Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part VII

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

Stories 36-31

Stories 30-25.

This post covers stories 24-19.

24. “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” (Sadness, 1972)

A cruel cruel story bristling with venomous punchlines, “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” takes its title from Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s 1947 book of the same name. The story is a caustic satire of quotidian domesticity, showing the dissolution of a marriage through the perspective of an alcoholic narrator who very much resembles Barthelme. It begins ugly:

While I read the Journal of Sensory Deprivation, Wanda, my former wife, read Elle. Elle was an incitement to revolt to one who had majored in French in college and now had nothing much to do with herself except take care of a child and look out of the window.

And continues ugly:

Our evenings lacked promise. The world in the evening seems fraught with the absence of promise, if you are a married man. There is nothing to do but go home and drink your nine drinks and forget about it.

There’s a deep anger and contempt toward domesticity that Barthelme’s narrator sustains throughout the story while also pulling the rhetorical trick of quickly retreating into the second-person you, a conceit that never fully absolves the narrator from his intrinsic horribleness:

Slumped there in your favorite chair, with your nine drinks lined up on the side table in soldierly array, and your hand never far from them, and your other hand holding on to the plump belly of the overfed child, and perhaps rocking a bit, if the chair is a rocking chair as mine was in those days, then it is true that a tine tendril of contempt – strike that, content – might curl up from the storehouse where the world’s content is kept, and reach into your softened brain and take hold there, persuading you that this, at last, is the fruit of all your labors, which you’d been wondering about in some such terms as, “Where is the fruit?”

The narrator quickly divides himself from the you, the horrible man who cannot live the quotidian life:

 …you look, as I say, to your wife, as the cocktail hour fades, there being only two drinks left of the nine (and you have sworn a mighty oath never to take more than nine before supper, because of what it does to you), and inquire in the calmest tones available what is for supper and would she like to take a flying fuck at the moon for visiting this outrageous child upon you.

Ultimately, “Quotidienne” is too mean and ugly (borderline misogynistic, perhaps); it lacks the kernel of heart that beats in Barthelme’s best satires.

23. “The Glass Mountain” (City Life, 1970)

Look, it might take you ten minutes to read it, so read it.

The story is a list numbered to one hundred. Most of the numbered points are a solitary sentence, with exceptions coming from a handful of citations Barthelme includes.

“The Glass Mountain” fits neatly into City Life. It’s a city story transported into the realm of the mock-heroic. With the aid of two plumber’s friends (plunger, you might call them), the narrator (a mock hero) climbs the titular mountain, which “stands at the corner of Thirteenth Street and Eighth Avenue.” It’s a skyscraper, of course:

7. I had strapped climbing irons to my feet and each hand grasped sturdy plumber’s friend.

8. I was 200 feet up.

9. The wind was bitter.

10. My acquaintances had gathered at the bottom of the mountain to offer encouragement.

11. “Shithead.”

12. “Asshole.”

13. Everyone in the city knows about the glass mountain.

His “acquaintances” continue to berate him as he climbs (“24. “Dumb motherfucker.” / 25. I was new in the neighborhood.”)

As he climbs, the heroic arc swells, enriched by a riff on symbolism and signs, which is the story’s main theme. And yet at the end, Barthelme’s “hero” rejects symbolism the minute it transubstantiates into sign:

97. I approached the symbol, with its layers of meaning, but when I touched it, it changed into only a beautiful princess.

98. I threw the beautiful princess headfirst down the mountain to my acquaintances.

99. Who could be relied upon to deal with her.

The mob rules.

22. “The Policemen’s Ball” (City Life, 1970)

In his Barthelme biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty links “The Policeman’s Ball” to the eruptions and disruptions of May ’68:

In Don’s story, Horace, a policeman with the “crack of authority” in his voice, takes his girlfriend Margot to a policemen’s ball, hoping she will surrender to his force–the “force of the force.” At the balll, she is drawn to a fireman named Vercingetorix. Finally, though, she returns home with Horace and gives him what he wants…All the while, the “horrors lurk outside Horace’s apartment…The story’s smirk at authority is clear. The names Horace and Vercingetorix come to us from Roman history. Vercingetorix was a Gallic rebel noted for building barricades to thwart Roman soldiers. Shortly after vanquishing Vercingetorix, Caesar was assassinated. Horace, an irreverent poet and satirist, fell under Brutus’s sway, and joined him in a hopeless attempt to establish a republic.

The historical referents–to a decadent empire and rebellions against it–make Don’s story, in the context of the May Days, an extended utopian slogan, as playful, sly, and funny as much of the graffiti in the Latin Quarter.

(A version of) Vercingetorix shows up in “City Life” (in City Life).

I think “The Policemen’s Ball” is more relevant than ever, as we (who is we?) contest against the force of the force.

(Hear Barthelme read the story here.)

21. “The Falling Dog” (City Life, 1970)

Another story about writing a story—and again, Barthelme displaces the creative act to fine art—and again (in reverse), he chooses a sculptor as his artist. The sculptor achieved a thin bare fame with his YAWNING MAN statues, but when a dog falls on him, he finds new inspiration. (And puns. Lots of lots of puns.)

(I keep thinking about another Don here, although it’s in no way related—Don DeLillo’s Running Dog (1978) and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007).)

(doG is God backwards—can you even fucking believe?)

20. “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” (City Life, 1970)

There’s a tension that runs throughout much of Barthelme’s short fiction: professed leftist idealism set against the writer’s urbane bourgeoisie (or bourgeoisie-proximal) reality as an arbiter and curator of Modernist culture. Barthelme’s aesthetic describes technological postwar American culture–often through a mythological lens, often through the spectacle of both pop art and Pop Art (which becomes American mythology in his writing). His satires, pastiches, and parodies set a funhouse mirror up to America’s hypermediated massculture reality. At the same time, Barthelme’s stories tend to eschew direct action, direct engagement with the realities of the age his stories (not so much document but) describe: the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and other social inequalities. A passage in the Q&A story “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” shows Barthelme perhaps a bit defensive about these elisions:

Q: You’re not political?

A: I’m extremely political in a way that does no good to anybody.

Q: You don’t participate?

A: I participate. I make demands, sign newspaper advertisements, vote. I make small campaign contributions to the candidate of my choice and turn my irony against the others.

