And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt? | Moby-Dick reread, riff 12

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Ch. 37-48.

II. Oof. Twelve chapters. Not sure how up to covering them I am, but let’s go—

III. Ch. 37, “Sunset.”

Ahab has just revealed that The Pequod’s true mission is vengeance on Moby Dick. “Sunset” is a short chapter and continues the Shakespearian mode initiated in Ch. 36, “The Quarter-Deck.” (It begins with the stage direction, “By the Mainmast; Starbuck leaning against it.”) We enter poor Starbuck’s inner monologue: “My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a madman! Insufferable sting, that sanity should ground arms on such a field!”

This rhetorical conceit—a play on a stage with players—playfully plays out over the next few chapters, culminating in Ch. 40, “Midnight, Forecastle,” which reads like a playwright’s script. Ishmael is subsumed into this dramatic grammar, a bit player. Or perhaps he is the orchestrator of events. Or maybe just the recording witness. In any case, he arrives back to himself in—

IV. Ch. 41, “Moby Dick”—

Which begins,

I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.

Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine: Ishmael’s first-person returns, but he assumes a kind of vacant post—he’s been absorbed into the unity of the crew, a unity in turn subsumed into Ahab’s monomania. In “Moby Dick” Ishmael provides a working background summary of Moby Dick’s history, including his encounter with Ahab. At the same time, it seems Ishmael’s consciousness has somehow absorbed portions of Ahab’s:

But, as in his narrow-flowing monomania, not one jot of Ahab’s broad madness had been left behind; so in that broad madness, not one jot of his great natural intellect had perished. That before living agent, now became the living instrument. If such a furious trope may stand, his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it, and turned all its concentred cannon upon its own mad mark; so that far from having lost his strength, Ahab, to that one end, did now possess a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any one reasonable object.

But I skipped a few chapters. Where were we?

V. Ch. 39, “First Night-Watch.”

Another very short chapter, another interior monologue—this time, “(Stubb solus, and mending a brace.)” We mostly get a bit of character-building: “Well, Stubb, wise Stubb—that’s my title—well, Stubb, what of it, Stubb? Here’s a carcase. I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.”

Go to it laughingMoby-Dick is a tragedy, but it’s also a grand comedy.

VI. Ch. 40, “Midnight, Forecastle.”

The crew of The Pequod turns into a chorus. Chorus is not the right word: our boys are not on the same page (except that they literally are). A bit drunk from Ahab’s spirits, they indulge in songs. Melville marks most sailors not by name, but by origin: Dutch Sailor, China Sailor, Lascar Sailor, and so on. The final lines go to the cabin boy Pip though:

PIP (shrinking under the windlass). Jollies? Lord help such jollies! Crish, crash! there goes the jib-stay! Blang-whang! God! Duck lower, Pip, here comes the royal yard! It’s worse than being in the whirled woods, the last day of the year! Who’d go climbing after chestnuts now? But there they go, all cursing, and here I don’t. Fine prospects to ’em; they’re on the road to heaven. Hold on hard! Jimmini, what a squall! But those chaps there are worse yet—they are your white squalls, they. White squalls? white whale, shirr! shirr! Here have I heard all their chat just now, and the white whale—shirr! shirr!—but spoken of once! and only this evening—it makes me jingle all over like my tambourine—that anaconda of an old man swore ’em in to hunt him! Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear!

Poor Pip is already half mad on the road to ruin, his language jangled and his psyche scarred. It’ll get worse.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

VII. Ch. 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale.”

Like maybe just read this one.

(That’s lazy on my part, right?

Okay, so—

“The Whiteness of the Whale” is one of the better chapters of Moby-Dick.

“What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid,” starts Ishmael, and then precedes to say, say, say—-and yet he tiptoes around the calamity at the book’s climax. (This ghost will foreshadow but not spoil.)

The third paragraph of this chapter goes on for almost five hundred words. Here it is (skip it if you like):

Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title “Lord of the White Elephants” above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Cæsarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial colour the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides, all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things—the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honor; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the Vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.

(There are also a few really long footnotes in “The Whiteness of the Whale.”)

VIII. The last two sentences of “The Whiteness of the Whale” might serve as a tidy summary of Moby-Dick’s tropes and themes:

And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

And so they hunt the object of their ideal, as if that would give life meaning and order.

IX. Ch. 43, “Hark!”

A short chapter composed almost entirely in dialogue, but without the markers of a drama. Instead, Melville puts his character’s lines in quotation marks and lets them go back and forth. The chapter basically is more foreshadowing for the eventual revelation of Fedallah and his hidden crew.

X. Ch. 44, “The Chart.”

More on Ahab’s mad questing. We learn his plans to intercept the white whale. As always, Ishmael is permitted into psychic environs that seem as if they should be verboten. He is somehow present in Ahab’s slumbering and waking:

Ah, God! what trances of torments does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved revengeful desire. He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.

A self-crucifying-Christ?

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

XI. Ch. 45, “The Affidavit.”

Ishmael seeks to validate the veracity of his tale with us, his readers. He invokes several “factual” (non-fiction!) texts, including an account from a man he claims as an uncle.

A key idea:

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.

Ishmael tells us this is no allegory, perhaps signalling this is definitely an allegory—but a failed allegory, an ambiguous attempt at allegory, an allegory where object, symbol, and lesson will refuse to align neatly.

XII. Ch. 46, “Surmises.”

Moby-Dick is a novel of masters and commanders, and body and soul, themes I haven’t touched too much upon:

To accomplish his object Ahab must use tools; and of all tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order. He knew, for example, that however magnetic his ascendency in some respects was over Starbuck, yet that ascendency did not cover the complete spiritual man any more than mere corporeal superiority involves intellectual mastership; for to the purely spiritual, the intellectual but stand in a sort of corporeal relation.

XIII. Ch. 47, “The Mat-Maker.”

Does Melville love hyphens or what? Like so many of the chapters of Moby-Dick are hyphenated—and the title is hyphenated, even if the whale isn’t. Anyway. “The Mat-Maker” is a bit of stage business to remind us that Ish and Queeg are, like, working on a whale ship and are part of noble Starbuck’s crew. And then Tashtego calls out a whale. And then they lower boats.

XIV. Ch. 48, “The First Lowering.”

For all it’s philosophizin’, Moby-Dick is still an adventure story, and “The First Lowering” glows with vibrant action.

We are introduced to the secret phantoms that were stowed away beneath decks—Fedallah and his crew, Ahab’s secret assassins. While Ishmael is generally magnanimous and unbounded by prejudice, the novel gives way here to ugly racism:

The figure that now stood by its bows was tall and swart, with one white tooth evilly protruding from its steel-like lips. A rumpled Chinese jacket of black cotton funereally invested him, with wide black trowsers of the same dark stuff. But strangely crowning this ebonness was a glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled round and round upon his head. Less swart in aspect, the companions of this figure were of that vivid, tiger-yellow complexion peculiar to some of the aboriginal natives of the Manillas;—a race notorious for a certain diabolism of subtilty, and by some honest white mariners supposed to be the paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they suppose to be elsewhere.

At an aesthetic level, Melville’s Ishmael is perhaps trying to work through an allegory of whiteness, using yellowness here in unkind and unwise methods—but I don’t think so. It’s just ugly.

XV. “The First Lowering” prefigures the disaster at the end of Moby-Dick. It’s a rough dress rehearsal for the outcome of Ahab’s mad quest, and it ends with Ish, Queeg, and Starbuck imperiled, “Wet, drenched through, and shivering cold, despairing of ship or boat”:

Floating on the waves we saw the abandoned boat, as for one instant it tossed and gaped beneath the ship’s bows like a chip at the base of a cataract; and then the vast hull rolled over it, and it was seen no more till it came up weltering astern. Again we swam for it, were dashed against it by the seas, and were at last taken up and safely landed on board. Ere the squall came close to, the other boats had cut loose from their fish and returned to the ship in good time. The ship had given us up, but was still cruising, if haply it might light upon some token of our perishing,—an oar or a lance pole.

XVI. Will Ish and Queeg survive? Has the ship given them up? Tune in next time, for Ch. 49 — “The Hyena”!

Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me | Moby-Dick reread, riff 11

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Just one goddamn chapter, Ch. 36, “The Quarter-Deck.”

II. There’s too much in “The Quarter-Deck” — too many savory lines, too much foreshadowing, too much language language language — and by too much I mean Too much for me to parse here.

III. (I never intended for these riffs to provide insight into Moby-Dick, but I also was hoping that they wouldn’t just be a collection of greatest hits. Most of “The Quarter-Deck” is greatest hits material.)

IV. “The Quarter-Deck” begins in Melville’s Shakespearean mode:

“(Enter Ahab: Then, all.)”

Ahab takes the quarter-deck, the stage, the novel—his voice overwhelms.

V. The plot of this chapter is fairly simple: Ahab reveals to his crew that the true mission of The Pequod is not to hunt whales and harvest their oil, but rather to exact revenge on the great white whale Moby Dick, who took Ahab’s leg.

VI. Starbuck, first mate and second conscience (to Ishmael’s Captain Conscience—or maybe I mean Captain Consciousness)—Starbuck, the first mate of The Pequod is horrified:

“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

VII. Ahab replies with some of the book’s greatest lines:

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!

Our half-mad captain wants pure contact with the ineffable, even if it means death.

He continues, delivering another classic zinger:

 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.

And:

Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.

VIII. Ahab worries that Starbuck’s conscience might override the crew. He calls for “the measure” of spirits to be poured, and passes a pewter chalice of alcohol around several times, having the steward refill it. He then supplies his own rhetorical intoxication, a performance that drives the crew into a frenzy that finds its dizzying fruition in Ch. 40, “Midnight, Forecastle.”

Ahab calls his three mates to him and they quail “before his strong, sustained, and mystic aspect.” He calls then his three harpooneers (twinning triplets) whom he commands to “draw the poles” — their lances, their phallic harpoons.  He fills the “goblet end” of the harpoons with “the fiery waters from the pewter,” and has toasts the end of his Great Enemy—

Now, three to three, ye stand. Commend the murderous chalices! Bestow them, ye who are now made parties to this indissoluble league. Ha! Starbuck! but the deed is done! Yon ratifying sun now waits to sit upon it. Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow—Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!

IX. God hunt us all—it seems he will.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

Your identity comes back in horror | Moby-Dick reread, riff 10

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Chapters 33-35 of Moby-Dick.

