By the time of “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” (1853), acedia had lost the last of its religious reverberations and was now an offense against the economy. Right in the heart of robber-baron capitalism, the title character develops what proves to be terminal acedia. It is like one of those western tales where the desperado keeps making choices that only herd him closer to the one disagreeable finale. Bartleby just sits there in an office on Wall Street repeating, “I would prefer not to.” While his options go rapidly narrowing, his employer, a man of affairs and substance, is actually brought to question the assumptions of his own life by this miserable scrivener — this writer! — who, though among the lowest of the low in the bilges of capitalism, nevertheless refuses to go on interacting anymore with the daily order, thus bringing up the interesting question: who is more guilty of Sloth, a person who collaborates with the root of all evil, accepting things-as-they-are in return for a paycheck and a hassle-free life, or one who does nothing, finally, but persist in sorrow? “Bartleby” is the first great epic of modern Sloth, presently to be followed by work from the likes of Kafka, Hemingway, Proust, Sartre, Musil and others — take your own favorite list of writers after Melville and you’re bound sooner or later to run into a character bearing a sorrow recognizable as peculiarly of our own time.
Herman Melville’s markings and annotations on the last page of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birth-mark.” From Melville’s Marginalia Online.
What are the problems of Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”?
This question seems like a bad starting place.
Let me share an anecdote instead.
—I was in the tenth grade the first time I read “Bartleby.”
At the time, I thought I was a teacher’s dream—a sharp reader, someone who loved English class, someone with opinions about the texts we read. Lots and lots of opinions. In retrospect, I realize that I was a nightmare for poor Ms. Hall, a wonderful teacher who I’m sure dreaded our meetings (there were like 15 guys in the class, all unruly).
Simply put, I didn’t want to do things her way.
So she gave me a copy of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories and told me to read “Bartleby,” suggesting that there was something I might learn from it.
I don’t know if backfired is exactly the right term for the results of this experiment. I do know that “Bartleby” offered me a brilliant retort—a literary allusion!—to refuse any task I didn’t feel like undertaking in 10th grade English:
“I would prefer not to.”
—While we’re here—
“I would prefer not to”
So, this is clearly one of the problems of “Bartleby,” if not the core problem condensed into one utterance: Why would? Why the conditional?
Consider, vs. I prefer not to, a constative (or maybe even performative) utterance.
But Bartleby “would prefer not to.”
Contrast this with the imperative must that the narrator employs:
At the expiration of that period, I peeped behind the screen, and lo!
Bartleby was there.
I buttoned up my coat, balanced myself; advanced slowly towards him, touched his shoulder, and said, “The time has come; you must quit this place; I am sorry for you; here is money; but you must go.”
“I would prefer not,” he replied, with his back still towards me.
He remained silent.
Now I had an unbounded confidence in this man’s common honesty. He had frequently restored to me sixpences and shillings carelessly dropped upon the floor, for I am apt to be very reckless in such shirt-button affairs. The proceeding then which followed will not be deemed extraordinary.
“Bartleby,” said I, “I owe you twelve dollars on account; here are thirty-two; the odd twenty are yours.—Will you take it?” and I handed the bills towards him.
These brief lines perhaps serve to summarize Melville’s tale.
We see here the basic plot—our titular scrivener will not leave the lawyer’s office after weeks of refusing (although refusing is not quite the right word) to work.
We also see here what I take to be the theme of “Bartleby,” the strange ethical position Bartleby’s (conditional) would prefer not to places the narrator’s (imperative) must set against the moral backdrop of do unto others: namely, an impossible ethical position for a Wall Street lawyer especially and most of us in general.
And “Bartleby,” as you’ll no doubt recall, is in some ways Melville trying to work out the problems of Matthew 25:35-39—
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
Perhaps our narrator tries to do these things—tries to feed and clothe and help this stranger Bartleby—but he can’t. Because Bartleby won’t give him an agency to relate to.
Because Bartleby’s utterance “I would prefer not to” denies the performative or constantive or declarative—indeed, it suspends or disrupts its own conditionality, the relation of the subject to its predicate verb.
Or consider one of Bartleby’s only other lines: “What is wanted?” His grammar again suspends agency, disrupts the notion of a stable I (let alone objective case me) that the narrator can interface with, dictate to, interrogate, see his own narcissistic reflection in).
—Hang on though, I was telling an anecdote. It was about the first time I read “Bartleby,” when I was fourteen or fifteen. This is the book:
I stole it of course, or never returned it. Yes, that’s duct tape on its side. It is more or less falling apart. Here’s the back, barcode and all.
Over the years, like many readers, I returned many times to “Bartleby,” reading it again in high school, then in college, then in grad school. I read it unassigned too, of course—when I read Kafka and it recalled itself to me, and when I read Moby-Dick for the first time. I read it when compelled. And then I read it with my own students. (I read most of the other stuff in the collection too, of course — Billy Budd and then later (why so much later?!) Benito Cereno).
I scrawled through so much of the book that my annotations are basically worthless, virtually everything underlined or circled:
So we butt up against the problems of “Bartleby”—the problems of interpretation. How to figure an eponymous “hero” who is no more than a phantom, a trace, a lack? How to hash out a narrator who presents himself in relatively admirable terms and yet is so clearly an ethical failure? Why oh why would Bartleby prefer not to? Is the story a tragedy or a comedy? Does it present a world with rules, codes, ethics, or is all absurd here—nihilistic even? Is Bartleby a Christ figure? An ascetic monk? A ghost? Is the story just about Melville’s own anger over the poor reception of Pierre? How much of contemporary transcendentalist thought can we find in the story?
The kind people of Melville House were sporting enough to send a copy of “Bartleby” my way. The book is part of their HybridBooks project; these books offer “digital illuminations” along with traditional (uh, paper) books.