Here, we get Barthelme declaring the political scope of his literature: it is an irony against the others. Much of the story is given over to the answerer’s summary and analysis of Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony, followed by a defense of Friedrich Schlegel’s novel Lucinde, which Kierkegaard regards as a moral failure because it does not instruct its readers how to live. The answerer says Kierkegaard fails to attend to the novel’s “objecthood” — its aesthetics. At the end he remains ambivalent: Kierkegaard is both fair and not fair to Schlegel:

…What is interesting is my making the statement that I think Kierkegaard is unfair to Schlegel. And that the whole thing is a damned shame! Because that is not what I think at all. We have to do here with my own irony. Because of course Kierkegaard . was “fair” to Schlegel. In making a statement to the contrary I am attempting to… I might have several purposes-simply being provocative, for example. But mostly I am trying to annihilate Kierkegaard in order to deal with his disapproval.

Q: Of Schlegel?

A: Of me.

(There’s also a deep strain of horniness to the story that I will not comment on at this time.)

19. “City Life” (City Life, 1970)

The title story of Barthelme’s 1970 collection is a weird, oblique love letter to a version of NYC. The Houston-native seems to finally earn his New Yorker stripes. It’s an unusually long story, rich with meanings that I won’t bother to plumb here, because I’ve had a long day, and I doubt anyone is actually reading this (I can live in doubt). The basic plot of “City Life” is the whole Virgin Birth thing, with the city-as-father—which is par for Barthelme’s oedipal course. It has some wonderful passages, including this one.

Summary thoughts: “City Life” and “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” strike me as seminal Barthelme texts, but neither make a good starting point to his fiction. “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne,” the story in this batch from Sadness is sad, mean stuff, and also likely relatable for any dad who’s ever wanted to hop in his car and go out for a pack of cigarettes or a carton of milk or whatever your deadbeat idiom is. “The Falling Dog” is okay. Both “The Policemen’s Ball” and “The Glass Mountain” would make nice starting places for anyone interested in Barthelme’s stuff.

Going forward (in reverse): A few more from City Life and then we crack into what might be Barthelme’s best collection, 1968’s Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts.

As Goethe said, theory is gray, but the golden tree of life is green | Donald Barthelme

I know a painter who feels the same way about being a painter. Every morning he gets up, brushes his teeth, and stands before the empty canvas. A terrible feeling of being de trop comes over him. So he goes to the corner and buys the Times, at the corner newsstand He comes back home and reads the Times. During the period in which he’s coupled with the Times he is all right. But soon the Times is exhausted. The empty canvas remains. So (usually) he makes a mark on it, some kind of mark that is not what he means. That is, any old mark, just to have something on the canvas. Then he is profoundly depressed because what is there is not what he meant. And it’s time for lunch. He goes out and buys a pastrami sandwich at the deli. He comes back and eats the sandwich meanwhile regarding the canvas with the wrong mark on it out of the corner of his eye. During the afternoon, he paints out the mark of the morning. This affords him a measure of satisfaction. The balance of the afternoon is spent in deciding whether or not to venture another mark. The new mark, if one is ventured, will also, inevitably, be misconceived. He ventures it. It is misconceived. It is, in fact, the worst kind of vulgarity. He paints out the second mark. Anxiety accumulates. However, the canvas is now, in and of itself, because of the wrong moves and the painting out, becoming rather interesting-looking. He goes to the A&P and buys a TV Mexican dinner and many bottles of Carta Blanca. He comes back to his loft and eats the Mexican dinner and drinks a couple of Carta Blancas, sitting in front of his canvas. The canvas is, for one thing, no longer empty. Friends drop in and congratulate him on having a not-empty canvas. He begins feeling better. A something has been wrested from the nothing. The quality of the something is still at issue-he is by no means home free. And of course all of painting-the whole art-has moved on somewhere else, it’s not where his head is, and he knows that, but nevertheless he-

-How does this apply to trombone playing? Hector asked.

-1 had the connection in my mind when I began, Charles said.

-As Goethe said, theory is gray, but the golden tree of life is green.

From “City Life” by Donald Barthelme.

I believe that my every sentence trembles with morality | Donald Barthelme

INTERVIEWER

What about the moral responsibility of the artist? I take it that you are a responsible artist (as opposed, say, to X, Y, and Z), but all is irony, comic distortion, foreign voices, fragmentation. Where in all this evasion of the straightforward does responsibility display itself?

BARTHELME

It’s not the straightforward that’s being evaded but the too true. I might fix your eye firmly and announce, “Thou shalt not mess around with thy neighbor’s wife.” You might then nod and say to yourself, Quite so. We might then lunch at the local chili parlor and say scurrilous things about X, Y, and Z. But it will not have escaped your notice that my statement has hardly enlarged your cosmos, that I’ve been, in the largest sense, responsible to neither art, life, nor adultery.

I believe that my every sentence trembles with morality in that each attempts to engage the problematic rather than to present a proposition to which all reasonable men must agree. The engagement might be very small, a word modifying another word, the substitution of “mess around” for “covet,” which undresses adultery a bit. I think the paraphrasable content in art is rather slight—“tiny,” as de Kooning puts it. The way things are done is crucial, as the inflection of a voice is crucial. The change of emphasis from the what to the how seems to me to be the major impulse in art since Flaubert, and it’s not merely formalism, it’s not at all superficial, it’s an attempt to reach truth, and a very rigorous one. You don’t get, following this path, a moral universe set out in ten propositions, but we already have that. And the attempt is sufficiently skeptical about itself. In this century there’s been much stress placed not upon what we know but on knowing that our methods are themselves questionable—our Song of Songs is the Uncertainty Principle.

Also, it’s entirely possible to fail to understand or actively misunderstand what an artist is doing. I remember going through a very large Barnett Newman show years ago with Tom Hess and Harold Rosenberg, we used to go to shows after long lunches, those wicked lunches, which are no more, and I walked through the show like a certifiable idiot, couldn’t understand their enthusiasm. I admired the boldness, the color and so on but inwardly I was muttering, Wallpaper, wallpaper, very fine wallpaper but wallpaper. I was wrong, didn’t get the core of Newman’s enterprise, what Tom called Newman’s effort toward the sublime. Later I began to understand. One doesn’t take in Proust or Canada on the basis of a single visit.

To return to your question: If I looked you straight in the eye and said, “The beauty of women makes of adultery a serious and painful duty,” then we’d have the beginning of a useful statement.