II. (Re: Above—I just finished Ch. 36 of Moby-Dick, “The Quarter-Deck,” which is like, too goodToo loaded. Ahab erupts. Up until now I’d just been riffing on what I’d read, trying to keep it simple, but “The Quarter-Deck” needs its own riff.)

III. Ch. 33, “The Specksnyder.”

Specksnyder is a strange word. Ishmael tells us that, “Literally this word means Fat-Cutter; usage, however, in time made it equivalent to Chief Harpooneer.” Its provenance is anglicized Dutch—another splicing in a novel of splices.

IV. Ch. 33 follows a pattern (initiates a pattern?) common to Moby-Dick: Ishmael begins his chapter with some facts and descriptions specific to whaling (in this case, the business of the Specksnyder), only to zoom out (or is it zoom in?) to larger philosophical matters.

V. In this case, those larger philosophical matters concern the psychological temperament of those who would assume the mantle of leadership. Ishmael notes that moody Ahab eschews the “shallowest assumption” of “elated grandeur.” Our captain is no faker, fraud, humbug, or poseur — “the only homage he ever exacted, was implicit, instantaneous obedience.”

VI. But Ishmael, ever the hedger of bets, ever the ghost who trades in double negatives, warns us that despite his leadership qualities, “even Captain Ahab was by no means unobservant of the paramount forms and usages of the sea…that behind those forms and usages, as it were, he sometimes masked himself; incidentally making use of them for other and more private ends than they were legitimately intended to subserve.” Foreshadowing!

VII. Ch. 34, “The Cabin-Table.”

Another chapter that begins with ship’s business but expands toward grander abstractions. Those abstractions help to shade and characterize Ahab, who has yet to give his first grand speech (that’s in Ch. 36, “The Quarter-Deck”). The ship’s business also points again to obeisance and command. We learn who descends to eat first, a kind of alpha dog Darwinism reconfigured as sea law. Ahab and his three mates go to table in silence. Starbuck is next to go to dinner after his captain. Flask is last: “hilarious little Flask enters King Ahab’s presence, in the character of Abjectus, or the Slave.” Then the three harpooneers eat, noisy, ravenous.

The two most interesting things about this chapter for me on this reread:

a. It is composed in the present tense, beginning: “It is noon.” While Ishmael has shifted into the present tense many times before, unless I am mistaken, this particular whole-chapter shift is a first. And—

b. We have another moment in the narrative where Ishmael witnesses behaviors, viewpoints, events that he should not be able to see. In other words, Ishmael, a lowly seaman has no business at the cabin table.

“The Cabin-Table” is another early moment in M-D that calls into question Ishmael’s witnessing—is he a ghost survivor, a kind of time traveler of consciousnesses? A spy or voyeur, peeking through holes? Or is it just a book, and this is how books work?

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

VIII. Ch. 35, “The Mast-Head.”

Man does Melville love hyphens. Hyphens in the title, hyphens in the chapter, hyphens at suppertime.

IX. Again we have a chapter that starts with some description and history of whaling and ship business. Ishmael waxes at length about assuming watch at the top of the mast-head, making sure to bring up ancient Egypt (always!), the Tower of Babel, Louis Bonaparte, Childe Harold, George Washington (et al.).

X. But again, Ish moves from particulars to abstraction. “The Mast-Head” reads as both an endorsement of and a warning against romantic transcendentalism. (This is a tale of ambiguities, hedging, and double double double negatives.)

XI. Ish relates the reveries to be had atop the mast-head. A watcher on the watery world will quickly lose a sense of self. His ego will fold into something grander, yet grander without clear object. In short, transcendentally-overwhelmed by horizonless horizons, he will forget to sight the whales he hunts.

In such cases, a watcher might be remonstrated:

‘Why, thou monkey,’ said a harpooneer to one of these lads, ‘we’ve been cruising now hard upon three years, and thou hast not raised a whale yet. Whales are scarce as hen’s teeth whenever thou art up here.’

But we sense that Ishmael was the dreaming lad

Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Wickliff’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.

What a sentence! I thought about getting in there for a minute, but hell…what a sentence.

XII. (The word “vacant” above points towards Moby-Dick’s devastating “Epilogue,” where survivor (?) Ishmael assumes the “vacant post” of bowsman.)

XIII. But back to the marvelous conclusion of Ch. 35. Ishmael describes a moment of transcendence, of ego-loss, even ego-death. And then what happens:

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!

Your identity comes back in horror.

Yeah, damn, heed. 

 

God keep me from ever completing anything | Moby-Dick reread, riff 9

I. In this riff: Chapters 28-32.

II. I just finished Ch. 32, “Cetology,” which ends with this marvelous sentiment:

God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.

III. (Ishmael makes good here on one a sentiment he expresses at the chapter’s outset: “any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallibly be fault.”)

IV. The notion of a “draught of a draught” again points to Moby-Dick’s emerging metatextuality, a conceit Ishmael (and, of course, Melville) initiates in Chs. 23 and 24.

V. “Cetology” is Ish’s attempt to “grope down into the bottom of the sea after them; to have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing” While the likely antecedent of the pronoun “them” in the above sentence is whales, one has to search the paragraph above to find it. I think Melville here opens his metaphor. To go a’whaling is to plumb depths.

VI. (“Cetology” is likely one of the chapters that turn a lot of readers off. It appears to be mostly whale facts, although it is not. It is Ishmael riffing on what he has seen of whales, porpoises, dolphins—which is really Melville riffing on what he has seen of these creatures.)

VII. (Parenthetically: Ishmael takes “the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish, and call[s] upon holy Jonah to back me.”)

VIII. But back to metatextuality—in “Cetology,’ Ish organizes his descriptions of whales in bookish terms:

 I divide the whales into three primary BOOKS (subdivisible into CHAPTERS), and these shall comprehend them all, both small and large.

I. THE FOLIO WHALE; II. the OCTAVO WHALE; III. the DUODECIMO WHALE.

Ishmael seeks to read the natural world, but also to name and comprehend it in his own terms. He’s radically open to to encountering the deepest divers, but he’s beholden to romantically translating them into a literature of his own making.

IX. Ch. 28, “Ahab.”

Ahab, who has hitherto haunted Ishmael’s consciousness, finally appears. Rather than attempting to summarize, I’ll simply cite:

He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. Whether that mark was born with him, or whether it was the scar left by some desperate wound, no one could certainly say.

Ahab’s physical manifestation points toward the ambiguity at the heart of Moby-Dick: Is he hero or villain; is he marked by divine intervention or scarred by his own chosen battles?

X. (Either way, our boy Ishmael is smitten.)

XI. “Ahab” is, despite its reveal of a major character, a transitional chapter. The Pequod moves from the cold waters off New England into more tropical climes and “the warbling persuasiveness of the pleasant, holiday weather.”

How is dour Ahab affected?

More than once did he put forth the faint blossom of a look, which, in any other man, would have soon flowered out in a smile.

XII. (The would have there is everything. This is a novel of hints, double negatives, ambiguities.)

XIII. Ch. 29, “Enter Ahab; to Him, Stubb.”

Ch. 29 initiates Melville’s Shakespearean mode; Moby-Dick seems to turn into a stage drama, players staged in Ishmael’s consciousness. We learn of Ahab’s foul moods, and his tendency to clunk around with his ivory pegleg late at night above decks while his hardworking crew sleep below:

Old age is always wakeful; as if, the longer linked with life, the less man has to do with aught that looks like death. Among sea-commanders, the old greybeards will oftenest leave their berths to visit the night-cloaked deck.

Stubb makes the mistake of confronting Ahab and suggesting he apply “a globe of tow…to the ivory heel” to mute its cacophony. But Ahab will not be silenced. He rebukes Stubb in violent language: “…be called ten times a donkey, and a mule, and an ass, and begone, or I’ll clear the world of thee!”

XIV. The long final paragraph of Ch. 29, although set off in quotation marks, nevertheless reads like Stubb’s internal monologue. Other voices have taken over the narrative before now, most notably Father Mapple in Ch. 4—but Stubb’s aside marks a rhetorical move whereby Ish somehow witnesses voices that seem impossible to access—private thoughts, whispered asides.

XV. Ishmael’s ghostly powers present again in Ch. 30, “The Pipe.” He focuses in on Ahab enthroned:

In old Norse times, the thrones of the sea-loving Danish kings were fabricated, saith tradition, of the tusks of the narwhale. How could one look at Ahab then, seated on that tripod of bones, without bethinking him of the royalty it symbolized? For a Khan of the plank, and a king of the sea, and a great lord of Leviathans was Ahab.

Ishmael then somehow dips into Ahab’s soliloquy. Pipe smoke no longer soothes the tortured captain. He tosses his still-lit pipe into the ocean, a symbol of…something?

XVI. In Ch. 31, “Queen Mab,” Ishmael again breeches an impossible private space. This time it’s a conversation between Stubb and Flask. Conversation isn’t the right term, really — “Queen Mab” is essentially Stubb’s complaint about being slighted by Ahab, delivered in a monologue to Flask. He relates a dream, all about being kicked by the captain. The kick recalls a remembered moment earlier in the novel when Peter Coffin, proprietor of the Spouter-Inn, relates unwittingly kicking his young child Sam from the bed while the family sleeps together. The symbolic orphaning-expulsion repeats in Ch. 22, “Merry Christmas,” when Captain Peleg kicks Ishmael in the ass.

XVII. I started with Ch. 32, “Cetology.” Here are Barry Moser’s illustrations:

Humbug or bugbear | Riff 6 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (The Ramadan/His Mark/The Prophet)

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Ch. 17, “The Ramadan,” Ch. 18, “His Mark,” and Ch. 19, “The Prophet.”

II. “The Ramadan” again underscores Moby-Dick’s theme of death and resurrection. In Ch. 16, “The Ship,” Queequeg shuts himself up in his room to undertake a “sort of Lent or Ramadan, or day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer.” This “Ramadan” extends much further than Ish imagined it would, and he soon grows concerned that Queequeg may have fallen into “apoplexy.” He communicates his concerns to the inn’s chambermaid, who loses her head and yells for the proprietor, Mrs. Hussey, who loses her head in turn:

‘He’s killed himself,’ she cried. ‘It’s unfort’nate Stiggs done over again—there goes another counterpane—God pity his poor mother!—it will be the ruin of my house. Has the poor lad a sister? Where’s that girl?—there, Betty, go to Snarles the Painter, and tell him to paint me a sign, with—“no suicides permitted here, and no smoking in the parlor;”—might as well kill both birds at once. Kill? The Lord be merciful to his ghost!’

