Friday, December 30, 2011

The Whale and What it is Not

In the chapter "The Affadavit", Melville steps out of his book and talks to us about its authorship. I will leave to the reader the question of whether this is Melville, Ishmael, or some other voice speaking, but the speaker vouches for the events being told being not just true, but reasonable and not fantastic. Our speaker begs us to neither misunderstand the story or the whale:

For this is one of those disheartening instances where truth requires full as much bolstering as error. So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.

Please, dear reader, do not mistake the Whale for an Allegory! How quickly these words were forgotten even after the book was re-remembered. Our poor blubbery friend is indeed taken as a hideous and intolerable allegory by all the most sophisticated readers, critics and scholars. Oh sophisticates! Oh learned readers and deep divers! What have you done? Have you become the butt of a grand recursive joke or have you found the treasure hidden behind the false clue?! How can this poor not-allegory possibly bear all the meaning to which you've attributed it?

The Whale and How to Know It

We know what the Whale is not (that is, he is not Allegory), but how do we learn what the Whale is?

We have already discussed Ahab, and the way Melville uses every traditional literary technique, those found in Homer and Shakespeare and Milton and all the other books of the prior three thousand years and those to be developed over the coming hundred and fifty years, to build Ahab up as a grand tragic figure. Ahab is a dramatic figure, and Melville plays this up with stage direction and dialogue befitting a great tragic hero. The Whale, however, is different; he is not built up as a grand hero through the usual literary techniques, and, in many ways, is the most creatively conceived character of the 19th century.

How does Melville build up the Whale, and turn him into a grand heroic figure worthy of one of the two central places in this drama? Melville uses a mixture of fable and science; he simultaneously makes the Whale the object of constant study in all facets, using every tool of inspection, detection, induction, deduction, and reduction possible, from Cetological classification to Phrenological speculation to dissection to a thorough review of the literature and the artistic renderings (the rendering here, by the way, is "The Whale Ship" by Turner). He also provides any number of stories of direct interaction with whales and their carcasses, and gives us the whaler's own empirical evidence.

All the while this analysis goes on, however, Melville also engages in a constant critique and ridiculing of each and every tool:
So, when on one side you hoist in Locke's head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant's and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right.

It is this ridicule of his own analysis that opens up the gates for his fabulistic and mythological accounts of the whale, stories interjected with some considerable questioning (driving home how inscrutable the Whale ultimately is) but also with no slight suggestions that some kernel of truth might be found here:
There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.

The more I dive into this matter of whaling, and push my researches up to the very spring-head of it, so much the more am I impressed with its great honorableness and antiquity; and especially when I find so many great demi-gods and heroes, prophets of all sorts, who one way or other have shed distinction upon it, I am transported with the reflection that I myself belong, though but subordinately, to so emblazoned a fraternity.

This approach requires considerable patience from the reader, a patience Melville eases with humor and the many interjected minor dramas, often from our savages or the mates. Still, the pacing is more comfortable to the readers of Eastern epics than Western novels; there is a Thousand-and-One-Nights or Journey To the Westintegration of disparate stories that here emcompasses quasi-factual as well as quasi-fictional passages. All of which adds to the exoticism that builds up the Whale as a character. As you read this book, don't ignore the dramatic tension being built around the Whale, a dramatic tension that is built far more subtlely and uniquely than that built around Ahab. It comes slowly, deliberately, and very, very oddly, but it does indeed come.

How then do we know the Whale? Ultimately, we do not, we only learn of and never know of the Whale, and this incredible inscrutability of a grand but non-human character is what gains the Whale the role as title character, with a billing even above tragic Ahab.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


The harpooners are a wild lot. Some describe them as a "chorus" of "savages" or "pagans", but Melville was more subtle than that, and each of the harpooners is carefully drawn as an individual, even when a bit player, and the four of them together display a wide range of characteristics. Besides Queequeg, already discussed, there is Fedallah, who is the last to appear in the book, Tashtego, and Daggoo.

Fedallah, the Zoroastrian (more specifically, Parsee), is the single most sinister and ominous character in Moby-Dick - just watch his eyes:

But did you deeply scan him in his more secret confidential hours; when he thought no glance but one was on him; then you would have seen that even as Ahab's eyes so awed the crew's, the inscrutable Parsee's glance awed his; or somehow, at least, in some wild way, at times affected it. Such an added, gliding strangeness began to invest the thin Fedallah now; such ceaseless shudderings shook him; that the men looked dubious at him; half uncertain, as it seemed, whether indeed he were a mortal substance, or else a tremulous shadow cast upon the deck by some unseen being's body. And that shadow was always hovering there. For not by night, even, had Fedallah ever certainly been known to slumber, or go below. He would stand still for hours: but never sat or leaned; his wan but wondrous eyes did plainly say - We two watchmen never rest.

Because Fedallah is a lightly sketched character, more of a foil to Ahab than a full character of his own, he lacks the softening depth of Ahab. Daggoo, by contrast, is a light-hearted charcater, though Daggoo is also a character of royal bearing and deportment. However philosophical Daggoo's scenes, there is usually a comic element, as when he lifts Flask on his back to get a better view of a whale sounding:
But the sight of little Flask mounted upon gigantic Daggoo was yet more curious; for sustaining himself with a cool, indifferent, easy, unthought of, barbaric majesty, the noble negro to every roll of the sea harmoniously rolled his fine form. On his broad back, flaxen- haired Flask seemed a snow-flake. The bearer looked nobler than the rider. Though truly vivacious, tumultuous, ostentatious little Flask would now and then stamp with impatience; but not one added heave did he thereby give to the negro's lordly chest. So have I seen Passion and Vanity stamping the living magnanimous earth, but the earth did not alter her tides and her seasons for that.

Like Queequeeg, who was born a prince in his native land, Daggoo will be seen throughout as an ennobled savage; good humor and regal bearing are almost always nearby when Daggoo appears. DH Lawrence makes much of the scene above, casting it as a commentary on American slavery, and Daggoo does overlap with a very different "chorus" of characters, the African-American characters, which include Pip and Cook, both notable in their own right and to be discussed in more detail later. However, I like to imagine that many of the paradoxical descriptions that abound in passages dealing with the "savage nobles" could be attributed just as much to the Jacksonian shadow that lay over Melville's America, and that that demagogic democrat (and Indian hunter) hides underneath the curtains of many a white characters' dress.

Finally, Tashtego is the last of the harpooners; Tashtego is sharp-eyed and attentive, and tends to spot things of the greatest relevance, whether they be whales or secrets. As a native American, you will find he also plays a role in Melville's thoughts on America and Americans. The fact that another native, Flask, of Tashtego's same mother island, Martha's Vineyard, is among the white officers is no accident.

Throughout Moby-Dick, the harpooners regularly serve as catalysts for deeper philosophic dives about the savage and civilized or the aristocratic and the democratic, though there is never a simple contrast and the harpooners are cast as the civil as well as the savage. In Typee, Melville consistently beat the drum that the civil were the savages and the savages the civilized. Here, however, those ostensibly civilized and ostensibly savage each engage in a complicated dance with good and evil, and neither has special access or monopoly to either. As Queequeg says when his hand is nearly bitten off by a shark:
"Queequeg no care what god made him shark," said the savage, agonizingly lifting his hand up and down; "wedder Fejee god or Nantucket god; but de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin."

