The Melvillean Context of The Art of Fielding

March 11, 2012 § 3 Comments

Just finished: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach.

Reading next: Plays, Poems, and Prose, by J. M. Synge.

With all due modesty, if I had not heard about and purchased a copy of The Art of Fielding, the American publishing industry may as well have thrown up its hands and stopped trying.  This is a novel by a cofounder of the Franzen-approved journal n+1, with the following keywords appearing in just about every review, blurb, or synopsis: Melvillebaseballcollege, Wisconsin.  Seriously: if I didn’t buy this, literary marketers would really have needed to go back to the drawing board.

The Melvillean context is both overt and covert, operating as plot element, allusion, and deep thematic dialogue.  Melville’s work is the atmosphere of the book, the water in which its characters swim.  The book is set at the small Wisconsin liberal-arts school Westish College.  A stir is caused there in the 1960s when an undergraduate named Guert Affenlight discovers a manuscript of a (fictional) lost speech by Herman Melville given on his (fictional) second trip to the Great Lakes in 1880.  The commotion provokes the administration to change the school’s mascot from the Sugar Maples to the Harpooners, and to erect a statue of Melville looking out at Lake Michigan.  Further, Affenlight is inspired by the discovery to devote his life to literary study, and has returned to present-day Westish as its president.  He published an acclaimed work on the homosexual/homosocial content of Moby-Dick entitled The Sperm-Squeezers.  Plus, the college bar is named Bartleby’s.

I appreciate that Harbach resisted the inevitable urge to write another retelling of Moby-Dick, or to make his characters one-to-one reincarnations of the principles of that book, or to simply “ruminate” on the work as so many books have already done.  Instead there are a number of interesting resonances between the books, echoes of themes and scenes from the great book, with virtually every character finding his or her life echoing something of the experience of Ahab’s crew.  Duads reminiscent of the great relationships that form the core of Moby-Dick are central to The Art of Fielding: Ishmael-Queequeg (Skrimshander-Owen), Ishmael-Ahab (Skrimshander-Schwartz, Pella-David), Starbuck-Ahab (Skrimshander-Schwartz, later), Ahab-Pip (Affenlight-Owen), Ahab-Fedallah (Cox-Schwartz, Schwartz-the Harpooners), Melville-Hawthorne (Affenlight-Owen, Pella-Schwartz).

What there is not — or not much of, anyway — is a white whale.  If there is a white whale, each character has their own, but honestly, I don’t think any of these characters would describe themselves as obsessed with one particular thing, one trauma or nemesis holding them back.  This is an interesting reading of Moby-Dick, implying that the relationship between Ahab and the whale was never the most important part of the book, and not most importantly about revenge.  It is, instead, about Ahab’s unhealthy relationship to his past and inability to move into the future, as most of these characters struggle with this same problem.

Problems of depression, monomania, desire, homelessness, and autonomy crop up for nearly every character.  There’s Skrimshander’s preternatural harpooner’s grace turned crippling self-consciousness turned Pip-like shell-shock and isolation.  Schwartz’s orphanhood, deep love (and buried desire to never leave) of his adopted Westish home, obsessive quest to win a national championship, and the broken-down legs, destined to leave him with virtual pegs, that stem from that quest.  Pella’s complicated Ishmaelism, her combination of depression, desire to lose herself in work, love of personal freedom born of former self-imposed oppression, and impulse to flee a home.  Owen’s expansive calm, his ostensible misfit/Other nature (a mixed-race homosexual) broadening into Buddha-like calm and detachment mixed with deep compassion.  Affenlight’s irresistible and unexpected desire, and his questioning of his lifelong, self-imposed batchelor nature.

(A lengthy aside, if I may: I find the Affenlight-Owen relationship troubling, in a way that, say, the Ishmael-Queequeg relationship never is, or would be, were its homosexuality made explicit.  The affair is one of my big gripes with the book, especially in the characterization of Owen.  I always find it hard to empathize with teacher-student, March-December relationships of this sort.  Harbach does his best to make clear that Owen, the younger member of this duad, is very much in control — too much so, I felt.   Owen’s characterization veers dangerously close to “magical negro” or, rather, “magical gay mulatto” territory; it’s sometimes hard to remember that he’s supposed to be an undergraduate when he is so self-aware, so sweet, so calm, so wise.  But real people aren’t that way.  There is good reason, I think, that these relationships are cause for real concern on college campuses: the dynamics of power and control are just so out of whack, so prone to abuse.  It shows a real lack of self-control on the part of Affenlight; a real lack of foresight about the consequences of such an affair.  And yet Harbach seems to treat the affair as purely good, and the concerns of others about it as puritanical or retrograde.  When Harbach, through Affenlight, speculates that the relationship would be overlooked and even tacitly approved were it heterosexual, he is simply wrong.  No one would (or at least, no one should) condone a college president having an affair with any student.  It’s insane.)

