The International Melville Conference, Rome
Article first published online: 27 MAR 2012
© 2012 The Melville Society and Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Volume 14, Issue 1, pages 107–109, March 2012
How to Cite
RILEY, P. (2012), The International Melville Conference, Rome. Leviathan, 14: 107–109. doi: 10.1111/j.1750-1849.2011.01529.x
- Issue published online: 27 MAR 2012
- Article first published online: 27 MAR 2012
The bag containing the notes I made during this conference—along with almost all of my earthly possessions—was stolen at Termini Station the day I was supposed to leave Rome. Appropriately enough, I was the victim of a confidence trick; my crime report has me “waiting outside the bookshop for a train, turning to help a man who had tripped over in front of me, turning back to find my bag gone, and then turning back again to see that the man I had helped had also disappeared.” Under a section that read “Have you suspicions on anybody?,” I answered earnestly, “Yes: the man I helped had dyed black hair—long at back (a ‘Mullet’)—impressively moustached—in his fifties—soccer shirt (purple) tucked into shorts—belt with Brazilian flags on it.” As I was writing this out, three things occurred to me: first that I was adopting the terse, paratactic style Melville uses in his travel journal (which pleased me); second, that the description I had provided was absolutely ridiculous; and third, that under “Property Lost,” I would have to list The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville (I had brought my copy along with me) and other items including my driving license and, crucially, my passport. Indeed, without an identity, I spent the next day trying to convince the British consulate in Rome that I was actually who I said I was. (Only two days previously I had heard Leslie Marmon Silko speak about the importance of “confidence” in her writings.)
This set of coincidences flowered into all-out farce when I used my extra day in Rome—I was anxiously waiting for an emergency ID card to be issued—to visit the Colosseum. Not looking where I was going, I accidentally walked in front of someone taking a picture of one of the mock centurions that guard the entrance. The fake centurion gesticulated at me violently to get out of the way. Disillusioned now, I retaliated by gesticulating back, at which point he raised his wooden sword and swore brutally. I was on the verge of challenging him to mortal combat but stopped myself and walked on. Dennis Berthold, during his entertaining plenary lecture, explored Melville's heightened sensitivity to transnational and—perhaps by extension—trans-epochal exchanges. I did not need to have a fight with a centurion; Northern Europeans, after all, have had a terrible record against the Romans in battle.
So with my conference notes now circulating among the criminal underworld of Rome, I will write this account from memory, which is no great chore as the conference itself was both memorable and enjoyable. It was a pleasure to see all the friendly faces again, many of whom I had met for the first and only time two years ago in Jerusalem. The Centro Studi Americani, housed in the baroque Palazzo Mattei di Giove Antici, was the magnificent venue for the first day of the conference. This grandeur pleasantly contrasted with the more modest university buildings of Sapienza that hosted the subsequent days. The papers were of a consistently high standard, with the newer scholars in particular producing imaginative and exciting work. Unlike Jerusalem, there were simultaneous panels at the Rome conference, and so difficult decisions had to be made: for me, highlights included Ellie Stedall's discussion of the multivalent connotations of “impressment” that sinew White-Jacket, Michael Jonik's beautifully considered twenty minutes on the potency and potential of love in Melville's writing, and Laura López Peña's nuanced reading of Clarel's ambivalent meditations on the fate of democracy.
A particularly stimulating session explored Melville's complicated relationship to Asian, and particularly East-Asian, cultures. Jincai Yang posed difficult questions for the formulations of race in Moby-Dick, and Souad Baghli Berbar delicately explored the relationship between Islam and American Romanticism. What made many of these sessions so special was that the scholars cited by the speakers invariably turned up to hear their papers, offering an array of suggestions, advice, and encouragement. In this case, the inimitable Tim Marr generously guided the lively proceedings. Of particular interest to my work was Gordon Poole's keynote lecture on “Melville the Poet,” in which he explored Melville's “chafing against the metric bound” and the difficulties of translating a poetry so replete with metrical eccentricities. The task of rendering Melville into Italian was charmingly compared to a game of billiards: between the conception of the shot and the subsequent deviations in execution falls the shadow.
The Pulitzer Prize winning biographer John Matteson forgave his audience in advance if they felt compelled to contemplate the early sixteenth-century frescos that adorned the ceiling above their heads, rather than listen to his paper. His observation neatly sums up the problem with hosting anything in Rome; of course John's impressive paper on Margaret Fuller's relationship with Giuseppe Mazzini and the Risorgimento held sway, but the temptation to weigh anchor and start exploring the city was great. A group of us eventually succumbed and decided to spend the late afternoon at galleries of the Villa Borghese, a collection of paintings and sculptures that Melville visited three times during his stay in Rome. Of one particular bronze, Melville remarks how surprising it is that “such a metal could be melted into such flexible-looking forms” (NN Journals 107). I had never really grasped the allure and dynamism of the plastic arts until my visit to this magnificent gallery. Bernini's life-size marble sculpture of the moment Apollo seizes Daphne and she turns into a laurel tree was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
Many thanks are due to the organizers of the conference, Giorgio Mariani, Gordon Poole, and John Bryant, and to the students and staff who were so courteous and helpful. You can tell when a huge amount of work has been put into something; the result seems effortless. Despite the mauling I took towards the end of my trip, the Melville Conference was once again a wonderful experience.