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Cadet

We all know to call our friendly initial narrator Ishmael. He is full of good natured thoughts about the world and the voyage, though also a bit blue, brought to the sea as a cure for malaise, and philosophical, prone to meditate on each thing and person set before him. Beyond this, despite spending six hundred pages with him, we don't really get to know him as well as many of the people to whom he introduces us.

To read Moby Dick, however, we must read Ishmael, and he does provide a bit of advice on how to deal with the likes of him (from the "Masthead" chapter):
And let me in this place movingly admonish you, ye ship-owners of Nantucket! Beware of enlisting in your vigilant fisheries any lad with lean brow and hollow eye; given to unseasonable meditativeness; and who offers to ship with the phaedon instead of Bowditch in his head. Beware of such an one, I say; your whales must be seen before they can be killed; and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of sperm the richer. Nor are these monitions at all unneeded. For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent- minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber. Childe Harold not unfrequently perches himself upon the mast-head of some luckless disappointed whale-ship, and in moody phrase ejaculates: - "Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll! Ten thousand blubber-hunters sweep over thee in vain." Very often do the captains of such ships take those absent-minded young philosophers to task, upbraiding them with not feeling sufficient "interest" in the voyage; half-hinting that they are so hopelessly lost to all honorable ambition, as that in their secret souls they would rather not see whales than otherwise. But all in vain; those young Platonists have a notion that their vision is imperfect; they are short-sighted; what use, then, to strain the visual nerve? They have left their opera-glasses at home.

Perhaps reading Ishmael's thoughts is not the most profitable endeavor for us, and we should heed the warning and reconsider the voyage?

Even the most careful of critics mistakes or misstates Ishmael's voice as Melville's, or for that of our more omniscient narrator who emerges mid-book; yet I would propose that we think of Ishmael less as the authorial voice and more as the reader. Ishmael is our guide, our Virgil, and his eyes are ours as we leave shore and enter this world. Perhaps, in some truly mystical way, he unifies us with the author and characters.

Ishmael's name, of course, is also of great significance. He is of the cadet branch of the Abrahamic tradition, Ibriham's forgotten and illegitimate son, telling us a book full of the biblical and the anti-biblical and the non-biblical, a sort of alternative universe to the great Christian mythology. I confess, I find this name an uncommon and extraordinary moment of brilliance, and an ongoing cause for "unseasonable meditativeness" as I read the book.

Perhaps, we need not know much more about this whaling rookie who brings such wisdom to bear. Perhaps our central character is really not of much import, anyway.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Notable Savage

Who doesn't love Queequeg? Queequeg is a good-natured and devout cannibal and an equally devoted friend, and he is the first character of any depth to whom Ishmael introduces us. Queequeg is generally fairly quiet and genial, with a good sense of humor, and, like Ahab, speaks with an accent. Queequeg's accent, from a place "not drawn on any map" as "true places never are", is sometimes strange to parse, and of carefully ambiguous meaning as a result. More often, Ishamel or Melville (as to Melville's voice: note that in parts of the book we leave Ishmael's narration, and I will generally refer to these sections as "Melville" speaking for convenience, making finer distinctions when warranted.) speaks for Queequeg, and we only receive the report of his actions and statements.

Queequeg's presence often sets Ishmael to musing on his own self and character, his religion, and his place in the world, or sets Melville off on a philosophic jaunt applicable to us all. Queequeg is a carrier of things; he always seems to have some totem in his hand: a harpoon, a hat, a shrunken head, a personal diety, his tomahawk pipe. Objects find interesting and often important associations and uses with Queequeg. In many ways, Queequeg is part of the glue that binds the more philosophical layers of the book to the more dramatic layers. Listen to Melville and Ishmael as they tell you about Queequeg's things, and you'll find some richness in the book that is easy to miss.

Melville was widely known as a man who lived among the cannibals, and his embrace of native tribes and his often bitterly sardonic criticism of the self-righteous misssionaries let loose on them was a trademark of a Melville book. Melville's readers would have looked more for Queequeg than Ahab. But Melville goes deeper here, and as you step back from the book and think about Queequeg and his objects, you'll find the simple and genial Queequeg to also be a critical part of a beautifully tortured id underlying the story.

Here's a nice example of a paragraph from the chapter about when Queequeg gets dreadfully ill, and expects to die, and has a coffin made for himself:

Leaning over in his hammock, Queequeg long regarded the coffin with an attentive eye. He then called for his harpoon, had the wooden stock drawn from it, and then had the iron part placed in the coffin along with one of the paddles of his boat. All by his own request, also, biscuits were then ranged round the sides within: a flask of fresh water was placed at the head, and a small bag of woody earth scraped up in the hold at the foot; and a piece of sail-cloth being rolled up for a pillow, Queequeg now entreated to be lifted into his final bed, that he might make trial of its comforts, if any it had. He lay without moving a few minutes, then told one to go to his bag and bring out his little god, Yojo. Then crossing his arms on his breast with Yojo between, he called for the coffin lid (hatch he called it) to be placed over him. The head part turned over with a leather hinge, and there lay Queequeg in his coffin with little but his composed countenance in view. Rarmai (it will do; it is easy), he murmured at last, and signed to be replaced in his hammock.

Yojo, Queequeg's totem that is actually a totem, is itself a minor character appearing periodically through the book to provide advice to Ishamel and Queequeg. This is a charmingly little curiosity of a tale, and a chuckle-inducing little image, but it is also a mythological little sketch, jam-packed with a variety of stuff if you're up for the deconstructing, and a fine passage to form the basis of any sunday sermon.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Comical Obligations

Moby Dick is about religion, that much is certain. Whether or not it is religious or anti-religious or just chewing on the fat of religion is a question I leave to each reader. Melville's own religion is a bit of cypher, despite much research on the subject. I trust the difficulty researchers have in figuring out his faith reflects Melville's own struggle with the task, and perhaps some of this endless going-on over six hundred pages is all just misery seeking company.

In Clarel, Melville writes of different religious impulses that Clarel first "marks", then is "awed" by ("Buddha, the Mongolian Fo, or Indian Saviour"), and then waxes on the "intersympathy of creeds" that confuses and entices the boy. But Melville then goes on to address not the sympathy but the hostility between creeds.

Are creeds hostile or sympathetic? This theme and question facscinate, but I find Moby Dick to tend toward the sympathetic, with much more attention to universal struggles of all creeds than to the particularities that may divide them. Still, there's stuggle enough in the book: don your favorite protective gear, grab your weapon of choice, and keep your guard up.

As a little aid to wending through the book, let's start by simply identifying the particular creeds that have adherants in the story. It's also a good chance to take notice of the main players (other than, of course, the Whale):

Ishmael: Presbyterian
Queequeq: Some form of south sea Pagan
Ahab, Peleg and Bildad, Starbuck: Quaker
Father Mapple: Congregationalist
Tashtego: Native American pagan
Dagoo: African pagan
Fedallah: Zoroastrian

I don't see Pip's, Flask's or Stubb's denomination identified quickly; we'll see if we come across them as we read. There will be more anon on each of these characters.

This is a small little beginning of a reading aid, and I will try to also focus on some of the places and discussions relevant to the interdenominational discussion, but it is good to keep each character's faith in mind throughout.

As Ishmael says in "The Ramadan" chapter:
I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody's religious obligations, never mind how comical, and could not find it in my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshipping a toad-stool; or those other creatures in certain parts of our earth, who with a degree of footmanism quite unprecedented in other planets, bow down before the torso of a deceased landed proprietor merely on account of the inordinate possessions yet owned and rented in his name.

