Certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life | Moby-Dick reread, riff 13

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff, Ch. 49-53 of Moby-Dick.

II. Ch. 49, “The Hyena,” begins with this wonderful paragraph, which I will share in full:

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life whIIen a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object.

“The Hyena” is a fitting name for this chapter. Ishmael is recovered from near-drowning, his boat–Starbuck’s, Queequeg’s boat too—was left for dead by The Pequod.

Ishamael’s hyena-wail here points toward modernist literature’s realization that comedy and terror amount to absurdity.

III. At the end of the chapter, Ishmael again underlines Moby-Dick’s themes of death and resurrection:

Besides, all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case might be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault.

A quiet ghost, our narrator.

IV. Ch. 50, “Ahab’s Boat and Crew. Fedallah.”

Ishmael’s largeheartedness extends not to Fedallah and the rest of his Filipino crew. They are the outsiders among a crew of outsiders, sanctified stowaways charged with Ahab’s secret mission before the crew of The Pequod proper. Ishmael firsts sees them as “phantoms” and extends his unfortunate exoticism in this episode, which culminates in his racist suggestion that “the Oriental isles to the east of the continent” are descended from devils mating with humans: “according to Genesis, the angels indeed consorted with the daughters of men, the devils also, add the uncanonical Rabbins, indulged in mundane amours.”

V. Ch. 51, “The Spirit-Spout.”

I should’ve started a tally of hyphenated chapter titles in Moby-Dick.

Another chapter where our “quiet ghost” narrator Ishmael is able to inhabit the private thoughts of others—here, glimmers and glimpses of Ahab’s mind, but also full access to Starbuck’s consciousness: “Terrible old man! thought Starbuck with a shudder, sleeping in this gale, still thou steadfastly eyest thy purpose.”

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

VI. Ch. 52, “The Albatross.”

The Pequod meets The Goney, a ship named for the enormous white bird, the albatross. Ahab bellows out to ask if they’d encountered the white whale Moby Dick, but The Goney, speeds away from The Pequod “at the first mere mention of the White Whale’s name.”

Insulted Ahab bellows again, this time telling his crew to send The Pequod “off round the world!”

Ishmael worries in a final paragraph that again foreshadows the novel’s disastrous climax:

Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.

VII. Ch. 53, “The Gam.”

Here, Ishmael lays out how strange it is that The Goney refused to hail The Pequod: the whaling tradition of the gam. Ishmael claims that the word is not defined in dictionaries: “Dr. Johnson never attained to that erudition; Noah Webster’s ark does not hold it.” So, our chronicler does his best:

GAM. NOUN—A social meeting of two (or moreWhaleships, generally on a cruising-ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats’ crews: the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other.

The Oxford English Dictionary currently gives seven entries for gam as a noun or verb (and one for -gam the suffix).

They date from

-1508

 n. In plural. Teeth, esp. large, misshapen, or irregular teeth (also gam teeth). Formerly also (occasionally): †jaws (obsolete).

-1785

n. slang.  A person’s leg. Frequently in plural.

-1827

n.  Amongst tribes in northern India: a headman, a chief.

-1831

n. colloquial. Originally: a social meeting among whalers at sea. Later more generally: a social gathering, a ‘get-together’; a chat, a gossip. Chiefly U.S. regional (New England) in the extended sense.

This definition cites Moby-Dick:

What does the whaler do when she meets another whaler in any sort of decent weather? She has a ‘Gam’.

And then Mark Twain’s 1866 “Letter from Hawaii”—but also refers to a 1831 citation from something called Sailor’s Mag.

-1849 gives us gam as a verb, both transitive and intransitive:

Nautical colloquial

(What is the nautical colloquial fashion look, and where can I get it?)

-1910

v. transitive. To perform oral sex on (a person, originally esp. a man).

This definition cites Moby-Dick’s later brother, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow:

1973  T. Pynchon Gravity’s Rainbow i. 35   Knowing Bloat, perhaps that’s what it is, young lady gamming well-set-up young man.

-1971

n. British slang. An act of fellatio.

VIII.

Teeth

Leg

Chief

Meet

Head.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt? | Moby-Dick reread, riff 12

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Ch. 37-48.

II. Oof. Twelve chapters. Not sure how up to covering them I am, but let’s go—

III. Ch. 37, “Sunset.”

Ahab has just revealed that The Pequod’s true mission is vengeance on Moby Dick. “Sunset” is a short chapter and continues the Shakespearian mode initiated in Ch. 36, “The Quarter-Deck.” (It begins with the stage direction, “By the Mainmast; Starbuck leaning against it.”) We enter poor Starbuck’s inner monologue: “My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a madman! Insufferable sting, that sanity should ground arms on such a field!”

This rhetorical conceit—a play on a stage with players—playfully plays out over the next few chapters, culminating in Ch. 40, “Midnight, Forecastle,” which reads like a playwright’s script. Ishmael is subsumed into this dramatic grammar, a bit player. Or perhaps he is the orchestrator of events. Or maybe just the recording witness. In any case, he arrives back to himself in—

IV. Ch. 41, “Moby Dick”—

Which begins,

I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.

Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine: Ishmael’s first-person returns, but he assumes a kind of vacant post—he’s been absorbed into the unity of the crew, a unity in turn subsumed into Ahab’s monomania. In “Moby Dick” Ishmael provides a working background summary of Moby Dick’s history, including his encounter with Ahab. At the same time, it seems Ishmael’s consciousness has somehow absorbed portions of Ahab’s:

But, as in his narrow-flowing monomania, not one jot of Ahab’s broad madness had been left behind; so in that broad madness, not one jot of his great natural intellect had perished. That before living agent, now became the living instrument. If such a furious trope may stand, his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it, and turned all its concentred cannon upon its own mad mark; so that far from having lost his strength, Ahab, to that one end, did now possess a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any one reasonable object.

But I skipped a few chapters. Where were we?

V. Ch. 39, “First Night-Watch.”

Another very short chapter, another interior monologue—this time, “(Stubb solus, and mending a brace.)” We mostly get a bit of character-building: “Well, Stubb, wise Stubb—that’s my title—well, Stubb, what of it, Stubb? Here’s a carcase. I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.”

Go to it laughingMoby-Dick is a tragedy, but it’s also a grand comedy.

VI. Ch. 40, “Midnight, Forecastle.”

The crew of The Pequod turns into a chorus. Chorus is not the right word: our boys are not on the same page (except that they literally are). A bit drunk from Ahab’s spirits, they indulge in songs. Melville marks most sailors not by name, but by origin: Dutch Sailor, China Sailor, Lascar Sailor, and so on. The final lines go to the cabin boy Pip though:

PIP (shrinking under the windlass). Jollies? Lord help such jollies! Crish, crash! there goes the jib-stay! Blang-whang! God! Duck lower, Pip, here comes the royal yard! It’s worse than being in the whirled woods, the last day of the year! Who’d go climbing after chestnuts now? But there they go, all cursing, and here I don’t. Fine prospects to ’em; they’re on the road to heaven. Hold on hard! Jimmini, what a squall! But those chaps there are worse yet—they are your white squalls, they. White squalls? white whale, shirr! shirr! Here have I heard all their chat just now, and the white whale—shirr! shirr!—but spoken of once! and only this evening—it makes me jingle all over like my tambourine—that anaconda of an old man swore ’em in to hunt him! Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear!

Poor Pip is already half mad on the road to ruin, his language jangled and his psyche scarred. It’ll get worse.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

VII. Ch. 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale.”

Like maybe just read this one.

(That’s lazy on my part, right?

Okay, so—

“The Whiteness of the Whale” is one of the better chapters of Moby-Dick.

“What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid,” starts Ishmael, and then precedes to say, say, say—-and yet he tiptoes around the calamity at the book’s climax. (This ghost will foreshadow but not spoil.)

The third paragraph of this chapter goes on for almost five hundred words. Here it is (skip it if you like):

Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title “Lord of the White Elephants” above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Cæsarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial colour the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides, all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things—the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honor; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the Vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.

(There are also a few really long footnotes in “The Whiteness of the Whale.”)

VIII. The last two sentences of “The Whiteness of the Whale” might serve as a tidy summary of Moby-Dick’s tropes and themes:

And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

And so they hunt the object of their ideal, as if that would give life meaning and order.

IX. Ch. 43, “Hark!”

A short chapter composed almost entirely in dialogue, but without the markers of a drama. Instead, Melville puts his character’s lines in quotation marks and lets them go back and forth. The chapter basically is more foreshadowing for the eventual revelation of Fedallah and his hidden crew.

X. Ch. 44, “The Chart.”

More on Ahab’s mad questing. We learn his plans to intercept the white whale. As always, Ishmael is permitted into psychic environs that seem as if they should be verboten. He is somehow present in Ahab’s slumbering and waking:

Ah, God! what trances of torments does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved revengeful desire. He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.

A self-crucifying-Christ?

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

XI. Ch. 45, “The Affidavit.”

Ishmael seeks to validate the veracity of his tale with us, his readers. He invokes several “factual” (non-fiction!) texts, including an account from a man he claims as an uncle.

A key idea:

So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.

Ishmael tells us this is no allegory, perhaps signalling this is definitely an allegory—but a failed allegory, an ambiguous attempt at allegory, an allegory where object, symbol, and lesson will refuse to align neatly.

XII. Ch. 46, “Surmises.”

Moby-Dick is a novel of masters and commanders, and body and soul, themes I haven’t touched too much upon:

To accomplish his object Ahab must use tools; and of all tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order. He knew, for example, that however magnetic his ascendency in some respects was over Starbuck, yet that ascendency did not cover the complete spiritual man any more than mere corporeal superiority involves intellectual mastership; for to the purely spiritual, the intellectual but stand in a sort of corporeal relation.

XIII. Ch. 47, “The Mat-Maker.”

Does Melville love hyphens or what? Like so many of the chapters of Moby-Dick are hyphenated—and the title is hyphenated, even if the whale isn’t. Anyway. “The Mat-Maker” is a bit of stage business to remind us that Ish and Queeg are, like, working on a whale ship and are part of noble Starbuck’s crew. And then Tashtego calls out a whale. And then they lower boats.

XIV. Ch. 48, “The First Lowering.”

For all it’s philosophizin’, Moby-Dick is still an adventure story, and “The First Lowering” glows with vibrant action.

We are introduced to the secret phantoms that were stowed away beneath decks—Fedallah and his crew, Ahab’s secret assassins. While Ishmael is generally magnanimous and unbounded by prejudice, the novel gives way here to ugly racism:

The figure that now stood by its bows was tall and swart, with one white tooth evilly protruding from its steel-like lips. A rumpled Chinese jacket of black cotton funereally invested him, with wide black trowsers of the same dark stuff. But strangely crowning this ebonness was a glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled round and round upon his head. Less swart in aspect, the companions of this figure were of that vivid, tiger-yellow complexion peculiar to some of the aboriginal natives of the Manillas;—a race notorious for a certain diabolism of subtilty, and by some honest white mariners supposed to be the paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they suppose to be elsewhere.

