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Violence et arts visuels

Bodies in Agony: Classical Sculpture and Violence in Herman Melville's works

Ronan Ludot-Vlasak


Instead of pointing to an ideal of harmony and perpetuating a long-lasting tradition initiated by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, allusions to Greco-Roman sculpture in Melville’s works are intertwined with destructive forms of violence. By releasing the darker energies which animate the figure of Apollo – a god “driven by a desire for transgression” in Marcel Détienne’s words – Melville’s writing subverts the immaculate and marmoreal antiquity fantasised by the champions of neoclassicism and opens up an unchartered territory within which agonizing pain and violence might only be glimpsed. Ancient marble works in Typee, Billy Budd or Clarel thus invite us to revisit classical antiquity in the light of its own violence, but they also unveil violence as a spectral force which resists representation and remains – almost – unspeakable.

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Author's notes

Des éléments de cet article s’intégreront dans le chapitre d’un ouvrage à paraître aux Presses Universitaires de Lyon.

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1In 1856, Melville undertook a journey to Europe, North Africa and the Middle-East. His tour included the archaeological sites and museums of Italy and Greece. One year later, he started a short-lived career as a lecturer with a topic which seemed to have little connection with his works of fiction, namely Roman statuary. He was booked by several lecture associations and delivered his text in sixteen American towns and cities between November 1857 and February 1858 (Parker 362-370). In “Statues in Rome,” Melville celebrated the works of the ancient world as “realizations of soul, the representations of the ideal. They are grand, beautiful, and true, and they speak with a voice that echoes through the ages.” (408). His analysis of the Apollo Belvedere is particularly telling in this respect:

It is not a mere work of art that one gazes on, for there is a kind of divinity in it that lifts the imagination of the beholder above “things rank and gross in nature,” and makes ordinary criticism impossible. If one were to try to convey some adequate notion, other than artistic, of a statue which so signally lifts the imaginations of men, he might hint that it gives a kind of visible response to that class of human aspirations of beauty and perfection that, according to Faith, cannot be truly gratified except in another world. (402, italics mine)

2This vision of ancient sculpture seems to evacuate any form of violence and to place itself within a long-lasting neoclassical tradition initiated by Johann Joachim Winckelmann and according to which marble works came to embody permanence, harmony and perfection as well as canonical norms which could hardly be surpassed. Such an approach informed the appropriation of the classical world in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America: classical antiquity was meant to provide the citizens of the new nation with a set of stable political, philosophical and aesthetic models – the foundation upon which the nation might fulfil its destiny. It was thus usually referred to by the citizens of the early Republic as a familiar world which “was as vivid and recognizable as the world in which they were living” (Shalev 2). Caroline Winterer has demonstrated that a “culture of classicism” developed in the United States from the end of the eighteenth century, the ubiquity of the Greco-Roman heritage in academic curricula, political discourse or intellectual life testifying to the fact that “next to Christianity, the central intellectual project in America before the late nineteenth century was classicism” (1).

3Yet nineteenth-century fiction sometimes shows ancient statues in a completely different light, the presence of or the allusion to marble works often involving the performance of violence on humans, be it in Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, in Mérimée’s La Vénus d’Ille or in James’ “The Last of the Valerii.” The classical heritage is also defamiliarized and animated by destructive forms of violence in Melville’s works. The American writer explores the ambivalent forces at work in antiquity and uses statuary as a network of images through which the experience of violence and the suffering it involves might be elusively conveyed. It might be argued that the intertwining of classical art and violence is part of a strategy which aims at aestheticizing, containing and subduing the violent energies which permeate Melville’s writing. Yet I would rather venture another interpretation according to which ancient statuary crystallizes different forms of violence while never fully giving shape to them. It is this paradox that I will investigate in what follows.