I’d requested a HybridBook—any one of them, really—because I now read about half the time on a Kindle Fire—so I was particularly interested in what a “hybrid” had to offer. What is the reading experience like?
First, the book itself is part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series—beautiful, minimal design with French flaps. I read it on my porch the afternoon it arrived, enjoying its pristine, white, unmarked pages. Then, I checked out the “Digital Illuminations.”
The illuminations are available in several device-specific options, all easy to download with the QRC that comes with the book. I read most of the illuminations on my Kindle, but I also put them on my iPhone and my laptop. I had originally intended this post to be specifically about the digital illuminations, but hell, “Bartleby” is just too damn freighted a read for me at this point. Anyway, there’s a lot of good stuff in there, including “The Transcendentalist” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, selections from Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Priestly, Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” and several excerpts from Melville himself, including letters, other books, and reviews. What I found must, uh, illuminating was “Of Some of the Sources of Poetry Amongst Democratic Nations” from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. There are also illustrations, including a map; there’s even a recipe for ginger nuts. I wish that MH had included a digital copy of the book though. From a practical, concrete standpoint, I found it easier to switch between the free public domain version of “Bartleby” on my Kindle and MH’s illuminations than it would have been to pick up the physical book.
Now, to shift back (perhaps):
Do the digital illuminations help to answer or solve or address some of the problems of “Bartleby,” some of the issues posed above?
—I suppose the hedging answer is yes and no.
The additional material illuminates some of the philosophical, political, historical, and even personal context for “Bartleby.” The material is edited with minimal intrusion, but with enough explication to clearly connect the various selections to Melville’s story. If I’m reading with my teacher hat on (this is a metaphor; there is no literal hat), I’d say you probably couldn’t do better than what Melville House has put together here. The digital illuminations provide a strong foundation for an informed reading, a range of texts that speak (obliquely or otherwise) to “Bartleby.”
Does it all add up to a deeper or richer understanding of “Bartleby”?
—Well. No. And then no.
I mean, would we want a series of essays that would provide the missing pieces that would allow us to puzzle out “Bartleby”? Could we even trust such pieces, let alone trust ourselves to trust such pieces? Isn’t this strange uncertainty why “Bartleby” endures—and endures apart from Moby-Dick or Billy Budd, strange texts themselves, but also not nearly as confounding?
“Bartleby” simultaneously wriggles and plays dead; it burns with apparent wit but then reminds us that we might not be in on the joke. It is Kafkaesque thirty years before Kafka was even born. It shakes off its allegorical idiom the minute we think we might limn its contours. It makes us read it again because we cannot pin it down.
—But maybe you want to pin it down, tickle it, torture it, make it solve its problems (or at least respond, damn it!).
And maybe I claimed that “Bartleby” was about something—that it was about ethical relations, about duty to one’s fellows—especially when a fellow isn’t a fellow but rather the trace of a fellow, the idea of a fellow, a ghost.
So, look, here’s a take on it:
The narrator—let’s call him Lawyer—Lawyer, see he’s a dick, in the parlance of our times. He’s a dick because he doesn’t know that he’s a dick, which is one of the constituting factors of the ontological state of being a dick. He also does not want to see himself as being a dick (this is another factor in the ontological state of being a dick). He wants to see himself as a good guy, this Wall Street dickhead, but Bartleby won’t let him do that. Bartleby won’t even let him see himself at all: Bartleby doesn’t reflect back. He prefers not to.
Our Lawyer, see, he’s all buttoned up, he’s snug (these are his words). He tells us upfront that he possesses “a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best”; he repeatedly points out the way that people are “useful” to him (or to others). He sees no possibility of an ethics outside of usefulness; on top of that, he cannot see that he cannot see any possibility of an ethics based on anything but “usefulness” (or the negative economy of obstruction figured in Bartleby).
And ah Bartleby, ah humanity: One time model employee, once apparently free from the eccentricities that plague the Lawyer’s other scriveners, Turkey and Nippers. Machinelike.
Bartleby mechanically completes large quantities of copies without comment or complaint. But when asked to simply read in unison with Lawyer and his scriveners, Bartleby replies: “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby will not read with others—he is literally not on the same page as his colleagues.
Lawyer confronts Bartleby with his noncompliance; Bartleby repeats his mantra. Fuck mantra though because it’s not a mantra. It’s only repeated for Lawyer, to Lawyer, really, who can’t schematize/name/pin down Bartleby’s response. In fact, I would prefer not to so startles Lawyer that he says he’s “unmanned” by the words. So he rationalizes Bartleby’s odd response, internalizes it, paraphrases it, if you like.
And then Bartleby ceases to even do his copying work. Oh the anarchy! But wait, there’s not even anarchy. There’s not even protest. There’s just big nothing. But not even big nothing—instead the smallest nothing (which proves that big nothing is possible).
So Lawyer attempts to “help” Bartleby. Lawyer believes doing so is his “Christian duty.” And to know that this duty has been met, Lawyer needs Bartleby to be his echo. But Bartleby’s I prefer not to denies this narcissistic exchange. He empties his I of ego (shades of Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball).
Confused, Lawyer tries to pay off Bartleby. When that doesn’t work, Lawyer actually packs up and moves to a new office. But even here he can’t cut off Bartleby. The office’s landlord comes to Lawyer to remove Bartleby.
And when Bartleby refuses to leave the office he is taken to “the Tombs”—prison.
Here, Lawyer tries to provide comfort for Bartleby (hearken ye back to Matthew 25:35-39). He arranges for Bartleby to receive good food in the prison. Bartleby prefers not to eat though, and dies curled up in the fetal position during a visit by Lawyer.
Lawyer is the first reader of Bartleby. But like many readers of “Bartleby,” he is confused.