At an aesthetic level, Melville’s Ishmael is perhaps trying to work through an allegory of whiteness, using yellowness here in unkind and unwise methods—but I don’t think so. It’s just ugly.

XV. “The First Lowering” prefigures the disaster at the end of Moby-Dick. It’s a rough dress rehearsal for the outcome of Ahab’s mad quest, and it ends with Ish, Queeg, and Starbuck imperiled, “Wet, drenched through, and shivering cold, despairing of ship or boat”:

Floating on the waves we saw the abandoned boat, as for one instant it tossed and gaped beneath the ship’s bows like a chip at the base of a cataract; and then the vast hull rolled over it, and it was seen no more till it came up weltering astern. Again we swam for it, were dashed against it by the seas, and were at last taken up and safely landed on board. Ere the squall came close to, the other boats had cut loose from their fish and returned to the ship in good time. The ship had given us up, but was still cruising, if haply it might light upon some token of our perishing,—an oar or a lance pole.

XVI. Will Ish and Queeg survive? Has the ship given them up? Tune in next time, for Ch. 49 — “The Hyena”!

Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me | Moby-Dick reread, riff 11

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Just one goddamn chapter, Ch. 36, “The Quarter-Deck.”

II. There’s too much in “The Quarter-Deck” — too many savory lines, too much foreshadowing, too much language language language — and by too much I mean Too much for me to parse here.

III. (I never intended for these riffs to provide insight into Moby-Dick, but I also was hoping that they wouldn’t just be a collection of greatest hits. Most of “The Quarter-Deck” is greatest hits material.)

IV. “The Quarter-Deck” begins in Melville’s Shakespearean mode:

“(Enter Ahab: Then, all.)”

Ahab takes the quarter-deck, the stage, the novel—his voice overwhelms.

V. The plot of this chapter is fairly simple: Ahab reveals to his crew that the true mission of The Pequod is not to hunt whales and harvest their oil, but rather to exact revenge on the great white whale Moby Dick, who took Ahab’s leg.

VI. Starbuck, first mate and second conscience (to Ishmael’s Captain Conscience—or maybe I mean Captain Consciousness)—Starbuck, the first mate of The Pequod is horrified:

“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

VII. Ahab replies with some of the book’s greatest lines:

Hark ye yet again—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!

Our half-mad captain wants pure contact with the ineffable, even if it means death.

He continues, delivering another classic zinger:

 That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.

And:

Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.

VIII. Ahab worries that Starbuck’s conscience might override the crew. He calls for “the measure” of spirits to be poured, and passes a pewter chalice of alcohol around several times, having the steward refill it. He then supplies his own rhetorical intoxication, a performance that drives the crew into a frenzy that finds its dizzying fruition in Ch. 40, “Midnight, Forecastle.”

Ahab calls his three mates to him and they quail “before his strong, sustained, and mystic aspect.” He calls then his three harpooneers (twinning triplets) whom he commands to “draw the poles” — their lances, their phallic harpoons.  He fills the “goblet end” of the harpoons with “the fiery waters from the pewter,” and has toasts the end of his Great Enemy—

Now, three to three, ye stand. Commend the murderous chalices! Bestow them, ye who are now made parties to this indissoluble league. Ha! Starbuck! but the deed is done! Yon ratifying sun now waits to sit upon it. Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow—Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!

IX. God hunt us all—it seems he will.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

Your identity comes back in horror | Moby-Dick reread, riff 10

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Chapters 33-35 of Moby-Dick.

II. (Re: Above—I just finished Ch. 36 of Moby-Dick, “The Quarter-Deck,” which is like, too goodToo loaded. Ahab erupts. Up until now I’d just been riffing on what I’d read, trying to keep it simple, but “The Quarter-Deck” needs its own riff.)

III. Ch. 33, “The Specksnyder.”

Specksnyder is a strange word. Ishmael tells us that, “Literally this word means Fat-Cutter; usage, however, in time made it equivalent to Chief Harpooneer.” Its provenance is anglicized Dutch—another splicing in a novel of splices.

IV. Ch. 33 follows a pattern (initiates a pattern?) common to Moby-Dick: Ishmael begins his chapter with some facts and descriptions specific to whaling (in this case, the business of the Specksnyder), only to zoom out (or is it zoom in?) to larger philosophical matters.

V. In this case, those larger philosophical matters concern the psychological temperament of those who would assume the mantle of leadership. Ishmael notes that moody Ahab eschews the “shallowest assumption” of “elated grandeur.” Our captain is no faker, fraud, humbug, or poseur — “the only homage he ever exacted, was implicit, instantaneous obedience.”

VI. But Ishmael, ever the hedger of bets, ever the ghost who trades in double negatives, warns us that despite his leadership qualities, “even Captain Ahab was by no means unobservant of the paramount forms and usages of the sea…that behind those forms and usages, as it were, he sometimes masked himself; incidentally making use of them for other and more private ends than they were legitimately intended to subserve.” Foreshadowing!

VII. Ch. 34, “The Cabin-Table.”

Another chapter that begins with ship’s business but expands toward grander abstractions. Those abstractions help to shade and characterize Ahab, who has yet to give his first grand speech (that’s in Ch. 36, “The Quarter-Deck”). The ship’s business also points again to obeisance and command. We learn who descends to eat first, a kind of alpha dog Darwinism reconfigured as sea law. Ahab and his three mates go to table in silence. Starbuck is next to go to dinner after his captain. Flask is last: “hilarious little Flask enters King Ahab’s presence, in the character of Abjectus, or the Slave.” Then the three harpooneers eat, noisy, ravenous.

The two most interesting things about this chapter for me on this reread:

a. It is composed in the present tense, beginning: “It is noon.” While Ishmael has shifted into the present tense many times before, unless I am mistaken, this particular whole-chapter shift is a first. And—

b. We have another moment in the narrative where Ishmael witnesses behaviors, viewpoints, events that he should not be able to see. In other words, Ishmael, a lowly seaman has no business at the cabin table.

“The Cabin-Table” is another early moment in M-D that calls into question Ishmael’s witnessing—is he a ghost survivor, a kind of time traveler of consciousnesses? A spy or voyeur, peeking through holes? Or is it just a book, and this is how books work?

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

VIII. Ch. 35, “The Mast-Head.”

Man does Melville love hyphens. Hyphens in the title, hyphens in the chapter, hyphens at suppertime.

IX. Again we have a chapter that starts with some description and history of whaling and ship business. Ishmael waxes at length about assuming watch at the top of the mast-head, making sure to bring up ancient Egypt (always!), the Tower of Babel, Louis Bonaparte, Childe Harold, George Washington (et al.).

X. But again, Ish moves from particulars to abstraction. “The Mast-Head” reads as both an endorsement of and a warning against romantic transcendentalism. (This is a tale of ambiguities, hedging, and double double double negatives.)

XI. Ish relates the reveries to be had atop the mast-head. A watcher on the watery world will quickly lose a sense of self. His ego will fold into something grander, yet grander without clear object. In short, transcendentally-overwhelmed by horizonless horizons, he will forget to sight the whales he hunts.

In such cases, a watcher might be remonstrated:

‘Why, thou monkey,’ said a harpooneer to one of these lads, ‘we’ve been cruising now hard upon three years, and thou hast not raised a whale yet. Whales are scarce as hen’s teeth whenever thou art up here.’

But we sense that Ishmael was the dreaming lad

Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Wickliff’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.

What a sentence! I thought about getting in there for a minute, but hell…what a sentence.

XII. (The word “vacant” above points towards Moby-Dick’s devastating “Epilogue,” where survivor (?) Ishmael assumes the “vacant post” of bowsman.)

XIII. But back to the marvelous conclusion of Ch. 35. Ishmael describes a moment of transcendence, of ego-loss, even ego-death. And then what happens:

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!

Your identity comes back in horror.

Yeah, damn, heed. 

 

God keep me from ever completing anything | Moby-Dick reread, riff 9

I. In this riff: Chapters 28-32.

II. I just finished Ch. 32, “Cetology,” which ends with this marvelous sentiment:

God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.

III. (Ishmael makes good here on one a sentiment he expresses at the chapter’s outset: “any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallibly be fault.”)

IV. The notion of a “draught of a draught” again points to Moby-Dick’s emerging metatextuality, a conceit Ishmael (and, of course, Melville) initiates in Chs. 23 and 24.

V. “Cetology” is Ish’s attempt to “grope down into the bottom of the sea after them; to have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing” While the likely antecedent of the pronoun “them” in the above sentence is whales, one has to search the paragraph above to find it. I think Melville here opens his metaphor. To go a’whaling is to plumb depths.

VI. (“Cetology” is likely one of the chapters that turn a lot of readers off. It appears to be mostly whale facts, although it is not. It is Ishmael riffing on what he has seen of whales, porpoises, dolphins—which is really Melville riffing on what he has seen of these creatures.)

VII. (Parenthetically: Ishmael takes “the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish, and call[s] upon holy Jonah to back me.”)

VIII. But back to metatextuality—in “Cetology,’ Ish organizes his descriptions of whales in bookish terms:

 I divide the whales into three primary BOOKS (subdivisible into CHAPTERS), and these shall comprehend them all, both small and large.

I. THE FOLIO WHALE; II. the OCTAVO WHALE; III. the DUODECIMO WHALE.

Ishmael seeks to read the natural world, but also to name and comprehend it in his own terms. He’s radically open to to encountering the deepest divers, but he’s beholden to romantically translating them into a literature of his own making.

IX. Ch. 28, “Ahab.”

Ahab, who has hitherto haunted Ishmael’s consciousness, finally appears. Rather than attempting to summarize, I’ll simply cite:

He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. Whether that mark was born with him, or whether it was the scar left by some desperate wound, no one could certainly say.

Ahab’s physical manifestation points toward the ambiguity at the heart of Moby-Dick: Is he hero or villain; is he marked by divine intervention or scarred by his own chosen battles?

X. (Either way, our boy Ishmael is smitten.)

XI. “Ahab” is, despite its reveal of a major character, a transitional chapter. The Pequod moves from the cold waters off New England into more tropical climes and “the warbling persuasiveness of the pleasant, holiday weather.”

How is dour Ahab affected?

More than once did he put forth the faint blossom of a look, which, in any other man, would have soon flowered out in a smile.

XII. (The would have there is everything. This is a novel of hints, double negatives, ambiguities.)

XIII. Ch. 29, “Enter Ahab; to Him, Stubb.”

Ch. 29 initiates Melville’s Shakespearean mode; Moby-Dick seems to turn into a stage drama, players staged in Ishmael’s consciousness. We learn of Ahab’s foul moods, and his tendency to clunk around with his ivory pegleg late at night above decks while his hardworking crew sleep below:

Old age is always wakeful; as if, the longer linked with life, the less man has to do with aught that looks like death. Among sea-commanders, the old greybeards will oftenest leave their berths to visit the night-cloaked deck.

Stubb makes the mistake of confronting Ahab and suggesting he apply “a globe of tow…to the ivory heel” to mute its cacophony. But Ahab will not be silenced. He rebukes Stubb in violent language: “…be called ten times a donkey, and a mule, and an ass, and begone, or I’ll clear the world of thee!”

