Melville’s Typee (1846) and the Case for Civilization

My subject is Herman Melville, and more specifically Melville’s case for civilization, but I would like to approach his Typee (1846), where he makes that case, through a preamble having to do with the figure against whose arguments Melville stakes his own: Jean-Jacques Rousseau.


There is a shadow-side in the Western tradition that takes the form of a recurrent rebellion against reality. Already in the early Fourth century BC Plato identified an impulse arising from the matrix of civilized life that is wildly uncivilized and which expresses itself, in animosity that can be either generalized or narrowly focused, against civic order, technical achievement, and social distinctions arising out of a consensual recognition of merit. In Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, the character named Callicles complains that the rule of law is tyrannical because it places restraints on strength and ambition and so protects the “weak,” as he terms them, from the “strong,” among whom he imagines himself. When the weak dominate the strong, Callicles argues, nature herself is offended because under her order the reverse is naturally the case. Nature, not culture, provides the authentic template of existence. When Socrates points out the verbal flimsiness of Callicles’ syllogism – that it juggles rather too freely with the terms strong and weak and sneakily makes the case for the tyranny against which it lodges its complaint – Callicles accuses his critic of thinking too much. Callicles warns Socrates that finding logical fault with people will land the philosopher in trouble. Perhaps someday it will cost him his life.

We notice that at the heart of Callicles’ pathology is his aversion to reason. Callicles’ denunciation of civilized existence stems from this aversion because it is the polity, as an expression of reason, which restrains his libido. When someone like Callicles determines to rise to power, he must begin by disarming reason.

We tend not to connect Callicles or the other proto-tyrants in Plato’s dialogues with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. We find it hard to shake off our deeply held prejudice that Rousseau’s “nature” must differ from Callicles’ “nature.” Whereas Callicles, an obvious brute, advocated the law of the jungle, Rousseau, the proto-Romantic, simply liked the prettiness of lakes and forests and the uninterrupted countryside. But many traits in Rousseau’s thinking invite a comparison with the mentality of the Callicles-type beginning with a radical hypothesis, which is nevertheless easy to overlook, in the Discourse on Inequality. Rousseau proposes there, in the midst of a paragraph on the presumed robustness of savages, this dictum: “If nature destined us to be healthy” – and to that presupposition he has already vigorously assented – “I would almost venture to assert that the state of reflection is a state contrary to nature, and that the man who meditates is a depraved animal.” Rousseau’s happily pre-reflective man, as imagined in the Discourse, exists in an eternal present, fed by nature’s garden, watered by her streams, and sheltered at night by her boughs.

A robust solitary, the pre-reflective man experiences himself through “willing and rejecting,” “desiring and fearing,” and on rare occasions, because he partakes in no society, through a type of “natural pity,” as Rousseau calls it. The plight of another can move the savage – not to succor the unfortunate, however, but only to empathize with misfortune. To the category of “desire” belongs sex, so that in chance encounters the race perpetuated itself, but without the encumbrance of the family. To the category of “willing” belongs all positive self-assertion of the lone being in his environment. In Rousseau’s summary of humanity’s primordial condition: “Being subject to so few passions, and sufficient unto himself, he had only such feelings and such knowledge as suited his condition; he felt only his true needs, saw only what he believed it was necessary to see, and his intelligence made no more progress than his vanity.”

The noble savage, as Rousseau imagines him, enjoys his complete self-sufficiency because no social structures oppose or suppress his volition or entangle him in compromise with others, leaving his life an optimally free one. His lack of reflective capacity further enhances this sufficiency by sparing him from any annoying doubt about his adequacy that might spring from a review of his situation. For Rousseau, indeed, additions to savage simplicity count only as betrayals, so that the whole of civic society is a cumulative, multi-layered betrayal, starting with property. Originally, as Rousseau’s famous phrase from the Discourse puts it, “the fruits of the earth belong to everyone and… the earth itself to no one.”

When critics classify Rousseau as the theoretician of the French Revolution, they have in mind not only that phrase but also Rousseau’s genealogy of the intolerable “moral inequality” that he saw as inherent in the social order. The Discourse contains its revolutionary call: “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying ‘this is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society,” from which Urschwindel have stemmed all “crimes, wars, murders.” As for property itself, Rousseau says that it is “an idea… depending on many prior ideas,” by which “the rich” dominate “the weak.” However, as Rousseau’s later Reveries of the Solitary Walker suggest, the subject that interested the denouncer of property and custom was not really “the poor,” but rather himself. Rousseau’s demand for the abolition of all usages and laws aimed not in benefiting any actual underclass, but rather in empowering the liberator to do as he pleased, free from any censure or constraint, including that of his own nagging conscience – to recreate himself as the pre-reflective being whose main feeling is, as the Discourse says, “love of his own wellbeing.”

