The Carpenter Does as He Does

May 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading (yes, still): Moby-Dick.

Reading next: A Whaler’s Dictionary by Dan Beachy-Quick and Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky.

So, yes, all right, I’ve been grossly lax in posting about one of my favorite books.  There’s never any lack of fodder with Melville, only lack of time and effort.  I’ve been the victim/perpetrator of both, I’m afraid.  And so here I sit, nearly done with the novel after having taken a ridiculous amount of time to get through a book I’ve previously read, with a few measly posts to my name.

I do have plans to write two longer posts after I’ve finished — one Ishmael-centric, one Ahab- — but for now, I’ll ease back in with a little mash note to one of my favorite tertiary characters, and another feature of the book I’d forgotten about: the carpenter, who appears on the scene only in the frantic final quarter of the novel, in chapter 106.

Melville contrives to introduce the carpenter by explaining that Ahab’s ivory leg “received a half-splintering shock” in a previous incident, and Ahab was cautious about his leg since some mysterious accident shortly before the Pequod sailed had “displaced” his former peg so badly that it had “all but pierced his groin” (kibble for academics, that).  And so the carpenter’s set to work making him a new one.

Here’s the gist of Melville’s lengthy introduction to the carpenter:

For nothing was this man more remarkable, than for a certain impersonal stolidity as it were; impersonal, I say; for it so shaded off into the surrounding infinite of things, that it seemed one with the general stolidity discernible in the whole visible world…. Yet was this half-horrible stolidity in him, involving, too, as it appeared, an all-ramifying heartlessness;— yet was it oddly dashed at times, with an old, crutch-like, antediluvian, wheezing humorousness….  He was a stript abstract; an unfractioned integral; uncompromised as a new-born babe; living without premeditated reference to this world or the next…. he did not seem to work so much by reason or by instinct, or simply because he had been tutored to it… but merely by a kind of deaf and dumb, spontaneous literal process.  He was a pure manipulator; his brain, if he had ever had one, must have early oozed along into the muscles of his fingers….

Yet… [he] was, after all, no mere machine of an automaton.  If he did not have a common soul in him, he had a subtle something that somehow anomalously did its duty….  And this it was, this same unaccountable, cunning life-principle in him; this it was, that kept him a great part of the time soliloquizing; but only like an unreasoning wheel, which also hummingly soliloquizes…

This complicated, ambiguous introduction (which, trust me, is even more complicated and ambiguous in full, as much is when Melville hurries to his conclusion) leads to three major tasks for the carpenter: crafting Ahab’s leg, building Queequeg’s coffin, and converting that coffin into a waterproof life-preserver.  Much as he does in his introduction, through these tasks he partakes, by degrees, of association with God the ultimate builder and shaper; with death and the darker side of eternity; and with Christ, the carpenter who converts death into life.  But there are also hints of the carpenter (and his partner-in-creation, the blacksmith) as a demiurge, automaton, or industrialized worker.  In this, he’s a sort of Bartleby — except that he would always prefer to do whatever’s asked of him.  (Interesting to think what might’ve happened to Bartleby had he shipped on a whaler, preferring not to do any of the thousand odd jobs asked of him.)

The demiurge and automaton aspects are interesting, indeed, and also potentially related.  Because the carpenter is constantly muttering to himself, he can become a kind of mouthpiece for whatever Melville would like to point out through his work: the relationship between dead matter and living beings, the mysteriousness of the workings of the universe.  (When the carpenter’s asked by Ahab why he’s sealing Queequeg’s coffin — accused of being “unprincipled as the gods, and as much of a jack-of-all-trades” — he responds, “But I do not mean anything, sir.  I do as I do.”)  Through this muttering, he becomes something like one of the Egyptian statues (or, to unbelievers, hoax-automata) through which the immaterial gods speak — the immaterial god in this case being Melville.  And he also bears some relation to the malevolent demiurge of Gnosticism — a mad god, muttering to himself about his power, but able only to shape, of limited power but convinced of his omnipotence.

But this partakes a little of what I want to talk about in connection to both Ishmael and Ahab, so I’ll stop there.  To be continued…

The Preoccupied Text

October 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

Reading next: Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter.

