The profile is by Julian Lucas, who does an excellent job covering both Reed’s extensive literary output as well as his biography. While Lucas’s profile is generally sympathetic, he doesn’t shy away from Reed’s many (many) battles (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, the New York literary establishment, etc. etc. etc.). The print edition of the article is titled “I Ain’t Been Mean Enough,” which comes from a line from Reed’s 1973 poem “The Author Reflects on His 35th Birthday”:
For half a century, he’s been American literature’s most fearless satirist, waging a cultural forever war against the media that spans a dozen novels, nine plays and essay collections, and hundreds of poems, one of which, written in anticipation of his thirty-fifth birthday, is a prayer to stay petty: “35? I ain’t been mean enough . . . Make me Tennessee mean . . . Miles Davis mean . . . Pawnbroker mean,” he writes. “Mean as the town Bessie sings about / ‘Where all the birds sing bass.’ ”
Lucas’s Reed is not a cantankerous caricature though. We get a nice survey of the man’s works situated against his ever-evolving politics and aesthetics. Nor does the profile dwell too long on Reed’s earlier novels (which I confess are my favorites—the most recent long work of Reed’s I’ve read was 2011’s Juice! I had absolutely no idea before reading the profile that Reed has a new novel out this summer, The Terrible Fours).
There’s a measure of defiance to his late-career productivity. Wary of being tethered to his great novels of the nineteen-seventies, Reed is spoiling for a comeback, and a younger generation receptive to his guerrilla media criticism may be along for the ride. “I’m getting called a curmudgeon or a fading anachronism, so I’m going back to my original literature,” Reed told me. “In the projects, we had access to a library, and I’d go get books by the Brothers Grimm.” Now, he says, “I’m reverting to my second childhood. I’m writing fairy tales.”
He finds himself stepping off the bus in some burg he’s already bored with. Picking his teeth for 200 miles—here’s where he spits the toothpick out. Past Holiday Inn the neighborhoods get dark. All-night laundromats where women with circles under their eyes press laundered underwear, warm as bread, against their sinuses. Finally, he’s signing the register at a funeral home where he knows no one, but is mistaken for a long-lost friend of the deceased, for someone who has dislocated his life to make the hazardous journey on a night when the dead man’s own children have avoided him. Once again instinct has taken him where he’s needed; where the unexpected transforms routine into celebration. He kneels before the corpse, striking his forehead against the casket.
When you have arrived at Phyllis, you rejoice in observing all the bridges over the canals, each different from the others: cambered, covered, on pillars, on barges, suspended, with tracery balustrades. And what a variety of windows looks down on the streets: mullioned, Moorish, lancet, pointed, surmounted by lunettes or stained-glass roses; how many kinds of pavement cover the ground: cobbles, slabs, gravel, blue and white tiles. At every point the city offers surprises to your view: a caper bush jutting from the fortress’ walls, the statues of three queens on corbels, an onion dome with three smaller onions threaded on the spire. “Happy the man who has Phyllis before his eyes each day and who never ceases seeing the things it contains,” you cry, with regret at having to leave the city when you can barely graze it with your glance.
But it so happens that, instead, you must stay in Phyllis and spend the rest of your days there. Soon the city fades before your eyes, the rose windows are expunged, the statues on the corbels, the domes. Like all of Phyllis’ inhabitants, you follow zigzag lines from one street to another, you distinguish the patches of sunlight from the patches of shade, a door here, a stairway there, a bench where you can put down your basket, a hole where your foot stumbles if you are not careful. All the rest of the city is invisible. Phyllis is a space in which routes are drawn between points suspended in the void: the shortest way to reach that certain merchant’s tent, avoiding that certain creditor’s window. Your footsteps follow not what is outside the eyes, but what is within, buried, erased. If, of two arcades, one continues to seem more joyous, it is because thirty years ago a girl went by there, with broad, embroidered sleeves, or else it is only because that arcade catches the light at a certain hour like that other arcade, you cannot recall where.
Millions of eyes look up at windows, bridges, capers, and they might be scanning a blank page. Many are the cities like Phyllis, which elude the gaze of all, except the man who catches them by surprise.
From Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino; translation by William Weaver.
When he enters the territory of which Eutropia is the capital, the traveler sees not one city but many, of equal size and not unlike one another, scattered over a vast, rolling plateau. Eutropia is not one, but all these cities together; only one is inhabited at a time, the others are empty; and this process is carried out in rotation. Now I shall tell you how. On the day when Eutropia’s inhabitants feel the grip of weariness and no one can bear any longer his job, his relatives, his house and his life, debts, the people he must greet or who greet him, then the whole citizenry decides to move to the next city, which is there waiting for them, empty and good as new; there each will take up a new job, a different wife, will see another landscape on opening his window, and will spend his time with different pastimes, friends, gossip. So their life is renewed from move to move, among cities whose exposure or declivity or streams or winds make each site somehow different from the others. Since their society is ordered without great distinctions of wealth or authority, the passage from one function to another takes place almost without jolts; variety is guaranteed by the multiple assignments, so that in the span of a lifetime a man rarely returns to a job that had already been his.
Thus the city repeats its life, identical, shifting up and down on its empty chessboard. The inhabitants repeat the same scenes, with the actors changed ; they repeat the same speeches with variously combined accents; they open alternate mouths in identical yawns. Alone, among all the cities of the empire, Eutropia remains always the same. Mercury, god of the fickle, to whom the city is sacred, worked this ambiguous miracle.
From Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino; translation by William Weaver.
An economic summary (perhaps) of Ulysses. From “Ithaca”–
Compile the budget for 16 June 1904. DEBIT
1 Pork Kidney
1 Copy FREEMAN’S JOURNAL
1 Bath And Gratification
1 In Memoriam Patrick Dignam
2 Banbury cakes
1 Renewal fee for book
1 Packet Notepaper and Envelopes
1 Dinner and Gratification
1 Postal Order and Stamp
1 Pig’s Foot
1 Sheep’s Trotter
1 Cake Fry’s Plain Chocolate
1 Square Soda Bread
1 Coffee and Bun
Loan (Stephen Dedalus) refunded
L. s. d.
Cash in hand
Commission recd. Freeman’s Journal
Loan (Stephen Dedalus)
…though [Barthelme] tsked at the critical tendency to group certain writers against certain others ”as if we were football teams” – praising these as the true ”post-contemporaries” or whatever, and consigning those to some outer darkness of the passe – he freely acknowledged his admiration for such of his ”teammates,” in those critics’ view, as Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, William Gaddis, William Gass, John Hawkes, Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut, among others. A few springs ago, he and his wife, Marion, presided over a memorable Greenwich Village dinner party for most of these and their companions (together with his agent, Lynn Nesbit, whom Donald called ”the mother of postmodernism”). In 1988, on the occasion of John Hawkes’s academic retirement, Robert Coover impresarioed a more formal reunion of that team, complete with readings and symposia, at Brown University. Donald’s throat cancer had by then already announced itself – another, elsewhere, would be the death of him – but he gave one more of his perfectly antitheatrical virtuoso readings.
In a hallway I saw a sign with an arrow pointing the way, and I was struck by the thought that that inoffensive symbol had once been a thing of iron, an inexorable, mortal projectile that had penetrated the flesh of men and lions and clouded the sun of Thermopylae and bequeathed to Harald Sigurdson, for all time, six feet of English earth.
Several days later, someone showed me a photograph of a Magyar horseman; a coil of rope hung about his mount’s chest. I learned that the rope, which had once flown through the air and lassoed bulls in the pasture, was now just an insolent decoration on a rider’s Sunday riding gear.
In the cemetery on the Westside I saw a runic cross carved out of red marble; its arms splayed and widened toward the ends and it was bounded by a circle. That circumscribed and limited cross was a figure of the cross with unbound arms that is in turn the symbol of the gallows on which a god was tortured—that “vile machine” decried by Lucían of Samosata.
Cross, rope, and arrow: ancient implements of mankind, today reduced, or elevated, to symbols. I do not know why I marvel at them so, when there is nothing on earth that forgetfulness does not fade, memory alter, and when no one knows what sort of image the future may translate it into.
