I watched The Night Of The Hunter (dir. Charles Laughton, 1955) last night for the first time in at least fifteen years. Robert Mitchum’s Bluebeard-preacher figure is the main thing that stuck with me from earlier viewings. He’s the awful, captivating, horrifying and paradoxically ever-moving center of dread in a film that is essentially about despair and hope (qualities simplified to tattoos of “LOVE” and “HATE” on his hands). Watching it last night though, I was surprised at how beautiful, even tranquil the film is at times–a kind of tranquility underpinned by the natural world’s flat indifference to humanity’s suffering coupled with Mitchum’s character’s sinister avarice. The long scene of the children escaping on the river at night, guided in part by their own music is particularly moving, a strange interplay of chiaroscuro expressionism and documentary naturalism. The voyage echoes the film’s direct allusions to Moses’ escape in the ark of bulrushes (as well as hinting at Twain’s Huck Finn). It’s a lovely transition to the film’s final third, wherein Lillian Gish’s stern but loving maternal presence overtakes the narrative. My memory had swallowed her eminence, but I don’t think I’ll forget this time that it’s her character who gets the last hopeful words: “ They abide, and they endure.”
I’m sure this is old news to long-time Pynchon fanatics, but I came across two articles earlier this week while searching archives for something else (which I did not find). Both articles were composed by the late theater critic Mel Gussow. The first article, “Pynchon’s Letters Nudge His Mask,” published 4 March 1998, details the then-recent Morgan Library’s acquisition of Pynchon’s correspondence to his former agent Candida Donadio. The collection apparently acquired more than 100 letters, composed from 1963 to 1982. Pynchon fired Donadio in early 1982:
Most of the letters are signed ”later, Tom,” one, ”love, Tom.” Then suddenly on Jan. 5, 1982, he writes, ”As of this date, you are no longer authorized to represent me or my work,” and signs the letter ”Cordially, Thomas Pynchon.” In a follow-up letter, he asks Ms. Donadio’s assistant to send him everything else of his that she still has. He does not mention the letters.
Donadio sold the letters to arts patron Carter Burden for $45,000 in 1984; a few years after his death, his family bequeathed the collection to the Morgan.
Mel Gussow appears to have had complete access to the letters. The first article includes a number of interesting observations. “He typed the letters single space on graph paper, until his Olivetti broke; then he switched to printing in longhand,” Gussow writes. The graph paper detail gels with some of the pics of letters from UT’s Harry Ransom archive.
According to Gussow’s reading of the letters, Pynchon “moved from Mexico to California, from Texas to London, trying to preserve his anonymity and privacy.” Pynchon is of course well-aware of his reclusive reputation:
When he hears that the humorist H. Allen Smith has written an article for Playboy claiming to be both J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, he says, ”What no one knows is that Smith is actually Pierre Salinger, and I am H. Allen Smith.”
Pynchon writes of his hatred for Time magazine magnate Henry Luce and his admiration for James Agee’s A Death in the Family. He’s sickened by a 1964 profile by Dick Schaap published in The New York Herald Tribune, claiming it makes him feel “homicidal” — again though, these are private letters. (I have had no success tracking down Schaap’s article; I’m assuming that this Schaap is the same one who made his bones as a New York sportswriter.)
Gussow’s article notes Pynchon’s early self-assurance of his literary abilities:
In April 1964, Mr. Pynchon tells Ms. Donadio he is facing a creative crisis, with four novels in process. With a sudden bravado, he says, ”If they come out on paper anything like they are inside my head then it will be the literary event of the millennium.”
How many of those novels came to fruition? It’s hard to guess, I guess. It’s clear that Pynchon’s ideas might gestate for decades:
In a handwritten letter in January 1975, Mr. Pynchon mentions for the first time another work in progress, Mason & Dixon, 22 years before it was published.
Pynchon refers to his second novel The Crying of Lot 49 as “a short story, but with gland trouble.” At one point, he hopes to sell both 49 and his first novel V. to Hollywood. We know Pynchon’s love for film, but Gussow underlines it:
He reveals himself as an avid moviegoer, offering capsule reviews. When the possibility of writing film criticism for Esquire arises, he says he would love to do it and explains: ”I can be crisp, succinct, iconoclastic, noncoterie, nonprogrammatic . . . also curmudgeonly, insulting, bigoted, psychotic and nitpicking. A boy scout’s decade of virtues.”
I’d love to see some of those capsule reviews.
I’d also love to see some of Pynchon’s responses to his peers’ work (if you can call the peers). Donadio sends Pynchon novels, and Gussow notes that, “He is generous in his responses, applauding John Cheever, John Hawkes, Bruce Jay Friedman and lesser-known writers.”
Gussow’s first article concludes with the alarm of Pynchon’s then-lawyer, Jeremy Nussbaum:
”It’s a rather startling event,” said Mr. Nussbaum. ”I’ve never heard of an agent selling letters of a client, except after the death of the client. They were entrusted to her in a relationship of confidence, and they were sold against his wishes.”
Nussbaum’s alarm (which is of course Pynchon’s alarm) bears fruit; a few weeks later (21 March 1998), Mel Gussow reports that “The Morgan Curtails Access to a Trove of Pynchon Letters.” The gist of the whole deal is that Pynchon’s letters to Donadio won’t be available until after his death, and even then with limited access.
Forgive me for indulging in this nonsense. Pynchon’s true contemporary William Gaddis put it best: “What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work? the human shambles that follows it around. What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology?”
Pynchon prefigured the dregs sentiment by almost a decade, in a more self-deprecating mode. Gassow notes that Pynchon writes to his then-agent in ’78 about a suggestion he write his autobiography:
As for spilling my life story, I try to do that all the time. Nobody ever wants to listen, for some strange reason.
It’s all in the novels then.
Last time I did one of these silly blogs about recent reading—
–(a poor substitute for meaningful reviews, blogs about recent reading—but so and in some measure of fairness to myself, the last few weeks were larded with occasions—promotional ceremonies, out-of-town graduations, visits to new schools, and a triumvirate of family birthdays. So…)—
So last time I did one of these silly blogs about recent reading I was about halfway through Patrick Süskind’s Perfume (1985, in translation by John E. Woods). The novel is kinda sorta historical magical realism, if that makes sense, although it’s really straightforward in its telling (the good ole third-person omniscient/free indirect style). It’s pre-Revolutionary France and Jean-Baptiste Grenouille has a magical mystical murderous sense of smell. He’s born a freak and lives a freaky life. We follow Grenouille, a bastard abandoned to a quick near-death in a pile of fish guts, from a group home for orphans to a tanner’s factory to his time as an unrecognized perfume genius, concocting enchanting scents for not just Paris’s wealthiest, but the European elite. He becomes a journeyman, an ascetic hermit, and a serial killer. The novel culminates in twin orgies, ecstatic and then thanatopic. I wonder if Woods’s translation tamed things down a bit, or if Süskind’s original German is so…clinical…there’s something about the prose that elides the lurid abject rot under it all. (Oh, and I rewatched Tom Twyker’s 2006 film adaptation after finishing Süskind’s novel—it’s a fine effort, but simply can’t do what a novel can do—namely, take us convincingly into Grenouille’s estranging consciousness. We’re let with some lovely gross set pieces. Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman chew up all the scenery they can fit in their mouths.)
I picked up Ntozake Shange’s novel Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (1982) after finishing Perfume. It was Shange’s first novel, unless I’m mistaken, and there’s something wonderfully uneven to it. The titular trio are sisters hailing from Charleston, South Carolina and environs. The sisters (mythical muses, but also concrete people) are the daughters of Hilda Effania, a weaver. Hilda’s children appreciate her craft, but they long for newer, stranger art. Sassafrass seeks to elevate weaving into fine art; Cypress flits from classical ballet to new forms of dance; the youngest, Indigo, is part musician, part magician—her fiddle conjures all kinds of charms. Here, Shange borrows touches of Gullah-Geechee culture, and the novel’s evocations of Charleston and the coastal Sea Islands to its east will resonate with anyone familiar with the terrain. (The novel might be read with/against Padgett Powell’s 1984 debut, Edisto, a coming-of-age story told from the perspective of a white male teenager living in the titular South Carolina Sea Island.) Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo doesn’t exactly have a plot, per se, which is lovely—the novel seems to sprawl out in different tangles, a kind of diffident rejection of Hilda Effania’s skilled weaving. Each daughter rebels, but returns to the hearth. Shange loads the novel with recipes, letters, journal entries, and magic spells, and if the end result is wildly uneven, it’s also lots of fun and often moving.
