Opened Graves, Emptied Coffins

March 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: The Art of Fielding.

SPOILER ALERT: You’ll probably want to skip this post for now if you plan on reading The Art of Fielding anytime soon.

Given that the Bible is the wellspring of 2000 years of Western culture, it’s not surprising that the empty grave, and the resurrected body, should be recurring features in our literature.  Early on in The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach (through his character Mike Schwartz) introduces a lesser-known example from the life of Emerson:

“His first wife died young, of tuberculosis.  Emerson was shattered.  Months later, he went to the cemetery, alone, and dug up her grave.  Opened the coffin and looked inside, at what was left of the woman he loved.  Can you imagine? It must have been terrible.  Just a terrible thing to do.  But the thing is, Emerson had to do it.  He needed to see for himself.  To understand death. To make death real….”

It’s a little surprising, when you start looking, how many of the open graves in our literature do not partake of the Christian joy and hope in resurrection: how many are full instead of terror, disgust, despair, existential questioning, grim humor.  Hamlet, of course.  The premature burials and morbid lovers of Poe.  The countless tales of “resurrection men” in penny dreadfuls, ballads, and sensational stories.

In the coda to this book, Pella (with the help of Owen, Henry, and Mike) digs up her father’s body to bury him at sea, as she believes he would have wanted.  Harbach is referencing a number of the empty graves in American literature with this finale — or at least, it reminded me of them.  Most obviously, there is the coffin of Queequeg in Moby-Dick, rescuing Ishmael from the Pequod’s doom.  The famous last word of that work is “orphan,” and orphans abound in this work: Affenlight’s death leaves Pella orphaned, of course, but Schwartz is also an orphan.  You can argue that Henry is also a kind of orphan in this work, at least spiritually.  His parents are nonentities in his life, objecting to the liberality of his college experience; further, his spiritual father, Aparicio Rodriguez, is present for his public humiliation, leaving him too ashamed to meet his hero.

The two other allusions are more subtle, but I think they are there.  The possibility entered my mind thanks to the seemingly innocuous fact that Westish plays Amherst in the national championship game.  Amherst: hometown of Emily Dickinson, and alma mater of David Foster Wallace.  With this choice of opponent, Harbach introduces connections to both the American Renaissance that forms the background of his work and the contemporary milieu of his work.

Dickinson, of course, is one of the great grapplers with death and the afterlife, testing possibilities and asking questions throughout her poetic career, imagining both death in the grave and life beyond it.  The questioning and constant self-inspection of Dickinson, and her interest in conceptions of an end to same, are reminiscent of Henry’s journey from “thoughtless being” to “thought” to “return to thoughtless being.”  Further, Dickinson is a weighty counterpoint to Emerson and the traditional, male-centered view of American literary history.  Pella objects to the Emerson story that Mike tells, “the namelessness of women in stories, as if they lived and died so that men could have metaphysical insights.”

Infinite Jest also contains (or at least looks forward to) the exhumation of a father: Hal Incandenza’s father James, whose head may contain the antidote to his unstoppably entertaining film.  The allusion points out a number of parallels between Harbach’s book and DFW’s, especially the campus setting, casually precocious students, mysterious drive and stamina of gifted athletes, addictions to pain and painkillers, and battles with depression and stasis.  But the different purposes for grave-robbing in the two novels point out the differences between the authors.  I think, in this scene, that Harbach is referencing Infinite Jest (by way of Moby-Dick, and Hamlet, and Dickinson) to attempt to move beyond the postmodern condition which DFW critiqued and which Affenlight diagnoses earlier in the book, the crippling self-consciousness and “profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action.”  In Owen’s eulogy over the body, he remembers Guert Affenlight’s belief “that a soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love.”  He asserts the continuation of Guert’s soul in the people he loved, the works to which he devoted it.  The whole scene feels a little like a “didactic little parable-ish story”  at the close of a tragicomic, linear narrative of liberal-arts education.  But we’ve seen that it’s actually pretty complex, and that it’s about how to be an adult, how to move beyond education: how to choose what to think about.  The orator of the 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech would be proud.