I have heard Donald referred to as essentially a writer of the American 1960’s. It may be true that his alloy of irrealism and its opposite is more evocative of that fermentatious decade, when European formalism had its belated flowering in North American writing, than of the relatively conservative decades since. But his literary precursors antedate the century, not to mention its 60’s, and are mostly non-American. ”How come you write the way you do?” a Johns Hopkins apprentice writer once asked him. ”Because Samuel Beckett already wrote the way he did,” Barthelme replied. He then produced for the seminar his ”short list”: five books he recommended to the attention of aspiring American fiction writers. No doubt the list changed from time to time; just then it consisted of Rabelais’s ”Gargantua and Pantagruel,” Laurence Sterne’s ”Tristram Shandy,” the stories of Heinrich von Kleist, Flaubert’s ”Bouvard and Pecuchet” and Flann O’Brien’s ”At Swim-Two-Birds” – a fair sample of the kind of nonlinear narration, sportive form and cohabitation of radical fantasy with quotidian detail that mark his own fiction. He readily admired other, more ”traditional” writers, but it is from the likes of these that he felt his genealogical descent.
‘Christie,’ I warned him, ‘it does not seem to me possible to take this novel much further. I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t be sorry,’ said Christie, in a kindly manner, ‘don’t be sorry. We don’t equate length with importance, do we ? And who wants long novels anyway ? Why spend all your spare time for a month reading a thousand-page novel when you can have a comparable aesthetic experience in the theatre or cinema in only one evening ? The writing of a long novel is in itself an anachronistic act : it was relevant only to a society and a set of social conditions which no longer exist.’
‘I’m glad you understand so readily,’ I said, relieved.
‘The novel should now try simply to be Funny, Brutalist, and Short,’ Christie epigrammatised.
‘I could hardly have expressed it better myself,’ I said, pleased, ‘I’ve put down all I have to say, or rather I will have done in another twenty-two pages, so surely. . . .”
‘So I do go on a little longer ?’ interrupted Christie.
‘Yes, Christie, you go on to the end,’ I assured him, and myself went on : ‘Surely no reader will wish me to invent anything further, surely he or she can extrapolate only too easily from what has gone before ?’
‘If there is a reader,’ said Christie. ‘Most people won’t read it.’
‘Politicians, policemen, some educators and many others treat “most people” as idiots.’
‘So writers may too ?’
‘On the contrary. “Most people” are right not to read novels today.’
‘You’ve said all this before.’
‘I’m very likely to say it again, too, since it’s true.’
A pause. Then suddenly Christie said :
‘Your work has been a continuous dialogue with form ?’
‘If you like,’ I replied diffidently.
‘Only one of the things it’s been,’ said Christie generously. ‘It’s something to aspire to, becoming a critic ! Though there are too many exclamation marks in this novel already.’
Another pause. One of the girls in what is ill-reputed to be a brothel opposite hung out the shirt of what might be her ponce. Christie smiled gently, turned back to me.
‘But I am to go on for a while ?’
‘Of course,’ I assured him again.
‘Until I have everything ?’
‘Yes, Christie, until you have everything.’
The excerpt above is the complete text of Ch. XXI of B.S. Johnson’s 1973 novel, Christie Marly’s Own Double-Entry. The title of the chapter is “In which Christie and I have it All Out; and which You may care to Miss Out.” The chapter begins with this epigraph:
. . . the novel, during its metamorphosis in respect of content and form, necessarily regards itself ironically. It denies itself in parodistic forms in order to be able to outgrow itself. Széll Zsuzsa
Válságés regény (p. 101) Akadémia (Hungary) 1970 transl. by Novák Gyorgy
This particular chapter might stand as a synecdoche of Christie Marly’s Own Double-Entry itself.
Ann Quin’s third novel Passages (1969) ostensibly tells the story of an unnamed woman and unnamed man traveling through an unnamed country in search of the woman’s brother, who may or may not be dead.
