Friday, April 5, 2013

To Sea!!!

For some time I have been thinking about what to do with this blog, which I first put together to hold my Melvillian reading journals and to serve as a place to post journal entries for a reading of Moby Dick that we did over at Librarything. Melville, of course, is a singular and recurring obsession for me, but during the year since we finished the reading, I have only made occassional posts here. After all, one can't spend all one's time reading Melville.

Prodded by my good friend Mac, it is time to broaden the blog, and to make this into a place to explore all my singular and recurring literary and historical obsessions. The first narrative chapter of Moby Dick, "Loomings", tells the story:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
For me, sea today has moved east, and my current rivers of the oceans of stories are Chinese; now in the second year of learning Chinese, I have graduated to the point where I am fully capable of embarassing myself when ordering a cup of tea.

A reader of my Melville journals will know that Melville was a great explorer of world literature, and freely referenced the stories of all places in his work, whether cribbing from the Mahabharata, pondering the wonders of the Avesta, or dropping in bits of Egyptian or Norse mythology.  I have no doubt we'll come back to Melville unexpectedly along the way.  Until then, though, I offer my translation of Wang Wei's "Deer Park" as a little bit of wilderness to explore, far from the deep sea with its submerged pearls and looms:
Vacant mountain, no visible person,
Yet voices resound, echoes of man.
Brightness reflects into darkest woods,
Fractured light illumes climbing moss.

This is the Chinese:


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Hadj

Just as every Christmas I think of the Pequod setting sail, so every January one thinks of the Moby Dick Read-a-thon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Jan. 4 through 6, with a webcast available. 'Aft here, ye sons of bachelors!

Omoo and Typee: Sophisticated reading and eroticism in the early Melville

We have a marvelous post today over at the Lectern on Typee and Omoo. This is a must-read for Melville fans. It is a brilliant review; I wish I'd written it myself!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Melville's Marginalia

The next time you want to lose yourself in Melvilliana, check out this site on Melville's marginalia. Go ahead, find the books and start clicking on them.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Confidence-Man and Money

This looks interesting. An exhibit of artwork inspired by The Confidence-Man. Yup, click on Confidence-Man. I must make spend some more time futzing about the Berkshires this summer.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

My friend Mac has a review up of another friend's book, "A Circumnavigation of Maritime History". I've not yet read it, but, from reading other Rick Harsch, I can promise it will be memorable, and the topic is more than appropo for this Blog! Great review from Mac!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Summer of Melville

There are the makings of a serious Melville summer going on out in the Berkshires, starting with a reading of the Great Whale at a chapter a day pace (doable!). Here is the obligatory link to Events I may have to add some more thoughts to the chapters I missed and fill out this blog a bit!

Murr on Mardi

Perhaps an even more perplexing voyage:
Murr on Mardi

Friday, May 11, 2012

Signifying the Whale

I came across a wonderful set of photos on flickr "signifying the whale". The whale is everywhere. Here they are.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Anchors Away....

Ahab spent but little time at home before heading back to sea, seeking to satisfy his megalomanic obsessions. And so I too seem lured to sea too soon. Redburn is now underway.

A story of a boy who grew up in a Hudson River village only to be lured by the sea and foreign travel, a contemporary critic praised the book for showing off Melville's narrative prowess without displaying signs of his "anti-religious temper". We'll see, we'll see.

Review of Robert Alter, Pen of Iron

Five chapters and a prelude bring forth American voices in a new way; a way that draws out from the diction and rhythm and word choice of that Good Book, the King James Bible, and, in particular, its rendition of the Old Testament, the unusual mixture of the literary and colloquial that defines American literature over the last two centuries. Robert Alter's Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible is a history of linguistic dynamics, from Moby Dick and Lincoln's speeches through to The Road and Gilead, and I can think of nothing like it out there in the reading world. I have read reviews suggesting this is an academic book of interest to specialists; do not believe those who would so limit it. If you read Faulkner and Melville and Hemingway, you should read Alter. You must read Alter. Really.

Alter's chapter on Moby Dick is truly and particularly brilliant, and one of the best things written on The Whale in the last half-century. He writes with the insights of a translator, yet writes of his own language and the subtle structures imported into it from the Hebrew in Elizabethan times and then again from the Elizabethan to the American, and traces the millenia for us in Melville's taut and oppositional prose. He finds Biblical poetry nestled among the many voices of the Great Whale, and carefully teases it out, comparing it to the other strands in Melville's voice, and highlighting its interaction with Melville's always deeper meanings.

