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…
March 14, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: VALIS, by Philip K. Dick.
Reading next: Against Nature (À Rebours), by J.-K. Huysmans, and Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, by S.S. Prawer.
VALIS is more or less the perfect book to read after Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, if I do say so myself. Like Schreber’s book, it’s a cosmology and exegesis, not primarily a narrative, entertainment, or memoir. Like Schreber’s book, the most interesting thing about it is the question of how seriously to take it. The question you keep asking yourself, when reading both books, is: Is this a joke? They’re batshit-crazy books.
Of course, there are different standards for VALIS. Schreber, by all indications, was mentally ill, and both telling the story of his imprisonment and explaining the nature of the universe as he felt it had been revealed to him. Dick was a novelist; his book was marketed as a novel; and despite the fact that the book is legendarily connected to the experience of “an invasion of [Dick’s] mind by a transcendentally rational mind” in 1974, it is (has to be) a fiction about madness, theology, reality. It’s kind of Memoirs… turned inside out.
And the book’s main character, Horselover Fat, does have a stint in an asylum, after his miraculously unsuccessful suicide attempt. Chapter 5, about this time, includes some great insights. My favorite part of the book might be Fat’s interactions with Dr. Stone, a fascinating character — a “healer,” Fat believes, but possibly a quack and unstable himself. Stone uses the unusual technique of simply believing his patients. Stone takes an interest in Fat’s obsession with Gnostic Christianity and his theory that time stopped, kind of, in 70 A.D.: that time since then has been a delusion. And as they discuss it, Fat seeks validity for one of his ideas. “‘You would know,’ Dr. Stone said, and then he said something that no one had ever said to Fat before. ‘You’re the authority,’ Dr. Stone said.”
Dr. Stone wasn’t insane: Stone was a healer. He held down the right job. Probably he had healed many people and in many ways. He adapted his therapy to the individual, not the individual to the therapy.
That’s an interesting idea. Most of the time we think that the problem with the seriously delusional — the schizophrenic, psychotic, what have you — is that they are too sure of their point of view. They are sure they know. This passage, in which Dr. Stone’s belief (real or feigned) in Fat’s theories is applauded as a therapeutic approach, seems to me to indicate that Dick really does want us to take Fat’s — the book’s — cosmology seriously. Because you do not encourage the delusional to persist in their delusion. Do you?
Here’s how Dick explains it, in one of the book’s best and most affecting passages:
They — note the “they” — paid Dr. Stone to figure out what had destroyed the patient entering the ward. In each case a bullet had been fired at him, somewhere, at some time, in his life. The bullet entered him and the pain began to spread out. Insidiously, the pain filled him up until he split in half, right down the middle. The task of the staff, and even of the other patients, was to put the person back together but this could not be done so long as the bullet remained. All that lesser therapists did was note the person split into two pieces and begin the job of patching him back into a unity; but they failed to find and remove the bullet…. Dr. Stone had a paranormal talent, like his paranormal Bach remedies which were a palpable hoax, a pretext to listen to the patient. Rum with a flower dipped into it — nothing more, but a sharp mind listening to what the patient said.
But as it turns out, Fat’s not healed after all. If he was, he wouldn’t exist anymore, as we find out later. (I think that “note the ‘they'” is PKD’s authorial interjection to tip us off to the fact: Fat’s/Dick’s persistent paranoia.) So where’s that leave us?
As a novel, I have to say the book’s a failure (not that any PKD fan’s going to give a damn what I think). It has about 50% too much going on: so many half-explained theories, overheated tracts on the nature of time and space, overreaching attempts to encompass too many very different ideas and religious systems in single symbols, muddled events. (In this, it also resembles Schreber’s book, which could also be mind-numbingly boring in its minutiae of the workings of an obviously delusional and incomprehensible worldview.)
However, as a document, as an artifact of a mind with a vast capacity for idea- and narrative-generation shucking its habits and trying something vast and self-consciously “important,” it’s fascinating. I do feel like lately, I keep harping on the narration of events rather than the events themselves. I hate to keep being so meta in my reading; but it happens to be the most interesting thing about these books, to me. I mean, I’m sure PKD would rather his readers took the opportunity to reflect on what they actually think about God, the existence of evil, and the connections between the religions of the world. I’m sure he’d rather we talk about reality and whether our experiences are not often delusional in one way or another.
But the fact is, this is a book in which Philip K. Dick is a character, and so is one Horselover Fat — “Horselover” being the meaning of “Philip” in Greek, and “Fat” meaning “Dick” in German. And it’s also a book in which Dick says, right up front, that he is Fat, but that he’s going to write as though he’s not. And near the end of the book, Fat is reabsorbed into Dick. Fat’s been a fiction all along, even in a fictional world. Dick has been writing about an alter ego, a fictional version of himself.
You can see the whole narrative of this book as a complex allegory on the creation of fictions — of narratives, of universes. VALIS is a term for a supposedly rational mind invading our irrational world, ruled by a “God” who thinks he’s the only god — a delusional god. Is Dick trying to break out, and break his readers out, of the delusion of being the one true “God” of their fictions? In other words, is the work self-consciously bogus — a hoax, like Stone’s, which really exists to listen and “believe”?
Near the end, Dick and Fat have become one and he and his friends have met the young girl Sophia (wisdom), who may be the “Savior.” The group believes that Sophia tells them that “The time had come when we no longer had to believe in any deity other than ourselves.” It’s wisdom shared in people, between people. Is Dick trying to help us see that truth exists in between — in the communication, not in the interpretation?