The myth of the Noble Savage turns out to be, on analysis, merely a savage myth for the self-ennoblement of those whose resentment of limits prompts them to rebel against the expensively achieved structure of reality called civilization. In the irrational project of such people, mastery over self requires mastery over others, and this in turn requires the restoration of pre-civil conditions.


A mood of exacerbated ennui, not quite mutinous, hovers over the early chapters of Herman Melville’s Typee, one of two books (the other being Omoo [1847]) about South Pacific seafaring and island life that grew from the author’s first-hand experience as a crewman aboard whalers and men-of-war during the 1830s and as a ship-jumping asylum seeker among the Marquesas islanders. Melville published these books as fiction, but only because he guessed that issuing them under the label of “memoirs” would incur disbelief from readers. Nevertheless, Typee carries a subtitle, A Peep at Polynesian Life, to hint at its factual basis. One of Melville’s points in describing the disgruntlement of the crew is to remind us that incompetent people in offices of authority can abuse customs and usages. The sailors aboard the Dolly suffer not only from the hardships entailed by cruising the equatorial seas over long hauls but also from the insouciance and incompetence of Captain Vang, who has violated custom by permitting no anchorage for six months. The sailors can endure the normal discomforts of the job that they have willingly undertaken, but Vang’s dilation of the voyage beyond any profit increasingly trespasses their patience.

At last in extremis – even the water has begun to sour in the barrels – Vang orders the helmsman to set course for Nukuheva, the main island of the Marquesas group. He plans to re-victual the ship and allow limited shore leave. Typee tells the story of how its narrator, Tom, yielded to temptation in identifying the badly run Dolly with the civilized order in toto; and how he voted with his feet, despite his fear of falling victim to cannibals, to realize the prospect of blissful freedom in a savage domain. Tom should interest us greatly, as he has brought to sea the civilized achievement of a real education, including (as it comes to pass) direct knowledge of Rousseau and familiarity with the basic developmental history of complex societies. Melville writes with a keen appreciation of cultural differences, learned in the field. Readers will assume that Tom’s intellectual itinerary corresponds with Melville’s. With a youngish, Romantic view of life, Tom confesses his terrific curiosity about “naked houris – cannibal banquets – groves of cocoa-nut – coral reefs – tattooed chiefs – and bamboo temples; sunny valleys planted with breadfruit trees – carved canoes dancing on the flashing blue waters – savage woodlands guarded by horrible idols – heathenish rites and sacrifices.” Sex and violence are familiar objects of curiosity for the bored and restless, as witness contemporary motion-picture fare.

Sex plays a central role in the allure of island life. The readiness of the sailors to take advantage of innocent willingness plays a central role in Tom’s forming his opinion about European behavior in the islands. No sooner has the Dolly found her station in Nukuheva harbor when the girls of village swim out to her, offering themselves to the randy sailors in exchange for trinkets and favors. Tom describes them in mythic terms as a “picturesque band of sylphs,” exhibiting “savage vivacity,” and with “an abandoned voluptuousness in their character,” whom, however, their “European civilizers” have seduced into “every vice.” Indeed, says Tom, “thrice happy are they who… have never been brought into contaminating contact with the white man.”

Elsewhere in Typee before his flight into the mountains and sojourn among the book’s eponymous people, Tom casually catalogues European abuses of the Polynesians. On Nukuheva, the French have tried to subdue the Typees and other tribes of the pelagic interior. The Typees repulsed the French, who, on their return to the harbor settlement, “consoled themselves for their repulse by setting fire to every house and temple in their route.” When so-called merchants from Europe or North America abuse unsophisticated people and the unsophisticated people defend their rights, the bearers of Christian morality “breathe nothing but vengeance, and equip armed vessels to traverse thousands of miles of ocean in order to execute summary punishment upon the offenders.” Tom perhaps exaggerates – but only a little – when he says that, “in all the cases of outrages committed by the Polynesians, Europeans have at some time or another been the aggressors.”

With his shipmate Toby, Tom cuts his ties with the “contaminating influence” and heads for the hills. Initial contact with the remote people among whom the pair at last arrives is tense, but the basically friendly Typee disposition ameliorates any immediate danger. The two refugees find themselves the recipients of Homeric hospitality in its island version. Typee society represents a stage of human development well beyond that of the Rousseauvian savage, but has not yet reached the vitiated complexity of the modern condition. In the Discourse, Rousseau remarks that the happiest time for humanity after the era of pure savagery was that chapter of social growth when “morality,” of a kind, “began to be introduced into human actions.” Rousseau says that, “Men [now] have less fortitude” than they had in nature and he adds that, “natural pity [has] suffered some dilution.” Yet this moment, “between the indolence of the primitive state and the petulant activity of our own pride,” qualifies as a “Golden Age,” which the theoretician believes to have been “lasting.”

