Posts tagged ‘Moby-Dick’

January 27, 2013

“Cannibals? who is not a cannibal?” (Moby-Dick)

by Biblioklept

It is not, perhaps, entirely because the whale is so excessively unctuous that landsmen seem to regard the eating of him with abhorrence; that appears to result, in some way, from the consideration before mentioned: i.e. that a man should eat a newly murdered thing of the sea, and eat it too by its own light. But no doubt the first man that ever murdered an ox was regarded as a murderer; perhaps he was hung; and if he had been put on his trial by oxen, he certainly would have been; and he certainly deserved it if any murderer does. Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy pate-de-foie-gras.

But Stubb, he eats the whale by its own light, does he? and that is adding insult

From “The Whale as a Dish,” Chapter 65 of Melville’s Moby-Dick.

 

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January 26, 2013

List of Smutty Sounding Moby-Dick Chapters

by Biblioklept

The Spouter-Inn.

A Bosom Friend.

Nightgown.

Wheelbarrow.

The Mast-Head.

Moby Dick.

The First Lowering.

The Spirit-Spout.

The Gam.

The Town-Ho’s Story.

Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales.

The Dart.

The Crotch.

Cutting In.

The Battering-Ram.

The Nut.

The Pequod Meets The Virgin.

Pitchpoling.

The Fountain.

The Tail.

Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish.

Heads or Tails.

The Pequod Meets The Rose-Bud.

A Squeeze of the Hand.

Leg and Arm.

The Needle.

The Log and Line.

The Cabin.

The Pequod Meets The Delight.

The Chase.

January 26, 2013

“The Town-Ho’s Story” — Herman Melville

by Biblioklept

“The Town-Ho’s Story” by Herman Melville

(This tale is Chapter 54 of Moby-Dick but it stands on its own as a story)

(AS TOLD AT THE GOLDEN INN)

The Cape of Good Hope, and all the watery region round about there, is much like some noted four corners of a great highway, where you meet more travellers than in any other part.

It was not very long after speaking the Goney that another homeward-bound whaleman, the Town-Ho,* was encountered. She was manned almost wholly by Polynesians. In the short gam that ensued she gave us strong news of Moby Dick. To some the general interest in the White Whale was now wildly heightened by a circumstance of the Town-Ho’s story, which seemed obscurely to involve with the whale a certain wondrous, inverted visitation of one of those so called judgments of God which at times are said to overtake some men. This latter circumstance, with its own particular accompaniments, forming what may be called the secret part of the tragedy about to be narrated, never reached the ears of Captain Ahab or his mates. For that secret part of the story was unknown to the captain of the Town-Ho himself. It was the private property of three confederate white seamen of that ship, one of whom, it seems, communicated it to Tashtego with Romish injunctions of secrecy, but the following night Tashtego rambled in his sleep, and revealed so much of it in that way, that when he was wakened he could not well withhold the rest. Nevertheless, so potent an influence did this thing have on those seamen in the Pequod who came to the full knowledge of it, and by such a strange delicacy, to call it so, were they governed in this matter, that they kept the secret among themselves so that it never transpired abaft the Pequod’s main-mast. Interweaving in its proper place this darker thread with the story as publicly narrated on the ship, the whole of this strange affair I now proceed to put on lasting record.

*The ancient whale-cry upon first sighting a whale from the mast-head, still used by whalemen in hunting the famous Gallipagos terrapin.

For my humor’s sake, I shall preserve the style in which I once narrated it at Lima, to a lounging circle of my Spanish friends, one saint’s eve, smoking upon the thick-gilt tiled piazza of the Golden Inn. Of those fine cavaliers, the young Dons, Pedro and Sebastian, were on the closer terms with me; and hence the interluding questions they occasionally put, and which are duly answered at the time.

