Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part V

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first and writing about it.

Previous entries:

Stories 60-55

Stories 54-49

Stories 48-43

Stories 42-37

This post covers stories 36-31.

36. “The Captured Woman” (Amateurs, 1976)

Simultaneously creepy and funny, “The Captured Woman is narrated by an unnamed man who has, as the title suggests, captured a woman. The story begins with a double capturing: “The captured woman asks if I will take her picture.” The narrator shoots four rolls of film and develops them in his darkroom. He and the woman have consensual sex. She demands to go to church. She writes a letter to her husband, offering him a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rescue her on a white horse. The husband refuses, and the angered captured woman commands the narrator to “Take me to my room and tie me up…I’m going to hate him for a while.”

In the meantime, the narrator commiserates with his pals who have also captured women. He lays out their techniques:

It is true that Q. will never get one. His way of proceeding is far too clumsy. He might as well be creeping about carrying a burlap sack.

P. uses tranquilizing darts delivered by a device which resembles the Sunday New York Times.

D. uses chess but of course this limits his field of operations somewhat.

S. uses a spell inherited from his great-grandmother.

F. uses his illness.

T. uses a lasso. He can make a twenty-foot loop and keep it spinning while he jumps in and out of it in his handmade hundred-and-fifty-dollar boots — a mesmerizing procedure.

C. has been accused of jacklighting, against the law in this state in regard to deer. The law says nothing about women.

X. uses the Dionysiac frenzy.

L. is the master. He has four now, I believe.

I use Jack Daniels.

Is “The Captured Woman” a faintly-sexist satire? Barthelme’s metaphor for his own repeated failures with women? No clue, but one of the story’s late punchlines suggest a depressive view of relationships:  “The trouble with capturing one is that the original gesture is almost impossible to equal or improve upon.”

35. “Rebecca” (Amateurs, 1976)

“Rebecca” is another melancholy “love story.” It begins with poor Rebecca Lizard “trying to change her ugly, reptilian, thoroughly unacceptable last name.” She then visits a dermatologist who can’t help her skin’s greenish hue, before going home to her girlfriend, Hilda:

Hilda is a very good-looking woman. So is Rebecca. They love each other–an incredibly dangerous and delicate business, as we know. Hilda has long blond hair and is perhaps a shade the more beautiful. Of course Rebecca has a classic and sexual figure which attracts huge admiration from every beholder.

Hilda’s been out for a drink with another woman—just a friend—spiking an argument between the pair that’s not ameliorated by drinking too many busthead cocktails. The resolution is simple and domestic—unusually sweet by Barthelme’s standards. He punctures it with a final note:

The story ends. It was written or several reasons. Nine of them are secrets. The tenth is that one should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what it tattooed upon the warm tympanic page.

34. “At the End of the Mechanical Age” (Amateurs, 1976)

Like“Our Work and Why We Do It,” another story from Amateurs, “At the End of the Mechanical Age” is another riff on Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Both stories are successful, but “Mechanical Age” is divine—a phantasy-romance that turns the mundane into the heroic. The narrator meets Mrs. Davis, who owns a Mexican restaurant, in a supermarket. The pair takes up with each other, becoming first lovers, and then married partners. Meanwhile, God is in the basement, measuring the electric meter. There’s a flood, but our heroic couple survive it. They sing songs to each other recounting enormous mythical figures to come—giants with the mundane names Ralph and Maude. Like “Rebecca,” this story is a love story, but a melancholy one:

“The mechanical age is drawing to a close,” I said to her.

“Or has already done so,” she replied.

“It was a good age,” I said. “I was comfortable in it, relatively. Probably I will not enjoy the age to come quite so much. I don’t like its look.”

“One must be fair. We don’t know yet what kind of an age the next one will be. Although I feel in my bones that it will be an age inimical to personal well-being and comfort, and that is what I like, personal well-being and comfort.”

“Do you suppose there is something to be done?” I asked her.

“Huddle and cling,” said Mrs. Davis. “We can huddle and cling. It will pall, of course, everything palls, in time…”

Huddle and cling is an elegant, simple, and perhaps sad solution.

In Hiding Man, his Barthelme biography, Tracy Daugherty points out that Barthelme viewed an exhibition at the MoMA in 1968 called “The Machine, as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age,” which likely influenced the title and content of the story.

 

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33. “A Manual for Sons” (The Dead Father, 1975)

“A Manual for Sons” is the second-longest piece in Sixty Stories (after “The Emerald”), and reads like an oddity among oddities. It’s an excerpt from The Dead Father, but feels ancillary to that novel (possibly Barthelme’s best). And yet, like its progenitor novel, “A Manual for Sons” is a big fat webbed up concretization of the oedipal anxieties that course through so much of Barthelme’s work. There’s a section with three “sample” voices of fathers, all stern, cruel even. One of these fathers enlists his son’s aid in building a deck—an echo perhaps of Barthelme’s architect father:

Now run me a line down that form with the pencil. I gave you the pencil. What’d you do with the goddamn pencil? Jesus Christ kid find the pencil. OK go in the house and get me another pencil. Hurry up I can’t stand here holdin’ this all day. Wait a minute here’s the pencil. OK. I got it. Now hold it straight and run me a line down that form. Not that way dummy, on the horizontal. You think we’re buildin’ a barn? That’s right. Good. Now run the line. Good. OK, now go over there and fetch me the square. Square’s the flat one, looks like a L. Like this, look. Good. Thank you. OK now hold that mother up against the form where you made the line. That’s so we get this side of it square, see? OK now hold the board and lemme just put in the stakes. HOLD IT STILL DAMN IT. How you think I can put in the stakes with you wavin’ the damn thing around like that? Hold it still. Check it with the square again. OK, is it square? Now hold it still. Still. OK. That’s got it. How come you’re tremblin’? Nothin’ to it, all you got to do is hold one little bitty piece of one-by-six straight for two minutes and you go into a fit? Now stop that. Stop it. I said stop it. Now just take it easy. You like heppin’ me with the patio, don’tcha? Just think ’bout when it’s finished and we be sittin’ out here with our drinks drinkin’ our drinks and them jackasses ‘cross the street will be havin’ a hemorrhage. From green envy. Flee from the wrath to come, boy, flee from the wrath to come. He he.

The chuckle after the line Flee from the wrath to come is particularly menacing. For the most part though, “A Manual for Sons” balances the seriousness of its subject with humorous absurdity and swelling rhetoric:

Fathers are teachers of the true and not-true, and no father ever knowingly teaches what is not true. In a cloud of unknowing, then, the father proceeds with his instruction. Tough meat should be hammered well between two stones before it is placed on the fire, and should be combed with a hair comb and brushed with a hairbrush before it is placed on the fire. On arriving at night, with thirsty cattle, at a well of doubtful character, one deepens the well first with a rifle barrel, then with a pigsticker, then with a pencil, then with a ramrod, then with an icepick, “bringing the well in” finally with needle and thread. Do not forget to clean your rifle barrel immediately. To find honey, tie a feather or straw to the leg of a bee, throw him into the air, and peer alertly after him as he flies slowly back to the hive.

 

32. “Nothing: A Preliminary Account” (Guilty Pleasures, 1974)

In a 1982 interview, Barthelme described using this story in his writing classes:

Occasionally I’ll read something that has some pedagogic value. For example, there’s a story called “Nothing,” which I also use as an assignment. When somebody is stuck, I’ll say, well, do me a piece that describes “nothing.” Sometimes if I give that to a whole class, when they’re finished reading theirs, I’ll read mine just to show how I dealt with it.

“Nothing” is a list that tries to describe “nothing.” It begins thus:

It’s not the yellow-curtains. Nor curtain rings. Nor is it bran in a bucket, nor bran, nor is it the large, reddish farm animal eating the bran from the bucket, the man who placed the bran in the bucket, his wife, or the raisin-faced banker who’s about to foreclose on the farm. None of these is nothing.

(Rereading the lilt here, I’m reminded of Big Thief’s jam “Not.”)

The list is a mix of absurd fun, a few great punchlines (“Nor is it lobster protected from its natural enemies by its high price”), and a heavy dose of Barthelme’s beloved existentialists:

Heidegger points us toward dread. Having borrowed a cup of dread from Kierkegaard, he spills it, and in the spreading stain he finds (like a tea-leaf reader) Nothing.

Like much of Barthelme’s seventies stuff, “Nothing” is a piece that strives to find meaning in failure:

But if we cannot finish, we can at least begin. If what exists is in each case the totality of the series of appearances which manifests it, then nothing must be characterized in terms of its nonappearances, no-shows, incorrigible tardiness. Nothing is what keeps us waiting (forever).

31. “Eugénie Grandet” (Guilty Pleasures, 1974)

Eugénie Grandet” is the only story included in Sixty Stories that uses literal images—photographs and drawings—incorporating them into a collage distillation of Balzac’s 1833 novel of the same name. The story offers a parodic summary of a 200-page novel in just a few paragraphs, including this notorious one:

Butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter

Here, the conflict between Eugénie and her miserly father over Eugénie’s using too much butter in preparing her cousin’s eclairs is compressed into 78 butters. 

“Eugénie Grandet” isn’t just a parodic summary though. It’s also a send-up of middle-twentieth century values. In Hiding Man, Daugherty spends two whole pages on the story, arguing that it should be read within the context of its composition—namely, after the fall out of May ’68.

Daugherty writes,

In parodying this particular novel in the context of May 1968, [Barthelme] composed a potent political document. It not only touched on the rebellion’s seminal issues, but invoked the reinvigorated Sartre…[the story], firmly attached to modernist history, and appearing, as it did, in a mainstream weekly, tucked among ads for glittering cars, watches, and diamonds, is a remarkable American artifact.”

Ultimately though, “Eugénie Grandet” is a strong enough story that one can appreciate it without any knowledge of Balzac or May ’68.

Summary thoughts:  “The Captured Woman” is apt for misreading and “Rebecca” is a bit of a trifle, but it’s a tender trifle. “At the End of the Mechanical Age” is as good as anything Barthelme ever wrote. “A Manual for Sons” is wonderful, and I guess I’m glad it’s included in Sixty Stories, but it does feel out of place–but maybe that’s just because I’ve read The Dead Father. “Nothing” might make a great starting place for anyone interested in Barthelme.” “Eugénie Grandet” is great stuff.

Going forward (in reverse): The next six stories are all from 1972’s Sadness—including a favorite of mine, “Daumier.”

 

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part IV

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first and writing about it.

Previous entries:

Stories 60-55

Stories 54-49

Stories 48-43

This post covers stories 42-37.

47. “The Crisis” (Great Days, 1979)

“The Crisis” is a bit of a toss off, a bricolage of the last decade (’69-’79) that never coheres into a duet, monologue, theme, or even punchline. Its plot, such as it is, details (details is not the correct verb) the circumstances of an absurd failed revolution. Ostensibly a dialogue (or is it a chorus?), “The Crisis” doesn’t add up to much, and is perhaps best summarized in one of its closing images:

Distant fingers from the rebel forces are raised in fond salute.

Is Barthelme shooting his readers the bird?

The story feels like a slapdash riff on Walker Percy’s weird and wonderful satirical novel Love in the Ruins. (Barthelme was a huge Percy fan.)

46. “Our Work and Why We Do It” (Amateurs, 1976)

“Our Work and Why We Do It” is self-consciously postmodern, a mash-up of Beckett’s absurdism, Benjamin’s seminal “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” burgeoning Marxist aesthetic philosophy, and the modes and means of modernism. The opening line seems to satirize capital’s relationship between art, artist, and the means of production: “As admirable volume after admirable volume tumbled from the sweating presses . . . ” The ellipses are not mine; rather, Barthelme sets the stage here for a print economy of capitalist transactions. The Wells Fargo man arrives, gun in hand, to pick up the “bundle of Alice Cooper T-shirts we had just printed up.” He hurries the “precious product” — that’s all it is, product, content — to the “glittering fans”.

We then learn there’s a bit of conflict between the owners and the workers.

A few lines later, the narrator quips, “And I saw the figure 5 writ in gold.” Barthelme copies-cuts-pastes the modernists into his collage here—we get the visual of Charles Demuth’s painting, itself copying-cutting-pasting Willliam Carlos Williams’ “The Great Figure.”

Publication is a rough business: “If only we could confine ourselves to matchbook covers!” laments the narrator–

But matchbook covers are not our destiny. Our destiny is to accomplish 1. 5 million impressions per day. In the next quarter, that figure will be upped by twelve percent, unless

The hanging “unless” is Barthelme’s rhetorical trick and not my oversight—the punchline is “leather,” by the way.  “Leather is the way to accomplish more impressions. But the real hanging punchline is that word “impressions,” with its many connotations.

45. “The Great Hug” (Amateurs, 1976)

Such a great weird little story—is it about a toxic relationship between the Balloon Man and the Pin Lady? is it a metaphor for relationships in the modern era? is it an autobiographical riff, Barthelme’s love woes scribbled into a weird parody? —an oblique comment on e.e. cummings “in Just” — look, I don’t fucken know, maybe read it here. It’ll only take a few minutes, and then you can think about it for a week or so.

44. “The School” (Amateurs, 1976)

“The School” is wonderful stuff, and will take you like, what, 9, 10 minutes to read, if not less.

It’s a monologue I guess, delivered by a sorry educator whose schooling has killed off all manner of creatures. In the first three paragraphs we learn about the school’s failure to keep alive trees, snakes, and herb gardens, but then there’s a more drastic turn:

Of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no surprise. Those numbers, you look at them crooked and they’re belly-up on the surface. But the lesson plan called for a tropical fish input at that point, there was nothing we could do, it happens every year, you just have to hurry past it.