The scene plays comically—Queeg is perfectly fine—but the comedy is an ironic prefiguration of Queequeg’s fate in Moby-Dick’s strange, tragic climax.

III. At the beginning of “The Ramadan,” Ishmael claims a largehearted, ecumenical open-mindedness towards “everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical. Ishmael sings a very different tune at the end of the chapter, however:

 I labored to show Queequeg that all these Lents, Ramadans, and prolonged ham-squattings in cold, cheerless rooms were stark nonsense; bad for the health; useless for the soul; opposed, in short, to the obvious laws of Hygiene and common sense. I told him, too, that he being in other things such an extremely sensible and sagacious savage, it pained me, very badly pained me, to see him now so deplorably foolish about this ridiculous Ramadan of his. Besides, argued I, fasting makes the body cave in; hence the spirit caves in; and all thoughts born of a fast must necessarily be half-starved. This is the reason why most dyspeptic religionists cherish such melancholy notions about their hereafters. In one word, Queequeg, said I, rather digressively; hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling; and since then perpetuated through the hereditary dyspepsias nurtured by Ramadans.

Is Ishmael’s viewpoint Melville’s authorial position? Or is Ishmael missing something in Queequeg’s mute devotions that Melville is asking us to pick up on?

IV. In “His Mark,” Ishmael introduces Queequeg to the Quaker captains Bildad and Peleg. Alarmed at his “savage” appearance, Peleg presses the pair for Queeg’s “papers” — for documentation that he’s converted to Christianity. Ish quickly supplies a lie, claiming that Queeg is “a member of the first Congregational Church,” but when pressed harder, turns his lie into a kind of truth of Emersonian over-soulism:

‘I mean, sir, the same ancient Catholic Church to which you and I, and Captain Peleg there, and Queequeg here, and all of us, and every mother’s son and soul of us belong; the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong to that; only some of us cherish some queer crotchets no ways touching the grand belief; in that we all join hands.’

‘Splice, thou mean’st splice hands,’ cried Peleg, drawing nearer.

V. While the Quaker captains are impressed by Ishmael’s spiritual oratory, it’s Queequeg’s skill with the harpoon that earns the islander a place on The Pequod. After he demonstrates his acumen by harpooning a speck of tar floating on the water’s surface, Peleg offers him a job:

‘We must have Hedgehog there, I mean Quohog, in one of our boats. Look ye, Quohog, we’ll give ye the ninetieth lay, and that’s more than ever was given a harpooneer yet out of Nantucket.’

The chapter’s comic tone culminates in Queequeg signing his mark to a misappellation:

VI. As is so often the case in Moby-Dick, comedy shifts into more serious matters. Dour Bildad asks his comrade how he could not think of death and eternity in times of peril:

‘Tell me, when this same Pequod here had her three masts overboard in that typhoon on Japan, that same voyage when thou went mate with Captain Ahab, did’st thou not think of Death and the Judgment then?’

Peleg contrasts Bildad’s morose death-obsession with a drive to survive, to live:

‘Death and the Judgment then? What? With all three masts making such an everlasting thundering against the side; and every sea breaking over us, fore and aft. Think of Death and the Judgment then? No! no time to think about Death then. Life was what Captain Ahab and I was thinking of; and how to save all hands—how to rig jury-masts—how to get into the nearest port; that was what I was thinking of.’

VII. The next chapter is “The Prophet,” where leaving the Quaker captains, Ish and Queeg are immediately accosted by a severe-looking stranger:

 He was but shabbily apparelled in faded jacket and patched trowsers; a rag of a black handkerchief investing his neck. A confluent small-pox had in all directions flowed over his face, and left it like the complicated ribbed bed of a torrent, when the rushing waters have been dried up.

He asks if they’ve signed onto The Pequod, and tells them that they should worry about losing their souls, before mumbling that maybe a chap’s better off without one: “A soul’s a sort of a fifth wheel to a wagon.”

The stranger then warns them about Captain Ahab, who lost “his leg last voyage, according to the prophecy.” The stranger concedes that Ahab has enough soul to make up for all deficiencies of that sort in other chaps.”

Ishmael is not too alarmed by the man and asks for his name: Elijah. Named for the prophet who resisted evil Baal, Elijah is an ambiguous figure. Is he truly a prophet whose heedings should be followed, or simply a madman. Ishmael chooses to read him thus: “he was nothing but a humbug, trying to be a bugbear”; in other words, he was nothing but a hoaxer, trying to be a monster.

And yet the words Ishmael chooses phonetically splice into each other—humbugbear—pointing towards the novel’s shifting tones and ambiguous symbols. Elijah’s warnings have a strange effect on Ishmael:

…his ambiguous, half-hinting, half-revealing, shrouded sort of talk, now begat in me all kinds of vague wonderments and half-apprehensions, and all connected with the Pequod; and Captain Ahab; and the leg he had lost…and the voyage we had bound ourselves to sail; and a hundred other shadowy things.

A hundred other shadowy things to come.

Oblique hints | Riff 5 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (Nantucket/Chowder/The Ship)

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. Two short chapters followed by a rather long one, as we almost nearly maybe might head out on the great whaling voyage!

II. Ishmael and Queequeg arrive at their titular destination in “Nantucket,” Ch. 14.

Ish gives us a story—which I think is entirely fabricated, but I could be wrong—about Nantucket’s founding (emphasis mine):

Look now at the wondrous traditional story of how this island was settled by the red-men. Thus goes the legend. In olden times an eagle swooped down upon the New England coast, and carried off an infant Indian in his talons. With loud lament the parents saw their child borne out of sight over the wide waters. They resolved to follow in the same direction. Setting out in their canoes, after a perilous passage they discovered the island, and there they found an empty ivory casket,—the poor little Indian’s skeleton.

As I stated in my opening riff on rereading M-D, I believe that Melville’s novel can be read as a kind of grieving how against the genocidal scope of American culture. This genocide is frequently coded in infanticidal imagery, as well as images of lost children, orphans, and widows.

Ishmael’s (fanciful) version of the founding of Nantucket shows a US American emblem, the eagle, stealing and destroying an avatar of Indian futurity.

III. The motif of genocide shows up again (somewhat indirectly) in Ch. 16, “The Ship.” Queeg tasks Ish with choosing the ship they will sail on, and Ish chooses carefully (emphasis mine):

After much prolonged sauntering and many random inquiries, I learnt that there were three ships up for three-years’ voyages—The Devil-dam, the Tit-bit, and the Pequod. Devil-Dam, I do not know the origin of; Tit-bit is obvious; Pequod, you will no doubt remember, was the name of a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians; now extinct as the ancient Medes. I peered and pryed about the Devil-dam; from her, hopped over to the Tit-bit; and finally, going on board the Pequod, looked around her for a moment, and then decided that this was the very ship for us.

The Pequod’s voyage symbolically re-enacts an American extinction agenda—an ill-fated, suicidal project with only one (apparent) survivor, saved in the end by the ship the Rachel, which, “in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”

IV. Ishmael chooses The Pequod because of her gnarly outfitting:

She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies. All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the sperm whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to.

Ish notes that The Pequod is a “noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.”

V. Ish is a bit of a romantic, choosing his ship—and, significantly, his partner Queequeg’s fate—-because of its aesthetic.

As a romantic, he tends to read a bit much into the signs and wonders of the world. In Ch. 15, “Chowder,” Melville has ironic fun with Ish’s tendency toward foreshadowing and symbolic overdeterminism.

On a tip, Ish and Queeg head to the Try Pots for some grub and find—

Two enormous wooden pots painted black, and suspended by asses’ ears, swung from the cross-trees of an old top-mast, planted in front of an old doorway. The horns of the cross-trees were sawed off on the other side, so that this old top-mast looked not a little like a gallows. Perhaps I was over sensitive to such impressions at the time, but I could not help staring at this gallows with a vague misgiving. A sort of crick was in my neck as I gazed up to the two remaining horns; yes, two of them, one for Queequeg, and one for me. It’s ominous, thinks I. A Coffin my Innkeeper upon landing in my first whaling port; tombstones staring at me in the whalemen’s chapel; and here a gallows! and a pair of prodigious black pots too! Are these last throwing out oblique hints touching Tophet?

It turns out that this place has some delicious fucking chowder.

And, for the most part, all of the slight events at the Try Pots skewer towards comedy, ironizing Ish’s gloomy symbolic reading of the events of his journey thus far.

And yet!

Ish’s choice of words at the end of his forecasting is telling: “Are these last throwing out oblique hints touching Tophet?”

While “Tophet” (and, alternately, “Tophet,” “Topheth,” and “Topeth”) might generically be defined as “hell,” the meaning here is more distinct. For Ishmael, the giant pots signal the sacrificial roasting of children. “Tophets” were ancient infant burial grounds, but both legend and scholarship suggest these burials were the resort of ritual sacrifice. Infanticide again.

VI. And yet much of “Chowder” is comical and delicious. Ishmael, prompted with “Clam or Cod” by the owner of the Try Pots, showcases the horror we all face when failing to order correctly at some semi-famous local dive where we are not a local:

‘A clam for supper? a cold clam; is that what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?’ says I, ‘but that’s a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain’t it, Mrs. Hussey?’

Ish and Queeg devour the chowder.

VII. Mrs. Hussey is, unless I am mistaken, the first woman to speak in Moby-Dick. There are very few others. The novel is heavy-phallic, homo-horny, pricking stiff with spears and dripping in (whale) sperm. I hope it is not uninviting.

VIII. I remarked a bit above on Ch. 16, “The Ship,” mostly focusing on the nomenclature of The Pequod. It’s a long chapter and introduces two comical characters, the Quaker captains Peleg and Bildad, who own the majority shares in The Pequod.

IX. (As an aside, in response to the last bit of language above, id est, majority shares—look, Moby-Dick is full of economic metaphors and the language of commerce. It is a novel that reckons with American capitalism, repeating phrases like shares and insurance in a way divorced from actual dollars and cents—in Moby-Dick capitalism becomes some kind of extended metaphor that I haven’t fully thought through, but, if I had to say something now, as I type this in a bit of a rush, I might write something like, Melville ironically maps terms of American capitalism over transcendentalist ideology, e.g. Emerson’s “Over-Soul.” Not sure what that last sentence means, but there’s clearly a relationship between religion/soul and insurance/bodily life in M-D that I haven’t thought about much before this reread. I might riff more on these going forward.)

