Surgical Sentences

August 19, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading:White-Jacket.

Reading next: A Child Again, by Robert Coover.

One of my favorite chapters so far is “The Operation,” chapter 63.  In this section, Melville turns from the law to that other great area of professional expertise and control, medicine.

This medical interlude from chapter 60 to 63 is one of Melville’s great detachable narratives: I’d love to see a small press make a nicely printed volume of it.  It has action (the attempted escape and shooting of the seaman), character study (chapter 61’s sketch of Dr. Cuticle), light, black, grotesque, and gallows humor (Cuticle’s consultation in search of his own verdict with his fellow naval surgeons, and his handling of the operation), serious examination of a social problem (medical practitioners’ view of patients as subjects, their interest in complicated surgeries and treatments rather than in the well being of the patient), suspense (the gruesome operation itself, and the fate of the seaman), and irony (the reaction to the announcement of the seaman’s death).

It may just be me, but I also think that the last two paragraphs of chapter 63 contain some of Melville’s best writing; these paragraphs remind me a little of Stephen Crane, a little of Hemingway, but the details are pure Melville.  They form such a beautiful, poignant coda for this seaman, guilty of trying to take a day of shore-leave he’d been refused but not of anything to justify the butchery and carelessness to which he’s been treated.  I love a lot about these simple sentences.  There’s their rhythm, long and calm, like crashing waves.  And their careful control of emotion — only that “gold-laced” to indicate contempt, in the context of all that’s come before.  And the contrast of the straightforward narration of events here as opposed to the riotous satire, heavy with dialogue and jargon, that’s come before.  Maybe most of all, the fact that it is “remains” that are buried — suggesting there’s not even a “body” to dispose of — and that they are buried near the same “Beach of the Flamingoes” that officers were returning from a party on when the seaman was shot.  These two paragraph-length sentences, which seem quite modern to me — as I said, like Hemingway — combine to both strengthen the entire book and lift the episode out of the work, a perfect little gem:

The assemblage of gold-laced surgeons now ascended to the quarter-deck; the second cutter was called away by the bugler, and, one by one, they were dropped aboard of their respective ships.

The following evening the messmates of the top-man rowed his remains ashore, and buried them in the ever-vernal Protestant cemetery, hard by the Beach of the Flamingoes, in plain sight from the bay.

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