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.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 15 and 16

January 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Just finished: David Copperfield.

Reading next: Anton Chekhov’s short stories (Norton Critical Edition).

Onward with my review of favorite passages in each chapter of David Copperfield:

Chapter 44:

It seemed such an extraordinary thing to have Dora always there.  It was so unaccountable not to be obliged to go out and see her, not to have any occasion to be tormenting myself about her, not to have to write to her, not to be scheming and devising opportunities of being alone with her.  Sometimes of an evening, when I looked up from my writing, and saw her seated opposite, I would lean back in my chair, and think how queer it was that there we were, alone together as a matter of course — nobody’s business any more — all the romance of our engagement put away upon a shelf, to rust — no one to please but one another — one another to please, for life.

I mean, “to rust”!  What an extraordinary thing for a man to say about his life with his wife, from the vantage of many years later.  And that wearying repetition of “one another” at the end.  The beginning of a remarkably ambivalent story of a marriage.

Chapter 45:

I pondered on these words, even while I was studiously attending to what followed, as if they had some particular interest, or some strange application that I could not divine.  “There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose” — “no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.”

In this passage, and again at the end of the chapter, David rethinks certain statements in Annie Strong’s confession to her husband, implicitly applying them to his own situation.  I particularly like this for the way that the repetition, shortening each time like an echo, puts me in mind of the cinematic device — something you’d see in Hitchcock or a film noir, and now in endless parodies — of a character hearing a bothersome or puzzling phrase again and again, nagging at them from their subconscious, as the speaker’s head floats around their own.  (And a question: is this device, in fact, native to cinema, or borrowed from drama or literature?  Did Dickens actually have something like this in mind?)

Chapter 46:

“And theer’s one curious thing — that, though he is so pleasant, I wouldn’t fare to feel comfortable to try and get his mind upon ‘t.  He never said a wured to me as warn’t as dootiful as dootiful could be, and it ain’t likely as he’d begin to speak any other ways now; but it’s fur from being fleet water in his mind, where them thowts lays.  It’s deep, sir, and I can’t see down.”

Mr. Peggotty, talking about Ham Peggotty and his thoughts on Emily and an ambiguous “end of it” he foretold one day.  This passage reminds me quite a bit of Melville; amazing to think that he was writing Moby-Dick as David Copperfield was being written and published.  Were the late 1840s and early 1850s actually the apex of English-language literature?  What was in the water back then?

Chapter 47:

The neighborhood was a dreary one at that time; as oppressive, sad, and solitary by night, as any about London.  There were neither wharves nor houses on the melancholy wastes of road near the great blank Prison.  A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at the prison walls.  Coarse grass and rank weeds straggled over all the marshy land in the vicinity.  In one part, carcases of houses, inauspiciously begun and never finished, rotted away.  In another, the ground was cumbered  with rusty iron monsters of steam-boilers, wheels, cranks, pipes, furnaces, paddles, anchors, diving-bells, windmill-sails, and I know not what stranged objects, accumulated by some speculator, and grovelling in the dust, underneath which — having sunk into the soil of their own weight in wet weather — they had the appearance of vainly trying to hide themselves.  The clash and glare of sundry fiery Works upon the river side, arose by night to disturb everything except the heavy and unbroken smoke that poured out of their chimneys.  Slimy gaps and causeways, winding among old wooden piles, with a sickly substance clinging to the latter, like green hair, and the rags of last year’s handbills offering rewards for drowned men fluttering above high-water mark, led down through the ooze and slush to the ebb tide.

There’s more, but that’s more than enough to give you a sense of Dickens’ phantasmagoric description of the riverside at night.  No one does it better.  “Grovelling in the dust”!  “Last year’s handbills offering rewards for drowned men”!  “Ooze and slush”!  Interestingly, this is also the second chapter in a row in which a description of the London landscape serves as a portrait for a character — in the last chapter, for Miss Dartle and Mrs. Steerforth, and here for Martha, in this case Martha herself making the connection.