Alter gets Melville's voice, he truly digs it, and he lets its light shine in a way that will enrich every reader's experience. His chapter on Faulkner is merely very good, but the chapter on Bellow and the discussion of Lincoln in the preface each challenge those Melvillian peaks.

If you are going to read contemporary literary criticism, put Alter on top of your list. I can think of only one other living American critic I would put on his level, and her focus is not the American corpus. (

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Moby-Dick Reading

With the reading of Moby-Dick completed, I thought this blog needed a better table of contents to help someone stumbling upon it read it in and order that is more useful than reverse chronological. I learned much as I went on; these are in rough (but not perfect) chronological order of writing, so if you read through, you will learn with me. Also note this table of contents doesn't contain my postings on Melville subjects other than Moby-Dick or on a few tangential or procedural things that came up during the read.

Here we go:

The Preliminaries, for reading prior to tackling the book, to give you some notion of the world you are about to enter:

1. Why People Don't Finish Moby-Dick: My general head's up on approaching the book.

2. Some Background Research: a bit of humor

3. Some critical background:
a. Bruce Franklin, Vishnu and Melville's Humor: Some words on and with one of my favorite critics
b. Melville and My Critics
c. Of Useful False Dichotomies
d. A book to be read, not decoded
e. The Americans before the great revival
f. The revival
g. Review of "Why Read Moby Dick"

4. A few bits of color on Melville's world, including some suggestions for background reading:
a.Prelude to a Ship
b. Hawthorne's World
c. Some reading before reading
d. The Wide World (written about 1/3 of the way along in the book)

Introductions to Key Characters:

1. "Comical Obligations: The religions of the characters
2. Enter Ahab
3. Notable savage: Queequeg
4. The Cadet: Ishmael
5. The Harpooners
6. The Whale:
a. The Whale and how to know it
b. The Whale and what it is not

The Book itself:

1. Random thought or two on etymology
2. Loomings
3. Massachusetts' First Gay Marriage
4. The Try-Pots: food fit for a beast
5. Fanciful Reality: The Pulpit
6. Sermonizing, Literature and Currency
7. The Ramadan: a Hindu interpretation
8. Primordial Divinity
9. A break
10. The Pipe
11. Of Cetology and chaos
12. Head well, ye Pantheists
13. The stage, the storm, enter: Pip
14. Whiteness
15. Filling bottomless bellies
16. The voice of the whale
17. Ishmael and cetacean foreskin
18. Homeric visions
19. True religion
20. Song of the Typhoon: first verse
21. Song of the Typhoon: second verse
22. Identity of Job; other courses to sail


My review

Moby Dick Review

I have read so many, many books, articles and reviews try to boil Moby-Dick down to the purest most refined elements. But, like Russian television and Nietzschean abysses, when you deconstruct Moby-Dick, Moby-Dick deconstructs you. Ultimately, every reviewer finds, somewhere in this oceanic work, their own gods and demons.

Boil, boil, trouble and toil. Tell me of ships, whales and oil. Melville’s words are a mashup of all that comes before. There is Shakespeare. There are sailor’s ditties. There is Biblical poetry. There are songs from the kids in the street. There are myths. There are encyclopedia entries. It is a hip-hop book wrought of minnesang and hula and kathakali, ending in a glorious danse macabre. Most of all, there is humor, there is seriousness, and there is drama. Come, more wine! There is a roaring furnace before us and we’ve tales to tell!

Melville does not so much challenge the novel’s form as disregard it, crafting a tale that makes sense to him, pulling together his whaling canon from all the literary and philosophical flotsam gathered in a life of global wandering. He sprinkles acts of a drama among tableaus and stories and treatises, he throws in footnotes, he steps out of the book and comments upon it, and steps back in and takes on a new voice. Throughout, ever writerly, the story plods on, in those wonderful words and phrases and rhythms, slowly building, building, building into a drama like no other (however much it borrows from others - is this the fish that sank a thousand ships!). There is a typhonic crescendo at the end, and then the music tails off.