We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy.

We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy—goddammit Donald Barthelme. This line made me laugh out loud. And then it made me sad.

Reviewing my summary of the first three paragraphs, I’m tempted to make something religious out of it all—trees, snakes, gardens, and the like—but I don’t think that’s the gist. Or maybe it is the gist (Barthelme grew up Catholic). Is this a goof on the Eden thing? Humanity’s failure to be good stewards of the planet, etc. etc. etc.? I don’t know. Look, it’s a funny little story, read it.

43. “The Sergeant” (Amateurs, 1976)

“The Sergeant” reads like an oddity in Barthelme’s catalog—although not really, I guess, when that catalog is all oddity.

On one hand, “The Sergeant” is narrated in a seemingly-straightforward Hemingwayesque first-person I. This narrator is clearly based on a version of Barthelme. Barthelme served in the Korean War, but the real backdrop of “The Sergeant” is the Vietnam War–which was also the backdrop of much of Barthelme’s writing career (he arguably best addresses that folly in his 1968 story “The Indian Uprising,” which I’m still a ways from).

On the other hand, “The Sergeant” comes from the school of Kafka—it’s the bad dream we’ve all had, the nightmare repetitions of past duties we didn’t even sign up for. “The Sergeant” reads like a short blueprint for much of the Kafkaesque fiction that would follow it, including the labyrinths of Kazuo Ishiguro.

But Barthelme punctuates his nightmare-tale with a mythological touch: “Penelope!” cries the narrator, extending Barthelme’s anxiety riff into an ageless epic.

42. “I Bought a Little City” (Amateurs, 1976)

I Bought a Little City” is likely regarded as one of Barthelme’s greatest hits, possibly because it’s a more straightforward affair than his collages, pastiches, and oblique parodies. There’s a mean streak to this story about a rich man who buys Galveston, Texas. The story is about a lot things—control, desire, community, and creativity, maybe best summed up in two of its early lines: “What a nice little city, it suits me fine. It suited me fine so I started to change it.” People love to blow up their lives, but the asshole narrator citybuyer starts to blow up other people’s lives. He shoots six thousand dogs, for example. He humiliates a cop by making said cop buy him some fried chicken. He tries to steal another man’s wife, but it doesn’t work out. Maybe “I Bought a Little City” is about creative failures; maybe it’s a satire of capitalism. Or maybe it’s just another Barthelme goof.

Summary thoughts: Uh…the stories in Amateurs are generally better than those in Great Days. The weakest one here is “The Crisis,” from Great Days; the other stories feel more of a piece with each other. I enjoyed “The Sergeant” the most, but mostly because it has a different flavor from the other stories. “The School” is probably the best of the batch.

Going forward (in reverse): We continue backwards through the seventies, where we eventually hit (what I think might be a top-ten Barthelme hit) “Eugénie Grandet.”

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part III

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first. I wrote about stories 60-55 here and stories 54-49 here,

This post covers stories 48-43.

48. “The Death of Edward Lear” (Great Days, 1979)

Like many of the stories culled from Great Days, the humor in “The Death of Edward Lear” is tinged with melancholy. Perhaps it’s because of its subject matter, or perhaps it’s knowing that Great Days was the last collection of originals Barthelme would write, but “The Death of Edward Lear” feels like the work of a much older man. In fact, it was first published in The New Yorker in 1971, when Barthelme was forty, barely middle aged. (For whatever reasons, Barthelme didn’t include the piece in his collections Sadness (1972) or Amateurs (1976.))

The story begins in the most straightforward manner:

The death of Edward Lear took place on a Sunday morning in May 1888. Invitations were sent out well in advance. The invitations read:

Mr. Edward LEAR
Nonsense Writer and Landscape Painter
Requests the Honor of Your Presence
On the Occasion of his DEMISE.
San Remo 2:20 a.m.
The 29th of May Please reply

One can imagine the feelings of the recipients. Our dear friend! is preparing to depart! and such-like. Mr. Lear! who has given us so much pleasure! and such-like. On the other hand, his years were considered. Mr. Lear! who must be, now let me see… And there was a good deal of, I remember the first time I (dipped into) (was seized by)…But on the whole, Mr. Lear’s acquaintances approached the occasion with a mixture of solemnity and practicalness…

Lear treats his many guests to a strange spectacle of rants, rhymes, and mandolin-playing. He also delivers a “short homily on the subject of Friendship.” Then he dies.

His audience is initially confused, before realizing that Lear had crafted his death into a piece of absurdist art:

People who attended the death of Edward Lear agreed that, all in all, it had been a somewhat tedious performance. Why had he seen fit to read the same old verses, sing again the familiar songs, show the well-known pictures, run through his repertoire once more? Why invitations? Then something was understood: that Mr. Lear had been doing what he had always done and therefore, not doing anything extraordinary. Mr. Lear had transformed the extraordinary into its opposite. He had, in point of fact, created a gentle, genial misunderstanding.

And Lear’s performance engenders future performances:

The death of Edward Lear can still be seen, in the smaller cities, in versions enriched by learned interpretation, textual emendation, and changing fashion. One modification is curious; no one knows how it came about. The supporting company plays in the traditional way, but Lear himself appears shouting, shaking, vibrant with rage.

That final angry image is sad, haunting even. It recalls that other Lear, mad on the heath, as well as Dylan Thomas’s most famous villanelle.

In his biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty speculates that the idea for “Lear” might be attributed in part to the “farewell parties” Susan Sontag hosted in the mid-seventies when she thought she might die from cancer. There’s a human reality coursing under the story’s apparent absurdity that makes it a memorable, enjoyable tale about making art out of life and death.

Edward Lear’s actual death sounds much sadder. According to the Edward Lear Society, “Lear’s funeral was said to be a sad, lonely affair by the wife of Dr. Hassall, Lear’s physician, not one of Lear’s many lifelong friends being able to attend.”

47. “Morning” (Great Days, 1979)

In Hiding Man, Daugherty claims that “Morning” is about “the limits of the educational system,” but I don’t see it. It’s an absurdist dialogue, almost impenetrable in its obliquity—which would be fine if the sentences were better. There had to have been better stories in Great Days than “Morning” — the superior “Concerning the Bodyguard” is from that collection, and eventually ended up in Forty Stories—but I’m sure Barthelme had his reasons for including it. Those reasons, like the story, are inscrutable to me.

46. “The King of Jazz” (Great Days, 1979)

A great little ditty told (almost) entirely in dialogue, “The King of Jazz” takes place over the first few minutes of Hokie Mokie’s reign as the new, um, king of jazz. Hokie’s tenure comes under threat almost immediately when Hideo Yamaguchi, a stranger from Tokyo, appears seemingly from nowhere to challenger the new king. A musical duel ensues, helpfully described by one of the musicians in attendance:

“What’s that sound coming in from the side there?”

“Which side?”

“The left.”

“You mean that sound that sounds like the cutting edge of life? That sounds like polar bears crossing Arctic ice pans? That sounds like a herd of musk ox in full flight? That sounds like male walruses diving to the bottom of the sea? That sounds like fumaroles smoking on the slopes of Mt. Katmai? That sounds like the wild turkey walking through the deep, soft forest? That sounds like beavers chewing trees in an Appalachian marsh? That sounds like an oyster fungus growing on an aspen trunk? That sounds like a mule deer wandering a montane of the Sierra Nevada? That sounds like prairie dogs kissing? That sounds like witchgrass tumbling or a river meandering? That sounds like manatees munching seaweed at Cape Sable? That sounds like coatimundis moving in packs across the face of Arkansas? That sounds like – ”

“Good God, it’s Hokie! Even with a cup mute on, he’s blowing Hideo right off the stand!”

Barthelme here and elsewhere excels at pushing and pulling language in ways with which we are unfamiliar. There’s a synesthetic quality to his best writing, writing which so frequently attempts to engage with and evoke other arts—visual, arts, poetry.

“The King of Jazz” also continues the thread of Oedipal anxiety that courses throughout Barthelme’s work. That anxiety here is not necessarily father-son oriented, but rather the anxiety of the outsider who becomes established, the experimenter who succeeds—and then finds his work challenged by new comers.

45. “The Zombies” (Great Days, 1979)

“The Zombies” is another fun story—and one of the rare late stories not told entirely in dialogue. I’m not really sure if “The Zombies” is a specific parody or just a goof, but it makes me laugh:

In a high wind the leaves fall from the trees. The zombies are standing about talking. “Beautiful day!” “Certainly is!” The zombies have come to buy wives from the people of this village, the only village around that will sell wives to zombies. “Beautiful day!” “Certainly is!” The zombies have brought many cattle. The bride price to a zombie is exactly twice that asked of an ordinary man. The cattle are also zombies and the zombies are in terror lest the people of the village understand this.

There are good zombies and bad zombies. Gris Grue is the hero of the good zombies. There’s a Bishop involved. Watch out: “The kiss of a dying animal, a dying horse or dog, transforms an ordinary man into a zombie.”

And watch out too for bad zombies: “If a bad zombie gets you, he will scarify your hide with chisels and rakes. If a bad zombie gets you, he will make you walk past a beautiful breast without even noticing.”

44. “The New Music” (Great Days, 1979)

“The New Music”: Another dialogue, another synesthetic excursion into Oedipal territories—this time focused on the mother:

–She had a lot on her mind. The chants. And Daddy of course.

–Let’s not do Daddy today.

Two brothers discuss “the new music,” which both is and is not music. As in much of Barthelme’s work, elements of art and culture might be patched and pasted in new designs, new collages.

–The new music burns things together, like a welder. The new music says, life becomes more and more exciting as there is less and less time.

–Momma wouldn’t have ‘lowed it. But Momma’s gone.

With their disallowing mother out of the way, the boys can now move forward into the new music.

43. “Cortés and Montezuma” (Great Days, 1979)

“Cortés and Montezuma” is the strongest tale in this batch. The story tells a version of the “friendship” between the Spanish conquistador and the Aztec emperor. Unlike the quippy, often absurd dialogue pieces, “Cortés and Montezuma” is told in a simple, direct (even flat) third-person voice. Here’s how the story opens:

Because Cortés lands on a day specified in the ancient writings, because he is dressed in black, because his armor is silver in color, a certain ugliness of the strangers taken as a group-for these reasons, Montezuma considers Cortés to be Quetzacoatl, the great god who left Mexico many years before, on a raft of snakes, vowing to return.

Montezuma gives Cortés a carved jade drinking cup.

Cortés places around Montezuma’s neck a necklace of glass beads strung on a cord scented with musk.

Montezuma offers Cortés an earthenware platter containing small pieces of meat lightly breaded and browned which Cortés declines because he knows the small pieces of meat are human fingers.

The story repeats the image of Cortés and Montezuma walking and holding hands, exchanging gifts, and not really trusting each other. There is plenty of intrigue and paranoia. Cortés is sleeping with his translator, but she’s also taken a high-ranking Aztec for a lover. The nobles are starting to turn on Montezuma. Various folks employ detectives to trail other folks. Assassination plots loom.

Much of the strength of “Cortés and Montezuma” derives from Barthelme’s decision to tactically employ the occasional anachronism. Consider the “powdered wigs” and “limousines” here:

Montezuma writes, in a letter to his mother: “The new forwardness of the nobility has come as a welcome relief. Whereas formerly members of the nobility took pains to hide among the general population, to pretend that they were ordinary people, they are now flaunting themselves and their position in the most disgusting ways. Once again they wear scarlet sashes from shoulder to hip, even on the boulevards; once again they prance about in their great powdered wigs; once again they employ lackeys to stand in pairs on little shelves at the rear of their limousines. The din raised by their incessant visiting of one another is with us from noon until early in the morning.”

These anachronisms highlight language’s inability to accurately translate reality. Barthelme gives us images that we identify with wealth and power — “powdered wigs” and “limousines” — but they do not fit within the historical context of Montezuma’s Aztec Empire, and they do not square historically with each other. The anachronisms do offer the contemporary reader an idea of the power of the Aztec aristocracy, and at the same time, their inclusion highlights how incomplete our picture of historical reality is—absurdly incomplete.

Indeed, Barthelme was working from a translation when he crafted “Cortés and Montezuma.” His fourth (and final) wife, the writer Marion Knox, had brought home a copy of Bernal Diaz del Castillo book about Spain’s invasion of the Aztec Empire. Barthelme translated that translation into a new translation, adding a postmodern wink to his story in the process: “Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who will one day write The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, stands in a square whittling upon a piece of mesquite.”

Behind the metatextual cleverness and intentionally-flat tone though, there is a strong, sympathetic core to “Cortés and Montezuma,” a deep sorrow summed up in the final line:

The pair walking down by the docks, hand in hand, the ghost of Montezuma rebukes the ghost of Cortés. “Why did you not throw up your hand, and catch the stone?”

Summary thoughts: It was a bit of an unexpected relief to get out of the dialogue stories. I appreciate what Barthelme did with them, but they are too often constrained but their form, despite highlights like “The Emerald,” “The Leap,” and “The King of Jazz,” which is the strongest dialogue in this batch. I found “Morning” an ugly irritation, some sub-Gertrude-Stein stuff, and “The New Music,” while better, is not especially strong. “Cortés and Montezuma” was the highlight of the six for me.

Going forward (in reverse): One last Great Days stories, and we get into the (stronger) collection Amateurs. 

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part II

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first. I wrote about stories 60-55 here, stories collected in 1981.

This post covers stories 54-49.

