Melville in the Margins

December 2, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Redburn, by Herman Melville.

Reading next: Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens.

If you’re a fan of Melville but didn’t know what to read besides Moby-Dick, or if you’ve been intimidated or put off by that book, do yourself a favor and give Redburn a try.  It’s short(er), it’s a good story, and it’s got some terrific, Dickensian sections on New York and Liverpool in the early-to-mid-19th century.  Melville’s voice is there, and he digresses a lot, but in interesting ways, and not so much as in his masterpiece.

Okay, PSA over.  Let’s talk about the Melville I love: Melville the trickster, the pre-postmodern, writing his books in the margins of other books while affecting a scorn for book-learnin’.  This book taking place mostly among the very poor and at sea doesn’t stop books and other printed matter from showing up everywhere, in interesting ways: what’s most interesting in Redburn is the variety of uses to which books are put, and the variety of meanings they hold for their owners:

-The book as moral guide, obviously: The ship’s black cook, Mr. Thompson, is rather more learned and curious than most of the white sailors.  In Redburn’s description from Chapter 17:

All that Sunday morning, he sat over his boiling pots, reading out of a book which was very much soiled and covered with grease spots: for he kept it stuck into a little leather strap, nailed to the keg where he kept the fat skimmed off the water in which the salt beef was cooked.  I could hardly believe my eyes when I found this book was the Bible.

Thompson uses this book not only for his own devotions, but to attempt to edify the steward, a “dandy mulatto” named Lavender.

-The book as object — pillow, specifically: There’s a terrific section in Ch. 18 (which is all about books) in which Redburn, having already read two books (a compilation of shipwrecks and a tract on the DT’s) loaned to him by a fellow sailor, pulls out Smith’s Wealth of Nations, loaned by a New York acquaintance.  I love this sentence for its apparent insight into a youth’s decision-making process in reading matter: “I glanced at the title page… I caught sight of “Aberdeen,” where the book was printed; and thinking that any thing from Scotland, a foreign country, must prove some way or other pleasing to me, I thanked Mr. Jones very kindly…”  There’s some humor about the book being unreadable, and Redburn says that “the best reading was on the fly-leaves,” where an inscription from 1798 is found; Redburn, like any good sub-sub-librarian in a special collections library, is most interested in provenance, the history of the book.  Finally, Redburn wraps his jacket around it, and uses it as a pillow in his tiny sleeping berth.

-The self-help book: A sailor named Jack Blunt has “an extraordinary looking pamphlet, with a red cover, marked all over with astrological signs and ciphers,” called the “Napoleon Dream Book.”  This provides Blunt a method of divining the meaning of his dreams, and is supposed to be the same system of dream-interpretation that Napoleon used to guide his rise to power.  Blunt faithfully follows this system every morning, making cabalistic marks on his chest to discover the meaning of his dreams.  (n.b.: there was, apparently, a popular song called “The Dream of Napoleon,” but I’ve found no extant divination guide with the title Melville provides.)

-The book as lost paradise: Most touchingly, chapters 30 and 31 deal with Redburn’s guidebook to Liverpool, entitled The Picture of Liverpool.  This is a real book, published in many editions.  Redburn’s is an almost religiously adored copy, used as it was by his father.  Things are quite autobiographical here: much as Melville’s father was once prosperous but slid into debt, so Redburn’s father dies penniless, and the Liverpool guidebook is a token of his glory days, crossing the Atlantic on mercantile business.  Redburn tries to follow his father’s route using the map his father marked up, and visit the sites his father saw, and take the roads he took; but he finds the city has grown, and changed, and the hotel where his father stayed was torn down, and many of the other sites pictured in the book’s plates are now gone, or radically transformed.

Throughout the book — as throughout much of Melville — there’s a tension between the knowledge gained from books and the knowledge gained in lived experience.  Ishmael famously said that a whaling ship was his Harvard and Yale, and this is commonly taken to stand for Melville’s belief; but then, Melville’s Harvard and Yale were also books by Charles Henry Dana and Milton and Shakespeare and Hawthorne and encyclopedists and anonymous balladeers and Moses and the Apostles.  He used them and learned (or stole) as much from them as from his years at sea.  Experience changes, memory fades; print remains.