XIV. The long final paragraph of Ch. 29, although set off in quotation marks, nevertheless reads like Stubb’s internal monologue. Other voices have taken over the narrative before now, most notably Father Mapple in Ch. 4—but Stubb’s aside marks a rhetorical move whereby Ish somehow witnesses voices that seem impossible to access—private thoughts, whispered asides.

XV. Ishmael’s ghostly powers present again in Ch. 30, “The Pipe.” He focuses in on Ahab enthroned:

In old Norse times, the thrones of the sea-loving Danish kings were fabricated, saith tradition, of the tusks of the narwhale. How could one look at Ahab then, seated on that tripod of bones, without bethinking him of the royalty it symbolized? For a Khan of the plank, and a king of the sea, and a great lord of Leviathans was Ahab.

Ishmael then somehow dips into Ahab’s soliloquy. Pipe smoke no longer soothes the tortured captain. He tosses his still-lit pipe into the ocean, a symbol of…something?

XVI. In Ch. 31, “Queen Mab,” Ishmael again breeches an impossible private space. This time it’s a conversation between Stubb and Flask. Conversation isn’t the right term, really — “Queen Mab” is essentially Stubb’s complaint about being slighted by Ahab, delivered in a monologue to Flask. He relates a dream, all about being kicked by the captain. The kick recalls a remembered moment earlier in the novel when Peter Coffin, proprietor of the Spouter-Inn, relates unwittingly kicking his young child Sam from the bed while the family sleeps together. The symbolic orphaning-expulsion repeats in Ch. 22, “Merry Christmas,” when Captain Peleg kicks Ishmael in the ass.

XVII. I started with Ch. 32, “Cetology.” Here are Barry Moser’s illustrations:

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

I. In this riff: Chapters 23-27.

II. Ch. 23, “The Lee Shore.”

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

III. Ch. 24, “The Advocate.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VII. Ch. 25, “Postscript.”

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

VIII. Ch. 26, “Knights and Squires.”

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

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

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

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

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

X. Ch. 27, “Knights and Squires.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

First kick | Riff 7 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (All Astir/Going Aboard/Merry Christmas)

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. Look. Moby-Dick is a long book. Not all of these riffs are gonna sing.

II. (I might have had a glass or two of red.)

III. Chapters 20, 21, and 22 see The Pequod supplied, boarded, and piloted away from Nantucket out into the wide watery world. They are not especially memorable chapters.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

IV. (There are a few choice lines in this ultrahomophallic novel: In “Going Aboard” (Ch. 21), Queequeg helps himself to a seat on a sleeping sailor’s seat: “He put his hand upon the sleeper’s rear, as though feeling if it was soft enough, and then, without more ado, sat quietly down there.” He promises not to hurt the sleepers face.

The rearing rerears in Ch. 22, “Merry Christmas,” when Ishmael declares: “I felt a sudden sharp poke in my rear.” It’s Captain Peleg kicking his ass. “That was my first kick,” Ishmael attests, a line that recalls his conversation with Peter Coffin of the Spouter Inn, who kicked his son out of the marriage bed. Paternal Peleg’s infanticidal foot foreshadows a shadowy future.)

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

V. (I’ll also point out that The Pequod departs on Christmas, linking it to Christ’s birth, linking the novel back to the resurrection theme I’ve been pointing out in these riffs—but yeah, that’s pretty obvious. I didn’t find much to ironize or problematize or whateverize the symbolism on this reread.)

VI. (And still in the parentheses, where I’ll keep most of this riff. We meet, sorta, but not really, Starbuck and Stubbs (but not Flask) in these chapters.)

VII. (Swearing in “Christmas” includes “sons of bachelors” and “Blood and thunder!”)

VIII. Look. Moby-Dick is a long book. Like I said, not all of these riffs are gonna sing.

But! The edition I’m reading this time has some wonderful illustrations by Barry Moser, and there were several for these (workmanlike, occasionally melancholy, not particular profound) chapters. They are dispersed in this brief riff.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

IX. I look forward to getting out into the watery world…and the arrival of Ahab!

 

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

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A hundred other shadowy things to come.

Oblique hints | Riff 5 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (Nantucket/Chowder/The Ship)

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. Two short chapters followed by a rather long one, as we almost nearly maybe might head out on the great whaling voyage!

II. Ishmael and Queequeg arrive at their titular destination in “Nantucket,” Ch. 14.

Ish gives us a story—which I think is entirely fabricated, but I could be wrong—about Nantucket’s founding (emphasis mine):

Look now at the wondrous traditional story of how this island was settled by the red-men. Thus goes the legend. In olden times an eagle swooped down upon the New England coast, and carried off an infant Indian in his talons. With loud lament the parents saw their child borne out of sight over the wide waters. They resolved to follow in the same direction. Setting out in their canoes, after a perilous passage they discovered the island, and there they found an empty ivory casket,—the poor little Indian’s skeleton.

As I stated in my opening riff on rereading M-D, I believe that Melville’s novel can be read as a kind of grieving how against the genocidal scope of American culture. This genocide is frequently coded in infanticidal imagery, as well as images of lost children, orphans, and widows.

Ishmael’s (fanciful) version of the founding of Nantucket shows a US American emblem, the eagle, stealing and destroying an avatar of Indian futurity.

III. The motif of genocide shows up again (somewhat indirectly) in Ch. 16, “The Ship.” Queeg tasks Ish with choosing the ship they will sail on, and Ish chooses carefully (emphasis mine):

After much prolonged sauntering and many random inquiries, I learnt that there were three ships up for three-years’ voyages—The Devil-dam, the Tit-bit, and the Pequod. Devil-Dam, I do not know the origin of; Tit-bit is obvious; Pequod, you will no doubt remember, was the name of a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians; now extinct as the ancient Medes. I peered and pryed about the Devil-dam; from her, hopped over to the Tit-bit; and finally, going on board the Pequod, looked around her for a moment, and then decided that this was the very ship for us.

The Pequod’s voyage symbolically re-enacts an American extinction agenda—an ill-fated, suicidal project with only one (apparent) survivor, saved in the end by the ship the Rachel, which, “in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”

IV. Ishmael chooses The Pequod because of her gnarly outfitting:

She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies. All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the sperm whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to.

Ish notes that The Pequod is a “noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.”

V. Ish is a bit of a romantic, choosing his ship—and, significantly, his partner Queequeg’s fate—-because of its aesthetic.

As a romantic, he tends to read a bit much into the signs and wonders of the world. In Ch. 15, “Chowder,” Melville has ironic fun with Ish’s tendency toward foreshadowing and symbolic overdeterminism.

On a tip, Ish and Queeg head to the Try Pots for some grub and find—

Two enormous wooden pots painted black, and suspended by asses’ ears, swung from the cross-trees of an old top-mast, planted in front of an old doorway. The horns of the cross-trees were sawed off on the other side, so that this old top-mast looked not a little like a gallows. Perhaps I was over sensitive to such impressions at the time, but I could not help staring at this gallows with a vague misgiving. A sort of crick was in my neck as I gazed up to the two remaining horns; yes, two of them, one for Queequeg, and one for me. It’s ominous, thinks I. A Coffin my Innkeeper upon landing in my first whaling port; tombstones staring at me in the whalemen’s chapel; and here a gallows! and a pair of prodigious black pots too! Are these last throwing out oblique hints touching Tophet?

It turns out that this place has some delicious fucking chowder.

And, for the most part, all of the slight events at the Try Pots skewer towards comedy, ironizing Ish’s gloomy symbolic reading of the events of his journey thus far.

And yet!

Ish’s choice of words at the end of his forecasting is telling: “Are these last throwing out oblique hints touching Tophet?”

While “Tophet” (and, alternately, “Tophet,” “Topheth,” and “Topeth”) might generically be defined as “hell,” the meaning here is more distinct. For Ishmael, the giant pots signal the sacrificial roasting of children. “Tophets” were ancient infant burial grounds, but both legend and scholarship suggest these burials were the resort of ritual sacrifice. Infanticide again.

VI. And yet much of “Chowder” is comical and delicious. Ishmael, prompted with “Clam or Cod” by the owner of the Try Pots, showcases the horror we all face when failing to order correctly at some semi-famous local dive where we are not a local:

‘A clam for supper? a cold clam; is that what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?’ says I, ‘but that’s a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain’t it, Mrs. Hussey?’

Ish and Queeg devour the chowder.

VII. Mrs. Hussey is, unless I am mistaken, the first woman to speak in Moby-Dick. There are very few others. The novel is heavy-phallic, homo-horny, pricking stiff with spears and dripping in (whale) sperm. I hope it is not uninviting.

VIII. I remarked a bit above on Ch. 16, “The Ship,” mostly focusing on the nomenclature of The Pequod. It’s a long chapter and introduces two comical characters, the Quaker captains Peleg and Bildad, who own the majority shares in The Pequod.

IX. (As an aside, in response to the last bit of language above, id est, majority shares—look, Moby-Dick is full of economic metaphors and the language of commerce. It is a novel that reckons with American capitalism, repeating phrases like shares and insurance in a way divorced from actual dollars and cents—in Moby-Dick capitalism becomes some kind of extended metaphor that I haven’t fully thought through, but, if I had to say something now, as I type this in a bit of a rush, I might write something like, Melville ironically maps terms of American capitalism over transcendentalist ideology, e.g. Emerson’s “Over-Soul.” Not sure what that last sentence means, but there’s clearly a relationship between religion/soul and insurance/bodily life in M-D that I haven’t thought about much before this reread. I might riff more on these going forward.)

X. “The Ship” is full of humor but also dark foreshadowing. We get the name “Ahab” but no formal introduction. Still, Ishmael is put off by the name: “When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?”

But Peleg puts Ish in his place: “Captain Ahab did not name himself,” he points out. We are all called into the world by signs and symbols that we neither created nor chose.

“Ahab has his humanities,” Peleg concludes, asking both Ish and we readers to find kernels of sympathy for the mad captain (“he ain’t sick; but no, he isn’t well either“).

XI. Let me close with Barry Moser’s wonderful diagrams of “The Ship”:

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

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He decides to “die a pagan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

–“Queequeg is my fellow man”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All these things are not without their meanings | Riff 3 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (Breakfast/The Street/The Chapel/The Pulpit/The Sermon)

I. Chapters 5 through 8 of Moby-Dick are all pretty short and showcase the novel’s ever-shifting moods. Ch. 5, “Breakfast,” brims with humor and energy, which extends through Ch. 6, “The Street.” However, by the time we get off the street and into “The Chapel” (Ch. 7), Ishmael takes a sober, somber turn, meditating on death. Ch. 8, “The Pulpit,” continues the serious, philosophical tone, setting the stage for Father Mapple to take over the narrative in Ch. 9, “The Sermon.”

II. “Breakfast” begins with Ishmael forgiving the landlord Peter Coffin for “skylarking with me not a little in the matter of [Ish’s] bedfellow,” Queequeg. Ish values the humor:

…a good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing; the more’s the pity. So, if any one man, in his own proper person, afford stuff for a good joke to anybody, let him not be backward, but let him cheerfully allow himself to spend and be spent in that way. And the man that has anything bountifully laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for.

