Saturday, October 2, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Moby-Dick- Part 3

The photograph above is of a statue of Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini.  Melville references it in regards to the appearance of Captain Ahab. He does not say that Ahab looks like Perseus (or even Medusa.)  He says that Ahab is "shaped in an unalterable mold" like the statue.  Although I think we all know enough about the character described to understand the parallels with the subject matter. Ahab has his own Medusa in his sights. As with everything with Melville, there is a distinct thematic reason why he chose this statue. Aside from the timeline discrepancy, something like Oldenburg's Spoonbridge and Cherry would not be appropriate in this instance. "Ahab was one shaped in an unalterable mold like Oldenburg's Spoonbridge and Cherry."  Somewhat wanting in gravitas, eh what?

As a quick side note, one of the benefits of signing on to a reading project like the one I am doing with the Harvard Classics is that, along with leading one to read things one would not have otherwise read, it also leads one to finally read a good deal of "I've always meant to read that" books. Cellini's autobiography is one of those books that I've thought that about for years, but then walked out of the library with some flashy McSweeney's nonsense or something instead.

So, we're three paragraphs in to this week's Moby-Dick post and I've yet to talk about this week's reading.  There is a reason for that. A little frustration has crept in. It's not that I dislike the book. I'm actually enjoying it tremendously. But I have two examples to present to you of what I'm talking about. One is the name of the prophet, which when it was announced, I audibly snorted derisively at the stark obviousness of it, upsetting the dog on my lap. Melville has a heavy, heavy hand. He loves loomings and foreshadowings. In fact, so far, anything else in the book has been a very slow train coming.

The other illustration I have to submit to you is the chapter "The Lee Shore," which talks for a length about Bulkington and has absolutely nothing to add to the narrative aside from tone. Melville is painting a very broad and baroque picture. At first I worried that perhaps my slick, modern sensibilities were preventing me from really appreciating what Melville was doing here. Perhaps the post-television world speed of the culture in which I find myself prevents me from appreciating very fine points being put upon things. But Christopher pointed out, and rightly so I think, that Moby-Dick may not be the best example of the wide, sweeping world of an epic 19th century novel. Tolstoy did it so much better. In other words, I don't think it's me.

I did like the description of Starbuck. I like him. I'm supposed to like him I gather. And the other crewmates: Tubbs and Bud and Spanky and Bruce and Marvin and Leon and Cletus and George and Bill and Slick and Do-right and Clyde and Ace and Blackie and Queenie and Prince and Spot and Rover. And Rudolph, he who is marked by rosacea. I'm just making things up at this point to throw students who use my blog to plagiarize for school papers. Actually, I stole that list of names from a Ray Stevens song.  But there is a series of character studies of fellow shipmates, all of whom are compelling and humanizing, to make us care about their problems. This is in order to make us be sad when the guy who smokes the pipes dies. It's like the cop in the action film whose character development comprises his few days until retirement and seeing his beloved daughter graduate college.

So.... strike that earlier comment absolving myself from modern cynicism.

And we finally meet Ahab who comes out of his cabin and sees his shadow, which portends eight more weeks of winter. We end this week with a dream in a chapter whose title brings Mercutio to mind, which seems an appropriate character, one who might actually fit in this story. There is something of The Bard about the scene in this chapter. I smell whiffs of Hamlet's gravediggers and Clarence's drowning dream from Richard III as well. Melville infused his brain with Scripture and Shakespeare. It shows in what comes spilling out of his mind. It's a quality of his that I would like to emulate. Stubb dreams of a merman who tells him to count a "kick" from Ahab as an honor.

I feel like a high school English teacher even mentioning Ahab's dropping the pipe into the sea symbolizing his abandonment of all Earthly pleasure in deference to his cetacean vendetta.

I am so torn over this text. I think I like it a lot, but I also feel a sort of perpetual impatience. On the other hand, I do like the story he's telling and the picture he is painting. It is a bit like the long waiting periods in hunting or fishing though. Like Persian sherbet in crystal goblets flaked up with rose-water snow.

Next week, we read up through Chapter XL which, in my text, takes us up to page 169 and spits us out before a chapter enticingly called Moby-Dick, threatening headway in the narrative.