Melville is fascinated by the palimpsest, the written-over text, the vainglory of print.  In Liverpool he remarks on the advertising broadsides, the quack-medicine handbills, and the song sheets hastily printed for the balladeers who sing of murders committed only yesterday.  Two quotes from this section are marvelous guideposts to Melville’s thoughts on literature, and on life:

Guide-books, Wellingborough, are the least reliable books in all literature; and nearly all literature, in one sense, is made up of guide-books….  Every age makes its own guide-books, and the old ones are used for waste-paper.

…I never could look at Death without a shudder.

Archives, Libraries, Epistemes, and Eccentric Organization

June 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just read a terrific issue of the Believer, no. 50 (behind, I’m always behind). Three essays, nicely in sequence, had a lot of interesting things to say to the librarian in me.

The first was a really excellent piece by Eileen Myles, about a notebook she lost on a trip to Canada. It’s a fascinating essay in a number of ways, but especially for its discussion of how a writer’s view of her own writing is changed by the deposit of her papers in a special collections library. As she writes:

The problem with writing on the plane is not your neighbor. It’s your own growing sense that these mango-toned reflections at dawn over Buffalo will be read by someone you never met. They will meet this…. A notebook is the definition of private writing — private living. It’s precareer and postcareer in that it’s the only writing only you know as long as there is a you. And that excites me anew. There being a space of knowing apart from any selling, sharing, even making. Just sketching out — OK, I have to use my favorite new theory word: episteme… The word felt like god. It means the possibility of discourse…. It’s all that my notebook gets told.

Apart from being written in this really incredibly skillful stream-of-consciousness that alleviates whatever annoyance I usually have about autobiographical writer-writing-about-writing pieces, the essay touches on a lot of issues I’m really interested in but haven’t read much about: air travel and its weirdness and beauty; lost books, lost words, and the places they go, the spaces they occupy, the ways that they return to “nature” (Myles is fantastic on this); especially the relationship between working writer and archive. How does a writer maintain a sense of privacy, knowing all of her creative work is supposed to end up being read? How does that sense of one’s own importance — all you produce is valuable and worthy of preservation — affect one’s future work, one’s sense of privacy, one’s record keeping or lack thereof? Most uncomfortably for a librarian: is preservation necessarily a good thing? Has the mania for the literary archive gone too far? Are we, the archivists and special collections librarians of the world (and especially the U.S.), intruding too much into the ongoing creative lives of our creative thinkers? Do we need to back off? (There’s a conference touching on these issues later this year at the Ransom Center in Austin — the institution spurring much of the current mania.)

Then there’s an essay on Aby Warburg, the brilliant, occasionally insane art historian. He founded the Warburg Institute in London. He was the oldest son of an extremely wealthy banking family, and made a deal with his younger brother that the younger brother could take control of the family business so long as he agreed to buy Aby whatever books he wanted for the rest of his life. He set about doing just that, and organized his library on “the law of the good neighbor.” As Leland de la Durantaye explains, “the various sections and the books within them were arranged as a function of their ability to engage with the books on either side of them.” Here, then, is a personal library the likes of which Anne Garreta wrote about so well in “On Bookselves” (see my earlier entry “The Dream of Total Recall”). Warburg also worked on a massive project, called Mnemosyne, throughout his life: in it (as I understand), disparate images were juxtaposed to follow the path of themes, motifs, and ideas throughout the history of art. I want to read some of Warburg’s stuff now.

Then there’s Avi Davis’s “The Brain and the Tomb,” about the Archimedes Palimpsest, the manuscript of Archimedes’s work which was (partially) scratched out and written over by a Greek monk in the thirteenth century. Of course I love palimpsests: there’s no better physical metaphor for the dense, confusing, complicated paths that history takes, the ways that ideas are undervalued, written over, reevaluated, belatedly treasured. As Davis points out, very little has been written about the visible text of the palimpsest, the Greek prayers, which are now being ignored as squadrons of scholars pore over the Archimedes text beneath. We’re always looking one way, missing what’s under our noses as we sniff after some other “more important” idea or sensation; Warburg was on to this, and so is Myles, searching for authentic experience and immediate, personal contact with her own thoughts, ideas, life (harder than it sounds). Of course, this is why librarians preserve, this is why we fear the discarded: one day it will be wanted, you see, but it will be lost — and the episteme it may have made possible will be impossible for the lack of its existence.

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