Three Readings of “The Mat-Maker”

April 25, 2010 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Moby-Dick.

Rereading is a complex phenomenon, involving not only different interpretations of the text, but different interpretations of your past self: you can often end up “reading” your former readings, your former interests and states of mind.  This is especially true when you’ve taken notes during your past readings, and kept them.  You read a kind of palimpsest of text overlaid with memory overlaid with annotations, the things you saw as most important or necessary to remember at the time.

I never write in the margins of my books or underline or highlight or otherwise annotate: if I’m really invested, I write little notes on scraps of paper and tuck those into the book.  I probably set my personal record for number of notes on my first reading of Moby-Dick.  I’m kind of amazed at how much my 20-year-old self noticed in the book that I’ve since overlooked: the introduction of the imagery of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego burning “unconsumed” in chapter 48, “The First Lowering”; the discussion of “rings” in the frenzied chapter 40, “Midnight, Forecastle,” and especially the importance of the line “Why, God, mad’st thou the ring?” to the main themes of the book.  Part of this is the benefit of rigorous reading for a class, and the ferment of learning from other classes.  But Melville also just set my brain on fire in a way very few books ever have.  It was the kind of book I wanted to exist but didn’t know actually did, much less had for 150 years.

On my second reading, a few years later and just because I wanted to, I read from the same copy, rereading my notes, but took far fewer new notes and spent more time trying to observe the book’s overall structure and intentions.  I wrote a brief list on this reading of Melville’s possible intentions: “Entertain (more noticeable), Instruct, Enlighten, Ease His Possession.”  I also noted that the comedy in the book was much more noticeable on the second reading.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m reading from a different edition on this reading.  It’s a very different edition — a general-reading copy with large type, generous margins, and plentiful illustrations, but no notes, around 350 pages longer than the Norton edition I’d read from before.  It’s already a very different experience just based on the editions.  However, I happened to read chapter 47, “The Mat-Maker,” from the Norton edition.  A note there from my first reading seemed to crystallize my different readings, and different kinds of reading, in the last ten years.

“The Mat-Maker” is a gorgeous chapter, transitional and quite short but very interesting, well-known and thoroughly studied.  I wrote the following about the first section of the chapter: “Chance, freewill, & necessity in the making of a mat: Melville’s way of injecting mythic importance into minutiae, detail: the wondrousness of life”.  I chuckled when I read this note.  It’s a good note, and useful, but it reminded me of how enamored of Paul Auster I was in college.  Of course I loved this section!    It also reminded me of how much I loved (and love) the texture of the book: the close-grained observation, the colorful variation of style and format, the silky, lyrical language and far-ranging philosophical digression.  And how cool it was that this all occurred to me in a chapter about weaving, just as Melville weaved together his story from various threads.  It was dazzling.

My second reading did not focus so heavily on this section.  My second reading was more for pure pleasure, and it was clear that after the first two, philosophical paragraphs, this chapter serves mostly to transition to the first attempt to capture a whale, leading to one of the book’s most exciting, entertaining, cinematic, beautiful chapters, “The First Lowering.”

And on this reading?  I noticed the last words of the note, “the wondrousness of life.”  That’s an interesting observation, I think, and one I wouldn’t have made on my own this time, when I’m more familiar with Melville, with this kind of writing.  I meant that Melville was noticing the wonder of daily life, and its occasional, epiphanic revelation of the “ungraspable phantom” of life’s meaning, and thereby allowing me, the reader, to do so.

With the help of Howard Vincent, I also noticed the first paragraph’s emphasis on selfhood, “each silent sailor… resolved into his own invisible self.”  But what struck me anew is the lyricism of the language, its sheer beauty and the way its rhythm echoes the “cloudy, sultry afternoon” portrayed, lulling you into ruminations on its meaning and significance — thereby heightening the surprise and frenzy of “There she blows!” and all that follows: the first appearance of Ahab’s hidden crew, the thrilling hunt for the whale.  Then there’s the amazing return to quietude and slower rhythms at the end of “The First Lowering” — but deadly dangerous rhythms of possible abandonment and death at sea, this time — and Ishmael’s bookend of philosophical rumination in “The Hyena.”  Language, meaning, structure: this section is just a sterling example of what a phenomenal writer Melville was.

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Notes on Moby-Dick’s Narrative Beginnings

April 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Moby-Dick and The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick.

A couple of short notes on the early sections of the book — things I hadn’t noticed before, or had forgotten:

-“The Counterpane” features an anecdote from Ishmael’s childhood, one of the few autobiographical hints we get about our ostensible narrator (“ostensible” since Ishmael largely drops out of the narrative in the middle of the book and becomes a floating, omniscience narrator before reemerging towards the end).  I’d forgotten how perfectly told, how subtly creepy and folkloric, this little tale is: of Ishmael sent to bed early in the afternoon of the summer solstice as punishment, by his stepmother — stepmother, mind you! — and dozing off in the sunlight to find, in the darkness, “a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine.”  It’s this perfect little short story; in fact, I seem to remember a similar story by Ray Bradbury, but can’t find it at the moment. This chapter, if it gets mentioned at all, gets mentioned mostly as the beginning of the affectionate bond between Ishmael and Queequeg.  But the gorgeous little excerpt of Ishmael’s perfectly horrible fairy-tale upbringing in early America is the most complicated thing about it.  Why is it here?  Ishmael tells the story to compare the feeling of holding that phantom hand with the feeling of waking with Queequeg’s “pagan arm” thrown over him.  But he tells us to remove the fear from his earlier feeling to understand how he feels under Queequeg’s arm.  Now, the fear is the most important thing about that earlier sensation, isn’t it?  Melville seemed to be simply compelled to tell this (autobiographical?) story, and to connect that uncanny sensation with the juxtaposition of Ishmael and Queequeg.  It’s the quintessence of American Weird, plain and simple.