And much of this book is about cherishing the comical obligations of varied religions.

By the way, who is that Mongolian Fo, anyways?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Enter Ahab

Enter Ahab. It is the name of the first chapter where Ahab speaks (following a chapter which bears his name in which he does not speak). It is also a stage direction that will appear again. Enter Ahab. Ahab more than any other character is a player on the stage.

Before Ahab appears, Ishamel learns of him from the boat's owners, gossips of him, speculates about him, and is even warned by a prophet, Elijah, about him. Before he speaks, the boat has been chosen, the sails set, and the ocean reached. As grand an entrance as it is, it is still only a way-station to higher points in the drama.

Many of Melville's minor characters - Fedallah, Pip, even Starbuck - serve as foils to Ahab, helping define him and magnify him. There are two characters at the core of this book - Ahab and the Whale, and to truly explore Ahab's character is to get to the heart of the book. We can only just begin here.

As an introduction to Ahab and Melville's painting of him, let's look at a just one great central moment for Ahab, one that drives right at his character: the forging of the harpoon that Ahab intends to use to kill the whale.

Fashioned at last into an arrowy shape, and welded by Perth to the shank, the steel soon pointed the end of the iron; and as the blacksmith was about giving the barbs their final heat, prior to tempering them, he cried to Ahab to place the water-cask near.

"No, no - no water for that; I want it of the true death-temper. Ahoy, there! Tashtego, Queequeg, Daggoo! What say ye, pagans! Will ye give me as much blood as will cover this barb?" holding it high up. A cluster of dark nods replied, Yes. Three punctures were made in the heathen flesh, and the White Whale's barbs were then tempered.

"Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!" deliriously howled Ahab, as the malignant iron scorchingly devoured the baptismal blood.

The Latin translates to "I do not baptize in the name of the father, but of the devil!" Melville was inordinately fond of this line - a longer version ("Ego non baptizo te in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Santi. - sed in nomine Diaboli") is found scribbled in the back of one of his Shakespeare volumes, and he wrote a letter to Hawthorne describing it as the "secret motto" of the book. But set aside what this passage might mean - we'll get there, but not for a long time. All we're interested in right now is Ahab the character and his presentation. What man should we prepare to meet?

Ahab is the central figure whenever he appears. Melville writes in short chapters, each a small tableau or drama, and if Ahab speaks in a chapter, expect him to be the focus of that chapter. His speech is always heavily laden with salty sailor and "thees" and "thous" Quaker, and there is often a significant contrast in tone between Ahab's speech patterns and those with whom he speaks, whether the plain-spoken wry Ishamel or the level-headed rationalist Starbucks. This helps him stand out. As noted earlier, there is often stage direction inserted to accompany him.

After his build up and grand entrance, Ahab will almost inevitably deliver one or more absolutely killer lines. "Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!" The great lines are often heavily laden, referential and suggestive: by turns Melville will suggest Marlowe's Faust, Milton's Satan, or Shakespeare's Edmund. As you read, stop and admire the art of the framing of Ahab: all these techniques, all this build up, and all these wonderful lines are what make him one of the most powerful characters in literature. These one-liners are the greater part of the sheer bombast in Moby Dick. All too often, critics remember them as the whole book, and forget the less dramatic, contemplative, philosophical and humorous stretches that make up most of the work.

Outside of the chapters where Ahab is central, most chapters will fit into two other types: chapters that focus elsewhere but lead to a discussion of Ahab or flesh out some aspect of Ahab, and chapters that generally take a philosophical deep dive, often focused on the Whale or whaling, wholly omitting Ahab.

The chapter entitled Moby Dick, for example, is one of the first category, focusing first on the whale, but finally leading to Ahab and his key mates and crew:

Here, then, was this grey- headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job's whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals -- morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right- mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge.

For the most part, however, Ahab recedes into the background for the long less dramatic parts of the book; these are the territory of the whale and whaling, and of we mere mortals who concern ourselves with them. When Melville turns contemplative, Ahab and his Latin and his thees and thous step aside.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Revival

The Melville Revival has become an iconic event in American literary history, and I won't even try to discuss all the debates over it that I have read (or, at the very least, perused). Suffice it to say that Melville went from being a minor mention (how minor to be debated) in America's literary history to a grand central figure of the 19th century by the mid-1920s, and that this revival of interest in him began slowly and surreptitiously somewhere in, depending on who you talk to, the parlors of Paris, academies by rivers, or the hotel lounges and walk-ups of New York in the teens. The telling and retelling and examining and rexamining and debunking and rebunking of the elements of the story is an important part of today's Melville industry. But the immediate impact of the revival, besides the development of more contemporary forms of torment for young students to replace the dwindling interest in beating them repeatedly with Latin copies of the Aeneid, was a raft of fairly interesting books. Let's look at a few.

Raymond Weaver is always mentioned first. His 1921 biography of Melville, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, is still in print, and still reads well. Even if most of the biographical details are subject to debate and questioning, the book has held up well. Much of Weaver's detail can be glossed or expanded or the basis of the his opinions and biases questioned, but he generally did his work well and the core narrative remains fluent, interesting and useful. Weaver was also responsible for the first publication of Billy Budd in 1924 as part of an edition of the Complete Works of Herman Melville put out by the London publisher Constable. Weaver, however much he desired to do a complete biography and collect the complete works, was completely entralled by Moby Dick and less overwhelmed by Melville's other work; indeed, his narration of Melville's tragic decline has been persistent, and we are still reviving Melville's later works.

Another work that helped secure the broader reputation of Melville and Moby Dick was D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature, also still in print and likely to be Lawrence's most lasting and significant contribution to literature. Lawrence is quite animated in the book, and includes an interesting chapter on Typee and Omoo as well as one on Moby Dick. Lawrence begins another grand tradition: that of Melville as inspiration for critical works with no small literary virtue of their own, a tradition that reaches its height in Charles Olson's eclectic Call Me Ishmael, where Olson's critical discussion spontaneously bursts out in verse in several places. It is worth a little quote from Lawrence to see how Melville inspires him:

But it is a great book, a very great book, the greatest book of the sea ever written. It moves awe in the soul.

The terrible fatality.



Doom! Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America. Doom!

Doom of what?

Doom of our white day. We are doomed, doomed. And the doom is in America. The doom of our white day.

Ah, well, if my day is doomed, and I am doomed with my day, it is something greater than I which dooms me, so I accept my doom as a sign of the greatness which is more than I am.

Melville knew. He knew his race was doomed. His white soul, doomed. His great white epoch doomed. Himself, doomed. The idealist, doomed: The spirit, doomed.

The reversion. 'Not so much bound to any haven ahead, as rushing from all havens astern.'

That great horror of ours! It is our civilization rushing from all havens astern.

The last ghastly hunt. The White Whale.

What then is Moby Dick? He is the deepest blood-being of the white race; he is our deepest blood-nature.

Such Marvelous, Beautiful, Strange Bombast! Lawrence outdoes himself, and part of the fun of a good Whale obsession is seeing some of the literary figures and critics who go virtually mad with glee at this odd book.

Two other books from the 1920s revival worthy of mention are Carl Van Doren's The American Novel early in the decade and Lewis Mumford's Herman Melville: A Study of His Life and Vision late in the decade.