I got Evan Dara’s Permanent Earthquake (2021) on my birthday, a few days ago. I read the first 30 or so pages. I will write more later.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev (2021) is Dawnie Walton’s debut novel. It deserves its own long review, but the short of it is—good stuff. Opal & Nev takes the form of an oral history of the fictional titular early seventies rock-freak-soul outfit: a bald Afro-punk progenitor (Opal) and a pasty ginger Brit (Nev). The narrator is S. Sunny Shelton; her father, Jimmy Curtis, played drums on the first Opal & Nev record, and “was beaten to death by a racist gang during the riot” at a label showcase, as the novel’s astonishing opening paragraph attests. Nev carries Opal out on his back in the ensuing violent aftermath, and a photographer captures the moment. The photo becomes iconic, symbolic, and the touchstone of the oral history Shelton assembles. And that oral history: Walton adroitly ventriloquizes her cast—the aging British producer, the asshole label owner, the worried Christian sister, the “Hey-I’m-not-racist-but-look-I’m-actually-racist” Southern rocker-turned Trump supporter. Nev and Opal are particularly well-defined; as the novel develops, we start to see their masks crack. The diversity of perspectives on the novel’s central event–the murder of Shelton’s father Jimmy (and the subsequent photograph of Opal on Nev’s back)—leads to a compelling twist in the novel’s climax. The twist plays out in the book’s second half, as Opal & Nev undertake a reunion show at a big festival concert (something like Bonnaroo, I guess). The novel is set right before the 2016 election, leading to a number of ironies, and Shelton—telegraphing Walton, I suspect—is not shy of editorializing (nor should she be). Opal & Nev also contains lots of footnotes. Many of these footnotes flesh out the alternate reality of Walton’s imagined musicsphere, but some offer historical girding to the narrative proper. For example, Walton, through Shelton, lets us know who Josephine Baker was, and that George Wallace was a notorious racist, and that Stephanie St. Clair was an infamous Harlem racketeer. Etc. These footnotes made me feel old in the sense that they seem designed to help a younger audience navigate the mostly-real (and real in the ugliest, realest ways possible) of Opal & Nev, while also absorbing much that American history has sought to whitewash. Ultimately, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev kept me reading because the voices were so compelling. Watson lets her subjects speak, channeling all of their flaws and glories. Recommended.
Years ago someone—who was it, was it you?—told me to read James M. Cain’s noir The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). I got a copy of Three Complete Novels this weekend, and read Postman over two days. Cain’s novel is visceral, gross, violent, and fast fast fast. It’s a basic stranger-comes-to-town plot, only the town is reduced to a young wife dissatisfied with her husband (and the husband in question). It’s also told from the perspective of the stranger, a quippy drifter who reminded me more of Camus’ Mersault than anything else. (I think it would be fascinating to rewrite this novel from another character’s perspective, by the way.) The novel did for me exactly what I needed—sort of zapped me, reset my reading rainbow. Cain’s prose is so economical that I found myself having to go back to previous sentences at times to make sure that I was comprehending his camera-flow. An unhealthy juvenile puma shows up in a late courtroom scene. This novel is wonderfully grotesque. I’m ashamed that I’ve never seen the 1946 film version (starring Lana Turner)—but I have seen the 1945 adaptation of Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford, so I look forward to reading that (and Double Indemnity). Great stuff, even if the postman never rings, not even once.
The last little bit of Spring trickles away here in North Florida, where beautiful days with highs of 82℉ promise to turn into burning sweaty hell in the next week or two. The Spring 2021 semester is behind me, and I’ve found a lot more time to read. So, re: pic, bottom to top:
Paul Kirchner’s latest collection Dope Rider: A Fistful of Delerium is dope goofy gorgeousness. I’ve been taking it a page a day or so and am about to run out of the stash. I hope to have a review of it soon (maybe in The Comics Journal, where I reviewed Kirchner’s last collection, Hieronymus & Bosch).
I also read some comix by Drew Lerman, and wrote about them here.
I picked up Rachel Cusk’s much-lauded novel Outline a few weeks ago at a Friends of the Library Sale. It was not for me. The flat, “tell-don’t-show” style didn’t bother me—indeed the prose is very “readable” (whatever that means)—but I found myself rolling my eyes a lot. A lot of smart people like this novel (and the trilogy it initiates), so maybe I fundamentally misread it. And in fairness, the whole contemporary autoficiton thing has left me cold, with the possible exception of Elena Ferrante’s so-called Neopolitan Novels, which I loved.
I read four B.S. Johnson novels in something of a blur. Johnson was an English avant-gardiste writing primarily in the 1960s. I wrote a bit about some of the novels here. Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry ended up being my favorite, with Albert Angelo a close second. I thought Trawl was extremely tedious. I broke down and ordered a copy of his “novel in a box,” The Unfortunates—maybe I’ll muster the energy for something bigger on Johnson.
I’m a little over half way through Patrick Suskind’s Perfume (trans. by John E. Woods), and I really dig it—it feels like a long time since I’ve read a good ole fashioned historical novel told in the third-person omniscient/free indirect style. Set in France in the mid-1700’s, Perfume is the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a perfume genius, a freak, a murderer. I’d seen Tom Twyker’s film adaptation years ago, but the novel is richer, taking us deeper into Grenouille’s strange mind. Great stuff.
I recently finished Norah Lange’s fragmentary memoir, Notes from Childhood (trans. by Charlotte Whittle). It’s a propulsive and rich read, a loving but unsentimental, magical without a trace of whimsy. I wrote about it a bit here.
Today, 8 May 2021, is Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s 84th birthday. Some of us nerds celebrate the work of one of the world’s greatest living authors with something called Pynchon in Public Day. In the past I’ve rounded up links to Pynchon stuff on Biblioklept and elsewhere. Last year, that weird pandemic year, I finally finished all of Pynchon’s novels. I’d been “saving” Bleeding Edge for a while, but broke down and read it that spring. Having read all eight Pynchon novels (a few more than once), I’ll offer some quick scattershot thoughts.
I reread Pynchon’s first novel for the first time last month and found it far more achieved than I had remembered. For years I’ve always recalled it as a dress rehearsal for the superior and more complex Gravity’s Rainbow. And while V. certainly points in GR’s direction, even sharing some characters, it’s nevertheless its own entity. I first read V. as a very young man, and as I recall, thought it scattershot, zany, often very funny, but also an assemblage of set pieces that fail to cohere. Rereading it two decades later I can see that there’s far more architecture to its plot, a twinned, yoyoing plot diagrammed in the novel’s title. The twin strands allow Pynchon to critique modernism on two fronts, split by the world wars mark the first half of the twentieth century. It’s a perfect starting point for anyone new to Pynchon, and its midpoint chapter, “Mondaugen’s Story,” is as good as anything else he’s written.
The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
Pynchon’s shortest novel is not necessarily his most accessible: Crying is a dense labyrinth to get lost in. At times Pynchon’s second novel feels like a parody of L.A. detective noir (a well he’d return to in Inherent Vice), but there’s plenty of pastiche going on here as well. For example, at one point we are treated to a Jacobean revenge play, The Courier’s Tragedy, which serves as a kind of metatextual comment on the novel’s plot about a secret war between secret armies of…letter carriers. The whole mailman thing might seem ridiculous, but Pynchon’s zaniness is always doubled in sinister paranoia: The Crying of Lot 49 is a story about how information is disseminated, controlled, and manipulated. Its end might frustrate many readers. We never get to hear the actual crying of lot 49 (just as we never discover the “true” identity of V in V.): fixing a stable, centered truth is an impossibility in the Pynchonverse.
Unbelievably rich, light, dark, cruel, loving, exasperating, challenging, and rewarding, Pynchon’s third novel is one of a handful of books that end up on “difficult novel” lists that is actually difficult. The difficulty though has everything to do with how we expect a novel to “happen” as we read—Gravity’s Rainbow is an entirely new thing, a literature that responds to the rise of mass media as modernist painters had to respond to the advent of photography and moving pictures. The key to appreciating and enjoying Gravity’s Rainbow, in my estimation, is to concede to the language, to the plasticity of it all, with an agreement with yourself to immediately reread it all.
It took Pynchon a decade and a half to follow up Gravity’s Rainbow. I was a boy when Vineland came out—it was obviously nowhere on my radar (I think my favorite books around this time would probably have been The Once and Future King, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and likely a ton of Dragonlance novels). I do know that Vineland was a disappointment to many fans and critics, and I can see why. At the time, novelist David Foster Wallace neatly summed it up in a letter to novelist Jonathan Franzen: “I get the strong sense he’s spent 20 years smoking pot and watching TV.” Vineland is angry about the Reagan years, but somehow not angry enough. The novel’s villain Brock Vond seems to prefigure the authoritarian police detective Bigfoot Bjornsen of Inherent Vice, but Pynchon’s condemnation of Vond never quite reconciles with his condemnation of the political failures of the 1960s. Vineland is ultimately depressing and easily my least-favorite Pynchon novel, but it does have some exquisite prose moments.
If Mason & Dixon isn’t Pynchon’s best book, it has to be 1A to Gravity’s Rainbow’s 1. The novel is another sprawling epic, a loose, baggy adventure story chronicling Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon’s Enlightenment effort to survey their bit of the Western World. Mason & Dixon presents an initial formal challenge to its reader: the story is told in a kind of (faux) 18th-century vernacular. Diction, syntax, and even punctuation jostle the contemporary ear. However, once you tune your ear to the (perhaps-not-quite-so-trustworthy) tone of Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke (who tells this tall tall tale), Mason & Dixon somehow becomes breezy, jaunty, even picaresque. It’s jammed with all sorts of adventures: the talking Learned English Dog, smoking weed with George Washington, Gnostic revelations, Asiatic Pygmies who colonize the missing eleven days lost when the British moved from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar…Wonderful stuff. But it’s really the evocation of a strange, hedged, incomplete but loving friendship that comes through in Mason & Dixon.