Static indolence becomes, for Tom, the keynote of tribal life in the Valley of the Typee. Tom’s awareness of a nasty strand hidden in that indolence later begins to trouble him deeply. During the first part of his stay, however, the positive aspects of the Typee ethos impress him largely. The natural abundance of the valley frees the Typees from any requirement of agriculture, while easy hunting brings boar meat for the regular feasts. Because the bounty of untended soil excuses the Typees from methodical labor while geography protects them from their enemies the Happars, these people strike Tom as the freest of beings, living life with almost perfect spontaneity. “In a primitive state of society, the enjoyments of life, though few and simple, are spread over a great extent, and are unalloyed; but Civilization, for every advantage that she imparts, holds a hundred evils in reserve.” True, the Typees are cannibals: “But they are only such when they seek to gratify the passion of revenge upon their enemies.”

Tom poses whether the occasional ghoulishness of the islander appetite surpasses in grossness the beheadings, hangings, and displays of executed criminals still customary in societies that call themselves enlightened. Tom invokes the author of the Discourse: “The continual happiness, which so far as I was able to judge appeared to prevail in the valley, sprung principally from that all-pervading sensation which Rousseau has told us he at one time experienced, the mere buoyant sense of a healthful physical existence. And indeed in this particular the Typees had ample reason to felicitate themselves, for sickness was almost unknown.” Tom lodges in the house of a tribal elder, Marheyo, who treats him like family. He attracts the affection of the beautiful Fayaway, who dresses only in “the garb of Eden,” with strong implications of a carnal liaison. The men invite him to the Temple Grove (Ti) for daylong feasts and smokers, while from him they appear to require nothing, except his company, which affords them a rare novelty for enlivening the familiarity of days. Marheyo’s son Kory-Kory becomes Tom’s friend and helps him with the language. What could be wrong?


Kory-Kory, while genuinely amiable and loyal, also acts as Tom’s minder, as Tom soon discerns. The Typees might be free in their own realm, but Tom, while liberally paroled, remains a prisoner, hence un-free. Tom’s companion, Toby, manages to escape, aided by luck, but Tom’s injured leg and the redoubling of vigilance after Toby slips his leash together cancel any opportunity to emulate the flight. Other factors turn Tom against his sweet captivity, suggesting to him that the Typees themselves feel the tug of invisible chains. There is the matter of the taboo, a word whose currency begins with Melville’s tale. The term taboo resists simple definition but the meaning emerges by example.

We recall that when the Dolly dropped anchor, the girls of Nukuheva breasted the water to cavort with the sailors, like so many mermaids. And mermaids they had to be, because on Nukuheva, custom renders canoes taboo for women, who risk their lives merely in touching one. When Tom wants to take Fayaway boating on a lake, it requires a long circuit of petitions from one elder to the next to gain for her an exemption from the rule. Melville reports the scandal comically, but the serious implication remains. The taboo signifies an aspect of primitive existence that Rousseau entirely misses – the sacred, indeed the sacrificial aspect, which permeates all human relations and makes stringent ritual demands. The ocean is taboo for Tom just as canoes are for girls and women, with the same implied penalty for transgression. He may not approach the shore. It is simply not the case that in finding asylum among the Typees, Tom has eluded the realm of limits and constraints. But the taboo means more than the seemingly arbitrary denial of certain things to certain people.

Tom meets Marnoo, neither Happar nor Typee, apparently a man without a home, who travels from tribe to tribe around Nukuheva. Normally, no man or woman of one tribe may trespass with impunity the territory of another tribe. Yet the tribes, despite their hostility, require some intercourse. Marnoo functions as a living intelligencer of island news and mediates otherwise impossible relations among the tribes. Marnoo is taboo. This means that he is untouchable, a penalty attaching to anyone who harms him. He claims privileges, too, and expects every tribe to feast him during his visits and to treat him with deference almost equivalent to that demanded by a chief. It becomes clear, on the other hand, that Marnoo is also hostage, wherever he goes, and that any infraction of custom on his part endangers him capitally. It dawns on Tom that his own situation resembles Marnoo’s, except that Marnoo, so to speak, has a passport. It follows that, if Marnoo can, at any time, become a victim, then so can Tom, a meditation that strengthens Tom’s resolve to escape as soon as possible.

