Saturday 30 April 2016

The magnificent, mysterious whale, or The moment I realise that Philip Hoare and Ishmael could be very good friends

Bad/ good news for you: I’ve finished reading Moby Dick, but I’m not done blogging about whales. 
This is a passage from Philip Hoare’s Leviathan or, The Whale
“It is difficult not to address whales in romantic terms. 
Nothing else represents life on such a scale. Seeing a whale is not like seeing a sparrow in a city tree, or a cat crossing the street. It is not even like seeing a giraffe, dawdling on the African veldt, batting its glamorous eyes in the dust. Whales exist beyond the normal, beyond what we expect to see in our daily lives. They are not so much animal as geographical; if they did not move, it would be difficult to believe they were alive at all. In their size—their very construction—they are antidotes to our lives lived in uncompromising cities. Perhaps that’s why I was so affected by seeing them at this point in my life: I was ready to witness whales to believe in them. I had come looking for something, and I had found it. 
Here was an animal close to me as a living creature—one that shared my heart and lungs, my mammalian qualities—but which at the same time was possessed of a supernatural physicality. Whales are visible markers of the ocean life we cannot see; without them, the sea might as well be empty for all we know. Yet they are entirely mutable, dreamlike because they exist in another world, because they look like we feel as we float in our dreams. Perhaps, without our projections, they would be merely another species, another of God’s creation (although, of course, some might say that’s just another projection in itself). Nevertheless, we imbue whales with the improbability of their continued existence, and ours. We are terrestrial, earthbound, dependent on our limited senses. Whales defy gravity, occupy other dimensions; they live in a medium that would overwhelm us, and which far exceeds our own earthly sway. They are Linnaean-classified aliens following invisible magnetic fields, seeing through sound and hearing through their bodies, moving through a world we know nothing about. They are animals before the Fall, innocent of sin…” 
He and Ishmael could be very good friends. 

Here is Philip Hoare’s essay on Moby Dick


1 interesting bit from the book: the 1st captain that young Herman Melville ever met was his uncle Captain John D'Wolf II. 
Now look at this line from Moby Dick, chapter 45 (the "I" is Ishmael): 
"Now, the Captain D'Wolf here alluded to as commanding the ship in question, is a New Englander, who, after a long life of unusual adventures as a sea-captain, this day resides in the village of Dorchester near Boston. I have the honour of being a nephew of his." 

On Ishmael

1/ In Leviathan or, The Whale, Philip Hoare refers to a line from Algernon Swinburne's Lesbia Brandon:
"... all the sounds of the sea rang through him, all its airs and lights breathed and shone upon him: he felt land-sick when out of the sea's sight, and twice alive when hard by it."
"Land-sick". What a phrase. It can apply to Ishmael (chapter 1), Bulkington (chapter 23) and Ahab (chapter 132). 

2/ Go back to the beginning. No, I don't mean "Call me Ishmael". I mean Etymology and Extracts. 
I have always wondered about the late consumptive usher and the sub-sub librarian- why does Ishmael/ Melville write so much about them if they're never to reappear in the book? Why does he write about them, at all? 
Etymology and Extracts, besides setting up the mood and preparing the readers for a novel that isn't quite a novel, touch on knowledge and knowability, or book-learning vs experience, 1 of the main themes of Moby Dick
Now, look at this passage: 
"No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor, right before the mast, plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the royal mast-head. True, they rather order me about some, and make me jump from spar to spar, like a grasshopper in a May meadow. And at first, this sort of thing is unpleasant enough. It touches one's sense of honour, particularly if you come of an old established family in the land, the Van Rensselaers, or Randolphs, or Hardicanutes. And more than all, if just previous to putting your hand into the tar-pot, you have been lording it as a country schoolmaster, making the tallest boys stand in awe of you. The transition is a keen one, I assure you, from a schoolmaster to a sailor, and requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and bear it. But even this wears off in time." 
Ishmael doesn't say "I", but that does sound like it's himself he's talking about, that he's a schoolmaster before becoming a sailor. Does he personally know the late consumptive usher and the sub-sub librarian? Or is it his past self that he's talking about (so harshly)? Ishmael the character is of course Ishmael the narrator's past self. So it's the past past self. It's "the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself" that makes Ishmael turn to whaling at the beginning of the story- perhaps, after years of reading about whales, he decides to see them for himself?

