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.