The Consumptive and the Sub-Sub

April 5, 2010 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, with The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, by Howard P. Vincent.

This is my third reading of the great novel, the first time in a ’40s Modern Library edition reproducing those gorgeous Rockwell Kent illustrations.  (N.B. If anyone ever wants to buy me a $20K present, the three-volume folio Lakeside Press edition in which the illustrations first appeared would be great.  My favorite book (as an object of art) of the 20th century.)  I should be forthright and say that M-D is probably my favorite novel.  You will not find objective critique or lamentations over length and difficulty here.  I unabashedly love this book.

I read it first in college (in the Norton edition, which really is the best way to first read it), and was immediately charmed by the “Etymology” and “Extracts” which appear before the main narrative.  I have ever since had a warm spot in my heart for these very weird textual appendages, which I’ve gone back and forth about considering as paratexts or as part of the narrative proper or as something in between.  I’d forgotten, however, that what originally charmed me about them was precisely their in-between nature: the miniature fictional narratives that are used to frame these long lists of epigrams.

These sections are most often dismissed as throat-clearing or simple Melvillean maximalism — they were shunted to an appendix at the back of the book in the first British edition, setting an unfortunate precedent which led to their being cut entirely from a number of editions — but there’s clearly more going on than that.  Each section can be read as a short short story about the “creator” of each section: the “late consumptive usher to a grammar school” and the “sub-sub-librarian,” respectively.  In my metafiction-besotted undergraduate days, I enjoyed speculating on whether the “I” in these character sketches was Melville, or Ishmael, or an unnamed editor, or none of the above.  I equally enjoyed how these sections highlighted the cetomania of both these characters and the ambiguous “I” discussing them, drawing us both on to and past the surface of the text to come.  That’s all still quite enjoyable and interesting, to me at least.  But on this reading, I’ve come to believe that the E&E sections are meant to function mostly as an overture, a passage introducing the motifs and methods to be used and fleshed out in the following symphony (or opera, if you prefer — which is the book more like?)

Howard Vincent’s book helped me see this: his emphasis on Melville’s theme of man’s isolation and search for self led me to reflect more on the characters themselves — the usher, the sub-sub — and why Melville bothered with them at all.  He uses the usher and sub-sub as archetypes of sadness, loneliness, and radically proscribed living.  The usher, consumptive and “pale,” dusts his books with a handkerchief “mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world.”  Brilliant, that “mockingly,” those repeated “all”s: the sick schoolteacher will never go anywhere, never see any of those nations represented on his handkerchief.  The narrator is rather more harsh to the librarian, dismissing him as a “grubworm,” a “poor devil,” “hopeless, sallow.”  Worse, to a librarian, is the cutting advice: “Give it up, Sub-Subs!  For by how much the more pains ye take to please the world, by so much the more shall ye for ever go thankless!”  These are lost souls, probably as given to “hypos” as Ishmael himself, subsuming their selves in quests for knowledge — dismissed by the narrator as fruitless attempts to “please the world.”

But the etymologies and the extracts are there, chosen by Melville or Ishmael or someone in between depending on how we choose to read the metafiction; and these too contribute to the overture.  In their variety and excess and scope — etymologies from Hebrew to “Erromangoan,” extracts from the Bible to sea shanties — they highlight the various perspectives on the whale that Melville will employ to advance his theme, and give a sense of his ambition (and/or mania).  I posit that they are as carefully chosen, rigorously arranged, and pregnant with meaning as any musical overture and as the narrative itself, when viewed in conjunction with that narrative.

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.)

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