From Donald Barthelme’s 1981 interview in The Paris Review. The interlocutor is J.D. O’Hara. Read the full interview here.

Five books Donald Barthelme recommended to the attention of aspiring American fiction writers

I have heard Donald referred to as essentially a writer of the American 1960’s. It may be true that his alloy of irrealism and its opposite is more evocative of that fermentatious decade, when European formalism had its belated flowering in North American writing, than of the relatively conservative decades since. But his literary precursors antedate the century, not to mention its 60’s, and are mostly non-American. ”How come you write the way you do?” a Johns Hopkins apprentice writer once asked him. ”Because Samuel Beckett already wrote the way he did,” Barthelme replied. He then produced for the seminar his ”short list”: five books he recommended to the attention of aspiring American fiction writers. No doubt the list changed from time to time; just then it consisted of Rabelais’s ”Gargantua and Pantagruel,” Laurence Sterne’s ”Tristram Shandy,” the stories of Heinrich von Kleist, Flaubert’s ”Bouvard and Pecuchet” and Flann O’Brien’s ”At Swim-Two-Birds” – a fair sample of the kind of nonlinear narration, sportive form and cohabitation of radical fantasy with quotidian detail that mark his own fiction. He readily admired other, more ”traditional” writers, but it is from the likes of these that he felt his genealogical descent.

From John Barth’s 1989 eulogy for Donald Barthelme, first published in The New York Times.

Barthelme had a longer list too, of course:

The novel should now try simply to be Funny, Brutalist, and Short | From B.S. Johnson’s novel Christie Marly’s Own Double-Entry

‘Christie,’ I warned him, ‘it does not seem to me possible to take this novel much further. I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be sorry,’ said Christie, in a kindly manner, ‘don’t be sorry. We don’t equate length with importance, do we ? And who wants long novels anyway ? Why spend all your spare time for a month reading a thousand-page novel when you can have a comparable aesthetic experience in the theatre or cinema in only one evening ? The writing of a long novel is in itself an anachronistic act : it was relevant only to a society and a set of social conditions which no longer exist.’

‘I’m glad you understand so readily,’ I said, relieved.

‘The novel should now try simply to be Funny, Brutalist, and Short,’ Christie epigrammatised.

‘I could hardly have expressed it better myself,’ I said, pleased, ‘I’ve put down all I have to say, or rather I will have done in another twenty-two pages, so surely. . . .”

‘So I do go on a little longer ?’ interrupted Christie.

‘Yes, Christie, you go on to the end,’ I assured him, and myself went on : ‘Surely no reader will wish me to invent anything further, surely he or she can extrapolate only too easily from what has gone before ?’

‘If there is a reader,’ said Christie. ‘Most people won’t read it.’

‘Politicians, policemen, some educators and many others treat “most people” as idiots.’

‘So writers may too ?’

‘On the contrary. “Most people” are right not to read novels today.’

‘You’ve said all this before.’

‘I’m very likely to say it again, too, since it’s true.’

A pause. Then suddenly Christie said :

‘Your work has been a continuous dialogue with form ?’

‘If you like,’ I replied diffidently.

‘Only one of the things it’s been,’ said Christie generously. ‘It’s something to aspire to, becoming a critic ! Though there are too many exclamation marks in this novel already.’

Another pause. One of the girls in what is ill-reputed to be a brothel opposite hung out the shirt of what might be her ponce. Christie smiled gently, turned back to me.

‘But I am to go on for a while ?’

‘Of course,’ I assured him again.

‘Until I have everything ?’

‘Yes, Christie, until you have everything.’

The excerpt above is the complete text of Ch. XXI of B.S. Johnson’s 1973 novel, Christie Marly’s Own Double-Entry. The title of the chapter is “In which Christie and I have it All Out; and which You may care to Miss Out.” The chapter begins with this epigraph:

. . . the novel, during its metamorphosis in respect of content and form, necessarily regards itself ironically. It denies itself in parodistic forms in order to be able to outgrow itself.
Széll Zsuzsa
Válságés regény (p. 101)
Akadémia (Hungary) 1970
transl. by Novák Gyorgy

This particular chapter might stand as a synecdoche of Christie Marly’s Own Double-Entry itself.

Ann Quin’s novel Passages collapses hierarchies of center and margin

Ann Quin’s third novel Passages (1969) ostensibly tells the story of an unnamed woman and unnamed man traveling through an unnamed country in search of the woman’s brother, who may or may not be dead.

The adverb ostensibly is necessary in the previous sentence, because Passages does not actually tell that story—or it rather tells that story only glancingly, obliquely, and incompletely. Nevertheless, that is the apparent “plot” of Passages.

Quin is more interested in fractured/fracturing voices here. Passages pushes against the strictures of the traditional novel, eschewing character and plot development in favor of pure (and polluted) perceptions. There’s something schizophrenic about the voices in Passages. Interior monologues turn polyglossic or implode into elliptical fragments.

Quin repeatedly refuses to let her readers know where they stand. Indeed, we’re never quite sure of even the novel’s setting, which seems to be somewhere in the Mediterranean. It’s full of light and sea and sand and poverty, and the “political situation” is grim. (The woman’s brother’s disappearance may or may not have something to do with the region’s political instability.)

Passage’s content might be too slippery to stick to any traditional frame, but Quin employs a rhetorical conceit that teaches her reader how to read her novel. The book breaks into four unnamed chapters, each around twenty-five pages long. The first and third chapters find us loose in the woman’s stream of consciousness. The second and fourth chapters take the form of the man’s personal journal. These sections contain marginal annotations, which might be meant to represent actual physical annotations, or perhaps mental annotations–the man’s stream of consciousness while he rereads his journal.

Quin’s rhetorical strategy pays off, particularly in the book’s Sadean climax. This (literal) climax occurs at a carnivalesque party in a strange mansion on a small island. We see the events first through the woman’s perception, and then through the man’s. But I’ve gone too long without offering any representative language. Here’s a passage from the woman’s section, just a few paragraphs before the climax. To set the stage a bit, simply know that the woman plays voyeur to a bizarre threesome:

Mirrors faced each other. As the two turned, approached. Slower in movement in the centre, either side of him, turning back in the opposite direction to their first movement. Contours of their shadows indistinct. The first mirror reflected in the second. The second in the first. Images within images. Smaller than the last, one inside the other. She lay on the floor, wrists tied together. She bent back over the chair. He raised the whip, flung into space.