Oof. She’s a big boy. At over a thousand pages, Against the Day is Pynchon’s longest novel. Despite its size, I think Against the Day is the best starting point for Pynchon. It offers a surprisingly succinct and clear summation of his major themes, which might be condensed to something like: resist the military-industrial-entertainment-complex, while also showing off his rhetorical power. It’s late period Pynchon, but the prose is some of his strongest stuff. The songs are tight, the pastiche is tighter, and the novel’s epic sweep comes together in the end, resolving its parodic ironies with an earnest love that I believe is the core of Pynchon’s worldview. I forgot to say what it’s about: It’s about the end of the nineteenth century, or, more accurately, the beginning of the twentieth century.
Inherent Vice is a leaner work than its two predecessors, but could stand to be leaner still. The book pushes towards 400 pages but would probably be stronger at 200—or 800. I don’t know. In any case, Inherent Vice is a goofy but sinister stoner detective jaunt that frags out as much as its protagonist, PI Doc Sportello. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation finds its way through those fragments to an end a bit different from Pynchon’s original (which is closer to an echo of the end of The Crying of Lot 49)—PTA’s film finds its emotional resolution in the restoration of couple—not the main couple, but adjacent characters—an ending that Pynchon pulled in his first novel V.
While Bleeding Edge was generally well received by critics, it’s not as esteemed as his major works. I think that the novel is much, much better than its reputation though (even its reputation among Pynchon fans. Pynchon retreads some familiar plot territory—this is another detective novel, like Crying and Inherent Vice—but in many ways he’s doing something wholly new here: Bleeding Edge is his Dot Com Novel, his 9/11 Novel, and his New York Novel. It’s also probably his domestic novel, and possibly (dare I?) his most autobiographical, or at least autobiographical in the sense of evoking life with teenagers in New York City, perhaps drawing on material from his own life with wife and son in the city. It’s good stuff, but I really hope we get one more.
Ann Quin’s 1964 novel Berg begins with one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read:
A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…
This opening line encapsulates the plot of Berg, its terminal ellipses pointing to the radical indecision that propels the novel’s central oedipal conflict—will Berg do it? Can he actually kill his father?
The “seaside town” mentioned in the opening line is presumably Brighton, where Quin was born and died. Quin’s Brighton is hardly a holiday-goer’s paradise though. Grimy and seedy, claustrophobic and cold, it’s populated by carousers and vagabonds. There’s a raucous, sinister energy to Quin’s seaside setting; her Brighton is a combative hamlet pinned against the monstrous swelling sea.
While we sometimes find ourselves in this seaside town’s drunken dancehalls, shadowy train stations, or under grubby piers, most of Berg takes place in a dilapidated boarding house. Here, Alistair Berg (going by Greb) has taken a room adjacent the room his father Nathaniel lives in with his younger mistress Judith. Nathan and Judith’s apartment is a strange horror of antiques and taxidermy beasts. Berg’s apartment is full of the wigs and hair tonics he ostensibly sells for a living. It’s all wonderfully nauseating.
Through the thin wall between these two spaces, Berg hears his father and mistress fight and fuck. He attends both animal grunting and human speech, an imaginative voyeur, and is soon entangled in their lives, as neatly summarized in a letter to his mother Edith, the fourth major character who is never-present yet always-present in the novel. Writing to thank Edith for a food parcel she’s mailed him (Berg is a mama’s boy), he reports:
How are you? Everything here is fine. I’ve seen my father, but so far haven’t revealed who I really am (how Dickensian can one get, and what can I really put—that he’s been fucking another woman next door, and probably a dozen others besides over the past fifteen years, is about to go on tour with some friend in a Vaudeville show, trailing a dummy around, that he’s in love with a budgie…?) Somehow I think you’re better off without him, he seems a bit the worse for wear, not at all like the photograph, or even like the ones you already have of him, and he still hasn’t any money, as far as I can make out he’s sponging left right and centre.
After promising to return home in time for Christmas, Berg signs off with this ambiguous and oedipal ending: “Meanwhile—meanwhile—well I’m going to fuck her too…”
As the novel progresses, the relationships tangle into a Freudian field day: Berg and his father Nathaniel; Berg and his mother; Berg and Judith; Judith and Nathaniel; Nathaniel and Edith. Desire is a funny floating thing in Berg, which plays at times like a horror story and at times like a demented closet farce. As the narrative voice tells us at one point, “no one is without a fetish or two.”
Berg’s desire to kill his father is explored, although his rationale is muddy. Certainly, Edith, whose voice ventriloquizes Berg’s memory, helps spur Berg’s oedipal impulse: “There you see that’s your father who left us both,” she tells him as a boy, pointing to a photograph, adding, “you’ll have to do a lot to overcome him Aly before I die.” So much is loaded into that word overcome. Quin’s novel is precise in its ambiguities, evoking a feeling of consciousness in turmoil.
Berg’s turmoil is indeed the central thrust of the novel. He can’t decide to patricide. Berg works through the justifications for murder, ultimately trying to root out the impetus of his desire to kill his father. “Of course it’s ridiculous to think the whole thing is simply a vehicle for revenge, or even resentment—hardly can it be called personal, not now, indeed I have never felt so objective,” he tells himself at one point, sounding like one of Poe’s maniacs. Quin’s narrative affords him several opportunities to go through with the murder, but, in the novel’s first half anyway, he stalls. “Yes, that’s what it amounts to, decide rather than desire,” he proclaims.
Like Prince Hamlet, Berg is terribly indecisive, spending much of the novel vacillating between action and inaction, letting his consciousness fly through every imaginative possibility. Indeed, the main setting of Berg is not really Brighton or the boarding house, but Alistair Berg’s mind. And yet consciousness is his biggest curse: “Definitely the supreme action is to dispose of the mind, bring reality into something vital, felt, seen, even smelt. A man of action conquering all.” Later, he tells us that “The conscience only sets in when one is static,” coaxing himself toward action. Berg aspires to more than Eliot’s Prufrock. He desires to be more than an attendant lord to swell a progress, start a scene or two.
Indeed, Berg is author, director, and star in this drama of his own creation—he just has to finally follow the call to action. When he finally does snap the mental clapperboard, he comes into the possession—or at least believes he comes into the possession—of his own agency: “How separated from it all he felt, how unique too, no longer the understudy, but the central character as it were, in a play of his own making.”
Throughout Berg, Quin employs a free-indirect style that emphasizes her character’s shifting consciousness. Whatever “reality” Berg experiences is thoroughly mediated by memories of his mother’s voice and his own projections and fantasies. Consider the shift from “he” to “I” in these two sentences:
Half in the light he stood, a Pirandello hero in search of a scene that might project him from the shadow screen on to which he felt he had allowed himself to be thrown. If I could only discover whether cause and effect lie entirely in my power.
Perhaps his dramatic flair comes from his father, a vaudevillian ventriloquist whose most prized possession is a dummy. The dummy is the tragicomic symbol at the heart of Berg, a totem of the way that other voices might inhabit our mouths and drive our desires in bizarre directions. Berg, desirer of the power to cause and effect, often sees others around him as mere props. “She’s not unlike a display dummy really,” he thinks about Judith, who accuses him as someone who’s “always playing a part.” Hefting (what he believes to be) his father’s body, Berg, “aware of the rubbery texture of the flesh,” thinks, “ah well the old man had never been a flesh and blood character really.”
Berg is both victim and hero in a mental-play that he aspires to make real. Consider this wonderful passage that collapses Berg’s monomania, prefigurations of guilt, and dramatic impulses into a courtroom trial:
Alistair Berg, alias Greb, commercial traveller, seller of wigs, hair tonic, paranoiac paramour, do you plead guilty? Yes. Guilty of all things the human condition brings; guilty of being too committed; guilty of defending myself; of defrauding others; guilty of love; loving too much, or not enough; guilty of parochial actions, of universal wish-fulfilments; of conscious martyrdom; of unconscious masochism. Idle hours, fingers that meddle. Alistair Charles Humphrey Greb, alias Berg, you are condemned to life imprisonment until such time you may prove yourself worthy of death.
Berg’s guilt fantasies are bound up in a sense of persecution as well as his notion that he is the real hero of this (his) world, in his belief that he is above “the rest of the country’s cosy mice in their cages of respectability”:
A parasite living on an action I alone dared committing, how can they possibly convict, or even accuse one who’s faced reality, not only in myself, but the whole world, that world which had been rejected, denounced, leaving a space they hardly dared interpreting, let alone sentence.