54. “How I Write My Songs” (previously uncollected, 1981)

Like his postmodernist contemporaries Robert Coover and William H. Gass, many of Donald Barthelme’s stories are, on at least some level, about the act of writing itself. “How I Write My Songs,” is, as its title suggests, a story about writing. Our narrator the songwriter offers tips and advice, most of it pretty straightforward, and he peppers his monologue with recitations of his own songs. Each time he offers up a song though, we’re treated to copyright notice at the end—little interjections from a faceless corporate voice. The copyright notices are ironic, especially given that the narrator’s songs are clearly based in folk traditions like blues and Appalachian music. The narrator acknowledges these traditions, positing his writing as a synthesis:

Songs are always composed of both traditional and new elements. This means that you can rely on the tradition to give your song “legs” while also putting in your own experience or particular way of looking at things for the new.

In the end, the story’s ironies don’t bite too hard—it it’s a parody of teaching creative writing, it’s loving, and full of practical advice. The narrator’s revelation of his name—Bill B. White—is also a nice punchline.

53. “The Emerald” (previously uncollected, 1981)

I love “The Emerald.”

It’s the longest story in Sixty Stories, a 29-page epic that Barthelme culled from an aborted novel, according to Tracy Daugherty’s biography Hiding Man. Unless I’m wrong, it’s the only piece Barthelme published in Esquiremost of his stories showed up in The New Yorker, whose editor Roger Angell was an early champion of Barthelme. Angell rejected “The Emerald” though. In his biography, Daugherty points out that Angell initially did not like Barthelme’s turn toward stories composed entirely in dialogue.

“The Emerald” (and the other stories discussed in this riff) is such a story. Barthelme adeptly commands the various voices here, but without exposition or stage directions of any kind, the story is challenging the first time around. Repeated readings reveal a rich, funny, strange fable.

Here’s what happens: Our hero Mad Moll, a bearded witch, is impregnated by “the man in the moon,” Deus Luna (she has a three-hour orgasm). After a seven-year pregnancy, she gives birth to a sentient emerald. This strange birth attracts the attention of the news media as well as hordes of would-be kidnappers who are after the emerald. Most of the bandits after the emerald want him because, well, he’s an enormous emerald. The emerald understands that they “want to cut me up and put little chips of me into rings and bangles.” When the emerald asks Moll if she values him, she replies that he’s “Equivalent I would say to a third of a sea.” However, our villain, a mage named Vandermaster, has different designs. Vandermaster wants to imbibe the emerald to obtain a second life: “Emerald dust with soda, emerald dust with tomato juice, emerald dust with a dash of bitters, emerald dust with Ovaltine.” He’s discovered a formula, “Plucked from the arcanum,” which will let him live again—and hopefully, find love. Oh, and Vandermaster has a secret weapon: The Foot, a sentient reliquary with devastating powers.

The final moments of “The Emerald” are lovely. Hero Moll gives an exit interview to Lily (“a member of the news media”) in which the young witch states that the gods are not done with us yet:

But what is the meaning of the emerald?  asked Lily.  I mean overall?  If you can say.

I have some notions, said Moll.  You may credit them or not.

Try me.

It means, one, that the gods are not yet done with us.

Gods not yet done with us.

The gods are still trafficking with us and making interventions of this kind and that kind and are not dormant or dead as has often been proclaimed by dummies.

Still trafficking.  Not dead.

Just as in former times a demon might enter a nun on a piece of lettuce she was eating so even in these times a simple Mailgram might be the thin edge of the wedge.

Thin edge of the wedge.

Two, the world may congratulate itself that desire can still be raised in the dulled hearts of the citizens by the rumor of an emerald.

Desire or cupidity?

I do not distinguish qualitatively among the desires, we have referees for that, but he who covets not at all is a lump and I do not wish to have him to dinner.

Positive attitude toward desire.

Yes.  Three, I do not know what this Stone portends, whether it portends for the better or portends for the worse or merely portends a bubbling of the in-between but you are in any case rescued from the sickliness of same and a small offering in the hat on the hall table would not be ill regarded.

Moll’s final questioner though is her child the emerald:

And what now?  said the emerald.  What now, beautiful mother?

We resume the scrabble for existence, said Moll.  We resume the scrabble for existence, in the sweet of the here and now.

52. “Aria” (previously uncollected, 1981)

Another monologue, this time in two paragraphs. Like “Grandmother’s House,” (story #60), “Aria” is an oblique reflection on parenting. In a 1982 interview, Barthelme claimed that the story was a mother’s monologue, but it could just as easily be a father. The monologue condenses the parent’s experience of parenting after the children have left home into an often absurd catalog of pleas, mixed metaphors, and bits of received wisdom. Like a lot of the later work, there are tinges of an empty nester’s melancholy here.

51. “The Leap” (Great Days, 1979)

Another dialogue–however, I think that this piece can actually be read as an internal dialogue–a central consciousness engaging in self-debate. That debate centers (“centers” is a very loose verb here) on whether or not to take the titular leap of faith. As David Gates points out in his explanatory notes for Sixty Stories,

In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments (1846),
Kierkegaard rejects the notion of a ladder of logical steps to spiritual certainty in favor of a “leap of faith” toward the Absolute.

Those familiar with Barthelme will know his early deep engagement with existentialism, and with Kierkegaard in particular. (In his biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty makes a strong case that it was not just Kierkegaard’s ideas that informed Barthelme’s work, but Kierkegaard’s style as well—disparate voices, pseudonyms, juxtapositions, aesthetic and literary references deployed ironically, etc.)

The interlocutor(s) of “The Leap” begin by trying to catalog the glories of the creator before realizing that the task is impossible. They eventually work themselves into the existential crises of the day (some of which seem dated, and dare I say, downright lovely compared to our current, ahem, climate).

In the final moments of the story, one of the speakers—or, in my estimation, one of the singular speaker’s internal voices—declares “Can’t make it, man.” What can’t he make? The leap. And again: “Can’t make it. I am a double-minded man.” (The latter phrase underlines the notion that a single voice authors this dialogue.) And so well: “What then?” Barthelme echoes lines of one of his other heroes, Samuel Beckett:

–Keep on trying?

–Yes. We must.

The conclusion is sad and beautiful, a list of earthly consolations that can inspire the leap:

-Try again another day?

-Yes. Another day when the plaid cactus is watered, when the hare’s-foot fern is watered.

-Seeds tingling in the barrens and veldts.

-Garden peas yellow or green wrinkling or rounding.

-Another day when locust wings are baled for shipment to Singapore, where folks like their little hit of locust-wing tea.

-A jug of wine. Then another jug.

-The Brie-with-pepper meeting the toasty loaf.

-Another day when some eighty-four-year-old guy complains that his wife no longer gives him presents.

-Small boys bumping into small girls, purposefully.

-Cute little babies cracking people up.

-Another day when somebody finds a new bone that proves we are even ancienter than we thought we were.

-Gravediggers working in the cool early morning.

-A walk in the park.

-Another day when the singing sunlight turns you every way but loose.

-When you accidentally notice the sublime.

-Somersaults and duels.

-Another day when you see a woman with really red hair. mean really red hair.

-A wedding day.

-A plain day.

-So we’ll try again? Okay?

-Okay.

-Okay?

-Okay.

50. “On the Steps of the Conservatory” (Great Days, 1979)

I initially started rereading Sixty Stories in reverse order as a fluke, but I quickly found it interesting to think about Barthelme’s development as a thinker and writer by going backwards instead of forwards. I think I would have enjoyed “The Farewell” (story #55) much more if I had read it after “On the Steps of the Conservatory,” to which it is the sequel. It’s a neat little parody, but I think the sequel is even funnier, even meaner.

49. “The Abduction from the Seraglio” (Great Days, 1979)

A postmodern riff on Mozart’s opera Abduction from the Seraglio. Barthelme told an interviewer the story originated from an assignment he gave to his writing class that he ended up doing himself. We have pure monologue here; the speaker seems to be a sculptor. He crafts “welded-steel four-thousand-pound artichokes” and plays around on his “forty-three-foot overhead traveling crane which is painted bright yellow.” He occasionally breaks into song.

There are a number of references to architecture and architects in “Abduction.” Again, it’s tempting to read for autobiographical traces here. Barthelme’s father, Donald Barthelme Sr., was a modernist architect who cast a large shadow over his son’s life. But I’m not too tempted by those traces—or, rather, I’m not sure what to make of them, just as I’m not sure of what to make of “Abduction.”

Summary thoughts: “The Emerald” is a fabulous late-period Barthelme–the best in this batch for sure. It’s much, much longer than most of Barthelme’s stories though, so my other pick would be “The Leap.” I didn’t remember “The Abduction from the Seraglio” even as I was rereading it, and I reread it once more before writing about it, and I don’t really think Barthelme pulls it off here.

I’ve enjoyed these late-period dialogue stories, but I’m also looking forward to some new (older) flavors ahead (behind).

I will keep going forward (in reverse) and resume the scrabble for existence, in the sweet of the here and now.

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part I

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s 1981 collection Sixty Stories.

I am reading the stories in reverse chronological order.

This reverse reading came about in this way: I read an intense, shocking, horrifying novel, and then I read it again. Then I tried to get into three or maybe four novels with no luck.

So I picked up the Barthelme book, a perfect book, a palate cleanser. Inside was a bookmark from a Catholic book store in St. Augustine, Florida; the bookmark marked the beginning of the final story in Sixty Stories, “Grandmother’s House.”

I recalled almost nothing about it. I read it, and kept going in reverse.

So here we go–thoughts on the last six stories in Sixty Stories:

60. “Grandmother’s House” (previously uncollected, 1981)

Like many of Barthelme’s late stories, “Grandmother’s House” consists entirely of dialogue. And, like many of Barthelme’s late stories, there’s an elegiac tone–mock-elegiac at times, but still tinged with a soft melancholy. The story begins in the by-now-traditional-postmodern mode of invoking fairy tales. One of the speakers alludes to figures from “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Beauty and the Beast.” They then move on to another trope of fairy tales—changelings, child thefts: “…we could steal a kid. A child. A kid. Steal one. Grab it and keep it. Raise it for our very own.” The dialogue is filled with non sequitur and oblique shifts, evoking the collage work of Barthelme’s prime work while also trundling along a more realistic course. The story ultimately conflates raising children with the creative arts; there’s something slightly sad about the two speakers’ desire to steal children so that they can start again, take a mulligan, improve on past failures. They want a new newness: “Of course this is not to say that what has been demystified cannot be remystified.”

59. “Bishop” (previously uncollected, 1981)

“Bishop” feels like it should be the last story in Sixty Stories. It’s a miniature portrait of an alcoholic writer, the titular Bishop who, in the course of writing a biography of the painter William Michael Harnett, discovers another painter,  John Frederick Peto.

Still Life with Three Castles Tobacco, 1880 by William Michael Harnett (1848-1892).

The story is easily one of Barthelme’s most straightforward, “realistic” pieces, employing very little of the rhetorical arsenal he’d built over the past two decades.

Old Souvenirs, c. 1881–1901 by John Frederick Peto (1854-1907)

However, his collage technique is on display throughout “Bishop,” where sentences jut brusquely against each other without the protection of transitions. Consider the economy of this opening salvo:

Bishop’s standing outside his apartment building.

An oil struck double-parked, its hose coupled with the sidewalk, the green-uniformed driver reading a paperback called Name Your Baby.

Bishop’s waiting for Cara.

The martini rule is not before quarter to twelve.

Eyes go out of focus. He blinks them back again.

He had a beer for breakfast, as usual, a Pilsner Urquell.

Imported beer is now ninety-nine cents a bottle at his market.

The oil truck’s pump shuts off with a click. The driver tosses his book into the cab and begins uncoupling.

Cara’s not coming.

The painter John Frederick Peto made a living Playing cornet in a camp meeting for the last twenty years of his life, according to Alfred Frankenstein.

Bishop goes back inside the building and climbs one flight of stairs to his apartment.

His bank has lost the alimony payment he cables twice a month to his second wife, in London. He switches on the FM, dialing past two classical stations to reach Fleetwood Mac.

Bishop’s writing a biography of the nineteenth-century American painter William Michael Harnett. But today he can’t make himself work.

Cara’s been divorced, once.

At twenty minutes to twelve he makes himself a martini.

Hideous bouts of black anger in the evening. Then a word or a sentence in the tone she can’t bear. The next morning he remembers nothing about it.

As Tracy Daugherty notes in Hiding Man, his biography of Barthelme, “it’s impossible to miss the parallels between author and character” in “Bishop”: “…same age, same physical appearance, same home city, same general profession.”

Barthelme himself protested the comparison in his 1981 Paris Review Interview:

…when [“Bishop”] appeared I immediately began getting calls from friends, some of whom I hadn’t heard from in some time and all of whom were offering Tylenol and bandages. The assumption was that identification of the author with the character was not only permissible but invited. This astonished me. One uses one’s depressions as one uses everything else, but what I was doing was writing a story. Merrily merrily merrily merrily.

There is nothing merry about “Bishop,” but there’s a lot of beauty in its odd realism.

58. “Heroes” (previously uncollected, 1981)

Another piece composed entirely in dialogue, this time between two dudes riffing on the relationship between the media, information, politics, democracy, and the average citizen. There’s a clever bit on TV screens as a “clear glass” through which we now see “darkly,” but the piece seems terribly dated in 2021.