X. “The Ship” is full of humor but also dark foreshadowing. We get the name “Ahab” but no formal introduction. Still, Ishmael is put off by the name: “When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?”

But Peleg puts Ish in his place: “Captain Ahab did not name himself,” he points out. We are all called into the world by signs and symbols that we neither created nor chose.

“Ahab has his humanities,” Peleg concludes, asking both Ish and we readers to find kernels of sympathy for the mad captain (“he ain’t sick; but no, he isn’t well either“).

XI. Let me close with Barry Moser’s wonderful diagrams of “The Ship”:

No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world | Riff 4 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (A Bosom Friend/Nightgown/Biographical/Wheelbarrow)

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. “A Bosom Friend” (Ch. 10)  is another one of the remarkable key early chapters of Moby-Dick. It twins Ch. 4, “The Counterpane,” book-ending Ishmael’s Wild New Bedford Nights with Queequeg.

II. While Ishmael’s largehearted acceptance and quick love for Queequeg probably does not seem as eccentric to contemporary readers as it might have been to Melville’s 1851 audience, it’s nevertheless an enduring emblem of Moby-Dick’s expansive spirit.

“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian,” Ish intones in Ch. 3; by Ch. 10, he admiringly attests that, “Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.” In a curt but not impolite dismissal of his own culture’s moral compass, Ish declares he’ll, “try a pagan friend…since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.” Like Huck Finn, another American prototype who wishes to escape into the wild, Ishmael will always value raw truth over empty artifice.

III. There are so many good lines in “A Bosom Friend,” but I think this must be my favorite:

…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.

Ishmael claims that Queequeg, a “soothing savage” has “redeemed” the world for him.

IV. It is more than possible (and so much has been written on M-D that I’m sure much has been made on the topic) that Ish (and Melville) has (have) taken what might be a complex and nuanced character in Queequeg and othered it into a flat projection screen.

Ishmael, who finds “no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits” in Queeg, might be accused of turning his bosom friend into a romanticized avatar of Ish’s own desire for a noble “savage” unconstrained by the dictates of Christian morality. However, the events of the novel and its developed characterization of Queequeg do not merit such a facile reading (or is my estimation at this point).

V. Indeed—and to jump ahead, maybe—in Ch. 12, “Biographical,” we learn Queequeg’s origin story.

Queeg is a prince of “Rokovoko, an island far away to the West and South.”

Pause a moment, and look it up, seek it out.

(Wait! “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”)

Queequeg desires to travel the world in the hopes of advancing his culture, and, like so many folks in M-D, runs away to sea (to see). However, his time on whaleboats and in ports of the western world soon soon reveal to him that “it’s a wicked world in all meridians.”

He decides to “die a pagan.”

VI. Notably and necessarily, Queequeg’s “Biographical” chapter is delivered entirely in Ishmael’s voice (unlike Ch. 9, “The Sermon,” where Father Mapple overtakes the narrative).

Queequeg is always a linguistic outsider in M-D—and indeed, an outsider in general, an outsider among outsiders—but also a superhuman superhero, as the events of Ch. 13, “The Wheelbarrow,” show.

VII. I seem to be skipping around, so, fine, okay—

—in “The Wheelbarrow,” Ish and Queeg take a packet schooner from New Bedford to Nantucket, where they plan to join a whaling ship’s crew. On the schooner, one of the several “boobies and bumpkins” aboard mocks Queequeg. Queeg catches ahold of the redneck and tosses him playfully into the air, leaving him shaken but unhurt. Captain, crew, and passengers threaten the “devil” outsider, but chaos erupts when the main-sail’s boom sets loose due because of high winds. The boom knocks the redneck into the ocean. Others panic; Queeg calmly secures the spar dives into the ocean, and rescues his mocker: “The poor bumpkin was restored,” Ishmael remarks. He then tells us that “From that hour I clove to Queequeg like a barnacle; yea, till poor Queequeg took his last long dive,” foreshadowing that not all are to be resurrected in Moby-Dick.

VIII. (Or, alternately—all are to be resurrected in Moby-Dick, but only through Ishmael’s wailing tale.)

IX. But I have skipped around so much—back to Ch. 10, “A Bosom Friend.” In one of the more-remarked upon moments in the book, Ish and Queeg tie the knot after a good smoke:

…he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married; meaning, in his country’s phrase, that we were bosom friends; he would gladly die for me, if need should be. In a countryman, this sudden flame of friendship would have seemed far too premature, a thing to be much distrusted; but in this simple savage those old rules would not apply.

X. Ishmael then, through a kind of tortuous logic, describes why he, “a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church,” “must turn idolator” and pray to Queeg’s pagan idol. It’s what God would want him to do, see? Ishmael’s logic is predicated on two simple principles:

–He is “to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me”

and

–“Queequeg is my fellow man”

For me, the remarkable part of Ishmael’s commitment to Queequeg isn’t the first Jesusian imperative to do unto others—it is, in other terms, to recognize the other as a fellow man.This recognition is the moral imperative of Moby-Dick.

XI. And then a sweet ending: “Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair.”

XII. “Nightgown,” Ch. 11, is a short chapter where something remarkable and likely inexplicable occurs: Ishmael and Queequeg learn to communicate.

And not just communicate at the level of base transaction or simple need, but rather share philosophical and even aesthetic viewpoints, as born out in the details of Queequeg’s story in Ch. 12, “Biographical.” Again, we might criticize Ishmael as ventriloquizing Queequeg, painting his own broad romantic visions over the possibility of a complex and nuanced character that Melville can’t muster. But I ultimately believe—or at least, I believe up until now on this reread—that Ish and Queeg’s accelerated ability to communicate points to an aspirational transcendental horizon, post-culture, post-language.

XIII. “Nightgown” also has one of my favorite moments in Moby-Dick, a little riff by Ishmael that anticipates the deconstruction of oppositions we later locate in the work of late twentieth-century language theorists:

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.

XIV. (As a final note—I remembered this passage in Thanksgiving, 2020, after receiving a very sad text message from my aunt, who we would not be seeing that year, after having not seen her for July 4th—like so many other people feeling the smallbig losses of the year, of the absences of festival and visitation—but also feeling those traditions of festival and visitation so much dearer and warmer in their absence. Nothing exists in itself.)

All these things are not without their meanings | Riff 3 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (Breakfast/The Street/The Chapel/The Pulpit/The Sermon)

I. Chapters 5 through 8 of Moby-Dick are all pretty short and showcase the novel’s ever-shifting moods. Ch. 5, “Breakfast,” brims with humor and energy, which extends through Ch. 6, “The Street.” However, by the time we get off the street and into “The Chapel” (Ch. 7), Ishmael takes a sober, somber turn, meditating on death. Ch. 8, “The Pulpit,” continues the serious, philosophical tone, setting the stage for Father Mapple to take over the narrative in Ch. 9, “The Sermon.”

II. “Breakfast” begins with Ishmael forgiving the landlord Peter Coffin for “skylarking with me not a little in the matter of [Ish’s] bedfellow,” Queequeg. Ish values the humor:

…a good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing; the more’s the pity. So, if any one man, in his own proper person, afford stuff for a good joke to anybody, let him not be backward, but let him cheerfully allow himself to spend and be spent in that way. And the man that has anything bountifully laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for.

“Breakfast” has a bustling comic energy. Ish describes the various whalemen setting down to eat: “a brown and brawny company, with bosky beards; an unshorn, shaggy set, all wearing monkey jackets for morning gowns.” (I encourage you to read that line aloud.) We also get the spectacle of Queequeg, “cool as an icicle,” eating bloody beefsteaks at the head of the table—with his harpoon no less!

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

III. The comedic energy carries out into “The Street.” Here, Ishmael describes for us a carnival of cultures in New Bedford, a pavement teeming with “Feegeeans, Tongatobooarrs, Erromanggoans, Pannangians, and Brighggians” as well as “other sights still more curious, certainly more comical.” He gently mocks “the green Vermonters and New Hampshire men,” who head to New Bedford “athirst for gain and glory in the fishery,” pointing out their tendencies to overdress: “No town-bred dandy will compare with a country-bred one—I mean a downright bumpkin dandy.” Ish’s portrait of New Bedford extends to a description of its wealth and its beautiful homes, parks—and women. We get the sense that he’s over those “hypos” he was suffering in the novel’s opening chapter—or, rather, he’s intoxicated by the newness of his adventure.

IV. The atmospheric shift in “The Chapel,” is announced with a change in weather: “The sky had changed from clear, sunny cold, to driving sleet and mist.” Ishmael makes his way to a church peopled by “a small scattered congregation of sailors, and sailors’ wives and widows.” (A “scattered congregation” strikes me as an oxymoron.)

In strong contrast to the babble and verve of the two preceding chapters, in the chapel “muffled silence reigned, only broken at times by the shrieks of the storm.”

Ishmael gazes upon marble placards memorializing dead sailors, sailors who never returned, and reflects,

Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say—here, here lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these. What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes! What despair in those immovable inscriptions! What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities in the lines that seem to gnaw upon all Faith, and refuse resurrections to the beings who have placelessly perished without a grave.

The line “refuse resurrections” calls back to Ch. 4, “The Counterpane,” where Ishmael gives us a rare glimpse into his past. Punished as a child to a kind of small death on the summer solstice (okay, he’s made to go to bed early)—the punished Ish hopes for a “resurrection” from his fate and is visited by some “nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom,” an ineffable something that simultaneously signals dread and hope.

Ishmael’s morbid pondering turns philosophical:

…how it is that we still refuse to be comforted for those who we nevertheless maintain are dwelling in unspeakable bliss; why all the living so strive to hush all the dead; wherefore but the rumor of a knocking in a tomb will terrify a whole city. All these things are not without their meanings.

And then in bit of foreshadowing of the book’s catastrophic conclusion, our narrator, thinking of the countless sailors lost and dead at sea, indulges in a bit of self-talk: “Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine.”