“Some two years prior to my first learning the events which I am about rehearsing to you, gentlemen, the Town-Ho, Sperm Whaler of Nantucket, was cruising in your Pacific here, not very many days’ sail eastward from the eaves of this good Golden Inn. She was somewhere to the northward of the Line. One morning upon handling the pumps, according to daily usage, it was observed that she made more water in her hold than common. They supposed a sword-fish had stabbed her, gentlemen. But the captain, having some unusual reason for believing that rare good luck awaited him in those latitudes; and therefore being very averse to quit them, and the leak not being then considered at all dangerous, though, indeed, they could not find it after searching the hold as low down as was possible in rather heavy weather, the ship still continued her cruisings, the mariners working at the pumps at wide and easy intervals; but no good luck came; more days went by, and not only was the leak yet undiscovered, but it sensibly increased. So much so, that now taking some alarm, the captain, making all sail, stood away for the nearest harbor among the islands, there to have his hull hove out and repaired.

January 20, 2013

“Were this world an endless plain…” (Moby-Dick)

by Biblioklept

Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.

From “The Albatross,” Chapter 52 of Melville’s Moby-Dick.

 

January 18, 2013

“…all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude…” (Moby-Dick)

by Biblioklept

It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude; on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea. Fedallah first descried this jet. For of these moonlight nights, it was his wont to mount to the main-mast head, and stand a look-out there, with the same precision as if it had been day. And yet, though herds of whales were seen by night, not one whaleman in a hundred would venture a lowering for them. You may think with what emotions, then, the seamen beheld this old Oriental perched aloft at such unusual hours; his turban and the moon, companions in one sky. But when, after spending his uniform interval there for several successive nights without uttering a single sound; when, after all this silence, his unearthly voice was heard announcing that silvery, moon-lit jet, every reclining mariner started to his feet as if some winged spirit had lighted in the rigging, and hailed the mortal crew. “There she blows!” Had the trump of judgment blown, they could not have quivered more; yet still they felt no terror; rather pleasure. For though it was a most unwonted hour, yet so impressive was the cry, and so deliriously exciting, that almost every soul on board instinctively desired a lowering.

From “The Spirit Spout,” Chapter 51 of Melville’s Moby-Dick

 

January 18, 2013

A Riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tale “The Birth-Mark”

by Edwin Turner

1. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale “The Birth-Mark” — or is it “The Birthmark”? — has been a favorite story of mine for years despite (or maybe because of) it’s being so damn symbolically overdetermined.

2. You can read the story online.

3. Or perhaps you want a quick summary—a refresher—okay:

Aylmer, “a man of science,” has this totally hot wife Georgiana—only she’s got a birthmark on her cheek, a small red mark that resembles a tiny hand—and it drives our scientist mad—so mad that he determines to make her perfect by removing the mark. Tragic ending ensues.

4. One of the reasons I like “The Birth-Mark” so much is that it so clearly limns the futility of idealism.

5. Aylmer’s driving desire for mastery over Nature (echoing Shelley’s Frankenstein): the desire to “lay his hand on the secret creative force and perhaps make new worlds.”

6. The word “God” does not appear in “The Birth-Mark.”

7. But of course gods and creators are repeatedly invoked.

8. One such creator is Hawthorne’s friend Hiram Powers, whose sculpture Eve Tempted is invoked (invoking that other creator, the one who made a garden . . . )

powers eve

Eve Tempted, Hiram Powers

9. And Pygmalion—

pygmalion-and-galatea-1.jpg!Blog

Pygmalion and Galate, Jean-Leon Gerome

Aylmer, having convinced his wife that he’ll erase her mark: “Even Pygmalion, when his sculptured woman assumed life, felt not greater ecstasy than mine will be!”

10. Aylmer’s plan is shameful. It’s based on an obsessive misreading of the symbolism of his wife’s birthmark. We’re told that Aylmer “select[s] it as the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death, Aylmer’s sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.”

He’s a very poor reader. His judgments are overawed by idealism.

11. Georgiana asks him: “Cannot you remove this little, little mark, which I cover with the tips of two small fingers?”

On one level, Georgiana is offering her husband the opportunity to play doctor with her, to get rid of the mark that’s driving him mad—but I think there’s an ironic second meaning at work here as well. I think she’s suggesting that he remove his perception of the mark, his reading of the mark. That he change his attitude.