Lawyer’s confusion results from his need for safety—for ease, for comfort, for a snug, buttoned-upness—and that safety is bought through an affirmation of first-person experience: namely, in the affirmation of the self in the other. That security is bought through assimilating another person’s first-person perspective. But Bartleby is empty of I, of self, of ego.
Bartleby would prefer not to: He will not be ventriloquized: He will not echo: He will not read from the same script: He will not be “of use,” as Lawyer puts it.
So Bartleby dissipates and dissolves: He goes down in the Tombs: a ghost, and impossibility, presence coupled with absence.
— And the epilogue:
We all recall the epilogue, yes?
Lawyer offers up “one little item of rumor,” a morsel, a “vague report . . . that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington.” The idea tears the narrator up inside: “Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?”
For Lawyer, Bartleby is a dead letter, a failed letter.
Did Melville worry that “Bartleby” would be a failed letter? That it would not find an audience? That his work would not be delivered? If he did, it seems too then that Bartleby’s negations foreclose or reject this concern. Not sure of how to wrap up this riff, I’ll retreat to the safety of my title.
We find the final problems (in basic narrative chronology, that is) of “Bartleby” in its final line. Has Lawyer learned from his experience? Can he empathize, finally feel something for Bartleby beyond the confines of a perceived ethical duty? Is Bartleby a place holder for all humanity? Or is Bartleby in opposition to humanity? What does it mean—-
Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!
[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally posted this riff in November of 2012. I’m running it again for Herman Melville’s 200th birthday.]
…it may be urged that there is nothing a writer of fiction should more carefully see to, as there is nothing a sensible reader will more carefully look for, than that, in the depiction of any character, its consistency should be preserved. But this, though at first blush, seeming reasonable enough, may, upon a closer view, prove not so much so. For how does it couple with another requirement—equally insisted upon, perhaps—that, while to all fiction is allowed some play of invention, yet, fiction based on fact should never be contradictory to it; and is it not a fact, that, in real life, a consistent character is a rara avis? Which being so, the distaste of readers to the contrary sort in books, can hardly arise from any sense of their untrueness. It may rather be from perplexity as to understanding them. But if the acutest sage be often at his wits’ ends to understand living character, shall those who are not sages expect to run and read character in those mere phantoms which flit along a page, like shadows along a wall? That fiction, where every character can, by reason of its consistency, be comprehended at a glance, either exhibits but sections of character, making them appear for wholes, or else is very untrue to reality; while, on the other hand, that author who draws a character, even though to common view incongruous in its parts, as the flying-squirrel, and, at different periods, as much at variance with itself as the butterfly is with the caterpillar into which it changes, may yet, in so doing, be not false but faithful to facts.
If reason be judge, no writer has produced such inconsistent characters as nature herself has. It must call for no small sagacity in a reader unerringly to discriminate in a novel between the inconsistencies of conception and those of life as elsewhere. Experience is the only guide here; but as no one man can be coextensive with what is, it may be unwise in every ease to rest upon it. When the duck-billed beaver of Australia was first brought stuffed to England, the naturalists, appealing to their classifications, maintained that there was, in reality, no such creature; the bill in the specimen must needs be, in some way, artificially stuck on.
But let nature, to the perplexity of the naturalists, produce her duck-billed beavers as she may, lesser authors some may hold, have no business to be perplexing readers with duck-billed characters. Always, they should represent human nature not in obscurity, but transparency, which, indeed, is the practice with most novelists, and is, perhaps, in certain cases, someway felt to be a kind of honor rendered by them to their kind. But, whether it involve honor or otherwise might be mooted, considering that, if these waters of human nature can be so readily seen through, it may be either that they are very pure or very shallow. Upon the whole, it might rather be thought, that he, who, in view of its inconsistencies, says of human nature the same that, in view of its contrasts, is said of the divine nature, that it is past finding out, thereby evinces a better appreciation of it than he who, by always representing it in a clear light, leaves it to be inferred that he clearly knows all about it.
But though there is a prejudice against inconsistent characters in books, yet the prejudice bears the other way, when what seemed at first their inconsistency, afterwards, by the skill of the writer, turns out to be their good keeping. The great masters excel in nothing so much as in this very particular. They challenge astonishment at the tangled web of some character, and then raise admiration still greater at their satisfactory unraveling of it; in this way throwing open, sometimes to the understanding even of school misses, the last complications of that spirit which is affirmed by its Creator to be fearfully and wonderfully made.
At least, something like this is claimed for certain psychological novelists; nor will the claim be here disputed. Yet, as touching this point, it may prove suggestive, that all those sallies of ingenuity, having for their end the revelation of human nature on fixed principles, have, by the best judges, been excluded with contempt from the ranks of the sciences—palmistry, physiognomy, phrenology, psychology. Likewise, the fact, that in all ages such conflicting views have, by the most eminent minds, been taken of mankind, would, as with other topics, seem some presumption of a pretty general and pretty thorough ignorance of it. Which may appear the less improbable if it be considered that, after poring over the best novels professing to portray human nature, the studious youth will still run risk of being too often at fault upon actually entering the world; whereas, had he been furnished with a true delineation, it ought to fare with him something as with a stranger entering, map in hand, Boston town; the streets may be very crooked, he may often pause; but, thanks to his true map, he does not hopelessly lose his way. Nor, to this comparison, can it be an adequate objection, that the twistings of the town are always the same, and those of human nature subject to variation. The grand points of human nature are the same to-day they were a thousand years ago. The only variability in them is in expression, not in feature.
But as, in spite of seeming discouragement, some mathematicians are yet in hopes of hitting upon an exact method of determining the longitude, the more earnest psychologists may, in the face of previous failures, still cherish expectations with regard to some mode of infallibly discovering the heart of man.
From Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence-Man.