4Instead of perpetuating prevailing beliefs about the cruelty of the Typees, who had been regarded as bloodthirsty cannibals since Francis A. Olmsted’s Incidents of a Whaling Voyage published in 1841, the narrator of Typee – Tommo – emphasizes their peaceful lifestyle and hospitality and dedicates several passages to the outstanding beauty of their bodies. Even during the wars they wage against their arch-enemy tribe, the Happars, very little blood is shed:

Mehevi, in conducting his warlike operations, rather inclined to the Fabian than to the Bonapartean tactics, husbanding his resources and exposing his troops to no unnecessary hazards. The total loss of the victors in this obstinately contested affair was, in killed, wounded, and missing – one forefinger and part of a thumb-nail (which the late proprietor brought along with him in his hand), a severely contused arm, and a considerable effusion of blood flowing from the thigh of a chief, who had received an ugly thrust from a Happar spear. (130)

5Yet the narrative, which was based on Melville’s own experience among the Typees in the early 1840s, does not yield to an idealized and falsely naïve representation which would ignore the violence the members of the tribe can display. The narrator instead explores an ambivalent world, the representation of which is constantly reassessed by his own gaze as he deepens his exploration of Typee culture. Cannibalism is thus addressed when Tommo accidentally removes the cover of a large vessel containing the human remains of a banquet which he was not allowed to attend: “But the slight glimpse sufficed; my eyes fell upon the disordered members of a human skeleton, the bones still fresh with moisture, and with particles of flesh clinging to them here and there!” (238) Yet the violence inflicted on the Happar victim is displaced: neither its performance by the Typees nor its experience by the captive are related. It is only glimpsed obliquely and metonymically (the body is incomplete) after the enemy has been killed, dismembered and eaten.

6Despite Melville’s sensuous depiction of life on the Polynesian islands, the sculpture imagery is haunted by potentially destructive energies and participates in this elusive and ambivalent quality of violence in the novel. The first associations between classical art and the Polynesians seem to aestheticize and evacuate the violence in which the islanders were believed to indulge. The narrator considers that “nearly every individual of their number might have been taken for a sculptor’s model” (180) and compares Marnoo – a warrior from Nuku Hiva who has taboo status – to an ancient statue:

His unclad limbs were beautifully formed; whilst the elegant outline of his figure, together with his beardless cheeks, might have entitled him to the distinction of standing for the statue of the Polynesian Apollo; and indeed the oval of his countenance and the regularity of every feature reminded me of an antique bust. (135)

7The excerpt defamiliarizes classical models by colouring the immaculate and marmoreal antiquity fantasized by the champions of neoclassicism while the physical resemblance between Marnoo and one of the most celebrated ancient marble works since Winckelmann blurs the line between civilization and savagery which prevailed in mid-nineteenth-century Western societies.

8Sculpture as a finished work thus embodies a form of physical perfection when it refers to the islanders and undermines their alleged violence as long as they remain statues. Yet it is associated with utmost suffering when it is referred to as a practice and a craft – i.e. sculpture as performance – and points to the limits of the narrator’s deterritorialized gaze. Whereas his narrative transforms Marnoo into a Polynesian Apollo, the potential hybridization of the narrator into a European Typee by his hosts is depicted in terms of coercion and terror. Tattooing is first presented as a most painful operation:

I beheld a man extended flat upon his back on the ground, and, despite the forced composure of his countenance, it was evident that he was suffering agony. His tormentor bent over him, working away for all the world like a stone-cutter with mallet and chisel. In one hand he held a short slender stick, pointed with a shark’s tooth, on the upright end of which he tapped with a small hammer-like piece of wood, thus puncturing the skin, and charging it with the colouring matter in which the instrument was dipped. (217)

9Not only does the ordered and ritualized dimension of tattooing paradoxically disclose the horror of the act, but the image of the sculptor using his sharp tool turns tattooing into an experience in which the individual is both disfigured by a torturer and metonymically torn apart by a monster, as the reference to the shark’s tooth indicates. What makes this shift from craft to torture possible is that the process of reification of the body is incomplete: although it is likened to a block of stone, it remains sensitive and is thus subject to agonizing pains. The episode reverses the dynamics of the myth of Pygmalion, in which, according to Ovid, the ivory of the statue suddenly grows “soft to [her creator’s] touch […] as Hymettian wax grows soft under the sun” as he kisses her lips (85). In Typee, instead of coming to life after being completed, the statue is already human before it is turned into an artefact, the episode presenting a nightmarish vision of sculpture in the flesh. This passage may also be read as a mise-en-abyme of the violence of writing, paper and pen being replaced by human skin and a chisel.