Chapter 48:

He appears to me to have lived in a hail of saucepan-lids.  His whole existence was a scuffle.  He would shriek for help on the most improper occasions, — as, when we had a little dinner party, or a few friends in the evening, — and would come tumbling out of the kitchen, with iron missiles flying after him.  We wanted to get rid of him, but he was very much attached to us, and wouldn’t go.  He was a tearful boy, and broke into such deplorable lamentations, when a cessation of our connexion was hinted at, that we were obliged to keep him.  He had no mother — nor anything in the way of a relative, that I could discover, except a sister, who fled to America the moment we had taken him off her hands; and he became quartered on us like a horrible young changeling.  He had a lively perception of his own unfortunate state, and was always rubbing his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket, or stooping to blow his nose on the extreme corner of a little pocket-handkerchief, which he never would take completely out of his pocket, but always economised and secreted.

I greatly enjoy the language in this little portrait, but also find it remarkably cruel, especially coming from Dickens and his surrogate David.  He speaks in the next paragraph of his desire to “get rid of him,” and does so in the paragraph thereafter, when he steals a watch.  Speaking of the fictional narrator, it is interesting to think of this as a step in David disciplining his famous “undisciplined heart,” treating the circumstances of this unfortunate kid as a bit of light comedy and a foible to be overcome in his domestic life — never even granting him the privilege of a name; speaking of this as a fictionalized autobiography, it is interesting to note the difference between Dickens’ treatment of David before he becomes an author and after, with his famous rejection of saying anything about the books David writes (also in this chapter) and a change in tone as he becomes famous and wealthy.  The last third of the book, while still terrific, is not quite up to the standard of the rest; it’s sometimes missing David the character, as Dickens (I guess) becomes reluctant to talk too much about his adult self.

Chapter 49:

“The friendliness of this gentleman,” said Mr. Micawber to my aunt, “if you will allow me, ma’am, to cull a figure of speech from the vocabulary of our coarser national sports — floors me.”

The meeting of Mr. Micawber and Mr. Dick — Mr. Micawber: “My dear sir, you overpower me!” — is hilarious to imagine.  This chapter also contains my favorite Micawber letter, in which he writes mysteriously of “wielding the thunderbolt” and the “domestic tranquillity and peace of mind” of King’s Bench Prison.

Chapter 50:

“The miserable vanity of these earth-worms!” she said, when she had so far controlled the angry heavings of her breast, that she could trust herself to speak.  “Your home!  Do you imagine that I bestow a thought on it, or suppose you could do any harm to that low place, which money would not pay for, and handsomely?  Your home!  You were a part of the trade of your home, and were bought and sold like any other vendible thing your people dealt in.”

Ouch.  Dickens seems to take a great deal of pleasure in writing Rosa Dartle’s dialogue, expressions of class and clan warfare as they can only be waged by those who are adopted into said class and clan, and David acknowledges her appeal (though earlier, before she was transformed into a demon of rage and jealousy).  It’s like cartoon-villain dialogue.  She might as well be twirling her mustachios.  But there’s such weird and interesting sex and family stuff underneath it; Rosa and Steerforth are kind of a parallel plot to David and Agnes, if you look at the plot from a Shakespearean angle.

A Nabokovian Reading of Ishmael

May 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Moby-Dick.

Everyone who’s read or even read about Moby-Dick knows that Ishmael is a weird entity, a hybrid of character, limited and omniscient narrator, and authorial representative.  He shows and tells us things he, as a character, could not possibly have seen or heard.  But he came across as even weirder than I remember on this reading, if only because I was able to pick up more of the details than on previous readings, my attention focused on the bigger picture of understanding the novel.

The possibility of reading Ishmael as a Nabokovian trickster-narrator occurred to me on this reading — the possibility of Ishmael as a deliberately duplicitous narrator, a figure who indicates the fictional nature of his own composition and implicates the real-life author, as well.  It’s a half-facetious argument: some of the explanation for Ishmael’s weirdness lies, I’m convinced, in Melville’s being carried away by his passionate composition and his insistence that his text say what he wanted to express, whether or not it meant betraying the verisimilitude of the narrative and the character.  And so his character is given some of Melville’s own backstory and some elaborate incidents of his own, is thrown into situations to move the story along whenever convenient, etc.  But some of this does seem, if not deliberate, at least playfully possible as a legitimate reading, thanks to Melville’s gift for compelling detail, instructive incident, and frequent allusion.