A Bosom Friend.
The First Lowering.
The Town-Ho’s Story.
Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales.
The Pequod Meets The Virgin.
Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish.
Heads or Tails.
The Pequod Meets The Rose-Bud.
A Squeeze of the Hand.
Leg and Arm.
The Log and Line.
The Pequod Meets The Delight.
Prompted by Call Me Ishmael, Charles Olson’s marvelous study of Moby-Dick, I took a fifth trip through Melville’s massive opus this past month.
Every time I read Moby-Dick it seems funnier and sadder. Richer. Thicker.
I cobbled together my reading over different media and spaces: I listened to William Hootkins‘ outstanding unabridged audiobook version, and then reread on my Kindle key passages I’d mentally underlined; I then checked those passages against the copy of Moby-Dick I annotated the hell out of in grad school. As I read, I posted some of my favorite excerpts on this blog.
I posted some of my favorite excerpts of Moby-Dick here on Biblioklept because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to write about the book—not really—that I wouldn’t be able to handle all of its language. (My riff on Olson’s book obsesses over Olson’s ability to write after Melville and Melville’s ability to write after Shakespeare).
Really, in posting so many fragments of Moby-Dick, I suppose that I’ve attempted to abrogate any kind of critical duty to describe the book under discussion in terms of its own language.
The above is really a way of saying: Moby-Dick, like any sublime work of literature, is a self-defining, self-describing, and even self-deconstructing text.
Or, another way of making such a claim: Let me (mis)appropriate Samuel Beckett’s description of Finnegans Wake and contend that the description fits Moby-Dick just as aptly:
Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read – or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something, it is that something itself.
So here circumnavigate back to my own recent reading and auditing of the book: Hootkins’ audio recording would make a great starting point for anyone (unnecessarily) daunted by Melville’s big book. He performs the book, commanding his audience’s attention. He unpacks the humor that might otherwise hide from untuned 21st century ears; he communicates the book’s deep, profound sorrow. His Ishmael is perceptive, clever, generous. His Stubb, hilarious. His Ahab a strange philosophical terror.
After listening to Hootkins on my commute, I’d return to key passages on my Kindle, and then finally review the notes I wrote in the cheap hardback Signet edition I read in grad school.
But why bring this up?
I don’t know.
Maybe: Unpacking Moby-Dick is too hard, too much—would require its own book, a book that would cite the entirety of Melville’s book.
But discussing the book this way seems a disservice to potential readers; it’s as if we would cloak the book in a mystic veil.
If I have a point to all of this: Moby-Dick is wonderful, funny, moving, engaging; a genre-bender that tackles philosophy, history, science; an adventure tale; a psychological novel brimming with ideas, allusions—but one delivered in sonorous, poetic language. It’s good, great, grand. Read it, if you haven’t. Reread it.
So I’ve failed to even try to begin to attempt to pretend to describe the plot.
Here: Ishmael, depressed, suicidal perhaps, decides to go to sea. To go whaling.
He tries to measure the whale, and by measuring the whale, maybe measure the world. But this is not really possible, certainly not in language. Certainly not in first-person perspective.
In Chapter 86, “The Tail,” Ishmael tells us:
The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it. At times there are gestures in it, which, though they would well grace the hand of man, remain wholly inexplicable. … Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep. I know him not, and never will. But if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head? much more, how comprehend his face, when face he has none? Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face.
(I don’t suppose I need to remark that Melville here lets one mighty tail stand in for another mighty tale—a tale he cannot face).
Call me Ishmael”: our protagonist hails us.
But these famous opening lines aren’t really the beginning of the book. First we have the section titled “Extracts,” and before that “Etymology.” The first entry on the etymology of the whale, from Hackluyt, warns us not to leave out “the letter H, which almost alone maketh up the signification of the word.”
Whaling. Hailing. Wailing.
The whiteness of the whale.
The witness of the wail.
How, just how, does Ishmael witness? How does he manage to tell this story? Did I obsess over this in earlier readings? I don’t think so—I was too concerned with absorbing the what and the why of the story to closely attend the how of its telling.
The novel begins in standard first-person point-of-view territory, Ishmael guiding us through Manhattan, New Bedford, Nantucket—but by the time he’s boarded the Pequod and set out into the wide watery world, this first-person perspective transcends the limits of physics: Our narrator not only attends the private conversations of Ahab, his mates, his harpooners, his men—but also the very interior of those men, their minds, their dreams, their imaginations.
Is Ishmael a ghost?
And to return to Ahab for a moment: My god, what a voice! His infecting, addicting insanity. His agon with Moby Dick, with the sun, with himself.
And Starbuck: Starbuck comes across weaker and weaker each time I read the book. We’re to believe he’s a man of convictions, but he moves in half-measures. In his final moments he tries to match or feign or approximate Ahab’s insanity: tragicomedy.
And Stubb: Despite his cruelties, he may be my favorite character in the book.
While I’m riffing: Is there a novel more phallic in the American canon than Moby-Dick? All that sperm: All that life-force.
This is maybe what Moby-Dick is about: Life-force. The attempt to to resurrect and die and resurrect again. The coffin that serves as life-buoy. The life-line that connects men that might also be their death. A counterpane to counter pain. A condensation of oppositions.
A yarn, a rope, a series of knots, layered, layering, self-contextualizing.
An attempt to put into language what cannot be put into language.
Have I reached my end? Maybe too long for the “short riff” promised in the title, but also surely too short to even begin to start to approach to pretend to say something adequate about the novel. So a parting thought: Moby-Dick is better—richer, fuller, deeper—each time I read it, and I look forward to reading it again.
[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally ran a version of this riff in February 2013. I’m running it again for Herman Melville’s 200th birthday. I haven’t read Moby-Dick in full since 2013.]