Although Berg takes place primarily in Our Boy Berg’s consciousness, Quin leavens the fantasy with a hearty ballast of concrete reality. Consider this icky sexual encounter between Berg and Judith, which involves hair tonic and a nosy landlady:
Berg shrank back, bringing Judith with him, she taking the opportunity of pressing closer; sticky, the tonic now drying—gum from a tree—almost making it impossible for Berg to tear himself away. He felt Judith’s warmth, her soft wet tongue in his ear, soon she became intent on biting all available flesh between hairline and collar. But the landlady’s demanding voice made her stop. Berg sank back, while Judith squirmed above him. But as soon as the landlady seemed satisfied that no one was about and closed the door, Judith began licking his fingers. He pulled sharply away, until he lay flat on the floor, his head resting against something quite soft. Judith began wiping his clothes down with a large handkerchief that distinctly smelt of wet fur and hard-boiled sweets. He tried getting up, but she leaned over him, and in the half light he saw her lips curl almost—yes almost—he could swear in a sneer, a positive leer, or was he mistaken and it was only the lustful gaze of a frustrated woman? He jerked sideways. Judith fell right across the body.
Ah, yes — “the body” — well, does Berg carry out his patricide? Of course, in his imagination, a million times—but does his mental-play map onto reality? Do you need to know? Read the book.
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. Or I can smuggle in big chunks of Quin’s prose, as I’ve sought to do, and which I’ll do again, like, here, in this big passage wherein our hero dreams:
Two white-foaming horses with female heads and hooves of fire, with strands of golden mane—honey cones—bore him across a silken screen of sky, over many islands that floated away, and became clouds, a landscape of snow stretching below, and above a canopy of gold. But a harsh voice needled him, pin-pricked his heart, and three drops of blood poured out, extended across the canopy. From this whirlpool a shape formed, then a massive head appeared, without eyes. He turned to the horses, but they were now toads, squat and squeaking, leaping into the hissing pool. The face grew, the mouth opened, swallowing everything, nearer and nearer, until he felt himself being sucked in, down, down and yet farther down, into quicksands of fire and blood, only the dark mass left, as though the very centre of the earth had been reached. The sun exploded between his eyes. He stood up, practically hurling the rug over his shoulder, and jogged towards the station.
Or I can repeat: Read the book.
Of course Berg is Not for Everyone. Its savage humor might get lost on a first read, which might make the intense pain that underwrites the novel difficult to bear. Its ambiguities necessitate that readers launch themselves into a place of radical unknowing—the same space Berg himself enters when he comes to a seaside town, intending to kill his father.
But I loved reading Berg; I loved its sticky, grimy sentences, its wriggly worms of consciousness. I wanted more, and I sought it out, picking up The Unmapped Country, a collection of unpublished Quin stuff edited by Jennifer Hodgson and published by And Other Stories, the indie press that reissued Berg. Hodgson is also a guest on the Blacklisted Podcast episode that focuses on Berg. That episode offers a rallying ringing endorsement, if you need voices besides mine. The Blacklisted episode also features a reading of most of novelist Lee Rourke’s 2010 appreciation for Ann Quin’s Berg. (Rourke had championed online as early as 2007.) Rourke should be commended for being ahead of the curve on resurfacing a writer who feels wholly vital in our own time. He concludes his 2010 piece, “Berg should be read by everyone, if only to give us a glimpse of what the contemporary British novel could be like.” Read the book.
Quin wrote three other novels before walking into the sea in 1973 and never coming back. Those novels are Three (1966), Passages (1969), and Tripticks (1972). I really hope that And Other Stories will reissue these in the near future. Until then: Read the book.
[Ed. note—Biblioklept first published this review in the summer of 2019.]
McClintic Sphere, an innovative jazz saxophonist, and Paolo Majistral, the Maltese “girl [who] lived proper nouns” are two minor characters in Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V. I will get back to them in a second.
A novel crammed with minor characters (hundreds of them, I’d guess) V. pulsates with intersections, drive-bys, concordances and discordance. Characters crisscross and quick-change in ways that both parody and honor the authorial sleight-of-hand in play in V.
Pynchon repeatedly challenges his readers’ credulity–while its intersections are never as neat and tidy as its titular vee angle might suggest, V. is still a confusion of happenstance that both confounds and sanctifies coincidence, even as it ironizes those winds of fate.
The mode is necessarily postmodern. Pynchon repeatedly evokes Modernist poets by name—Pound and Eliot, especially—but it’s the immediate postwar (post, war, world, two) that he’s most concerned with in V. The novel critiques Modernist critiques (through a double lens of a critique of colonialism).
The great concern here is for the divergent angle of the second half of the twentieth century. As such, much of V. is a loving parody of the Beat scene (much more loving than Gaddis’s sustained attack on art poseurs in The Recognitions). In V., Pynchon creates a non-chorus in The Whole Sick Crew, an outcast cast of losers and would-bes and pseudointellectuals.
The Whole Sick Crew lards V.’s enormous, hard-to-follow cast. Two members of the nebulous Crew are
McClintic Sphere, an innovative jazz saxophonist, and Paolo Majistral, the Maltese “girl [who] lived proper nouns.”
There’s a marvelous moment about two-thirds of the way through V. where McClintic and Paolo, erstwhile lovers (Paolo in the guise of “Ruby” — everyone here is a quick change artist)—where McClintic and Paolo transcend the quick-changing and irony and and sensory-cloggingness of the modern condition. They drive upstate, talk straight—the plot details don’t matter here, just read:
Maybe the only peace undisturbed that night was McClintic’s and Paola’s. The little Triumph forged along up the Hudson, their own wind was cool, taking away whatever of Nueva York had clogged ears, nostrils, mouths.
She talked to him straight and McClintic kept cool.
And then our man McClintic comes to something close to an epiphany, although epiphanies are always hedged, suspicious, constrained in Pynchon—but I think there’s something real here. Earlier in the novel, McClintic feels concern for the postwar “cool,” for the feeling that the world might flip or flop again, go from zero to binary in a weird heartbeat (that binary code theme pulsates through the rest of Pynchon’s work to date). Makes sense for machines, maybe, but people aren’t, or shouldn’t be, machines.
McClintic’s epiphany is a pragmatic resolution, and I take it to be Pynchon’s cautionary thesis:
…there came to McClintic something it was time he got around to seeing: that the only way clear of the cool/crazy flipflop was obviously slow, frustrating and hard work. Love with your mouth shut, help without breaking your ass or publicizing it: keep cool, but care. He might have known, if he’d used any common sense. It didn’t come as a revelation, only something he’d as soon not’ve admitted.
The epiphany is bitter, and Pynchon’s narrator refuses its epiphanic value (“It didn’t come as a revelation”), even as the narrative acknowledges its intrinsic power. A few lines later, McClintic addresses the Real Work to Be Done in the World:
Nobody is going to step down from Heaven and square away Roony and his woman, or Alabama, or South Africa or us and Russia. There’s no magic words. Not even I love you is magic enough. Can you see Eisenhower telling Malenkov or Khrushchev that? Ho-ho.”
“Keep cool but care,” he said. Somebody had run over a skunk a ways back. The smell had followed them for miles. “If my mother was alive I would have her make a sampler with that on it.”
The highway stinks, sticks skunky to fleeing motion, gummed up in the nostalgic emblems we’d imaginatively credit to our loving forebears. The grist, grit, and horror of the big postwar world will cling to the present. Nobody’s stepping down from heaven, or Heaven and there are no magic words—but there is a kind of love, a loving with your mouth shut, a kind of radical, earnest, transcendent love that Pynchon evokes, soils, and sanctifies here.
I did not set out to write forty riffs on Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick but that’s where I ended up. I don’t think what I’ve done here is a resource of any worth, but I do hope to encourage people to read this funny, humane, poetic, and devastating novel.
Here are links by chapter to the riffs I riffed on Moby-Dick in 2021.
Illustrations in this post are by the American artist Barry Moser.
Ch. 1 (The great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open)
Ch. 2-4 (Nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom)
Ch. 5-8 (All these things are not without their meanings)
Ch. 9-13 (No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world)
Ch. 14-16 (Oblique hints)
Ch. 17-19 (Humbug or bugbear)
Ch. 20-22 (First kick)
Ch. 23-27 (Whaling may well be regarded as that Egyptian mother who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb)
Ch. 28-32 (God keep me from ever completing anything)
Ch. 33-35 (Your identity comes back in horror)
Ch. 36 (Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me)
Ch. 37-48 (And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?)
Ch. 49-54 (Certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life)
Ch. 55-57 (The great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last)
Ch. 58-60 (A certain wondrous, inverted visitation of one of those so called judgments of God which at times are said to overtake some men)
Ch. 61-73 (The mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable)
Ch. 74-75 (Why then do you try to “enlarge” your mind? Subtilize it.)
Ch. 76-80 (A very precious perishing)
Ch. 81-83 (There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method)
Ch. 84-86 (Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly)
Ch. 87 (There is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men)
Ch. 88-90 (Loose-fish/fast-fish)
Ch. 91-93 (The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it?)