Along with the first line of the book, the famously ambiguous “Call me Ishmael” (“call” you that because it’s not your real name, and you want to protect your identity, or “call” you that because you’re really the author and are assuming a persona?), the linchpin for an argument like this is probably the mention of a Captain D’Wolf in chapter 45, “The Affadavit.”  Ishmael has “the honor of being a nephew of his,” we’re told, and has confirmed with D’Wolf the truth of the whaling incident just described.  Interesting, this sidelight into Ishmael’s family (one of two, the other being the incident in which Ishmael’s stepmother sends him to bed in the middle of the afternoon described in an earlier post), especially considering his self-image as an “orphan” and “outcast.”  But more interesting is the fact that this Captain D’Wolf really was Melville’s uncle: “Nor’west” John D’Wolf.  (See here: as you can see, this message is part of a website about the film Traces of the Trade, about the slave trade, in which the D’Wolf family was heavily involved.  Also interesting, if not quite on topic.)

And so, if you knew Melville personally, or knew the D’Wolfs — and they were a famous family, and America was a much smaller place, so this was not unlikely — this punches a hole right through the mask of the character Ishmael to reveal the face of the author Melville.  This historical, verifiable D’Wolf is not the uncle of any Ishmael: he’s Melville’s.  And we’re suddenly on the unstable ground of nonfiction v. “realist” fiction v. self-consciously unreliable fiction.  And it’s utterly delightful that this mention occurs in “The Affadavit” — this half-serious, half-joking document attesting to the truth of Ishmael’s assertions, in which he relates whaling incidents he’s read about and those he’s “personally known.”

The trickster nature of Ishmael pops up often, of course, in his relation of incidents in Ahab’s cabin, of thoughts and private soliloquies he could not have heard — his apparent transformation into a spirit or god, until his reincarnation as the survivor Ishmael in the Epilogue.  But charting the course of his life after the novel’s close through mentions in the book also destabilizes his characterization.  Mentions of Ishmael’s working as a “schoolmaster” (in the very first chapter) and of his obsessive research into whales and whaling (throughout the heart of the book) lead one to look back on the prefaces to the “Etymology” and “Extracts” and wonder if that “late consumptive usher” and “sub-sub-librarian” are not, in fact, Ishmael himself: if his painting them in such pathetic colors is not a sign of self-loathing or remorse for his wasted life.  But then there are also frequent allusions to the many other voyages he’s made on whalers and other ships, the ports he’s stopped at, the adventures he’s had, the wisdom he’s found.  “The Town-Ho’s Story” is but the most famous example: Ishmael recounting the story he heard during the Town-Ho‘s gam with the Pequod to his Spanish friends in Lima some years later.  There’s also the utterly remarkable incident chapter 102, “A Bower in the Arsacides,” as Ishmael is able to measure a whale’s skeleton which has been converted into an idol.  Here’s the astonishing passage I’d forgotten:

The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics.  But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing — at least, what untattooed parts might remain — I did not trouble myself with the odd inches…

I mean… wow.  Ishmael, so astounded by Queequeg’s cosmological tribal tattoos at the book’s onset, has become an illustrated man himself.  That he did not mention it earlier surely means that this occurred after the Pequod‘s voyage.

So, to summarize.  We are to believe that Ishmael the composer of Moby-Dick, the lone lucky survivor of the Pequod disaster, is not traumatized by this experience into sticking to the land at all, but instead goes back to the sea constantly, taking many more trips not only on merchant vessels, but on whalers.  He becomes just as obsessed with whales and the white whale especially as much as Ahab ever was; he is a very old, very weathered and wizened sailor, covered in tattoos as surely startling as Queequeg’s once were to him.  The book is written on his body, perhaps, just as Queequeg’s understanding of the universe is written on his.  The book is as much an exorcism of his whaling demons as it is a chapter of his life recollected in tranquility.