From Bill Sienkiewicz’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The Classics Illustrated edition (February 1990) is one of my favorite Moby-Dicks.
It was a black and hooded head; and hanging there in the midst of so intense a calm, it seemed the Sphynx’s in the desert. “Speak, thou vast and venerable head,” muttered Ahab, “which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world’s foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou hast been where bell or diver never went; hast slept by many a sailor’s side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw’st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw’st the murdered mate when tossed by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper midnight of the insatiate maw; and his murderers still sailed on unharmed—while swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that would have borne a righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!”
From Ch. 70 of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.
Jorge Luis Borges
He was always surrounded by the sea of his elders,
The Saxons, who named the ocean
The Whale-Road, thereby uniting
The two immense things, the whale
And the seas it endlessly ploughs.
The sea was always his. By the time his eyes
First took in the great waters of the high seas
He had already longed for and possessed it
On that other ocean, which is Writing,
And in the outline of the archetypes.
A man, he gave himself to the earth’s oceans
And to the exhausting days at sea
And he came to know the harpoon reddened
By Leviathan and he rippled sand
And the smells of nights and mornings
And chance on the horizon waiting in ambush
And the happiness of being brave
And the pleasure, at last, of spying Ithaca.
The ocean’s conqueror, he strode the solid
Earth out of which mountains grow
And on which he charts an imprecise course
As with a sleeping compass, motionless in time.
In the inherited shadows of the gardens
Melville moves through New England evenings,
But the sea possesses him. It is the shame
Of the Pequod’s mutilated captain,
The unreadable ocean with its furious squalls
And the abomination of the whiteness.
It is the great book. It is blue Proteus.
(English translation by Stephen Kessler)
[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. To be very clear, I think Moby-Dick is fantastic—but I also enjoy seeing what people compelled to write negative reviews of the book on Amazon had to say. What follows are selections of one-star Amazon reviews; I’ve preserved the reviewers’ unique styles of punctuation and spelling].
It made for a smashing movie.
If you want to read lots of meaningless whale trivia read the book.
Boy gets whale. Boy loses whale. Boy gets whale. Spawns yawns
I think if you made it into a short comic strip, you would have liked it.
I bought this book for a friend in jail. Alas, he was unable to read it because the font was too small.
Ray Bradbury, who wrote the screenplay for this novel, (a la Gregory Peck) couldn’t even finish the damn thing!
If you like a story with nonessential information and an author that is entirely to verbose, then this book is for you.
I am quite the fan of stories which involve man eating sea creatures, such as Jaws. Moby Dick is nothing compared to such classics, I fear.
Throughout the book, you may read one chapter with some action only to be followed by 5 or 6 chapters of tangents that are not necessary to understand the story.
Moby Dick, was a horrible waiste of time. Along with its wordy paragraphs, it also talked about uninteresting issues. It is also to long, and you don’t hear of them encountering the whale until the end of the book.
The only people who like this book are english teachers who derive a feeling of moral superiority from forcing others to read this incredibly bad novel.
First of all, classiflying it as fiction is a mistake. Probably a good 60% of the book is non-fiction – chapter after chapter dedicated to every imaginable detail of the biology of the whale and every imaginable nuance of whaling.
I love literatur just as much as the next guy but we must face it 100 years or so ago American literature was reall weak and lagging from the rest of the world, perhaps now they’re starting to catch up with writers like Ann Rice and them.
I have seen better writing in a Hallmark card! Boring! Give me a good ole copy of Elvis and Me! A true story that really tugs at your heart strings! I sleep with that one under my pillow! Keep Moby Dick away from my bed!
Those chapters about Ishmael sleeping with whatever his name was and Ishamel had such a good time with the other guy’s arm over him and leg over him that he didn’t know if he was straight or gay any more.
i personally didn’t enjoy the philosophical or deep side of the book, i have read much much better books in that regard.
There is no suspense, and I find the idea of people hunting whales offensive. Offensive with a capital O.
Honestly, Over 400 pages devoted to killing a whale because it ate your hand? Come on.
It is hard to read. like work. Doubt he could get published today.
What is the whales motivation? You dont know.
It is 540somepages of boring whaling details.
No wonder Melville flopped as a writter.
OMG, this is tedious and torture to read.
I HATE this book. Why? It’s BORING!
Moby Ick’s more like it.
Near the middle of Herman Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno, our erstwhile protagonist Captain Amasa Delano encounters an old sailor tying a strange knot:
For intricacy, such a knot he had never seen in an American ship, nor indeed any other. The old man looked like an Egyptian priest, making Gordian knots for the temple of Ammon. The knot seemed a combination of double-bowline-knot, treble-crown-knot, back-handed-well-knot, knot-in-and-out-knot, and jamming-knot.
At last, puzzled to comprehend the meaning of such a knot, Captain Delano addressed the knotter:—
“What are you knotting there, my man?”
“The knot,” was the brief reply, without looking up.
“So it seems; but what is it for?”
“For some one else to undo,” muttered back the old man…
This knot serves as a metaphor for the text of Benito Cereno itself. We readers (along with our hapless surrogate Captain Delano) are the ones tasked with unknotting the text’s central mystery.
Part of the great pleasure of reading Benito Cereno for the first time rests in Melville’s slow-burning buildup to the eventual unknotting. I was fortunate enough to have been ignorant of the plot (and eventual revelation) of Benito Cereno when I first read it over a dozen or so years ago (although even then I cottoned on to what was really happening earlier than Captain Delano did). I read the novella again last week and marveled at Melville’s narrative control, enjoying it anew by seeing it anew.
