Tortoises, I was going to write something about the tortoises in “The Encantadas.” I suppose television has made Galápagos tortoises less exotic and bizarre than they would have been in 1854 when Herman Melville published this little whatever it is.
Melville makes the tortoises strange. He is doing what he always does, mixing a naturalist’s accuracy with a metaphorical fantasia. The tortoises are like the whales in Moby-Dick. They are meant to mean everything, or as much as Melville is able to pack into them. He is riffing on the Galápagos tortoise.
So the tortoise is food for the hungry sailor: “a merry repast from tortoise steaks, and tortoise stews”. The tortoise is erotic: “remember the sudden glimpses of dusky shells, and long languid necks protruded from the leafless thickets”. It is a text, a record of history:
lantern in hand, I scraped among the moss and beheld the ancient scars of bruises received in many a sullen fall among the marly mountains of the isle – scars strangely widened, swollen, half obliterate, and yet distorted like those sometimes found in the bark of very hoary trees, I seemed an antiquary of a geologist, studying the bird-tracks and ciphers upon the exhumed slates trod by incredible creatures whose very ghosts are now defunct.
They are the turtles that carry the earth on their backs. They are the ruins of the Roman Coliseum. They are
the victims of a penal, or malignant, or perhaps a downright diabolical enchanter, seems in nothing more likely than in that strange infatuation of hopeless toil which so often possesses them. I have known them in their journeyings ram themselves heroically against rocks, and long abide there, nudging, wriggling, wedging, in order to displace them, and so hold on their inflexible path. Their crowning curse is their drudging impulse to straightforwardness in a belittered world.
Not all of the metaphors are easily extendable to humans, but I suspect that this one is a self-portrait, Melville as tortoise, ramming each new book against the indifferent rocks. The writer has been cursed.
In the strangest turn, the writer suspects he has been cursed by the Galápagos, the enchanted nightmare islands. Even today, he is haunted by ghost tortoises.
For, often in scenes of social merriment, and especially at revels held by candle-light in old-fashioned mansions, so that shadows are thrown into the further recesses of an angular and spacious room, making them put on a look of haunted undergrowth of lonely woods, I have drawn the attention of my comrades by my fixed gaze and sudden change of air, as I have seemed to see, slowly emerging from those imagined solitudes, and heavily crawling along the floor, the ghost of a gigantic tortoise, with "Memento * * * * *" burning in live letters upon his back.
I never get invited to revels held by candle-light in old-fashioned mansions. Maybe they are out of fashion. Regardless, those asterisks are a wonderful mystery. “Memento mori”? A strange message from the long-lived tortoise (“What other bodily being possesses such a citadel wherein to resist the assaults of Time?”), and anyway there are too many asterisks.
No wonder everyone thought Melville was crazy.