  1. Before Chapter XL, we have to get through Chapter XXXII - Cetology, which begins the vomiting forth of whale facts.

    There are chapters in Moby Dick that advance the plot. Those are fine. There are chapters in Moby Dick that develop the metaphysical symbolism. Those are mostly okay. Then there are those chapters in Moby Dick which neither develop the plot, nor the symbolism, but seem to merely seem to speak to "one of the novels themes." Kind of like the discursive sections of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance without being as direct, or as interesting.

    I find myself very irritable with the book very often. I think Melville wanted so badly to say something that he sinned against his own story. I'm hoping that later on something clicks and I realize that all these extraneous bits suddenly fit into the novel as a whole and manage to win me over. I am skeptical, though. In the hands of my favorite Russians there is never any question that I'm reading something by someone who had mastered his art as much as anyone can be said to have done. In the hands of Chesterton, MacDonald, or C.S. Lewis, the story may not be the most sophisticated, and the telling of it may be uneven, but there is something crucial -- a thought, an awareness, even a sort of revelation of forsaken or forgotten truth. Banville's prose is sculpted and beautiful. Eco's questions and thought-life are admirably played out in skillful story-telling. Borges is peerless for the playfulness that is deadly serious, or is that the other way around? Everyone I love has some distinct genius that compensates for whatever other weaknesses that their writing betrays. I'm impatiently waiting to find Melville's genius -- or will I find that I side with those who reviewed the book prior to the 1920s? Melville commits the sin of alienating me from the story in almost the very next paragraph after I begin to take heart. He starts to build steam, then is off doing something else.

    And we finally meet Ahab who comes out of his cabin and sees his shadow, which portends eight more weeks of winter.

    This had me chuckling to my nearly sleeping wife's annoyance.

  2. At least we're not the only lit fans who are put off by aspects of Moby Dick:

    Literature Network Forums : Moby Dick : Is This Truly One of the Great Works in English?

    DailyLit Forums : Moby Dick : Is anyone else struggling with this?

    I'll also add in response to the comments describing Moby Dick as "experimental" that a finished novel (or movie or painting or whatever other piece of art) is to my mind a failure if it is left in an experimental state. And to back up my opinion, I offer Tarkovsky from Sculpting in Time:

    "People tend to talk about experiment and search above all in relation to the avant-garde. But what does it mean? How can you experiment in art? Have a go and see how it turns out? But if it hasn't worked, then there's nothing to see except the private problem of the person who has failed. For the work of art carries within it an integral aesthetic and philosophical unity; it is an organism, living and developing according to its own laws. Can one talk of experiment in relation to the birth of a child? It is senseless and immoral.

    "Could it be that the people who started talking about avant-garde were those who were not capable of separating the wheat from the tares? Confused by the new aesthetic structures, lost in the face of the real discoveries and achievements, not capable of finding any criteria of their own, they included under the one head of avant-garde anything that was not familiar and easily understood -- just in case, in order not to be wrong? I like the story of Picasso, who when asked about his 'search' replied wittily and pertinently (clearly irritated by the question): 'I don't seek, I find.'"

  3. Having read Cetology today, I found it easiest to keep Power Moby-Dick open to the chapter and use their links to find pics and read more on the various whales.

  4. The link you've provided is excellent. I had thought at some point that the highly informational sections of this book may be more tolerable, possibly creeping into fun, reading it after the advent of online information sources (I think the last time I read Moby-Dick was in the late 1990s.) This makes it even easier. Thanks for the tip.

    So, I'm just going to toss out this hypothesis and see what happens. America has produced some great art and certainly has promoted itself as a great society since its inception. But there are some fields, partially because of our youth and partially because of other social forces, where we have not seemed to have produced yet something on par with some of the great works to come from other, much older societies (France, England, Germany, Russia, Italy, etc.)

    Do you know anything about how Moby-Dick came into the public consciousness as a great work?

    Personally, I feel that Melville hits it out of the park every once in a while, but, to extend the metaphor, then there's the other five hours of the ball game to sit through.

  5. The section on Wikipedia regarding the Melville Revival around the 1920s is all I know about it. I have access to essays and whatnot from the criticism books Bloom edited and published through Chelsea House, but I've managed to keep from prying into them -- waiting to finish the book first. I haven't kept myself from Wikipedia, though I've stayed away from their plot synopsis.