12. Hawthorne’s homeboy Herman Melville, in his big book Moby-Dick, has Ishmael point out—in a simple, charming, homey way—that there is no simply no ideal purity available to us:

We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.

13. Actually, even though we’re told he’s brilliant, it turns out that Aylmer is not the transcendent scientist he’d like to be. In a scene that almost edges into comedy (just a dab to give this tragedy dimension), Georgiana reads

a large folio from her husband’s own hand, in which he had recorded every experiment of his scientific career, its original aim, the methods adopted for its development, and its final success or failure, with the circumstances to which either event was attributable. The book, in truth, was both the history and emblem of his ardent, ambitious, imaginative, yet practical and laborious life. He handled physical details as if there were nothing beyond them; yet spiritualized them all, and redeemed himself from materialism by his strong and eager aspiration towards the infinite. In his grasp the veriest clod of earth assumed a soul. Georgiana, as she read, reverenced Aylmer and loved him more profoundly than ever, but with a less entire dependence on his judgment than heretofore. Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed. His brightest diamonds were the merest pebbles, and felt to be so by himself, in comparison with the inestimable gems which lay hidden beyond his reach. The volume, rich with achievements that had won renown for its author, was yet as melancholy a record as ever mortal hand had penned. It was the sad confession and continual exemplification of the shortcomings of the composite man, the spirit burdened with clay and working in matter, and of the despair that assails the higher nature at finding itself so miserably thwarted by the earthly part. Perhaps every man of genius in whatever sphere might recognize the image of his own experience in Aylmer’s journal.

14. I should clarify, perhaps, that Georgiana reads the journal as she waits out Aylmer’s experiments in his laboratory.

The Laboratory, John Collier

The Laboratory, John Collier

15. Oh, gosh, I almost forgot—there’s a third player in this piece, Aminadab, Aylmer’s manservant/lab assistant, who’s described throughout the text (usually by Aylmer) as “clod,” “man of clay,” “human machine,” “earthly mass,” “thing of the senses” — he’s the pure-material to contrast Aylmer’s (would-be) pure-spirit. Although he’s not described as hunchbacked I can’t help but see him that way, this Igor to a Hollywood Frankenstein. And he laughs.

16. Aminadab laughs at Aylmer’s folly. Here is the conclusion of this story:

Alas! it was too true! The fatal hand had grappled with the mystery of life, and was the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame. As the last crimson tint of the birthmark—that sole token of human imperfection—faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight. Then a hoarse, chuckling laugh was heard again! Thus ever does the gross fatality of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence which, in this dim sphere of half development, demands the completeness of a higher state. Yet, had Alymer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness which would have woven his mortal life of the selfsame texture with the celestial. The momentary circumstance was too strong for him; he failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of time, and, living once for all in eternity, to find the perfect future in the present.

17. I won’t comment any further on the story, other than to suggest that the final two lines—in bold above—seem perfectly sensible and wonderfully wise to me. I think Wittgenstein may have been approaching a similar idea some eighty years later in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.

January 14, 2013

“… this easy, indifferent sword must be chance…” (Moby-Dick)

by Biblioklept

I was the attendant or page of Queequeg, while busy at the mat. As I kept passing and repassing the filling or woof of marline between the long yarns of the warp, using my own hand for the shuttle, and as Queequeg, standing sideways, ever and anon slid his heavy oaken sword between the threads, and idly looking off upon the water, carelessly and unthinkingly drove home every yarn: I say so strange a dreaminess did there then reign all over the ship and all over the sea, only broken by the intermitting dull sound of the sword, that it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own. This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. Meantime, Queequeg’s impulsive, indifferent sword, sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly, or strongly, or weakly, as the case might be; and by this difference in the concluding blow producing a corresponding contrast in the final aspect of the completed fabric; this savage’s sword, thought I, which thus finally shapes and fashions both warp and woof; this easy, indifferent sword must be chance—aye, chance, free will, and necessity—nowise incompatible—all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course—its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events.

From “The Mat-Maker,” Chapter 47 of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

 

January 13, 2013

“…by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe…” (Moby-Dick)

by Biblioklept

But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul; and more strange and far more portentous—why, as we have seen, it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity; and yet should be as it is, the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind.