“Breakfast” has a bustling comic energy. Ish describes the various whalemen setting down to eat: “a brown and brawny company, with bosky beards; an unshorn, shaggy set, all wearing monkey jackets for morning gowns.” (I encourage you to read that line aloud.) We also get the spectacle of Queequeg, “cool as an icicle,” eating bloody beefsteaks at the head of the table—with his harpoon no less!

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

III. The comedic energy carries out into “The Street.” Here, Ishmael describes for us a carnival of cultures in New Bedford, a pavement teeming with “Feegeeans, Tongatobooarrs, Erromanggoans, Pannangians, and Brighggians” as well as “other sights still more curious, certainly more comical.” He gently mocks “the green Vermonters and New Hampshire men,” who head to New Bedford “athirst for gain and glory in the fishery,” pointing out their tendencies to overdress: “No town-bred dandy will compare with a country-bred one—I mean a downright bumpkin dandy.” Ish’s portrait of New Bedford extends to a description of its wealth and its beautiful homes, parks—and women. We get the sense that he’s over those “hypos” he was suffering in the novel’s opening chapter—or, rather, he’s intoxicated by the newness of his adventure.

IV. The atmospheric shift in “The Chapel,” is announced with a change in weather: “The sky had changed from clear, sunny cold, to driving sleet and mist.” Ishmael makes his way to a church peopled by “a small scattered congregation of sailors, and sailors’ wives and widows.” (A “scattered congregation” strikes me as an oxymoron.)

In strong contrast to the babble and verve of the two preceding chapters, in the chapel “muffled silence reigned, only broken at times by the shrieks of the storm.”

Ishmael gazes upon marble placards memorializing dead sailors, sailors who never returned, and reflects,

Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say—here, here lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these. What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes! What despair in those immovable inscriptions! What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities in the lines that seem to gnaw upon all Faith, and refuse resurrections to the beings who have placelessly perished without a grave.

The line “refuse resurrections” calls back to Ch. 4, “The Counterpane,” where Ishmael gives us a rare glimpse into his past. Punished as a child to a kind of small death on the summer solstice (okay, he’s made to go to bed early)—the punished Ish hopes for a “resurrection” from his fate and is visited by some “nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom,” an ineffable something that simultaneously signals dread and hope.

Ishmael’s morbid pondering turns philosophical:

…how it is that we still refuse to be comforted for those who we nevertheless maintain are dwelling in unspeakable bliss; why all the living so strive to hush all the dead; wherefore but the rumor of a knocking in a tomb will terrify a whole city. All these things are not without their meanings.

And then in bit of foreshadowing of the book’s catastrophic conclusion, our narrator, thinking of the countless sailors lost and dead at sea, indulges in a bit of self-talk: “Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine.”

V. “The Pulpit” isn’t a particularly memorable chapter, but it serves a significant rhetorical purpose. “The Chapel” gives us some of Ish’s most melancholy philosophizin’, culminating in self-talk about his own death. It’s an introspective, insular chapter; indeed, even as Ishmael furnishes us the details of the memorial placards, he confesses that he does “not pretend to quote.” Ish’s concern is ultimately not for the concrete particulars but for the abstract—the unnamed and unknown dead.

“The Pulpit” refocuses the narrative gaze, moving from Ishmael’s introspection to the imagery of Father Mapple ascending the stage to deliver his sermon.

VI. “The Sermon” is one of many chapters of Moby-Dick that can be read independent of the novel proper. It is one of my favorite chapters. Up until this point, we’ve largely been in Ishmael’s head, and the spare voices we get—a few lines of pidgin from Queequeg, some bantering with Peter Coffin—have the feel of reported speech. In “The Sermon” though, Ish’s consciousness gives way to Father Mapple’s. Mapple retells the story of Jonah in rapt detail, bringing “this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—” to vivid life. His Jonah is a sympathetic deject on the run who finds himself resurrected in the belly of a whale.

Mapple’s sermon quickly edges out any of Ishmael’s stage directions, flowing out uninterrupted for paragraphs. It usurps the voice of the novel, prefiguring Ahab, whose voice will dominate in future chapters. Ghostly Ishmael seems to fall into the background of his own adventure at times, and “The Sermon” is an early rhetorical example of this phenomenon.

As Mapple’s sermon comes to its conclusion, Ishmael returns to the narrative, but he’s still at a distance, still a mechanical describer of sights and sounds, not an analyzer or thinker here.

And it’s the final line of the chapter that stuck out to me the most in this reread:

He said no more, but slowly waving a benediction, covered his face with his hands, and so remained kneeling, till all the people had departed, and he was left alone in the place.

If he is truly alone, then how does Ishmael witness his solitude?

Nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom | Riff 2 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (The Carpet-Bag/The Spouter-Inn/The Counterpane)

I. Much has been made of Ishmael’s first night with Queequeg, and I don’t aim to add to it in any estimable way. Ch. 4 of Moby-Dick—what I take to be a key chapter, although there are probably too many supposed keys to this great big book—Ch. 4 of Moby-Dick, “The Counterpane,” begins: “Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner.”

II. (Later Ish refers to Queeg’s “bridegroom clasp”; in the previous chapter, he tells us that he “never slept better in [his] life” — this after initially finding it impossible to fall asleep in Peter Coffin’s old bed, its mattress possibly “stuffed with corn-cobs or broken crockery.”)

III. Like I said, much has been made of Ish & Queeg, and I don’t know what else I can say. I just love it. I love Ishmael’s initial horror, his yelling for landlord Coffin, his quick realization that his prejudices might be undone via first-hand/eye experience. “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian,” he tells us, even if he’s wary of Queeg smoking his tomahawk pipe in bed: “It’s dangerous. Besides, I ain’t insured.”

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

IV. (M-D might be like the main American text in homosocial studies, I guess.)

V. Let’s come back to that key chapter “The Counterpane” in a moment—how about chapters 2 and 3, “The Carpet-Bag” and “The Spouter-Inn”? I guess here is a good place to be clear,

I don’t know who these riffs are for. I mean, I hope if you’ve never read Moby-Dick they make you want to read it and if you’ve read it before maybe it’ll spark you to read again. I don’t want this to just be me summarizing the book. Let me release my anxiety by leaving the italics and maybe opening a new numeral—

VI. “The Carpet-Bag”:

Ish leaves “Manhatto” and arrives in New Bedford, although he’s too late to make it to Nantucket to join the crew of a whaler and fulfill his mission of Not Being Suicidal. The chapter ends with this remarkable paragraph:

Now, that Lazarus should lie stranded there on the curbstone before the door of Dives, this is more wonderful than that an iceberg should be moored to one of the Moluccas. Yet Dives himself, he too lives like a Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sighs, and being a president of a temperance society, he only drinks the tepid tears of orphans.

The Lazarus theme twists all through M-D, right through its cataclysmic ending. It’s clearly there from the opening paragraphs—Ish’s wishes to revive himself—but this is the first overt reference.

VII. The resurrection motif is enriched in “The Counterpane.”

VIII. (Quote above—I really just love the imagery of rich boy Dives who “only drinks the tepid tears of orphans”! And the knock on his being in a temperance society!)

IX. “The Spouter-Inn”: A nice bit of worldbuilding, as the kids might say (M-D is surely a phantasy).

Proprietor Peter Coffin (“Coffin?—Spouter?—Rather ominous in that particular connexion”)—Peter Coffin is far funnier than I remembered. He fucks with Ish, setting him up for a night with Queeg, who’s been out selling a shrunken head. (In a marvelous little episode, he begins to sand down a dining bench for Ish to sleep on.)

Coffin (a carpenter of sorts) prefigures much of the death/rebirth theme to come in M-D. He also tiptoes the novel’s comic-tragic-something-else axis; his initial japes and jabs at Ish in this chapter give way to a heartfelt moment of near-tragedy, as he explains the origin of the bed Ish will share with Queeg:

—it’s a nice bed; Sal and me slept in that ere bed the night we were spliced. There’s plenty of room for two to kick about in that bed; it’s an almighty big bed that. Why, afore we give it up, Sal used to put our Sam and little Johnny in the foot of it. But I got a dreaming and sprawling about one night, and somehow, Sam got pitched on the floor, and came near breaking his arm. Arter that, Sal said it wouldn’t do.

The marriage bed is spliced to infanticidal violence, to the violent exclusion of children.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

X. So let’s get to Ch. 4, to “The Counterpane,” Ishmael’s first night with Queequeg in ole Coffin’s marriage bed.

XI. I wrote “first night” above, but that’s wrong—it’s first morning I mean—the first morning after the first night. The day after.

XII. And yesterday, I wrote, in a riff on rereading M-D, that we get to know little of Ishmael’s past. I think that that statement’s true, but Ish does give us crucial information about the worst moment of his life, a kind of founding trauma that the rest of the novel’s quest might be set against.

XIII. Forgive the long quote:

My sensations were strange. Let me try to explain them. When I was a child, I well remember a somewhat similar circumstance that befell me; whether it was a reality or a dream, I never could entirely settle. The circumstance was this. I had been cutting up some caper or other—I think it was trying to crawl up the chimney, as I had seen a little sweep do a few days previous; and my stepmother who, somehow or other, was all the time whipping me, or sending me to bed supperless,

—Okay I have to pause here and ask—Why chimney?

XIV. Continue, Ish:

—my mother

Wait — “my mother”? Not “stepmother”?

XV. –sorry–

…my mother dragged me by the legs out of the chimney and packed me off to bed, though it was only two o’clock in the afternoon of the 21st June, the longest day in the year in our hemisphere. I felt dreadfully. But there was no help for it, so up stairs I went to my little room in the third floor, undressed myself as slowly as possible so as to kill time, and with a bitter sigh got between the sheets.

Our boy Ish is punished, sent to relinquish his consciousness (and any and all adventuring) on the summer solstice.

XVI. He continues (again, emphasis mine):

I lay there dismally calculating that sixteen entire hours must elapse before I could hope for a resurrection. Sixteen hours in bed! the small of my back ached to think of it. And it was so light too; the sun shining in at the window, and a great rattling of coaches in the streets, and the sound of gay voices all over the house.

Ish is without hope here. No Lazarus thing, no resurrection dealie. And all in the whitest brightest light. This in the satanic dark black white novel Moby-Dick.

XVII. Lil’ Ish’s trauma intensifies, and he begs reprieve from the wicked step-mom, but “she was the best and most conscientious of stepmothers, and back I had to go to my room.”

XVIII. He continues; the bold-face emphasis is mine:

For several hours I lay there broad awake, feeling a great deal worse than I have ever done since, even from the greatest subsequent misfortunes.

And then Ishmael has this wild nightmare-not-epiphany:

At last I must have fallen into a troubled nightmare of a doze; and slowly waking from it—half steeped in dreams—I opened my eyes, and the before sun-lit room was now wrapped in outer darkness. Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine.

XIX. (Melville hits on the terror of a metaphysical encounter here, a phantom moment encoded into a childhood consciousness that cannot name what is happening to it.)