Later, the man’s perception of events at the party both clarify and cloud the woman’s account. As you can see in the excerpt above, the woman frequently refuses to qualify her pronouns in a way that might stabilize identities for her reader. Such obfuscation often happens in the course of a sentence or two:

I ran on, knowing I was being followed. She came to the edge, jumped into expanding blueness, ultra violet tilted as she went towards the beach. We walked in silence.

The woman’s becomes a She and then merges into a We. The other half of that We is a He, the follower (“He later threw the bottle against the rocks”), but we soon realize that this He is not the male protagonist, but simply another He that the woman has taken as a one-time lover.

The woman frequently takes off somewhere to have sex with another man. At times the sex seems to be part of her quest to find her brother; other times it’s simply part of the novel’s dark, erotic tone. The man is undisturbed by his lover’s faithlessness. He is passive, depressive, and analytical, while she is manic and exuberant. Late in the novel he analyzes himself:

How many hours I waste lying in bed thinking about getting up. I see myself get up, go out, move, drink, eat, smile, turn, pay attention, talk, go up, go down. I am absent from that part, yet participating at the same time. A voyeur in all senses, in my actions, non-actions. What a delight it might be actually to get up without thinking, and then when dressed look back and still see myself curled up fast asleep under the blankets.

The man longs for a kind of split persona, an active agent to walk the world who can also gaze back at himself dormant, passive.

This motif of perception and observation echoes throughout Passages. Consider one of the man’s journal entries from early in the book:

Above, I used an image instead of text to give a sense of what the journal entries and their annotations look like. Here, the man’s annotation is a form of self-observation, self-analysis.

Other annotations dwell on describing myths or artifacts (often Greek or Talmudic). In a “December” entry, the man’s annotation is far lengthier than the text proper. The main entry reads:

I am on the verge of discovering my own demoniac possibilities and because of this I am conscious I am not alone with myself.

Again, we see the fracturing of identity, consciousness as ceaseless self-perception. The annotation is far more colorful in contrast:

An ancient tribe of the Kouretes were sorcerers and magicians. They invented statuary and discovered metals, and they were amphibious and of strange varieties of shape, some like demons, some like men, some like fishes, some like serpents, and some had no hands, some no feet, some had webs between their fingers like gees. They were blue-eyed and black-tailed. They perished struck down by the thunder of Zeus or by the arrows of Apollo.

Quin’s annotations dare her reader to make meaning—to put the fragments together in a way that might satisfy the traditional expectations we bring to a novel. But the meaning is always deferred, always slips away. Passages collapses notions of center and margin. As its title suggests, this is a novel about liminal people, liminal places.

The results are wonderfully frustrating. Passages is abject, even lurid at times, but also rich and even dazzling in moments, particularly in the woman’s chapters, which read like pure perception, untethered by traditional narrative expectations like causation, sequence, and chronology.

As such, Passages will not be every reader’s cup of tea. It lacks the sharp, grotesque humor of Quin’s first novel, Berg, and seems dead set at every angle to confound and even depress its readers. And yet there’s a wild possibility in Passages. In her introduction to the new edition of Passages recently published by And Other Stories, Claire-Louise Bennett tries to capture the feeling of reading Quin’s novel:

It’s difficult to describe — it’s almost like the omnipotent curiosity one burns with as an adolescent — sexual, solipsistic, melancholic, fierce, hungry, languorous — and without limit.

Bennett, whose anti-novel Pond bears the stamp of Quin’s influence, employs the right adjectives here. We could also add disorienting, challengingabject and even distressing. While clearly influenced by Joyce and Beckett, Quin’s writing in Passages seems closer to William Burroughs’s ventriloquism and the hollowed-out alienation of Anna Kavan’s early work. Passages also points towards the writing of Kathy Acker, Alasdair Gray, and João Gilberto Noll, among others. But it’s ultimately its own weird thing, and half a century after its initial publication it still seems ahead of its time. Passages is clearly Not For Everyone but I loved it. Recommended.

 

“Mata Hari with a Clockwork Eye, Alligators in the Sewer” | George Plimpton reviews Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel V.

George Plimpton’s review of Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel V. was first published in The New York Times on April 21, 1963 (hey! 58 years ago to the day, coincidentally) under the title “Mata Hari with a Clockwork Eye, Alligators in the Sewer.”

The NYT republished the piece on 6 Oct. 1996, under the title “The Whole Sick Crew.” It ran next to a 1969 review of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint—with a big picture of Roth. No Pynchon pic, natch.

Plimpton’s review below:


“Mata Hari with a Clockwork Eye, Alligators in the Sewer”

(A review of Thomas Pynchon’s novel V.)

by

George Plimpton


Since the war a category of the American novel has been developed by a number of writers: American picaresque one might call the archetype, and its more notable practitioners would include Saul Bellow with ”The Adventures of Augie March,” Jack Kerouac, ”On the Road,” Joseph Heller, ”Catch-22,” Clancy Sigal, ”Going Away,” and Harry Matthews, who last fall produced a generally overlooked though brilliant novel entitled ”Conversions.” The genus is distinguished by what the word ”picaresque” implies — the doings of a character or characters completely removed from socio-political attachments, thus on the loose, and, above all, uncommitted.

Such novels are invariably lengthy, heavily populated with eccentrics, deviates, grotesques with funny names (so they can be remembered), and are usually composed of a series of bizarre adventures or episodes in which the central character is involved, then removed and flung abruptly into another. Very often a Quest is incorporated, which keeps the central character on the move.

For the author, the form of the picaresque is convenient: he can string together the short stories he has at hand (publishers are reluctant to publish short-story collections, which would suggest the genre is perhaps a type of compensation). Moreover — the well-made, the realistic not being his concern — the author can afford to take chances, to be excessive, even prolix, knowing that in a work of great length stretches of doubtful value can be excused. The author can tell his favorite jokes, throw in a song, indulge in a fantasy or so, include his own verse, display an intimate knowledge of such disparate subjects as physics, astronomy, art, jazz, how a nose-job is done, the wildlife in the New York sewage system. These indeed are some of the topics which constitute a recent and remarkable example of the genre: a brilliant and turbulent first novel published this month by a young Cornell graduate, Thomas Pynchon. He calls his book ”V.”