In the earlier chapters of his narrative, Tom equivocates about Polynesian religion, especially about the role of cannibalism, hence of sacrifice, in its most pious rites. He cannot avoid the observation, however, that “hardly a day passed while I remained on the island that I did not witness some religious ceremony or other.” He minimizes the pervasiveness of a sacrificial ethos by his assertion that the Typees rarely take their rites seriously: “In truth, I regard the Typees as a back-slidden generation. They are sunk in religious sloth, and require a spiritual revival.” At the time when he makes his deductions about Marnoo and himself, two incidents occur that increase his qualms. One incident is a seemingly causeless spasm of warfare with the neighboring Happars and the return of the Typee war party with corpses of the enemy slain. A feast takes place in the Temple Grove from which the chiefs conspicuously ban Tom. He later discovers that the flesh of the newly killed supplied the meat on the festal menu.

The other incident concerns the revelation about an item that Marheyo, Tom’s host, keeps secreted in the attic of his hut. Tom returns home unexpectedly, interrupting a household inspection of sacred objects. Tom says, “Despite the efforts of Marheyo and Kory-Kory to restrain me, I forced my way into the midst of the circle, and just caught a glimpse of three human heads, which others of the party were hurriedly enveloping in the coverings from which they had been taken.”

The Typee warrior-feast at Happar expense and the cultic admiration of the embalmed heads explain two related features of Typee existence that Tom, in his initial enthusiasm, praises. Tom says that, “during my whole stay on the island I never witnessed a single quarrel, nor anything that in the slightest degree approached even to a dispute.” He notes again that: “With them there hardly appeared to be any difference of opinion on any subject whatever. They all thought and acted alike.” In sum, says Tom, “They showed this spirit of unanimity in every action of life.” Tom is wrong in the first statement. His presence provokes a number of quarrels and disputes, and at last sunders the tribe’s unsteady unanimity, as his suddenly polarized friends and enemies square off over the wisdom of letting him go. The Typees are a textbook case of a sacrificial society that, far from enjoying the serenity of uninterrupted happiness, verges always on a destructive crisis, into which the slightest deviation from custom can tip the people. Warfare on the tribal border functions ritually to redirect internal quarrels to external scapegoats. Hostages and taboos serve the same scapegoating purpose, as lightning rods for soaking up the electricity of communal fractiousness.

Because any questioning of custom or usage would threaten the operation of the rites, skepticism and analysis can have no place in the Typee mentality. Indeed, unanimity is mandatory. Tom finds that coercive fusion with the group under penalty of death affords the opposite of an attractive prospect. He manages, with assistance from both Toby, who has found his way back to Nukuheva harbor, and Marnoo, to fly from his demystified asylum back to the regimen of a sailor’s duty on the Australian merchantman Julia.

One final observation of Typee life by Tom should be noted since it links the highlighted indolence with the highlighted ritualism and shows that they indicate together, not the health, but the profound malaise of savage existence. Tom notices the prevalence of mysterious architectural remains all over the Valley of Typee and recalls the reported presence of similar ruins elsewhere on Nukuheva and in Polynesia. Tom compares these archeological monuments to Stonehenge and remarks that, “they bear every indication of a high antiquity.” In his description, “some of these piles are so extensive, and so great a degree of labor and skill must have been requisite in constructing them, that I can scarcely believe they were built by the ancestors of the present inhabitants.” If such were the case, then it must follow that, “the race has sadly deteriorated in their knowledge of the mechanic arts,” the sign of which deterioration is “their habitual indolence.” In Tom’s speculation, a diametrical reversal of Rousseau’s outline of social development, the Typees become, not a people who have wisely maintained themselves in the happy adequacy where they began, but one that has fallen, from former sophistication and glory, into an ages-long desuetude.


In a concluding irony, Tom’s rescuers – apart from Toby and Marnoo, who have provided intelligence and urged the mounting of an attempt – are five tabooed Nukuhevans. For all the criticism that Tom makes, much of it justified, of missionary blundering and abusiveness in the islands, his ransom, for that is what it is, comes through the intervention of fellow victims-in-waiting of the sacrificial ethos. Their forthrightness has a chivalric quality entirely different from the savage nobility that Tom, despite his imperilment by it, has stubbornly admired and extolled. One might characterize their chivalry as civilized concern, not uninfluenced by Gospel morality, for a threatened fellow of the civilized order.