-Father Mapple’s sermon in the Whaleman’s Chapel is rightly one of the most famous chapters in the book, and Howard Vincent examines it admirably.  However, he may have been a little straightforward in his treatment.  Vincent reads it as a warning, plain and simple, to hubristic Ahab.  And you certainly can read it that way.  But the sermon is also one of Melville’s closest approaches to Paradise Lost, I believe.  And like Milton’s great poem, it is profoundly ambiguous.  Just as easily as you can read it as a reproach of Ahab and foreshadowing of doom, you can read it as a defense of Ahab.  After all, doesn’t Mapple say that “Delight is to him — a far, far upward, and inward delight — who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self,” and “who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges”?  Isn’t Ahab more like the prophet Jonah should’ve been, insisting on the wrongness of the evil perpetrated upon him, than the coward Jonah was, who ran away from his duty and was swallowed for his trouble?  Is Mapple’s sermon an indictment of God, or of Ahab?

The Consumptive and the Sub-Sub

April 5, 2010 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, with The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, by Howard P. Vincent.

This is my third reading of the great novel, the first time in a ’40s Modern Library edition reproducing those gorgeous Rockwell Kent illustrations.  (N.B. If anyone ever wants to buy me a $20K present, the three-volume folio Lakeside Press edition in which the illustrations first appeared would be great.  My favorite book (as an object of art) of the 20th century.)  I should be forthright and say that M-D is probably my favorite novel.  You will not find objective critique or lamentations over length and difficulty here.  I unabashedly love this book.

I read it first in college (in the Norton edition, which really is the best way to first read it), and was immediately charmed by the “Etymology” and “Extracts” which appear before the main narrative.  I have ever since had a warm spot in my heart for these very weird textual appendages, which I’ve gone back and forth about considering as paratexts or as part of the narrative proper or as something in between.  I’d forgotten, however, that what originally charmed me about them was precisely their in-between nature: the miniature fictional narratives that are used to frame these long lists of epigrams.

These sections are most often dismissed as throat-clearing or simple Melvillean maximalism — they were shunted to an appendix at the back of the book in the first British edition, setting an unfortunate precedent which led to their being cut entirely from a number of editions — but there’s clearly more going on than that.  Each section can be read as a short short story about the “creator” of each section: the “late consumptive usher to a grammar school” and the “sub-sub-librarian,” respectively.  In my metafiction-besotted undergraduate days, I enjoyed speculating on whether the “I” in these character sketches was Melville, or Ishmael, or an unnamed editor, or none of the above.  I equally enjoyed how these sections highlighted the cetomania of both these characters and the ambiguous “I” discussing them, drawing us both on to and past the surface of the text to come.  That’s all still quite enjoyable and interesting, to me at least.  But on this reading, I’ve come to believe that the E&E sections are meant to function mostly as an overture, a passage introducing the motifs and methods to be used and fleshed out in the following symphony (or opera, if you prefer — which is the book more like?)

Howard Vincent’s book helped me see this: his emphasis on Melville’s theme of man’s isolation and search for self led me to reflect more on the characters themselves — the usher, the sub-sub — and why Melville bothered with them at all.  He uses the usher and sub-sub as archetypes of sadness, loneliness, and radically proscribed living.  The usher, consumptive and “pale,” dusts his books with a handkerchief “mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world.”  Brilliant, that “mockingly,” those repeated “all”s: the sick schoolteacher will never go anywhere, never see any of those nations represented on his handkerchief.  The narrator is rather more harsh to the librarian, dismissing him as a “grubworm,” a “poor devil,” “hopeless, sallow.”  Worse, to a librarian, is the cutting advice: “Give it up, Sub-Subs!  For by how much the more pains ye take to please the world, by so much the more shall ye for ever go thankless!”  These are lost souls, probably as given to “hypos” as Ishmael himself, subsuming their selves in quests for knowledge — dismissed by the narrator as fruitless attempts to “please the world.”

But the etymologies and the extracts are there, chosen by Melville or Ishmael or someone in between depending on how we choose to read the metafiction; and these too contribute to the overture.  In their variety and excess and scope — etymologies from Hebrew to “Erromangoan,” extracts from the Bible to sea shanties — they highlight the various perspectives on the whale that Melville will employ to advance his theme, and give a sense of his ambition (and/or mania).  I posit that they are as carefully chosen, rigorously arranged, and pregnant with meaning as any musical overture and as the narrative itself, when viewed in conjunction with that narrative.

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