V. “The Pulpit” isn’t a particularly memorable chapter, but it serves a significant rhetorical purpose. “The Chapel” gives us some of Ish’s most melancholy philosophizin’, culminating in self-talk about his own death. It’s an introspective, insular chapter; indeed, even as Ishmael furnishes us the details of the memorial placards, he confesses that he does “not pretend to quote.” Ish’s concern is ultimately not for the concrete particulars but for the abstract—the unnamed and unknown dead.

“The Pulpit” refocuses the narrative gaze, moving from Ishmael’s introspection to the imagery of Father Mapple ascending the stage to deliver his sermon.

VI. “The Sermon” is one of many chapters of Moby-Dick that can be read independent of the novel proper. It is one of my favorite chapters. Up until this point, we’ve largely been in Ishmael’s head, and the spare voices we get—a few lines of pidgin from Queequeg, some bantering with Peter Coffin—have the feel of reported speech. In “The Sermon” though, Ish’s consciousness gives way to Father Mapple’s. Mapple retells the story of Jonah in rapt detail, bringing “this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—” to vivid life. His Jonah is a sympathetic deject on the run who finds himself resurrected in the belly of a whale.

Mapple’s sermon quickly edges out any of Ishmael’s stage directions, flowing out uninterrupted for paragraphs. It usurps the voice of the novel, prefiguring Ahab, whose voice will dominate in future chapters. Ghostly Ishmael seems to fall into the background of his own adventure at times, and “The Sermon” is an early rhetorical example of this phenomenon.

As Mapple’s sermon comes to its conclusion, Ishmael returns to the narrative, but he’s still at a distance, still a mechanical describer of sights and sounds, not an analyzer or thinker here.

And it’s the final line of the chapter that stuck out to me the most in this reread:

He said no more, but slowly waving a benediction, covered his face with his hands, and so remained kneeling, till all the people had departed, and he was left alone in the place.

If he is truly alone, then how does Ishmael witness his solitude?

Nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom | Riff 2 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (The Carpet-Bag/The Spouter-Inn/The Counterpane)

I. Much has been made of Ishmael’s first night with Queequeg, and I don’t aim to add to it in any estimable way. Ch. 4 of Moby-Dick—what I take to be a key chapter, although there are probably too many supposed keys to this great big book—Ch. 4 of Moby-Dick, “The Counterpane,” begins: “Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner.”

II. (Later Ish refers to Queeg’s “bridegroom clasp”; in the previous chapter, he tells us that he “never slept better in [his] life” — this after initially finding it impossible to fall asleep in Peter Coffin’s old bed, its mattress possibly “stuffed with corn-cobs or broken crockery.”)

III. Like I said, much has been made of Ish & Queeg, and I don’t know what else I can say. I just love it. I love Ishmael’s initial horror, his yelling for landlord Coffin, his quick realization that his prejudices might be undone via first-hand/eye experience. “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian,” he tells us, even if he’s wary of Queeg smoking his tomahawk pipe in bed: “It’s dangerous. Besides, I ain’t insured.”

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

IV. (M-D might be like the main American text in homosocial studies, I guess.)

V. Let’s come back to that key chapter “The Counterpane” in a moment—how about chapters 2 and 3, “The Carpet-Bag” and “The Spouter-Inn”? I guess here is a good place to be clear,

I don’t know who these riffs are for. I mean, I hope if you’ve never read Moby-Dick they make you want to read it and if you’ve read it before maybe it’ll spark you to read again. I don’t want this to just be me summarizing the book. Let me release my anxiety by leaving the italics and maybe opening a new numeral—

VI. “The Carpet-Bag”:

Ish leaves “Manhatto” and arrives in New Bedford, although he’s too late to make it to Nantucket to join the crew of a whaler and fulfill his mission of Not Being Suicidal. The chapter ends with this remarkable paragraph:

Now, that Lazarus should lie stranded there on the curbstone before the door of Dives, this is more wonderful than that an iceberg should be moored to one of the Moluccas. Yet Dives himself, he too lives like a Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sighs, and being a president of a temperance society, he only drinks the tepid tears of orphans.

The Lazarus theme twists all through M-D, right through its cataclysmic ending. It’s clearly there from the opening paragraphs—Ish’s wishes to revive himself—but this is the first overt reference.

VII. The resurrection motif is enriched in “The Counterpane.”

VIII. (Quote above—I really just love the imagery of rich boy Dives who “only drinks the tepid tears of orphans”! And the knock on his being in a temperance society!)

IX. “The Spouter-Inn”: A nice bit of worldbuilding, as the kids might say (M-D is surely a phantasy).

Proprietor Peter Coffin (“Coffin?—Spouter?—Rather ominous in that particular connexion”)—Peter Coffin is far funnier than I remembered. He fucks with Ish, setting him up for a night with Queeg, who’s been out selling a shrunken head. (In a marvelous little episode, he begins to sand down a dining bench for Ish to sleep on.)

Coffin (a carpenter of sorts) prefigures much of the death/rebirth theme to come in M-D. He also tiptoes the novel’s comic-tragic-something-else axis; his initial japes and jabs at Ish in this chapter give way to a heartfelt moment of near-tragedy, as he explains the origin of the bed Ish will share with Queeg:

—it’s a nice bed; Sal and me slept in that ere bed the night we were spliced. There’s plenty of room for two to kick about in that bed; it’s an almighty big bed that. Why, afore we give it up, Sal used to put our Sam and little Johnny in the foot of it. But I got a dreaming and sprawling about one night, and somehow, Sam got pitched on the floor, and came near breaking his arm. Arter that, Sal said it wouldn’t do.

The marriage bed is spliced to infanticidal violence, to the violent exclusion of children.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

X. So let’s get to Ch. 4, to “The Counterpane,” Ishmael’s first night with Queequeg in ole Coffin’s marriage bed.

XI. I wrote “first night” above, but that’s wrong—it’s first morning I mean—the first morning after the first night. The day after.

XII. And yesterday, I wrote, in a riff on rereading M-D, that we get to know little of Ishmael’s past. I think that that statement’s true, but Ish does give us crucial information about the worst moment of his life, a kind of founding trauma that the rest of the novel’s quest might be set against.

XIII. Forgive the long quote:

My sensations were strange. Let me try to explain them. When I was a child, I well remember a somewhat similar circumstance that befell me; whether it was a reality or a dream, I never could entirely settle. The circumstance was this. I had been cutting up some caper or other—I think it was trying to crawl up the chimney, as I had seen a little sweep do a few days previous; and my stepmother who, somehow or other, was all the time whipping me, or sending me to bed supperless,

—Okay I have to pause here and ask—Why chimney?

XIV. Continue, Ish:

—my mother

Wait — “my mother”? Not “stepmother”?

XV. –sorry–

…my mother dragged me by the legs out of the chimney and packed me off to bed, though it was only two o’clock in the afternoon of the 21st June, the longest day in the year in our hemisphere. I felt dreadfully. But there was no help for it, so up stairs I went to my little room in the third floor, undressed myself as slowly as possible so as to kill time, and with a bitter sigh got between the sheets.

Our boy Ish is punished, sent to relinquish his consciousness (and any and all adventuring) on the summer solstice.

XVI. He continues (again, emphasis mine):

I lay there dismally calculating that sixteen entire hours must elapse before I could hope for a resurrection. Sixteen hours in bed! the small of my back ached to think of it. And it was so light too; the sun shining in at the window, and a great rattling of coaches in the streets, and the sound of gay voices all over the house.

Ish is without hope here. No Lazarus thing, no resurrection dealie. And all in the whitest brightest light. This in the satanic dark black white novel Moby-Dick.

XVII. Lil’ Ish’s trauma intensifies, and he begs reprieve from the wicked step-mom, but “she was the best and most conscientious of stepmothers, and back I had to go to my room.”

XVIII. He continues; the bold-face emphasis is mine:

For several hours I lay there broad awake, feeling a great deal worse than I have ever done since, even from the greatest subsequent misfortunes.

And then Ishmael has this wild nightmare-not-epiphany:

At last I must have fallen into a troubled nightmare of a doze; and slowly waking from it—half steeped in dreams—I opened my eyes, and the before sun-lit room was now wrapped in outer darkness. Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine.

XIX. (Melville hits on the terror of a metaphysical encounter here, a phantom moment encoded into a childhood consciousness that cannot name what is happening to it.)

XX: And then Lil’ Ish’s counterpane of days past entangles with the current counterpane of “The Counterpane” in an

My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bed-side. For what seemed ages piled on ages, I lay there, frozen with the most awful fears, not daring to drag away my hand; yet ever thinking that if I could but stir it one single inch, the horrid spell would be broken. I knew not how this consciousness at last glided away from me; but waking in the morning, I shudderingly remembered it all, and for days and weeks and months afterwards I lost myself in confounding attempts to explain the mystery. Nay, to this very hour, I often puzzle myself with it.

XXI. (That “nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom” — prefiguration of Moby-Dick? of Ahab? of the cruel wet cold world? or just a child’s small big fears?)

XXII. (In any case, this seems to be Ishmael’s epiphanic founding trauma.)

XXIII. And to bring it back to where I started,

Much has been made of Ishmael’s first night with Queequeg.

Let’s end on the morning after—a kind of healing epiphany, coded in otherness, exploration, and strange love:

Now, take away the awful fear, and my sensations at feeling the supernatural hand in mine were very similar, in their strangeness, to those which I experienced on waking up and seeing Queequeg’s pagan arm thrown round me.

Behind God’s back | On Thulani Davis’s poetry collection Nothing but the Music

Here are the first lines of Thulani Davis’s 1978 poem “Mecca Flats 1907”:

On this landscape

Like a thin air

Hard to breathe

Behind God’s back

I see the doors

I wanted to underline the line Behind God’s back—such an image! But the book itself is so pretty, lithe, lovely. Better to leave it unmarked?

The book is Nothing but the Music, a new collection of Thulani Davis’s poems. Its subtitle Documentaries from Nightclubs, Dance Halls, & a Tailor’s Shop in Dakar: 1974-1992 is a somewhat accurate description of the content here. These are poems about music—about Cecil Taylor and The Commodores and Thelonious Monk and Henry Threadgill and Bad Brains and more. “About” is not really the right word, and of course these poems are their own music; reading them aloud reveals a complexity of rhyme and rhythm that might be lost to the eye on the page.