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour; and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues—every stately or lovely emblazoning—the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colourless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge—pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear coloured and colouring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

From “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Chapter 42 of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

 

January 9, 2013

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks” (Moby-Dick)

by Biblioklept

Hark ye yet again—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.

From Chapter 36 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The speaker, of course, is Ahab.

 

January 8, 2013

“Moby Dick ye have seen—Moby Dick—Moby Dick!” (Moby-Dick)

by Biblioklept

“It’s a white whale, I say,” resumed Ahab, as he threw down the topmaul: “a white whale. Skin your eyes for him, men; look sharp for white water; if ye see but a bubble, sing out.”

All this while Tashtego, Daggoo, and Queequeg had looked on with even more intense interest and surprise than the rest, and at the mention of the wrinkled brow and crooked jaw they had started as if each was separately touched by some specific recollection.

“Captain Ahab,” said Tashtego, “that white whale must be the same that some call Moby Dick.”

“Moby Dick?” shouted Ahab. “Do ye know the white whale then, Tash?”

“Does he fan-tail a little curious, sir, before he goes down?” said the Gay-Header deliberately.

“And has he a curious spout, too,” said Daggoo, “very bushy, even for a parmacetty, and mighty quick, Captain Ahab?”

“And he have one, two, three—oh! good many iron in him hide, too, Captain,” cried Queequeg disjointedly, “all twiske-tee be-twisk, like him—him—” faltering hard for a word, and screwing his hand round and round as though uncorking a bottle—”like him—him—”

“Corkscrew!” cried Ahab, “aye, Queequeg, the harpoons lie all twisted and wrenched in him; aye, Daggoo, his spout is a big one, like a whole shock of wheat, and white as a pile of our Nantucket wool after the great annual sheep-shearing; aye, Tashtego, and he fan-tails like a split jib in a squall. Death and devils! men, it is Moby Dick ye have seen—Moby Dick—Moby Dick!”

From Chapter 36 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

January 7, 2013

“God keep me from ever completing anything” (Moby-Dick)

by Biblioklept

It was stated at the outset, that this system would not be here, and at once, perfected. You cannot but plainly see that I have kept my word. But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!

From Chapter 32 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

 

January 5, 2013

“…over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes” (Moby-Dick)

by Biblioklept

Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!

From Chapter 26 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

 

January 3, 2013

“Nothing exists in itself” (Moby-Dick)

by Biblioklept

Yes, we became very wakeful; so much so that our recumbent position began to grow wearisome, and by little and little we found ourselves sitting up; the clothes well tucked around us, leaning against the head-board with our four knees drawn up close together, and our two noses bending over them, as if our kneepans were warming-pans. We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.

From Chapter 11 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

 

January 2, 2013

“No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world” (Moby-Dick)

by Biblioklept

As I sat there in that now lonely room; the fire burning low, in that mild stage when, after its first intensity has warmed the air, it then only glows to be looked at; the evening shades and phantoms gathering round the casements, and peering in upon us silent, solitary twain; the storm booming without in solemn swells; I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits. Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him. And those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets that thus drew me. I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy. I drew my bench near him, and made some friendly signs and hints, doing my best to talk with him meanwhile. At first he little noticed these advances; but presently, upon my referring to his last night’s hospitalities, he made out to ask me whether we were again to be bedfellows. I told him yes; whereat I thought he looked pleased, perhaps a little complimented.

From Chapter 10 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

December 28, 2012

Some Books I Plan to Read in 2013

by Edwin Turner

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There are only a handful of forthcoming titles that I know about right now that I’m looking forward to reading next year: story collections from Sam Lipsyte (The Fun Parts) and George Saunders (Tenth of December), and a new novel from William Gass called Middle C. I’m also hoping Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child will finally get a US release, because I’d like to read it too.

There are a few newish books that I didn’t read in 2012 that I’ll try to catch up to this year—Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, and Laurent Binet’s HHhH.

I do not currently possess any of these books.

