The sound of incest: Sympathetic resonance in Melville's Pierre

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In recent criticism of Herman Melville's Pierre, Pierre's incestuous desire poses a challenge to the sympathetic model of democratic sociality: in transgressing filial distinctions, it erases the difference that makes sympathy possible and illustrates a limit point to the fantasy of national consanguinity. What remains to be theorized in relation to this, however, is the significance of the novel's predominant obsession with sound, both as literary style and as narrative event. This essay proposes that by considering the scientific and literary sources of the sonic framework of incest in Pierre, we find incest occupying an important threshold between significance and sound, between meaning and unmeaning. The first part of the essay reveals that Melville borrows from Poe a gothic "sound" that emphasizes the physical nature of language. The second part of the essay explores the history and significance to Melville of a unique acoustic phenomenon known as sympathetic resonance that, in Pierre, models the relation between sound and significance that is threatened by the possibility of incest. And the essay's final part shows how Melville's insistent figurations of the problem of incest through dialogue with inanimate objects reflects the special problem that the incest taboo poses to debates between cultural and biological approaches to the study of human behavior. The sound of incest in Pierre thus can be seen to generate a metaphysical skepticism that does not frustrate desire but sustains and extends its reach from the freighted symbolism of the household to the natural materialism of the individual body.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)249-267
Number of pages19
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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