Since this review must ultimately devolve into a deconstruction of myself reading, since the book is beyond knowing, I might as well tell of this particular reading of Moby-Dick, which has been quite different from prior readings. In this reading, I see a book of uncommon dramatic energy and careful construction that seems to pull all the diverse threads of our deepest myths and creation tales together, building out of them a misty, mystifying fabric, diaphanous as Cleo’s gown, a sort of alternative mythology for a world in which science and technology are emerging and removing us more and more from nature itself, and putting us more in opposition to it. He offers us this mythology because he knows that this new, scientific world, this world of observations and answers, will ultimately provide no more answers than the ridiculously pious (piously ridiculous?) world that came before.

But, whatever my reading, you must tell me yours, for the book lends itself to many.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Identity of Job; Other Courses to Sail

"And I only am escaped alone to tell thee. JOB" Thus reads the perfect quote at the top of the Epilogue. Job has received multiple mentions and discussions in this book, particularly the Whirlwind passages, but this quote is a masterful identification of Ishmael. Let us look at the passage of Job from which it is taken:
Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house;
And a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them,
When the Sabeans raided them and took them away—indeed they have killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!”
While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you!”
While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three bands, raided the camels and took them away, yes, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!”
While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house,
And suddenly a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you!”
Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped.
And he said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked shall I return there.
The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away;
Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.

There is not one but four different messangers in Job who "alone" escape to tell the tale. Ishmael is identified with all those survivors of all those tragedies. Meanwhile, we are left to ask, well, who is Job? If we draw out the analogy, as Melville baits us to do, the White Whale is either one or all of these divine misfortunes, Ahab and the crew are the slaughtered children and servants of Job, and Job, of course, is the person to whom Ishmael brings his message. That is, you, dear reader, are Job.

Now, we may be overplaying that quote, but, Moby-Dick gives us fertile ground for flights of readerly imagination. In the some fifty or so blog posts that have gone up since the beginning of December, I have focused in on a few major themes of Moby-Dick, particularly the allusions to mythology and non-Western religions, Melville's "epistemology" and the questioning of our ability to know or perceive, his approach to reading, and his dramatic technique.

As we close, I remind you how few aspects of this book I have touched on. Here are some of the threads in the book I would love to explore further:

Melville's argument with the Christian God; this book relies heavily on references to the fast-fish-and-loose-fish chapters of the Bible, chapters like Job and Jonah dealing with power and obedience. I have genuflected at some of these discussions, but they run far deeper than this blog would suggest.

Melville's commentary on contemporary politics, and especially his depiction of the crews of the various boats who visit with the Pequod: I have devoted not a single post to these visits, yet, they are one of the central threads on the loom.

Melville's parrying with various philosophers (beyond epistemological thrusts), and particularly his ongoing discussions with Locke (who was accepted in America, in spirit, as a sort of virtual founding father), Hume, Hobbes, the Germans, and, particularly, the locally ever-looming Emerson. No small part of this book is a dialogue with the transcendentalists, the inescapable intellectual groundlings of New England.

The book's musicology. If you open a dozen pages, expect to see musical references on nearly half. The harps sing; there is a symphony before the chase; music appears at the very heart of the book. This is not random.

The symbolism. I acknowledged the Great Loom, and I mentioned Queequegs accoutrements, but for many of the early revivalists to read Moby-Dick was to divine symbols and their meaning. Every wave spoke, and the symbols would, should, ought to build into allegories bearing masonic meanings. I find Melville more of a literalist, willing to tell us just what he means. But, still, there are still symbols here, and great ones, ones that will give a laugh as well as a moment of recognition. More can be done with them; uncovering the phallic symbols alone is worth a read.

Job-like, we have only begun to imagine what challenges Melville, with his foot on the Treadle of the Press, has set for us in this book. Is this reading, or perhaps even this book, but the first appearance of the Ishmaelian messanger? Or is he, simultaneously, telling us all four tales?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Song of the Typhoon: Second Verse

We have heard the Typhoon sing in our first verse. We are on the quarterdeck, where Starbuck would turn the ship toward home, but Ahab, "Old Thunder", has appeared to sing with the storm. At this very moment, the action pauses briefly, and we have a short discussion on lighting rods. Rods have been fixed to the masts, but they attach to chains which must be thrown over-board to ground the boat. These chains, on the Pequod, have not been thrown overboard.

Starbuck, seeing mad Ahab lit up by lightning, yells to the crew to drop the chains. To this, Ahab cries to let them be. Ahab is looking to wage an old war here, not a modern one; the ancient Ahab is engaged in a primal quest. In the prior chapter, he crushed his Quadrant, choosing to steer by the old arts; here, he refuses the lightning rods. He is pulling the Pequod into an id of time.