3/ Ahab can be, and has been, turned into a concept: a mad man obsessed with a pointless and destructive goal. Or maybe an egotist who can't learn to let go and move on (which, in a sense, fits me right now, but that's another story).
Starbuck can also be a concept. Something like a good man with a weak will.
For some time I wondered if Ishmael could also be a concept, a byword for someone like him. Then I realised that I couldn't quite sum him up.

4/ From "When Is a Painting Most Like a Whale?: Ishmael, Moby-Dick, and the Sublime" by Bryan Wolf: 
"... The dilemma of the sublime, then, lies in its need to balance 2 contradictory claims. On the 1 hand, it crosses over all of that which is other in order to re-create it in its own image; on the other hand, it harbors within itself, like an ill-digested meal, traces of past texts that refuse to be assimilated. Queequeg is 1 such text for Ishmael, as Cole was for Church. Queequeg represents the mystery of language itself, and Sphinx-like, he will not be answered. Yet it is not Queequeg who is to be feared in Moby-Dick; his cannibalism is relatively benign. It is Ishmael who is the book's ultimate cannibal, for what he devours are words, sentences, and paragraphs: whole system of representation. And the reason he survives, the reason we love him, is that he doesn't care what he eats. The chewing is all." 

5/ "Melville fools readers of Moby Dick into the belief that Ahab and not Ishmael is the truly obsessed mind."
That's from Kevin at Interpolations.
(Kevin wrote a series on Moby Dick, which is worth a read).
Not only does Ishmael collect everything whales-related and want to know whales in all aspects but he also gets the whale's dimensions tattooed on his arm and writes a whole whale encyclopedia.


I've just finished reading Moby Dick. Nearly 8 weeks. 

Thursday 28 April 2016

The brain dictionary

How about words in different languages? How does it apply for someone like me, who kinda speaks 3 languages at very different levels? 
How about names?
I want the map of my own brain! 

Tuesday 26 April 2016

"Born in hell-fire [...] Moby-Dick, or the Whale (1851) reads like a great opium dream"

That is Raymond Weaver on Moby Dick.
He quotes Melville as saying: 
"Like a frigate, I am full with a thousand souls; and as on, on, on, I scud before the wind, many mariners rush up from the orlop below, like miners from caves; running shouting across my decks; opposite braces are pulled and boisterous speaking trumpets are heard, and contending orders to save the good ship from the shoals. In my tropical calms, when my ship lies tranced on Eternity’s main, the many, many souls in me speak one at a time, then all with one voice, rising and falling and swaying in golden calls and responses."
And writes:
"Because of this multiplicity of personality, Melville eludes summary classification. In his composite achievement he is severally a gentle Smollett, a glorified Whitman, an athletic Coleridge, a dandified Rabelais, a cynical Meredith, a doubting Sir Thomas Browne. Essentially was he a mystic, a treasure-seeker, a mystery-monger, a delver after hidden things spiritual and material. The world to him was a darkly figured hieroglyph; and if he ever deciphered the cabalistic sign, the meaning he found was too terrible, or else too wonderful, to tell. Whenever he sat down to write, at his elbow stood ever the chosen emissary of Satan, the Comic Spirit- a demoniac familiar that saved him in many a trying pass. The versatility and power of his genius was extraordinary. If he does not eventually rank as a writer of overshadowing accomplishment, it will be owing not to any lack of genius, but to the perversity of his rare and lofty gifts."
This is the man we need to thank for the Melville Revival. 
Frankly I do think that if Melville hadn't been rediscovered at that point, he would have been some other time, because hello, Moby Dick is a masterpiece. I'm not disparaging what Weaver did, though. 