10When the white man’s acculturation is to become inscribed in his own skin, it thus becomes synonymous with a potential annihilation of his identity and a process of reification: “What an object [Karki] would have made of me!” (219) As soon as he sets his eyes on Tommo’s pale complexion, the tattooist of the tribe Karki adamantly insists on applying his art onto the young man’s face. The possibility of this form of violence exerted on his body immediately leads to the paradoxical resurfacing of another form of violence – that of the imperial gaze – in a novel which precisely aims at exposing the evils of colonialism. His reaction to Karki’s eagerness suddenly reverses the process of cultural hybridization expressed in other chapters: “The idea of engrafting his tattooing upon my white skin filled him with all a painter’s enthusiasm” (219). As the use of possessive adjectives indicates, whiteness is immediately turned into a sign of self-assertion which reinstates a clear line between the Western world and the inhabitants of the Polynesian islands. The violence implied in Tommo’s face being tattooed is not only physical but also cultural: “This incident opened my eyes to a new danger; and I now felt convinced that in some luckless hour I should be disfigured in such a manner as never more to have the face to return to my countrymen” (293). What is threatened here is not so much his body as his western identity – a form of racial anxiety which Samuel Otter has explored in relation to the development of the American school of ethnography in the nineteenth century (10-49). Sculpture in this chapter therefore unveils an aporetic process as it crystallizes a fear of violence while simultaneously re-enacting another form of violence which is never referred to as such and which the narrative was meant to challenge.

11This paradoxical unveiling and masking of different types of violence through classical allusions is also central to the dynamics of Billy Budd. Several allusions to the Greco-Roman worlds associate Billy with ancient sculpture. Not only does the handsome sailor recall “the attitude of young Alexander curbing the fiery Bucephalus” when he “close-reef[s] topsails in a gale,” (1354) but his bodily shape and attitude are also reminiscent of classical models: “Invariably a proficient in his perilous calling, he was also more or less of a mighty boxer or wrestler. It was strength and beauty. Tales of his prowess were recited. Ashore he was the champion; afloat the spokesman; on every suitable occasion always foremost.” (Ibid.). He embodies an ideal which calls to mind epic heroism, oratory as well as the strength and beauty materialized in Polykleitos’ Diadumenos or Doryphoros. As the figure of the handsome sailor is thus informed by references to classical culture, it is no surprise that Lieutenant Radcliffe declares that Billy’s beauty equals Apollo’s: “But where is my beauty? Ah,’ looking through the cabin’s open door, ‘here he comes; and, by Jove, lugging along his chest – Apollo with his portmanteau! – My man,’ stepping out to him, ‘you can’t take that big box aboard a warship.” (1357-1358).

12Yet interpreting these classical images as the expression of eternal serenity and harmony would be misleading since this apparent ideal is haunted by the spectre of potential violence. One reason for this is to be found in the way Billy is constantly gazed at by the other characters. In Winckelmann’s History of the Art of Antiquity, the ekphrasis of the Apollo Belvedere is progressively permeated with homoerotic desire, as the art critic mentions his own chest which “seems to expand with veneration and to heave like those [he] ha[s] seen swollen as if by the spirit of prophecy” (334). But whereas the German historian “adopt[s] an elevated stance in order to be worthy of gazing upon it,” (Ibid.) the contained homoerotic tension in Radcliffe’s gaze – but also in Claggart’s and in the other sailors’ – progressively transforms the strength of the Apollonian youth into a body subject to immaterial as well as physical acts of violence and results in the master-at-arms’ and Billy’s deaths.