57. “Thailand” (previously uncollected, 1981)

“Thailand” isn’t exactly a dialogue, but it’s again a piece with two speakers, an “old soldier” who served in the “Krian War” and the young man who listens to him—or, more to the point, doesn’t really listen to him. He’s introduced as “his hearer.” Instead of truly listening to the sweet old sergeant’s story about serving along the Thai military, the young hearer speaks to himself, his fragmented inner monologue intermixing with the vet’s exterior monologue, all along a similar vein: “I am young, thought the listener, young, young, praise the Lord I am young.” Again, it’s tempting to read autobiography into the story. Barthelme was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1953, but didn’t really see any action in his sixteen months there. And “Thailand” reflects that—it isn’t an old war story, but a gentle appreciation of time spent in another culture. In one memorable moment, the old soldier recalls a “golden revel” featuring thirty-seven washtubs of curry: “Beef curry, chicken curry, the delicate Thai worm curry, all your various fish curries and vegetable curries.” All the while, the young would-be interlocutor dismisses the old “demento,” culminating in the young man’s cruel final line: Requiescat in pace. The old man gets the punchline though: “They don’t really have worm curry, said the sergeant. I just made that up to fool you.” In my estimation, Thailand” isn’t so much a reminiscence of Barthelme’s army days as it is a story about an aging storyteller. Barthelme was a teacher, and while I’m sure most of his students were rapt, the older author had to know how that old Oedipal thing works.

56. “The Emperor” (previously uncollected, 1981)

A nice, precise little story of nine paragraphs. On one hand, it’s an accumulation of historical details (and some speculation) about China’s first emperor Ch’in Shih
Huang Ti, and his mad quest toward an unattainable perfection. At the same time, the story can be read as a take on the creative imagination at work, striving toward an ideal that the physical world can never quite accumulate. It can be read as a story about writing—writing as a means to attain immortality. Here’s Barthelme on the story, in his 1981 Paris Review interview:

I’ve just done a piece about a Chinese emperor, the so-called first emperor, Ch’in Shih Huang Ti. This came directly from my wife’s research for a piece she was doing on medical politics in Chinatown—she had accumulated all sorts of material on Chinese culture, Chinese history, and I began picking through it, jackdaw-like. This was the emperor who surrounded his tomb with that vast army of almost full-scale terra-cotta soldiers the Chinese discovered just a few years ago. The tomb, as far as I know, has yet to be fully excavated, but the scale of the discovery gives you some clear hints as to the size of the man’s imagination, his ambition. As I learned more about him—“learned” in quotation marks, much of what I was reading was dubious history—I got a sense of the emperor hurrying from palace to palace, I gave him two hundred some-odd palaces, scampering, almost, tending to his projects, intrigues, machinations. He’s horribly, horribly pressed for time, both actually and in the sense that many of his efforts are strategies against mortality. The tomb itself is a strategy, as is the imposition of design on the lives of his people, his specifications as to how wide hats shall be, how wide carriages shall be, and so forth.

55. “The Farewell” (previously uncollected, 1981)

A minor if entertaining dialogue between Maggie and Hilda, “The Farewell” is a sequel to “On the Steps of the Conservatory” (Great Days, 1979), and like that tale, it satirizes hierarchy in academia (and pseudo-intellectualism in general). And as silly as the whole thing is, there’s a kernel of pathos there in the story’s (off-centered center). Poor Hilda (who cannot for some reason see that she should tell her snooty snobby toxic friend Maggie to Fuck off) has finally made into the Conservatory, only to find that it’s old hat—it’s the Institution that folks are flocking to get into. And why not? As Maggie boasts, “The teachers are more dedicated, twice as dedicated or three times as dedicated.” The boasts continues. At the Institution,

Savory meals are left in steaming baskets outside each wickiup door. All meals are lobster, unless the student has indicated a preference for beautifully marbled beef. There are four Olympic-sized pool tables for every one student.

In the end though, poor Hilda comes up with that classic solution: Well, fuck it.

Summary thoughts: These late and previously-uncollected stories are tinged with melancholy and even resignation at time, and generally follow the same rhetorical mode of a two-person dialogue. Notable themes include anxiety over parenthood, writing, and one’s legacy. The weakest of the six is “Heroes” and the strongest is “Bishop.”

I will keep going (in reverse).

Witches, crimes, mutants, shape-shifting horses, feuilletonic digressions etc. | Blog about some recent reading

I read an excellent trio of novels to close out the summer: Carol Emshwiller’s Mister Boots, Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season (translated by Sophie Hughes), and Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx (translated by Jane Gambrell). In between, I read most of Anecdotes by Heinrich von Kleist (translated by Matthew Spencer), described by publisher Sublunary Editions as “short fiction and feuilletonic digressions.” (I had to look up the word “feuilletonic.”)

Mister Boots seems as good an introduction to Carol Emshwilller’s writing as I’ll get. I just sort of picked it up, started reading, and kept going. (The print was larger than the edition of her more-famous novel Carmen Dog that I got around the same time. My eyes have declined more quickly in my early forties than I would have imagined.) Mister Boots is a short, fast-paced novel. It moves along like a ever-morphing picaresque. Set somewhere near the American West proximal to the Great Depression, Emshwiller’s novel is told from the first-person perspective of Bobby. Bobby is a ten-year-old girl, but the world, apart from her sister and mother, don’t know this—-her mother raises her as a boy, dresses her as a boy, addresses her as a boy. This conceit, which even young Bobby understands cannot last forever, is a defense against her malevolent father, a stage magician and conman who wants a son to perform in his act. When Bobby’s mother dies, the father returns to take her and her sister on a wild, surreal tour of performances (and other tricks). They bring with them Mister Boots, a man who sometimes turns into a horse. I loved Mister Boots and probably read it way too quickly. It’s surreal stuff, told from the perspective of a child that really captures what young consciousness is like–slippery, trying to match causes and effect, lacking the wisdom that is experience, but also teeming with the holy powers of innocence.

I then read Tatyana Tolstoya’s post-apocalyptic satire The Slynx. The book is funny and abject, and the world Tolstoya conjures is totally gross, but also a place I was sad to leave (the general vibe reminds me of Aleksei German’s film adaptation of Hard to Be a God). The Slynx is about 300 pages but I would’ve read another 700 happily. The central hero is a lunking would-be intellectual named Benedikt; the setting is a few centuries after the Blast has reduced humanity back to the Dark Ages; most of the descendants of the pre-Blast populace endure Consequences—mutations big and small (our boy Benedikt has a cute little tail). There are also elders whose consequence is a tenuous immortality—they survive the blast and continue living (as long as they want to), an ugly curse. We first meet Benedikt as a kind of copyist, a Bartleby maybe, but one who wants more from life. He marries into a near-aristocratic family, where he has access to a huge samizdat library. More problems ensue. Ultimately, The Slynx is a postmodern fable, a book about reading itself. It’s grimy and gross and I loved it and will read it again.

I devoured Fernanda Melchor’s novel Hurricane Season and then started in again. The novel’s blurb compares it to “Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 of Faulkner’s novels,” which is high and true praise. As I stated, I immediately began rereading Hurricane Season after I started it. Like a lot of Faulkner’s work, Melchor’s narrative construction obscures, hides, and even elides important events. Crimes get lost in details. The story is set in and around a podunk Mexican town. It begins with a troop of slingshot-armed youngsters finding the body of “the Witch,” a hated and celebrated icon of the town. From there, the novel moves its camera to hover over a few key characters, letting us into their consciousness to get bits and pieces that may or may not add up to a larger picture. The village is a haunted, haunting place, a cursed world vibrating with bad mojo, drugs, rape, murder…as its publishers promised, Melchor’s world recalls Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, especially the infamous chapter “The Part about the Crimes.” (There is a fantastic moment in the fourth chapter when the third-person free indirect style slips into the language of police reports and detective inquiries.) Hurricane Season’s abjection, despair, and squalor also recalls Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, Faulkner’s A Light in August, and Bernhard’s Gargoyles. And, like Bernhard and Krasznahorkai (and his follower W.G. Sebald), Melchor crafts her novel as a brick of paragraphless text, a sometimes-flowing, sometimes-smothering miasma of words, words, words. Crimes, witches, grudges, and curses, curses, curses: Magical curses, literal curses, cursed text messages, and good old fashioned curse words. Hurricane Season is a devastating, cruel novel, but Melchor concludes it with a strange moment of grace–not for its characters, but for its readers, whom she ferries “out of this hole.” I went right back into the hole.

And—Kleist’s Anecdotes—well, I’ve kept it in my car up until this afternoon, when I finally brought it back into the house. I’ve been reading it while I wait in the carpool lane at my daughter’s school, her new school, the same high school I graduated from in fact. I read three or four as I wait for her and the other carpoolers to emerge. I’ve read a few of the anecdotes collected here before (I think I first became interested in Kleist after reading Donald Barthelme mention him as an influence). Here’s publisher Sublunary’s blurb:

Long available and celebrated in German—Kafka himself championed the 1911 Rowohlt edition of AnekdotenAnecdotes gathers the first extensive English-language collection of Heinrich von Kleist’s short fiction and feuilletonic digressions that appeared in Berliner Abendblätter, the newspaper for which he served as editor from 1810 to 1811. Writing under increasingly unfriendly social and political conditions, this is arguably Kleist at his funniest and most irreverent, not shying away from dirty jokes while nevertheless displaying the same knack for the stylish prose that Rilke called “beautiful and so blind and skillful”.

And here’s a sample (in translation by Matthew Spencer):

New Snake Creek comix from Drew Lerman

I’ve been a fan of Drew Lerman’s strip Snake Creek for a few years now. Reviewing Lerman’s first collection (simply titled Snake Creek) in The Comics Journal, Brian Nicholson wrote that,

Looking at these strips, you’re looking at something that recalls George Herriman, Harvey Kurtzman, Robert Crumb, Daniel Clowes, Matt Groening, but also thinking: What if Stanley Elkin drew a comic strip?

What if Elkin drew a comic strip indeed?

Like Elkin, Lerman plays with a variety of voices and rhythms in his work. There’s a zaniness to the Snake Creek world, but also an almost-melancholy seriousness to it as well. His main characters are Dav and Roy. Roy is something of a would-be tortured artist; Roy his familiar/foil, a spritely interlocutor to bounce ideas off of. Like the swamp-dwellers of Walt Kelly’s seminal strip Pogo, there’s a real affection between the two characters that anchors the surreal plasticity of Lerman’s work in genuine emotion.

I got three Snake Creek comix last week and tried not to read them too quickly on Sunday afternoon. I needed to get the bad taste of a Serious Contemporary Novel out of my brain, and Detective! Double Digest did the trick. There are two stories here: Lerman’s “Cryonic Pain: A Snake Creek Mystery” and on the literal flipside, Pete Faecke’s “The Big Love Triangle” (which has a scuzzy punk noir vibe).

From Pete Faecke’s “The Big Love Triangle.”

Lerman’s detective story is an existentialist affair—a goofing riff on the myth of Sisyphus and the burden of a consciousness constrained by mortality and time. It’s also full of verbal slapstick and surreal shenanigans.

From Drew Lerman’s “Cryonic Pain.”
Back cover of Drew Lerman’s Schtick

Schtick is a mini-comic in full color compromised of five vignettes, each one a riff or routine rooted in vaudevillian humor and composed in an original vernacular. The longest of the pieces, “Herbit and Sheiler,” is an extended play on linguistic misunderstandings—good stuff.

From Drew Lerman’s strip “Levi & Cohn,” Schtick

My favorite of the three comix is the most recent, “Head Trip,” the cover feature for the latest issue of the Miami-based comics journal Spiny Orb Weaver. (The issue also features an essay by comics critic Rob Clough, an autobiographical comic by Chris López, and a lengthy interview with Lerman, conducted by SOW editor Neil Brideau.)

Detail from Drew Lerman’s cover for Spiny Orb Weaver no. 2

“Head Trip” sees Dav and Roy trying to take Snake Creek’s most anguished character, Head on a Stone, on an adventure he can remember. Unable to move or communicate, but nevertheless burdened by consciousness, Head on a Stone is a tragic figure, a “pulsing node of dread,” as Dav puts it. Dav and Roy decide, in their wisely wisdom, to take the large rock seafaring. What follows is an ironic series of tragic-comic-tragic-etc. reversals of fortune (as well as some of Lerman’s most lyrical work to date with his strip). “Head Trip” is as linguistically loose and visually goofy as we might expect from anything set in the Snake Creek universe, and also achieves a level of poignancy we might not expect. Great stuff.

From Drew Lerman’s “Head Trip.”

 

There’s no magic words. Not even I love you is magic enough | A short riff on (a short riff from) Thomas Pynchon’s first novel V.

 

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McClintic Sphere, an innovative jazz saxophonist, and Paolo Majistral, the Maltese “girl [who] lived proper nouns” are two minor characters in Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V. I will get back to them in a second.

But—

A novel crammed with minor characters (hundreds of them, I’d guess) V. pulsates with intersections, drive-bys, concordances and discordance. Characters crisscross and quick-change in ways that both parody and honor the authorial sleight-of-hand in play in V.

Pynchon repeatedly challenges his readers’ credulity–while its intersections are never as neat and tidy as its titular vee angle might suggest, V. is still a confusion of happenstance that both confounds and sanctifies coincidence, even as it ironizes those winds of fate.

The mode is necessarily postmodern. Pynchon repeatedly evokes Modernist poets by name—Pound and Eliot, especially—but it’s the immediate postwar (post, war, world, two) that he’s most concerned with in V. The novel critiques Modernist critiques (through a double lens of a critique of colonialism).

The great concern here is for the divergent angle of the second half of the twentieth century. As such, much of V. is a loving parody of the Beat scene (much more loving than Gaddis’s sustained attack on art poseurs in The Recognitions). In V., Pynchon creates a non-chorus in The Whole Sick Crew, an outcast cast of losers and would-bes and pseudointellectuals.