Ch. 94-98 (Let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness)
Ch. 99 (“I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look”)
Ch. 100 (Face set like a flint)
Ch. 101-05 (Horror-struck at this antemosaic, unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale)
Ch. 106-08 (The ineffaceable, sad birth-mark in the brow of man, is but the stamp of sorrow in the signers)
Ch. 109-11 (Millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries)
Ch. 112 (Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried)
Ch. 113-17 (Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them)
Ch. 118-19 (Thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief)
Ch. 120-22 (All of us are Ahabs)
Ch. 123 (Wild nights)
Ch. 124-26 (Human sort of wail)
Ch. 127-29 (A life-buoy of a coffin! Does it go further?)
Ch. 130-32 (The least heedful eye seemed to see some sort of cunning meaning in almost every sight)
Ch. 133-34 (That wild simultaneousness of a thousand concreted perils)
Ch. 135-Epilogue (The drama’s done)
And because I landed (or drowned?) at forty, here’s Ahab, near the end of the novel, wailing on forty:
Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day—very much such a sweetness as this—I struck my first whale—a boy-harpooneer of eighteen! Forty—forty—forty years ago!—ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore. When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain’s exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without—oh, weariness! heaviness! Guinea-coast slavery of solitary command!—when I think of all this; only half-suspected, not so keenly known to me before—and how for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare—fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soil!—when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world’s fresh bread to my mouldy crusts—away, whole oceans away, from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow—wife? wife?—rather a widow with her husband alive! Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey—more a demon than a man!—aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool—fool—old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now?
(I feel richer now after the re-read.)
I. In this riff, Chapter 135, “The Chase—Third Day” and the Epilogue of Moby-Dick.
The beginning of the end begins, “The morning of the third day dawned fair and fresh” — we are in the tranquil pacified Pacific, beautiful blue, the calm site of a coming calamity.
II. After calling for news of the White Whale, Ahab riffs to himself on the wind. The wind is an apparently concrete force that operates with abstract agency. The wind is a kind of fate, an invisible entity that both propels and repels objects of the phenomenal world:
Would now the wind but had a body; but all the things that most exasperate and outrage mortal man, all these things are bodiless, but only bodiless as objects, not as agents. There’s a most special, a most cunning, oh, a most malicious difference! And yet, I say again, and swear it now, that there’s something all glorious and gracious in the wind.
III. Ahab glimpses his folly: “I’ve oversailed him,” he mutters about Moby Dick, continuing, “How, got the start? Aye, he’s chasing me now; not I, him—that’s bad; I might have known it, too. Fool!”
The fool there is of course a bit of self-talk Ahab directs to his self-same self.
IV. This final chapter is full of self-talk. Starbuck’s inner monologue turmoils, “I misdoubt me that I disobey my God in obeying him!” Ahab swears to meet Moby Dick, “Forehead to forehead…this third time”; we enter the final private thoughts of Stubb and Flask (but never the pagan harpooneers).
As always, my question remains—
How does Ishmael bear witness to these voices?
V. In a potent soliloquy, Ahab’s sentimentality takes over. He addresses the vast ocean, “the same to Noah as to me.” He seems to portend his own demise, and is distracted momentarily by the “lovely leewardings” that “must lead somewhere—to something else than common land, more palmy than the palms.” But he won’t escape: “Leeward! the white whale goes that way; look to windward, then; the better if the bitterer quarter. But good bye, good bye, old mast-head!”
By the end of the soliloquy Ahab is again convinced — or maybe not wholly convinced, but nevertheless affirming — of his impending victory. He addresses the masthead anew: “We’ll talk to-morrow, nay, to-night, when the white whale lies down there, tied by head and tail.”
VI. Ahab rejects two final calls to remain and retreat. The first is Starbuck’s:
“Some men die at ebb tide; some at low water; some at the full of the flood;—and I feel now like a billow that’s all one crested comb, Starbuck. I am old;—shake hands with me, man.”
Their hands met; their eyes fastened; Starbuck’s tears the glue.
Starbuck’s tears the glue! What a line!
The second entreaty I take to be Ahab’s other first mate, the mad cabinboy Pip:
“Oh, my captain, my captain!—noble heart—go not—go not!—see, it’s a brave man that weeps; how great the agony of the persuasion then!”
“Lower away!”—cried Ahab, tossing the mate’s arm from him. “Stand by the crew!”
“The sharks! the sharks!” cried a voice from the low cabin-window there; “O master, my master, come back!” But Ahab heard nothing; for his own voice was high-lifted then; and the boat leaped on.
Ahab rejects all fellow-feeling here. His monomaniacal voice overtakes all bandwidth, drowning out any sensation of otherness.
VII. The sharks follow Ahab’s boat like “vultures hover over the banners of marching regiments in the east”; as usual, Melville is not shy about slathering on the foreshadowing. He enlists Starbuck’s help; the Christian mate remarks that this, “the third evening,” be “the end of that thing—be that end what it may.”
VIII. Meanwhile, Ahab repeats pagan Fedallah’s pagan prophecy: “Drive, drive in your nails, oh ye waves! to their uttermost heads drive them in! ye but strike a thing without a lid; and no coffin and no hearse can be mine:—and hemp only can kill me! Ha! ha!”
Those dashes, those exclamations—that madness!
IX. Moby Dick then resurfaces, all veils, rainbows, milk:
A low rumbling sound was heard; a subterraneous hum; and then all held their breaths; as bedraggled with trailing ropes, and harpoons, and lances, a vast form shot lengthwise, but obliquely from the sea. Shrouded in a thin drooping veil of mist, it hovered for a moment in the rainbowed air; and then fell swamping back into the deep. Crushed thirty feet upwards, the waters flashed for an instant like heaps of fountains, then brokenly sank in a shower of flakes, leaving the circling surface creamed like new milk round the marble trunk of the whale.
Our boy Moby Dick sets to violence, dashing the boats of Daggoo and Queequeg.
X. The violent spectacle culminates in the most gruesome imagery within Moby-Dick. We learn the fated fate of fated Fedallah:
Lashed round and round to the fish’s back; pinioned in the turns upon turns in which, during the past night, the whale had reeled the involutions of the lines around him, the half torn body of the Parsee was seen; his sable raiment frayed to shreds; his distended eyes turned full upon old Ahab.
XI. Ahab commands his sailors to remain rowing after the White Whale, despite the downed lieutenants and zombified harpooneer. He threatens them:
Down, men! the first thing that but offers to jump from this boat I stand in, that thing I harpoon. Ye are not other men, but my arms and my legs; and so obey me.—
Ahab, who has repeated the idea that his mates are but mechanical things throughout the novel, here spells out his distance from human sympathy, his complete fascistic capitulation. “Ye are not other men” is the exact opposite of the Gospels’ injunction to do unto others. Ahab fails Starbuck’s moral test—and Ishmael’s.
XII. Ahab sees his pagan harpooneers and wrecked mates return to The Pequod to repair boats and rearm:
…he saw Tashtego, Queequeg, and Daggoo, eagerly mounting to the three mast-heads; while the oarsmen were rocking in the two staved boats which had but just been hoisted to the side, and were busily at work in repairing them. One after the other, through the port-holes, as he sped, he also caught flying glimpses of Stubb and Flask, busying themselves on deck among bundles of new irons and lances. As he saw all this; as he heard the hammers in the broken boats; far other hammers seemed driving a nail into his heart. But he rallied. And now marking that the vane or flag was gone from the main-mast-head, he shouted to Tashtego, who had just gained that perch, to descend again for another flag, and a hammer and nails, and so nail it to the mast.
I’ve quoted at length because I think our eyes should be trained on Tashtego, the Native American twice now denied his proper place. He was the first to raise a whale on The Pequod’s voyage (denied by Stubb), and the first to raise Moby Dick (denied by Ahab). Tash will be the last to go down with the ship, nailing a new banner to its highest mast.
XIII. Meanwhile, the sharks chew and chomp at the oarsmen’s oars in Ahab’s whaleboat, to the point “that the blades became jagged and crunched, and left small splinters in the sea, at almost every dip.”
They row on.
XIV. Ahab’s boat comes about and he darts “his fierce iron, and his far fiercer curse into the hated whale.” Three of his oarsmen are knocked from the boat, and only two return, although the one who bobs asea is reported “still afloat and swimming.”
This third castaway is Ishmael.
XV. Moby Dick then attacks The Pequod, “bethinking it—it may be—a larger and nobler foe.”
(“‘The whale! The ship!’ cried the cringing oarsmen.”)
XVI. The White Whale destroys The Pequod, and Melville takes us into the last lungfuls of language from the three mates, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask. These are mini-monologues that Moby Dick’s ensuing vortex will swamp to oblivion.
“My God, stand by me now!” beseeches Starbuck; “Stand not by me, but stand under me, whoever you are that will now help Stubb,” Stubb non-prays, before praying against this “most mouldy and over salted death”— he’d prefer “cherries! cherries! cherries!” And Flask? “Cherries? I only wish that we were where they grow.” Poor Flask then think of his dear mama, before the ship fails.