All of which is not necessarily Nabokovian, except for the ending.  Provocative statement for discussion and debate: Moby-Dick has the craziest, most ludicrous ending of any great book.  As the ship sinks rapidly in its awful vortex, Tashtego, drowning, all but his arms underwater, still manages to continue hammering a red flag to the mast, and catches the wing of a “sky-hawk” in between his hammer and the mast, bringing it down with the ship.  In The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, Howard Vincent somewhat hilariously tries to defend this as “perhaps [Melville’s] masterpiece of style.”  Um, yeah.  Style does not change the fact that this scene is bat-shit insane, and always has been, even by Romantic standards.

Does the vortex scene ultimately destabilize Ishmael as a reliable narrator?  Does it convince us that he, the character who supposedly shipped on the Pequod and supposedly survived its wreck, is making it up, Pale Fire-style?  Has Ishmael the author (or, beyond him, a fictional “Melville”) been driven insane by his whale obsession and his cowardice, driven to compose an overheated narrative about a monster whale, a demonic captain, and his incredible survival of a massive shipwreck — of which he is, conveniently, the only survivor, the tale therefore unverifiable — supported by an overabundance of “evidence” from his many supposed voyages, his years of “wandering,” and his extensive research (but really from just a few printed sources)?

Well, no.  The greatness of Melville’s book does not lie in its destabilization of the author as authority or the intricate interplay between narrator and reader.  But it’s a testament to the expanse, the capacity, of this book, that it can absorb this sort of reading, too.  And it is fun to imagine the book in this alternate-universe sort of way, as a giant hoax, a massive documentation of an unstable mind.

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…

Three Readings of “The Mat-Maker”

April 25, 2010 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Moby-Dick.

Rereading is a complex phenomenon, involving not only different interpretations of the text, but different interpretations of your past self: you can often end up “reading” your former readings, your former interests and states of mind.  This is especially true when you’ve taken notes during your past readings, and kept them.  You read a kind of palimpsest of text overlaid with memory overlaid with annotations, the things you saw as most important or necessary to remember at the time.

I never write in the margins of my books or underline or highlight or otherwise annotate: if I’m really invested, I write little notes on scraps of paper and tuck those into the book.  I probably set my personal record for number of notes on my first reading of Moby-Dick.  I’m kind of amazed at how much my 20-year-old self noticed in the book that I’ve since overlooked: the introduction of the imagery of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego burning “unconsumed” in chapter 48, “The First Lowering”; the discussion of “rings” in the frenzied chapter 40, “Midnight, Forecastle,” and especially the importance of the line “Why, God, mad’st thou the ring?” to the main themes of the book.  Part of this is the benefit of rigorous reading for a class, and the ferment of learning from other classes.  But Melville also just set my brain on fire in a way very few books ever have.  It was the kind of book I wanted to exist but didn’t know actually did, much less had for 150 years.

On my second reading, a few years later and just because I wanted to, I read from the same copy, rereading my notes, but took far fewer new notes and spent more time trying to observe the book’s overall structure and intentions.  I wrote a brief list on this reading of Melville’s possible intentions: “Entertain (more noticeable), Instruct, Enlighten, Ease His Possession.”  I also noted that the comedy in the book was much more noticeable on the second reading.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m reading from a different edition on this reading.  It’s a very different edition — a general-reading copy with large type, generous margins, and plentiful illustrations, but no notes, around 350 pages longer than the Norton edition I’d read from before.  It’s already a very different experience just based on the editions.  However, I happened to read chapter 47, “The Mat-Maker,” from the Norton edition.  A note there from my first reading seemed to crystallize my different readings, and different kinds of reading, in the last ten years.

