Wednesday, November 30, 2011

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.

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