But where was I—I wanted to underline the line Behind God’s back, but I didn’t. I didn’t even dogear the page. Instead, I went back to read Davis’s acknowledgements, a foreword by Jessica Hagedorn, and an introduction by Tobi Haslett. The material sets the stage and provides context for the poems that follow. Davis’s acknowledgments begin:

I have heard this music in a lot of clubs that no longer exist, opera houses in Italy that will stand another hundred years parks in Manhattan, Brooklyn, L.A., San Francisco, and Washington, DC as well as on Goree Island and in Harare, Zimbabwe. Some of it was in lofts in lower Manhattan now inhabited by millionaires, crowded bistros in Paris that are close, and legendary sites like Mandel Hall and the Apollo, radio studios, recording studios, and my many homes.

Acknowledging the weird times that have persisted (behind God’s back or otherwise), Davis touches on the COVID-19 lockdown that took the joy of live music from her—and then returned it in the strange form of “masked protesters massed in the streets singing ‘Lean on Me'” during the protests following the murder of George Floyd.

Poems in Nothing but the Music resonate with the protests against police violence and injustice we’ve seen this year. The speaker of “Back Stage Drama (For Miami)” (surely Davis herself?) repeats throughout the poem that “I was gonna talk about a race riot,” but the folks around her are absorbed in other, perhaps more minute affairs:

They all like to hang out

Thinking is rather grim to them.

Composed in 1980, the poem documents an attempt to attempt to address the riots in May of the same year in Miami, Florida, after several police officers were acquitted in the murder of Arthur McDuffie, a black man.

The speaker of the poem embeds a poetic plea, a poem-within-a-poem:

I said, ‘they’re mad, they’re on the the bottom going down/

stung by white justice in a white town

and then there’s other colored people

who don’t necessarily think they’re colored people

taking up the middle/leaving them the ground.’

But her would-be audience is weary:

I am still trying to talk about this race riot.

Minnie looked up and said, ‘We don’t have anywhere

to put any more dead.’

Snake put on his coat to leave, ‘We never did,

we never did.’

1992’s “It’s Time for the Rhythm Revue” takes for its erstwhile subject the riots that ensued after the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King. The subject is far more complex though—the speaker of the poem desires joy of course, not violence:

did they acquit somebody in LA?

will we burn it down on Saturday

or dance to the Rhythm Revue

the not too distant past

when we thought we’d live on?

Is God’s back turned—or do the protagonists just live behind it?:

…I clean my house

listening to songs from the past

times when no one asked anyone

if they’d seen a town burn

cause baby everybody had.

In Nothing but the Music, music is part and parcel of the world, entangled in the violence and injustice of it all, not a mere balm or solace but lifeforce itself, a point of resistance against it all. In “Side A (Sir Simpleton/Celebration), the first of two poems on Henry Threadgill’s 1979 album X-75, Vol. I, Davis’s narrator evokes

at the turning of the day

in these winters/in the city’s bottomless streets

it seems sometimes we live behind god’s back

we/the life blood

of forgotten places/unhallowed ground

sometimes in these valleys

turning the corner of canyons now filled with blinding light streams caught between this rock & a known hard place

sometimes in utter solitude

a chorale/a sweetness/makes us whole & never lost

And again there that line, a note from a previous jam—it seems sometimes we live behind god’s back—I’ll dogear it here, digitally, underline it in my little blog scrapbook.

I think seems is the right verb though, above. Does the star of “Lawn Chair on the Sidewalk” not remain in God’s gaze?

there’s a junkie sunning himself

under my front tree

that tree had to fight for life

on this Brooklyn street

disease got to its limbs

while still young

Typing the lines out, I wonder who I meant by star above.

Nothing but the Music is filled with stars. Here’s avant-piano great Cecil Taylor in “C.T. at the Five Spot”:

this is not about romance & dream

it’s about a terrible command performance of the facts

of time & space & air

In a synesthestic moment, the speaker merges her art with its subject:

the player plays/Mr. Taylor plays

delicate separate licks of poems

brushes in tones lighter & tighter/closer in space

In the end it’s one art:

I have heard this music

ever since I can remember/I have heard this music

There are plenty more famous musicians, of course, but more often than not minor players emerge with the greatest force. There’s the unknown hornplayer whose ecstatic playing inspired 1975’s “He Didn’t Give Up/He Was Taken.” In “Leaving Goree” there are the “two Bambara women…gold teeth gleaming” who “sit like mountains” and then explode in song.

Davis crafts here characters with deft economy. Here’s the aforementioned couple of “Back Stage Drama (For Miami)”:

Snake & Minnie

who love each other dearly

drink in different bars,

ride home in separate cars.

They like to kiss goodnight

with unexplored lips.

They go out of town

to see each other open.

Or the hero of 1982’s “Bad Brains, A Band”—

the idea that they think must scare people to death

the only person I ever met from southeast DC

was a genius who stabbed her boyfriend for sneaking up on her in the kitchen

she was tone deaf and had no ear for French

 

she once burned her partner in bid whist

for making a mistake

At the core of it all is Davis’s strong gliding voice, pure and clean, channeling miracle music and synthesizing it into new sounds. The speaker of “C.T. at the Five Spot” assessed Taylor’s performance as a work of physics, a transcendence beyond “romance & dream,” but the speaker of 1982’s “Zoom (The Commodores)” gets caught up in the aural romance of The Commodore’s pop magic:

zoom I love you

cause you won’t say no/cause you don’t want to go

cause it’s so cruel without love

give me the tacky grandeur of Atlantic City

on the Fourth of July

the corny promises of Motown

give me the romance & the Zoom.

I love those corny promises too. The romance and the zoom are not, at least in my estimation, behind God’s back, but rather, if you believe in that sort of thing, might be God’s special dream. Nothing but the Music cooks raw joy and raw pain into something sublime. I like poems best when they tell stories, and Davis is a storyteller. The poems here capture place and time, but most of all sound, sound, rhythm, and sound. Lovely stuff.

Nothing but the Music is forthcoming from Blank Forms Editions.

Blog about some recent reading

I have a leak in my roof and I’ve canceled my Thanksgiving plans and I’m not sure what to do about the soft coup, but, books—

Top to bottom:

I’m still scratching my head about Two Stories by Osvaldo Lamborghini (translated by Jessica Sequeira). Sneaky strange stuff, prose-poem stuff like elastic concrete, or concrete elastic.

Started Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers last night (on the late David Berman’s recommendation) and really digging it so far. Set at the end of the Vietnam War, it seems to be about a heroin deal going sideways. Maybe the CIA is involved, maybe not. Everyone’s a bit grimy. I guess it comes from the Hemingway tree, or really, maybe, the Stephen Crane tree—Denis Johnson’s tree, Leonard Gardner’s tree, Raymond Carver’s tree, etc. Reminds me a lot of Johnson’s Angels (and, to some extent, Tree of Smoke), but also Russell Banks’s 1985 novel Continental Drift, which I read years ago, hated, and still remember—which means I think it must be a really good novel?

I wrote Top to bottom up at the top, but Leonard Gardner’s Fat City is in line with Stone’s Dog Soldiers—Stone’s losers, I guess. The book is about an “old” boxer (he’s not thirty) on the way out of his career and a young boxer on the rise. (Rise here is a really suspect term.) I really can’t believe I was 41 when I read this. I should’ve read it at 20. I wouldn’t have understood it the same way, of course, and the biggest sincerest compliment I can pin on the novel is that I would’ve loved it at 20 but I know that I would’ve appreciated it more 20 years later. There are plenty of novels that I read and think, Hmm, would’ve loved this years ago, but now, nah, but Fat City is wonderful. It’s a boxing story, sure, but it’s really a book about bodies breaking down, aging, getting stuck in dreams and fantasies. Gardner’s only novel (!) is simultaneously mock-tragic and real tragic, pathetic and moving, and very very moving. Great stuff.

John Brunner’s big fat dystopian novel Stand on Zanzibar frankly overwhelmed me and then sorta underwhelmed me there at the end. This sci-fi classic is a big weird shaggy dog that managed to predict the future in all kinds of ways, and it’s mean and funny, but it’s also bloated and booming, the kind of novel that sucks all the air out of the room. It’s several dozen essays dressed up as sci-fi adventure—not a bad deal in and of itself—but there’s very little space left for the reader.

David Ohle’s lean mean mutant Motorman is a dystopia carved from stranger stuff. Ohle’s cult novel leaves plenty of room for the reader to wonder and wander around in. Abject, spare, funny, and depressing, Motorman sputters and jerks on its own nightmare logic. Its hapless hero Moldenke anti-quests through an artificial world, tumbling occasionally into strange moments of agency, but mostly lost and unillusioned in a broken universe. I loved it.

After I finished it, I made a list with no name of books that are “like” Motorman in their “unalikeness” to other books:

 

Blog about The Orange Eats Creeps, Grace Krilanovich’s Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies novel

Hey, it’s Halloween, spooky times, dark times, right? So here’s a novel recommendation: Grace Krilanovich’s “Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies” novel The Orange Eats Creeps.

Here is the first paragraph of The Orange Eats Creeps:

The sun is setting. The hobo vampires are waking up, their quest for crank and blood is just beginning. Over the course of the frigid night they will roam the area surrounding the train stop looking for warm bodies to suck, for cough syrup to fuel a night of debauched sexual encounters with fellow vampires and mortals alike. They distribute sexually transmitted diseases like the daily newspaper but they will never succumb, they will never die, just aging into decrepit losers inside a teenage shell. They have a sense of duty to their habit and their climax — twin addictions that inform their every move. They are lusty, sad creatures, these Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies. They traverse the Pacific Northwest’s damp, shitty countryside, forests and big trees, the dusty fields and gravel pits clearing a path of desolation parallel to the rail lines of Oregon and Washington, the half-blown-out signs for supermarket chains in strip malls featuring exactly one nail place, one juice-slash-coffee place, and one freshmex-type grill chain restaurant. Here everything is coated in brown-grey paste like moss at the bottom of a crappy tree…

Krilanovich’s novel is coated in brown-grey paste, an accumulation of scum and cum and blood, a vampiric solution zapped by orange bolts of sex, pain, drugs, and rocknroll. It’s a riot grrrl novel, a psychobilly novel, a crustgoth novel. It’s a fragmented, ugly, revolting mess and I loved it. The Orange Eats Creeps is “A vortex of a novel,” as Steve Erickson puts it in his introduction, that will alternately suck in or repel readers.

