Melmoth the Wanderer (Charles Maturin)

Posted: November 6, 2015 in fiction
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So, the morning after I finished the last book, I was rooting through the boxes of books in the living room, looking for whatever would come next, and I thought, “Oh yeah, I’ve been thinking of Melmoth lately,” so I pulled it out. I wasn’t thirty pages into it before I was thinking, “Really, OccMan? Melmoth? Really? With the depressed mood you’ve been in lately, you’re going to read fucking Melmoth?” It ended up not being as depressing as I remember, and I’m actually noticeably happier than I was two weeks ago, so Melmoth was a win.

Melmoth the Wanderer marks a turning point in Gothic literature. There was a strong wave starting with Walpole in 1764 that reached its crest with Ann Radcliffe in the 1790s, waning toward the parody Northanger Abbey and what may be the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein, both of 1818. In 1820, Melmoth is sort of the last of this wave. The writer of the foreword, though, seems to think it could also be a bridge to the next type of Gothic, the sensation novels of the 1850s-70s, with Mrs Gaskell and Mr Collins in the thick of it, and Dickens and Brontë representing the more respectable crowd. It’s harder to connect Maturin to Dickens, in my opinion, because of the time period. People still read novels from nearly every year from 1790 to 1820 (and when I say people I mean I do), but there’s a big gap in British fiction from Melmoth in 1820 to The Pickwick Papers in 1836. I read the first chapter of an LEL novel from I think 1824, but my professor didn’t think the book worth following up on, and if a Romanticist/Victorianist who teaches graduate courses isn’t into it, and it’s nearly impossible to find, I really think it wouldn’t repay the effort. I mean, there are also some Scott novels, but I really think that the best thing to come out of Sir Walter Scott is the Donizetti opera. Aside from the time, I also think Maturin fits better with the conventions of Radcliffe than those of Collins. Most of the novel takes place in Spain, and about half of it in the seventeenth century, and it was Radcliffe’s crew who distanced the Gothic from themselves in time and place. The Victorians bring the horror right up close to themselves.

The premise. Melmoth is a type of the Wandering Jew, condemned to wander the earth for an unnaturally long period of time, serving as a representative of ultimate evil on the earth. He’s kind of like Cain, one of the heroes of the Romantic poets. Like Victor Frankenstein, Melmoth wants to know the secrets of nature, to penetrate beyond the human limits of knowledge. So he makes a deal, whereby he can pass through any wall or door and travel at incredible speeds, in order to learn more than anyone ever has, but with the understanding that when he dies, after one hundred fifty years, he’s going to suffer in hell for eternity. The only loophole is, that if he can find someone who will take his place – someone so desperate to escape that he will risk his soul – he can recover his salvation. But, this condition is unutterable, literally. People who try to denounce him drop dead on the spot. It can only be revealed in the safety of the confessional. He spends a lot of time hanging out in Spain, perhaps because of the intensity of the Inquisition there.

The structure. This novel is a whole mess of interpolated stories. Most novels with this type of structure lend an air of reality by being terribly interested in verisimilitude, creating a logical reason for the stories to be gathered as they are. Not Maturin. Someone reads a scroll in the underground library of a hundred-year-old Spanish Jew, and we have to accept it as realistic, even though there’s no character who could know all the story relates (Maturin favors third-person omniscient narration). The frame story is about John Melmoth, a young man who was raised in comparative poverty with the expectation of inheriting a fortune from a miserly eccentric uncle. The uncle dies, warning Young Melmoth about his ancestor. Melmoth then finds a half-legible manuscript about someone who met the Wanderer after being wrongfully imprisoned in an insane asylum. The story gets him all worried and excited, and (coincidentally) a few nights later a ship crashes on the coast, with the survivor being another of the Wanderer’s prospects. He tells his story, and with its interpolations, it takes up the rest of the book.

The Tale of the Spaniard. Monçada tells your classic Radcliffean Gothic tale: raised in obscurity, he discovers that he’s an illegitimate son of the nobility. Manipulated by the clergy, he’s forced to join a Madrid monastery and take vows. He tries to escape, but in the end he gets sent to the Inquisition, and no one escapes the Spanish Inquisition. Except him. He takes shelter with a Jew, who sets him to copying manuscripts about Melmoth. The most significant of these manuscripts occupies nearly half the book:

The Tale of the Indian(s). Not really about Indians. Immalee is a white girl shipwrecked on an island off the coast of India in the late seventeenth century. The Indians take her for the goddess of love and leave her offerings. Somehow she survives in almost total isolation until she’s a beautiful teenager, when Melmoth meets her. They discuss life and philosophy and fall in love. Melmoth leaves her, but meets her again three years later after she’s been rescued and returned to her parents in Spain. The child of nature, she doesn’t take well to Catholicism and the society it has produced. She elopes with Melmoth and they marry, but secretly. Her father brings her someone to marry, but she’s so pregnant she’s about to drop Melmoth’s baby any second. The secret comes out and she gets sent to the Inquisition (Seville this time), where eventually she and her child die. The night before her ill-fated marriage, though, Melmoth met with her father and told him a couple of stories about himself, but Aliaga doesn’t profit by the knowledge.