The revival continued to gather steam, slowly extending to Melville's other works; in 1945 Robert Penn Warren somewhat carefully and reluctantly recognized a kernal of genius in Melville's poetry in his essay "Melville the Poet", still available in his New and Selected Essays; Elizabeth Foster rescued The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade in the late forties and early fifties, ultimately coming out with a new edition in 1954 from Hendricks House as part of a broader Melville publishing project; and Bruce Franklin elevated Mardi to a central place in the Melville pantheon in his 1963 The Wake of the Gods. Beginning in the 1960s, the Northwestern-Newberry complete scholarly edition begins coming out at a laconic pace, providing the foundations for the vibrant Melville industry of today. Indeed, fetishizing Melville's more obscure work has become so fashionable that Harold Bloom even added Clarel to his The Western Canon.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Americans before the great Revival

American Literature courses in the teens of the last century, if they had them at all, must have been virtually devoid of novels. Yes, there was Hawthorne, and Twain, too, though neither of them produced a single tome worthy of a second week in class. After them, the works grew either slimmer (Poe) or longer but less substantial (Cooper, Irving). Perhaps some book of Henry James could merit the second week and still be called American, despite James' great efforts to the contrary. Like Melville, Crane was forgotten.

Yet there were riveting recent works, notably Willa Cather and Edith Wharton, young glowing buds on the otherwise spare and mildewed American branch of the novelistic tradition, and there were wonderful essays and dramatic sermons. With a favorable post-war exchange rate and a chance to learn from the long-lived European cultures, by the end of the teens 27 Rue de Fleurus was suddenly attracting hyper-hormonal American literary geniuses to mingle with Stein's magnificent collection of modernist painters. The great flowering of the American novel was beginning, and it needed a tradition to call its own.

And so, the old books were dusted off. If there was no tradition to speak of, one would be made. While most of this blog will focus on reading Moby Dick itself, the Melville Revival has become such a central event in American literary history, every bit as mythic as Stein's parlor, that we really should take a quick look at it before getting started.

This post sets the stage; in my next, the 20s will begin and the actors will enter. Most of the first books on Melville and Moby Dick written by the key revival figures are still very much worth reading and discussing. Not to be lost, however, is the historical context of the revival: the American literati wanted some roots to feed young shoots growing in thin soil. This was a need and search that Hawthorne and Melville had felt as well, though their search was less fruitful.

The grand and mature English tradition often spoke to a world quite remote from America's open spaces and compact cities with winding cowpaths, each filling rapidly with immigrants. It's literature was a distant and faint lighthouse for American writers, who needed a closer beacon. One wonders who might have been found to play this part had Melville not been lurking there.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Typee Special Edition Reviews

The Books and Vines blog has a review of a couple special editions of Typee today.

A Book to Be Read, Not Decoded

I am going to do something stupid today. I am going to endorse a book I haven't read (save an extract or two in magazines and what Amazon is willing to reveal) that has a glowing review from that paragon of American literary mediocrity, the NY Times, is excorciated for it's historical inaccuracies in the usually fawning Amazon reviews, and is by an author whose background is best described as journalistic. The book is Nathaniel Philbrick's Why Read Moby Dick, and the reasons for my endorsement are two-fold: (1) he has a great table of contents, better than many books on Moby; and (2) from what I've read, he had fun reading the book.

First, the table of contents. He's got a whole chapter on "Pip"! The little castaway, idiotically babbling profundities, is among my favorite literary characters, a true merger of the Shakespearian fool and the American common man. And, he has chapters with great names like "Desperado Philosophy" - perfect! The book combines the outlaw, the desperate, the common and the academic, contempletive, philosophical. What a great chapter title - and Moby is full of great chapter titles. His final chapter is labeled "Neither Believer Nor Infidel", and I can think of no better four word summary argument for The Whale.

Then, the fun! Philbrick cites in his introduction, as his favorite moment in Moby Dick, one of Melville's little games, when in one chapter he specifically references the time at which he is writing the passage - in Philbrick's words, "pulling back the fictive curtain". The book is full of games, and I firmly believe Melville was enjoying himself writing them. All too often, the gamesmanship and the tongue-in-cheek gallows humor gets lost in the ponderousness of the weighty questions and the decoding of the web of references and symbols. This is a book to be read, not decoded.

Now, from what I can see or choose to otherwise divine, Philbrick has more, some of which may include questionable historical analysis. And I am sure there are many weaknesses to be discovered when reading. However, based on the little tastes I've had so far, I can say this is one of the few popular culture kind of books I'm actually looking forward to reading. I'll report back once I reach the back binding.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Some reading before reading...

One great thing to read if you have 5 minutes in this period before the actual reading of Moby Dick begins is the Biblical story of Jonah. It is four spare verses without undue drama or color and a very simple story, but will be echoed throughout Moby's hundred and thirty-five chapters. Most of us already know the story in embellished form (save perhaps the fourth verse), and it's good to remember the purity and spareness of the four simple verses.

This is a detail from a third to fifth century coptic wall-hanging in the Louvre ((c) Louvre, noncommercial use permitted). The story is not just old, but has been retold wherever sailors gather. Often, however, without the ending, which is both the point and a bit of a curve ball for many.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Fanciful Reality

Among the colorful early chapters that draws us in to Moby Dick is "The Pulpit", in which a church is described which has a high pulpit to which one ascends using a rope ladder. The church is fancifully full of boat and whale imagery; we here enter the belly of a whale; while early in the book, it is not our first whale and will not be our last. The chapter just reeks of imagery, foreshadowing, and symbolism.

Yet, it is also a painstakingly real chapter, filled with details about the wood and the ropes. Melville described himself as a "romancer" but also said he would "write it real". How real is this particular fanciful set of images?

I have spent no real time in New Bedford, and little more in Nantucket, but I do spend a lot of my time in another Massachusetts seaport town, Gloucester, where indeed I was married in just as fanciful a place. Our Lady of Good Voyage church was built about the turn of the century by the Portuguese fishing community of Gloucester, who made the church very much their own. The name "Our Lady of Good Voyage" is from one of the avatars of the Madonna, and a statute of this avatar sits atop the building in the front, cradling her baby and a ship and welcoming you to her protection as you enter. It is a powerful image that comforts many a sailor; TS Eliot, a some-time resident of Gloucester, invoked the Lady in the Four Quartets (canto 4 of the third quartet, "Dry Salvages":

Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships, those
Whose business has to do with fish, and
Those concerned with every lawful traffic
And those who conduct them.

Repeat a prayer also on behalf of
Women who have seen their sons or husbands
Setting forth, and not returning:
Figlia del tuo figlio,
Queen of Heaven.

Also pray for those who were in ships, and
Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea's lips
Or in the dark throat which will not reject them
Or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell's
Perpetual angelus.

It is not a whaling church, and one does not enter the whale there, but it is a place where one comes aboard on a Sunday morning, and every part of the church echos its role as a Sunday port. Each station of the cross bears an image of a boat that has gone down, and models of lost boats adorn the walls (forgive the resolution!):

What would Melville have made of such a place? How would he have written our wedding there? Or the blessing of the fleet by the Archbishop that occurs there annually?

Melville writes of a fanciful, romantic world, but he does indeed write it real. Sometimes, when we look around, there is more there than we first may credit, whether left there by human hand or the divine.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Hawthorne's World

One of the first surviving cultural institutions formed in Massachusetts after the Revolution was the East India Marine Society of Salem, which has today morphed into the Peabody-Essex Museum. Yes, you want to click on that link.

