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.

No comments:

Post a Comment