The most surprising thing about this book isn’t the erotica, or the range of genres and voices employed; that’s always somewhat startling in a 19th-century work, but it’s really par for the course in the Boccaccio-Chaucer-1001 Nights stories-within-stories tradition.  What’s surprising about Potocki’s book, at least to me, is its self-consciousness, its reflexivity, its — dare I say it? — its metafictional tendencies, and its occasional seemingly contemporary sensibilities.

These moments can be hard to track, and may be an effect of translation as much as content.  However, there must be something undeniably modern in a passage like this, from the end of the tenth day, as van Worden is puzzling over the strange way that a story seems to apply to his own situation: “The bell for dinner sounded.  The cabbalist was not at the table.  Everyone seemed preoccupied to me because I was preoccupied myself.”

Everyone seemed preoccupied to me because I was preoccupied myself. Couldn’t that be Fitzgerald, Carver, or even a Dylan lyric?  That anxiety, disaffectedness, alienation?  That projection of inner turmoil onto environment?  They rattled me, those flat, modern sentences, coming as they did after the retelling of a 17th-century religious parable/spook story.  This juxtaposition itself seemed further evidence of a rather jaded, modern sensibility; evidence that the history of literature is much weirder, more tangled, and idiosyncratic than its presentation in survey courses; evidence that seeming historically inevitable, societally molded progressions are often more like cycles of discovery, rediscovery, recycling, affiliations among fellow thinkers.  (Call it the Tristram Shandy hypothesis.)  The passage, and others like it, seemed a window onto the mysterious Potocki: losing himself in his maze of stories and characters, eminently preoccupied, unable to connect with others.  Facing a quandary, perhaps, about the need for entertainment and the need for human contact.

It’s a very flat work, emotionally.  I am uncertain how conscious of this Potocki was, or whether he cared.  Compared to Boccaccio or Chaucer, certainly, Potocki evinces much less concern or compassion for his characters and much more concern for his structure, for the mapping of his narratives and the relationships among the work, the author, and the reader.  There is an ongoing motif in the framing narrative of characters coyly voicing the concerns Potocki feels the reader (and perhaps he himself) has about the direction the book is taking.  Much of this Potocki works rather brilliantly into the romantic subplot between Rebecca/Laura, the caballist’s daugher, and Velasquez the geometer (of whom I’ll write at more length later).  At the end of the 28th day, Velasquez complains that the stories-within-stories that the gypsy chief Pandesowna is telling have become impossible to follow, and, even though he’s hearing rather than reading the stories, he states,

“It is a veritable labyrinth.  I had always thought that novels and other works of that kind should be written in several columns like chronological tables.”

“You are right,” said Rebecca….  “That would no doubt clarify the story.”

After Velasquez clarifies that he wishes the stories would be presented more systematically and logically, Rebecca replies: “Yes, indeed….  Continual surprises don’t keep one’s interest in the story alive.  One can never foresee what will happen subsequently.”  After one more dig, van Worden realizes “that Rebecca was making fun of all of us.”  The author takes the last word here; but at the end of the 35th day, with its four layers of tales, Velasquez the geometer states, “I was right to foresee that the stories of the gypsy would get entangled one with another….  I hope the gypsy will tell us what became of fair Ines.  But if he interpolates yet another story, I’ll fallout with him…  Meanwhile I don’t believe that our storyteller will be coming back this evening.”  He is not refuted.  In these passages, Potocki performs the neat trick of sympathizing with and challenging his readers.  Potocki seems keenly aware of the “level of reader annoyance” (I seem to recall DFW using the phrase, as applied by an editor to himself) for which he is aiming, and which he thinks the interest of the work can withstand.

There are many more examples of these metafictional flourishes; the convenient summoning and dismissal or departure of the Wandering Jew, and the discussion of same, form another fascinatingly self-conscious thread, especially in its play with the supernatural and listeners’ (and readers’) attitude toward it.  But more on that shortly.  Another simple but telling example: the continuation of the gypsy chief’s tale with the phrase “the gypsy, having nothing else to do, continued his story as follows.”  Having nothing else to do.  Does Potocki intend his metafiction and modernism as avant-garde gestures and comments on his society, his self?  Or does he have nothing else to do, and amuse himself by complicating his narrative, even to the point of talking back to himself?  Part of the attraction and the frustration of reading historical works is the difficulty of grasping the mind behind the work — their frame of reference, the culture and society and family and history and canon to which they are responding.  Potocki is clearly and explicitly writing in many traditions here, and responding to them, but it is hard to find the motivations behind those responses.