The Whole Sick Crew lards V.’s enormous, hard-to-follow cast. Two members of the nebulous Crew are

McClintic Sphere, an innovative jazz saxophonist, and Paolo Majistral, the Maltese “girl [who] lived proper nouns.”

And so–

There’s a marvelous moment about two-thirds of the way through V. where McClintic and Paolo, erstwhile lovers (Paolo in the guise of “Ruby” — everyone here is a quick change artist)—where McClintic and Paolo transcend the quick-changing and irony and and sensory-cloggingness of the modern condition. They drive upstate, talk straight—the plot details don’t matter here, just read:

Maybe the only peace undisturbed that night was McClintic’s and Paola’s. The little Triumph forged along up the Hudson, their own wind was cool, taking away whatever of Nueva York had clogged ears, nostrils, mouths.

She talked to him straight and McClintic kept cool.

And then our man McClintic comes to something close to an epiphany, although epiphanies are always hedged, suspicious, constrained in Pynchon—but I think there’s something real here. Earlier in the novel, McClintic feels concern for the postwar “cool,” for the feeling that the world might flip or flop again, go from zero to binary in a weird heartbeat (that binary code theme pulsates through the rest of Pynchon’s work to date). Makes sense for machines, maybe, but people aren’t, or shouldn’t be, machines.

McClintic’s epiphany is a pragmatic resolution, and I take it to be Pynchon’s cautionary thesis:

…there came to McClintic something it was time he got around to seeing: that the only way clear of the cool/crazy flipflop was obviously slow, frustrating and hard work. Love with your mouth shut, help without breaking your ass or publicizing it: keep cool, but care. He might have known, if he’d used any common sense. It didn’t come as a revelation, only something he’d as soon not’ve admitted.

The epiphany is bitter, and Pynchon’s narrator refuses its epiphanic value (“It didn’t come as a revelation”), even as the narrative acknowledges its intrinsic power. A few lines later, McClintic addresses the Real Work to Be Done in the World:

Nobody is going to step down from Heaven and square away Roony and his woman, or Alabama, or South Africa or us and Russia. There’s no magic words. Not even I love you is magic enough. Can you see Eisenhower telling Malenkov or Khrushchev that? Ho-ho.”

“Keep cool but care,” he said. Somebody had run over a skunk a ways back. The smell had followed them for miles. “If my mother was alive I would have her make a sampler with that on it.”

The highway stinks, sticks skunky to fleeing motion, gummed up in the nostalgic emblems we’d imaginatively credit to our loving forebears. The grist, grit, and horror of the big postwar world will cling to the present. Nobody’s stepping down from heaven, or Heaven and there are no magic words—but there is a kind of love, a loving with your mouth shut, a kind of radical, earnest, transcendent love that Pynchon evokes, soils, and sanctifies here.

Transfixed before the mirror, arm in arm so no one could cheat, we gambled as to who would be the first to die | On Norah Lange’s Notes from Childhood (Book acquired, 30 March 2021)

I’ll admit I’d never heard of Norah Lange until the nice people at indie superpublisher And Other Stories alerted me to her memoir, Notes from Childhood.

Lange was an Argentinian writer, publishing poems and prose from the 1920s through  the 1950s. She was part of the Florida Group, along with Jorge Luis Borges and his sister, the painter Norah Borges, as well as Victoria Ocampo and others, and first published her poems in ultraist magazines.

In her note at the end of Notes from Childhood, Lange’s translator Charlotte Whittle suggests that Lange’s memoir marked a break from the ultraist school, embracing a new style of prose—her own style. Whittle points out that Lange’s “approach to memory” trains its “gaze on domestic, family scenes.”

Whittle continues,

Far from being a linear autobiography or tale of coming of age, this narrative takes the form of a constellation of pieces of childhood, and these pieces provide Lange with ground for experimentation.

I read the first forty pages of Notes from Childhood this afternoon; the book showed up last week and I didn’t have a spare half hour to carve from a day to sink into it.

I didn’t have a spare half hour this afternoon, but I opened it, after moving a pile of books to another pile of books, and then I just kept reading.

Lange’s Notes feels subtly cinematic—in vivid flashes, brief vignettes, scenes of a page or two, she conjure the irreal reality of childhood. The memoir opens in a hotel, where, in the dining room, Lange and her sisters spy the “owner of the circus, and next to him the strongest woman in the world,” who, every night “lifts three men with her teeth.” They later light lamps in their new old house to “watch the spiders and kissing bugs all over the walls.”

A few pages later, Lange describes her mother riding sidesaddle horseback in nine succinct but powerful paragraphs. She frames the poetic photograph for her reader:

I see her framed with a gentleness no one could touch without taking something away, without adding more grace than that which was essential and true.

And our narrator riffs on her eldest sister, Irene, framed through a “third window” in one chapter: “I was always a little afraid and a little in awe of her. She was six years older than me. Sometimes, she was allowed to sit at the table in the large dining room during visits from family friends.” Irene at the big table! We get a trickle of information about whispers of Irene, who is growing up while our narrator remains a child:

Susana and I, the youngest two, weren’t shrewd enough to guess the reason for these long whispering sessions. One afternoon, I heard them speak of breasts. When I think back, I understand the fear she must have felt—the first sister, all alone—when she saw her body begin to curve, her rib cage lose its rigidity, her breasts start to ache and stir imperceptibly.

A few chapters later (there aren’t really chapters in Notes), sister Marta, convalescent, repeats, “God is evil. God is evil.” A few pages later, schoolbound, Little Lange is enchanted by typeface:

Words in capital letters, like TWILIGHT, DISCOVERY, DAGUERREOTYPE, LABYRINTH, and THERAPEUTIC, brought me a zeal and contentment all by themselves that now I would have to describe as aesthetic.

And then this wonderful weird episode. Scene: Lange and the sisters:

We had made big hats out of paper and the five of us stood before the mirror, each absorbed by the reflection of her own face, contemplating the effect of shadow over our eyes, the changing glimmer taken on by the light from the window as it fell on our hair against the newspaper.

The door opened suddenly, and a gust of air caused the hats to teeter on our heads.

One of my sisters said,

“The first one who loses her hat will die before the others…”

Transfixed before the mirror, arm in arm so no one could cheat, we gambled as to who would be the first to die.

Great stuff! Read an excerpt of Notes from Childhood here.

A Careful Disorderliness | Forty Riffs on Moby-Dick

I did not set out to write forty riffs on Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick but that’s where I ended up. I don’t think what I’ve done here is a resource of any worth, but I do hope to encourage people to read this funny, humane, poetic, and devastating novel.

Here are links by chapter to the riffs I riffed on Moby-Dick in 2021.


Illustrations in this post are by the American artist Barry Moser.


Ch. 1 (The great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open)

Ch. 2-4  (Nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom)

Ch. 5-8  (All these things are not without their meanings)

Ch. 9-13  (No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world)

Ch. 14-16 (Oblique hints)

Ch. 17-19  (Humbug or bugbear)

Ch. 20-22 (First kick)

Ch. 23-27 (Whaling may well be regarded as that Egyptian mother who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb)

Ch. 28-32 (God keep me from ever completing anything)

Ch. 33-35 (Your identity comes back in horror)

Ch. 36 (Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me)

Ch. 37-48 (And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?)

Ch. 49-54 (Certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life)

Ch. 55-57  (The great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last)

Ch. 58-60 (A certain wondrous, inverted visitation of one of those so called judgments of God which at times are said to overtake some men)

Ch. 61-73 (The mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable)

Ch. 74-75 (Why then do you try to “enlarge” your mind? Subtilize it.)

Ch. 76-80 (A very precious perishing)

Ch. 81-83 (There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method)

Ch. 84-86  (Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly)

Ch. 87 (There is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men)

Ch. 88-90 (Loose-fish/fast-fish)

Ch. 91-93 (The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it?)

Ch. 94-98 (Let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness)

Ch. 99 (“I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look”)

Ch. 100 (Face set like a flint)

Ch. 101-05 (Horror-struck at this antemosaic, unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale)

Ch. 106-08 (The ineffaceable, sad birth-mark in the brow of man, is but the stamp of sorrow in the signers)

Ch. 109-11 (Millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries)

Ch. 112 (Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried)

Ch. 113-17 (Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them)

Ch. 118-19 (Thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief)

Ch. 120-22 (All of us are Ahabs)

Ch. 123 (Wild nights)

Ch. 124-26 (Human sort of wail)

Ch. 127-29 (A life-buoy of a coffin! Does it go further?)

Ch. 130-32 (The least heedful eye seemed to see some sort of cunning meaning in almost every sight)

Ch. 133-34 (That wild simultaneousness of a thousand concreted perils)

Ch. 135-Epilogue (The drama’s done)

And because I landed (or drowned?) at forty, here’s Ahab, near the end of the novel, wailing on forty:

Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day—very much such a sweetness as this—I struck my first whale—a boy-harpooneer of eighteen! Forty—forty—forty years ago!—ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore. When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain’s exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without—oh, weariness! heaviness! Guinea-coast slavery of solitary command!—when I think of all this; only half-suspected, not so keenly known to me before—and how for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare—fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soil!—when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world’s fresh bread to my mouldy crusts—away, whole oceans away, from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow—wife? wife?—rather a widow with her husband alive! Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey—more a demon than a man!—aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool—fool—old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now?

(I feel richer now after the re-read.)

She made the world her book | On Danielle Dutton’s novel Margaret the First

Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne was born to a wealthy aristocratic family who took the royalist side in the English Civil War. She spent her teen years attending the exiled Queen Henrietta Maria as a handmaiden. She soon married William Cavendish, the Marquess of Newcastle (and a steadfast royalist), and lived with him in exile in Antwerp. During this time, she began writing and publishing strange volumes on various topics—science, fashion, language, wit, and the act of writing itself. Her eccentric writing mirrored her eccentric habits. Simultaneously shy and fame-hungry, often depressed or elated and manic, Cavendish earned and maintained a notorious reputation over her lifetime.

Danielle Dutton somehow condenses Cavendish’s starbright life into a slim 160 pages in her novel Margaret the First. This imaginative near-biography borrows from Cavendish’s own writings as well as an essay on Cavendish by Virginia Woolf.  Woolf thought Cavendish a cautionary tale. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf describes her as a brilliant but uneducated woman who “frittered her time away scribbling nonsense and plunging ever deeper into obscurity and folly.” Dutton captures that reputation early in the novel: “Mad Madge,” goes the cry among a crowd of onlookers at the novel’s outset (the crowd includes the diarist Samuel Pepys). However, Dutton is far more sympathetic toward Margaret, conjuring for us a natural composer. Consider these lines from Margaret the First’s opening paragraph:

She made the world her book, took a piece of coal and marked a blank white wall. Later, she made sixteen smaller books: untitled, sewn with yarn. Her girlhood heroes were Shakespeare, Ovid, Caesar. She wrote them in beside thinking-rocks and humming-shoes and her favorite sister, Catherine, who starred in all but five. Snow fell fast as she sat by the nursery fire; ink to paper, then she sewed. The last book told a tale of hasty gloom, teeming with many shades of green: emerald, viridian, a mossy black. In it we meet a miniature princess who lives in a seashell castle and sleeps in sheets woven from the eyelids of doves.

Dutton roped me in with “tale of hasty gloom,” but the images in that last sentence—sheets woven from the eyelids of doves!—propelled my reading on.

We see here Cavendish as a creator of both books and her own world. Dutton’s narrator notes Cavendish—or shall I use Margaret here?—Dutton’s narrator notes that our protagonist not only writes her books, but sews them. The image of creation as fashion—as literally fashioning objects and ideas—repeats throughout Margaret the First. Margaret tells her patient older husband William that “dressing is the poetry of women.” She finds near-epiphanic inspiration in a masquerade costume worn by Christina, Queen of Sweden, who dresses as an Amazon warrior, baring her breasts to the entire court. Later she wonders, “why must grammar be like a prison for the mind? Might not language be as a closet full of gowns? Of a generally similar cut, with a hole for the head and neck to pass, but filled with difference and a variety of trimmings so that we don’t grow bored?”

Critics of Cavendish attacked her spelling and grammar; Woolf declared her “crack-brained and bird-witted.” Dutton’s portrait though gives us something closer to Emily Dickinson or William Blake. Margaret’s an eccentric who turns her eccentricity into a strange new art that resisted grammar that would be “a prison for the mind.”

And yet Dutton is never too-beholden to her subject. We are never told that Margaret is a genius; rather, Dutton attunes us to Margaret’s own singular perceptions—we feel flashes of genius, but also feel Margaret’s frustrated inability to harness that genius into a form that seventeenth-century England can recognize. She is always at the margin of the circle, too eccentric to orbit neatly with the intellectual luminaries whom she encounters.

We also feel the tinges of Margaret’s melancholic mental instability. Alone in a carriage, she retreats into her mind’s eye:

I found myself in an unknown universe, whirling far into space. African servants, dogs in hats, platonic ideals, sparkling conversation, and ivy-coated quadrangles with womanizing captains, dueling earls, actors. I met Father Cyprien de Gamache, her majesty’s wily confessor; William, a poet, who claimed to be Shakespeare’s son; and a giggling dwarf called Jeffry, who’d been presented to the queen in a pie. I met the ladies-in-waiting, too, who hardly looked my way, busy as they were, bickering over who went where and when, who wore what and when, who fetched what and why, who said what and to whom, and who gave her the right to say that.

