“The first spiritual want of a barbarous man is Decoration; as indeed we still see among the barbarous classes in civilised countries.”

So what of the Philosophy of Clothes? It’s quite possible I may not really get to that at all until a re-reading rolls around, but one piece of pre-clothing philosophy stuck out as particularly Melvillean:

The first purpose of Clothes, as our Professor imagines, was not warmth or decency, but ornament. …”[T]he pains of Hunger and Revenge once satisfied, his next care was not Comfort but Decoration (Putz). Warmth he found in the toils of the chase; or amid dried leaves, in his hollow tree, in his bark shed, or natural grotto: but for Decoration he must have Clothes. Nay, among wild people, we find tattooing and painting even prior to Clothes.

Melville read Sartor Resartus in 1850, long after he had already started writing about tattoos (and clothes more generally). Tattoos first show up in Typee, where they get in the way of reading people’s faces (or not—Fayaway’s relatively mild tattooing is one reason Tommo is able to court her). The issue of reading, whether skin or a garment, comes up again in Redburn and still more strongly in White-Jacket—and again, the discussion of clothes in these two prefigures Melville’s reading of Sartor Resartus, which has even more to say about clothes than it does about tattoos.

Of course, after reading Carlyle Melville gives us the most well-known and memorable tattooed character, Moby-Dick‘s Queequeg, along with more clothing issues in Israel Potter and blankness in short stories.

So what does Carlyle give him, that he doesn’t already have? A language for talking about these things more clearly? A framework on which to crystallize the ideas? A greater meaning around which to hang it all? Questions for a re-read, perhaps—perhaps the next read through Melville should include things like this in situ. Now that’s a fun idea! Until then, I’d have to say Carlyle gave him at least some language, some style. Never until Sartor Resartus have I felt more like I was reading Melville when I wasn’t.

4 comments to “The first spiritual want of a barbarous man is Decoration; as indeed we still see among the barbarous classes in civilised countries.”

  • Ah, I’m an idiot – Bartleby is a living “Everlasting No,” a perfect repudiation of “Produce! Produce!” I am tempted to say “duh,” but I am not sure people still say that.

    I am amazed that Melville read Sartor Resartus so late. They had their Germans in common. Or so I would have thought, except that Melville would have likely read the relevant German’s in Carlyle’s translation. I wonder when he read that? They also have the 17th century prose writers in common.

    Melville must have felt that he had found a kindred spirit – and also perhaps a mortal enemy!
    Amateur Reader (Tom) recently posted..Only a man can be that inconsiderate. – Arthur Schnitzler’s 1893 eternal sitcomMy Profile

  • While I’m not exactly sure how my post triggered your Bartleby realization, I’m glad it did! Yes, for sure.

    I was also surprised about how late Melville got to this. I do wonder what he thought about it, because I can see it, as you say, going either way. I think a project like the one I mention would be pretty cool, like, for serious: finally bring in more of the biographical stuff, and read all that Shakespeare…I mean, it would probably all be well worth reading anyway, so nothing lost, everything gained.

  • I had only considered Carlyle as an element of Melville’s style (with some big mistakes, it turns out), not that M. was adapting or parodying C.’s ideas.

    Ahab, for example, could be seen as a parody of the Carlyle hero figure, aside from his role as the embodiment of the Everlasting Yea. I can see how that Everlasting Yea business would bug Melville, advocate of the Everlasting I Don’t Know!

    Everything gained, very true.
    Amateur Reader (Tom) recently posted..The possibilities of an absolutely unemphasized art – Modernism meets Noh dramaMy Profile

  • Yes, definitely. The “Everlasting Yea” thing, and how Melville would not be into that, might also help explain some of what I talk about in today’s post. Will have to think about!