The adverb ostensibly is necessary in the previous sentence, because Passages does not actually tell that story—or it rather tells that story only glancingly, obliquely, and incompletely. Nevertheless, that is the apparent “plot” of Passages.
Quin is more interested in fractured/fracturing voices here. Passages pushes against the strictures of the traditional novel, eschewing character and plot development in favor of pure (and polluted) perceptions. There’s something schizophrenic about the voices in Passages. Interior monologues turn polyglossic or implode into elliptical fragments.
Quin repeatedly refuses to let her readers know where they stand. Indeed, we’re never quite sure of even the novel’s setting, which seems to be somewhere in the Mediterranean. It’s full of light and sea and sand and poverty, and the “political situation” is grim. (The woman’s brother’s disappearance may or may not have something to do with the region’s political instability.)
Passage’s content might be too slippery to stick to any traditional frame, but Quin employs a rhetorical conceit that teaches her reader how to read her novel. The book breaks into four unnamed chapters, each around twenty-five pages long. The first and third chapters find us loose in the woman’s stream of consciousness. The second and fourth chapters take the form of the man’s personal journal. These sections contain marginal annotations, which might be meant to represent actual physical annotations, or perhaps mental annotations–the man’s stream of consciousness while he rereads his journal.
Quin’s rhetorical strategy pays off, particularly in the book’s Sadean climax. This (literal) climax occurs at a carnivalesque party in a strange mansion on a small island. We see the events first through the woman’s perception, and then through the man’s. But I’ve gone too long without offering any representative language. Here’s a passage from the woman’s section, just a few paragraphs before the climax. To set the stage a bit, simply know that the woman plays voyeur to a bizarre threesome:
Mirrors faced each other. As the two turned, approached. Slower in movement in the centre, either side of him, turning back in the opposite direction to their first movement. Contours of their shadows indistinct. The first mirror reflected in the second. The second in the first. Images within images. Smaller than the last, one inside the other. She lay on the floor, wrists tied together. She bent back over the chair. He raised the whip, flung into space.
Later, the man’s perception of events at the party both clarify and cloud the woman’s account. As you can see in the excerpt above, the woman frequently refuses to qualify her pronouns in a way that might stabilize identities for her reader. Such obfuscation often happens in the course of a sentence or two:
I ran on, knowing I was being followed. She came to the edge, jumped into expanding blueness, ultra violet tilted as she went towards the beach. We walked in silence.
The woman’s I becomes a She and then merges into a We. The other half of that We is a He, the follower (“He later threw the bottle against the rocks”), but we soon realize that this He is not the male protagonist, but simply another He that the woman has taken as a one-time lover.
The woman frequently takes off somewhere to have sex with another man. At times the sex seems to be part of her quest to find her brother; other times it’s simply part of the novel’s dark, erotic tone. The man is undisturbed by his lover’s faithlessness. He is passive, depressive, and analytical, while she is manic and exuberant. Late in the novel he analyzes himself:
How many hours I waste lying in bed thinking about getting up. I see myself get up, go out, move, drink, eat, smile, turn, pay attention, talk, go up, go down. I am absent from that part, yet participating at the same time. A voyeur in all senses, in my actions, non-actions. What a delight it might be actually to get up without thinking, and then when dressed look back and still see myself curled up fast asleep under the blankets.
The man longs for a kind of split persona, an active agent to walk the world who can also gaze back at himself dormant, passive.
This motif of perception and observation echoes throughout Passages. Consider one of the man’s journal entries from early in the book:
Above, I used an image instead of text to give a sense of what the journal entries and their annotations look like. Here, the man’s annotation is a form of self-observation, self-analysis.
Other annotations dwell on describing myths or artifacts (often Greek or Talmudic). In a “December” entry, the man’s annotation is far lengthier than the text proper. The main entry reads:
I am on the verge of discovering my own demoniac possibilities and because of this I am conscious I am not alone with myself.
Again, we see the fracturing of identity, consciousness as ceaseless self-perception. The annotation is far more colorful in contrast:
An ancient tribe of the Kouretes were sorcerers and magicians. They invented statuary and discovered metals, and they were amphibious and of strange varieties of shape, some like demons, some like men, some like fishes, some like serpents, and some had no hands, some no feet, some had webs between their fingers like gees. They were blue-eyed and black-tailed. They perished struck down by the thunder of Zeus or by the arrows of Apollo.
