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…

Unconquered to the Last?

September 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser.

Had it only been a gale instead of a calm, gladly would we have charged upon it with our gallant bowsprit, as with a stout lance in rest; but, as with mankind, this serene, passive foe — unresisting and irresistible — lived it out, unconquered to the last.  -Melville, White-Jacket

Millhauser’s story “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman” reminded me of that passage, which had itself reminded me when I first read it of “Bartleby, the Scrivener”: the calm “I would prefer not to.”  Of course, the ambiguity of Bartleby’s stand is legendary: it’s a very open question whether he died “unconquered to the last,” firm in his refusal, or died a broken automaton, something less than a human being, or somewhere in between.  But Melville’s statement about the gale here did first bring to mind Bartleby — whatever he might have meant to Melville, he certainly has taken on heroic stature, or at least a kind of grandeur through boredom.

And Bartleby has stayed on my mind after reading Millhauser’s story.  It’s a powerful story, itself like a calm at sea in its implacability and plainness.  The only truly unusual rhetorical flash comes from the use of first-person plural in the opening, which dissolves into a somewhat generic singular.  And it leaves you with the dual mysteries of what exactly happened to Elaine Coleman — who disappears from her apartment with no trace of abduction or escape — and how we should feel about this disappearance.

The story itself conveys an almost overwhelming sadness, and it is tempting to sympathize with the narrator when he finds himself, and the rest of his community, culpable for her vanishing, and for her apparently lonely existence as a wallflower, by their incuriosity about her.  But of course, as with Bartleby, there is another way to see it: perhaps it was a heroic act, this vanishing.  Perhaps it was the ultimate expression of Elaine Coleman’s contempt for her degraded world.  Perhaps it was not a fate imposed on her by the absence of community interest, but a fate chosen, cultivated, and finally acted upon by someone who would prefer not to be seen.  (You could argue that the first-person plural supports this argument, acting as a kind of homogeneous, mundane chorus — “For days we spoke of nothing else” — against which Elaine’s act seems even more radical.)

Ultimately, I think this — and, to a lesser extent, the depiction of Bartleby as tragic hero — is a rather strained interpretation.  Both Melville and Millhauser see the need to be serenely, passively “unconquered to the last” as unspeakably sad.  Bartleby is something singular: a cipher, but a necessary one, whose stand has a kind of meaning and merit that is made apparent even in the story’s bleakness and the pointlessness of his death.  It is possible to legitimately make the argument for Bartleby as a symbol of passive resistance.

Elaine Coleman, on the other hand, is rather like Eleanor Rigby; the story gets much of its strength from her status as a kind of ghost flickering at the edges of the narrator’s vision, as he tries to remember her, incidents he might have shared with her, times he might have engaged her but did not.  It is a kind of horror story, but a different kind than “Bartleby”: to me, at least, it feels more personal.  There’s something horrifying about the idea of being this kind of marginal figure in even your own story — the kind of person that could vanish for lack of popular interest.  I think Millhauser tried very hard to avoid being condescending to his absent creation, Elaine.  Later stories in the collection show the author has deep interest in and sympathy for the Elaines of the world.  It’s hard to avoid being maudlin about lonely people; hard for many people to understand that loneliness is not necessarily thrust upon everyone who lives alone, or that some people prefer not to be sociable (there’s that phrase again).

(Sidebar: is “Eleanor Rigby” maudlin?  I think many people find it so, maybe mostly because there’s the intimation that Eleanor’s a spinster; I don’t know, I still find it more heartbreaking than maudlin.  Hard to argue against it being at least a little condescending, though.)

A Chapter for Our Times

December 19, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Dickens seems angrier in this book than in the others I’ve read (although he certainly has his moments in all of them, and especially in Bleak House).  I hope I’ll write a little something about hypocrisy — one of the major targets of ire — and Dickens’s irony in this book a little later, but for now let’s focus on one of the least hypocritical characters in the book: Jonas Chuzzlewit, who is, at least, a forthright scoundrel.

In chapter 11 we get a grotesque little domestic scene, with Anthony Chuzzlewit and his son, Jonas, entertaining the Misses Pecksniff.  The Chuzzlewits are two of Dickens’s monsters of commerce, obsessed with business.  They are especially fond of ill-gotten gains.

We are also introduced to one Mr. Chuffey, an ancient clerk in the Chuzzlewit’s employ.  Chuffey intrigues me as a kind of anti-Bartleby: both seem to be ciphers, blanks reduced in the drudgery of office work to a single characteristic, but whereas Melville’s scrivener would prefer not to do nearly anything asked of him, including anything asked of him by his employer, Chuffey is responsive only to the suggestions and commands of his employer, Anthony Chuzzlewit.  If anyone but Anthony asks him if he is ready for dinner, he either does not or chooses not to hear them; if Anthony suggests a joke is funny, Chuffey finds it hilarious.  He’s a human being who’s forgotten how to be, having become so used to someone else deciding for him.  Whereas Bartleby, the consummate misanthrope, preferred not to, Chuffey prefers to, losing himself in the opposite direction.

It is, as the title of this post says, a chapter for our times.  Jonas loves to abuse this old man, calling him “Stupid” and “Old Chuffey” and showing off his wit in cracking jokes at the clerk’s expense.  This figure lurks in the background of the scene in the Chuzzlewits’ den, choking on his food as Jonas “entertains” the Pecksniffs, attempting to woo them both simultaneously.  Jonas also scorns his father, calling him “ghost” and dropping unsubtle hints that the old man has hung around for too long and should probably feel free to die soon so Jonas can have his money.  Of this, his father approves, as signaling his son’s proper attitude toward the world of business.  (These interactions make me think of Jonas as the ancestor of Walker and Texas Ranger, the sons of Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, with their threats to come after their grandfather Chip “like a spider monkey” if he gets in their way.)

But this has been a week of $50 billion dollar Ponzi schemes, and a budget deficit nearing 14 digits, and very smart people like Paul Krugman pointing out that a huge chunk of our economy for the last decade has been more or less a sham dedicated to gigantic personal bonuses based on imaginary dividends, a massive theft from investors.  It’s been an unjolly week.  So here’s an exchange between Anthony and Jonas:

‘You may overdo anything, my darlings.  You may overdo even hypocrisy.  Ask Jonas!’

‘You can’t overdo taking care of yourself,’ observed that hopeful gentleman with his mouth full.

‘Do you hear that, my dears?’ cried Anthony, quite enraptured.  ‘Wisdom, wisdom!  A good exception, Jonas.  No.  It’s not easy to overdo that.’

‘Except,’ whispered Mr. Jonas to his favourite cousin, ‘except when one lives too long.  Ha, ha!…’

‘There’s another thing that’s not easily overdone, father,’ remarked Jonas, after a short silence.

‘What’s that?’ asked the father; grinning already in anticipation.

‘A bargain,’ said the son.  ‘Here’s the rule for bargains.  “Do other men, for they would do you.”  That’s the true business precept.  All others are counterfeits.’

It’s the refutation of any goodness in the world that Dickens so disdains.  This is the worldview that leads to monstrous unfettered capitalism.  When Alan Greenspan seemed so shaken by the utter lack of regard for shareholders and reputation in the financial services industry, I think this is what he was responding to: the shortsighted nihilism of its leaders.  Unchecked greed is, in the end, a horrible long-term business strategy, unless you only care about your own personal paycheck and making enough money before the bubble bursts that it doesn’t really matter to you that your company, your industry, your country has gone bankrupt.

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