XX: And then Lil’ Ish’s counterpane of days past entangles with the current counterpane of “The Counterpane” in an

My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bed-side. For what seemed ages piled on ages, I lay there, frozen with the most awful fears, not daring to drag away my hand; yet ever thinking that if I could but stir it one single inch, the horrid spell would be broken. I knew not how this consciousness at last glided away from me; but waking in the morning, I shudderingly remembered it all, and for days and weeks and months afterwards I lost myself in confounding attempts to explain the mystery. Nay, to this very hour, I often puzzle myself with it.

XXI. (That “nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom” — prefiguration of Moby-Dick? of Ahab? of the cruel wet cold world? or just a child’s small big fears?)

XXII. (In any case, this seems to be Ishmael’s epiphanic founding trauma.)

XXIII. And to bring it back to where I started,

Much has been made of Ishmael’s first night with Queequeg.

Let’s end on the morning after—a kind of healing epiphany, coded in otherness, exploration, and strange love:

Now, take away the awful fear, and my sensations at feeling the supernatural hand in mine were very similar, in their strangeness, to those which I experienced on waking up and seeing Queequeg’s pagan arm thrown round me.

The great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open | Riff 1 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (Etymology/Extracts/Loomings)

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

 

I. I last reread Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick in full way back in 2013.

II. I’ve read chunks and excerpts of it over the intermittent seven years though—there’s always some bit in it that calls to me, prompted by events personal, political, cultural. I read Melville’s 1846 novel Typee during the beginning of 2020’s quarantine, and knew I’d need to reread M-D in full sooner than later.

III. (Why later, why now? I guess I made this kinda sorta tacit promise to myself not to reread in 2020—to expand my palate, to go past all the Dead White Guys.)

IV. I started Moby-Dick this afternoon. I read the two opening salvos, “Etymology” and “Extracts,” and then the first chapter, “Loomings.”

V. (I have read that some folks skip the “Extracts”: No.)

VI. I started Moby-Dick in an edition that I bought years ago but haven’t actually read: the California UP/Arion Press edition with Barry Moser illustrations. It’s lovely—grand, generous, rich on the page.

VII. So I’ve probably read “Etymology” more than any other section of M-D. It was certainly the section I messed around with for years before reading the actual novel in full. The etymology has supposedly been given to the author of M-D — HM? Ishmael? Some other ghost — by a “pale Usher” (not Poe’s), “threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain…” The poor fellow “loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.”

VIII. I don’t dwell on the pale Usher, but I’ve long found the next line of “Etymology” fascinating. It’s a quote attributed to the sixteenth-century English author Richard Hakluyt:

While you take in hand to school others, and to teach them by what name a whale-fish is to be called in our tongue, leaving out, through ignorance, the letter H, which almost alone maketh up the signification of the word, you deliver that which is not true.

A former teacher of mine, A. Samuel Kimball (who I am forever indebted to for teaching me to read again) made much of this citation. For Kimball, the foregrounding of the “H” calls attention to one of Melville’s central themes: whaling as wailing—Moby-Dick as a wail, a grief, maybe a resistance to the infanticidal, genocidal scope of American culture. Ishmael, an orphan, goes to sea to resist his suicide-impulse on a ship named after a near-extinct tribe of American Indians. Ishmael, whose very name is marks him, at least in the KJV context Melville was working within, as the rejected son of the patriarch Abraham. In the novel’s last moments, Ishmael is saved (is he though?) by the ship the Rachel, which, “in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”

IX. (Whale-wail / whiteness-witness. Etc. etc.)

X. And those “Extracts,” supplied by a “burrower and grub-worm of a poor devil of a Sub-Sub” — who’s the dom?

XI. I remembered the “Extracts” more fondly than I experienced them.

I just really wanted to get into Ishmael’s head (voice). (And then get out of it, into the drama of Ahab and His Whale.)

XII. And so I got into Ishmael’s head (voice).

XIII. “Loomings” is such a great, great, perfect chapter, and the joy in re-reading Melville is having already worked out most of the plot kinks. Instead of dwelling on What is happening? you can experience What is.

XIV. (I always forget how terribly sad poor Ish is at the outset of M-D. He’s depressed, suffering from hypos, the spleen. He’s not just suicidal, he’s homicidal, wanting to step in the street and knock people’s hats off.)

XV. One of the fascinating things about Moby-Dick, at least in my memory of it, which maybe I’ll expand upon in riffs on this reread, is how little we get to know Ishmael. Like his wanderer namesake, he’s an outsider who, despite taking us in to his tale, nevertheless keeps us out: We know very little about his past or his future, and his present (by which I mean Moby-Dick) is mediated in voyeurism, questioning, and philosophy.

XVI. And “Loomings” — well, what a great title, maybe obvious, but great — the indistinct coming into view, but also the mount of the warp, the initial move in a great tapestry: Moby-Dick.

XVII. I’ll close on the closing line of “Loomings,” which point to the great wonder-world to come, and the grand hooded phantom at the end of Ishmael’s journey:

By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.

Annotations on a list of books I read in full in 2020

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Flight to Canada, Ishmael Reed

A frenetic, zany achronological satire of the American Civil War. I wrote about it here.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

Jackson gives us a quasi-idyllic-but-also-dystopian world delivered through narrator Merricat, an insane witch whom I adored. Merricat hates with beautiful intensity. The novel’s premise, prose, and mood are more important than its plot, which is littered with trapdoors, smoke and mirrors, and gestures toward some kind of greater gothic paranoia. It’s a slim novel that feels like 300 pages of exposition have been cut away, leaving only mystery, aporia, ghostly traces of maybe-answers.

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

The first of Mervyn Peake’s strange castle (and then not-castle trilogy (not really a trilogy, really)), Titus Groan is weird wonderful grotesque fun. Inspirited by the Machiavellian antagonist Steerpike, Titus Groan can be read as a critique of the empty rituals that underwrite modern life. It can also be read for pleasure alone.

926 Years, Tristan Foster and Kyle Coma-Thompson

The blurb on the back of 926 Years describes the book as “twenty-two linked stories,” but it read it not so much as a collection of connected tales, but rather as a kind of successful experimental novel, a novel that subtly and reflexively signals back to its own collaborative origin. My review is here.

Anasazi, Mike McCubbins and Matt Bryan

One of the best books I read (and reread) all year. The joy of Anasazi is sinking into its rich, alien world, sussing out meaning from image, color, and glyphs. This graphic novel has its own grammar. Bryan and McCubbins conjure a world reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian novels, Charles Burns’ Last Look trilogy, Kipling’s Mowgli stories, as well as the fantasies of Jean Giraud.

Machines in the Head, Anna Kavan

I have a longish review here.

Machines in the Head was the first book I was able to write about after the onset of the Great Quarantine of 2020.

Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake

Probably the best novel in Peake’s trilogy, Gormenghast is notable for its psychological realism, surreal claustrophobia, and bursts of fantastical imagery. We finally get to know Titus, who is a mute infant in the first novel, and track his insolent war against tradition and Steerpike. The novel’s apocalyptic diluvian climax is amazing.

Gringos, Charles Portis

Gringos was the last of Portis’s five novels. I read the other four greedily last year, and pulled them all out when he passed away in February. I started in on Gringos, casually, then just kept reading. Sweet and cynical, spiked with strange heroism, strange grace, and very, very funny, Gringos might just be my favorite Portis novel. But I’d have to read them all again to figure that out.

Titus Alone, Mervyn Peake

A beautiful mess, an episodic, picaresque adventure that breaks all the apparent rules of the first two books. The rulebreaking is fitting though, given that Our Boy Titus (alone!) navigates the world outside of Gormenghast—a world that doesn’t seem to even understand that a Gormenghast exists (!)—Titus Alone is a scattershot epic. Shot-through with a heavy streak of Dickens, Titus Alone never slows down enough for readers to get their bearings. Or to get bored. There’s a melancholy undercurrent to the novel. Does Titus want to get back to his normal—to tradition and the meaningless lore and order that underwrote his castle existence? Or does he want to break quarantine? 

The Wig, Charles Wright

Hilarious stuff. I read most of it on a houseboat in Jekyll Island, right before lockdown.

Nog, Rudolph Wurlitzer

 Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1969 cult novel Nog is druggy, abject, gross, and shot-through with surreal despair, a Beat ride across the USA. Wurlitzter’s debut novel is told in a first-person that constantly deconstructs itself, then reconstructs itself, then wanders out into a situation that atomizes that self again.

I should’ve loved it, but I didn’t.

I reviewed it here.

Herman Melville, Elizabeth Hardwick

Typee, Herman Melville

Like a lot of people I was going out of my mind in April of 2020. Elizabeth Hardwick’s lit-crit bio of Melville isn’t necessarily great, but she does work in big fat slices of his texts, making it a kind of comfort read. It also led me to read Typee for the first time, a horny and good novel.

Fade Out, Rudolph Wurlitzer

I liked it more than Nog and wrote about it here.

Welcome Home, Lucia Berlin

A slight and unfinished collection of memoir-slices that will appeal to those already familiar with Berlin’s autofiction.

Reckless Eyeballing, Ishmael Reed

Reed’s 1986 novel skewers Reaganism, but there’s a marked shift from the surreal elastic slapstick anger of Reed’s earlier novels (like 1972’s Mumbo Jumbo). That elastick anger starts to harden into something far more bitter, harder to chew on.

Lake of Urine, Guillermo Stitch

A very weird book. I felt awful that I could never muster a proper review of it. Weird book, indie press, all that. I felt less bad when Dwight Garner praised it in The New York Times. What is Lake of Urine? That was my trouble in reviewing it. The plot is, uh, wild, to say the least. Zany, elastic, slapstick, and often surreal, Stitch’s novel is all over the place. He seems to do whatever he wants on each page with a zealous energy that’s difficult to describe. Great stuff.

Mr. Pye, Mervyn Peake

I recall enjoying it but thinking, Oh, this isn’t Gormenghast stuff.

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon

I wrote about it here. What may end up being the last Pynchon novel was also the last one I read. It turned out to be much, much better than I thought it would be. It also made me very, very sad. It reminded me of our huge ideological failure after 9/11, an ideological failure we are watching somehow fail even more today.

São Bernando,Graciliano Ramos; translation by Padma Viswanathan

I enjoyed São Bernardo  mostly for the narrator’s voice (which reminded me very much of Al Swearengen of Deadwood). Through somewhat nefarious means, Paulo Honorio takes over the run-down estate he used to toil on, restores it to a fruitful enterprise, screws over his neighbors, and exploits everyone around him. He decries at one point that “this rough life…gave me a rough soul,” which he uses as part confession and part excuse for his failure to evolve to the level his younger, sweeter wife would like him to. São Bernardo is often funny, but has a mordant, even tragic streak near its end. Ultimately, it’s Honorio’s voice and viewpoint that engages the reader. He paints a clear and damning portrait of himself and shows it to the reader—but also shows the reader that he cannot see himself.