” V.” has two main characters. One of them is Benny Profane — on the loose in New York City following a Navy hitch and a spell as a road-laborer. Born in 1932, Profane is Depression-formed, and his function in the novel is to perfect his state of ”schlemihlhood” — that is to say being the victim, buffeted by circumstance and not caring to do much about it — resigned to being behind the 8-ball. Indeed, in one poolroom fracas the 8-ball rolls up to Profane, prostrate on the floor, and stares him in the eye. His friends are called the Whole Sick Crew, a fine collection of disaffected about whom one observer says ”there is not one you can point to and say is well.” Typical of them is the itinerant artist Slab, who calls himself a catatonic expressionist. Beset by a curious block he can only paint cheese danishes — Cheese Danish No. 56 is his subject at one stage of the book.

Set in contrast to Profane is a young adventurer named Stencil. He is active as opposed to passive, obsessed by a self-imposed duty which he follows, somewhat joylessly — a Quest to discover the identity of V., a woman’s initial which occurs in the journals of his father, a British Foreign Office man, drowned in a waterspout off Malta. The search for V., a puzzle slowly fitted together by a series of brilliant episodic flashbacks, provides the unifying device of the novel — a framework encompassing a considerable panorama of history and character. V., turning up first as a young girl in Cairo at the start of the century, reappears under various names and guises, invariably at times of strife and riot, in Florence, Paris, Malta, South Africa. Finally one finds her disguised as a Manichaean priest, trapped under a beam in a World War II bombing raid on Malta and being literally disassembled by a crowd of children.

The identity of V., what her many guises are meant to suggest, will cause much speculation. What will be remembered, whether or not V. remains elusive, is Pynchon’s remarkable ability — which includes a vigorous and imaginative style, a robust humor, a tremendous reservoir of information (one suspects that he could churn out a passable almanac in a fortnight’s time) and, above all, a sense of how to use and balance these talents. True, in a plan as complicated and varied as a Hieronymus Bosch triptych, sections turn up which are dull — the author backing and filling, shuffling the pieces of his enormous puzzle to no effect — but these stretches are far fewer than one might expect.

Pynchon is in his early twenties; he writes in Mexico City — a recluse. It is hard to find out anything more about him. At least there is at hand a testament — this first novel ”V.” — which suggests that no matter what his circumstances, or where he’s doing it, there is at work a young writer of staggering promise.

 

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?

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.

 

The ineffaceable, sad birth-mark in the brow of man, is but the stamp of sorrow in the signers | Moby-Dick reread, riff 29

I. In this riff, Chapters 106-108 of Moby-Dick.

This trio of chapters introduces the carpenter, who proves a strange foil to Ahab.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

II. Ch. 106, “Ahab’s Leg.”

Moby-Dick is a phallic novel, full of thrusts, jabs, ejaculations, and sperm sperm sperm. “Ahab’s Leg” reinforces this theme through negation. Melville (or is it Ishmael?) underscores here the notion that Ahab has been symbolically castrated by Moby Dick; this symbolic castration leads to Ahab’s revenge quest—the monomaniacal captain seeks to reassert his power through domination. (It’s all a dick swingin’ contest.)

III. The symbolic castration repeats when Ahab quits The Samuel Enderby, and endures “some small violence to his own person.” We learn that in the jostling of the boat, “his ivory leg had received a half-splintering shock.” This second figurative castration actually follows a near-literal one though:

For it had not been very long prior to the Pequod’s sailing from Nantucket, that he had been found one night lying prone upon the ground, and insensible; by some unknown, and seemingly inexplicable, unimaginable casualty, his ivory limb having been so violently displaced, that it had stake-wise smitten, and all but pierced his groin; nor was it without extreme difficulty that the agonizing wound was entirely cured.

And yet it’s clear that the wound is still not entirely cured. Ahab seeks to repair his phallic wound by way of a phallic spearing of the White Whale.

IV. The chapter continues down a stranger path. Ishmael, with his all-access pass to consciousness, relates that Ahab, reflecting on his woes, decries that, “all miserable events do naturally beget their like.” The text continues, dwelling on sodomy, hell, and the perpetuation of grief:

Yea, more than equally, thought Ahab; since both the ancestry and posterity of Grief go further than the ancestry and posterity of Joy. For, not to hint of this: that it is an inference from certain canonic teachings, that while some natural enjoyments here shall have no children born to them for the other world, but, on the contrary, shall be followed by the joy-childlessness of all hell’s despair; whereas, some guilty mortal miseries shall still fertilely beget to themselves an eternally progressive progeny of griefs beyond the grave; not at all to hint of this, there still seems an inequality in the deeper analysis of the thing. For, thought Ahab, while even the highest earthly felicities ever have a certain unsignifying pettiness lurking in them, but, at bottom, all heartwoes, a mystic significance, and, in some men, an archangelic grandeur; so do their diligent tracings-out not belie the obvious deduction. To trail the genealogies of these high mortal miseries, carries us at last among the sourceless primogenitures of the gods; so that, in the face of all the glad, hay-making suns, and soft cymballing, round harvest-moons, we must needs give in to this: that the gods themselves are not for ever glad. The ineffaceable, sad birth-mark in the brow of man, is but the stamp of sorrow in the signers.

The depressive, fatalistic tone here is pure Ahab–if Ishmael’s expansive over-soul touches the paragraph, it does so in opposition. (What an amazing passage.)

V. Ch. 107, “The Carpenter.”

A nice little chapter describing the ship’s carpenter, who is a sort of Swiss army knife of a man:

He was like one of those unreasoning but still highly useful, multum in parvo, Sheffield contrivances, assuming the exterior—though a little swelled—of a common pocket knife; but containing, not only blades of various sizes, but also screw-drivers, cork-screws, tweezers, awls, pens, rulers, nail-filers, countersinkers. So, if his superiors wanted to use the carpenter for a screw-driver, all they had to do was to open that part of him, and the screw was fast: or if for tweezers, take him up by the legs, and there they were.

He sets about crafting Ahab a new leg.

VI. Ch. 108, “Ahab and the Carpenter.”

Melville (Ishmael?) again turns his novel into a Shakespearian play, complete with stage directions. The carpenter files away at the ivory leg-to-be, while the blacksmith bangs about in the background. He sneezes as he files away at the crutch he creates.

