Post-Pierre Psychological Reconstruction
The ancient ruins Melville had seen protruding from Roman soil and preserved in the city’s museums and surrounding villas, as well as reimagined in Piranesi’s reconstructive etchings, had psychological as well as archaeological meaning for Melville as a collector of prints and writer of words. The archaeological solidity and strength of the Marcus Aurelius arch that Piranesi had imaginatively excavated from the ruins of Rome and recreated in ink on paper in his 1762 etching corresponds to the psychological solidity and strength that begin to dissolve in Book 4 of Pierre, the partially autobiographical novel that Melville published in ink on paper in 1852. Young Pierre Glendinning, like Melville himself, had lost his father at age eleven or twelve. Pierre’s fictional father, like Melville’s biographical one, had “died of a fever” during which he “wandered vaguely in his mind.” Until Book 4 of the novel (“Retrospective”), young Pierre had erected a “shrine of marble in his heart, and memory, and inmost life,” a “perfect marble form of his departed father.” This shrine was “without blemish, unclouded, snow-white, and serene; Pierre’s fond personification of perfect human goodness and virtue” (NN P 70, 67-68).
By Book 10 of the novel (“The Unprecedented Final Resolution of Pierre”), psychological need and coincidental interactions had conspired in such a way that Pierre, in order to “hold his father’s fair fame inviolate,” resolves to pretend to marry Isabel, a newly arrived young woman he intuits to be his father’s abandoned illegitimate daughter, in spite of the harm that will bring to Lucy, the young woman he had pledged to marry, and the wrath it will bring from his mother, who immediately disinherits him. By the end of Book 12, “cast-out Pierre hath no paternity, and no past.” Having burnt a portrait of his father that the testimony of an aunt implicated in Isabel’s past, he and Isabel take a carriage from his previous life of seeming security at Saddle Meadows to an uncertain fate in New York City, where Lucy will improbably join them, and where Pierre will hope to support all three as a writer (172, 199). The ominous, destabilizing psychological pressures under which Pierre abandons Saddle Meadows for a new life at the end of Book 12 are not unlike the graphic tensions Piranesi created within plate 7 of his original series of Imaginary Prisons etchings, The Drawbridge (fig. 1; Robison, cat. 33, first edition).