Quin’s annotations dare her reader to make meaning—to put the fragments together in a way that might satisfy the traditional expectations we bring to a novel. But the meaning is always deferred, always slips away. Passages collapses notions of center and margin. As its title suggests, this is a novel about liminal people, liminal places.
The results are wonderfully frustrating. Passages is abject, even lurid at times, but also rich and even dazzling in moments, particularly in the woman’s chapters, which read like pure perception, untethered by traditional narrative expectations like causation, sequence, and chronology.
As such, Passages will not be every reader’s cup of tea. It lacks the sharp, grotesque humor of Quin’s first novel, Berg, and seems dead set at every angle to confound and even depress its readers. And yet there’s a wild possibility in Passages. In her introduction to the new edition of Passages recently published by And Other Stories, Claire-Louise Bennett tries to capture the feeling of reading Quin’s novel:
It’s difficult to describe — it’s almost like the omnipotent curiosity one burns with as an adolescent — sexual, solipsistic, melancholic, fierce, hungry, languorous — and without limit.
Bennett, whose anti-novel Pond bears the stamp of Quin’s influence, employs the right adjectives here. We could also add disorienting, challenging, abject and even distressing. While clearly influenced by Joyce and Beckett, Quin’s writing in Passages seems closer to William Burroughs’s ventriloquism and the hollowed-out alienation of Anna Kavan’s early work. Passages also points towards the writing of Kathy Acker, Alasdair Gray, and João Gilberto Noll, among others. But it’s ultimately its own weird thing, and half a century after its initial publication it still seems ahead of its time. Passages is clearly Not For Everyone but I loved it. Recommended.
The NYT republished the piece on 6 Oct. 1996, under the title “The Whole Sick Crew.” It ran next to a 1969 review of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint—with a big picture of Roth. No Pynchon pic, natch.
Plimpton’s review below:
“Mata Hari with a Clockwork Eye, Alligators in the Sewer”
(A review of Thomas Pynchon’s novel V.)
Since the war a category of the American novel has been developed by a number of writers: American picaresque one might call the archetype, and its more notable practitioners would include Saul Bellow with ”The Adventures of Augie March,” Jack Kerouac, ”On the Road,” Joseph Heller, ”Catch-22,” Clancy Sigal, ”Going Away,” and Harry Matthews, who last fall produced a generally overlooked though brilliant novel entitled ”Conversions.” The genus is distinguished by what the word ”picaresque” implies — the doings of a character or characters completely removed from socio-political attachments, thus on the loose, and, above all, uncommitted.
Such novels are invariably lengthy, heavily populated with eccentrics, deviates, grotesques with funny names (so they can be remembered), and are usually composed of a series of bizarre adventures or episodes in which the central character is involved, then removed and flung abruptly into another. Very often a Quest is incorporated, which keeps the central character on the move.
For the author, the form of the picaresque is convenient: he can string together the short stories he has at hand (publishers are reluctant to publish short-story collections, which would suggest the genre is perhaps a type of compensation). Moreover — the well-made, the realistic not being his concern — the author can afford to take chances, to be excessive, even prolix, knowing that in a work of great length stretches of doubtful value can be excused. The author can tell his favorite jokes, throw in a song, indulge in a fantasy or so, include his own verse, display an intimate knowledge of such disparate subjects as physics, astronomy, art, jazz, how a nose-job is done, the wildlife in the New York sewage system. These indeed are some of the topics which constitute a recent and remarkable example of the genre: a brilliant and turbulent first novel published this month by a young Cornell graduate, Thomas Pynchon. He calls his book ”V.”