The East India Maritime Society was formed in 1799 - 49 years before the founding of the Boston Public Library and 77 years before the Museum of Fine Arts - as a repository for many of the items being brought back from India, China, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. Melville's friend, Hawthorne, lived a very short walk away.

What's interesting about this for us Melvillians? Hawthorne would have been hard-pressed to lay his eyes on a significant work of European Art in Salem. But one of the finest collections of Asian and Oceanic art and artifacts anywhere in the world was established before he was born just around the corner. And we can still drop by and see some of the objects he might have gaped at as a curious young boy.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


No substance today, but I offer a link to Arrowhead, Melville's Berkshire Country farm, where Moby Dick was written. It's now the home of the Berkshire Country Historical Society.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Of useful false dichotomies

Critics seem to split into two camps: those who read Moby Dick as part of the Western tragic tradition, a camp that notably includes Charles Olson and Hershal Parker, and those that read Moby Dick as part of a legendary epic tradition, a camp whose strongest voice is Bruce Franklin, the student of the group's founder, Yvor Winters. These camps do love to spar.

The first camp begins with Shakespeare, and when you begin there, really, how far do you ever need to travel? They generally see Melville (and his friend, Hawthorne) facing a fundamental problem: how do you write tragedy, which is dependent on having grand characters whose fall carries weight and so fitting for societies filled with nobles and royals, in a Jacksonian leveling democracy? I will confess, I find it baffling how this could be a problem. One need only look to General Jackson for a grander-than-life figure with tragic implications in a Jacksonian democracy: there is an Ahabian cast to the fellow. Moreover, Melville lived in a world where romantics agag at the sublimity of the American frontier coexisted with practical settlers continually afear of the endless dangers there. And, as if we need yet more tragedy for a young democracy to handle, he wrote during the decade when slavery was showing its local obstinancy even as much of the rest of the world had retreated from it a generation or two before, and the civil war loomed on the horizon, increasingly undeniable and as grand a tragedy as could be imagined. It doesn't seem hard to find tragic subjects in that place and time, though, still, it seems not just a noble but a very useful and practical goal to fashion a true American tragedy in such a world, a tragedy which might even provide a bit of a survival manual for such a world. This camp of critics has a particular fascination with Ahab and his drama; for them the Whale seems vastly less of a character than Ahab, a mere foil rather than a subject of its own. Ahab, however, is the incarnation of every Shakespearian tragic hero, from Lear and Cesar and Anthony right on, with several of the historical figures thrown in.

The second camp seeks all over the edges of the watery parts of the globe for answers to where the inspiration came for the epic legend that is Moby Dick, and almost seems to merge in the Whale all the shadowy looming figures of the world's legends. For this camp, the Whale is as much at the center of the book as Ahab; the book has two demi-gods entwined in a divine and fatal minuette. They find answers from the Ancients of India, Israel and Egypt, from Milton, from everywhere where man contemplates unknowables and unapproachables, horrible, divine and both. For this camp, those long chapters on Whales and Whaling loom large and the philosophical asides become central.

Let us consider the tragedians our strings and the mythologists our brass, and see what music we can make. I will be musing more on both camps.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Prelude to a ship....

Having recently read The Confidence Man, a sublimely self-referential book, I think I will be seeing more of Melville's thoughts on writing and language this time around.

Our readings of Moby Dick, and all books of depth, are, of necessity, colored by our other readings. The question of what writings colored Melville's own writings is, however, the more written about, from Shakespeare to Shasters.

Both questions, perhaps, become a bit more interesting if we keep Melville's thoughts on reading some Hawthorne in mind in Hawthorne and His Mosses (yes, click here!).

Friday, December 2, 2011

A word on the Decor

The carpets are 16th century "Portuguese" carpets, made in India with depictions of Portuguese boats from the "discovery" era. Check out the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon for a very nice one. This picture is from the Museum Fuer Angewandte Kunst in Austria.

Melville and My Critics

Melville hated the critics and, for the most part, they hated him. Thanks to Kevin Hayes and Hershel Parker, we have a whole book that is a Checklist of Melville Reviews, and many of the contemporaneous reviews are available on-line, at, in particular.

Melville did not live to see the emergence of the Melville industry we have today, and one wonders if he would have softened at all in his hostility toward the critics. He certainly yearned for admiration and praise; it is written all over his letters to Hawthorne and all of the other letters and writings collected by the Parker and Harrison Hayford in the Northwestern-Newberry edition of his Correspondence and Journals. But he also did not suffer fools lightly, and had little truck for those who were not "deep, deep, deep".

In the industry that has emerged, endless academic squabbling often seems to occur over how one "solves" Moby Dick. Several keys to the solution are suggested. Careers are built on their advocacy.

Parker and Hayford, in their commentary in the Northwestern-Newberry Moby Dick and elsewhere, each are fond of explaining much through the analysis of textual irregularities: their discussion of "doubles", places where there is unnecessary duplication of material, and "hide-outs", places where a character who logically ought to be in the mix is not,is at least fascinating, even if it ultimately adds little to my personal appreciation and understanding of the book. These theories are related to their broader speculation that Moby Dick was the combination of two different book projects, and that Melville began writing the book conceiving of the captain as Blakenship and later grafting Ahab to an already growing stock. Likewise, they speculate that Queequeg came to occupy a position of importance only as the conception of the book changed midstream, and that at first he was but part of a Savage Chorus of three and not a boon companion to Ishmael.

Parker and Hayford also are fond of imposing an extraordinary level of what I call Shakespeare-determinism on the book, seeing at the core of Moby Dick an attempt by the ship-wright to virtually mimic the play-wright. This is a popular "key" to Moby Dick; they are hardly the only ones pushing this approach, and some of it comes from the wonderful Call Me Ishmael of Charles Olson (of which more anon). Bruce Franklin's counterproposal of the Isis/Osiris myth as the critical core of the book is a refreshing anti-dote, even if he comes perilously close to overplaying his hand in positing it as an alternative "solution".

As I approach the critics, Franklin, Olson, Yvor Winters, and a few others are my heros (even if Olson actively aspired to Ahabian anti-hero status and even if Winters said few things with which I actually agree). Each is a writer who I think fundamentally gets Moby Dick and helps us in our reading. These guys are "My Critics", and you can expect to hear more of them as we read.

As to Parker and Hayford, well, I really don't think they are sub-subs merely compiling random bits that shed little light; they are more simple sub-librarians, a step above the lowly sub-subs, finding information that is at least relevant if not always revealing. What is their fundamental flaw? How do we solve them?

I think in each case they don't fully get this book at the meta- level at which Melville dwelt; before diving in to figure out his meaning, that is, the fundamental theology of the book, one must pause to reflect on Melville's epistemology, and I think this book is at least as much epistemology as theology. The theology that some critics try to solve is all obscured by the biases of each of Melville's characters (including the author) and each of Melville's constructs. Cetology is a wonderful expample, where in classifying whales the learned Cetologists focus so heavily on commercial and gastronomic aspects. Part of that theology emerges from needs and desires of the characters: what do they need to see in the Whale, and what do they need in Ahab. In many ways, the book contains an homage to the yet-undiscovered uncertainty principle, and is thus purposefully insolvable. The critic who doesn't get this becomes but a librarian or a cetologist; the critic who gets it joins Melville at the Treadle of the Loom.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Review: Israel Potter

Israel Potter originally appeared in serialized format, and is a simple story that Melville more or less "phoned in" to generate a bit of cash in a difficult time. His critics were thinking he had gone mad in writing Pierre: or the Ambiguities, and Melville tossed them off an unambiguous bit of patriotism. It is the story of a revolutionary soldier impressed and brought to England, where he thanklessly serves the cause while also falling deep into poverty, ultimately returning to New England in his final days with his son.