Ahab enters, invoking the carpenter as a Promethean figure:

“Well, manmaker!”

The carpenter then sets about to measure for Ahab’s leg. Ahab sticks his stump into a vice (an implicitly sexual image). The carpenter warns him about the vice’s grip, but Ahab is malevolently jocular. He then directly invokes Prometheus;

No fear; I like a good grip; I like to feel something in this slippery world that can hold, man. What’s Prometheus about there?—the blacksmith, I mean—what’s he about?

V. Ahab essentially ignores the carpenter’s plain answers, and instead begins soliloquizing. Again, he’s monovocal in stereophonic world:

I do deem it now a most meaning thing, that that old Greek, Prometheus, who made men, they say, should have been a blacksmith, and animated them with fire; for what’s made in fire must properly belong to fire; and so hell’s probable.

VI. Ahab’s monomania crests: He sets about to become the Prometheus in the scene—but a commander Prometheus, an artistic director. His idealized “complete man” reveals more of Ahab’s singular vision—a vision that precludes all other perspectives. He conjures a heartless giant–an intellectual giant:

Hold; while Prometheus is about it, I’ll order a complete man after a desirable pattern. Imprimis, fifty feet high in his socks; then, chest modelled after the Thames Tunnel; then, legs with roots to ’em, to stay in one place; then, arms three feet through the wrist; no heart at all, brass forehead, and about a quarter of an acre of fine brains; and let me see—shall I order eyes to see outwards? No, but put a sky-light on top of his head to illuminate inwards. There, take the order, and away.

Ahab’s ideal man has no outward-seeing eyes–there is no perspective at all here except that which will “illuminate inwards.” He mentions no mouth.

VII. Ahab finally quits the carpenter’s shop, and the poor old man begins his own monologue. He repeats the key word queer ten times over in his evocation of Ahab:

Well, well, well! Stubb knows him best of all, and Stubb always says he’s queer; says nothing but that one sufficient little word queer; he’s queer, says Stubb; he’s queer—queer, queer; and keeps dinning it into Mr. Starbuck all the time—queer—sir—queer, queer, very queer.

And who is queer Ahab’s bedfellow?

Yes, now that I think of it, here’s his bedfellow! has a stick of whale’s jaw-bone for a wife!

Let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness | Moby-Dick reread, riff 25

I. In this riff, Chapters 94-98 of Moby-Dick.

In these chapters, Ishmael (again) describes the business of rendering oil and etcetera from a whale’s corpse. The chapters show again Ishmael’s push-pull narration style, vacillating between the physical/commercial and the metaphysical/philosophical.

II. Ch. 94, “A Squeeze of the Hand.”

A perfect chapter in a perfectly imperfect book. Go ahead and read (it’s fine to read it on its own).

Look—I’m gonna quote the hell out of this chapter. Ish and his fellows set to a big ole tub of sperm, by which he means, of course, spermaceti, the vital stuff found in an organ in the sperm whale’s head; the vital stuff that energizes and lights Ishmael’s world. On that self-same sperm:

It had cooled and crystallized to such a degree, that when, with several others, I sat down before a large Constantine’s bath of it, I found it strangely concreted into lumps, here and there rolling about in the liquid part. It was our business to squeeze these lumps back into fluid. A sweet and unctuous duty! No wonder that in old times this sperm was such a favourite cosmetic. Such a clearer! such a sweetener! such a softener! such a delicious molifier! After having my hands in it for only a few minutes, my fingers felt like eels, and began, as it were, to serpentine and spiralise.

The next sentence—a full paragraph—is something else:

As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma,—literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger; while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.

The sentence above: 161 words, eleven semicolons, fourteen commas, one dash, and of course, one final period. In these words and characters—halts and stops, connections and jumps—Ishmael converts his pain, his “horrible oath,” his drastic hypos, his desire to go about knocking the hats off men, his general misanthropy—he converts all of this into a moment of transcendence.

The moment of transcendence extends into a kind of spermy mindmeld:

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

Here, I think is the the grand thesis of Moby-Dick.

III. But no. That’s not the thesis. That’s the grand ecstatic epiphany of joy, which Ishmael deflates in the next paragraph:

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fireside, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.

Locate the epiphany elsewhere than the intellect or the fancy then: wife, bed, saddle, etc.

—Say it, no ideas but in things—, wrote William Carlos Williams not quite a century later.

IV. Ishmael turns from ideas to things. He lists some of the other magic potions in the sperm whale’s body: white-horse, plum pudding, slobgollion, gurry, and nippers. 

The chapter ends with Ish describing the process by which a spademan and gaffman cut the whale into pieces. It’s a mechanical, thingy business, one that points back to the reason for Ahab’s revenge quest:

 This spade is sharp as hone can make it; the spademan’s feet are shoeless; the thing he stands on will sometimes irresistibly slide away from him, like a sledge. If he cuts off one of his own toes, or one of his assistants’, would you be very much astonished? Toes are scarce among veteran blubber-room men.

Toes are scarce, but perhaps not as vital as legs.

V. Ch. 95, “The Cassock.”

Another short chapter on a long subject. Ishmael describes-but-not-defines “a very strange, enigmatical object . . . lying along lengthwise in the lee scuppers.” His description is an accumulation of negations:

Not the wondrous cistern in the whale’s huge head; not the prodigy of his unhinged lower jaw; not the miracle of his symmetrical tail; none of these would so surprise you, as half a glimpse of that unaccountable cone,—longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet-black as Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg.

And what is that enormous jet black cone? A “grandissimus, as the mariners call it.”

It’s the whale’s dick, natch.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

Ishmael compares it to the idol “found in the secret groves of Queen Maachah in Judea” — the Asherah pole — and points out that “King Asa, her son, did depose her, and destroyed the idol, and burnt it for an abomination.”

This is a phallic book full of castrations, cuttings off both figurative and literal.

VI. Ch. 96, “The Try-Works”

Another chapter initially focused on the practical business of whaling. In this case, we learn about the try-works, where blubber is cooked down to oil. I’ll let Moser’s illustration stand in here:

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

And here:

The chapter ends though in a great metaphysical rush, as Ish goes from things back to ideas:

The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. “All is vanity.” ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon’s wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing graveyards, and would rather talk of operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils all of sick men; and throughout a care-free lifetime swears by Rabelais as passing wise, and therefore jolly;—not that man is fitted to sit down on tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.