Benito Cereno is a sharply-drawn tale about the limits of first-person consciousness and the cultural blinders we wear that prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us. The book subtly critiques the notion of a naturally-ordered morality in which every person has a right and fitting place, whether that be a place of power or a place of servitude. Melville shows the peril and folly of intrinsically believing in the absolute rightness of such a system. There is comfort in belief, but unquestioning belief makes us radically susceptible to being wrong. When we most believe ourselves right is often when we are the most blinded to the reality around us. We cannot see that we cannot see. And Benito Cereno is about how we see—about how we know what we know. Melville’s novella is also about how seeing entails not seeing, and, further, not seeing what we are not seeing—all that we do not know that we do not know. Melville makes his readers eventually see these unknown unknowns, and, remarkably, shows us that they were right before our eyes the entire time.
Forgive me—much of the previous paragraph is far too general. I want you to read Benito Cereno but I don’t want to spoil the plot. Let’s attempt summation without revelation: The novella is set in 1799 off the coast of Chile. Amasa Delano, captain of the American sealing vessel the Bachelor’s Delight, spies a ship floating adrift aimlessly, apparently in distress. Captain Delano boards one of his whale boats and heads to the San Dominick, a Spanish slaving ship, and quickly sees that the enslaved Africans on board dramatically outnumber the Spanish sailors. Delano offers aid to the San Dominick’s captain, Benito Cereno, who tells Delano that most of the Spanish crew perished in a fever (along with the “owner” of the slaves, Alexandro Aranda). Benito Cereno himself seems terribly ill and not entirely fit to command, so Delano waits aboard the San Dominick while his men fetch food and water from the Bachelor’s Delight. In the meantime, he tours the ship and talks with Benito Cereno and Cereno’s enslaved valet Babo.
Delano is frequently troubled by what he sees on the ship, but his good nature always affords him a natural and acceptable answer that assuages the sinister tension tingling in the background. Even though he’s troubled by the “half-lunatic Don Benito,” Delano’s “good-natured” sense of moral authority can explain away what he sees with his own eyes:
At last he began to laugh at his former forebodings; and laugh at the strange ship for, in its aspect, someway siding with them, as it were; and laugh, too, at the odd-looking blacks, particularly those old scissors-grinders, the Ashantees; and those bed-ridden old knitting women, the oakum-pickers; and almost at the dark Spaniard himself, the central hobgoblin of all.
For the rest, whatever in a serious way seemed enigmatical, was now good-naturedly explained away by the thought that, for the most part, the poor invalid scarcely knew what he was about…
These paragraphs not only summarize some of the images that give Delano pause, they also show Melville’s remarkable prose style, which follow’s Delano’s psychological state: laughing dismissal returns back to anxious image; anxious image gives way again to relieved certitude. All that is “enigmatical” in life can be “good-naturedly explained away.” And yet as the narrative progresses, good-natured explanations will fail to answer to visceral reality. Melville’s slow burn catches fire, burning away the veils of pretense.
The rest of this post (after the image) contains significant spoilers. I highly recommend Benito Cereno, which is reprinted in any number of Melville collections (I read it again in Rinehart’s Selected Tales and Poems), including The Piazza Tales (which you can download for free at Project Gutenberg). While I think that Benito Cereno has gained more recognition in recent years, it remains under-read compared to Melville’s more famous novellas Bartleby and Billy Budd. Those are great books too, but I’d argue that Benito Cereno, with its critique of white supremacy, is more timely than ever. Check it out. (Again, spoilers ahead).
Despite having a pretty large TBR stack, I killed this afternoon’s spare hour at my favorite used bookstore. This particular bookstore is a maze of used books, labyrinthine walls of books, with ever-mutating shelves growing from the floor all the way up to the ceiling. I confess I don’t always stoop low—I get old, I get dizzy—but stooping low to look for something else (which I now misremember; I get old) I found a big fat stack of copies of John Kennedy Toole’s cult novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Which I have never read. Which was recommended to me twenty years ago when I wasn’t so old, when I was way into Vonnegut, Burroughs, Hemingway. Which was recommended to me by someone who had made me read Tom Robbins. Which was why I didn’t bother to read A Confederacy of Dunces. I’ve always sort of assumed that I’d missed my window with this one—not sure why—-like that I should’ve read it before I was thirty. Anyone, I threw it out on twitter and some smart folks gave me the go ahead. So we’ll see.
I also found a copy of The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart. Again, I wasn’t looking for this book. Actually, I found this Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series edition quite by accident, but recalled the NYRB edition (both are translated by Barbara Bray) and picked it up. I usually am not a big fan of photographs of people on covers, but I really like this one. I’ll steal NRYB’s blurb:
This is an intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, spiritual values and the grim legacy of slavery on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe. Here long-suffering Telumee tells her life story and tells us about the proud line of Lougandor women she continues to draw strength from. Time flows unevenly during the long hot blue days as the madness of the island swirls around the villages, and Telumee, raised in the shelter of wide skirts, must learn how to navigate the adversities of a peasant community, the ecstasies of love, and domestic realities while arriving at her own precious happiness. In the words of Toussine, the wise, tender grandmother who raises her, “Behind one pain there is another. Sorrow is a wave without end. But the horse mustn’t ride you, you must ride it.”
My good luck streak of finding old massmarket paperback copies of Strugatsky brothers novels continued when I found Prisoners of Power (English translation by Helen Saltz Jacobson).
I also found myself intrigued by some large illustrated editions of Melville and Poe, although I resisted picking them up. I really love the simple design of this 1931 omnibus Romances of Herman Melville—
As far as I could tell, the publishers failed to credit the edition’s illustrator, but he signed it—Edward S. Annison.
The editors of an oversized 1973 David R. Godine edition of Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym did bother to name the illustrator: Gerry Hoover. Hoover’s illustrations are pretty creepy:
Okay—maybe the last one isn’t creepy. But the tortoise’s grimacing beak is intense.
