This chapter argues that Melville invokes the color green to consider the paradox of political foundations in nature and history at once. Melville's first novel is as much a rethinking of state-of-nature theory – specifically the work of Rousseau and Hobbes – as it is a fictionalized account of his sojourn among the Typee people in 1842. Toggling between a view of imperial history from the perspective of the indigenous Typees and his protagonist's miseducation in state-of-nature philosophy, Melville's first book proceeds to reimagine the foundations of political community in terms of corporeal sensations, vulnerabilities, and interdependencies.
Chapter two argues that Melville carries his rethinking of state-of-nature philosophy into a radical experiment in literary aesthetics in Pierre; or, the Ambiguities. Rejecting the view that Pierre is a darkly cynical book, this chapter takes seriously the narrator's claim that Pierre is "a bit too radical" for his readers' tastes. That radicalism lies not in the novel's plot but in the sources for Melville's figuration of democracy as a peculiar shade of green produced by corroding copper. Invoking Romantic color theory, and the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, the novel pursues an experiment in radical creativity in which aesthetics and politics appear at the collision of human and non-human agencies. From this, the chapter proposes a new account of the role that aesthetics might play in radical democratic theory.
If democracy is green in Typee and Pierre, in the oceanic novels that culminate with Moby-Dick, it is decidedly round. Chapter three finds the first iteration of Melville's democratic circle in the Round Robin mutiny from his second novel, Omoo. Referring both to revolutionary debates between Abbé Sieyès and Thomas Paine over the "vicious circle" of the people's self-constitution and the tradition of pirate democracy in the early decades of the eighteenth century, the Round Robin establishes an aesthetic form for those transient collectives that emerge and transform across Melville's early works. Ultimately, this chapter shows how Melville's collective circles imagine new democratic sovereignties that offer fragile but recurrent alternatives to founding violence and sovereign exception.
Chapter four argues that Melville's circular figures of democratic sovereignty rival Alexis de Tocqueville's analysis of the people as a great sphere, "the cause and the end of all things." Both Tocqueville and Melville use circles to stage the paradox of democratic sovereignty – namely, its recourse to a tautology that identifies the people as both origins and ends of power. But even as Tocqueville and Melville recognize the possibilities for the perversion and destruction of democracy in such circles, both also identify circles with the art of collective action. For Tocqueville, this art appears in the local politics of townships, while Melville finds the fullest expression of this artful circle in a giant pod of whales, the fullest realization of a democratic community in all of his work. With this image of radical "cetocracy," Moby-Dick figures forth a sovereignty that is aesthetic, egalitarian, collective – and non-human.
Examining Melville's writing just before and during the Civil War, chapter five argues that Melville begins grappling with an understanding of democracy as the practice of politics without ground. In the context of the Fugitive Slave Law, John Brown's raid, and the Civil War, "gravity" becomes crucial to both Melville and Frederick Douglass as a figure for political inevitability and necessity. However, it also introduces contingencies for political actions and actors that cannot be prophesied. In the final story of The Piazza Tales and throughout the poems of Battle Pieces, gravity becomes both a mood and motive force, as tropes of falls, landslides, and floods keep sweeping away all foundations leaving only a sensation of misgivings that counters the determinate desires of prophetic politics. This suspension of determinate political affect – neither optimism nor pessimism, neither idealism nor cynicism – becomes characteristic of Melville's later writings.
Critics have long held that Melville lost faith in democracy after the Civil War, but chapter six argues that his later writings instead reveal both a continuity and an evolution in Melville's thinking about the ontology and aesthetics of democracy. This chapter proposes three endings to the book: one by way of Melville difference from Whitman's liberal vision of a poetics that will plant democracy "thick as trees" across the continent, one by way of the "groundless" aesthetics of Clarel, and one by way of the figurative arrangement of colors and shapes that appear as the protagonist of Billy Budd falls into the sea upon his execution. In each of these, Melville's work continues to insist that democracy not in a founded people, past, or state, but in the lived fact of equality and the demand for creative, ongoing action to secure it amid perpetual, unpredictable change.