A few questions for people who know more than I do: 
- What are Melville's best works after Moby Dick
- If Melville had never written Moby Dick, do you think we would still be reading him today? 
- Do you think Moby Dick is The Great American Novel? 

Sunday 24 April 2016

Moby Dick is a book about everything

1/ Speaking of whales alone, Melville writes about everything you need to know about whales: different species of whales; length, weight, head, tail, body, eyes, ears, mouth, spout-hole, penis, skin, blubber, flesh, case, junk, oil, spermaceti, ambergris, skeleton, fossil; sex life, family life; whales' food, whales as food, etc. The same goes for whaling: crew members (captain, chief mate, 2nd mate, 3rd mate, harpooners, carpenter, blacksmith...), structure of a whaling ship (forecastle, masthead, cabin, try-works, deck...), the Gam, different methods of capturing a whale, tools used in the capture (lance, harpoon...), etc.
2/ Moby Dick deals with everything: life, death, fate, God, nature, animals, friendship, love, hate, joy, sorrows, depression, loneliness, grief, loss, madness, sickness, work, enjoyment, struggle, quest, adventure, fear, tyranny...
3/ Besides the whaling industry and related industries, Melville touches on art, history, etymology, culture, mythology, religion, philosophy, epistemology, cetology, anatomy, biology, paleontology, physiognomy, phrenology, cookery, jurisprudence, etc.
4/ Moby Dick tries to be everything, and contains in it prose, songs, comedy, tragedy, theatre, Shakespearean soliloquies, philosophy, encyclopedia, a legal brief.... 
(Stretching the form of the novel by encompassing many genres, and shifting between the 1st person narrator and 3rd person narrator and the obliteration of narrator as it turns to theatre, with stage directions and such, Moby Dick was modernist before the modernists). 


Do I make it sound like Moby Dick is a boring book? Such seriousness! Let's loosen up a bit and talk about things I'm sure nobody expects to find in Moby Dick
1/ Such hilariousness: 
"In cavalier attendance upon the school of females, you invariably see a male of full grown magnitude, but not old; who, upon any alarm, evinces his gallantry by falling in the rear and covering the flight of his ladies. In truth, this gentleman is a luxurious Ottoman, swimming about over the watery world, surroundingly accompanied by all the solaces and endearments of the harem.
But supposing the invader of domestic bliss to betake himself away at the first rush of the harem's lord, then is it very diverting to watch that lord. Gently he insinuates his vast bulk among them again and revels there awhile, still in tantalizing vicinity to young Lothario, like pious Solomon devoutly worshipping among his thousand concubines. Granting other whales to be in sight, the fishermen will seldom give chase to one of these Grand Turks; for these Grand Turks are too lavish of their strength, and hence their unctuousness is small. As for the sons and the daughters they beget, why, those sons and daughters must take care of themselves; at least, with only the maternal help. For like certain other omnivorous roving lovers that might be named, my Lord Whale has no taste for the nursery, however much for the bower; and so, being a great traveller, he leaves his anonymous babies all over the world; every baby an exotic. In good time, nevertheless, as the ardour of youth declines; as years and dumps increase; as reflection lends her solemn pauses; in short, as a general lassitude overtakes the sated Turk; then a love of ease and virtue supplants the love for maidens; our Ottoman enters upon the impotent, repentant, admonitory stage of life, forswears, disbands the harem, and grown to an exemplary, sulky old soul, goes about all alone among the meridians and parallels saying his prayers, and warning each young Leviathan from his amorous errors." 
From chapter 88 "Schools and Schoolmasters", 1 of the funniest chapters in Moby Dick
2/ The whale penis described as "that unaccountable cone,—longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet-black as Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg". 
3/ A bromance. I'm talking of course about Ishmael and Queequeg. 
4/ Sex jokes/ sexual innuendos. 
E.g.: among the ships that the Pequod encounters, the Virgin (Jungfrau) has no sperm (whales) and the Bachelor is full of sperm (whales). 
Or this image from chapter 89 "Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish": 