The Tale of Guzman’s Family. Guzman was this really rich guy whose sister ran off to Germany and married a heretic Protestant. He cut her off with a shilling, so to speak, but later in life regrets his decision and invites her to come back to Spain and live under his protection. He pays for an education for the children and all their household expenses, but under the influence of the priests he refuses to see them. When Guzman dies, everything goes to the Church instead of to the Walbergs. They are brought to the very brink of destitution before the correct will is located and they all live happily ever after.

The Tale of the Lovers. Some of the politics of mid-seventeenth century England can be difficult to follow, but the Mortimers were a royalist family even when that loyalty put their lives and livelihoods in danger. Three cousins live together there for a while; if the boy marries one, he gets the entire family fortune. If he marries the other, he gets enough to live comfortably on for his life. Of course he loves the one who would leave him not filthy rich, but he’s tricked into thinking he can’t marry her, so he leaves her at the altar and marries the other one after a suitable period. Then the wife dies and he goes crazy, so the lover gets to take care of him for the rest of their lives after all.

After Monçada finishes The Tale of the Indian, it seems like Maturin suddenly realized how long his book was getting, and he finishes it in ten pages, with one last interpolated story, The Wanderer’s Dream, in which Melmoth dreams of himself in hell.

So much for plot. Like most of the Gothic novels of the 1790s, Melmoth is violently anti-Catholic. All that “trapped in a convent” and “imprisoned in the Inquisition” stuff may have some basis in reality, but the writers of the time let their imaginations run riot because it sells more books. These authors were successful because people hated Catholics so much back then (cf Dickens, Barnaby Rudge). Good Gothic relies on fears and prejudices shared by the audience, and Catholics freaked them out. It’s why so many films with homosexual characters have been Gothic, like Deathtrap (gay murderers, 1980s) or Rebecca (Damn, Mrs Danvers is creepy, and in love with Rebecca, 1940).  It’s also why a film like Grand Piano doesn’t become a big success. Even though it stars John Cusack and Elijah Wood, no one’s heard of it because it’s a thriller that takes place during a concert of classical music. Who beside music students would freak out at the words, “Play one wrong note and you die”? Having been a music student, I get it, but being one no longer, I also get how it’s so absurd that you want to laugh.

Aside from the plot devices, Maturin also goes on explicit tirades about religion and its place in culture and people’s lives. These rants are sometimes voiced by Melmoth – being ancient, learned, and evil, he can relate all the bitterness that comes from devoting your life to God and living it among human beings (I did mention that Maturin is a priest, right?). Immalee, being the child of nature, can also be the author’s mouthpiece, advocating the supposedly natural religion of his version of Protestantism, so when the two of them discuss religion, it’s like the sermon-writer possesses the novelist’s hand for a bit.

‘Then you do not feel your new existence in this Christian land so likely to surfeit you with delight as you once thought? For shame, Immalee – shame on your ingratitude and caprice! Do you remember when from your Indian isle you caught a glimpse of the Christian worship, and were entranced at the sight?’ – ‘I remember all that ever passed in that isle. My life formerly was all anticipation, – now it is all retrospection. The life of the happy is all hopes, – that of the unfortunate all memory. Yes, I remember catching a glimpse of that religion so beautiful and pure; and when they brought me to a Christian land, I thought I should have found them all Christians.’ – ‘And what did you find them, then, Immalee?’ – ‘Only Catholics.’

As the third-person narrator of the frame story, Maturin also preaches in his own voice:

Vice is always nearly on an average: The only difference in life worth tracing, is that of manners, and there we have manifestly the advantage of our ancestors. Hypocrisy is said to be the homage that vice pays to virtue, – decorum is the outward expression of that homage; and if this be so, we must acknowledge that vice has latterly grown very humble indeed.