“The Mat-Maker” is a gorgeous chapter, transitional and quite short but very interesting, well-known and thoroughly studied.  I wrote the following about the first section of the chapter: “Chance, freewill, & necessity in the making of a mat: Melville’s way of injecting mythic importance into minutiae, detail: the wondrousness of life”.  I chuckled when I read this note.  It’s a good note, and useful, but it reminded me of how enamored of Paul Auster I was in college.  Of course I loved this section!    It also reminded me of how much I loved (and love) the texture of the book: the close-grained observation, the colorful variation of style and format, the silky, lyrical language and far-ranging philosophical digression.  And how cool it was that this all occurred to me in a chapter about weaving, just as Melville weaved together his story from various threads.  It was dazzling.

My second reading did not focus so heavily on this section.  My second reading was more for pure pleasure, and it was clear that after the first two, philosophical paragraphs, this chapter serves mostly to transition to the first attempt to capture a whale, leading to one of the book’s most exciting, entertaining, cinematic, beautiful chapters, “The First Lowering.”

And on this reading?  I noticed the last words of the note, “the wondrousness of life.”  That’s an interesting observation, I think, and one I wouldn’t have made on my own this time, when I’m more familiar with Melville, with this kind of writing.  I meant that Melville was noticing the wonder of daily life, and its occasional, epiphanic revelation of the “ungraspable phantom” of life’s meaning, and thereby allowing me, the reader, to do so.

With the help of Howard Vincent, I also noticed the first paragraph’s emphasis on selfhood, “each silent sailor… resolved into his own invisible self.”  But what struck me anew is the lyricism of the language, its sheer beauty and the way its rhythm echoes the “cloudy, sultry afternoon” portrayed, lulling you into ruminations on its meaning and significance — thereby heightening the surprise and frenzy of “There she blows!” and all that follows: the first appearance of Ahab’s hidden crew, the thrilling hunt for the whale.  Then there’s the amazing return to quietude and slower rhythms at the end of “The First Lowering” — but deadly dangerous rhythms of possible abandonment and death at sea, this time — and Ishmael’s bookend of philosophical rumination in “The Hyena.”  Language, meaning, structure: this section is just a sterling example of what a phenomenal writer Melville was.

Notes on Moby-Dick’s Narrative Beginnings

April 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Moby-Dick and The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick.

A couple of short notes on the early sections of the book — things I hadn’t noticed before, or had forgotten:

-“The Counterpane” features an anecdote from Ishmael’s childhood, one of the few autobiographical hints we get about our ostensible narrator (“ostensible” since Ishmael largely drops out of the narrative in the middle of the book and becomes a floating, omniscience narrator before reemerging towards the end).  I’d forgotten how perfectly told, how subtly creepy and folkloric, this little tale is: of Ishmael sent to bed early in the afternoon of the summer solstice as punishment, by his stepmother — stepmother, mind you! — and dozing off in the sunlight to find, in the darkness, “a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine.”  It’s this perfect little short story; in fact, I seem to remember a similar story by Ray Bradbury, but can’t find it at the moment. This chapter, if it gets mentioned at all, gets mentioned mostly as the beginning of the affectionate bond between Ishmael and Queequeg.  But the gorgeous little excerpt of Ishmael’s perfectly horrible fairy-tale upbringing in early America is the most complicated thing about it.  Why is it here?  Ishmael tells the story to compare the feeling of holding that phantom hand with the feeling of waking with Queequeg’s “pagan arm” thrown over him.  But he tells us to remove the fear from his earlier feeling to understand how he feels under Queequeg’s arm.  Now, the fear is the most important thing about that earlier sensation, isn’t it?  Melville seemed to be simply compelled to tell this (autobiographical?) story, and to connect that uncanny sensation with the juxtaposition of Ishmael and Queequeg.  It’s the quintessence of American Weird, plain and simple.