13A few paragraphs before Billy is likened to Apollo, it is also hinted at that the youth might be the locus of more annihilating forces when Captain Graveling relates how Billy responded to a sailor who “insultingly gave him a dig under the ribs”: “Quick as lightning Billy let fly his arm. I dare say he never meant to do quite so much as he did, but anyhow he gave the burly fool a terrible drubbing […] And lord bless you, the lubber was astonished at the celerity.” (1357). This violence which Billy does not only fall prey to but also performs does not necessarily undermine the Apollonian quality of the character. One might instead argue that Melville departs from the marmoreal and immaculate representations of the god in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: he revives the violence of antiquity that Winckelmann and his followers evacuated and ultimately discloses what Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy refer to as “the nocturnal […] hidden face of Greek ‘serenity’” (19, my translation).

  • 1 My contention is not to suggest that one interpretation is more relevant than the other, but that i (...)

14The killing of Claggart by Billy is a case in point. The relation between the two characters and its fatal outcome have often been explored in the light of their biblical hypotext: Billy appears like an adamic figure while Claggart is compared to a serpent or a snake shortly before and just after his death. Yet as Gail Coffler has pointed out, the image of the snake also lends itself to a reading which emphasizes Melville’s revisiting of classical models and may thus be analysed as a rewriting of the killing of the Python by Leto’s son (271). The aforementioned allusions to Apollo as well as the celerity with which Billy strikes his blow make such an interpretive choice all the more arguable1. Do allusions to classical art contain the violence displayed here? I would rather contend that they are intertwined with the unleashing of violent energies which escape language and which are not fully given shape, as suggested in the following quotation: “The next instant, quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at night, his right arm shot out, and Claggart dropped to the deck.” (1404). While the first clause of the sentence relates what leads to the master-at-arms’ death, the second one depicts the outcome of Billy’s fatal blow: the violence of the gesture (that is to say what does happen when Billy’s fist hits Claggart’s face) remains on the margins of language and resists the possibility to be narrated. If one reads the text silently, this performance of violence is located on the page in the comma (or somewhere around the comma) which separates the two grammatical clauses; if one reads it aloud, it is located in a blank just before the uttering of “and.” Like Billy, who is affected by a stutter whenever he is “under sudden provocation of strong heart-feeling” (1362), the narrative does not actually word the act of violence. The latter manifests itself in this interstice of writing which wavers between visibility and invisibility, but also between language and muteness. It is to be apprehended spectrally, in a textual void that no word is to fill. In other terms, violence is made partly visible through these references to ancient culture while remaining unspeakable.

15Although the rendering of violence through writing proves to be elusive, references to classical sculpture unveil the violence of the ancient world repressed and concealed by its neoclassical avatars. As Marcel Détienne aptly points out, Apollo has probably become one of the dullest figures of the Greek Pantheon; the French anthropologist puts the blame on Winckelmann, who turned the God into an ideal symbol of knowledge, art, and moral superiority and considered that only the highest form of style could do justice to his divine figure (9). Yet Détienne goes on to show that this sanitized Apollo fails to express the intrinsic ambivalence which animates him: an often cruel and ruthless God, his sudden bursts of anger always prove fatal to those who challenge him: “the dreadful sound of his arrows brings death to mules, dogs and men in their hundreds” (10, my translation). He often resorts to extreme violence and spares his victims no pain, when he flays Marsyas alive or when he slays Niobe’s children with his sister Artemis. Instead of embodying stability and everlasting harmony, one should instead see Apollo as a God “driven by a desire for transgression” (195).

16This unpredictable unleashing of violence is at the core of the energy which defines Billy, a pattern which his protean quality reinforces. Indeed, the classical heritage in which the handsome sailor is rooted involves a network of heterogeneous and paradoxical references to historical or mythological figures of the ancient world. His face recalls “that humane look of reposeful good nature which the Greek sculptor in some instances gave to his heroic strong man, Hercules” (1360), but some critics have also noted his resemblance with Antinous (Coffler 257). Billy is later compared to a barbarian figure undergoing the violence of Roman conquerors – “as much so, for all the costume, as his countrymen the British captives, living trophies, made to march in the Roman triumph of Germanicus” (1423). Just before he kills Claggart, his paleness and the distress on his face give “an expression to the face like that of a condemned vestal priestess in the moment of being buried alive” (1404). These multiple images undermine the permanence and serenity often associated with ancient art: on the contrary, Billy turns out to be a multifaceted and androgynous figure who is both a performer of violence as the allusions to Apollo and Hercules suggest, but also a victim of violence when he is likened to a British captive or to a vestal. This cluster of images around the figure of Billy never resolves into a stable representation and eventually results in destruction.