The thing is, that when I see someone so manifestly ethnocentric that he portrays everyone other than himself as evil, I want him to be wrong all the time. There are a number of really good Catholic people, and as a body the Catholics do a lot to relieve suffering. But when Maturin talks about ideas of religion instead of groups, he almost always gets it spot on:

Don Francisco crossed himself repeatedly, and devoutly disavowed his ever having been an agent of the enemy of man. ‘Will you dare to say so?’ said his singular visitor, not raising his voice as the insolence of the question seemed to require, but depressing it to the lowest whisper as he drew his seat nearer his astonished companion – ‘Will you dare to say so? – Have you never erred? – Have you never felt one impure sensation? – Have you never indulged a transient feeling of hatred, or malice, or revenge? – Have you never forgot to do the good you ought to do, – or remembered to do the evil you ought not to have done? – Have you never in trade overreached a dealer, or banquetted on the spoils of your starving debtor? – Have you never, as you went to your daily devotions, cursed from your heart the wanderings of your heretical brethren, – and while you dipped your fingers in the holy water, hoped that every drop that touched your pores, would be visited on them in drops of brimstone and sulphur? – Have you never, as you beheld the famished, illiterate, degraded populace of your country, exulted in the wretched and temporary superiority your wealth has given you, – and felt that the wheels of your carriage would not roll less smoothly if the way was paved with the heads of your countrymen? Orthodox Catholic – old Christian – as you boast yourself to be, – is not this true? – and dare you say you have not been an agent of Satan? I tell you, whenever you indulge one brutal passion, one sordid desire, one impure imagination – whenever you uttered one word that wrung the heart, or embittered the spirit of your fellow-creature – whenever you made that hour pass in pain to whose flight you might have lent wings of down – whenever you have seen the tear, which your hand might have wiped away, fall uncaught, or forced it from an eye which would have smiled on you in light had you permitted it – whenever you have done this, you have been ten times more an agent of the enemy of man than all the wretches whom terror, enfeebled nerves, or visionary credulity, has forced into the confession of an incredible compact with the author of evil, and whose confession has consigned them to flames much more substantial than those the imagination of their persecutors pictured them doomed to for an eternity of suffering! Enemy of mankind!’ the speaker continued, – ‘Alas! how absurdly is that title bestowed on the great angelic chief, – the morning star fallen from its sphere! What enemy has man so deadly as himself? If he would ask on whom he should bestow that title aright, let him smite his bosom, and his heart will answer, – Bestow it here!’

I had a difficult experience this Sunday. It was All Saints’ Day, and during part of the service they showed a slide show of pictures of all the people in the congregation who have died in the past year. It’s a bit overwhelming to me, how many of the gay community die young. Then in the sermon the pastor described being a young and hot-headed priest during the AIDS crisis, ministering in hospitals to people who couldn’t get medical staff to enter their rooms. I cried and cried and cried, or at least, I did the silent sobbing that serves the function of crying when you can’t bring out a tear in public. Leaving the service, I got in line to see the priest and hugged him long enough to make us both uncomfortable. Describing this to a friend, he said that it’s really strange how strongly this affected me since I didn’t know anyone involved back then (During the 1980s, I was a kid in middle-of-nowhere North Carolina; gay people lived in New York and San Francisco and decent people didn’t go to those cities). I wonder if my faith in God is coming back. That thought troubles me, because with my family history of mental illness, I just don’t trust myself. I used to seek mystical experiences, but now I think they might have been “the very coinage of your brain: This bodily creation ecstasy is very cunning in” (Yes, I’m still quoting Hamlet all the time. Sorry if that’s a problem.) I’m not sure what’s a vision and what’s a hallucination, what is inspiration and what is insanity. I mean, I write a blog that blends book reviews with autobiography; I’ve never been good at distinguishing between fiction and reality. I like having the community that faith provides, and I generally like people who have faith, but I don’t want to become unstable again. Not that I’m exactly a paragon of mental health, but I’ve been a lot worse than I am now.

I miss having confidence in my own perceptions. I miss the certainty of faith. I had to cut my mind in half back then, like Solomon’s baby, because my faith couldn’t stand up to the scrutiny of my critical thinking, but that life did have its good points. I want to find something I can believe in wholly, as a complete person. I don’t want to live at war with myself, cleaving good from bad and setting them against each other. I want to live in peace with myself, with others, with the world around me, and if that includes a God, I want peace with him too. Despite his hatred of Catholicism, Islam, and paganism, Maturin seems to favor the peaceful lifestyle as well. The problems he has with other faiths is that he sees them as manipulating and torturing their practitioners; Protestantism is good at that too, he just doesn’t use that as his sole definition of his own community.

Despite my initial doubts, Melmoth has been a good experience. I can take quite a bit of religion when it’s sheltered inside a good story, and while this novel isn’t perfect, it is quite good. It’s not very commonly available, though, so if you can find it, take advantage of it.

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