The vortex of The Orange Eats Creeps recalls another black hole, Charles Burns’s Black Hole, also set in the Pacific Northwest, also crawling through subcultural punk detritus. Visually and thematically, there are also echoes of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film Near Dark, Tim Hunter’s 1986 film River’s Edge, and Harmony Korine’s 1997 film Gummo. (And yeah, I’m sure a long essay could be worked out in the ways that this book grimes the gilt glam from Joel Schumacher’s 1987 film The Lost Boys.)

As a prose stylist, Krilanovich recalls Kathy Acker or William Burroughs, and the vomitiness and abject bodiness of it all is reminiscent of Julia Kristeva’s theory. Krilanovich’s style seems to have roots in punk rock, in zines, and cut-ups, in theft and weird Xerox collages. The novel is fragmentary, random. We’re trapped—trapped?—in the narrator’s ESP-consciousness, zipping through time and space, drugged out, immortal, wishing to nullify time and space, to achieve a comforting and insensate zero.

All the shooting galleries and basement punk shows and drugstore robberies and gallon buckets of cold coffee won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Readers looking for a tightly-plotted vampire novel will find themselves frustrated. The lore here is a separate lore: foster families and parking lots and quick scores and quicker sex. The world is boxcars and group homes and 7-Elevens. But there’s plenty of weirdness: vampire boys, punk rock legends and would-be legends, a warlock, a serial killer called Dactyl, the Donner Party, and ESP, ESP, ESP. There’s a core quest: The narrator searches for her sister. Maybe the quest is a metaphor; hell, maybe vampirism itself is a metaphor in The Orange Eats Creeps. It doesn’t matter.

What matters is the aesthetic impression, a swirl of images, words, and motifs coagulating around the reader’s mind’s eye. The Orange Eats Creeps is a survey of consciousness in crisis—the crisis of late capitalism, with vampires making their way through a gig economy, addicted, transient, desperate, enthralled to a particularly Western weirdness. It doesn’t all work, but who cares? Good gross stuff.

Blog about some recent reading

From the bottom of the stack to the top:

I read most of Padgett Powell’s 1984 debut Edisto in a few sittings, settling down easily into its rich evocation of a strange childhood in the changing Southern Sea Islands. I’d always been ambivalent about Powell, struggling and failing to finish some of his later novels (Mrs. Hollingsworth’s MenThe Interrogative Mood), but Edisto captured me from its opening lines. The story takes two simple tacks–it’s a coming of age tale as well as a stranger-comes-to-town riff. Powell’s sentences are lively and invigorating; they show refinement without the wearing-down of being overworked. The book is fresh, vital.

So when I finished Edisto, I thought I’d go for some more early Padgett. On Friday I picked up his second novel, A Woman Named Drown, started it that afternoon, and put it down 70 pages later the following afternoon. There wasn’t a single sentence that made me want to read the next sentence. Worse, it was turning into an ugly slog, a kind of attempt to refine Harry Crews’s dirty south into something closer to grimy eloquence. I like gross stuff, but this wasn’t my particular flavor.

In between, I took another palate cleansing essay from Brian Dillon’s collection Suppose a Sentence. Dillon’s collection of essays is perfect for resetting a reader’s mood between texts. Each essay reflects, sometimes obliquely, sometimes more directly on a single sentence from a range of authors. Good stuff.

I am working on a full review of William Melvin Kelley’s cult classic Dunfords Travels Everywheres. I have misused the phrase “cult classic” in the preceding sentence Dunfords has been long out of print, almost impossible to find, and largely unheralded for the past few decades. However, new editions from Anchor are rectifying this problem. The book is weird, a bit shaggy, funny and perplexing. More thoughts to come.

When I put down Powell’s A Woman Named Drown I picked up Grace Krilanovich’s novel The Orange Eats Creeps. I bought Orange back in July, pulling it out based on its spine (Two Dollar Radio, a small press I admire) and its title (c’mon!). The Steve Erickson blurb sealed the deal. I’m really digging Orange right now. It’s a novel about Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies (the narrators term) bumming around and sucking blood and drugs in the Pacific Northwest. It reminds me a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s film Near Dark, Tim Hunter’s film River’s Edge, and Harmony Korine’s film Gummo. There’s also a healthy dose of Twin Peaks in here, as well as the abject contours of Charles Burns’s Black Hole.

I’ve also been using Pierre Senges’s Studies of Silhouettes (English translation by Jacob Siefring) as literary palate cleansers, opening the book at random to read Senges’s strange riffs on Kafka’s leads. As Siefring’s blurb puts it, “Each of the texts in this work proceed from the fragments and cryptic beginnings found scattered throughout the notebooks Max Brod took possession of after Kafka’s death.” The results are sometimes very funny, sometimes profound, sometimes both. I hope to have a fuller review down the line.

Blog about book browsing on a Friday afternoon (and mostly looking at covers)

I’ve made a habit of prowling around my own shelves each week, trying to build a small stack of books I can part with. I then head up the street to trade the books in. Lately, I’ve done a decent job of leaving with far fewer books than I brought in to trade—hell, last Friday I came back with no books.

I always have a little mental checklist of books I’m hoping to come across. It mutates and swells, and I get lucky a lot of times. Sometimes I grab stuff at near-random. And other week’s are stale. Increasingly, I search for first editions and interesting mass market paperbacks, a reversal of a previous version of myself who found hardbacks clunky and mass market paperbacks cheap. Mass market editions tend to have wilder art, more interesting designs, and generally take more risks than contemporary, respectable trade paperbacks, as do older hardbacks. I ended up with three first editions. I was not especially looking for any of the books I acquired.

I was looking for certain books of course. Here are some interesting book covers I saw while looking for what I did not find.

I was looking for Walker Percy’s second novel Love Among the Ruins. I’d found a copy at this same book store last year—a first edition in beautiful condition with a really cool cover. I almost bought it (I think it was seven bucks) and now regret not having done so. I’m sure I’ll regret skipping on both of these Percy books, both of which have cover designs by Janet Halverson.

I wasn’t looking for anything in particular when I saw this hardback copy of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, but the font on the spine attracted me. Love the cover painting, which is by Richard Powers (I assume this is a different Richard Powers than the American novelist).

I wasn’t looking for anything in particular when I picked up this Bantam collection of Mark Twain stories, which has a very cool uncredited Giuseppe Arcimboldoesque cover. Not sure why I picked it out. But I love the cover.

I was hoping to score a cheap paperback copy of one of David Marskon’s early novels when I came across this edition of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks with a cover by Ben Shahn.

I was looking for anything by Gerald Murnane when I found this beautiful edition of Robert Musil’s Young Torless.

The bookshop I frequent separates “Classic Fiction” from “General Fiction” (with some somewhat arbitrary distinctions, in my opinion)—so I checked under the “PE” section in general fiction for a stray Walker Percy (no luck). Never heard of J.Abner Peddiwell’s The Saber-Tooth Curriculum but I love the simple expressive cover.

Walking past “PE,” “PI,” “PL” etc. I stopped at section on James Purdy to check out this edition of The Nephew. I’ve never been able to get into Purdy—seems so sad—but I love this cover.

I was looking for an original edition of Charles Wright’s 1973 novel Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About; I have it in an omnibus, but I’d love a stand alone if I could find one. I did see this edition of The Messenger. The cover is terrible and boring and has way too much text on it. I found a copy of The Messenger a few months ago with a far more interesting cover.

I was looking for one of the William Melvin Kelley novels I don’t have. I found a bunch of mass market copy paperback versions of his first novel, A Different Drummer. The copy on the left has a cool cover. I think I like my new reissue better though.

I always look for a copy of David Ohle’s cult novel Motorman and I never find it. I do like this vibrant cover for Chad Oliver’s The Shores of Another Sea.

While I was in the sci-fi section, I passed by the Gene Wolfe area, and spied a complete hardback set of his seminal The Book of the New Sun tetralogy. I couldn’t pass up on a first hardback edition of the first in the series, The Shadow of the Torturer:

I also picked up a pristine first edition hardback copy of William Gaddis’s 1994 novel A Frolic of His Own. It’s the only Gaddis novel I’ve yet to read and buying a second copy seems like a good motivation to finally dig in.

I also came across a first edition hardback copy of Padgett Powell’s first novel Edisto. I’ve always felt ambivalent about Powell. He was the writer in residence at the University of Florida when I was an undergrad there in the late nineties. He’d taken the post over from Harry Crews, and I always resented that for some reason, brought that resentment to the few readings I attended, never made it through anything but a few stories. But this copy of Edisto was only four bucks. And check out the blurbs on the back:

There’s my guy Barthelme. And then Percy, who brought me to the store today. I’ll give it a shot.

 

 

 

Peter Brooks’s Balzac’s Lives (Book acquired 29 Sept. 2020)

Peter Brooks’s study of Balzac is newish from NRYB.

The only thing I’ve read by Balzac is Donald Barthelme’s short story “Eugénie Grandet.”

NRYB’s blurb:

Balzac, more than anyone, invented the nineteenth-century novel, and Oscar Wilde went so far as to say that Balzac had invented the nineteenth century. But it was above all through the wonderful, unforgettable, extravagant characters that Balzac dreamed up and made flesh—entrepreneurs, bankers, inventors, industrialists, poets, artists, bohemians of both sexes, journalists, aristocrats, politicians, prostitutes—that he brought to life the dynamic forces of an era that ushered in our own. Peter Brooks’s Balzac’s Lives is a vivid and searching portrait of a great novelist as revealed through the fictional lives he imagined.

On The Moviegoer, Walker Percy’s existential novel of sad little happinesses and horny ennui

I jumped enthusiastically into Walker Percy’s first novel The Moviegoer (1961) last week. I read  his fourth novel Lancelot (1977) earlier this month. I loved Lancelot. I did not love The Moviegoer.

The Moviegoer is narrated by John Bickerson “Binx” Bolling, who works as a stockbroker in a suburb outside of New Orleans. A Korean War vet, Binx has never quite lived up to the aristocratic mantle his family expected of him. He should’ve been a doctor, a lawyer, that sort of thing. Instead, Binx ambles amiably (and sometimes not-so amiably) through a vague existence, searching for “the wonder.”