17The re-appropriation of ancient models and the violence it involves ultimately raise political issues. The killing of Claggart cannot be reduced to a purely individual deed or impulse, and it is no coincidence that Melville dedicated several chapters of the novella to the mutinies which occurred in the late eighteenth century. The violence which resurfaces here is that part of the Greco-Roman world which had to be repressed in late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century America if antiquity were to guide the young nation and to guarantee its stability and sustainability. This resurgence of the violence which is inherent in the figure of Apollo makes us glance at an antiquity that dares not speak its name and which could undermine the Americans’ claim for the classical heritage. By disrupting prevailing neoclassical models and revealing their potentially destructive force, Melville sheds doubt on the American political model and raises the possibility of a political and philosophical fraud. In this respect, he is a contemporary according to Agamben’s definition of the term, i.e. “he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness” (44).

18Violence, suffering and the Apollonian figure being thus intertwined in Melville’s works, it is no surprise that the image of the Laocoon haunts several early and late texts, the marble group being the Greco-Roman statue which is the most obviously associated with the experience of violence. One of the reasons for which Winckelmann – but also Lessing – admired it was that Laocoon endures excruciating pain although he contains it. As Nigel Jonathan Spivey argues, “for Winckelmann, the aesthetic success of the Laocoon Group depended as much upon the suppression as the expression of anguish” (25). My contention is that in Melville’s works, the violence which torments the Trojan priest is not contained, but progressively dematerialized.

  • 2 Yet contrary to Gerard M. Sweeney, I would not argue that such comparisons are “chiefly decorative” (...)

19References to the Laocoon in Melville’s early works are mainly analogical2. As they are walking through the jungle on the island of Maramma, the characters of Mardi discover “one gigantic palm-shaft, belted round by saplings, springing from its roots”: “Laocoon-like, sire and sons stood locked in the serpent folds of gnarled, distorted banians; and the banian-bark, eating into their vital wood, corrupted their veins of sap, till all those palm-nuts were poisoned chalices.” (330). The image hints at the corruptive influence of the religious tyranny exerted by the Pontiff of the island on his subjects, the man’s claims to divinity being nothing but a sham. In Redburn, while the eponymous character is waiting for his friend Harry Bolton in the room of a gambling house, his eyes come across “Laocoon-like chairs, in the antique taste” (230). In both cases, the allusion, which points to moral corruption, is based on the physical resemblance between the objects depicted and the marble group.

20Another mention of the work in Pierre raises different issues: after young Glendinning decides to break his engagement with Lucy Tartan and to marry his alleged half-sister in order to conceal his father’s fault, he returns home and confronts his mother in the stairway:

Ascending toward his mother’s chamber, he heard a coming step, and met her on the great middle landing of the stairs, where in an ample niche, a marble group of the temple-polluting Laocoon and his two innocent children caught in inextricable snarls of snakes, writhed in eternal torments. (184-185)

  • 3 Melville’s lecture on Roman statues is no exception and perpetuates the idea according to which mar (...)

21The resistance of marble, which is often interpreted as a symbol of everlasting serenity3, is here synonymous with eternal damnation, as if the moment of agony experienced by the three figures of the group were to know no end. In this passage, Melville does not refer to Virgil’s epic, but to other versions of Laocoon’s story in which he is chastised for having consumed his marriage in the Temple of Apollo or for having married a woman against the God’s will. The material presence of a copy of the statue and the violence experienced by the Trojan priest do not point to what is visible in the text, but, on the contrary, to elusive and unspeakable forces: the spectral presence of incest, Pierre having defiled the purity of the family estate, or his father’s alleged fault (which eventually results in his two children’s deaths).