Despite Melville's best efforts to make the book unexceptional, he sometimes cannot help himself. We see him playing with some of the same themes that obsessed him in Pierre, including questions of what it is to be an American and what our relation to western and broader cultures is. Here and there, he recognizes the fecundity of exile as a theme, and begins to surface some thoughts of physicial poverty and spiritual impoverishment. There are moments where he comes alive -- some good lines where the wit shows through, some moments when he steps back to ruminate on a scene, some occassional surfacing of the great doubter and his chuckling despair over God's inability to contain his sense of irony.

Overall, Melville keeps the flashes of brilliance (and the dark humor) under control in the interests of pleasing the public, something the book still failed to do. Perhaps, as in Typee, they really needed a few tweaks of the authorities, a few little bits of maliciousness toward the church, to keep their interest.

The book is a good straightforward read, quickly digested in an afternoon (in my case, on a plane). The material compiled in the Scholarly Edition has a tendancy to veer off and focus on the books and stories surrounding Israel Potter (Pierre, The Confidence-Man, some of the Piazza Tales), revealing the editors general inability to deeply engage with this work.

Review of "Published Poems" volume of the Northwestern-Newberry Complete Melville

Melville's age was the age of the romantic. Born into the waning years of Goethe and Wordsworth and coming of age in Longfellow's shadow, Melville's first writings bear the stamp of gloriously beautifully insipid and derivative romanticism, spiced up with a bit of rebelliousness against the vaunted civilization that colonized and enslaved, a bit of play with his form, and a mere hint of things to come. Melville was devoured by readers eager for the entertainment, and his language was praised repeatedly by critics as "poetic". His first books were a not inconsequential bit of fun, with a few interesting ruminations and unrevealed inside jokes for foreshadowing. But then he and his audience awoke, and the man wanted something more than a light diet of nuts, berries and the occasional missionary, and the previously entertained but now bored and overburdened reader called for another yarn and a song. And, yes, as his novels began to be weighted down by his seriousness, as they turned more intellectual and modern, he took the praises of those fawning early critics seriously, and began, of all things, not just to write but to publish poetry.

A war comes. Melville's novels end and his publication of poetry begins. After the 1850s, and for the next forty years, there will be no more prose offered from the great master, but instead a single volume of poetry each decade, each issued to general disclaim from the critics, who despised their oddness and complications.

The best of Melville's poetry has a contemporary, almost conversational, feel. From an early (1863) poem: "No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air/ And binds the brain - a dense oppression ...” At the same time, he can fall in love with a facile rhythm, almost hypnotized by a fuggy rolling sea: "I yearn, I yearn, reverting turn, / My heart it streams in wake astern". He trys to employ such rhythmic candy as refrains and punctuations, obviously smitten by them, but it’s clear the restraint is hard on him. When Melville gets to his mostly unread poetic masterpiece, the epic Clarel, he will have fully embraced that nauseated sea rhythm, and will be trying to master its battering forces and wrest from it something of worth - but that is rarely his focus in this volume. This volume, which excludes Clarel, holds all of his other published poems and includes what are often generally brief, short and idiosyncratic struggles with an idea and a form, with an occasional longer narrative thrown in that seems to struggle to move away from Longfellow and on to Eliot with sometimes provocatively mixed success.

Melville's thoughts are often turgid, passionate, and full of ambiguity (a favorite word of his and ours). He writes about John Brown, beginning "The Portent" with: "Hanging from the beam, / Slowing swaying (such the law), / Gaunt the shadow on your green, / Shenandoah! / The cut is on the crown / (Lo, John Brown), / And the stabs shall heal no more." He introduces the poem with a line-to-line tension many of his peers of the time would hold in reserve. Neat sonnets with a prescribed twist do not fit Melville: his poems turn and twist throughout, slowing swaying, full of play on inherited forms and given preconceptions.

In contrast to his "war" and "event" poems, many of his sea poems are models of simplicity, with a single image dominating the setting, speaking for itself. His poem “The Enviable Isles”, imagines a bucolic tropical atoll and contrasts it to the rolling and dangerous sea: “Sweet-fern and moss in many a glade are here, / Where, strown in flocks, what cheek-flushed myriads lie / Dimpling in dream, unconscious slumberers mere, / While billows endless round the beaches die.”

Like the other volumes of the Newberry/Northwestern Scholarly edition of the complete Melville, this volume has a variety of generally very helpful notes and somewhat less helpful commentary. The volume’s editors, meticulous and precise throughout, tend to focus on the biographical and the trivial rather than the critical. However, they carefully gather an enormous volume of information and material, some of it quite relevant, and for this we should be most grateful. It’s presentation is lucid and well-organized, and its perusal provides an often rewarding break from the intensity of the poetry.

Melville speaks of an increasingly uncomfortable world. Like many a veteran of the period (and Melville was not a veteran), he returns to the old world, marveling at its incongruity and incivility, revisiting the dark images tatooed across the land. Like many a "Gen-Xer" of today, he is unable to speak without irony, he is always the detached and bemused mate with a critical witticism. As much as his prose fiction portrays individuals struggling with cosmic forces, his poetry embraces contemporary politics and events head on, serving as a sort of record of the emerging and deeply conflicted American colossus. He bares in his poetry an intellectualism that is often at odds with his great champions, including his editors here, who love nothing more than to romanticize this odd duck of a man who led a deeply strained life full of tragedy, but who does not dwell on that wild and unstable life but on the broader thoughts and events of his times.

Along the way, through the years, Melville has become recognized as a great poet of the Civil War(1), particularly with his first volume of poetry, Battle Pieces, and as a fun writer of sea chants. With the full volume, including commentary and perspective, we can see how his poetry transcends those genres, exploring the world with a force of passion and a love of philosophy which is hard to find outside of Russian literature, and providing an often difficult voice from the era between the romantics and the moderns that is yet neither, a voice that has its challenges still. When the whole set of work is laid out, a full half century of poetry from the beginning to the end, Melville's only constant is that hint and foreshadowing from the beginning: one identifies the civilized only by their barbarism.

(1) "Second to Whitman", footnotes each critic.

Bruce Franklin, Vishnu and Melvillle's Humor

Bruce Franklin's Wake of the Gods is one of my favorite books on Melville. Franklin is provocative and clear-headed and he meticulously and creatively attacks his research. He dives into it like Queequeg does a plate of beefsteaks. Melville was obsessed with the Gods and myths of all cultures and had ample opportunity to feed that obsession during his world travels, and Franklin is obsessed with Melville's obsession. And if you aren't using Franklin's index to non-Judeo Christian mythic references in the back of this book, you aren't really looking hard at Melville's whole world and all those wonderful themes that come from the contrast of the civilized and barbaric, the pantheistic and monotheistic and the east and the west.