At length, towards noon, upon the final dismissal of the ship’s riggers, and after the Pequod had been hauled out from the wharf, and after the ever-thoughtful Charity had come off in a whale-boat, with her last gift- a nightcap for Stubb, the second mate, her brother-in-law, and a spare Bible for the steward- after all this, the two Captains, Peleg and Bildad, issued from the cabin, and turning to the chief mate, Peleg said:
“Now, Mr. Starbuck, are you sure everything is right? Captain Ahab is all ready- just spoke to him- nothing more to be got from shore, eh? Well, call all hands, then. Muster ‘em aft here- blast ‘em!”
“No need of profane words, however great the hurry, Peleg,” said Bildad, “but away with thee, friend Starbuck, and do our bidding.”
How now! Here upon the very point of starting for the voyage, Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad were going it with a high hand on the quarter-deck, just as if they were to be joint-commanders at sea, as well as to all appearances in port. And, as for Captain Ahab, no sign of him was yet to be seen; only, they said he was in the cabin. But then, the idea was, that his presence was by no means necessary in getting the ship under weigh, and steering her well out to sea. Indeed, as that was not at all his proper business, but the pilot’s; and as he was not yet completely recovered- so they said- therefore, Captain Ahab stayed below. And all this seemed natural enough; especially as in the merchant service many captains never show themselves on deck for a considerable time after heaving up the anchor, but remain over the cabin table, having a farewell merry-making with their shore friends, before they quit the ship for good with the pilot.
But there was not much chance to think over the matter, for Captain Peleg was now all alive. He seemed to do most of the talking and commanding, and not Bildad.
“Aft here, ye sons of bachelors,” he cried, as the sailors lingered at the main-mast. “Mr. Starbuck, drive aft.”
“Strike the tent there!”- was the next order. As I hinted before, this whalebone marquee was never pitched except in port; and on board the Pequod, for thirty years, the order to strike the tent was well known to be the next thing to heaving up the anchor.
“Man the capstan! Blood and thunder!- jump!”- was the next command, and the crew sprang for the handspikes.
Now in getting under weigh, the station generally occupied by the pilot is the forward part of the ship. And here Bildad, who, with Peleg, be it known, in addition to his other officers, was one of the licensed pilots of the port- he being suspected to have got himself made a pilot in order to save the Nantucket pilot-fee to all the ships he was concerned in, for he never piloted any other craft- Bildad, I say, might now be seen actively engaged in looking over the bows for the approaching anchor, and at intervals singing what seemed a dismal stave of psalmody, to cheer the hands at the windlass, who roared forth some sort of chorus about the girls in Booble Alley, with hearty good will. Nevertheless, not three days previous, Bildad had told them that no profane songs would be allowed on board the Pequod, particularly in getting under weigh; and Charity, his sister, had placed a small choice copy of Watts in each seaman’s berth. Continue reading ““Merry Christmas” (Moby-Dick)”
“Quite an original:” A phrase, we fancy, rather oftener used by the young, or the unlearned, or the untraveled, than by the old, or the well-read, or the man who has made the grand tour. Certainly, the sense of originality exists at its highest in an infant, and probably at its lowest in him who has completed the circle of the sciences.
As for original characters in fiction, a grateful reader will, on meeting with one, keep the anniversary of that day. True, we sometimes hear of an author who, at one creation, produces some two or three score such characters; it may be possible. But they can hardly be original in the sense that Hamlet is, or Don Quixote, or Milton’s Satan. That is to say, they are not, in a thorough sense, original at all. They are novel, or singular, or striking, or captivating, or all four at once.
More likely, they are what are called odd characters; but for that, are no more original, than what is called an odd genius, in his way, is. But, if original, whence came they? Or where did the novelist pick them up?
Where does any novelist pick up any character? For the most part, in town, to be sure. Every great town is a kind of man-show, where the novelist goes for his stock, just as the agriculturist goes to the cattle-show for his. But in the one fair, new species of quadrupeds are hardly more rare, than in the other are new species of characters—that is, original ones. Their rarity may still the more appear from this, that, while characters, merely singular, imply but singular forms so to speak, original ones, truly so, imply original instincts.
In short, a due conception of what is to be held for this sort of personage in fiction would make him almost as much of a prodigy there, as in real history is a new law-giver, a revolutionizing philosopher, or the founder of a new religion.
In nearly all the original characters, loosely accounted such in works of invention, there is discernible something prevailingly local, or of the age; which circumstance, of itself, would seem to invalidate the claim, judged by the principles here suggested.
Furthermore, if we consider, what is popularly held to entitle characters in fiction to being deemed original, is but something personal—confined to itself. The character sheds not its characteristic on its surroundings, whereas, the original character, essentially such, is like a revolving Drummond light, raying away from itself all round it—everything is lit by it, everything starts up to it (mark how it is with Hamlet), so that, in certain minds, there follows upon the adequate conception of such a character, an effect, in its way, akin to that which in Genesis attends upon the beginning of things.
For much the same reason that there is but one planet to one orbit, so can there be but one such original character to one work of invention. Two would conflict to chaos. In this view, to say that there are more than one to a book, is good presumption there is none at all. But for new, singular, striking, odd, eccentric, and all sorts of entertaining and instructive characters, a good fiction may be full of them. To produce such characters, an author, beside other things, must have seen much, and seen through much: to produce but one original character, he must have had much luck.
There would seem but one point in common between this sort of phenomenon in fiction and all other sorts: it cannot be born in the author’s imagination—it being as true in literature as in zoology, that all life is from the egg.
From Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence-Man.
“Anything in praise of the press I shall be happy to hear,” rejoined the cosmopolitan, “the more so,” he gravely proceeded, “as of late I have observed in some quarters a disposition to disparage the press.”
“Disparage the press?”