    I have to say, I've not ever been particularly drawn to American writers. I developed an appreciation for Flannery O'Connor. I liked Edgar Allen Poe as a kid and young adult. But Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, and whomever else you wish to add to the list always left me cold. Dickinson and Whitman have an interest for me. Mark Twain. T.S. Eliot and Auden -- but Eliot left America for Great Britain and Auden left Great Britain for America. The one example of an American writer that I find very compelling is Cormac McCarthy. I've only ever read Blood Meridian, and I haven't finished it -- it got cut short as I started organizing this project. But I read enough to be convinced of its greatness.

    I'm suspicious that American Letters and I don't get along too well. Russian and British writers, specifically, European in general, are a different story... It'd be interesting to figure out why that is.

    Interestingly, the British writers I'm drawn to are less literary and more important for their Christianity: Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton. George MacDonald, too.

    Of course there's also Yeats who is one of my two favorite poets -- Osip Mandelshtam being the other. Yeats wasn't a Christian and Mandelshtam may possibly have possibly have been a Jewish convert to Russian Orthodoxy, but religion doesn't figure into his poetry much.

  6. So, I gather that Moby-Dick sat largely unread for a good 60 years. That's interesting.

    Yes, it seems, in my experience, with both Auden and Eliot that no matter which country you attribute them to, someone objects. Or, at the very least, indulges their compulsion to point out the poet's association with the appropriate other country.

    In my opinion, America has produced a lot of great authors. Twain, Steinbeck, and Capote are my big three. I think each of them are as great of writers as have ever lived. I think America "gets" this with Twain at least. I imagine time passing will help the regard toward the other two. I've noticed the author is without honor in their hometown, at least while there are still people walking around who remember them behaving badly. No one walking the Earth today was once cussed out by Twain. There are people walking around who watched Capote pass out drunk onstage.

    As far as nationalism goes, I'm a little reluctant to delve into it myself. Mozart, for example (also a fine example of a nation eventually absolving the artist of all misbehavior in their personal life), does belong to humankind, but there is also a sense in which he "belongs" to Vienna. I'm assured by reportage that the place is positively dripping with plaques of places where Mozart did such and such.

    Also, Laurie and I have recently watched a series about the art at the Vatican which was beautiful, but it was also very clear of how proud Vatican City is of the art associated with it. Viewing Melville in light of this (and mind you I am not saying I believe this, I'm just expressing a thought) I almost wonder if the insistence on the greatness of Moby-Dick isn't, as it were, padding our résumé.

  7. According to the Wikipedia entry, it lived on in the underground, lively enough for it not to have fallen into oblivion by the 1920s.

    I haven't read Capote, though am interested -- especially after seeing the movie from a few years ago. I haven't read Steinbeck, and I've yet to really feel the urge. Not sure what it is -- the subject matter just hasn't ever appealed to me.

    Re: Moby Dick & patting our American backs, I wonder what it's status is outside of America. It was released in England at the same time as America, and I know that D.H. Lawrence approved of it even in the incomplete British version. Does it figure outside of English speaking countries?

  8. What a strange concept! Imagining Moby-Dick as a sort of underground literature with a geeky few passing the torch for close to a century! The story behind this story keeps getting more and more interesting to me.

    Needless to say, I highly recommend Capote. He was one of those authors who had both natural genius and skilled self-discipline in his writing (although, by all accounts, almost no self-discipline left over for any other aspect of his life, including basic survival. Also, one of those authors whose biography is almost as captivating as their work.) I think you might enjoy Music for Chameleons quite a bit. Of course, for good reason, In Cold Blood is the traditional Capote diving board (unless you're one of the people to whom Breakfast At Tiffany's is the appropriate Capote diving board. Although, really, In Cold Blood is his high-water mark.)

    This page has some interesting early reviews of Moby-Dick, notably a few from Great Britain:

    You know, I have a good friend in India who I will ask what he thinks about Melville.

  9. Something I learned from Wikipedia was that the original published version of M.D. overseas lacked the ending. Printer's error, if I'm remembering correctly.