” V.” has two main characters. One of them is Benny Profane — on the loose in New York City following a Navy hitch and a spell as a road-laborer. Born in 1932, Profane is Depression-formed, and his function in the novel is to perfect his state of ”schlemihlhood” — that is to say being the victim, buffeted by circumstance and not caring to do much about it — resigned to being behind the 8-ball. Indeed, in one poolroom fracas the 8-ball rolls up to Profane, prostrate on the floor, and stares him in the eye. His friends are called the Whole Sick Crew, a fine collection of disaffected about whom one observer says ”there is not one you can point to and say is well.” Typical of them is the itinerant artist Slab, who calls himself a catatonic expressionist. Beset by a curious block he can only paint cheese danishes — Cheese Danish No. 56 is his subject at one stage of the book.
Set in contrast to Profane is a young adventurer named Stencil. He is active as opposed to passive, obsessed by a self-imposed duty which he follows, somewhat joylessly — a Quest to discover the identity of V., a woman’s initial which occurs in the journals of his father, a British Foreign Office man, drowned in a waterspout off Malta. The search for V., a puzzle slowly fitted together by a series of brilliant episodic flashbacks, provides the unifying device of the novel — a framework encompassing a considerable panorama of history and character. V., turning up first as a young girl in Cairo at the start of the century, reappears under various names and guises, invariably at times of strife and riot, in Florence, Paris, Malta, South Africa. Finally one finds her disguised as a Manichaean priest, trapped under a beam in a World War II bombing raid on Malta and being literally disassembled by a crowd of children.
The identity of V., what her many guises are meant to suggest, will cause much speculation. What will be remembered, whether or not V. remains elusive, is Pynchon’s remarkable ability — which includes a vigorous and imaginative style, a robust humor, a tremendous reservoir of information (one suspects that he could churn out a passable almanac in a fortnight’s time) and, above all, a sense of how to use and balance these talents. True, in a plan as complicated and varied as a Hieronymus Bosch triptych, sections turn up which are dull — the author backing and filling, shuffling the pieces of his enormous puzzle to no effect — but these stretches are far fewer than one might expect.
Pynchon is in his early twenties; he writes in Mexico City — a recluse. It is hard to find out anything more about him. At least there is at hand a testament — this first novel ”V.” — which suggests that no matter what his circumstances, or where he’s doing it, there is at work a young writer of staggering promise.
Perhaps history this century, thought Eigenvalue, is rippled with gathers in its fabric such that if we are situated, as Stencil seemed to be, at the bottom of a fold, it’s impossible to determine warp, woof or pattern anywhere else. By virtue, however, of existing in one gather it is assumed there are others, compartmented off into sinuous cycles each of which comes to assume greater importance than the weave itself and destroys any continuity. Thus it is that we are charmed by the funny-looking automobiles of the ’30s, the curious fashions of the ’20s, the peculiar moral habits of our grandparents. We produce and attend musical comedies about them and are conned into a false memory, a phony nostalgia about what they were. We are accordingly lost to any sense of a continuous tradition. Perhaps if we lived on a crest, things would be different. We could at least see.
The invention of the pattern often requires—among other tender elements, subject to the grotesqueries of decollation—a moonlight scene, the foreground inhabited by an animal, a black knot hanging from its throat. But when a bird, disinclined to die, is tied to a child’s collar, outside a schoolhouse, where we might otherwise find—hidden in a fire—a fragment of a jackal: well, this is just another cheerful little game, played in splendid weather. A boy’s face, they used to say, is just a grave atop a collar, the garment perhaps a shade darker than mouse gray, or so I gather from an adjacent phrase, in which the brother draws cloth across a wire.
Nor, perhaps, will it fail to be eventually perceived, 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. That certain sultanism of his brain, which had otherwise in a good degree remained unmanifested; through those forms that same sultanism became incarnate in an irresistible dictatorship. For be a man’s intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always, in themselves, more or less paltry and base. This it is, that for ever keeps God’s true princes of the Empire from the world’s hustings; and leaves the highest honors that this air can give, to those men who become famous more through their infinite inferiority to the choice hidden handful of the Divine Inert, than through their undoubted superiority over the dead level of the mass. Such large virtue lurks in these small things when extreme political superstitions invest them, that in some royal instances even to idiot imbecility they have imparted potency.
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.”
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”
–“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.)