Binx is semi-determined not to be “distracted from the wonder,” an attendance to the possibility of spiritual transcendence. In Walker’s postwar American South, commercial culture and modern manners slowly suffocate spirit. Binx is a would-be philosopher attempting, usually unsuccessfully, to find a dram of wonder in a desacralized world. He fools around with his secretaries, reads novels, checks in on his earthy mother, and has drawn out philosophical conversations with the aunt who raised him after his father’s early death. His aunt too sees the fall of her world, her South—its long drawn out decline into the Big Modern New.

Binx is also deeply intimate with his aunt’s stepdaughter, his stepcousin Kate. (Note the Gothic tinge here, a semi-incestuous plot in this novel full of semi-themes and semi-plots.) Modern malaise is the theme of The Moviegoer, and Kate suffers her malaise far more intensely than Binx or anyone else. Semi-suicidal and prone to bouts of mania, she finds an anchor in Binx. But Binx is a loose anchor, a semi-anchor, a little anchor:

It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh.”

The Moviegoer is full of sad little happinesses: bourbon in paper cups, dips in the Gulf of Mexico, moviegoing, natch. Binx’s post-aristocratic malaise is a privileged, horny malaise. A half-century after The Moviegoer’s publication, Binx’s ennui reads as blinkered, solipsistic, reactionary even. There’s a casual, even temperate sexism and racism to his worldview, which I suppose we might expect out of a midcentury novel by a white male. Binx seems unable or unwilling to regard the humanity of other humans as equal to his own deeply felt humanity. But he’s gentle (and even ironically genteel) in his outlook.

That outlook: the ennui in The Moviegoer is mostly polite and mostly well-mannered. And horny. Unlike the manic, dark, zany vitriol of his later novel Lancelot, the humor of Percy’s debut is lightly ironic, droll, even a touch whimsical at times. It’s almost lethargic. But I suppose a certain lethargy is to be expected from a novel that takes malaise as a theme.

Still, there are moments that puncture the malaise in The Moviegoer. In an earlyish section of the novel, Binx riffs on the classic This I Believe radio program (presumably the one hosted by Edward R. Murrow). Binx pokes gentle polite loving fun at the program in general, before proffering his own short essay:

“Here are the beliefs of John Bickerson Bolling, a moviegoer living in New Orleans,” it began, and ended, “I believe in a good kick in the ass. This—I believe.”

And yet just one line later Binx vacillates back, the conscience of tradition echoing in his grandfather’s phrase:

I soon regretted it, however, as what my grandfather would have called “a smart-alecky stunt” and I was relieved when the tape was returned. I have listened faithfully to This I Believe ever since.

Percy’s—excuse me Binx’s—anger immediately collapses—or maybe reconstitutes into—respect for for tradition and a resigned faithful commitment to listening.

But anger eventually boils over, even if Percy is quick to remove the pot from the burner. Very late in the novel, Binx delivers the closest thing in The Moviegoer to a rant:

Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies —my only talent—smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.

The passage reads false to me, from the corny “dark pilgrimage” (Oh no! Your thirties!) to the aristocratic substitution merde to the complaint against humanism to the ultimate had-too-many-drinks-at-the-dinner-party pose that, Yeah, come come nuclear bomb. And does poor little rich boy Binx really want to fall prey to desire?

Ah! Prey to desire! Existential dread! A call to human feeling, an anxiety of the individual caught between the wonder and the flesh, the spirit and all that horny ennui. For a novel set in New Orleans at Mardi Gras, The Moviegoer is light on fun. Percy, via Binx, repeatedly insists that this is all serious business, even as the light irony drolly undercuts the novel’s core message. Binx comes off as a party guest eager to get along gently, afraid of the potential menace under his surface, but also incapable of accepting the menace under everyone else’s surface.

I wanted more menace. The Moviegoer, like its antecedent, Camus’s The Stranger, seems pointed toward howls of execration—but even if Binx might wish to howl at the absurd, he can’t.

From its opening paragraphs, The Moviegoer’s tone reminded me strongly of Camus’s 1942 novel The Stranger. I loved The Stranger when I was sixteen, appreciated it when I reread it at twenty for a course on existential literature, and have had the good sense to let it alone since. Those howls of execration at the end have always stuck with me. But I know I’ve changed over the past two decades, and I revere my memories of the book. I’d hate to find fault. 

The preceding paragraph is perhaps a rough draft of the following statement: I think I would’ve loved The Moviegoer if I had read it when I was much younger. This isn’t a knock on Percy’s prose, the novel’s voice, or the loose, lilting plot. I appreciated all those elements. The problem is me. The problem is that I already read The Stranger so long ago. And also so long ago—The Plague and The Fall and Nausea. And Waiting for Godot, and Invisible Man. And Hemingway and Salinger and Heller’s Catch-22, which The Moviegoer beat to win the 1962 National Book Award.

And then a few weeks ago, as a significantly older guy, I read Percy’s later novel, Lancelot.

Published in the late 1970s, Lancelot reads like a postmodern Gothic. It’s a parody of Southern gentility and movie-making, a riff on cultural incest, a howling execration of the century preceding it. It’s a ranting monologue worthy of Thomas Bernhard, more Notes from Underground than The Stranger, rough, mean, wild. It’s possible to read Lancelot as the weird dark cursed sequel to The Moviegoer, its sinister postmodern zaniness exploding the former novel’s mannered modernism.

If I was ultimately disappointed in The Moviegoer, it’s likely because I read Lancelot first. I wanted more of that dark weird flavor, that mad ranting fervor. The Moviegoer has its moments, and likely has more that I missed. I found the last line unexpectedly moving: “It is impossible to say.” (Nevermind the referent of that “It.” Suffice to say that we have found ourselves at Ash Wednesday.) But then Percy—or maybe his editors?—appended a goddamned epilogue to the whole affair, almost ruining the novel.

(It’s possible that I’ve fundamentally misread The Moviegoer, that I’ve missed something profound in it, that I’ve read in earnest what was meant in irony, that I’ve skated over wells of depth that seemed otherwise shallow.)

Anyway. Should I read another Percy novel? I’ll admit that Love in the Ruins (1971) seems far more interesting than the famous novel, this one, the one I’m ostensibly “reviewing.” Given the strength of Lancelot, I’ll give it a shot.

 

 

Blog about acquiring a Vintage Contemporaries edition of Barry Hannah’s Airships. (Special guest appearance by David Berman.)

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I’ve been a big fan of the Vintage Contemporaries 1980s series for ages now. The books were easily available, cheap and used, in the nineties, and I first read Raymond Carver and Jay McInerney in VC editions, later adding novels by Denis Johnson, Don DeLillo, Jerzy Kosinski to the burgeoning collection. I was thrilled to find a VC copy of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree years ago; I wasn’t looking for it in particular, but the spine of a Vintage Contemporaries edition is hard to miss in a used bookstore. I picked it up of course, and gave the Vintage International edition I’d read to a friend who’d just finished Blood Meridian. The dark, moody Vintage International covers strongly contrast the bright, vivid VC edition (with a surreal painting by Marc Tauss):

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In time, I’d unshelve at least one or two VC editions when browsing a used bookstore, especially if it was an author I’d been meaning to read. I ended up reading and loving Joy Williams’ first collection, Taking Care, that way, as well as Charles Portis’s Norwood (which led to me reading every Portis novel I could get my hands on).

The one I really, really wanted though was the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Barry Hannah’s collection Airships. I must have seen it first–just the spine–in this great write up of VC designs at Talking Covers, and then added it to a mental list of titles to check for. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Grove Press copy I have of Airships; indeed, I really dig its photorealistic cover by Hannah’s contemporary Glennray Tutor—but I guess at this point I have to admit I’m collector (of cheap eighties paperbacks).

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I read them, books, too, of course. Here’s the intro to my 2011 review of Airships:

In his 1978 collection Airships, Barry Hannah sets stories in disparate milieux, from the northern front of the Civil War, to an apocalyptic future, to the Vietnam War, to strange pockets of the late-twentieth century South. Despite the shifts in time and place, Airships is one of those collections of short stories that feels somehow like an elliptical, fragmentary novel. There are the stories that correspond directly to each other — the opener “Water Liars,” for instance, features (presumably, anyway), the same group of old men as “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail.” The old men love to crony up, gossip, tell tall tales. An outsider spoils the fun in “Water Liars” by telling a truth more terrible than any lie; in “Harkening,” an old man shows off his new (much younger) bride. These stories are perhaps the simplest in the collection, the homiest, anyway, or at least the most “normal” (whatever that means), yet they are both girded by a strange darkness, both humorous and violent, that informs all of Airships.

Well so and anyway:

Yesterday, browsing my beloved used bookstore, I found, while not really looking for it, the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Airships. I was in the “H” section of General Fiction, looking for something by Chester Himes (which I found, but in the Mysteries section, which I really have never browsed before), and there it was, its spine singing to me from a low shelf. I was happy to note the cover is by Rick Lovell, who’s responsible for my favorite VC editions (along with, obviously, series designer Lorraine Louie). As a sort of cherry on top, my edition has a little gold sticker at the top of the inside cover, proclaiming “Square Books on the Square, Oxford Mississippi.” Hannah taught at Ole Miss for nearly three decades. Square Books is still there.

I was excited with my find and I’m a dork so I tweeted about it. The next tweet I saw in my timeline was this tweet by Christopher DeWeese (retweeted by the writer John Lingan):

(I love the blurb by Thomas Pynchon.)

David Berman was a poet, musician, and singer (and more) who died almost exactly a EemWmbXXgAAvc3zyear ago. He was kind of a hero of mine, as far as these things go, and as such I never made an attempt to contact him, even when he linked to this blog on his blog, Menthol Mountains. I absolutely love the cover he made—or did he make it? I don’t actually know—but I know that he loved Vintage Contemporaries, that they were important to him. I recall John Lingan tweeting about having to cut some of his discussion about the series with Berman in his fantastic profile of the then-not-late artist. I couldn’t find the tweet, but I reached out to John, and he told me I remembered right; he also told me he recalled seeing a copy of Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows in Berman’s room.

I wonder if Berman and I had the same VC edition of First Love and Other Sorrows? The one with the Rick Lovell cover of butterflies on a sandcastle? Or maybe he had the one with the purple cover? I gave my copy to a good friend years ago, and have never seen one with the Lovell cover since.

I also wonder if Berman read the VC edition of Airships. I know he met Hannah, who apparently read Berman’s work. I recall now too that both men show up in The Minus Times Collected, which I never picked up. I’m going to order it now.