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.

Bloodlust and Burning Love

March 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Coriolanus.

Reading next: Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems.

Perhaps it goes without saying, since he’s a tragic hero, but nevertheless: Caius Martius Coriolanus is one messed-up dude.  No matter how egregious your fatal flaw might be, though, no one gets messed up, much less dead, without a lot of help along the way.  And really, who better to help you along your way to a gruesome death at the hands of a bloodthirsty mob than your ambitious mother?

Volumnia’s the Lady Macbeth of this play, pushing her son to win glory and honor for his family on the battlefield and then in politics, by standing to become consul.  Coriolanus at least has the skill and inclination to perform amazing feats in war — though he’s a borderline berserker with little regard for tactical niceties.  Entering politics is something he has to be talked into, though, and Volumnia manages it.  It’s a bad idea.  It’s not in his skill set.  (He probably would’ve gotten away with it, though, if it weren’t for the newly appointed peoples’ tribunes.  Aside: it sometimes seems that our own government is composed mostly of people without the inclination for politics, and that in fact we’re looking for exactly the wrong sorts of people in our elections: those who actively scorn political processes and try to equate politics with bureaucracy and waste and faction, and therefore spend most of their time in politics trying not to let anything get done by exploiting the flaws in the system.  One of the most ingenious aspects of Obama’s campaign in 2008 was how he played both sides of this argument, explaining his dislike for bureaucracy and waste and faction but also making his case as a rational, level-headed participant who would operate efficiently in the political sphere.)

But she does talk him into it, and she is, in fact, even colder and more calculating than Lady Macbeth: she’s more concerned about his not embarrassing himself in combat than she is with his surviving battle unscathed (or at all).  You do get the sense, though, that she’s not just a stage mother or a striver.  When she saves Rome from her son at the end of the play, it kind of falls into place that she’s not just a fame-hungry monster, but also a consummate early Roman: republic before family.  Civic pride before flesh and blood.  Public honor before private grief.  Is the fact that the consummate early Romans were, in part,  fame-hungry monsters a big reason why they ended up ruled by Julius Caesar?  Well, sure, I’d guess.

It’s a weird relationship.  As in Lear, part of the weirdness comes from Volumnia’s widowhood and the utter lack of a mention of Coriolanus’ father.  Volumnia seems far more important to Coriolanus than his wife, who hardly ever speaks and whom Coriolanus never seems to consult for advice, sympathy, or much of anything.  It’s much more of a help-meet sort of relationship; there’s virtually nothing of maternal concern or even a sense of her age.

The fact is that there are two people in the play to whom Coriolanus seems to be married, and neither is his wife Virgilia.  Tullus Aufidius, the Volscian general, is his rival, and they are obsessed with defeating each other.  When Coriolanus comes to Aufidius to propose joining to sack Rome, though, in 4.5, we get this pretty amazing admission from Aufidius:

Know thou first,

I loved the maid I married; never man

Sighed truer breath.  But that I see thee here,

Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart

Than when I first my wedded mistress saw

Bestride my threshold.  Why, thou Mars, I tell thee

We have a power on foot, and I had purpose

Once more to hew thy target from thy brawn

Or lose mine arm for’t.  Thou has beat me out

Twelve several times, and I have nightly since

Dreamt of encounters ‘twixt thyself and me —

We have been down together in my sleep,

Unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat —

And waked half dead with nothing.

Shortly after, there’s this, from one of Aufidius’ servants: “Our general himself makes a mistress of him, sanctifies himself with’s hand, and turns up the white o’th’eye to his discourse.”  (For “turns up the white o’th’eye,” imagine the smitten damsel gazing up  at her valiant knight, batting her eyes.)  So, yes: the homoerotic elements of Roman military culture are in full force here.  However, Aufidius is important to Coriolanus as a perceived equal or near-equal: he seems to view nearly everyone else in the Roman military with either contempt or disregard.  But then comes Aufidius’ admission of admiration and love.  And very quickly, Coriolanus is treating Aufidius as just another subordinate, not as the equal partner Aufidius expected to be.  Affairs don’t last, and most don’t end well.

Fosco’s Theory of Relativity

November 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Woman in White.

My wife, Jaime, has been telling me to read this book for years and years.  Every time it comes up, she exclaims, “Count Fosco!” with this very particular mix of awe, terror, and delight.  She always says Fosco’s one of her all-time favorite villains.  So I knew something of what I was getting myself into.

But really, how do you prepare yourself for a morbidly obese Italian who looks like Napoleon and lets his pet white mice crawl all over his body, and seems to have his wife hypnotized and/or terrorized into being his mind-slave?  Not knowing yet where Collins is taking all of this (well, maybe having some inkling, but not knowing), I can say that already Fosco seems like a brilliant creation, the sort of extravagantly anti-realistic grotesque that is strange enough (and, in this case, fat enough) to somehow become real, to the reader: to impose his big, fat, weird reality on the world.  Like Napoleon, I suppose, or Hitler.

I’m sure there will be more opportunities to explore Fosco’s abundant oddity, but for now, let me just mention three things I’ve found most interesting, in the hundred or so pages since first meeting him.