Tellingly, the cluttered images in Margaret’s fantasy dissolve into the too-banal reality of the grammar of manners: who can wear what, who can say what, and so on. To cop a phrase from Blake, those “mind-forg’d manacles” are hard to break. Indeed, mind-forg’d manacles tend to break those who resist them. “Much Madness is divinest Sense,” Emily Dickinson noted, but also pointed out that those who resist the grammar of manners are “straightway dangerous -/ And handled with a Chain.”

Margaret avoids the chain, and if the world is a bit too much for her to bear at time, she fashions it into Something Else. This is the joy of Margaret the First. Dutton could have crafted the tale as a tragedy, but instead she gives us something else—something rich, generative, imagistic, occasionally unsettling, and ultimately deeply endearing. Highly recommended.

The drama’s done | Moby-Dick reread, riff 40

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff, Chapter 135, “The Chase—Third Day” and the Epilogue of Moby-Dick.

The beginning of the end begins, “The morning of the third day dawned fair and fresh” — we are in the tranquil pacified Pacific, beautiful blue, the calm site of a coming calamity.

II. After calling for news of the White Whale, Ahab riffs to himself on the wind. The wind is an apparently concrete force that operates with abstract agency. The wind is a kind of fate, an invisible entity that both propels and repels objects of the phenomenal world:

Would now the wind but had a body; but all the things that most exasperate and outrage mortal man, all these things are bodiless, but only bodiless as objects, not as agents. There’s a most special, a most cunning, oh, a most malicious difference! And yet, I say again, and swear it now, that there’s something all glorious and gracious in the wind.

III. Ahab glimpses his folly:  “I’ve oversailed him,” he mutters about Moby Dick, continuing, “How, got the start? Aye, he’s chasing me now; not I, him—that’s bad; I might have known it, too. Fool!”

The fool there is of course a bit of self-talk Ahab directs to his self-same self.

IV. This final chapter is full of self-talk. Starbuck’s inner monologue turmoils, “I misdoubt me that I disobey my God in obeying him!” Ahab swears to meet Moby Dick, “Forehead to forehead…this third time”; we enter the final private thoughts of Stubb and Flask (but never the pagan harpooneers).

As always, my question remains—

How does Ishmael bear witness to these voices?

V. In a potent soliloquy, Ahab’s sentimentality takes over. He addresses the vast ocean, “the same to Noah as to me.” He seems to portend his own demise, and is distracted momentarily by the “lovely leewardings” that “must lead somewhere—to something else than common land, more palmy than the palms.” But he won’t escape: “Leeward! the white whale goes that way; look to windward, then; the better if the bitterer quarter. But good bye, good bye, old mast-head!”

By the end of the soliloquy Ahab is again convinced — or maybe not wholly convinced, but nevertheless affirming — of his impending victory. He addresses the masthead anew: “We’ll talk to-morrow, nay, to-night, when the white whale lies down there, tied by head and tail.”

VI. Ahab rejects two final calls to remain and retreat. The first is Starbuck’s:

“Some men die at ebb tide; some at low water; some at the full of the flood;—and I feel now like a billow that’s all one crested comb, Starbuck. I am old;—shake hands with me, man.”

Their hands met; their eyes fastened; Starbuck’s tears the glue.

Starbuck’s tears the glue! What a line!

The second entreaty I take to be Ahab’s other first mate, the mad cabinboy Pip:

“Oh, my captain, my captain!—noble heart—go not—go not!—see, it’s a brave man that weeps; how great the agony of the persuasion then!”

“Lower away!”—cried Ahab, tossing the mate’s arm from him. “Stand by the crew!”

“The sharks! the sharks!” cried a voice from the low cabin-window there; “O master, my master, come back!” But Ahab heard nothing; for his own voice was high-lifted then; and the boat leaped on.

Ahab rejects all fellow-feeling here. His monomaniacal voice overtakes all bandwidth, drowning out any sensation of otherness.

VII. The sharks follow Ahab’s boat like “vultures hover over the banners of marching regiments in the east”; as usual, Melville is not shy about slathering on the foreshadowing. He enlists Starbuck’s help; the Christian mate remarks that this, “the third evening,” be “the end of that thing—be that end what it may.”

VIII. Meanwhile, Ahab repeats pagan Fedallah’s pagan prophecy: “Drive, drive in your nails, oh ye waves! to their uttermost heads drive them in! ye but strike a thing without a lid; and no coffin and no hearse can be mine:—and hemp only can kill me! Ha! ha!”

Those dashes, those exclamations—that madness!

IX. Moby Dick then resurfaces, all veils, rainbows, milk:

A low rumbling sound was heard; a subterraneous hum; and then all held their breaths; as bedraggled with trailing ropes, and harpoons, and lances, a vast form shot lengthwise, but obliquely from the sea. Shrouded in a thin drooping veil of mist, it hovered for a moment in the rainbowed air; and then fell swamping back into the deep. Crushed thirty feet upwards, the waters flashed for an instant like heaps of fountains, then brokenly sank in a shower of flakes, leaving the circling surface creamed like new milk round the marble trunk of the whale.

Our boy Moby Dick sets to violence, dashing the boats of Daggoo and Queequeg.

X. The violent spectacle culminates in the most gruesome imagery within Moby-Dick. We learn the fated fate of fated Fedallah:

Lashed round and round to the fish’s back; pinioned in the turns upon turns in which, during the past night, the whale had reeled the involutions of the lines around him, the half torn body of the Parsee was seen; his sable raiment frayed to shreds; his distended eyes turned full upon old Ahab.

XI. Ahab commands his sailors to remain rowing after the White Whale, despite the downed lieutenants and zombified harpooneer. He threatens them:

Down, men! the first thing that but offers to jump from this boat I stand in, that thing I harpoon. Ye are not other men, but my arms and my legs; and so obey me.—

Ahab, who has repeated the idea that his mates are but mechanical things throughout the novel, here spells out his distance from human sympathy, his complete fascistic capitulation. “Ye are not other men” is the exact opposite of the Gospels’ injunction to do unto others. Ahab fails Starbuck’s moral test—and Ishmael’s.

XII. Ahab sees his pagan harpooneers and wrecked mates return to The Pequod to repair boats and rearm:

…he saw Tashtego, Queequeg, and Daggoo, eagerly mounting to the three mast-heads; while the oarsmen were rocking in the two staved boats which had but just been hoisted to the side, and were busily at work in repairing them. One after the other, through the port-holes, as he sped, he also caught flying glimpses of Stubb and Flask, busying themselves on deck among bundles of new irons and lances. As he saw all this; as he heard the hammers in the broken boats; far other hammers seemed driving a nail into his heart. But he rallied. And now marking that the vane or flag was gone from the main-mast-head, he shouted to Tashtego, who had just gained that perch, to descend again for another flag, and a hammer and nails, and so nail it to the mast.

I’ve quoted at length because I think our eyes should be trained on Tashtego, the Native American twice now denied his proper place. He was the first to raise a whale on The Pequod’s voyage (denied by Stubb), and the first to raise Moby Dick (denied by Ahab). Tash will be the last to go down with the ship, nailing a new banner to its highest mast.

XIII. Meanwhile, the sharks chew and chomp at the oarsmen’s oars in Ahab’s whaleboat, to the point “that the blades became jagged and crunched, and left small splinters in the sea, at almost every dip.”

They row on.

XIV. Ahab’s boat comes about and he darts “his fierce iron, and his far fiercer curse into the hated whale.” Three of his oarsmen are knocked from the boat, and only two return, although the one who bobs asea is reported “still afloat and swimming.”

This third castaway is Ishmael.

XV. Moby Dick then attacks The Pequod, “bethinking it—it may be—a larger and nobler foe.”

(“‘The whale! The ship!’ cried the cringing oarsmen.”)

XVI. The White Whale destroys The Pequod, and Melville takes us into the last lungfuls of language from the three mates, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask. These are mini-monologues that Moby Dick’s ensuing vortex will swamp to oblivion.

“My God, stand by me now!” beseeches Starbuck; “Stand not by me, but stand under me, whoever you are that will now help Stubb,” Stubb non-prays, before praying against this “most mouldy and over salted death”— he’d prefer “cherries! cherries! cherries!” And Flask? “Cherries? I only wish that we were where they grow.” Poor Flask then think of his dear mama, before the ship fails.

XVII. Moby Dick wrecks The Pequod. The crew (in Ishmael’s telling) bears witness:

…all their enchanted eyes intent upon the whale, which from side to side strangely vibrating his predestinating head, sent a broad band of overspreading semicircular foam before him as he rushed. Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled. Some fell flat upon their faces. Like dislodged trucks, the heads of the harpooneers aloft shook on their bull-like necks. Through the breach, they heard the waters pour, as mountain torrents down a flume.

XVIII. As Ahab watches the disaster, he comes to understand Fedallah’s prophecy: “The ship! The hearse!—the second hearse!” cried Ahab from the boat; “its wood could only be American!”

XIX. And then—

Ahab’s final speech:

Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!

Ahab is knocked from the boat, and hanged in hemp and hate.

XX. The Pequod sinks, but

the pagan harpooneers still maintained their sinking lookouts on the sea. And now, concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.

The final image is devastating: Tashtego nails a seahawk to the mast. Again, forgive me for quoting at length:

…as the last whelmings intermixingly poured themselves over the sunken head of the Indian at the mainmast…a red arm and a hammer hovered backwardly uplifted in the open air, in the act of nailing the flag faster and yet faster to the subsiding spar. A sky-hawk that tauntingly had followed the main-truck downwards from its natural home among the stars…now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood; and simultaneously feeling that ethereal thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.

What an image!

(I have nothing to add here.)

XXI (Excepting, I would add: I think Melville loads so much in this near-final image of his big book. There are only two paragraphs after this one: a scant sentence that’s basically an exhalation from the image of a submerged Tashtego nailing a hawk to the mast of the sinking Pequod—and then the Epilogue. The Pequod takes its name from an extinct Native American tribe. Tashtego is doubly-denied his due as the First to raise whale. Melville seems to point back to America’s founding as a genocidal project here. I probably need to reread the book again, I now realize. Or maybe read some commenters on this matter that I’ve yet to read. I hate to stick this thought in parentheses, as it’s the thing that interests me the most at the end of this reread—Tashtego the Indian, I mean.)

XXII. And so well the end of the end, the Epilogue.

Here it is in the Arion Press edition I read this time through:

XXIII. Ishmael survives, “floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it.”

What a position! To be both marginal and omnipresent, both at edge and center to the drama, comedy, tragedy of it all!

The notation from the Book of Job is everything here—the disaster is only a disaster if there is one to bear witness to it. Otherwise, disaster is simply a phenomenological event in nature—random, stochastic, energy, mass, and matter moving without meaning.

Ahab pretends at a great searcher for meaning, but he fixes his search on vengeance. “Madness!” Starbuck chides (if Starbuck could chide) — “To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.” Ahab has read too deep, read too twisted—he’s a bad reader, a mutant reader, an overreader—but he’s failed repeatedly to read the souls and faces of his fellows.

XXIV. The final curse and blessing is upon Ishmael though. He names himself at the novel’s famous outset — “Call me Ishmael” — a call that likens him to Hagar’s outcast son. At its end, he likens himself to another outcast, “another Ixion,” all the while circling into a vortex of nature, meaning, language—all the forces that would swallow him. (He’s Melville’s maddened howl here.)

Ishmael floats on “a soft and dirgelike main,” bobbing alive on Queequeg’s coffin, the strange lifebuoy of his strange bedfellow, until he’s saved by The Rachel—the ship Ahab had earlier denied—which still cruises for a lost son. He is not the lost son, but he has been lost, and is here saved by The Rachel’s “retracing search after her missing children” — a retracing, a rereading, a rewriting — one that surfaces the wailing of only another orphan.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

That wild simultaneousness of a thousand concreted perils | Moby-Dick reread, riff 39

I. In this riff, Chapters 133-134 of Moby-Dick.

II. Ch. 133, “The Chase—First Day.”

We finally get there.

Ahab has posed one question throughout the book: “Hast seen the White Whale?”

That is the only viewpoint that matters to him—a viewpoint that can point him toward vengeance.

He gets to answer his own question:

“There she blows!—there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!”

And then the chase begins.

III. Ahab demands of his lookouts whether or not they sighted Moby Dick first. Tashtego claims that he, “saw him almost that same instant, sir, that Captain Ahab did,” but Ahab denies this (much as Stubb takes credit for the first whale The Pequod sights much earlier in the novel).

Ahab is ever-dominant: “Not the same instant; not the same—no, the doubloon is mine, Fate reserved the doubloon for me. I only; none of ye could have raised the White Whale first.”

Ahab’s “only” condenses his monomania to three syllables.

Ahab’s monomania turns his rhetoric into a series of repetitions through which he tunes himself to the rhythm of the whale:

“There she blows!—there she blows!—there she blows! There again!—there again!” he cried, in long-drawn, lingering, methodic tones, attuned to the gradual prolongings of the whale’s visible jets.

IV. Ahab and his mates set to their boats to chase the White Whale—only Starbuck remains, as previously commanded by Ahab. Omnipresent Ishmael, shows us Ahab seeing Moby Dick: “He saw the vast, involved wrinkles of the slightly projecting head beyond.” And then, in a remarkable passage, we get what think is Ishmael seeing Moby Dick, or Ishmael seeing Moby Dick as he wished Ahab could see Moby Dick:

A gentle joyousness—a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.

The whale here is godlike. But remember that Ahab would strike the sun, would cast down the Titans.

V. Ahab and his men continue to hunt the godlike whale “through the serene tranquillities of the tropical sea”; Moby Dick ducks and dives, refusing them the sight of “the full terrors of his submerged trunk.”