The chapter concludes with a puzzling set of metaphors:

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

VII. Ch. 97, “The Lamp.”

In this very short (three-paragraph) chapter, Ishmael notes that whalemen light their lamps from the oil of the animals they hunt.

VIII. Ch. 98, “Stowing Down and Clearing Up.”

A chapter about cleaning up. Ish declares that, “were it not for the tell-tale boats and try-works, you would all but swear you trod some silent merchant vessel, with a most scrupulously neat commander. The unmanufactured sperm oil possesses a singularly cleansing virtue.” In other words, despite all the butchery, blood, and bits involved, there’s something in the whale itself that purifies the decks after a good scrub down.

The chapter ends with Ishmael recognizing the mechanical repetition of his business though—no wonder the Modernists revived Moby-Dick!

Yet this is life. For hardly have we mortals by long toilings extracted from this world’s vast bulk its small but valuable sperm; and then, with weary patience, cleansed ourselves from its defilements, and learned to live here in clean tabernacles of the soul; hardly is this done, when—There she blows!—the ghost is spouted up, and away we sail to fight some other world, and go through young life’s old routine again.

Oh! the metempsychosis! Oh! Pythagoras, that in bright Greece, two thousand years ago, did die, so good, so wise, so mild; I sailed with thee along the Peruvian coast last voyage—and, foolish as I am, taught thee, a green simple boy, how to splice a rope!

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

Ann Quin’s Passages (Book acquired, 30 Jan. 2021)

A new edition of Ann Quin’s third novel Passages is out in a few days from indie juggernaut And Other Stories. The new edition (the first in nearly two decades) features a new introduction from Claire-Louise Bennett, whose book (novel?) Pond was a favorite of mine a few years back.

Ann Quin’s first novel Berg was one of the best books I read in 2019, and one of the best books I’ve read in years. In my review of the novel a few years back, I wrote,

Read the book. There’s nothing I can do in this review that approaches the feeling of reading Ann Quin’s Berg. I can make lame comparisons, saying that it reminds me of James Joyce’s Ulysses (in its evocations of loose consciousness), or David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (in its oedipal voyeuristic griminess), or Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (for its surreal humor and dense claustrophobia). Or I can point out how ahead of her time Quin was, how Berg bridges modernism to postmodernism while simply not giving a fuck about silly terms like modernism and postmodernism.

I’m psyched to get into Passages.

Here’s And Other Stories’ blurb:

Ann Quin’s third novel Passages – an instant classic when published in 1969 – is perhaps her most harrowing investigation of the limits of identity and desire, as well as the possibilities of fiction. It is the story of a woman, accompanied by her lover, searching for her lost brother, who may have been a revolutionary, and who may have been tortured, imprisoned or killed. Roving a Mediterranean landscape, they live out their entangled existences, reluctant to give up, yet afraid of where their search will lead.

In ‘passages’ that alternate between the two protagonists’ perspectives, taking the form of diary excerpts, annotations and Burroughsian cut-ups, this fractured tale builds an intricate, musical system of theme and repetition. ‘All seasons passed through before the pattern formed, collected in parts.’

Erotic and terrifying by turns, Quin’s third novel allowed her writing freer rein than ever before, blazing a trail still being followed by such authors as Eimear McBride, Chris Kraus and Anna Burns. It stands as Quin’s most beguiling, poetic, and mysterious work.

Read an excerpt here.

Even to idiot imbecility they have imparted potency | Moby-Dick

Nor, perhaps, will it fail to be eventually perceived, that behind those forms and usages, as it were, he sometimes masked himself; incidentally making use of them for other and more private ends than they were legitimately intended to subserve. That certain sultanism of his brain, which had otherwise in a good degree remained unmanifested; through those forms that same sultanism became incarnate in an irresistible dictatorship. For be a man’s intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always, in themselves, more or less paltry and base. This it is, that for ever keeps God’s true princes of the Empire from the world’s hustings; and leaves the highest honors that this air can give, to those men who become famous more through their infinite inferiority to the choice hidden handful of the Divine Inert, than through their undoubted superiority over the dead level of the mass. Such large virtue lurks in these small things when extreme political superstitions invest them, that in some royal instances even to idiot imbecility they have imparted potency.

From Ch. 33 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Whaling may well be regarded as that Egyptian mother who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb | Moby-Dick reread, riff 8

I. In this riff: Chapters 23-27.

II. Ch. 23, “The Lee Shore.”

In what is possibly the shortest chapter of Moby-Dick, Ishmael pulls a metatextual move, declaring that “this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington.” Bulkington is actually one of the first named characters in Moby-Dick. He shows up in Ch. 3 (“The Spouter-Inn”), just having returned to land from a whaling voyage…and just a few days later is back at it. Why? Ishmael links the open, borderless ocean to the ineffable: “…in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God—so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety.” (And as always, our narrator keeps pointing towards M-D’s inevitable, deathly conclusion.)

III. Ch. 24, “The Advocate.”

“The Advocate” is a long and memorable chapter, wherein Ishmael takes it upon himself to speak of the nobility of the maligned whaleman: “I am all anxiety to convince ye, ye landsmen, of the injustice hereby done to us hunters of whales.” He lists a variety of reasons—economic, literary, historical, political, geographic—for his claims that whaling is a deeply important calling. In one of the more remarkable images thus far in the novel, he likens whaling—and to be clear here, Ish believes that whaling is a kind of primal movement across the globe by men both isolate and egoless, ego-maniacal yet intimately spliced—Ish sees whaling as a self-germinating, self-sustaining apotheosis:

One way and another, it has begotten events so remarkable in themselves, and so continuously momentous in their sequential issues, that whaling may well be regarded as that Egyptian mother, who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb. It would be a hopeless, endless task to catalogue all these things.

(The reference is likely to the Isis and Osiris.)

IV. (“It would be a hopeless, endless task to catalogue all these things.” This is perhaps a summary of Ishmael’s impossible mission.)

V. (Another line I love (and have hijacked for my own purposes before) from “The Advocate” — Ishmael: “That great America on the other side of the sphere, Australia, was given to the enlightened world by the whaleman.”)