XVII. Moby Dick wrecks The Pequod. The crew (in Ishmael’s telling) bears witness:
…all their enchanted eyes intent upon the whale, which from side to side strangely vibrating his predestinating head, sent a broad band of overspreading semicircular foam before him as he rushed. Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled. Some fell flat upon their faces. Like dislodged trucks, the heads of the harpooneers aloft shook on their bull-like necks. Through the breach, they heard the waters pour, as mountain torrents down a flume.
XVIII. As Ahab watches the disaster, he comes to understand Fedallah’s prophecy: “The ship! The hearse!—the second hearse!” cried Ahab from the boat; “its wood could only be American!”
XIX. And then—
Ahab’s final speech:
Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!
Ahab is knocked from the boat, and hanged in hemp and hate.
XX. The Pequod sinks, but
the pagan harpooneers still maintained their sinking lookouts on the sea. And now, concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.
The final image is devastating: Tashtego nails a seahawk to the mast. Again, forgive me for quoting at length:
…as the last whelmings intermixingly poured themselves over the sunken head of the Indian at the mainmast…a red arm and a hammer hovered backwardly uplifted in the open air, in the act of nailing the flag faster and yet faster to the subsiding spar. A sky-hawk that tauntingly had followed the main-truck downwards from its natural home among the stars…now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood; and simultaneously feeling that ethereal thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.
What an image!
(I have nothing to add here.)
XXI (Excepting, I would add: I think Melville loads so much in this near-final image of his big book. There are only two paragraphs after this one: a scant sentence that’s basically an exhalation from the image of a submerged Tashtego nailing a hawk to the mast of the sinking Pequod—and then the Epilogue. The Pequod takes its name from an extinct Native American tribe. Tashtego is doubly-denied his due as the First to raise whale. Melville seems to point back to America’s founding as a genocidal project here. I probably need to reread the book again, I now realize. Or maybe read some commenters on this matter that I’ve yet to read. I hate to stick this thought in parentheses, as it’s the thing that interests me the most at the end of this reread—Tashtego the Indian, I mean.)
XXII. And so well the end of the end, the Epilogue.
Here it is in the Arion Press edition I read this time through:
XXIII. Ishmael survives, “floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it.”
What a position! To be both marginal and omnipresent, both at edge and center to the drama, comedy, tragedy of it all!
The notation from the Book of Job is everything here—the disaster is only a disaster if there is one to bear witness to it. Otherwise, disaster is simply a phenomenological event in nature—random, stochastic, energy, mass, and matter moving without meaning.
Ahab pretends at a great searcher for meaning, but he fixes his search on vengeance. “Madness!” Starbuck chides (if Starbuck could chide) — “To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.” Ahab has read too deep, read too twisted—he’s a bad reader, a mutant reader, an overreader—but he’s failed repeatedly to read the souls and faces of his fellows.
XXIV. The final curse and blessing is upon Ishmael though. He names himself at the novel’s famous outset — “Call me Ishmael” — a call that likens him to Hagar’s outcast son. At its end, he likens himself to another outcast, “another Ixion,” all the while circling into a vortex of nature, meaning, language—all the forces that would swallow him. (He’s Melville’s maddened howl here.)
Ishmael floats on “a soft and dirgelike main,” bobbing alive on Queequeg’s coffin, the strange lifebuoy of his strange bedfellow, until he’s saved by The Rachel—the ship Ahab had earlier denied—which still cruises for a lost son. He is not the lost son, but he has been lost, and is here saved by The Rachel’s “retracing search after her missing children” — a retracing, a rereading, a rewriting — one that surfaces the wailing of only another orphan.
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 “I 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 I 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,—
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?
I. In this riff, Chapters 130-132 of Moby-Dick.
II. Ch. 130, “The Hat.”
In which Ahab’s hat is stolen by “one of those red-billed savage sea-hawks which so often fly incommodiously close round the manned mast-heads of whalemen in these latitudes,” and the crew reads it, almost to a man, as an ill omen.
At the chapter’s outset, our Ishmael is in a meta-textual mood, pushing the quest’s doom into the foreground. He tells us that “all other whaling waters [are] swept” — we are in the penultimate triplet chapters:
In this foreshadowing interval too, all humor, forced or natural, vanished. Stubb no more strove to raise a smile; Starbuck no more strove to check one. Alike, joy and sorrow, hope and fear, seemed ground to finest dust, and powdered, for the time, in the clamped mortar of Ahab’s iron soul.
III. Ahab and Fedallah (who has foretold the doom of the ship he crews on) both keep to the deck at all times. Ahab declares that he will take the nailed doubloon, omphalos of both ship and novel — “‘I will have the first sight of the whale myself,’—he said. ‘Aye! Ahab must have the doubloon.'” Fedallah is a silent impenetrable gaze: “his wan but wondrous eyes did plainly say—We two watchmen never rest.”
IV. Ahab, as I’ve contended so many times, is monocular reader. Our one-legged monomaniacal despot of a captain can only watch and read for his dread mission. Unlike diverse, large-hearted Ishmael, there is no diversity in Ahab’s gaze/reading. He reads for one purpose, and all signs are symbols portending the fulfillment of that purpose.
As the sea-hawk approaches, Ahab’s gaze is upon the sea, not heavenward. We learn that the sea-hawk,
darted a thousand feet straight up into the air; then spiralized downwards, and went eddying again round his head.
But with his gaze fixed upon the dim and distant horizon, Ahab seemed not to mark this wild bird; nor, indeed, would any one else have marked it much, it being no uncommon circumstance; only now almost the least heedful eye seemed to see some sort of cunning meaning in almost every sight.
The crew of The Pequod reads the event as the foreshadow of disaster, whether the spectacle is simply a dark omen—the leader’s crown revoked from upon high—or simply the physical reality of their captain losing his hat because his attention was focused in only one direction.
V. Ch. 131, “The Pequod Meets the Delight.”
In which The Pequod encounters its last meeting with another ship—and another Nantucket ship—a “most miserably misnamed” The Delight:
Upon the stranger’s shears were beheld the shattered, white ribs, and some few splintered planks, of what had once been a whale-boat; but you now saw through this wreck, as plainly as you see through the peeled, half-unhinged, and bleaching skeleton of a horse.
I mean, c’mon. White ribs, bleaching skeleton of a horse, etc. It’s really the seeing through in the previous paragraph I’m interested in. Our Ishmael attends the world with the perspective of a ghost who sees through the world’s wreck.
VI. Ahab repeats his famous question (for the last time):
“Hast seen the White Whale?”
“Look!” replied the hollow-cheeked captain from his taffrail; and with his trumpet he pointed to the wreck.
“Hast killed him?”
“The harpoon is not yet forged that ever will do that,” answered the other, sadly glancing upon a rounded hammock on the deck, whose gathered sides some noiseless sailors were busy in sewing together.
Ahab shows off the harpoon he forged with Perth but captain and crew of The Delight remain morosely unimpressed. They bury at sea the last of five sailors they lost in battle with Moby Dick—the other four bodies were lost in the fight.
Ahab turns away from the scene.
As Ahab now glided from the dejected Delight, the strange life-buoy hanging at the Pequod’s stern came into conspicuous relief.
“Ha! yonder! look yonder, men!” cried a foreboding voice in her wake. “In vain, oh, ye strangers, ye fly our sad burial; ye but turn us your taffrail to show us your coffin!”
Again—it’s an overdetermined affair, this Moby-Dick.
Show us your coffin!
VII. Ch. 132, “The Symphony.”
The whole thing is about to collapse.
In which Starbuck almost convinces Ahab to change course and save the souls of The Pequod.
“The Symphony” is another sad, sad chapter. “It was a clear steel-blue day,” the chapter begins, and then unfolds in short descriptions of pacific beauty. We are reminded of the peaceful air about The Pequod—that the violent rage at the heart of the novel is carried there by men, by their chieftan Ahab. But the dumb world will not attend our own woes:
Oh, immortal infancy, and innocency of the azure! Invisible winged creatures that frolic all round us! Sweet childhood of air and sky! how oblivious were ye of old Ahab’s close-coiled woe!
Again, Ishmael portrays Ahab in a sympathetic cast.
VIII. Ahab monologues at Starbuck, a sympathetic ear. He laments the forty years he’s spent asea:
Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day—very much such a sweetness as this—I struck my first whale—a boy-harpooneer of eighteen! Forty—forty—forty years ago!—ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore.
Are these Ahab’s last rites? A sad confession before the crack of doom (with those mythic numbers foregrounded, forty and three)? I think so.
(And, as always—
How does Ishmael witness this dialogue?)
IX. But Ahab’s confession does not lead to redemption. Language carries him away, and as always the ineffable nearly overwhelms him—he contests the unnameable:
What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.
Ahab the philosopher is a thing of despair:
By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea!
Starbuck, “blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair,” steals away. But Fedallah remains at his unvacant post, eyes focused on the water.
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.
I. In this riff, Chapters 124-126 of Moby-Dick.
II. Ch. 124, “The Needle.”
“The Needle” is another one of Melville’s satanic reversals in Moby-Dick. Lightning from the tempest that The Pequod endured over the past few chapters has caused all compasses aboard the ship to be perfectly reversed. Needles fly in the exact opposite directions. What might have been up, in a certain sense, points downward.
