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?
April 16, 2009 § 3 Comments
Now reading: Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen, and Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, by S.S. Prawer.
There’s a fantastic etymological tangent in S.S. Prawer’s chapter on “The Uncanny.” Trying to pin down what he means by the term “uncanny,” he focuses on the German word unheimlich. He provides two common understandings of the term:
(a) the ‘un-homely,’ that which makes you feel uneasy in the world of your normal experience, not quite safe to trust to, mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar. In this sense, unheimlich has frequently been used as the equivalent of a word that would seem to be its opposite, the word heimlich, meaning ‘secret’ or ‘hidden.’..
(b) the ‘un-secret,’ that which should have remained hidden but has somehow failed to do so.
He goes on to translate from the German philosopher F.W.J. Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology: “Uncanny [unheimlich] is a term for everything which should remain mysterious, hidden, latent and has come to light.”
Why do German words always seem to have these awesome subtleties and gradations of meaning?
This is really fascinating to me, this Gothic and proto-Freudian sense of the uncanny being the forbidden intrusion of the secret or hidden into the world — and the connection to the home, the connection that heimlich seems to have with both the hidden and the cozy, the comfortable, the homey. (Those madwomen in the attic again; those horrors in the basement; those extrusions of the id.) The seeming simultaneous opposition and equivalence of unheimlich and heimlich is also perfect, somehow. Think of the way your name, or any common word, starts to sound really weird when you repeat it to yourself over and over. (Best cinematic representation of this phenomenon that I can think of off the top of my head: Kicking and Screaming.) Both canny and uncanny. It’s hidden there all along, that weirdness, that divide between meaning and meaningless symbols.
Or think, more to the point, of the Doppelgänger. The doppelganger (forgive my lazy Anglicization), as Prawer points out, is the consummate example of the uncanny/unheimlich. And yet it’s so close to home: the double, the other self. Weird like the world in the mirror is weird, and will spook you if you stare too long.
Atmospheric Disturbances is shaping up to be one helluva doppelganger story: a psychiatrist who “senses” one day that his wife is no longer his wife, but a simulacrum, or a double. This “sensing” is the trademark of the uncanny, as well as one of the stock devices of the horror genre: “something doesn’t feel right here.” But Galchen is doing great things with it here, by destabilizing our relationship with our narrator/psychiatrist, making us question his stability, this supposed practitioner of mental health.
All fiction is uncanny in that anything, really, can happen: writers can be as strange or as normal as they choose to be (although, of course, the unconventional ones — those who do not follow conventions, intentionally or not, skillfully or not — have a harder time getting anyone to read them). I am loving the way that this book is making me question what’s going on: I do not know what kind of story I am being told. It could be a story of mental illness or a story of supernatural phenomena. Or a story of hidden lives and domestic drama. Is it a Borgesian puzzle or a kind of parable of marriage? Or all of the above? (Well, it is definitely of Borges. That’s for sure.) Isn’t that another quintessentially uncanny feeling — the feeling, as in many dreams, that you don’t know where you’re going?
(An aside on this last comment: a couple of months ago at the Nevermore Film Festival here in Durham I saw this movie from New Zealand called Blackspot. It’s really stuck with me: the empty nighttime road played for its full uncanny potential. It’s imperfect, and pretty difficult to track down at the moment, it would seem, but really, really worth seeking out if you’re a fan of the best kind of Twilight Zone fright.)