BUT, I've got a bone to pick with you Bruce. In the chapter on Moby Dick, you argue that we should dismiss Melville's references to Vishnu and comparisons of The White Whale to Vishnu because Melville "ridicules" the Vishnu / whale myth, where Vishnu is incarnated as a whale to retreive the Vedas from the bottom of the Ocean. It is one thing to equate Ishmael's narrative with Melville's voice, Bruce, and we understand how often that is done, and none of us can ever avoid doing it at some point, but to suggest Melville does not mock that which he might take seriously? Alas and Pshaw! Not one now to mock his own grinning! No one mocks that which his Creator may mean more than Poor Ishmael. Yes, Bruce, Melville ridicules, and has Ishmael ridicule, that which he might hold dear - and he does it all the time.

This point of Franklin's isn't critical to his central thesis: it is a prelude, a response to an alternative reading that he is dismissing, and that central reading, which sees Moby Dick as structured by the Osiris/Isis myth of ancient Egypt, remains fascinating. But, still, this goes to the approach we take in reading Moby Dick, and how we interpret Melville. And this is a case where a truly wonderful scholar got confused by that ever-confounding Melvillian tone. Be wary if you will sail these waters!

Let's not dismiss that Vishnu myth quite so lightly. We'll look at this more when we get to the chapters where the references appear, and we'll also note as we go through the role of mockery in Moby.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Some Background Research on Moby Dick

Well, in preparation for my upcoming read of Moby Dick, I made a little trip out to Melville's home in Western Massachusetts, Arrowhead, and did some research, and, lo and behold, I discovered the identity of the lowly sub-sub of a librarian who compiled the quotes that begin Moby Dick, and I further learned that the sub sub's grandson still lives nearby. I wandered over to the residence, only to learn of the poor sub-sub grand-son's recent death from his widow, who, however, had some papers of his left she was about to throw out but which I managed to save from the trash collector. It turns out the sub-sub's son's son was also a librarian, and had done some work not on Whales, but on Moby Dick itself! I am going to set forth below a few of the quotes assembled by the sub sub's son's son on Moby Dick, thinking they may be helpful for us in navigating these waters:

"The appalling facelessness of the whale as his forehead bears down directly on you with annihilating intent, a wall shoved ever nearer, makes visible a God who in no way condescends to the human condition... This is a God whose face has been doubly denied: the New Testament face of Christ, the image of the unseen God, has been stripped away..." Sacred and Secular Scriptures: a Catholic Approach to Literature, Bayle, N.

"GV: May we now consider Herman Melville? Does the mighty Moby-Dick stir your literary gonads?

ARL: Who better understood the play of reality and mask in figurations of the Native than Melville in the person of Queequeg in Moby-Dick, Scottish-kilted, cosmically tatooed, 'George Washington cannibalistically developed," bearer of war and peace tomahawk pipe, and from 'Kokoroko ... a place not drawn on any map' -- is not that the perfect trompe l'oeil of 'The Indian'?" Native Authenticity: transnational perspectives on Native American literary studies, Madson, D. (ed.)

"The entire text is an analepsis, its opening occuring just after the narrative's ending... The text itself is the coffin that contains the bodies of the crew, who are dead before the novel begins. That coffin, like the one he clings to in the final chapter, is what keeps Ishmael alive... Ahab and the others have to die for Ishmael to be born, yet he is born to tell of their death." Listening on All Sides: Toward an Emersonian Ethics of Reading, Deming, R.

"If you could change any single aspect of the style or the plot of Moby Dick, what would it be? How would you change it?" Moby Dick (Cliff Notes), Baldwin, S.

"After more than sixty years of re-reading Moby-Dick, I have not swerved from my reading experience as a nine-year old; Ahab, to me, is primarily a hero..." Harold Bloom, on himself and Moby Dick

"Then and only then an actual nothing is manifest as 'being', a being which Hegel could know as 'being-in-itself', and which Milton especially embodied as Satan, a Satan whom Blake could epically enact as the Creator, and whom Melville could epically enact as Moby Dick." The Genesis of God, Altizer, T.

"The symbolism of Moby Dick is based on the antithesis of the sea and the land: the land represents the known, the mastered, in human experience; the sea, the half-known, the obscure region of instinct, uncritical feeling, danger and terror... The ocean is the home of demons and symbols of evil too numerous to mention. It is the home especially of Moby Dick, the white whale, the chief symbol and spirit of evil..." Maule's Curse: Seven Studies in the History of American Obscurantism", Winters, Y.

"Melville's obvious ridicule of the Vishnu myth should be sufficient to discourage identification of Moby Dick with Vishnu. Indeed, Melville makes it clear that Vishnu is not be taken as any fish at all....The third word of Moby-Dick suggests the origin of its central myth. For Ishmael's namesake married an Egyptian (Genesis 21:21) and became a patriarch of Egypt. ... The whale is 'physiognomically a Sphinx'; Starbuck is 'like a revivified Egyptian'; 'the earliest standers of mast-heads were the old Egyptians'; 'Ahab seemed a pyramid'; in short 'whaling may well be regarded as that Egyptian mother, who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb.'" The Wake of the Gods: Melville's mythology, Franklin, B.

I do not know if the sub-sub's son's son's scribblings are really of any use, but having made the journey I thought it best to preserve the artifacts and share them with you. There are many big words there I don't really understand, but I am sure they shed great insights on the book. Take them for what you may.

Review of Clarel

This is a difficult review to write, as it was (and is) a difficult book to read. Clarel is a deeply flawed work of utter genius, one that simultaneously challenged, baffled, and inspired me. It is a dark book, a book filled with a sense of foreboding and a sense of despair. Indeed, I think one should only even think about reading this book if you have loved Moby Dick, and particularly the deeply philosophical elements of Moby Dick, and can somehow reconcile poetic tastes that incorporate both Longfellow and Pound.

I am one of those who often finds Melville side-splittingly funny, even if his humor is often excruciatingly dry amd sardonic, and more than occassionally downright cruel. And I began this book laughing at poor Clarel. But Clarel, a pitifiul, searching student not even seemingly aware of for what he searches, seems to gain more than a little grandness as he simply survives a few days with a crowd that embodies all of humanity, all of history, and all of religion, and each of whom, one by one, comes to a tragic end, tells a tragic tale, or displays a tragic fate. It does not take long before it ceases to be funny. Melville's deep but often rambunctious and inspiring philosophical dives of Moby Dick become sober and somber. He attempts in the very end to come up for a bit of air and light, but he has dived so deeply that the brief surfacing is unsatisfying and disorienting.

One may look at this veil of tears and wonder why one would choose to delve into it. In the mythological dispute between Homer and Hesiod, Hesiod asks Homer what the best fate is for a man, and Homer answers, to never be born or, if born, to quickly die. Melville embraces the Homeric spirit. But, just as Homer wrote some pretty good stuff despite the attitude, there is much to Clarel that is truly grand.

In Moby Dick, Melville invents the ultimate anti-hero in Ahab. Ahab is a man who may seem to be Satan incarnate, but more than once displays the side of the angel before (sometimes during) the fall. Ahab is an astonishingly large, powerful anti-hero. In Clarel, Melville gives us a mouse as an anti-hero; he plunges an annoyingly ordinary and meek boy man into the middle of this grand epic of searching, death, redemption, and tragedy. Clarel is a wimp, and yet he is on an Easter week odyssey in which he will witness many, many better men fail in ways that are often quite inglorious. Clarel will learn loss. He will learn pain. He will become almost nonchallant about suffering. He will retrace steps from the Gospel, survive endless references to Dante, Milton, Chaucer, and the Bible, puzzle through the greatest challenges of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and come out the other end ready to plod through some more. This very ordinariness in the face of profundity and challenge is utter genius; it is as extraordinarily American as the later Willy Loman and as challenging a moment in literature as one finds. Indeed, this may be a more challenging construct than that presented a few years later, on June 16, 1904, when the walls of the Western narrative come crashing down. In many ways, here is Melville challenging and questioning his own Moby Dick, and I think Clarel is very much to be read as the counterpoint to Moby Dick.