VI. In his advocacy, Ishmael the advocate anticipates imaginary literary objections to his praise of the whaleman:

The whale has no famous author, and whaling no famous chronicler, you will say.

The whale no famous author, and whaling no famous chronicler? Who wrote the first account of our Leviathan? Who but mighty Job! And who composed the first narrative of a whaling-voyage? Who, but no less a prince than Alfred the Great, who, with his own royal pen, took down the words from Other, the Norwegian whale-hunter of those times! And who pronounced our glowing eulogy in Parliament? Who, but Edmund Burke!

The move here anticipates another metatextual technique. Melville, through Ishmael, positions himself in a literary tradition that he tacitly seeks to master. He will be the whale chronicler ne plus ultra:

And, as for me, if, by any possibility, there be any as yet undiscovered prime thing in me; if I shall ever deserve any real repute in that small but high hushed world which I might not be unreasonably ambitious of; if hereafter I shall do anything that, upon the whole, a man might rather have done than to have left undone; if, at my death, my executors, or more properly my creditors, find any precious MSS. in my desk, then here I prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.

VII. Ch. 25, “Postscript.”

Above, I wrote that “The Lee Shore” was possibly the shortest chapter in Moby-Dick. Looking back over it, “Postscript” is actually shorter. It focuses on anointing kings with sperm oil.

VIII. Ch. 26, “Knights and Squires.”

This is first of two consecutive chapters with the same title. This double naming always confounded me when I was younger, and I don’t really have an answer for it now.

The first “Knights and Squires” focuses on Starbuck, whom Ish is maybe a little hot for, at least in a spiritual way. (“His pure tight skin was an excellent fit; and closely wrapped up in it, and embalmed with inner health and strength, like a revivified Egyptian, this Starbuck seemed prepared to endure for long ages to come.”)

We learn that Starbuck’s father and brother were both lost to the sea in whaling voyages, and he presents as a kind of cautious and sober (yet buoyant) figure. Starbuck is also a “pious” man, and the end of this chapter that introduces him in detail seems to give way to this consciousness—or, perhaps, Ishmael’s imitation of Starbuck’s consciousness. The chapter culminates in a kind of fervid prayer delivered in an approximation of an older English, concluding with: “Thy selectest champions from the kingly commons; bear me out in it, O God!”

I read this desire to be selected as one of God’s champions as Starbuck’s desire, not Ishmael’s.

IX. (Or, alternately—here again the dead and the lost wail through Ishmael.)

X. Ch. 27, “Knights and Squires.”

Maybe the second “Knights and Squires” is actually a rhetorical reset. Ishmael has worked himself into a lather of thines and thous and beseeching unto God, etc. by the end of the first chapter, and forgets to include the other knights and their squires. He takes care of that in Ch. 27, introducing Stubb and Flask, as well as their “squires,” the harpooneers Tashtego and Daggoo. (Queequeg is Starbuck’s harpooneer. “But Queequeg is already known.”)

Much academic hash has been made of the racial distinctions Melville evokes here. Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask are all white Americans. They are management. The skilled labor, and really the superstars, of the ship, are all non-white: Queequeg is a Pacific Islander, Tashtego “is an unmixed Indian from Gay Head, the most westerly promontory of Martha’s Vineyard, where there still exists the last remnant of a village of red men,” and Daggoo is “a gigantic, coal-black negro-savage, with a lion-like tread—an Ahasuerus to behold.” While Ishmael clearly esteems the harpooneers, Melville’s exoticizing language is nevertheless tinged with racism.

XI. At the end of Ch. 27, Ishmael describes the crew of The Pequod as—

An Anacharsis Clootz deputation from all the isles of the sea, and all the ends of the earth, accompanying Old Ahab in the Pequod to lay the world’s grievances before that bar from which not very many of them ever come back.

Ishmael here romanticizes the whaling voyage again, putting it in league with political revolution, suggesting that theirs is a spiritual mission to address “the world’s grievances” at the risk of not coming back.

And although he doesn’t directly pair “Old Ahab” with his own squire, “Knights and Squires” concludes with the image of Ahab’s implicit squire/double—who is of the “not very many [to] ever come back”:

Black Little Pip—he never did—oh, no! he went before. Poor Alabama boy! On the grim Pequod’s forecastle, ye shall ere long see him, beating his tambourine; prelusive of the eternal time, when sent for, to the great quarter-deck on high, he was bid strike in with angels, and beat his tambourine in glory; called a coward here, hailed a hero there!

XII. So somehow there are no Barry Moser illustrations for this section (I was spoiled in the last batch of chapters), so here’s a photo of my copy, adorned by a little sculpture my daughter made for me last year; the book is set in the blank space of the puzzle of Hokusai’s Wave we’ve been working on. Where the book sets is a section of pure white. Hard to puzzle out.

 

 

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

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A hundred other shadowy things to come.

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

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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

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

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

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

…I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He decides to “die a pagan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

–“Queequeg is my fellow man”

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

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

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

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

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

We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm.

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

William Gass: The writer really doesn’t build the truth into the sentence, the reader does, especially if the sentence is well constructed.

Marc Chénetier: Wouldn’t you say that one of the reasons why the writer is of necessity very skeptical is that his or her trade consists of knowing how the idea of a truth can be built into a sentence? Therefore, the skepticism would derive from the awareness of the manipulations that are at work—

William Gass: The writer really doesn’t build the truth into the sentence, the reader does, especially if the sentence is well constructed. That was one of the things that Plato was worried about, because the poets were so persuasive, whereas the sentences of science, expressed in highly mathematical terms, are not the kind of soft bed that one wants to lie in. Rhetorical constructions have enormous seduction, but the writer doesn’t build the belief in it. What you build is something that has unity and emotional power that the reader, then, is liable to latch onto. A good writer should be able to make any point of view sound terrific. Shakespeare could do it, of course. Then that terrificness has nothing to do with the truth, it has to do with being terrific.

From a discussion on William Gaddis’s speech/essay “Old Foes with New Faces.”

Gaddis delivered the speech at the International Writers Center as part The Writer and Religion Conference at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, 23-26 Oct. 1994. The discussion held afterwards was moderated by Marc Chénetier and the panelists were Wayne Fields, William Gass, and Heide Ziegle (and Gaddis, of course).

The essay, discussion, as well as other essays and discussions are collected in  The Writer and Religion, ed. by William H. Gass and Lorin Cuoco.