-Father Mapple’s sermon in the Whaleman’s Chapel is rightly one of the most famous chapters in the book, and Howard Vincent examines it admirably.  However, he may have been a little straightforward in his treatment.  Vincent reads it as a warning, plain and simple, to hubristic Ahab.  And you certainly can read it that way.  But the sermon is also one of Melville’s closest approaches to Paradise Lost, I believe.  And like Milton’s great poem, it is profoundly ambiguous.  Just as easily as you can read it as a reproach of Ahab and foreshadowing of doom, you can read it as a defense of Ahab.  After all, doesn’t Mapple say that “Delight is to him — a far, far upward, and inward delight — who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self,” and “who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges”?  Isn’t Ahab more like the prophet Jonah should’ve been, insisting on the wrongness of the evil perpetrated upon him, than the coward Jonah was, who ran away from his duty and was swallowed for his trouble?  Is Mapple’s sermon an indictment of God, or of Ahab?

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.

Top Fives for 2009

December 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just like last year, here are lists of my top five recent/lesser-known books read in 2009, and top five books read overall in 2009, including classics.

First, the recent/lesser-known list:

5.  Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.  A truly astonishing book/performance art piece.  I suppose I should really have it higher, but it’s like rating Finnegan’s Wake: it barely fits into the same category as other works of fiction.  Certainly worth experiencing, but not exactly a beach read.  (See my four posts beginning here.)

4.  The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño.  The second-most-exhausting book I read this year (see above), but much more readable.  Astounding and encyclopedic in the Melvillean senses.  It makes me both look forward to and dread reading 2666, which will surely eat up most of a summer’s worth of reading either this year or next.  (See three posts beginning here.)

3.  Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen.  A really cool book about doppelgangers, the weather, paranoia and other delusional states, marriage, and how these things all fit together.  It’s one of those books that doesn’t necessarily knock your socks off as you’re reading it, but sticks with you for weeks after you’ve finished.  (See two posts beginning here.)

2.  The Interrogative Mood, by Padgett Powell.  I didn’t write about this for professional reasons, but speaking completely impartially, this book kicks ass.  A series of questions — odd and banal, rambling and terse, hilarious and deadly serious — addressed to the reader by either the author or a slightly unhinged narrator, depending on how you choose to read it.  It gets under your skin; you actually start pondering your responses to these bizarre rhetorical inquiries; you start examining your life, which is one of the things literature is supposed to help us do, after all.  (I actually considered posting my responses to every question until I realized that this would take me weeks to accomplish and I would be revealing some seriously embarrassing things.)

1.  Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.  I’m not sure if Bynum is underrated or overlooked or what, but she should be getting press, after only two books, as one of the great writers working in America today.  This slim little book, a series of stories about the titular seventh-grade teacher, is moving like The Savage Detectives is never moving.  It is gorgeous and thoughtful and it says something that my favorite book of the year is more or less realist literature.  If only all realism were this well done.  (See post here.)

And now for my list including classics:

5.  The Interrogative Mood, see above.

4.  White-Jacket, or, The World in a Man-of-War, by Herman Melville.  Currently neck-and-neck with Pierre for second place on my personal list of Melville’s best books.  A dry run of sorts for Moby-Dick, but quite a successful book on its own terms, as Melville finds his rhetorical voice and rails against injustice in the Navy in some particularly effective passages.  The balance between narrative and digression is not quite there in the way it is in M-D, but it’s close.  (See three posts starting here.)

3.  Ms. Hempel Chronicles, see above.

2.  Villette, by Charlotte Brontë.  Just a fascinating work on every level, including its treatment of genres and its status as a post-Gothic feminist work.  Lucy Snowe is one of the great Victorian characters and one of the great Victorian narrators.  (See five posts beginning here.)

1.  The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki.  It amazes me that this incredible book, enveloped in layers of mystery in both the narrative itself and the history of its writing and publication, is not better known.  (Obviously that’s what happens when you happen to be a Polish nobleman writing in French.)  Exoticism, eroticism, colonialism, metafiction, writing within, across, and between genres, stories within stories within stories, secret societies — it’s tricky and weird and obviously too interesting to be taught in Lit classes though you can teach anything and everything from it.  It helps that I read a lot of it while on a fun vacation to the Pacific Northwest (thanks again, Spiff!); I always remember books I read while traveling.  (See six posts starting here.)

So those are the lists this year; perhaps I’ll post my top-ten of the decade in January.  In the meantime, here’s wishing you happy reading in 2010.

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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