The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled is over 500 pages but somehow does not read like a massive novel, partly, I suppose, because the novel quickly teaches you how to read the novel. The key for me came about 100 pages in, when the narrator goes to a showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey starring Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner. There’s an earlier reference to a “bleeper” that stuck out too, but it’s at the precise moment of this alternate 2001 that The Unconsoled’s just-slightly-different universe clicked for me. Following in the tradition of Kafka’s The CastleThe Unconsoled reads like a dream-fever set of looping deferrals. Our narrator, Ryder, is (apparently) a famous pianist who arrives at an unnamed town, where he is to…do…something?…to help restore the town’s artistic and aesthetic pride. (One way we know that The Unconsoled takes place in an alternate reality is that people care deeply about art, music, and literature.) However, Ryder keeps getting sidetracked, entangled in promises and misunderstanding, some dark, some comic, all just a bit frustrating. There’s a great video game someone could make out of The Unconsoled—a video game consisting of only side quests perhaps. Once the reader gives in to The Unconsoled’s looping rhythms, there’s an almost hypnotic pleasure to the book. Its themes of family disappointment, artistic struggle, and futility layer like musical motifs, ultimately suggesting that the events of the novel could take place entirely in Ryder’s consciousness, where he orchestrates all the parts himself. Under the whole thing though is a very conventional plot though—think a Kafka fanfic version of Waiting for Guffman.

The Counterfeiters, Hugh Kenner

I wanted to like it a lot more than I did.

Animalia, Jean-Baptiste Del Amo; translation by Frank Wynne

Animalia begins in rural southwest France at the end of the nineteenth century, and ends at the end of the twentieth century, chronicling the hardships of a family farm. The preceding sentence makes the novel sound possibly hokey: No, Animalia is a visceral, naturalistic, and very precise rendering of humans as animals. I had to read Animalia in stages, essentially splitting its four long chapters into novellas. Animalia made me physically ill at times. It’s an excellent novel.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

Loved it! Can’t believe I hadn’t read Spark until 2020. Went on a binge.

The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark

I liked it even more than PrimeSlender Means unself-consciously employs postmodern techniques to paint a vibrant picture of what the End of the War might feel like. The climax coincides with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the title takes on a whole new meaning, and the whole thing unexpectedly ends in a negative religious epiphany.

Loitering with Intent, Muriel Spark

My favorite of the four I read by Spark this year: funny, mean, angry postmodern perfection.

Memento Mori, Muriel Spark

A novel that about aging, memory, loss, and coming to terms with death. I was surprised to learn that this was Spark’s third novel, and that she would’ve been around 41—my age—when it was published. Most of the characters are over seventy, and Spark inhabits their consciousnesses with a level of acuity that surprised me. The weakest of the four I read, but still good.

Cherry, Nico Walker

I initially liked Walker’s war-drug-crime-romance-autoficition Cherry–the sentences are zappers and the wry, deadpan delivery approximates an imitation of Denis Johnson. Halfway through the charm starts to wear off; its native ugliness fails to compel, even Walker keeps pushing for the sublime in each chapter, only to puncture it in some way. I probably would’ve liked it at 20.

Skin Folk, Nalo Hopkinson

A mixed bag of fantasy and sci-fi stories based on Caribbean myth, some more successful than others. “A Habit of Waste” and “Slow Cold Chick” are standouts.

Zeroville, Steve Erickson

An excellent novel about film. Does in fiction what Peter Biskind’s history of New Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls could not. Zeroville’s unexpectedly-poignant ending transcends the novel’s parodic parameters. It makes you want to go to the movies.

Citizen, Claudine Rankine

A discursive prose-poem-memoir-essay on racism, erasure, bodies, and more. I read it in two afternoons. Highly recommended.

The Divers’ Game, Jesse Ball

I kept waiting for the chapters of Ball’s “novel” to explicitly tangle together, but they never did. One of the very few cases where I feel there should be more pages in a book.

Nova, Samuel R. Delany

I couldn’t make it through Delany’s cult favorite Dhalgren a few years back, but Nova was easier sledding. The book is a riff on Moby-Dick, tarot, monoculture, and the grail quest. It’s jammed with ideas and characters, and if it never quite coheres into something transcendent, it’s a fun quick read (even if the ending, right from the postmodern metatextual playbook is too clever by half).

Zac’s Drug Binge, Dennis Cooper

I don’t know if Dennis Cooper’s gif novels are really novels or something else. I’m not sure if putting this gif novel on a list of books I read is any different than adding, say, a list of paintings by Mu Pan that I viewed over the year. The inclusion of ZDB also helps highlight the artificiality of a numbered list of books read in a year. (I know this list isn’t numbered, but it’s countable. I think it’s fifty-seven or fifty-eight.) It took me maybe 10 or 15 minutes to “read” ZBD while novels by Ishiguro, Pynchon, and Brunner are like 500 pages. The Ishiguro is actually pretty “easy” to read though, in a way that Zac’s Drug Binge is not. The Brunner is much “easier” than the many, many stories I read this year in The Complete Gary Lutz. The Lutz is 500 pages, and I read more of those pages than I did of some of the shorter works listed here like Rankine’s Citizen or Ball’s The Divers’ Game—but I didn’t “finish” the Lutz (and I don’t want to ever “finish” the Lutz), so its not on the list. Ditto Brian Dillon’s essay collection Suppose a Sentence, another collection that I’ve used to cleanse my palate between books. I could probably do a whole post on books like that (John Domini’s The Sea-God’s Herb, the Charles Portis MiscellanyThe Minus Times Collected, etc. etc.)

You can read Zac’s Drug Binge here (and, uh, careful who you’re around if you click this link!).

Oreo, Fran Ross

Loved loved loved Oreo. The novel is thoroughly overlooked as a metafictional masterpiece. In my review, I wrote:

“Fran Ross’s 1974 novel Oreo is an overlooked masterpiece of postmodern literature, a delicious satire of the contemporary world that riffs on race, identity, patriarchy, and so much more. Oreo is a pollyglossic picaresque, a metatextual maze of language games, raps and skits, dinner menus and vaudeville routines. Oreo’s rush of language is exuberant, a joyful metatextual howl that made me laugh out loud. Its 212 pages galloped by, leaving me wanting more, more, more.”

A Different Drummer, William Melvin Kelley

I read it after OreoOreo is neon zany polyglossic hijinks, crackling, zipping, and zapping. Kelley’s first novel, despite its rotating set of viewpoints (and conceit of an invented Southern state), was much more down to earth—modernist, not postmodernist—rendered in rusty oranges, dusty browns, muted greens. I enjoyed Kelley’s later novels dem and Dunfords Travels Everywheres more, but A Different Drummer could be his best book. I wrote about it here.

A Rage in Harlem, Chester Himes

Gonna read more Himes in 2021. Any tips? I loved loved loved it.

dem, William Melvin Kelley

From my review:

“As its subheading attests, dem is, like Drummer, a take on white people viewing black people, and over a half-century after its publication, many of the tropes Kelley employs here still ring painfully true. His “hero,” Mitchell Pierce is a lazy advertising executive, bored with his wife, a misogynist who occasionally longs to return to the “wars in Asia.” He’s also deeply, profoundly racist; structurally racist; the kind of racist who does not think of his racism as racism. At the same time, Kelley seems to extend little parcels of sympathy to Pierce, even as he reveals the dude to be a piece of shit, as if to say, What else could he end up being in this system but a piece of shit?

Sátántangó, László Krasznahorkai; translation by George Szirtes

Years ago I put Sátántangó on a list of books I started the most times without finishing.  This summer I listened to the audiobook version while I painted the interior of my house. The novel’s postmodern ending made me pick up the physical copy I acquired like eight years ago, making Sátántangó the only novel I re-read this year.

Edition 69, Jindřich Štyrský, Vítězslav Nezval, František Halas, and Bohuslav Brouk; translation by Jed Slast

Hey yo you like horny Czech interwar surrealism?

Lancelot, Walker Percy

The first Percy I read, and so far, my favorite–a postmodern Gothic screed against postmodernity. I reviewed it here.

The Moviegoer, Walker Percy

Percy’s first novel is probably much better than I credited in my review, but I was disappointed after the claustrophobic zany madness of Lancelot. I think if The Moviegoer were the first Percy I read it would have been the last.

Dunfords Travels Everywheres, William Melvin Kelley

My favorite of the three Kelley novels I read this year.

Edisto, Padgett Powell

 I read most of Padgett Powell’s 1984 debut Edisto in a few sittings, settling down easily into its rich evocation of a strange childhood in the changing Southern Sea Islands. I’d always been ambivalent about Powell, struggling and failing to finish some of his later novels (Mrs. Hollingsworth’s MenThe Interrogative Mood), but Edisto captured me from its opening lines. The story takes two simple tacks–it’s a coming of age tale as well as a stranger-comes-to-town riff. Powell’s sentences are lively and invigorating; they show refinement without the wearing-down of being overworked. The book is fresh, vital.

When I finished Edisto, I thought I’d go for some more early Padgett. I picked up his second novel, A Woman Named Drown, started it that afternoon, and put it down 70 pages later the following afternoon. There wasn’t a single sentence that made me want to read the next sentence. Worse, it was turning into an ugly slog, a kind of attempt to refine Harry Crews’s dirty south into something closer to grimy eloquence. I like gross stuff, but this wasn’t my particular flavor.

The Orange Eats Creeps, Grace Krilanovich

I remember buying this book very clearly. The yellow spine called to me; the fact it was a Two Dollar Radio title; the title itself; and then, the blurb from Steve Erickson. From my review:

“Krilanovich’s novel is coated in brown-grey paste, an accumulation of scum and cum and blood, a vampiric solution zapped by orange bolts of sex, pain, drugs, and rocknroll. It’s a riot grrrl novel, a psychobilly novel, a crustgoth novel. It’s a fragmented, ugly, revolting mess and I loved it. The Orange Eats Creeps is ‘A vortex of a novel,’ as Steve Erickson puts it in his introduction, that will alternately suck in or repel readers.”

The Silence, Don DeLillo

In my unkind review, I wrote:

“The Silence is a slim disappointment, a scant morality play whose thinly-sketched characters speak at (and not to) each other liked stoned undergrads. At least it’s short.”

Motorman, David Ohle

David Ohle’s lean mean mutant Motorman is a dystopia carved from strange stuff. Ohle’s cult novel leaves plenty of room for the reader to wonder and wander around in. Abject, spare, funny, and depressing, Motorman sputters and jerks on its own nightmare logic. Its hapless hero Moldenke anti-quests through an artificial world, tumbling occasionally into strange moments of agency, but mostly lost and unillusioned in a broken universe. I loved it.

Two Stories, Osvaldo Lamborghini; translation by Jessica Sequeira

Not sure if I found a book so baffling all year.