"... Erskine was on the other side; and he then supported it by saying, that though the gentleman had originally harpooned the lady, and had once had her fast, and only by reason of the great stress of her plunging viciousness, had at last abandoned her; yet abandon her he did, so that she became a loose-fish; and therefore when a subsequent gentleman re-harpooned her, the lady then became that subsequent gentleman's property, along with whatever harpoon might have been found sticking in her." 
Or this passage from the famous chapter 94 "A Squeeze of the Hand": 
"As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma,—literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger; while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me [...]
Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever!..." 
5/ A fart joke. Yes, you read that right. 
Right in chapter 1: 
"Finally, I always go to sea as a sailor, because of the wholesome exercise and pure air of the fore-castle deck. For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim)..." 
A fart joke so highbrow that you may completely miss it, unless you know that the maxim is "Avoid beans". 
You're welcome to add other outrageous bits to the list. 

Saturday 23 April 2016

Captain Ahab and his foils

Captain Ahab is a character, but also a concept (like Bartleby). 
Here is James McIntosh on Ahab (in an essay called "The Mariner's Multiple Quest"): 
"He is not only a shaggy Nantucket captain whose brows congeal in a storm, not only a Quaker with a vengeance or a lonely and fierce Andrew Jackson on his war horse, but also a Jonah who doesn't come back; an unrepentant Job; a self-crucified Christ who wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms; a Faust who makes a pact with a familiar oriental devil; a Macbeth who hearkens to false assurances; a Lear whose madness is tempered by the ministrations of a mad boy who loves him; a Perseus with an ivory leg; and a Prometheus who creates his own vultures to peck at his own heart. [...] This typological approach to characterisation is of a piece with Melville's multiply adhesive approach to all knowledge and all earlier texts. It leads to some confusion or, perhaps, acrobatic mind stretching. Jonah, Macbeth, and Perseus hardly consort easily together. Yet Melville's intention seems to be to evoke Ahab as a gritty modern representative of all sufferers, aspirers, questers after monsters, and vengeance seekers." 
Because Ahab is so rich and complex a concept, whilst a character in a novel usually has a foil or 2, Ahab can be paired or contrasted with many other characters, perhaps almost everybody in the novel: 
Ahab vs Steelkilt (of the Town-Ho): Both are proud. Both suffer an injustice (from their own point of view at least) and want a revenge, but Ahab loses whereas Steelkilt wins.
Ahab and Macey (of the Jeroboam): Both ignore warnings and show no fear of Moby Dick, and get killed.
Ahab vs captain Boomer (of the Samuel Enderby): Both have encountered Moby Dick, and lost a limb as a consequence- the former, a leg; the latter, an arm. Ahab has to take a revenge; Boomer feels grateful that his life is spared, and decides to hunt no more.
Ahab vs Dr Bunger: The former sees Moby Dick as the personification of all evil in the world; the latter says what he takes to be the whale's malice is only its awkwardness.
Ahab vs Bulkington: Bulkington's apparently hinted to be an alternative to Ahab- a better man, perhaps?
Ahab and Fedallah: Both are fire worshippers. The latter is the former's dark shadow.
Ahab vs Pip: Pip shows that Ahab still has a heart. Pip loses sanity after being abandoned at sea; Ahab isolates himself in his cabin. Both are mad. Both don't survive their woe. Pip is blessed with vision; Ahab becomes blinded by his obsession.
Ahab vs Stubb: Stubb has in him more joy than sorrow; Ahab succumbs to the woe that is madness.
Ahab vs Queequeg: Queequeg is at peace with the world; Ahab fights against nature by trying to take revenge on a dumb brute.
Ahab vs Starbuck: Starbuck is pious and good; Ahab is blasphemous and says he'd strike the sun if it insulted him. Starbuck is pragmatic; Ahab throws away reason. Starbuck's the only person that objects to Ahab's quest, but he doesn't actually do anything, whereas Ahab does everything to achieve his aim.
Most importantly, Ahab vs Ishmael: Ahab's associated with fire; Ishmael, with water. Ahab locks himself up in the cabin; Ishmael lives with the crew, and with the sea. Ahab quarrels with God; Ishmael's at one with nature. Ahab loses himself to the woe that is madness; Ishmael can dive down to the blackest gorges and soar out of them again. Ahab has a monomania and cares about nothing else; Ishmael embraces everything, he has an insatiable curiosity and an inexhaustible sense of wonder. Ahab, being vengeful, can no longer enjoy; Ishmael has a sense of humour and finds joy in life. Ahab's only concerned with himself (even when he analyses the doubloon, it's all about himself); Ishmael has a fluid consciousness and can participate in other people's imaginations. Ahab is the force of linearity; Ishmael is a force of digression. Ahab has a static world view; Ishmael is open-minded and full of self-contradictions, and can change. Ahab is a symbol of tyranny; Ishmael, democracy. 
Or Ahab and Ishmael can be seen in categorical terms:
That contrast, in a sense, makes up the book. 