I also look forward to reading Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks, back in print again from Dzanc (who I am sure will get the copy I ordered to me any day now).

At the top of my list though are the books I’m currently reading: Alvaro Mutis’s Maqroll novellas and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.

Stuff I’ve been saying I’ll read for a few years now that I hope to get to:

Cortazar’s Hopscotch, John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, and, at the top of the heap, Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual.

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I have a few books by Thomas Bernhard that I’ll probably get into this year (when I feel called to a misanthropic monologue), and I’ll gobble up anything else by Barry Hannah that I can get my mitts on. I read William Gaddis’s “big books” last year, but I still haven’t read A Frolic of His Own, which I’ve heard is superior to Carpenter’s Gothic.

I’ll reread Moby-Dick this year (or at least listen to William Hootkins’s brilliant audio version) and I’ll probably end up rereading some book that I hadn’t planned to at all (this happened with 2666 and The Savage Detectives this year—who knows? I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow since college, and I haven’t reread Infinite Jest in full, and I’d love to go through Suttree again . . . ).

I dipped my toe into Finnegans Wake this year—I’ve found reading it on the Kindle late at night and then going through Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key the next morning is rewarding—and I’ll probably keep at it in 2013. Maybe I’ll make it to chapter 3.

But enough of my rambling—What books do you, dear reader, look forward to in 2013?

December 14, 2012

Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / It All Happened So Fast

by Edwin Turner

20121213-185225.jpg

As seems to be the case more often than not in this series of write-ups on reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories, I’ve taken the title from the first line of the first panel (below); you can see the scale of this chapter in folded broadside in the pic above (which also reveals the heart of this episode).

20121213-185234.jpg

This particular episode focuses again on Lonely Girl/Married Mom/The Amputee, who has slowly emerged as the protagonist of Ware’s novel. Here, she deals with the news of her father’s illness, an event that brings her back to her childhood home repeatedly. The motif of homes and buildings evinces again too, of course—it’s a subtle but omnipresent device in Building Stories:

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And as always, Ware’s genius shows in the way he conveys so much truth in the smallest detail. Below he illustrates Lonely Girl’s disconnected relationship with her architect husband in just a panel:

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“It All Happened So Fast” is a fair name for this chapter—Ware’s panels illustrate the way that our lives (and the narrativizing of those lives) can become radically compressed, how our memories fail us, how seemingly trivial details anchor themselves to the emotional strata of our personalities even as concrete fact slips away. Still, another title could come from this panel:

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I’ll close this out by offering three panels that strike me as so utterly real, so wonderfully truthful, that I won’t bother to comment further:

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November 13, 2012

The Problems of Bartleby

by Edwin Turner

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1. What are the problems of Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”?

This question seems like a bad starting place.

Let me share an anecdote instead.

2. I was in the tenth grade the first time I read “Bartleby.”

At the time, I thought I was a teacher’s dream—a sharp reader, someone who loved English class, someone with opinions about the texts we read. Lots and lots of opinions. In retrospect, I realize that I was a nightmare for poor Ms. Hall, a wonderful teacher who I’m sure dreaded our meetings (there were like a 15 guys in the class, all unruly).

Simply put, I didn’t want to do things her way.

So she gave me a copy of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories and told me to read “Bartleby,” suggesting that there was something in it I might learn from.

I don’t know if backfired is exactly the right term for the results of this experiment. I do know that “Bartleby” offered me a brilliant retort—a literary allusion!—to refuse any task I didn’t feel like undertaking in 10th grade English:

“I would prefer not to.”

3. (While we’re here—

“I would prefer not to”

So, this is clearly one of the problems of “Bartleby,” if not the core problem condensed into one utterance: Why would? Why the conditional?

Consider, vs. I prefer not to, a constative (or maybe even performative) utterance.

But Bartleby “would prefer not to.”

Contrast this with the imperative must that the narrator employs:

At the expiration of that period, I peeped behind the screen, and lo!
Bartleby was there.

I buttoned up my coat, balanced myself; advanced slowly towards him, touched his shoulder, and said, “The time has come; you must quit this place; I am sorry for you; here is money; but you must go.”