Stand on Zanzibar, David Brunner

John Brunner’s big fat dystopian novel Stand on Zanzibar frankly overwhelmed me and then sorta underwhelmed me there at the end. This sci-fi classic is a big weird shaggy dog that managed to predict the future in all kinds of ways, and it’s mean and funny, but it’s also bloated and booming, the kind of novel that sucks all the air out of the room. It’s several dozen essays dressed up as sci-fi adventure—not a bad deal in and of itself—but there’s very little space left for the reader

Fat City, Leonard Gardner

Fat City is about an “old” boxer (he’s not thirty) on the way out of his career and a young boxer on the rise. (Rise here is a really suspect term.) I really can’t believe I was 41 when I read this. I should’ve read it at 20. I wouldn’t have understood it the same way, of course, and the biggest sincerest compliment I can pin on the novel is that I would’ve loved it at 20 but I know that I would’ve appreciated it more 20 years later. There are plenty of novels that I read and think, Hmm, would’ve loved this years ago, but now, nah, but Fat City is wonderful. It’s a boxing story, sure, but it’s really a book about bodies breaking down, aging, getting stuck in dreams and fantasies. Gardner’s only novel (!) is simultaneously mock-tragic and real tragic, pathetic and moving, and very very moving. Great stuff.

Dog Soldiers, Robert Stone

I read Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers on the late David Berman’s recommendation) and loved it. Set at the end of the Vietnam War, Dog Soldiers is about a heroin deal going sideways. The CIA is involved, some twisted Hollywood folks, and a fallen cult leader. Everyone’s a bit grimy. I guess it comes from the Hemingway tree, or really, maybe, the Stephen Crane tree—Denis Johnson’s tree, Leonard Gardner’s tree, Raymond Carver’s tree, etc. It reminded me a lot of Johnson’s Angels (and, to some extent, Tree of Smoke), but also Russell Banks’s 1985 novel Continental Drift—and Gardner’s Fat City.

Dog Soldiers gets better and better and ends with an ecstatic punchline—a big Fuck you to God in the whirlwind. Great stuff.

Nothing but the Music, Thulani Davis

In my review, I wrote:

Nothing but the Music cooks raw joy and raw pain into something sublime. I like poems best when they tell stories, and Davis is a storyteller. The poems here capture place and time, but most of all sound, sound, rhythm, and sound. Lovely stuff.”

Love in the Ruins, Walker Percy

Loved this one—more in line with the madness of Lancelot than the ennui of The MoviegoerLove in the Ruins posits a USA falling apart to reveal there never was a center.

The Hearing Trumpet, Leonora Carrington

From my review:

“Leonora Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet begins with its nonagenarian narrator forced into a retirement home and ends in an ecstatic post-apocalyptic utopia “peopled with cats, werewolves, bees and goats.” In between all sorts of wild stuff happens. There’s a scheming New Age cult, a failed assassination attempt, a hunger strike, bee glade rituals, a witches sabbath, an angelic birth, a quest for the Holy Grail, and more, more, more.”

The Oyster, Dejan Lukic and Nik Kosieradzki

I still need to write a proper review of this one. It’s something between an essay and a prose-poem and an aesthetic object.

Heroes and Villains, Angela Carter

One of Carter’s earlier novels, Heroes and Villains takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where caste lines divide the Professors, the Barbarians, and the mutant Out People. After her Professor stronghold is raided, Marianne is…willingly abducted?…by the barbarian Jewel. Marianne goes to live with the Barbarians, and ends up in a weird toxic relationship with Jewel, marked by rape and violence. Heroes and Villains throws a lot in its pot—what is consent? what is civilization? what is language?—but it’s a muddled, psychedelic mess in the end.

Just Us, Claudia Rankine

A short, sometimes painful read, Just Us is a mix of essaying and poetry that documents the horrors of the past few years against the backdrop of the horrors of all American history, all in a personal, moving way.

Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner

Starts subtle and ends sharp. A mix of satire and earnestness, purely modern, wonderful stuff. Our hero surmises at the end that Satan might actually be quite stupid. I love her.


[Ed. note–some of the language of these annotations has been recycled from previous posts.]

A review of Leonora Carrington’s surreal novel The Hearing Trumpet

Leonora Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet begins with its nonagenarian narrator forced into a retirement home and ends in an ecstatic post-apocalyptic utopia “peopled with cats, werewolves, bees and goats.” In between all sorts of wild stuff happens. There’s a scheming New Age cult, a failed assassination attempt, a hunger strike, bee glade rituals, a witches sabbath, an angelic birth, a quest for the Holy Grail, and more, more, more.

Composed in the 1950s and first published in 1974, The Hearing Trumpet is new in print again for the first time in nearly two decades from NYRB. NYRB also published Carrington’s hallucinatory memoir Down Below a few years back, around the same time as Dorothy issued The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. Most people first come to know Carrington through her stunning, surreal paintings, which have been much more accessible (because of the internet) than her literature. However, Dorothy’s Complete Stories brought new attention to Carrington’s writing, a revival continued in this new edition of The Hearing Trumpet.

Readers familiar with Carrington’s surreal short stories might be surprised at the straightforward realism in the opening pages of The Hearing Trumpet. Ninety-two-year-old narrator Marian Leatherby lives a quiet life with her son and daughter-in-law and her tee-vee-loving grandson. They are English expatriates living in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country, and although the weather is pleasant, Marian dreams of the cold, “of going to Lapland to be drawn in a vehicle by dogs, woolly dogs.” She’s quite hard of hearing, but her sight is fine, and she sports “a short grey beard which conventional people would find repulsive.” Conventional people will soon be pushed to the margins in The Hearing Trumpet.

Marian’s life changes when her friend Carmella presents her with a hearing trumpet, a device “encrusted with silver and mother o’pearl motives and grandly curved like a buffalo’s horn.” At Carmella’s prompting, Marian uses the trumpet to spy on her son and daughter-in-law. To her horror, she learns they plan to send her to an old folks home. It’s not so much that she’ll miss her family—she directs the same nonchalance to them that she affords to even the most surreal events of the novel—it’s more the idea that she’ll have to conform to someone else’s rules (and, even worse, she may have to take part in organized sports!).

The old folks home is actually much, much stranger than Marian could have anticipated:

First impressions are never very clear, I can only say there seemed to be several courtyards , cloisters , stagnant fountains, trees, shrubs, lawns. The main building was in fact a castle, surrounded by various pavilions with incongruous shapes. Pixielike dwellings shaped like toadstools, Swiss chalets , railway carriages , one or two ordinary bungalows, something shaped like a boot, another like what I took to be an outsize Egyptian mummy. It was all so very strange that I for once doubted the accuracy of my observation.

The home’s rituals and procedures are even stranger. It is not a home for the aged; rather, it is “The Institute,” a cult-like operation founded on the principles of Dr. and Mrs. Gambit, two ridiculous and cruel villains who would not be out of place in a Roald Dahl novel. Dr. Gambit (possibly a parodic pastiche of George Gurdjieff and John Harvey Kellogg) represents all the avarice and hypocrisy of the twentieth century. His speech is a satire of the self-important and inflated language of commerce posing as philosophy, full of capitalized ideals: “Our Teaching,” “Inner Christianity,” “Self Remembering” and so on. Ultimately, it’s Gambit’s constricting and limited patriarchal view of psyche and spirit that the events in The Hearing Trumpet lambastes.

Marian soon finds herself entangled in the minor politics and scheming of the Institute, even as she remains something of an outsider on account of her deafness. She’s mostly concerned with getting an extra morsel of cauliflower at mealtimes—the Gambits keep the women undernourished. She eats her food quickly during the communal dinner, and obsesses over the portrait of a winking nun opposite her seat at the table:

Really it was strange how often the leering abbess occupied my thoughts. I even gave her a name, keeping it strictly to myself. I called her Doña Rosalinda Alvarez della Cueva, a nice long name, Spanish style. She was abbess, I imagined, of a huge Baroque convent on a lonely and barren mountain in Castile. The convent was called El Convento de Santa Barbara de Tartarus, the bearded patroness of Limbo said to play with unbaptised children in this nether region.

Marian’s creative invention of a “Doña Rosalinda Alvarez della Cueva” soon somehow passes into historical reality. First, she receives a letter from her trickster-aid Carmella, who has dreamed about a nun in a tower. “The winking nun could be no other than Doña Rosalinda Alvarez della Cueva,” remarks Marian. “How very mysterious that Carmella should have seen her telepathically.” Later, Christabel, another member/prisoner of the Institute helps usher Marian’s fantasy into reality. She confirms that Marian’s name for the nun is indeed true (kinda sorta): “‘That was her name during the eighteenth century,’ said Christabel. ‘But she has many many other names. She also enjoys different nationalities.'”

Christabel gives Marian a book entitled A True and Faithful Rendering of the Life of Rosalinda Alvarez and the next thirty-or-so pages gives way to this narrative. This text-within-a-text smuggles in other texts, including a lengthy letter from a bishop, as well as several ancient scrolls. There are conspiracies afoot, schemes to keep the Holy Grail out of the hands of the feminine power the Abbess embodies. There are magic potions and an immortal bard. There is cross-dressing and a strange monstrous pregnancy. There are the Knights Templar.

Carrington’s prose style in these texts-within-texts diverges considerably from the even, wry calm of Marian’s narration. In particular, there’s a sly control to the bishop’s letter, which reveals a bit-too-keen interest in teenage boys. These matryoshka sections showcase Carrington’s rhetorical range while also advancing the confounding plot. They recall The Courier’s Tragedy, the play nested in Thomas Pynchon’s 1965 novel The Crying of Lot 49. Both texts refer back to their metatexts, simultaneously explicating and confusing their audiences while advancing byzantine plot points and arcane themes.

Indeed, the tangled and surreal plot details of The Hearing Trumpet recall Pynchon’s oeuvre in general, but like Pynchon’s work, Carrington’s basic idea can be simplified to something like—Resistance to Them. Who is the Them? The patriarchy, the fascists, the killers. The liars, the cheaters, the ones who make war in the name of order. (One resister, the immortal traveling bard Taliesin, shows up in both the nested texts and later the metatext proper, where he arrives as a postman, recalling the Trystero of The Crying of Lot 49.)

The most overt voice of resistance is Marian’s best friend Carmella. Carmella initiates the novel by giving Marian the titular hearing trumpet, and she acts as a philosophical foil for her friend. Her constant warning that people under seventy and over seven should not be trusted becomes a refrain in the novel. Before Marian is shipped off to the Institution, Carmella already plans her escape, a scheme involving machine guns, rope, and other implements of adventure. Although she loves animals, Carmella is even willing to kill any police dogs that might guard the Institution and hamper their escape:

Police dogs are not properly speaking animals. Police dogs are perverted animals with no animal mentality. Policemen are not human beings so how can police dogs be animals?

Late in the novel, Carmella delivers perhaps the most straightforward thesis of The Hearing Trumpet:

It is impossible to understand how millions and millions of people all obey a sickly collection of gentlemen that call themselves ‘Government!’ The word, I expect, frightens people. It is a form of  planetary hypnosis, and very unhealthy. Men are very difficult to understand… Let’s hope they all freeze to death. I am sure it would be very pleasant and healthy for human beings to have no authority whatever. They would have to think for themselves, instead of always being told what to do and think by advertisements, cinemas, policemen and parliaments.

Carmella’s dream of an anarchic utopia comes to pass.

How?