“Even so; some gloomy souls affirming that it is proving with that great invention as with brandy or eau-de-vie, which, upon its first discovery, was believed by the doctors to be, as its French name implies, a panacea—a notion which experience, it may be thought, has not fully verified.”
“You surprise me, Frank. Are there really those who so decry the press? Tell me more. Their reasons.”
“Reasons they have none, but affirmations they have many; among other things affirming that, while under dynastic despotisms, the press is to the people little but an improvisatore, under popular ones it is too apt to be their Jack Cade. In fine, these sour sages regard the press in the light of a Colt’s revolver, pledged to no cause but his in whose chance hands it may be; deeming the one invention an improvement upon the pen, much akin to what the other is upon the pistol; involving, along with the multiplication of the barrel, no consecration of the aim. The term ‘freedom of the press’ they consider on a par with freedom of Colt’s revolver. Hence, for truth and the right, they hold, to indulge hopes from the one is little more sensible than for Kossuth and Mazzini to indulge hopes from the other. Heart-breaking views enough, you think; but their refutation is in every true reformer’s contempt. Is it not so?”
“Without doubt. But go on, go on. I like to hear you,” flatteringly brimming up his glass for him.
“For one,” continued the cosmopolitan, grandly swelling his chest, “I hold the press to be neither the people’s improvisatore, nor Jack Cade; neither their paid fool, nor conceited drudge. I think interest never prevails with it over duty. The press still speaks for truth though impaled, in the teeth of lies though intrenched. Disdaining for it the poor name of cheap diffuser of news, I claim for it the independent apostleship of Advancer of Knowledge:—the iron Paul! Paul, I say; for not only does the press advance knowledge, but righteousness. In the press, as in the sun, resides, my dear Charlie, a dedicated principle of beneficent force and light. For the Satanic press, by its coappearance with the apostolic, it is no more an aspersion to that, than to the true sun is the coappearance of the mock one. For all the baleful-looking parhelion, god Apollo dispenses the day. In a word, Charlie, what the sovereign of England is titularly, I hold the press to be actually—Defender of the Faith!—defender of the faith in the final triumph of truth over error, metaphysics over superstition, theory over falsehood, machinery over nature, and the good man over the bad. Such are my views, which, if stated at some length, you, Charlie, must pardon, for it is a theme upon which I cannot speak with cold brevity…”
From Chapter 24 of Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence-Man.
I finished Gerald Murnane’s 1982 novel The Plains last week. The Plains is quite short—it’s a novella really—and is divided into three parts. I read Part I in two sittings, gulping down the first-person narrator’s description of an Australia that exists in some alternate universe, where aristocratic plainsmen of Inner Australia keep grand houses populated by every kind of artisan. The novel’s first 70 pages or so move at a brisk pace, brimming with hints of a mythology that Murnane’s narrator keeps always just outside the frame. I read Parts II and III (much shorter than Part I) at a much slower pace. Murnane’s prose condenses here, his sentences tangling out into thick knots of consciousness. I’m still not sure what to make of the novel’s conclusion.
I’m absolutely crawling through Mario Benedetti’s The Truce (in English translation by Harry Morales). Subtitled The Diary of Martín Santomé, this Uruguayan novel is told in lucid prose. Santomé’s journal entries track his day to day life as a man with three children—the youngest approaching adulthood—who was widowed early in life. He’s just now started up a love affair with a younger colleague (an affair that he doesn’t want to call an affair and an affair which I think is like hey a very bad idea, Martin!). It reminds me a bit of John Williams’ novel Stoner. I’ve been reading one or two of the diary entries a day, usually in the morning before I leave for work. It’s a different way to read a book (at least for me anyway).
Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man is my big re-read right now. I’m having a lot more fun with it the second time. I think the first time taught me how to read it. I’m moving pretty slowly but that’s fine.
I read most of Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in 10 Lessons, Lesson 11 in two sittings. I want to write a proper review of the novel, or novella, really, or really it’s something besides a novel or novella—anyway, I want to write a proper review on the thing, but I need to go back and finish his novel Minor Angels, which I started earlier in the summer but lost track of (I think I was trying to plow through the end of Eliot’s Middlemarch at the time).
I’ve read the first and third (but not the second) stories in Helen DeWitt’s new collection Some Trick and…I don’t know. There’s a part of me that doesn’t trust my reaction so far. I know that what she’s doing here would’ve flipped any wig I was wearing ten or twelve years ago, but I find myself not particularly persuaded to keep going. I skipped to the third story because it had a bunch of footnotes, a la DF Wallace and that intrigued me. It’s a bit clever, yes?
I’ve only read two of the stories in Tadao Tsuge’s collection of “alternative manga” (mostly from the sixties and seventies) Slum Wolf (in English translation by Ryan Holmberg), but there’s definitely a different flavor here—rough, weird, and a bit chilling. I hope to post a review of Slum Wolf at The Comics Journal next month.
Not pictured above because I read it on an iPad: The first two chapters of Anders Nilsen’s graphic novel Tongues, which is a loose retelling of the story of Prometheus and a few other myths (maybe). There’s a lot going on it. The art is gorgeous—a bit reminiscent of Geof Darrow, but more not as sprawly. Again, I hope to do a review at TCJ soon on these.
Also not pictured because also an e-book: Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins, a two-act play by Evan Dara. You can download the play here without paying upfront: The site instead gives this somewhat cryptic message on payment: “If you please, reciprocation accepted only after reading. Thank you.” The message actually makes sense after you’ve read the play, which is very much about paying for language—literally utterances as commodities. Mose Eakins is “imparlent” — he cannot communicate with those around him. The play is often funny, but also very sad, and it’s impossible not to read it as an allegory for the limitations of real communication in the age of late capitalism. I read it all at once last night. Speaking of which, I need to reciprocate now.