Again, Ahab is a bad reader—or a reader whose monomania overrides his ability to comprehend other perspectives, other views, other directions.
III. And yet Ahab is a bold reader, one who shapes nature to his own direction (or will in anywise perish doing so):
“Men,” said he, steadily turning upon the crew, as the mate handed him the things he had demanded, “my men, the thunder turned old Ahab’s needles; but out of this bit of steel Ahab can make one of his own, that will point as true as any.”
Ahab sets about to magnetize a needle with the “steel head of the lance,” and the crew watches on in wonder and mild horror. Ishmael (Melville) notes that, “with fascinated eyes they awaited whatever magic might follow” — and then tellingly: “But Starbuck looked away.”
Starbuck’s attempt to see no evil reverberates through the crew who gaze at the new compass needle in turns at the end of the scene:
One after another they peered in, for nothing but their own eyes could persuade such ignorance as theirs, and one after another they slunk away.
In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride.
Slink away; perish still.
IV. Ch. 125, “The Log and Line.”
A somewhat extended episode, the mechanics of which I’m in no mood to summarize here. Suffice to say that “the log and line” — basically, a way of calculating the ship’s speed — “had but very seldom been in use” lately on The Pequod’s voyage. Ahab has found other ways to measure and to read the phenomenal world. But, thinking he’s closing in on the White Whale, he commands the “golden-hued Tahitian and the grizzly Manxman” to the task of log and line.
V. The Manxman declares the line “rotten,” a prescient analysis that reads The Pequod’s impending doom.
A mark of that rottenness evinces in Pip’s emergence. The crazed cabin boy alights on the deck, a rotten line in a book of glowing rotten lines. He contests his own identity. He’s a vacant post, a drowned sailor:
“Pip? whom call ye Pip? Pip jumped from the whale-boat. Pip’s missing. Let’s see now if ye haven’t fished him up here, fisherman. It drags hard; I guess he’s holding on. Jerk him, Tahiti! Jerk him off; we haul in no cowards here. Ho! there’s his arm just breaking water. A hatchet! a hatchet! cut it off—we haul in no cowards here. Captain Ahab! sir, sir! here’s Pip, trying to get on board again.”
VI. (I will leave the line Jerk him off in this oh-so-phallic novel alone, apart from noting it here in these parentheses.)
VII. “Peace, thou crazy loon,” cries the Manxman, trying to shoo him from the quarter-deck, but Ahab admonishes the older sailor and enters into conversation with the insane cabin boy:
“The greater idiot ever scolds the lesser,” muttered Ahab, advancing. “Hands off from that holiness! Where sayest thou Pip was, boy?
“Astern there, sir, astern! Lo! lo!”
“And who art thou, boy? I see not my reflection in the vacant pupils of thy eyes. Oh God! that man should be a thing for immortal souls to sieve through! Who art thou, boy?”
“Bell-boy, sir; ship’s-crier; ding, dong, ding! Pip! Pip! Pip! One hundred pounds of clay reward for Pip; five feet high—looks cowardly—quickest known by that! Ding, dong, ding! Who’s seen Pip the coward?”
“There can be no hearts above the snow-line. Oh, ye frozen heavens! look down here. Ye did beget this luckless child, and have abandoned him, ye creative libertines. Here, boy; Ahab’s cabin shall be Pip’s home henceforth, while Ahab lives. Thou touchest my inmost centre, boy; thou art tied to me by cords woven of my heart-strings. Come, let’s down.”
Pip then, and not Fedallah, is Ahab’s true squire. Poor child.
VIII. Ch. 126, “The Life-Buoy.”
“[D]etermined by Ahab’s level log and line; the Pequod held on her path towards the Equator.” On their way there,
sailing by a cluster of rocky islets…the watch…was startled by a cry so plaintively wild and unearthly—like half-articulated wailings of the ghosts of all Herod’s murdered Innocents—that one and all, they started from their reveries…
The wailing there again calls to me. I’ve probably stated ad nauseum in these riffs that Moby-Dick is a whaling book about wailing.
IX. Ishmael continues his ironic critique of the viewpoints of “pagans” and “civilized” folk:
The Christian or civilized part of the crew said it was mermaids, and shuddered; but the pagan harpooneers remained unappalled.
The pagan harpooneers remain unappalled because they are not in the thrall of superstitious ignorance.
X. The wailing is not lost souls or mermaids, we learn, but rather the crying of
some young seals that had lost their dams, or some dams that had lost their cubs, [who] must have risen nigh the ship and kept company with her, crying and sobbing with their human sort of wail.
Their human sort of wail—a wailing, a hailing, an interpellation that the sailors can read.
XI. After this wailing episode, we learn that a lookout posted at the top of The Pequod drowns. The crew spies him, “a falling phantom in the air,” and throw out the titular life-buoy to recover him.
XII. The life-buoy must be resurrected in a new form, though. However, “no cask of sufficient lightness could be found.” Fortunately (ultimately, for Ishmael), “by certain strange signs and inuendoes Queequeg hinted a hint concerning his coffin”
“A life-buoy of a coffin!” cried Starbuck, starting.
“Rather queer, that, I should say,” said Stubb.
“It will make a good enough one,” said Flask, “the carpenter here can arrange it easily.”
And so the carpenter does, despite the queerness of this job—making a life preserver of a coffin.
Hence Moby-Dick formalizes its theme of LIFE | DEATH in an overdetermined symbol, an abstract concrete thing our living ghosting narrator will cling to after the drama’s done, after the sweep of disaster vortexes all.
I. In this riff, Ch. 123, “The Musket.”
Here, we—and by which we, I guess I mean Ishmael’s consciousness–or maybe I just mean we—enter Starbuck’s consciousness.
Our good Christian co-commander stands outside crazy Captain Ahab’s quarters, wondering whether to tell his commander that The Pequod has escaped a typhoon–or to kill the tyrant.
II. Ch. 123 delivers the longest (I mean, I’m pretty sure it’s the longest) monologue we get from Starbuck in the novel, as he ponders the morality of assassinating his captain, Ahab. It begins:
“He would have shot me once,” he murmured, “yes, there’s the very musket that he pointed at me;—that one with the studded stock; let me touch it—lift it. Strange, that I, who have handled so many deadly lances, strange, that I should shake so now. Loaded? I must see. Aye, aye; and powder in the pan;—that’s not good. Best spill it?—wait. I’ll cure myself of this. I’ll hold the musket boldly while I think.
Starbuck’s monologue is riddled with the kind of dashes and question marks we might more readily identify with Poe’s bipolars or Dickinson’s Riddles. Madness infects, and Starbuck is touched.
III. “Has he not dashed his heavenly quadrant?” Starbuck dashingly muses, prefiguring, perhaps, Emily Dickinson’s lines, “Done with the Compass – / Done with the Chart!”
Wild nights indeed!
IV. Starbuck’s wild night again shifts into Poe territory. He’s got a touch of craze to his soul, but he’s still the Christian moral (a)center of Melville’s satanic novel. Here, he weighs the metaphysical against the physical:
But shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship’s company down to doom with him?—Yes, it would make him the wilful murderer of thirty men and more, if this ship come to any deadly harm; and come to deadly harm, my soul swears this ship will, if Ahab have his way. If, then, he were this instant—put aside, that crime would not be his. Ha! is he muttering in his sleep? Yes, just there,—in there, he’s sleeping. Sleeping? aye, but still alive, and soon awake again.
V. Starbuck understands that Ahab will wholly infect the crew of The Pequod, dooming them in his disease:
Not reasoning; not remonstrance; not entreaty wilt thou hearken to; all this thou scornest. Flat obedience to thy own flat commands, this is all thou breathest. Aye, and say’st the men have vow’d thy vow; say’st all of us are Ahabs.
VI. In the end though—well, in the end, Starbuck chickens out, as we knew he would. “Great God, where art Thou? Shall I? shall I?” he implores, but God does not answer in any language Starbuck is prepared to read. Instead, Ahab answers (and God through him?) — “Stern all! Oh Moby Dick, I clutch thy heart at last!” — another prefiguration of the demise of the crew Starbuck would save if he were made of sterner stuff.
VII. The episode ends with Starbuck retreating, telling Stubb to wake Ahab.
I. In this riff, Chapters 120-122 of Moby-Dick.
II. Ch. 120, “The Deck Towards the End of the First Night Watch.”
A very short chapter with a mediumish-length title
After the title, we have a stage direction: Ahab standing by the helm. Starbuck approaching him.
The rest is a brief exchange between Captain and First Mate, in which Starbuck is overwhelmed (again) by Ahab’s tyrannical force.
III. Ch. 121, “Midnight.—The Forecastle Bulwarks.”
We go from Ahab and Starbuck to “Stubb and Flask mounted on them [the forecastle bulwarks], and passing additional lashings over the anchors there hanging.”
After this stage direction, again—dialogue. I might summarize their brief conversation, which we audit unimpeded by authorial intrusions—but I’d rather point out the complete retreat of Ishmael. He is again a ghostly voyeur, here there and everywhere in the text, an open ear, unobtrusive, the ship’s silent spirit.
