Metaphysical Fabulation in the Berkshires: Melville’s ‘Arrowhead’ and the Anachrony of Thought
Herman Melville’s fondness for fusing philosophical speculation with allegory had a negative impact on the sales of his books, which readers found difficult. Yet he mostly refused to adapt his writing to the demands of the marketplace. The obduracy with which he persevered in his metaphysical fabulations is allegorized in the story, “I and My Chimney.” Although the tale is not directly about a writer but a rustic armchair thinker who seeks freedom for speculation, little guesswork is needed to link the tale with Melville’s situation as a writer composing Moby-Dick, Pierre, and other works at his farmhouse, Arrowhead in the Berkshires. The present study performs a niche phenomenology to gain detailed access to the ethos of composition and the particular value and necessity of meditative thinking in Melville’s writing space at Arrowhead. For the rural thinker, smoking his pipe by the fireside is a spiritual exercise outside the economics of the busy household; his armchair lucubrations are unprofitable. The chimney is the symbolic site of the archè of literary-philosophical lucubration, principle or ground of thinking. “My chimney is grand seignor here—the one great domineering object.” He says it is king of the house: this means writing and thinking come before any other human affairs. In response the housewife, referred to as “she,” threatens to supplant the stolid sovereignty of the rustic thinker when she requests that the chimney be dismantled. “She avers that endless domestic inconveniences arise—more particularly from the chimney’s stubborn central locality.” The central place of writing philosophically and the resolve needed to continue such a profitless activity are defended with each attack on the chimney. In the multi-tasking hubbub of a household trying to sustain its basic agrarian needs, the chimney and its thinker are entirely obsolete. For a writer like Melville, as we will see, writing is itself a niche that, subject to conditions of the marketplace, places his family at risk even as it seeks to save his own artistic selfhood in an act of stoic endurance. In such a case niche building cannot be typified merely as in the service of survival and preservation, of sheltering, as commonly understood. While it prolongs Melville’s metaphysical fabulations, it also exposes his family to psychological stress and pecuniary hardship.
KeywordsSpiritual Exercise Philosophical Speculation Armchair Philosopher Grand Slam Meditative Thinking
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