And at this moment, before any chains have gone over, the flames appear: St. Elmo's fire. The boat's masts mystically light up, and now Melville weaves magic. Watch the two pages after the fire lights. There is so much here.

The crew falls silent, free of oaths; Melville notes that while for sailors oaths are but a common part of speech, he has
seldom heard a common oath when God's burning finger has been laid on the ship; when His "Menne, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" has been woven into the shrouds and the cordage.
The phrase is from the book of Daniel, which reads:
And this is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.
This is the interpretation of each word. MENE: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it;
TEKEL: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting;
PERES: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.
In Daniel, God writes these words on the wall at a banquet at Belshazzar's Feast, where the nobles are sacreligiously toasting to other gods from Jewish sacrimental vessels. Note that Melville, or Ishmael, seems to have seen God send this message to whalers on more than one occassion. The art shows Rembrandt's depiction of the "writing on the wall" scene in Daniel, from the National Gallery.

During the silence, Queequeg's tatoos light up "like Satanic blue flames"; as the corposcants die, the Pequod is "wrapped in a pall". Finally, the silence is broken with Starbuck looking to Stubb for his read of the meaning of the corposcents, and while Stubb tries to read them as a good omen (as lit up spermacetti candles), Stubb quickly pleads for mercy on their souls as they light up once again. A moment of very dark humor at Stubb's expense.

At this point, Fedallah is lit up fitting out Ahab for the next coming strange ceremony; stepping on Fedallah, beside the Doubloon, Ahab gives a speech to the storm and the crew, telling of his prior wounding by lighting on these seas, his prior dismasting, when he "as a Persian once did worship". He calls to the fire, "Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee." This is the third great sermon, preached from on high, of the book, following Father Mapple's sermon in Nantucket and The Reverend Cook's sermon to the sharks. It is worthy of a close reading and comparison, though I will not do so now, since we are looking for a broad overview of this critical chapter.

Now, as you might imagine, Franklin with his Osiris myth has a field day with this chapter. There is no shortage of references that fit the myth including the anticipation of a pall for Ahab. However, other commentators, with different favorite myths, also see much in this chapter. Myths come together. In particular, many have focused on the Zoroastrian theme that sits right on the surface obvious to all: from the "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" reference to Fedallah's role as Ahab's alter-boy and footstool to Ahab's statement that he "as a Persian once did worship". You will find fire imagery throughout this book, and fire is a key symbol in Zoroastrianism. The sun is a character all its own in Moby-Dick, whether beating down on poor Pip or floating in the upper half of the Doubloon. Here in "The Candles" is where you will best gain insight into the role of fire. Watch closely; it is a mighty force, and closely associated with Ahab. In Christian mythology, first is most often associated with hell, but in Moby-Dick fire does not play so clear or simple a role.

Ahab's speech is answered by yet more lightning and flame, and, in particular, the corposcents now light up his harpoon, which sits on his boat, just as it has lit up the masts. The lighting of the harpoon is magnificent and awe-inspiring. The crew is completely panic stricken. References to "The Forge" and earlier chapters involving fire abound. And, at this critical moment, Starbuck knows what he must do: he tells Ahab, in no uncertain terms, that God is against him and it is time to set the sail for home or face God's wrath. As the crew comically prepares to set sails that have been shredded to rags, Ahab reminds them their oaths to hunt the Whale are binding, as is his. We end the chapter with all in terror, with Starbuck and Ahab opposed, and with the crew in dismay at Ahab's orders.

In unpacking this chapter, I would focus you on two truly exquisite strands, recognizing there are others: first, the pivot to a fast-paced action-adventure and the movement into the final part of the book is a masterful exercise in writerly craftsmenship; and, second, the way in which many different mythological strands are brought together is a phenomenal set-up for our grand finale, with first the drama among the sailors and then the chase of the White Whale. The Book of Daniel melds both Judaic/Old Testament and Persian/Parsee mythological streams; the use of fire sets up an opposition of Parsee/Pagan and Christian themes (watch all the pagans in this chapter: they each receive a mention); the Typhoon captures it all in the ancient Egyptian myth. Suddenly, Ahab's central role in each different mythology seems to be coming together, even though the role he plays in each does not seem to allign. Is this song contrapuntal? Is Ahab simultaneoulsy a hero of a Parsee, a God to the Egyptians, and a Blasphemous Rebel to the Jews?