But there is also the camaraderie and competition of the Harpooners, from golden-boy Starblind to little-brother Izzy to pot-bellied partier Rick O’Shea, and the complicated dynamics by which individuals with their own goals can form a team, or a crew, and can do wonderful or horrible things together.  The homosociality of sports, as of whaling, is in evidence here (of course, there is also the possibility of the homosexual, present here especially in an early comic scene in which the reader is led to believe that Henry is hearing gay sex in his bedroom, when he is actually hearing Schwartz giving macho encouragement to a weightlifter).

Much of the Melville-thread running throughout the book leads to its coda, which I will discuss in another post.  Honestly, as much as I enjoyed and felt enriched by the Melvillean context of the book, I think it’s a better book about baseball.  And I’ll write about that next.

Hypochondria and the Gothic Imagination

January 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Villette.

There was a reading and reception for Poe’s 200th birthday yesterday at the Duke library — a fine event, with some exceptionally good readings of six Poe works (three prose, three poetry).  Ariel Dorfman, who read “The Cask of Amontillado,” made a great point about how appropriate it was that Poe lived and died in Baltimore, the dividing point between the cold, rational North and the Gothic South, just as his works feature both some of the first detective stories and some of the most overheated Gothic prose ever.

Plus I’ve been reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy very slowly, as bedtime reading, for the last few months.  It is really quite a fantastic read — a page or two at a time is perfect, since the whole book’s basically one big digression after another anyway.  And it has me thinking about all the things we’ve meant by “melancholy,” down through the centuries, and why and how the word and concept persist.

So: let’s talk about mental illness.  Specifically, hypochondria.  Ishmael’s famous “hypos.”  (And the comparison is illuminating: when Ishmael felt suicidal, he was able to run off to sea.  Lucy had no such option; her short trip across the Channel was harrowing enough, and then, if she wanted to keep a measure of independence,  she had to find some place to do respectable work — viz. the passage on p. 329-331 in which Lucy reveals to the de Bassompierres that she is a teacher.)

We now use “hypochondria” to refer to the condition of constant fear of illness; the meaning in the nineteenth century was similar, but referred more to low spirits, melancholy, a depression-like state, with no apparent cause.  I am not a psychiatrist, so I use the following terms as a layman, but what we now call bipolarity and depression seem to have been considered symptomatic of hypochondria.  Oh, and hallucinations could also be a symptom, in some cases.

Of course, you can find Gothic and/or Victorian attitudes toward psychology and mental illness discussed ad nauseam; and you can even find studies of Brontë’s writing and the psychology of the time in books like this.  It can all seem fairly played out.  But personally, I never seem to get tired of the subject: the time was the crossroads between so much superstition and speculation and so much new science, thought, and experimentation.  That pre-Freudian century contains so much potential energy in the enthusiasms for phrenology, spiritualism, evolution, utopian thinking and living.  Plus, no matter how much Brontë is contextualized and demythologized, Charlotte really does seem a special case, and Lucy Snowe — well, Lucy Snowe’s something else entirely.

(A crabby aside: the academic party line now seems to be contextualizing and historicizing the Brontës, products of their time and environment and all that.  I hear this from profs, I see it in books and articles.  Now, I know the Brontës have been considered these utter anomalies, writing their wild imaginings in the hinterlands, but must we really insist that no one is special, that there’s nothing strange or amazing about these sisters’ writings, that they’re just products of their historical moment((s), I’m sure the lit profs would add) like all the others?  Can we keep the humanities at least a little non-scientific, please, and savor something that smacks of miracle?  I know, I know: no one’s getting tenure savoring a miracle.  End crabby aside.)

Hypochondria pops up over and over again in Villette, and there are times when Lucy certainly does seem clinically depressed or manic.  The writing at the times of depression can be quite heart-wrenchingly sad and beautiful.  Chapter 15, “The Long Vacation,” when Lucy becomes desperately lonely and resorts to a Catholic priest’s confessional, and the beginning of chapter 24, as she suffers a seven-week silence from Dr. John, are especially memorable.  But the two episodes most directly touched by hypochondria (so far, at least) are the appearances of the ghost-nun and the king of Labassecour.

The nun, a legend of Madame Beck’s school, appears to Lucy in chapter 22, and the circumstances are quite intriguing.  Lucy has received her first letter from Dr. John, and read it in the garret, and been made very happy by its warmth and “good-nature.”  (Lucy, that tricksy narrator, is coy on this throughout, but I do think she is in a fairly conventional kind of love with Dr. John, even if she doesn’t admit it to herself.)  “The present moment had no pain, no blot, no want; full, pure, perfect, it deeply blessed me.” Then we get a remarkable run of paragraphs — I love how the textures and rhythms of this passage telegraph their Gothic-ness but nevertheless powerfully build suspense:

Are there wicked things, not human, which envy human bliss?  Are there evil influences haunting the air, and poisoning it for man?  What was near me?…

Something in that vast solitary garret sounded strangely.  Most surely and certainly I heard, as it seemed, a solitary foot on that floor: a sort of gliding out from the direction of the black recess haunted by the malefactor cloaks.  I turned: my light was dim; the room was long — but, as I live! I saw in the middle of that ghostly chamber a figure all black or white; the skirts straight, narrow, black; the head bandaged, veiled, white.