1) Fosco seems to me to be a perfectly Victorian villain, in that his main tactics are an unfailing courtesy and an obsession with keeping up appearances of friendly society and warm familial bonds.  At every turn, when Percival Glyde threatens to ruin their plot by flying off the handle (again), Fosco smooths things over by apologizing for his hotheaded friend, by sympathizing with Laura’s and Marian’s sense of decency and decorum, and by insinuating that he values discretion and leisure above all else; that he’s a gentleman, in other words, and how could anyone dispute a Count’s claim to that?  You get the feeling that Fosco and Glyde will succeed (or come damned close) simply by Fosco’s smooth insistence on the impropriety of discussing the technicalities of life with ladies, and his being interesting enough to distract them from the matters at hand.  He’s a jujitsu master, in other words: absorbing and redistributing moral violence.  (Best Shakespearean comparison I can think of so far: part Lady Macbeth, part Iago.)  I wonder whether Collins intended him as a gross exaggeration of the sorts of wretchedly artificial relationships the Victorian English seemed to maintain with each other.  Part of me wonders whether he’s not Frederick Fairlie’s id unleashed and given agency.

2)  Speaking of morality, one of the more fascinating set pieces so far takes place in the “boat-house” on Glyde’s estate, when the entire party takes a break from a long morning stroll and finds itself embroiled in a discussion of whether “crimes cause their own detection.”  In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that Fosco takes the “interesting” side of the argument against Marian and Laura, arguing for a kind of moral relativism: “Here, in England, there is one virtue.  And there, in China, there is another virtue.”  Of course this would not fly, with either the ladies or with Collins’s readers: England’s virtue was the virtue, surely, in the Victorian Empire, on which the sun never set!

You get the sense that Fosco knows the stakes are very low, and therefore reveals some of his true feelings about the pointlessness of virtue — managing to make himself more fascinating to the ladies in the process, with this fine little piece of braggadocio (familiar now as the mating call of the Transgressive Academic): “I am a bad man, Lady Glyde, am I not?  I say what other people only think, and when all the rest of the world is in a conspiracy to accept the mask for the true face, mine is the rash hand that tears off the plump pasteboard, and shows the bare bones beneath.”

3)  Finally: am I crazy, or is there a fairly blatant homosexual subtext between Glyde and Fosco?  Laura’s confession to Marian seems to make clear that Glyde has never given her the slightest indication of his love or even lust for her; and in his “Man of Sentiment” episode, as Marian puts it, Fosco wears his dandiest clothes and indulges his aesthetic sense to the hilt, rhapsodizing on music, on the sunset, etc.  His status as a decadent Italian, his weird relationships with exotic pets, his unusual relationship with his wife, and his avowed sympathy for the feminine; Glyde’s seemingly complete lack of interest in sex with his (much younger, beautiful, apparently willing, at least at first) wife, his invitation to Count and Madame Fosco to join him on his honeymoon, and his constant submission to Fosco’s wishes; are these markers intended by Collins to send a message of homosexuality, or am I projecting 21st-century reading on a 19th-century work?  I always wonder, with Victorian novelists, how much of this sexual marking is conscious and how much is just submerged, or unconscious.  Either way: there seem to be some rather intricate things going on in this book with sex and gender, and I’ll probably need to address them in the next post.

So Many Names, So Few I Know

May 17, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño.

Jaime warned me that she’d never read a book with more characters than this one.  I’m starting to believe this wasn’t an exaggeration.

The first section of this book is an immersion in Latin American poetry and literary history; for someone like me, with little knowledge about Mexican or Latin American literary history, one of the challenges of this book is trying to sort out the real poets given fictional parts — the ones that are supposed to resonate in one way or another with educated readers — from the “purely” fictional poets, the ones created by Bolaño or at least not known to readers.  Given how much of the book so far is made up of discussions and mentions and critiques of these poets real and imaginary, I am somewhat amazed that an American publisher had the courage to publish this book, to expect us, the notoriously insular and xenophobic (not to mention vanishing and subliterate) American Reading Public, to care about this flood of narrative about Latin American poetry.

And yet the gist of all of these names is fairly clear: this is the diary of a young man, a young Mexican poet, casting off the shackles of academia to read whatever he wants, to try to live the life he thinks a poet should lead, to talk about poetry and receive recommendations for poets to read, poets he thinks he should already know but does not, poets others seem to take for granted as major figures but whom he’s never heard of.  Anyone who’s been in a literature class in college has had this experience, and anyone who’s actually been an English major has had it frequently.

But the names!  My God, the names!  Bolaño reminds me a lot of Melville at times, in his overindulgence in lists and names, although I’m sure Whitman is probably the more logical influence.  The most obvious example is the exegesis delivered by Ernesto San Epifanio in Garcia Madero’s November 22 entry. This section reminds me a lot of the famous “Cetology” chapter of Moby-Dick, which divided whales into groups by size like books.  Here, San Epifanio divides literature into sexuality by its form (novels are hetero, poetry homo), and subdivides poetry into many different subcultures: “faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs, and philenes,” according to the intent and the effect of the poetry.  (Whitman, if you’re wondering, is “a faggot poet.”)

Like “Cetology,” it is satirical; both works are attacking pedantry at some level.  In both works you get the sense that the author is very much in on the joke, recognizes the absurdity of these semantic systems they’ve created.  However, I’m not sure to what degree San Epifanio himself takes his labeling system seriously; he may be critiquing the splintering and ghettoization and mindless ideological following of the many schools of poetic practice, or he may be a part of that splintering and ghettoization.  He may not even know about the satirical content of his classification system; as a homosexual in the macho Mexican 1970s, and a founder of the “Homosexual Communist Party of Mexico,” he may just be trying to queer his literary heritage.

Whatever the case may be, this passage points out the excellent, subtle touch Bolaño seemed to have at letting his book work on multiple levels.  It is deceptively simple; it can also be deceptively boring at times.  But there’s always a lot going on, even in lists of names I need to feed to Google for verification of identity.

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