Soon though, eagle-eyed Tashtego spies the sign of the whale’s re-emergence:

“The birds!—the birds!” cried Tashtego.

In long Indian file, as when herons take wing, the white birds were now all flying towards Ahab’s boat; and when within a few yards began fluttering over he water there, wheeling round and round, with joyous, expectant cries. Their vision was keener than man’s; Ahab could discover no sign in the sea.

Melville seems to underline a few points here—Tashtego raises a whale for the third time—here, by spying the herons, which our author notes travel in “Indian file” and by noting that this “Indian file” sounds the alarm for the whale. They can see more deeply than Ahab.

VI. But Ahab soon does see something, but only because it rises up to meet him from the ocean’s depths: “It was Moby Dick’s open mouth and scrolled jaw.”

But it’s just the first day of the chase in this novel of tripled trios. Ahab’s not done yet, even though “The glittering mouth yawned beneath the boat like an open-doored marble tomb.” There’s some foreshadowing for you!

VII. Ahab escapes on this first day, although his boat does not—Moby Dick chomps it to pieces. All sailors are saved too, although Ahab shows more concern for the harpoon he forged earlier aboard The Pequod (it’s saved too).

Moral Starbuck declares the business of the wrecked boat an ill omen, but Ahab won’t read the signs that way:

Omen? omen?—the dictionary! If the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honorably speak outright; not shake their heads, and give an old wives’ darkling hint.—Begone! Ye two are the opposite poles of one thing; Starbuck is Stubb reversed, and Stubb is Starbuck; and ye two are all mankind; and Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors!

VIII. Ch. 134, “The Chase—Second Day.”

And so the second day.

It starts out with an enthusiastically-received mistake. The lookout calls out that he’s sighted Moby Dick, rousing the crew into a kind of mad fury; Ahab’s monomania inspirits them all:

The hand of Fate had snatched all their souls; and by the stirring perils of the previous day; the rack of the past night’s suspense; the fixed, unfearing, blind, reckless way in which their wild craft went plunging towards its flying mark; by all these things, their hearts were bowled along. The wind that made great bellies of their sails, and rushed the vessel on by arms invisible as irresistible; this seemed the symbol of that unseen agency which so enslaved them to the race.

“They were one man, not thirty,” notes Ishmael, in another satanic inversion of the earlier oversoul blending the men have experienced. We are now in the mode of blood, a reversal of “the very milk and sperm of kindness.”

IX. But Ahab chastises the men: “ye have been deceived; not Moby Dick casts one odd jet that way, and then disappears.” Ahab ascends the rigging himself, and quickly sights the White Whale again. “Aye, breach your last to the sun, Moby Dick!” he brags, setting out again in a restored boat (and again leaving Starbuck on The Pequod).

X. A complex battle ensues. All three harpooneers manage to lance Moby Dick, but “in his untraceable evolutions, the White Whale so crossed and recrossed, and in a thousand ways entangled the slack of the three lines now fast to him, that they foreshortened, and, of themselves, warped the devoted boats towards the planted irons in him.” The image evokes to me a kind of elegant wild writing. Moby Dick crossing and recrossing the lines, warping and weaving the material of which he is the unknowable center.

Moby Dick rewrites the violence Ahab seeks to wreak upon him. The men’s lances become “corkscrewed in the mazes of the line,” and Ahab’s only recourse is to edit. He takes a knife to the lines attached to his boat. But Ahab causes an unintended effect—although he’s freed from the whale, the other boats are not, and “the more involved boats of Stubb and Flask” are dashed…together like two rolling husks on a surf-beaten beach.”

XI. Moby Dick then destroys Ahab’s second boat. The particular paragraph is an astounding piece of rhetoric, a single sentence of 141 words, fourteen commas, seven em dashes, and four semicolons. And it begins with While—Melville tries to make his rhetoric do what film does, to situate his sentences as movement, sound, simultaneity. His goal is to set a scene impossible for an eye to take in and comprehend in a simple glance—the wreck of the boats, the struggle of Stubb, Flask, and their men—condensed perhaps most neatly in the phrase which occurs right in the middle of the paragraph—

—in that wild simultaneousness of a thousand concreted perils,—

(Those dashes do so much work, forcefully connecting and separating the elements of Melville’s tangled, disastrous paragraph of a sentence.)

XII. And well so what happened in that wild simultaneousness of a thousand concreted peril?

—Ahab’s yet unstricken boat seemed drawn up towards Heaven by invisible wires,—as, arrow-like, shooting perpendicularly from the sea, the White Whale dashed his broad forehead against its bottom, and sent it, turning over and over, into the air; till it fell again—gunwale downwards—and Ahab and his men struggled out from under it, like seals from a sea-side cave.

XIII. The men, including Ahab, are returned to The Pequod. But Ahab’s “ivory leg had been snapped off, leaving but one short sharp splinter.”

Ahab then musters the men and finds Fedallah missing; Stubb attests that the Parsee was dragged down in the tangles of Ahab’s lines. Ahab is the author of Fedallah’s death. He goes full King Lear:

My line! my line? Gone?—gone? What means that little word?—What death-knell rings in it, that old Ahab shakes as if he were the belfry. The harpoon, too!—toss over the litter there,—d’ye see it?—the forged iron, men, the white whale’s—no, no, no,—

(Etc.)

Ahab’s “line” here points in multiple directions—the concrete harpoon line, the genealogical futurity of his familial line; his “line” as an author.

XIV. Ahab’s mad monologue pushes Starbuck over the edge. “Great God! but for one single instant show thyself,” Starbuck implores, perhaps echoing Melville’s own metaphysical misgivings. “In Jesus’ name no more of this,” he implores, ending his own rejoining monologue by declaiming it, “Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!”

XV. Ahab’s ego overwhelms in the end though. He concedes that “of late” he’s felt “strangely moved” to Starbuck’s thinking, but then trips into his own fury:

Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ’Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.—Stand round me, men. Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. ’Tis Ahab—his body’s part; but Ahab’s soul’s a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs. I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break, ye’ll hear me crack; and till ye hear that, know that Ahab’s hawser tows his purpose yet. Believe ye, men, in the things called omens? Then laugh aloud, and cry encore! For ere they drown, drowning things will twice rise to the surface; then rise again, to sink for evermore. So with Moby Dick—two days he’s floated—tomorrow will be the third. Aye, men, he’ll rise once more,—but only to spout his last! D’ye feel brave men, brave?

So do you feel brave?

The least heedful eye seemed to see some sort of cunning meaning in almost every sight | Moby-Dick reread, riff 38

I. In this riff, Chapters 130-132 of Moby-Dick.

Moby-Dick illustration by Herman Melville.

II. Ch. 130, “The Hat.”

In which Ahab’s hat is stolen by “one of those red-billed savage sea-hawks which so often fly incommodiously close round the manned mast-heads of whalemen in these latitudes,” and the crew reads it, almost to a man, as an ill omen.

At the chapter’s outset, our Ishmael is in a meta-textual mood, pushing the quest’s doom into the foreground. He tells us that “all other whaling waters [are] swept” — we are in the penultimate triplet chapters:

In this foreshadowing interval too, all humor, forced or natural, vanished. Stubb no more strove to raise a smile; Starbuck no more strove to check one. Alike, joy and sorrow, hope and fear, seemed ground to finest dust, and powdered, for the time, in the clamped mortar of Ahab’s iron soul.

III. Ahab and Fedallah (who has foretold the doom of the ship he crews on) both keep to the deck at all times. Ahab declares that he will take the nailed doubloon, omphalos of both ship and novel — “‘I will have the first sight of the whale myself,’—he said. ‘Aye! Ahab must have the doubloon.'” Fedallah is a silent impenetrable gaze: “his wan but wondrous eyes did plainly say—We two watchmen never rest.”

IV. Ahab, as I’ve contended so many times, is monocular reader. Our one-legged monomaniacal despot of a captain can only watch and read for his dread mission. Unlike diverse, large-hearted Ishmael, there is no diversity in Ahab’s gaze/reading. He reads for one purpose, and all signs are symbols portending the fulfillment of that purpose.

As the sea-hawk approaches, Ahab’s gaze is upon the sea, not heavenward. We learn that the sea-hawk,

darted a thousand feet straight up into the air; then spiralized downwards, and went eddying again round his head.

But with his gaze fixed upon the dim and distant horizon, Ahab seemed not to mark this wild bird; nor, indeed, would any one else have marked it much, it being no uncommon circumstance; only now almost the least heedful eye seemed to see some sort of cunning meaning in almost every sight.

The crew of The Pequod reads the event as the foreshadow of disaster, whether the spectacle is simply a dark omen—the leader’s crown revoked from upon high—or simply the physical reality of their captain losing his hat because his attention was focused in only one direction.

V. Ch. 131, “The Pequod Meets the Delight.”

In which The Pequod encounters its last meeting with another ship—and another Nantucket ship—a “most miserably misnamed” The Delight:

Upon the stranger’s shears were beheld the shattered, white ribs, and some few splintered planks, of what had once been a whale-boat; but you now saw through this wreck, as plainly as you see through the peeled, half-unhinged, and bleaching skeleton of a horse.

I mean, c’mon. White ribs, bleaching skeleton of a horse, etc. It’s really the seeing through in the previous paragraph I’m interested in. Our Ishmael attends the world with the perspective of a ghost who sees through the world’s wreck.

VI. Ahab repeats his famous question (for the last time):

“Hast seen the White Whale?”

“Look!” replied the hollow-cheeked captain from his taffrail; and with his trumpet he pointed to the wreck.

“Hast killed him?”

“The harpoon is not yet forged that ever will do that,” answered the other, sadly glancing upon a rounded hammock on the deck, whose gathered sides some noiseless sailors were busy in sewing together.

Ahab shows off the harpoon he forged with Perth but captain and crew of The Delight remain morosely unimpressed. They bury at sea the last of five sailors they lost in battle with Moby Dick—the other four bodies were lost in the fight.

Ahab turns away from the scene.

And yet—

As Ahab now glided from the dejected Delight, the strange life-buoy hanging at the Pequod’s stern came into conspicuous relief.

“Ha! yonder! look yonder, men!” cried a foreboding voice in her wake. “In vain, oh, ye strangers, ye fly our sad burial; ye but turn us your taffrail to show us your coffin!”

Again—it’s an overdetermined affair, this Moby-Dick.

Show us your coffin!

VII. Ch. 132, “The Symphony.”

The whole thing is about to collapse.

In which Starbuck almost convinces Ahab to change course and save the souls of The Pequod.

“The Symphony” is another sad, sad chapter. “It was a clear steel-blue day,” the chapter begins, and then unfolds in short descriptions of pacific beauty. We are reminded of the peaceful air about The Pequod—that the violent rage at the heart of the novel is carried there by men, by their chieftan Ahab. But the dumb world will not attend our own woes:

Oh, immortal infancy, and innocency of the azure! Invisible winged creatures that frolic all round us! Sweet childhood of air and sky! how oblivious were ye of old Ahab’s close-coiled woe!

Again, Ishmael portrays Ahab in a sympathetic cast.

VIII. Ahab monologues at Starbuck, a sympathetic ear. He laments the forty years he’s spent asea:

Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day—very much such a sweetness as this—I struck my first whale—a boy-harpooneer of eighteen! Forty—forty—forty years ago!—ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore.

Are these Ahab’s last rites? A sad confession before the crack of doom (with those mythic numbers foregrounded, forty and three)? I think so.

(And, as always—

How does Ishmael witness this dialogue?)

IX. But Ahab’s confession does not lead to redemption. Language carries him away, and as always the ineffable nearly overwhelms him—he contests the unnameable:

What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.

Ahab the philosopher is a thing of despair:

By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea!

Starbuck, “blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair,” steals away. But Fedallah remains at his unvacant post, eyes focused on the water.

A life-buoy of a coffin! Does it go further? | Moby-Dick reread, riff 37

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff, Chapters 127-129 of Moby-Dick.

II. Ch. 127, “The Deck.”

Another chapter composed as playwright’s drama—mostly dialogue, and a few spare stage directions.

The dialogue is between Ahab and the carpenter. The poor old man has been charged with the task of converting Queequeg’s coffin into a life-buoy (you will recall The Pequod lost both the life-buoy and the sailor it was thrown to save in the previous chapter).

Ahab’s back-and-forth with the carpenter highlight’s the captain’s careen into deeper madness. He’s alarmed by the carpenter’s ironic task:

Then tell me; art thou not an arrant, all-grasping, intermeddling, monopolising, heathenish old scamp, to be one day making legs, and the next day coffins to clap them in, and yet again life-buoys out of those same coffins? Thou art as unprincipled as the gods, and as much of a jack-of-all-trades.”

It’s another metatextual moment in Moby-Dick, where Ahab plays a critic, pointing out perhaps that Melville’s ironic foreshadowing here is overdetermined stuff. But the dialogue leads Ahab inward to monologue, and he tries to play out the greater meaning of the symbol, beyond plot-bound gimmickry. The phenomenal experience of hearing the carpenter’s work sends him into a philosophical reverie:

Rat-tat! So man’s seconds tick! Oh! how immaterial are all materials! What things real are there, but imponderable thoughts? Here now’s the very dreaded symbol of grim death, by a mere hap, made the expressive sign of the help and hope of most endangered life. A life-buoy of a coffin! Does it go further? Can it be that in some spiritual sense the coffin is, after all, but an immortality-preserver! I’ll think of that.

In the end though the coffin is a life-preserver—it saves Ishmael, and, in a sense, is an immortality-preserver, as it becomes the mechanism that sustains Ishmael’s infinite witnessing.

