Mardi: Herman Melville's Astrology Novel

I can't believe it's been a year since I've blogged here!  This past year I've found myself particularly busy with my young son, my astrology clients, my enrollment in a Waldorf foundation studies course, and - just in case I haven't already talked your ear off about this - my Tarot deck based on the literature of the American Renaissance.

I will be doing most of my blogging over at The American Renaissance Tarot site while the artist and I are actively crowd-sourcing that project; I'd love it if you would come over and check us out.  Below you can read about the webinar on early American astrology I did for Kepler College, and view a clip of my discussion of Mardi, Herman Melville's astrology novel.  

Early American Astrology at Kepler College

In spite of my current immersion in the Tarot, I consider myself an astrologer first and foremost.  I began my formal studies in astrology at age 19 with the venerable Karen McCauley, currently the Education Director at Kepler College.  Twenty years after this auspicious beginning, Karen found me on the internet practicing astrology under a new name and invited me to do a webinar for Kepler, the first accredited college in the United States to offer a bachelor's degree in astrology.  Karen's invitation was particularly meaningful for me because, as a young college drop-out, I had dreamed of the day when Kepler would open its doors.  I reluctantly settled on UCLA when I returned to school because Kepler had delayed its launch yet again, and I didn't want to wait any longer to complete my education.  The opportunity to do the webinar felt like the completion of a cycle, a return to my roots after a long and fruitful journey through the ranks of a public university.  

I settled on early American astrology as the focus for my webinar, and rather foolishly made the scope of my talk 165 years, an entire Neptune cycle.  While prepping the talk it became clear to me that I had at least enough material for a 10-week class, yet I had already committed myself to an overview.  The lecture I ultimately gave was a rapid-fire, fact-filled tour of the astrological history of America which didn't give me or my auditors any time to take a breath.  I know my talk was well-received, but I was left with a sense that there is so much more to say.  Saying some of it here represents my promise to follow up on my years of research into early American astrology with a book about this absorbing topic.  Click to learn more about Kepler Community Webinars.  

The Astrological Framework of Melville's Mardi

I've chosen to share the Melville portion of my talk with you because Melville's Mardi offers such a clear example of the influence of astrology on a fine philosophical mind.   I'll be blunt here and state that Herman Melville's astrology novel is hardly a classic of American literature, and in places it's barely readable.  Few critics would rate Mardi as a great novel, and the primary reason anyone still reads it is that it has long been considered Melville's warm-up to Moby-Dick, sort of a draft that allowed him to find his voice within the epic genre.  But the fact that Melville's original conceit for a sweeping, holistic, and cosmologically-informed sea voyage was the twelve signs of the Zodiac seems to me to be an incredibly important and egregiously overlooked context of American literary history.  

The  Five of Wands  for  The American Renaissance Tarot,  an ode to the "Doubloon" chapter of  Moby-Dick .  Click the image to find out more.  

The Five of Wands for The American Renaissance Tarot, an ode to the "Doubloon" chapter of Moby-Dick.  Click the image to find out more.  

One of the places the astrological perspective is made explicit in Moby-Dick is the chapter "The Doubloon," in which captain and crew ruminate on the image of the astrological wheel as it appears on a gold coin that Captain Ahab has nailed to the mainmast.  Melville takes us through each character's subjectivity in a clever enactment of the Zodiac as symbol, in which each astrological sign represents a unique lens on the perception of reality.  Perhaps you thought "egregiously overlooked context" was overstating the case above, and yet the critical acclaim that falls upon "The Doubloon" as one of the stand-out chapters in an impressively written book is always careful to sidestep the astrological content in Melville's symbol, and also to ignore his astrological methodology in depicting an ever-shifting wheel of human subjectivity.  So strong are the intellectual taboos against astrology that we prefer to think of a great writer invoking astrology as a metaphor for some other, nobler philosophy, as opposed to honoring the astrological perspective for its own merits.

Herman Melville, astrological philosopher

Herman Melville, astrological philosopher

What Herman Melville wrote about astrology in a sub-par novel of 1849 matters because Mardi gives clear evidence that a working knowledge of the twelve signs was available in mid-nineteenth century America.  The time when books about astrology might have been considered high literature had long since passed by then, and the low cultural astrological almanac had been declining in popularity since the latter 18th century.  Never-the-less, Melville's depiction of the twelve signs as archetypes of personality in Mardi would be legible to any twenty-first century reader versed in the rudiments of astrology.  How did Melville come across this timeless knowledge?  Was it via the same astrology manual by a New York City bookseller that Edgar Allan Poe reviewed positively (adding also that the book taught him to draw his own chart)?  I might fall down a well of speculation here enumerating all the possible ways Melville could have been exposed to the ancient art and practice of astrology; instead I'll simply argue, as I did in my PhD dissertation, that cultural historians would do well to rethink their assumptions about the post-Enlightenment "occult decline."  

Detail of the  Seven of Wands , the "Tattooing and Tabooing" scene from Melville's  Typee.   Click to learn more about  The American Renaissance Tarot .

Detail of the Seven of Wands, the "Tattooing and Tabooing" scene from Melville's Typee.  Click to learn more about The American Renaissance Tarot.

Because my audience for this talk was made up exclusively of astrologers, I didn't bother to explain where my working knowledge of the astrological signs came from - I simply took it as a given that my listeners would understand why a King who constantly offers food and drink to his guests could easily be pegged as the archetypal Cancer.  Again, any basic description of the twelve signs is all the context you'll need to understand the astrological framework underpinning Melville's Mardi.  I'm sorry to say that it was a critical work ostensibly about astrology that stood in the way of me understanding this novel for over a decade.  On re-reading Maxine Moore's book That Lonely Game (1975), about astrology and astronomy in Mardi, it hit me like a ton of bricks that in spite of the writer's copious research and strenuous analysis, she did not think like an astrologer but rather like an academic.  When I forgot all about her daunting and often confusing book and re-read Mardi with a lived sense of the astrological worldview, Melville's schema in characterizing a circular ring of islands as the twelve signs became abundantly clear.    

So, if you watched the above clip, you know that I think Mardi is a kind of outer-space fantasy about the planet Mars.  I continued on in my talk to argue that Mardi's main character, Taji, was modeled on the Great Comet of 1843, which appeared to have come from the Sun before whizzing past Earth en route to Mars.  Like the Great Comet of 1843, Taji goes out of orbit to ever more remote realms in Mardi.  Here are two paintings of the Great Comet of 1843 by English astronomer and pyramidologist, Charles Piazzi Smith, to stimulate your further reflection on Mardi; the sungrazing comet had an extremely long tail and was so bright that it could be seen in broad daylight.  

Daylight View over Table Bay Showing the Great Comet of 1843,  by Charles Piazzi Smith

Daylight View over Table Bay Showing the Great Comet of 1843, by Charles Piazzi Smith

The Great Comet of 1843,  by Charles Piazzi Smith

The Great Comet of 1843, by Charles Piazzi Smith