Melville's ambition in Clarel is extraordinary. This is a work that potentially dwarfs the Illiad and Odyssey in scope (even if set in a mere few days), and the poetry often does include real gems. Melville's poetry has a cramped, twisted, imagistic style that anticipates much of what will come later. But that ambition overshoots what he actually accomplishes, and on more than one occassion Melville cannot scale the heights he has set before him, and slumps back to recite more despair. Clarel suffers from a leaden loss of humor by midstream, where it almost becomes unintentionally funny by being overly morose, and from stretches of poetry that clog up Melville's way, that sometimes become redundant or excessive, and that occassionally simply fall flat. Oddly, some of the most brilliant moments in the poetry are moments where the suffering is trivialized and the verse has an almost sing-songy quality.

I will keep reading Clarel, coming back to it to see what else I find. There is much here. But it is as difficult a book as I have attempted.

Why "The Treadle of the Loom"?

Why the title, "Treadle of the Loom"? The phrase is from the chapter, "The Castaway" in Moby Dick, where Pip falls overboard; while ultimately rescued, his experience of being in the open ocean without boat or brethern leaves him mad. The words are beautiful:

By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.

I first read Moby Dick when I was 16, in 11th grade (Thank you, Mr. Bryson), and it was a treamendous moment in my education. While I did not (and have not since) seen God's foot on the Treadle of the Loom, I did see Melville's hand there, perhaps maddeningly enough, and this blog is about the weaving of Melville's works and the many marvelous patterns worked into that warp and weft.

At the beginning of my sophomore year of college, I painted the "Castaway" chapter on the back of my door so that I could read it as I studied or read or relaxed in the room -- and just to help ensure that my obsession with The Whale not only continued but was adequately advertised. So for a year I studied to a constant reminder that "Man's insanity is heaven's sense." For a year I dove into my little coral books continually reminded that drinking deep had its dangers as well as rewards.

The whole passage is a Melvillian delight: full of the mock seriousness and overblown language, the stunning images and flowerly language, that fills his books. I hope this blog will be a little crazy, colorful, and overblown, will have at least of small dose of wry Melvillian humor, and will help a few people through the reading of not just Moby Dick but all of Melville's wonders.

Why People Don't Finish Moby Dick and How to Avoid It

In preparation for this book, I was thinking about what makes Moby Dick hard for many people, and I come up with three big reading barriers to the book, none of which is difficult to overcome.

One is Melville's tone. He's the guy who you can't quite figure out and treat a bit warily - is he joking or is he serious? Is he trying to make a fool of me? Does he really think what he's saying, or is he pulling our leg? Having read a lot of this guy, I've decided the answer is almost always both - yes, he's laughing at the world, at himself, and the reader, and he's being pretentious and overblown, and he's spinning the wild yarn ever bigger, but he's still deadly serious about it all even as he laughs at it. That combined cynical and ernest tone is a big part of Melville - he's both the jaded curmudgeon who has seen it all and the wide-eyed pre-teen excited by the world's adventures. But sometimes that tone just really confuses people.

A second is his patience. He opens the book with all those quotes and that definition. Really? He wants us to wade through those? Kind of tedious. He has a habit of getting in the middle of action and going off on an asside for three or four chapters and then coming back. He is in no hurry to tell the story. This is probably the toughest problem for readers, and it's akin to the Faerie Queene, one of our recent reads and one of Melville's favorites. Don't fear skipping ahead if what's going on bores you at any point and don't feel like you shouldn't be bored because it's "great" literature - you can always come back, and the boring stuff is often rich and humorous after you've gotten through it. (Note: the chapter labeled "Cetology" is traditional problem child - have a drink and put some music on before reading it).

The third is the symbolism. Everyone knows it is a book full of symbols, and most commentators want to build it into a full blown allegory, where all the symbols are replaced by what they symbolize and there's a second level of meaning that the story operates on. Yet you'll find a lot of debate over such basics as what divine being Moby Dick might represent, a pretty entry-level symbol if we're going to build this into an allegory. When you read the book, though, you'll find Melville really doesn't hide the ball - throughout the book, Ishmael, as a narrator, is a quizzical spectator who can't always figure these things out, who doubts the meanings he gives things and half-suspects or speculates on many things. He can't figure it all out and neither can we. Don't sweat the symbolism, and just listen to what Melville and Ishamel tell you; he'll often be quite explicity about what the Whale represents, but it's complicated and not just a simple symbolic equivalence. Most of the people who try to make everything into something else are just trying to snag their PhD or secure their tenure. Sometimes, a white whale is just a white whale. Still, it can be fun to play with the symbol stuff.

Review of The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade

I am not done with this book, and it is not done with me. This book is a cipher about ciphers, a deep peer into a world where each God is an avatar of all others, often in human form, and where the only distinction between the avatars of the gods and the impious humans may be in your imagination. The story is an importation of world religion into the service of the questioning of christianity, and of christianity into the questioning of world religions. It is a collection of biblical parables and zen koan, neat little stories, but woven into a more fundamental fabric, filled with impalpable images. I have tried but cannot explain what it is, because it is, in the end, the question answered with a question, the word that references the word.

So what is it that Melville does to conjure such frothy hype? He tells a few simple stories. That's it. Each story in and of itself is simple and straightforward. Yet, look with just a small bit of care and it becomes clear that the stories have little inconsistencies that require some sort of explanation. As soon as you look, clues begin jumping out at you. There are explanations possible and even proferred, all perhaps requiring some deus to ex machina. But none of the explanations are fully satisfying, and all lead to more searching. The simple stories become the ground for a wild hunt, without the reader really knowing how or why. And then, out of the blue, Melville acknowledges the game, and draws you into a direct discussion with him about exactly what he is doing to us and why, though even this discussion itself is unsatisfying and seems full of clues. After all, reality is indeed sufficiently confusing itself so a writer who writes it true will inevitably fail to fully expalin; the inconsistent is to be trusted as a more truthful rendition than the overly consistent. Once the game is on, there is no end to it, and never can be.

Melville's work began with a book about cannibal hosts who may or may not have been cannibals but who were likely more christian than their guest and certainly more christian than their guest's old companions; over a long and strange career, Melville's communion with nature and man never really progressed much beyond this theme, merely in presentation. Typee, Melville's first book, is a single long and simple parable of the human host; Moby Dick is a long and complex but ultimately comprehendable offering by Man and Melville to nature; Confidence Man a simply stated yet enigmatic genuflection of Man to his maker, and Clarel the longest and most inscrutable sacrifice to the Melvillian Gods living in their natural wasteland. This book leads me to the conclusion that all those who have suggested many Melvilles are dead wrong: there is one, regardless of his many avatars. It is a disservice to not see the fundamental unity of his work - a unification in the Confidence Man's ciphers.

Much discussion has occurred on whether or not this book might be "post-modern" or, before that category was born, "modernist". It is neither, for it challenges a more fundamental set of thoughts than each of these temporal forms. Let's think of it as epic, if we must, or, better yet, as biblical, if we are required to categorize the thing. It is no more post-modern than those fishes and loaves that Christ used to con the masses.