Head in a Pot, Heart on a Plate: The Fourth Day

June 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

We’re under the dominion of Filostrato, the tortured lover, on the fourth day, and he’s insistent that the stories told be tragedies: love ending unhappily, the more cruelly the better. It’s the most interesting day so far in the interaction of its ruler to the stories told, and in the interjection of the teller into his or her story.

The day starts off with a surprise: Boccaccio tells a story of his own, addressing himself to “dearest ladies” just as his ten often do in introducing their stories. He’s responding to critics of the earlier stories, and my cheapo edition doesn’t say anything about the dissemination of the text to explain why this step would have been taken in the middle of the work, or if this was likely a preemptive measure by Boccaccio responding to anticipated criticism (which seems plausible, given how raunchy things got on the third day). What’s remarkable is that Boccaccio is responding to the charge that he’s too fond of women (and, by extension, sex), unseemly in a man of his age. He is, he says, “secure in the knowledge that no reasonable person will deny that I and other men who love you are simply doing what is natural.” I’ll hope to find out more about this.

It’s an odd introduction to this day, in that, while Boccaccio remains defiant in his own voice, the stories Filostrato demands are brutal in their punishment of lovers. It is made clear that Filostrato is enamored of one of the women in the group, but feels spurned by them or unable to declare his feelings; through stories of tragic love, he seeks to “feel one or two dewdrops descend on the fire that rages within me.” He scolds Pampinea, the second storyteller, for daring to tell a mostly comic story in an attempt to lighten things up. (She’s defended by Boccaccio, in the introduction to her story: Pampinea, he says, knew that “her own feelings were a better guide than the king’s words to the mood of her companions.”) Everyone else — except Dioneo, of course — falls in line, telling the worst story they can think of. In terms of straightforward plot development, it’s the best use of the framing device so far: we search for clues to the object of Filostrato’s passion in the comments before and after stories, in his reactions to them, in the conclusion (when Filostrato sings a song and one of the ladies is said to blush).

In the tales themselves, things get really bad. These are very earthy, bloody stories, of people screwing around and getting killed for it. There’s a lot of dismemberment, a lot of body parts, culminating in Filostrato’s own story, the final tragedy of the day, in which a husband kills his wife’s lover (his former best friend), cuts out his heart, and serves it to her at supper.

Two of the more mysterious stories, the fifth and six, seem very much like folklore embellished by Boccaccio. Both pivot on dreams. Filomena’s story, the fifth, tells of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. Lisabetta’s brothers secretly kill Lorenzo for bedding her; he appears to her in a dream, telling her how he was killed and where he was buried. She digs up his body, cuts off his head, and puts it in a pot, using it as fertilizer for a basil plant watered by her tears. Her brothers discover this and take her beloved plant away from her. This, we are told, is the story behind a popular song about a villain stealing a pot of herbs. Okaaay.

Panfilo continues the dream motif, in a very strange way. He tells a strangely anticlimactic story in which two lovers both have a dream of impending doom. Andreuola dreams of she and her lover, Gabriotto, having sex in their usual place, a beautiful garden; but then — and I wonder how many different ways this has been translated — “she seemed to see a dark and terrible thing issuing from his body, the form of which she could not make out.” It somehow takes Gabriotto below the ground, never to return. As it turns out, Gabriotto had a dream the same night, in which he captures a doe. As it sleeps with its head upon his chest, “a coal-black greyhound appeared as if from nowhere, starving with hunger and quite terrifying to look upon.” The greyhound starts eating him, gnawing to his heart, “which it appeared to tear out and carry off in its jaws.”

I’m impressed by Boccaccio the horror writer. These are terrific depictions of dreams: I found the strange dark force from Gabriotto’s body, and this starving greyhound, remarkably effective images, things that ring the true tone of nightmare logic. But it’s weird what Panfilo does with them: the next time the lovers meet, Gabriotto dies from a taste of a poisoned sage plant, then Andreuola dies of the same cause in the process of defending herself from an accusation of murder. Turns out there was a giant poisonous toad at the root of this sage plant, poisoning it with his breath. Whaaa? Panfilo said that the dreams in this story would be prophetic, and they are, in the loose way of presaging death: but the sage-plant plot element seems weirdly out of place. There’s something very cryptic, emblematic, and folkloric in this story.

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