Well, there’s a lot to it, and I’d hate to spoil the surrealist fun. Let’s just say that Marian’s Grail quest scores a big apocalyptic win for the Goddess, thanks to “an army of bees, wolves, seven old women, a postman, a Chinaman, a poet, an atom-driven Ark, and a werewoman.” No conventional normies who might find Marian’s beard repulsive here.

With its conspiracy theories within conspiracy theories and Templar tales, The Hearing Trumpet will likely remind many readers of Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum (or one of its ripoffs). The Healing Trumpet’s surreal energy also recalls Angela Carter’s 1972 novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. And of course, the highly-imagistic, ever-morphing language will recall Carrington’s own paintings, as well as those of her close friend Remedios Varo (who may have been the basis for Carmella), and their surrealist contemporaries (like Max Ernst) and forebears (like Hieronymus Bosch).

This new edition of The Hearing Trumpet includes an essay by the novelist Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) which focuses on the novel as a feminist text. (Tokarczuk also mentions that she first read the novel without knowing who Carrington was). The new edition also includes black and white illustrations by Carrington’s son, Pablos Weisz Carrington (I’ve included a few in this review). As far as I can tell, these illustrations seem to be slightly different from the illustrations included in the 2004 edition of The Hearing Trumpet published by Exact Change. That 2004 edition has been out of print for ages and is somewhat hard (or really, expensive) to come by (I found a battered copy few years ago for forty bucks). NYRB’s new edition should reach the wider audience Carrington deserves.

Some readers will find the pacing of The Hearing Trumpet overwhelming, too frenetic. It moves like a snowball, gathering images, symbols, motifs into itself in an ever-growing, ever-speeding mass. Other readers may have difficulty with its ever-shifting plot. Nothing is stable in The Hearing Trumpet; everything is liable to mutate, morph, and transform. Those are my favorite kinds of novels though, and I loved The Hearing Trumpet—in particular, I loved its tone set against its imagery and plot. Marian’s narration is straightforward, occasionally wry, but hardly ever astonished or perplexed by the magical and wondrous events she takes part in. There’s a lot I likely missed in The Hearing Trouble—Carrington lards the novel with arcana, Jungian psychology, magical totems, and more more more—but I’m sure I’ll find more the next time I read it. Very highly recommended.

Blog about some recent reading

From the bottom of the stack to the top:

I read most of Padgett Powell’s 1984 debut Edisto in a few sittings, settling down easily into its rich evocation of a strange childhood in the changing Southern Sea Islands. I’d always been ambivalent about Powell, struggling and failing to finish some of his later novels (Mrs. Hollingsworth’s MenThe Interrogative Mood), but Edisto captured me from its opening lines. The story takes two simple tacks–it’s a coming of age tale as well as a stranger-comes-to-town riff. Powell’s sentences are lively and invigorating; they show refinement without the wearing-down of being overworked. The book is fresh, vital.

So when I finished Edisto, I thought I’d go for some more early Padgett. On Friday I picked up his second novel, A Woman Named Drown, started it that afternoon, and put it down 70 pages later the following afternoon. There wasn’t a single sentence that made me want to read the next sentence. Worse, it was turning into an ugly slog, a kind of attempt to refine Harry Crews’s dirty south into something closer to grimy eloquence. I like gross stuff, but this wasn’t my particular flavor.

In between, I took another palate cleansing essay from Brian Dillon’s collection Suppose a Sentence. Dillon’s collection of essays is perfect for resetting a reader’s mood between texts. Each essay reflects, sometimes obliquely, sometimes more directly on a single sentence from a range of authors. Good stuff.

I am working on a full review of William Melvin Kelley’s cult classic Dunfords Travels Everywheres. I have misused the phrase “cult classic” in the preceding sentence Dunfords has been long out of print, almost impossible to find, and largely unheralded for the past few decades. However, new editions from Anchor are rectifying this problem. The book is weird, a bit shaggy, funny and perplexing. More thoughts to come.

When I put down Powell’s A Woman Named Drown I picked up Grace Krilanovich’s novel The Orange Eats Creeps. I bought Orange back in July, pulling it out based on its spine (Two Dollar Radio, a small press I admire) and its title (c’mon!). The Steve Erickson blurb sealed the deal. I’m really digging Orange right now. It’s a novel about Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies (the narrators term) bumming around and sucking blood and drugs in the Pacific Northwest. It reminds me a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s film Near Dark, Tim Hunter’s film River’s Edge, and Harmony Korine’s film Gummo. There’s also a healthy dose of Twin Peaks in here, as well as the abject contours of Charles Burns’s Black Hole.

I’ve also been using Pierre Senges’s Studies of Silhouettes (English translation by Jacob Siefring) as literary palate cleansers, opening the book at random to read Senges’s strange riffs on Kafka’s leads. As Siefring’s blurb puts it, “Each of the texts in this work proceed from the fragments and cryptic beginnings found scattered throughout the notebooks Max Brod took possession of after Kafka’s death.” The results are sometimes very funny, sometimes profound, sometimes both. I hope to have a fuller review down the line.

On Walker Percy’s postmodern Gothic novel Lancelot

Walker Percy’s 1977 novel Lancelot opens with an invitation: “Come into my cell. Make yourself at home.”

The invitation is to both the reader and to the titular Lancelot’s audience of one, a friend from his college days he calls Percival. Percival listens to Lancelot’s increasingly-insane, unceasing monologue without interruption.

Lancelot Lamar—Lance, to friends—tells his story from his cell in the Center for Aberrant Behavior. It’s New Orleans, sometime in the mid-seventies. The dream of the sixties has curdled and soured, its failed would-be revolution of love turned to rot.

Lance’s (electrically-sexual) love for his wife Margot begins to sour, fester, and rot. He discovers by chance that he is not the father of their daughter Siobhan, and quickly comes to suspect that Siobhan is the product of Margot’s infidelity with Merlin, a filmmaker whom Margot, an always-aspiring actress, has known for years.

Merlin and his crew are filming at Lance’s ancestral manse, Bell Isle. Belle Isle was once a Great House in its parish, but modernity (and postmodernity) have a way of rotting out traditions. Margot, heiress to a new-money Texas fortune, restores the ancestral home to something-close-to its former glory. Belle Isle and the Lamar name might rub some good old fashioned Southern Aristocracy off on her. Despite those oil dollars, the Lamars still need to allow tour groups to visit Belle Isle—gawking Michiganders and Yankees and the like—in order to keep in the black.

Lancelot Lamar himself has long since stopped working. A one-time liberal who helped the NAACP, he trained as a lawyer, but latterly has taken to lust and drink. At the outset of his tale, our debauched wastrel spends his days in the pigeonnier of Belle Isle slurping bourbon and smoking cigs. His discovery that his daughter is not his own revitalizes him—it’s the revelation—nay, the apocalypse—that splits his life in two: “my life is divided into two parts, Before and After,” he tells Percival in cell.

Percival says all of thirteen words in the novel. Or, really, two words: twelve yeses and one no. It’s never quite clear if Percival is a failed psychiatrist or a failed priest or some hybrid of both, but we do know that Lancelot has long admired Percival since their school days, when the austere intellectual literally jumped ship to swim to a deserted island for a Thoreau-inspired think. Percival, or Lancelot’s ideation of Percival, serves not only as a confessor’s ear, but also as Lancelot’s avatar of intellectual spirituality. In contrast, visceral once-virile Lance (with his oh-so-phallic mantle) rests on his most vibrant college laurels: he once ran 110 yards against the Alabama Crimson Tide.

But back to Lancelot of the Before and After. Specifically, the After. After discovering his wife’s apparent infidelity (infidelities?), Lance enlists the help of his retainer Elgin, the son of Belle Isle’s Black housekeepers. Elgin is an MIT student and a technical genius, a figure whose ascendancy Lancelot can understand but perhaps not fully appreciate. A scion of the South and a one-time “liberal,” Lancelot is unable to fully understand his own racism, even as he understands Elgin’s intellectual and technocratic superiority.

Still, Lancelot comprehends the failure of the 1960’s liberalism to fully follow through on its utopian promise. He relies on Elgin’s gratitude to him, but admits,

…in truth I had done very little for him, the kind of easy favors native liberals do and which are almost irresistible to the doer, if not to the done to, yielding as they do a return of benefit to one and a good feeling to the other all out of proportion to the effort expended. That was one of the pleasures of the sixties: it was so easy to do a little which seemed a lot. We basked in our sense of virtue and what we took to be their gratitude. Maybe that was why it didn’t last very long. Who can stand gratitude?

Driven by his own motives, tech-whiz Elgin sets up secret cameras all around Belle Isle as part of Lancelot’s movie-making scheme: our monologist plans to catch his wife in the act, either with Merlin or another lover. Percy’s postmodernism is subtle but effective here. We see Belle Isle through layers, a Gothic playground of both real and imaginary depravities, some staged, some extemporaneous, all set against the backdrop of the sins of the Gothic South.

Like William Gaddis’s 1985 novel Carpenter’s Gothic, Percy’s Lancelot is a work of Gothic postmodernism. Belle Isle has been converted to a theme park version of its aristocratic past, glossed up for tourists and film crews. It’s certainly not the scene of domestic bliss.

Lancelot’s monologue starts to boil over into crazed horror, taking the reader (and his auditor Percival) into strange new spaces. Belle Isle becomes a haunted house, scene of repeated debaucheries on the cusp of disaster. The film crew prepares a massive weather machine to simulate a hurricane for their fantasy even as a massive hurricane approaches to destroy the real world. But maybe Lance, in his perverted quest, will destroy that world first.

Lancelot’s Gothic quest is for the anti-Grail, the Unholy Grail. As the novel unravels towards its crazed ending, Lancelot’s consciousness ping-pongs about in philosophical ranting. Our hero stands against postmodernity, against the nascent eighties, against the collapse of the Romantic sixties and its failed revolution. He plans a third Revolution, the final part in the trilogy initiated by the American Revolution and the Civil War. Lancelot’s increasingly unhinged screeds disturb both Percival and the reader. His apocalyptic urge for a great cleansing veers into strange, misogynistic territory.

A failed knight who cannot see his own failure, he becomes obsessed with the woman celled next to him, Anna, victim of a gang rape whom he both fetishizes and idealizes. Lancelot reads like a Southern companion to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. Lance reminds one of Travis Bickle: both are strange, nihilistic, optimistic idealists, would-be knights seeking to save damsels in a fallen world, praying for some great rain to come and cleanse the filth of sin away. 

And like Taxi Driver, Percy’s novel—released around the same time, of course—seems like an early analysis of the failure of the sixties. It’s the burn out, the hangover, the realization that the dream was just a dream, and that the business of reality is cruel and cold and dirty. Perhaps insanity is the proper response.

There’s so much in Lancelot I’ve failed to unpack: Its analysis of America–North, South, and West–its treatment of Hollywood, its strange gnostic tinges, its weird tangled and often colliding philosophies. Lancelot Lamar is an enthralling monologist, witty, severe, pathetic and sympathetic, simultaneously cartoonish and ferociously real. I’ve also failed to convey how funny this novel is—Percy’s prose crackles and zaps, zips and dips, turns into weird little unexpected nooks. I ate it up.

Lancelot was the first Walker Percy novel I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Great stuff.