“I would prefer not,” he replied, with his back still towards me.

“You must.”

He remained silent.

Now I had an unbounded confidence in this man’s common honesty. He had frequently restored to me sixpences and shillings carelessly dropped upon the floor, for I am apt to be very reckless in such shirt-button affairs. The proceeding then which followed will not be deemed extraordinary.

“Bartleby,” said I, “I owe you twelve dollars on account; here are thirty-two; the odd twenty are yours.—Will you take it?” and I handed the bills towards him.

These brief lines perhaps serve to summarize Melville’s tale.

We see here the basic plot—our titular scrivener will not leave the lawyer’s office after weeks of refusing (although refusing is not quite the right word) to work.

We also see here what I take to be the theme of “Bartleby,” the strange ethical position Bartleby’s (conditional) would prefer not to places the narrator’s (imperative) must set against the moral backdrop of do unto others: namely, an impossible ethical position for a Wall Street lawyer especially and most of us in general.

And “Bartleby,” as you’ll no doubt recall, is in some ways Melville trying to work out the problems of Matthew 25:35-39—

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

Perhaps our narrator tries to do these things—tries to feed and clothe and help this stranger Bartleby—but he can’t. Because Bartleby won’t give him an agency to relate to.

Because Bartleby’s utterance “I would prefer not to” denies the performative or constantive or declarative—indeed, it suspends or disrupts its own conditionality, the relation of the subject to its predicate verb.

Or consider one of Bartleby’s only other lines: “What is wanted?” His grammar again suspends agency, disrupts the notion of a stable I (let alone objective case me) that the narrator can interface with, dictate to, interrogate, see his own narcissistic reflection in).

4. Hang on though, I was telling an anecdote. It was about the first time I read “Bartleby,” when I was fourteen or fifteen. This is the book:

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I stole it of course, or never returned it. Yes, that’s duct tape on its side. It is more or less falling apart. Here’s the back, barcode and all.

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5. Over the years, like many readers, I returned many times to “Bartleby,” reading it again in high school, then in college, then in grad school. I read it unassigned too, of course—when I read Kafka and it recalled itself to me, and when I read Moby-Dick for the first time. I read it when compelled. And then I read it with my own students. (I read most of the other stuff in the collection too, of course — Billy Budd and then later (why so much later?!) Benito Cereno).

I scrawled through so much of the book that my annotations are basically worthless, virtually everything underlined or circled:

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6. So we butt up against the problems of “Bartleby”—the problems of interpretation. How to figure an eponymous “hero” who is no more than a phantom, a trace, a lack? How to hash out a narrator who presents himself in relatively admirable terms and yet is so clearly an ethical failure? Why oh why would Bartleby prefer not to? Is the story a tragedy or a comedy? Does it present a world with rules, codes, ethics, or is all absurd here—nihilistic even? Is Bartleby a Christ figure? An ascetic monk? A ghost? Is the story just about Melville’s own anger over the poor reception of Pierre? How much of contemporary transcendentalist thought can we find in the story?

7. Slight shift:

The kind people of Melville House were sporting enough to send a copy of “Bartleby” my way. The book is part of their HybridBooks project; these books offer “digital illuminations” along with traditional (uh, paper) books.

I’d requested a HybridBook—any one of them, really—because I now read about half the time on a Kindle Fire—so I was particularly interested in what a “hybrid” had to offer. What is the reading experience like?

First, the book itself is part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series—beautiful, minimal design with French flaps. I read it on my porch the afternoon it arrived, enjoying its pristine, white, unmarked pages. Then, I checked out the “Digital Illuminations.”

The illuminations are available in several device-specific options, all easy to download with the QRC that comes with the book. I read most of the illuminations on my Kindle, but I also put them on my iPhone and my laptop. I had originally intended this post to be specifically about the digital illuminations, but hell, “Bartleby” is just too damn freighted a read for me at this point. Anyway, there’s a lot of good stuff in there, including “The Transcendentalist” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, selections from Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Priestly, Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” and several excerpts from Melville himself, including letters, other books, and reviews. What I found must, uh, illuminating was “Of Some of the Sources of Poetry Amongst Democratic Nations” from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. There are also illustrations, including a map; there’s even a recipe for ginger nuts. I wish that MH had included a digital copy of the book though. From a practical, concrete standpoint, I found it easier to switch between the free public domain version of “Bartleby” on my Kindle and MH’s illuminations than it would have been to pick up the physical book.