III. Ch. 128, “The Pequod Meets The Rachel.”

This is possibly the saddest chapter in Moby-Dick.

The Pequod meets The Rachel, also of Nantucket. It’s the penultimate ship they will meet in their soon-to-be-over voyage (the ironically named Delight is their last exchange).

The captain of The Rachel is able to affirm Ahab’s monomaniacal hailing, and then pose his own rejoinder:

“Hast seen the White Whale?”

“Aye, yesterday. Have ye seen a whale-boat adrift?”

The Rachel’s captain boards The Pequod. It turns out that one of the whaling boats of The Rachel set out after Moby Dick, yet never returned. We then learn his motivation for the curt gam:

The story told, the stranger Captain immediately went on to reveal his object in boarding the Pequod. He desired that ship to unite with his own in the search; by sailing over the sea some four or five miles apart, on parallel lines, and so sweeping a double horizon, as it were.

Callous Stubb suggests that the captain is anxious to get the boat’s crew back because “some one in that missing boat wore off that Captain’s best coat; mayhap, his watch.” Stubb shows a tenderer heart though when the truth is revealed: “My boy, my own boy is among them,” pleads the captain,” begging Ahab to charter The Pequod for two days.

Stubb—who I’ve thought in this reread the villain of the novel for his bullying humor—redeems himself here: “His son!” cried Stubb, “oh, it’s his son he’s lost! I take back the coat and watch—what says Ahab? We must save that boy.”

What says Ahab?

But first—what says the captain—referred to repeatedly as “the stranger” in this chapter:

“I will not go,” said the stranger, “till you say aye to me. Do to me as you would have me do to you in the like case.

We find here Melville reworking the Gospel of Matthew, 25:35-45. 

The specific passages from Matthew’s Gospel repeatedly refer to the stranger—who is to be fed, clothed, visited, etc. — like, generally, done unto. (Melville would explore the concept in a leaner story with more depth in Bartleby.)

The Gospel’s injunction is straightforward. We must treat others—particularly strangers, those othered-others, “the least of these,” in the NIV translation—as we wish to be treated.

And so well,

What says Ahab?

“Avast,” cried Ahab—“touch not a rope-yarn”; then in a voice that prolongingly moulded every word—“Captain Gardiner, I will not do it. Even now I lose time. Good-bye, good-bye. God bless ye, man, and may I forgive myself, but I must go.

Ahab hopes he can forgive himself. But the end of Matthew Ch. 25 is pretty clear (KJV this time).: “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment.”

IV. Ch. 129, “The Cabin.”

Another chapter composed as playwright’s drama—mostly dialogue, and a few spare stage directions—and, like Ch. 127, a chapter that ends in a crazed monologue.

The chapter starts with Ahab telling Pip way too late, “Lad, lad, I tell thee thou must not follow Ahab now. The hour is coming when Ahab would not scare thee from him, yet would not have thee by him.” Ahab tells Pip that Pip is the cure for his malady, but that his “malady becomes [his] most desired health.” It’s a strange moment between two cursed persons—Ahab recognizes here the injunction in the Gospel of Matthew that he’s failed to meet in the previous chapter (and hey, I even forgot to point out that the captain of The Rachel is not even a stranger to Ahab—our monomaniac calls the man by name!)—but where was I? I think it’s a weird tender moment. Ahab recognizes Pip as a kind of son, and tells him to stay safe in his cabin. But he also seems to know that the entire ship is headed toward some kind of Big Death.

Ahab departs; Pip fills the cabin — and the end of the “The Cabin” — with his crazed voice. He’s already the vacant post that Ishmael will evoke in the novel’s epilogue. So let him speak:

Here he this instant stood; I stand in his air,—but I’m alone. Now were even poor Pip here I could endure it, but he’s missing. Pip! Pip! Ding, dong, ding! Who’s seen Pip? He must be up here; let’s try the door. What? neither lock, nor bolt, nor bar; and yet there’s no opening it. It must be the spell; he told me to stay here: Aye, and told me this screwed chair was mine. Here, then, I’ll seat me, against the transom, in the ship’s full middle, all her keel and her three masts before me. Here, our old sailors say, in their black seventy-fours great admirals sometimes sit at table, and lord it over rows of captains and lieutenants. Ha! what’s this? epaulets! epaulets! the epaulets all come crowding! Pass round the decanters; glad to see ye; fill up, monsieurs! What an odd feeling, now, when a black boy’s host to white men with gold lace upon their coats!—Monsieurs, have ye seen one Pip?—a little negro lad, five feet high, hang-dog look, and cowardly! Jumped from a whale-boat once;—seen him? No! Well then, fill up again, captains, and let’s drink shame upon all cowards! I name no names. Shame upon them! Put one foot upon the table. Shame upon all cowards.—Hist! above there, I hear ivory—Oh, master! master! I am indeed down-hearted when you walk over me. But here I’ll stay, though this stern strikes rocks; and they bulge through; and oysters come to join me.

 

Crying and sobbing with their human sort of wail | Moby-Dick reread, riff 36

I. In this riff, Chapters 124-126 of Moby-Dick.

II. Ch. 124, “The Needle.”

“The Needle” is another one of Melville’s satanic reversals in Moby-Dick. Lightning from the tempest that The Pequod endured over the past few chapters has caused all compasses aboard the ship to be perfectly reversed.  Needles fly in the exact opposite directions. What might have been up, in a certain sense, points downward.

Again, Ahab is a bad reader—or a reader whose monomania overrides his ability to comprehend other perspectives, other views, other directions.

III. And yet Ahab is a bold reader, one who shapes nature to his own direction (or will in anywise perish doing so):

“Men,” said he, steadily turning upon the crew, as the mate handed him the things he had demanded, “my men, the thunder turned old Ahab’s needles; but out of this bit of steel Ahab can make one of his own, that will point as true as any.”

Ahab sets about to magnetize a needle with the “steel head of the lance,” and the crew watches on in wonder and mild horror. Ishmael (Melville) notes that, “with fascinated eyes they awaited whatever magic might follow”  — and then tellingly: “But Starbuck looked away.” 

Starbuck’s attempt to see no evil reverberates through the crew who gaze at the new compass needle in turns at the end of the scene:

One after another they peered in, for nothing but their own eyes could persuade such ignorance as theirs, and one after another they slunk away.

In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride.

Slink away; perish still.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

IV. Ch. 125, “The Log and Line.”

A somewhat extended episode, the mechanics of which I’m in no mood to summarize here. Suffice to say that “the log and line” — basically, a way of calculating the ship’s speed — “had but very seldom been in use” lately on The Pequod’s voyage. Ahab has found other ways to measure and to read the phenomenal world. But, thinking he’s closing in on the White Whale, he commands the “golden-hued Tahitian and the grizzly Manxman” to the task of log and line.

V. The Manxman declares the line “rotten,” a prescient analysis that reads The Pequod’s impending doom.

A mark of that rottenness evinces in Pip’s emergence. The crazed cabin boy alights on the deck, a rotten line in a book of glowing rotten lines. He contests his own identity. He’s a vacant post, a drowned sailor:

“Pip? whom call ye Pip? Pip jumped from the whale-boat. Pip’s missing. Let’s see now if ye haven’t fished him up here, fisherman. It drags hard; I guess he’s holding on. Jerk him, Tahiti! Jerk him off; we haul in no cowards here. Ho! there’s his arm just breaking water. A hatchet! a hatchet! cut it off—we haul in no cowards here. Captain Ahab! sir, sir! here’s Pip, trying to get on board again.”

VI. (I will leave the line Jerk him off in this oh-so-phallic novel alone, apart from noting it here in these parentheses.)

VII. “Peace, thou crazy loon,” cries the Manxman, trying to shoo him from the quarter-deck, but Ahab admonishes the older sailor and enters into conversation with the insane cabin boy:

“The greater idiot ever scolds the lesser,” muttered Ahab, advancing. “Hands off from that holiness! Where sayest thou Pip was, boy?

“Astern there, sir, astern! Lo! lo!”

“And who art thou, boy? I see not my reflection in the vacant pupils of thy eyes. Oh God! that man should be a thing for immortal souls to sieve through! Who art thou, boy?”

“Bell-boy, sir; ship’s-crier; ding, dong, ding! Pip! Pip! Pip! One hundred pounds of clay reward for Pip; five feet high—looks cowardly—quickest known by that! Ding, dong, ding! Who’s seen Pip the coward?”

“There can be no hearts above the snow-line. Oh, ye frozen heavens! look down here. Ye did beget this luckless child, and have abandoned him, ye creative libertines. Here, boy; Ahab’s cabin shall be Pip’s home henceforth, while Ahab lives. Thou touchest my inmost centre, boy; thou art tied to me by cords woven of my heart-strings. Come, let’s down.”

Pip then, and not Fedallah, is Ahab’s true squire. Poor child.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

VIII. Ch. 126, “The Life-Buoy.”

“[D]etermined by Ahab’s level log and line; the Pequod held on her path towards the Equator.” On their way there,

sailing by a cluster of rocky islets…the watch…was startled by a cry so plaintively wild and unearthly—like half-articulated wailings of the ghosts of all Herod’s murdered Innocents—that one and all, they started from their reveries…

The wailing there again calls to me. I’ve probably stated ad nauseum in these riffs that Moby-Dick is a whaling book about wailing.

IX. Ishmael continues his ironic critique of the viewpoints of “pagans” and “civilized” folk:

The Christian or civilized part of the crew said it was mermaids, and shuddered; but the pagan harpooneers remained unappalled.

The pagan harpooneers remain unappalled because they are not in the thrall of superstitious ignorance.

X. The wailing is not lost souls or mermaids, we learn, but rather the crying of

some young seals that had lost their dams, or some dams that had lost their cubs, [who] must have risen nigh the ship and kept company with her, crying and sobbing with their human sort of wail.

Their human sort of wail—a wailing, a hailing, an interpellation that the sailors can read.

XI. After this wailing episode, we learn that a lookout posted at the top of The Pequod  drowns. The crew spies him, “a falling phantom in the air,” and throw out the titular life-buoy to recover him.

Neither returns.

XII. The life-buoy must be resurrected in a new form, though. However, “no cask of sufficient lightness could be found.” Fortunately (ultimately, for Ishmael), “by certain strange signs and inuendoes Queequeg hinted a hint concerning his coffin”

“A life-buoy of a coffin!” cried Starbuck, starting.

“Rather queer, that, I should say,” said Stubb.

“It will make a good enough one,” said Flask, “the carpenter here can arrange it easily.”

And so the carpenter does, despite the queerness of this job—making a life preserver of a coffin.

Hence Moby-Dick formalizes its theme of LIFE | DEATH in an overdetermined symbol, an abstract concrete thing our living ghosting narrator will cling to after the drama’s done, after the sweep of disaster vortexes all.

Wild nights | Moby-Dick reread, riff 35

I. In this riff, Ch. 123, “The Musket.”

Here, we—and by which we, I guess I mean Ishmael’s consciousness–or maybe I just mean we—enter Starbuck’s consciousness.

Our good Christian co-commander stands outside crazy Captain Ahab’s quarters, wondering whether to tell his commander that The Pequod has escaped a typhoon–or to kill the tyrant.

II. Ch. 123 delivers the longest (I mean, I’m pretty sure it’s the longest) monologue we get from Starbuck in the novel, as he ponders the morality of assassinating his captain, Ahab. It begins:

“He would have shot me once,” he murmured, “yes, there’s the very musket that he pointed at me;—that one with the studded stock; let me touch it—lift it. Strange, that I, who have handled so many deadly lances, strange, that I should shake so now. Loaded? I must see. Aye, aye; and powder in the pan;—that’s not good. Best spill it?—wait. I’ll cure myself of this. I’ll hold the musket boldly while I think.

Starbuck’s monologue is riddled with the kind of dashes and question marks we might more readily identify with Poe’s bipolars or Dickinson’s Riddles. Madness infects, and Starbuck is touched.

III. “Has he not dashed his heavenly quadrant?” Starbuck dashingly muses, prefiguring, perhaps, Emily Dickinson’s lines, “Done with the Compass – / Done with the Chart!”

Wild nights indeed!

IV. Starbuck’s wild night again shifts into Poe territory. He’s got a touch of craze to his soul, but he’s still the Christian moral (a)center of Melville’s satanic novel. Here, he weighs the metaphysical against the physical:

But shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship’s company down to doom with him?—Yes, it would make him the wilful murderer of thirty men and more, if this ship come to any deadly harm; and come to deadly harm, my soul swears this ship will, if Ahab have his way. If, then, he were this instant—put aside, that crime would not be his. Ha! is he muttering in his sleep? Yes, just there,—in there, he’s sleeping. Sleeping? aye, but still alive, and soon awake again.

V. Starbuck understands that Ahab will wholly infect the crew of The Pequod, dooming them in his disease:

Not reasoning; not remonstrance; not entreaty wilt thou hearken to; all this thou scornest. Flat obedience to thy own flat commands, this is all thou breathest. Aye, and say’st the men have vow’d thy vow; say’st all of us are Ahabs.

VI. In the end though—well, in the end, Starbuck chickens out, as we knew he would. “Great God, where art Thou? Shall I? shall I?” he implores, but God does not answer in any language Starbuck is prepared to read. Instead, Ahab answers (and God through him?) — “Stern all! Oh Moby Dick, I clutch thy heart at last!” — another prefiguration of the demise of the crew Starbuck would save if he were made of sterner stuff.

VII. The episode ends with Starbuck retreating, telling Stubb to wake Ahab.