Say what you will, reader — tell me I was nervous or mad; affirm that I was unsettled by the excitement of that letter; declare that I dreamed: this I vow — I saw there — in that room — on that night — an image like — A NUN.

Dr. John soon diagnoses this as an effect of hypochondria, and I, at least at first blush, am inclined to agree.  The image of a silent, celibate woman — one of the dreaded Catholics, no less — appearing to Lucy after a glimmer of romantic hope is simply too powerful to resist as a figure out of her own mind.  The nun reappears to Lucy thereafter, and there remains some degree of Gothic mystery about whether the nun actually is a ghost.

But turn it around: what if it’s not a phantasm of sexual fear and frustration or some long-lost relative of Lucy’s, but a bloody ghost?  What if it’s an affront to Reason?  There is, after all, the remarkable dialogue between Lucy and her Reason on p. 265-6 (beginning at no. 19 in the e-text), and the ensuing castigation of the “hag” Reason to the glorification of Imagination and Hope. What if the nun is exactly what Lucy Snowe needs to acknowledge as the reason behind her impulse to flee to the continent — the missing (or repressed) part of herself?

The other remarkable passage on hypochondria is Lucy’s observation of the king, sitting in the royal box at a concert Lucy attends with Dr. John, and her recognition in him of a kindred spirit:

There sat a silent sufferer — a nervous, melancholy man.  Those eyes had looked on the visits of a certain ghost — had long waited the comings and goings of that strangest spectre, Hypochondria.  Perhaps he saw her now on that stage, over against him, amidst all that brilliant throng.  Hypochondria has that wont, to rise in the midst of thousands — dark as Doom, pale as Malady, and well-nigh strong as Death.

And but so here it is again, in another form: the great white shark of pain.

The Great White Shark of Pain

October 20, 2008 § 3 Comments

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

Remember The Raw Shark Texts, that book I told you to read a couple of months ago?  Well, here’s a strand of its source code.

Other than that, I don’t really feel like saying much about this; I’d forgotten about its existence; it is very sad and terrible and scary in a number of ways, but reading it also felt strangely therapeutic.  Some small measure of explanation, perhaps, or at least my assumption thereof.  (And it is my assumption; this section is from Kate Gompert’s point-of-view, mostly.)  But it felt like DFW telling me how it was, I guess, and horrible as it is I was glad to hear it from him.  I hope it did him good, and I think it helps us understand how maybe he hung on for longer than he thought he could.

Hal isn’t old enough yet to know that… numb emptiness isn’t the worst kind of depression.  That dead-eyed anhedonia is but a remora on the ventral flank of the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain.  Authorities term this condition clinical depression or involutional depression or unipolar dysphoria.  Instread of just an incapacity for feeling, a deadening of soul…. Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.

It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it.  It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence.  It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels.  It is a nausea of the cells and soul.  It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself…. Its emotional character… is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.

It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed….  Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution.  It is a hell for one….

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square.  And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing.  The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise…. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.

-David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, p. 695-6

David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

September 14, 2008 § 3 Comments

Too soon. Too soon. Too soon.

The news was horrifying in a lot of ways, not least of which the method. All of us who loved his work are torn between wanting to know why and not wanting to know anything at all, I think. I’m sure it wasn’t meant as a grand gesture, though. I think we can all agree on that. It’s sad and terrible and I can’t imagine what kind of pain he must have been in, to do this.

While I’m going to reread the last complete novel we’re ever going to get from DFW because it’s the only way I can think of to mourn and celebrate — and because I’ve put it off too long already — it’s two other pieces that my mind keeps going back to. One is “The Depressed Person.” It is so hard to admit that understanding, and empathizing, and expressing, are not the same as overcoming. It’s hard to admit that someone who has shown such a capacity for, and commitment to, all of these things, could commit the ultimate selfish act. Again: what agony he must have been in.

The other is “Up, Simba,” just because of the timing, I suppose. It has been such a shitty month, on a national level. And DFW must have been so disappointed in Senator McCain — in all of us. And I can’t believe I’m never going to hear another word from the one thinker on politics, governance, civic duty, that I actually trusted.

He was one of our great writers, one of our great thinkers. And now he’s dead, and I’m looking at the shelf and his section is far too small. Let’s read him, and remember.

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