Melville’s complex judgment of savage life, as articulated by his proxy, Tom, parallels that of the original scientific investigators of Polynesia and of their later commentators. Gil Baillie, for example, devotes a fascinating chapter, “Shaken Witnesses,” to Polynesia and its cults in his study of Violence Unveiled (1995). Baillie, who takes René Girard’s anthropology as his framework of analysis, recounts Captain James Cook’s 1777 visit to Tahiti, when the famous navigator-explorer received a friendly greeting and enjoyed full freedom to observe and record. Cook arrived in Matavai Bay when Otoo, who claimed kingship over all Tahiti, was contemplating a punitive campaign against rebels of the interior. Military forays required a sacrifice to Eatooa, which Otoo permitted Cook to observe. The status of the victim attracts our attention. In Cook’s own words from his journal: “They generally make choice of… guilty persons for their sacrifice, or else of common low fellows, who stroll about from place to place and from island to island, without having any fixed abode, or any visible way of getting an honest livelihood, of which description of men enough are to be met with at these islands.” It sounds like Marnoo or Tom. So much for Rousseau’s “natural pity.”

The Tahitians explained to Cook that Eatooa, gratified by the offering, would ensure victory in the campaign. The sacrifice failed in its purpose. Cook knew why.

Baillie comments that Cook “brilliantly… intuited that the ritual’s efficacy had to do with social solidarity.” Cook could see that the Tahitians no longer fully believed their own theology, and so carried out the ritual lazily and squeamishly. They killed the victim in secret beforehand and so deprived the ceremony of its “cathartic crescendo.” Otoo asked Cook to respond to what he had witnessed. When Cook noted the ritual failure to Otoo and the presiding elders and gave frankly his explanation why and made known boldly his disgust at sacrifice, the Tahitians grew angry and threatened him to withdraw his “word.” Baillie takes this locution to mean Cook’s disturbing (to them) questions and arguments. For Baillie, the episode reveals the fragility of all primitive societies: “The myths and rituals of an intact culture do not answer questions; they extinguish the will to ask them… In fact… those who use persuasion to try to rehabilitate myths actually undercut the myths all the more.” This is because “persuasion involves a detectable mental or moral effort, and mythological conviction demands a mental tranquility that even rudimentary acts of reason disrupt.”

Melville’s Tom has to learn by bitter experience the falsehood of Rousseau’s claim in the Discourse that “the man who meditates is a depraved animal.” The point is not to condemn savagery – savages in their context might possess as much dignity as Tom attributes to them – but to understand why and how the various sophisticated peoples have put savagery behind them for the sake of civic existence, with all its vexing demands and complexities. But neither is it the point to make a blanket apology for civilization, the moral perfection of which no reasonable person would argue. Yet civilized societies have the capacity of self-correction. Primitive societies, like Typee society or Tahitian society, when confronted by a skeptical external inquiry, have by contrast only the capacity of self-abolition. To submit to self-criticism is, for them, already to have rejected unanimity, solidarity, adhesion to the myths, and aversion to disputes.

Ominously, the traits that militate primitive societies against reason – against reflection and self-criticism – reappear in all self-denominating progressive regimes since the French Revolution, even, or rather especially, in those that announce volubly, as the French Revolution did, and as Bolshevism did, that they are driven by what they call reason. The coercive unanimity is there, the banning of free inquiry and free expression is there; in the abolition of the market, indolence comes to be there, too, as the lamentable economies of the Marxist regimes demonstrated in the Twentieth Century. Sacrifice is there in the Holocaust, the Ukrainian famine, the Show Trials, “The Great Leap Forward,” and the Gulags. The National Socialists did not want to hear Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s word; the Soviet Socialists did not want to hear Solzhenitsyn’s word. Even today, in supposedly civilized nations, many are they who do not wish to hear a non-unanimous word; and many are they who self-evidently despise the non-unanimous word.

Often, Rousseau-like, these parties claim Nature as their cause, and admonish that everyone must join them in redressing an offense against Nature. Often, Rousseau-like, they loudly broadcast their dislike of civic existence and extol their fantasy of the primitive. Their social policies embody a new version of the Noble-Savage myth. Long-standing observances and customs of the civilized order, especially the sexual ones, intolerably limit and upset them, they say. Like Callicles in the Gorgias they seek Lebensraum for the exercise of their passions – always at the expense of others. If only it were confined to sex!

Everywhere the unanimous mass thickens itself by expelling those who are taboo, while those who are taboo, enduring the bitter lesson, would merely like to rejoin in civilization.

Thomas F. Bertonneau teaches English at SUNY Oswego.


I am always grateful to Prof. Bertonneau for his contributions.  He shows a rare ability to provide context – literary and historical – for our understanding of the contemporary social and political scene.

This article is especially timely.