Now, to shift back (perhaps):

Do the digital illuminations help to answer or solve or address some of the problems of “Bartleby,” some of the issues posed in point 6?

Should they?

8. I suppose the hedging answer is yes and no.

The additional material illuminates some of the philosophical, political, historical, and even personal context for “Bartleby.” The material is edited with minimal intrusion, but with enough explication to clearly connect the various selections to Melville’s story. If I’m reading with my teacher hat on (this is a metaphor; there is no literal hat), I’d say you probably couldn’t do better than what Melville House has put together here. The digital illuminations provide a strong foundation for an informed reading, a range of texts that speak (obliquely or otherwise) to “Bartleby.”

Does it all add up to a deeper or richer understanding of “Bartleby”?

Should it?

9. Well. No. And then no.

I mean, would we want a series of essays that would provide the missing pieces that would allow us to puzzle out “Bartleby”? Could we even trust such pieces, let alone trust ourselves to trust such pieces? Isn’t this strange uncertainty why “Bartleby” endures—and endures apart from Moby-Dick or Billy Budd, strange texts themselves, but also not nearly as confounding?

“Bartleby” simultaneously wriggles and plays dead; it burns with apparent wit but then reminds us that we might not be in on the joke. It is Kafkaesque thirty years before Kafka was even born. It shakes off its allegorical idiom the minute we think we might limn its contours. It makes us read it again because we cannot pin it down.

10. But maybe you want to pin it down, tickle it, torture it, make it solve its problems (or at least respond, damn it!).

And maybe I claimed that “Bartleby” was about something—that it was about ethical relations, about duty to one’s fellows—especially when a fellow isn’t a fellow but rather the trace of a fellowthe idea of a fellowa ghost.

So, look, here’s a take on it:

The narrator—let’s call him Lawyer—Lawyer, see he’s a dick, in the parlance of our times. He’s a dick because he doesn’t know that he’s a dick, which is one of the constituting factors of the ontological state of being a dick. He also does not want to see himself as being a dick (this is another factor in the ontological state of being a dick). He wants to see himself as a good guy, this Wall Street dickhead, but Bartleby won’t let him do that. Bartleby won’t even let him see himself at all: Bartleby doesn’t reflect back. He prefers not to.

Our Lawyer, see, he’s all buttoned up, he’s snug (these are his words). He tells us upfront that he possesses “a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best”; he repeatedly points out the way that people are “useful” to him (or to others). He sees no possibility of an ethics outside of usefulness; on top of that, he cannot see that he cannot see any possibility of an ethics based on anything but “usefulness” (or the negative economy of obstruction figured in Bartleby).

And ah Bartleby, ah humanity: One time model employee, once apparently free from the eccentricities that plague the Lawyer’s other scriveners, Turkey and Nippers. Machinelike.

Bartleby mechanically completes large quantities of copies without comment or complaint.  But when asked to simply read in unison with Lawyer and his scriveners, Bartleby replies: “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby will not read with others—he is literally not on the same page as his colleagues.

Lawyer confronts Bartleby with his noncompliance; Bartleby repeats his mantra. Fuck mantra though because it’s not a mantra. It’s only repeated for Lawyer, to Lawyer, really, who can’t schematize/name/pin down Bartleby’s response. In fact, I would prefer not to so startles Lawyer that he says he’s  “unmanned” by the words. So he rationalizes Bartleby’s odd response, internalizes it, paraphrases it, if you like.

And then Bartleby ceases to even do his copying work. Oh the anarchy! But wait, there’s not even anarchy. There’s not even protest. There’s just big nothing. But not even big nothing—instead the smallest nothing (which proves that big nothing is possible).

