 Responses to Melville and Visualization

  1. melvillean says:

    To clarify here: the story, insofar as it is a recounting by the narrator, most definitely is about Bartleby—it’s the topic our narrator is talking about. The meta-story, though—what’s going on in how he tells the story—is most definitely about the narrator and not about Bartleby.

    And of course, in thinking about data mining, it’s going to completely miss the important things in stories that are never said (e.g. “Hills Like White Elephants”).

  2. melvillean says:

    To clarify here: the story, insofar as it is a recounting by the narrator, most definitely is about Bartleby—it’s the topic our narrator is talking about. The meta-story, though—what’s going on in how he tells the story—is most definitely about the narrator and not about Bartleby.

    And of course, in thinking about data mining, it’s going to completely miss the important things in stories that are never said (e.g. “Hills Like White Elephants”).

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