IV. Ch. 122, “Midnight Aloft.—Thunder and Lightning.”
Great little poem, this chapter. Look, here it is. Read it aloud, make it rhyme:
Give us a glass of rum. Um, um, um!
I. In this riff, Chapters 118 and 119 of Moby-Dick.
II. Ahab has already gone mad before The Pequod sets sail on this particular voyage, but Ch. 118, “The Quadrant,” feels like a tipping point where his madness spills a bit too outside of himself. Starbuck has already expressed his mortification for their revenge mission, but it’s not until the end of “The Quadrant” that he seems to fully comprehend the depth of Ahab’s madness:
“I have sat before the dense coal fire and watched it all aglow, full of its tormented flaming life; and I have seen it wane at last, down, down, to dumbest dust. Old man of oceans! of all this fiery life of thine, what will at length remain but one little heap of ashes!”
What prompts this strange, deathly, foreboding analogy? A monomaniacal monologue from Ahab, of course.
III. Starbuck—and physical foil to Starbuck’s metaphysical moralizing, Stubb—witness Ahab castigate his quadrant in a fury, trampling upon it “with his live and dead feet” alike.
Ahab’s anger comes down again to the limitations of reading, of knowing through the signs and symbols of the world. Gazing at “its numerous cabalistical contrivances,” he censures the device as a “Foolish toy! babies’ plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains.”
For Ahab, this navigation tool does not measure up: “what after all canst thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee: no! not one jot more!” He curses the “vain toy,” which can attest where he is, but cannot find him the object of his murderous desire, Moby Dick.
IV. Ch. 119, “The Candles.”
The titular candles here are the three masts of The Pequod, which, struck by lightning during a typhoon, catch on fire. Hence, Ahab’s ship doubles Ahab’s body, which has been afflicted with its own lightning scar.
The scene is bombastic, and Ahab attends it in a kind of prayer-like reverie. He delivers another monologue that indirectly echoes Starbuck’s undelivered admonition that Ahab might end “a heap of ashes”:
“Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. … In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here…Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.”
Here, Melville—or is it Ishmael?—delivers stage directions:
[Sudden, repeated flashes of lightning; the nine flames leap lengthwise to thrice their previous height; Ahab, with the rest, closes his eyes, his right hand pressed hard upon them.]
V. Ahab at this point is full-on crazy. He directly addresses the lightning and fire, in which he finds a kind of power unconstrained by maps and charts, a force that no quadrant might locate. He vows to read the lightning, to find meaning by groping in blindness, a thing of ashes:
“I own thy speechless, placeless power; said I not so? Nor was it wrung from me; nor do I now drop these links. Thou canst blind; but I can then grope. Thou canst consume; but I can then be ashes. Take the homage of these poor eyes, and shutter-hands. I would not take it. The lightning flashes through my skull; mine eye-balls ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling on some stunning ground.
Ahab continues to read the lightning with his eyes closed. He claims that he is darkness, the dark that affords the light its position through opposition, and goes so far as to claim the lightning as his father:
Oh, oh! Yet blindfold, yet will I talk to thee. Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee! The javelins cease; open eyes; see, or not? There burn the flames! Oh, thou magnanimous! now I do glory in my genealogy. But thou art but my fiery father; my sweet mother, I know not.
But mother? Sweet mother, I know not: “Oh, cruel! what hast thou done with her?”
Again—Moby-Dick is a novel of orphans wailing.
And fathers? Well, they’re out there, in the natural phenomena, I guess—symbols are all Ahab needs to father him.
VI. Ahab’s series of satanic inversions continues. He envies the lightning’s “unbegotten…unbegun” singularity. He also evokes in his anti-prayer the “unsuffusing thing beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all thy eternity is but time.” Ahab tries to read god through this “clear spirit”: “Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it” — but dimly here does so much work. Ahab is a failed transcendentalist.
VII. He reads in the fire another orphan, another outcast figuration of himself (and Ishmael, and the others who crew The Pequod):
Oh, thou foundling fire, thou hermit immemorial, thou too hast thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief. Here again with haughty agony, I read my sire. Leap! leap up, and lick the sky! I leap with thee; I burn with thee; would fain be welded with thee; defyingly I worship thee!”
Ahab now dominates not just The Pequod, but the voice of the novel itself. He reads the lightning, worships the fire, and finds not solace but the confirmation of his vengeance in its clarifying spirit.
I. I “finished” rereading Moby-Dick a few minutes before I started composing this riff.
I feel sad and a little deflated. Deflated here is maybe the wrong word. This is a novel of expansion and contraction, the physical and the metaphysical, the abstract exploding into the concrete. But the novel’s conclusion seems like an undoing to all of its elation—all of Ishmael’s evocation of brotherly-love, of the milk of human kindness, of finding transcendence through a reading of nature. (Maybe Ahab is a bad reader—maybe this is the point of Moby-Dick—that vengeance and pride lead to madness and death.)
II. It’s also possible that I feel deflated and sad because the last riff I wrote about Moby-Dick was on Ch. 112—a short minor chapter that I could’ve squared away in a sentence or two. Something like, Melville here parodies temperance-movement literature while at the same time anchoring the blacksmith’s backstory in an earnest core of fellow feeling and human sympathy—something like that. Only I didn’t; I wrote more fucking words on Ch. 112 than Melville wrote in Ch. 112.
III. Which is all a long way of saying that there’s something addictive about Melville’s rhetoric in Moby-Dick. It’s bombastic and purple and chews scenery; it twists metaphors and pokes at unresolved allegories; its a great big challenge of voices that repeatedly threatens to overwhelm the consciousness that seeks to apprehend it. Maybe comprehend it instead then. Maybe just go with its flow instead.
IV. (Blogging about Moby-Dick as I’ve reread it is an attempt to apprehend it, thus my feelings of deflated depression at the end.)
V. But let us move on; excuse my preamble.
VI. Ch. 113, “The Forge.”
We’ve met the blacksmith Perth and attended to his tale with sympathy. Anon. Let us to Ahab, who commands the poor fellow to smith him a new harpoon, “Fashioned at last into an arrowy shape.” Perth tells Ahab to bring a water cask by to temper the harpoon, but the mad captain insists instead on a satanic blood baptism:
“No, no—no water for that; I want it of the true death-temper. Ahoy, there! Tashtego, Queequeg, Daggoo! What say ye, pagans! Will ye give me as much blood as will cover this barb?” holding it high up. A cluster of dark nods replied, Yes. Three punctures were made in the heathen flesh, and the White Whale’s barbs were then tempered.
“Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!” deliriously howled Ahab, as the malignant iron scorchingly devoured the baptismal blood.
VII. Ch. 114, “The Glider.”
The Pequod glides upon the pacific Pacific. Ahab finds peace and torment in the pacified peace:
Oh, grassy glades! oh, ever vernal endless landscapes in the soul; in ye,—though long parched by the dead drought of the earthy life,—in ye, men yet may roll, like young horses in new morning clover; and for some few fleeting moments, feel the cool dew of the life immortal on them. Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:—through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.
I mean like holy fuck, Ahab’s inner monologue here is like—I mean like I have no simile to work from here for that like. I guess you could attack it as purpleprosed Shakespeare aping, or a college sophomore who’s fastened himself to a volume of Nietzsche—but it’s not.
(I’ll move on for my own sanity.)
VIII. Ch. 115, “The Pequod meets the Bachelor.”
The Pequod meets The Bachelor in this chapter, the 115th chapter of Moby-Dick.
The Bachelor is a horny, celebratory ship, filled to its proverbial gills with sperm. “‘Come aboard, come aboard!’ cried the gay Bachelor’s commander, lifting a glass and a bottle in the air,” notes Ishmael, as the crew of The Pequod fails to come to the gay Bachelor’s commander.
Ahab’s rejoinder to joy:
“Thou art too damned jolly. Sail on.”
Let us sail on.
IX. Ch. 116, “The Dying Whale.”
The “next day after encountering the gay Bachelor, whales were seen and four were slain; and one of them by Ahab.”
Ahab is metaphysically-moved by the moment of the slaying:
Then hail, for ever hail, O sea, in whose eternal tossings the wild fowl finds his only rest. Born of earth, yet suckled by the sea; though hill and valley mothered me, ye billows are my foster-brothers!”
Hail, hail, whale, wail.
X. Ch. 117, “The Whale Watch.”
Another short chapter. Fedallah, Ahab’s erstwhile lieutenant and prognosticator prognosticates that “ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America.”
And, more foreshadowing–
Take another pledge, old man,” said the Parsee, as his eyes lighted up like fire-flies in the gloom—“Hemp only can kill thee.”
“The gallows, ye mean.—I am immortal then, on land and on sea,” cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision;—“Immortal on land and on sea!”
Again—Ahab is a bad reader. He cannot read through any lens but his monomaniacal monocle of revenge. He misreads Fedallah and trips over his own ego, even as the umbilical threads of his own fate wrap around him, shrouding him in the garments of his watery tomb.