So Lawyer attempts to “help” Bartleby. Lawyer believes doing so is his “Christian duty.” And to know that this duty has been met, Lawyer needs Bartleby to be his echo. But Bartleby’s I prefer not to denies this narcissistic exchange. He empties his I of ego (shades of Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball).

Confused, Lawyer tries to pay off Bartleby. When that doesn’t work, Lawyer actually packs up and moves to a new office. But even here he can’t cut off Bartleby. The office’s landlord comes to Lawyer to remove Bartleby.

And when Bartleby refuses to leave the office he is taken to “the Tombs”—prison.

Here, Lawyer tries to provide comfort for Bartleby (hearken ye back to Matthew 25:35-39). He arranges for Bartleby to receive good food in the prison. Bartleby prefers not to eat though, and dies curled up in the fetal position during a visit by Lawyer.

Lawyer is the first reader of Bartleby. But like many readers of “Bartleby,” he is confused.

Lawyer’s confusion results from his need for safety—for ease, for comfort, for a snug, buttoned-upness—and that safety is bought through an affirmation of first-person experience: namely, in the affirmation of the self in the other. That security is bought through assimilating another person’s first-person perspective. But Bartleby is empty of I, of self, of ego.

Bartleby would prefer not to: He will not be ventriloquized: He will not echo: He will not read from the same script: He will not be “of use,” as Lawyer puts it.

So Bartleby dissipates and dissolves: He goes down in the Tombs: a ghost, and impossibility, presence coupled with absence.

11. And the epilogue:

We all recall the epilogue, yes?

Lawyer offers up “one little item of rumor,” a morsel, a “vague report . . . that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington.” The idea tears the narrator up inside: “Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?”

For Lawyer, Bartleby is a dead letter, a failed letter.

12. Did Melville worry that “Bartleby” would be a failed letter? That it would not find an audience? That his work would not be delivered? If he did, it seems too then that Bartleby’s negations foreclose or reject this concern. Not sure of how to wrap up this riff, I’ll retreat to the safety of my title.

We find the final problems (in basic narrative chronology, that is) of “Bartleby” in its final line. Has Lawyer learned from his experience? Can he empathize, finally feel something for Bartleby beyond the confines of a perceived ethical duty? Is Bartleby a place holder for all humanity? Or is Bartleby in opposition to humanity? What does it mean—-

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!

?

October 3, 2012

Chris Ware on DFW’s Novel The Pale King

by Biblioklept

Crippled Robot painting by Chris Ware

Cartoonist/graphic novelist/chronicler of shame and despair Chris Ware wrote about his favorite books for Foyles bookstore. The list includes UlyssesMoby-Dick, and works by cartoonists like Lynda Barry and Ivan Brunetti. Here’s what Ware wrote about David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King:

The first great novel of the 21st century uses the sinister beauty of the American Tax Code as a springboard from which to launch into a genuinely serious discussion of the origins and importance of civic responsibility amidst the hazy, blurred stupidity of a country in quick decline. Contrary to many reviews, I don’t think it’s about boredom, and it’s certainly not boring. Another posthumous editor-to-manuscript resuscitation, the book hangs heavy with the clotted spectre of Wallace’s suicide, which makes the writing glow all the more painfully through it.

August 31, 2012

Malcolm Lowry’s “Big Books,” as Reported by David Markson

by Biblioklept

 

From “Malcolm Lowry: A Remininiscence,” the final chapter of David Markson’s Malcolm Lowry’s Volcano, a study of Under the Volcano:

His big books, however, would at the moment remain these: Moby-DickBlue Voyage, the Grieg, Madame Bovary, Conrad (particularly The Secret Agent), O’Neill, Kafka, much of Poe, Rimbaud, and of course Joyce and Shakespeare. The Enormous Room is a favorite, as is Nightwood. Kierkegaard and Swedenborg are the philosophers most mentioned, and in another area William James and Ouspensky. Also Strindberg, Gogol, Tolstoy.

Lifting a Maupassant from the shelf (nothing has been said of the man before this): “He is a better writer than you think.”

 

August 27, 2012

Moby-Dick Illustration — Bill Sienkiewicz

by Biblioklept

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