22One last reference to the Laocoon occurs in Melville’s long epic poem Clarel, in which he depicts the geographical and spiritual journey of a young student and his three companions in the Holy Land. As they reach the Dead Sea, Clarel, Vine and Rolfe gaze at the desolate landscape while Nehemiah stands apart:

From the mystic sea
Laocoon’s serpent, sleek and fine,
In loop on loop seemed here to swine
His clammy coils about the three.
Then onto them the wannish man
Draws nigh; but absently they scan;
A phantom seems he, and from zone
Where naught is real tho’ the winds aye moan. (118)

23Like the winds blowing through this desolate landscape, the violence of the ancient statue is paradoxically turned into purely immaterial suffering to which no facial expression may give shape. It haunts the four characters who become themselves as spectral as the ungraspable – though petrifying – force which takes hold of them. While the term “mystic” operates a shift from the physical to the immaterial, the paleness of the marble is displaced from the three characters to Nehemiah (“the wannish man”) who has been standing apart for a while, thus emptying Clarel and his two companions of their corporeality as statues. Even their gaze now seems to be disconnected from any bodily entity.

24In neoclassical approaches to antiquity, sculpture pertains to both the material realm and the world of the mind, the beauty of the works being the palpable manifestation of an ideal substance to which it refers, “something beyond and above itself, as if it were but an approximation to a still higher form” in Washington Allston’s words (7). In Clarel, no material or ontological substance is to sustain ancient sculpture: the resurfacing of the marble group and the experience of violence which animates the three figures appear and dissolve at the very moment they are uttered, the poem wavering between presence and absence, visibility and invisibility. Language thus fails to give shape to this experience which is as silent as the “dumb stones” of Judea; yet it is the only medium through which it might be glimpsed. This violence is only to be apprehended as a spectral presence, “something that one does not know, precisely, and one does not know if precisely it is, if it exists, if it responds to a name and corresponds to an essence” (Derrida 5).

25By exploring the traces of the ancient world through some of its most renowned marble works, Melville does not take his reader on a journey to a familiar and reassuring world, but opens up an unchartered territory where violence is simultaneously masked and unveiled. The darker energies at work in the writer’s use of classical sculpture not only invite us to re-read Antiquity in the light of its own violence, but also point to violence as “an unnameable or almost unnameable thing: something, between something and someone, anyone or anything, some thing, “this thing,” but this thing and not any other” (Derrida 5). A spectral force, its wording ultimately reveals its elusive quality.

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1 My contention is not to suggest that one interpretation is more relevant than the other, but that intertextuality is here both Biblical and classical.

2 Yet contrary to Gerard M. Sweeney, I would not argue that such comparisons are “chiefly decorative” (22) and thus may be of little interest in order to understand Melville’s exploration of classical antiquity.

3 Melville’s lecture on Roman statues is no exception and perpetuates the idea according to which marble works resist the passing of time and the turmoils of history: “Governments have changed; empires have fallen; nations have passed away; but these mute marbles remain – the oracles of time, the perfection of art” (408).

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Electronic reference

Ronan Ludot-Vlasak, « Bodies in Agony: Classical Sculpture and Violence in Herman Melville's works », Sillages critiques [Online], 22 | 2017, Online since 30 March 2017, connection on 23 August 2017. URL :

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About the author

Ronan Ludot-Vlasak

Université Lille 3
Ronan Ludot-Vlasak is a professor of American literature at the University of Lille 3. His research focuses on the use of Shakespeare and classical antiquity in American literature and culture. He has published a monograph on Shakespeare in antebellum literature (La Réinvention de Shakespeare sur la scène littéraire américaine (1798-1857), Presses Universitaires de Lyon) and has coauthored an introduction to the American novel (Le Roman américain, Presses Universitaires de France).
Ronan Ludot-Vlasak est professeur de littérature américaine à l’Université de Lille 3. Ses travaux de recherche portent sur les usages de l’Antiquité classique et de l’œuvre shakespearienne dans la littérature et la culture américaines. Il est l’auteur d’une monographie consacrée à Shakespeare dans l’imaginaire américain du premier XIXe siècle (La Réinvention de Shakespeare sur la scène littéraire américaine (1798-1857), Presses Universitaires de Lyon) et a écrit, en collaboration avec Jean-Yves Pellegrin, une histoire du roman américain publiée aux Presses Universitaires de France.

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