Thursday 21 April 2016

Melville and the seasons

Whilst other people write about water metaphors (Ishmael) and fire or sun metaphors (Ahab, and his dark shadow the prophet Fedallah), I'd like to draw your attention to something else in Moby Dick: Melville and the seasons and the months. 
From chapter 1: 
"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."
Same place:
"True, they rather order me about some, and make me jump from spar to spar, like a grasshopper in a May meadow."
From chapter 8:
"At the time I now write of, Father Mapple was in the hardy winter of a healthy old age; that sort of old age which seems merging into a second flowering youth, for among all the fissures of his wrinkles, there shone certain mild gleams of a newly developing bloom—the spring verdure peeping forth even beneath February's snow."
From chapter 28:
"Nevertheless, ere long, the warm, warbling persuasiveness of the pleasant, holiday weather we came to, seemed gradually to charm him from his mood. For, as when the red-cheeked, dancing girls, April and May, trip home to the wintry, misanthropic woods; even the barest, ruggedest, most thunder-cloven old oak will at least send forth some few green sprouts, to welcome such glad-hearted visitants; so Ahab did, in the end, a little respond to the playful allurings of that girlish air."
From chapter 29:
"Some days elapsed, and ice and icebergs all astern, the Pequod now went rolling through the bright Quito spring, which, at sea, almost perpetually reigns on the threshold of the eternal August of the Tropic."
From chapter 68:
"But more surprising is it to know, as has been proved by experiment, that the blood of a Polar whale is warmer than that of a Borneo negro in summer."
From chapter 81:
"For young whales, in the highest health, and swelling with noble aspirations, prematurely cut off in the warm flush and May of life, with all their panting lard about them; even these brawny, buoyant heroes do sometimes sink."
From chapter 85:
"While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition."
From chapter 97:
"See with what entire freedom the whaleman takes his handful of lamps—often but old bottles and vials, though—to the copper cooler at the try-works, and replenishes them there, as mugs of ale at a vat. He burns, too, the purest of oil, in its unmanufactured, and, therefore, unvitiated state; a fluid unknown to solar, lunar, or astral contrivances ashore. It is sweet as early grass butter in April."
From chapter 105:
"Furthermore: concerning these last mentioned Leviathans, they have two firm fortresses, which, in all human probability, will for ever remain impregnable. And as upon the invasion of their valleys, the frosty Swiss have retreated to their mountains; so, hunted from the savannas and glades of the middle seas, the whale-bone whales can at last resort to their Polar citadels, and diving under the ultimate glassy barriers and walls there, come up among icy fields and floes; and in a charmed circle of everlasting December, bid defiance to all pursuit from man."
(My emphasis). 

I can see how silent and passive I have been in my Moby Dick series, offering nothing new or interesting. If you want more of my voice, go back to my series on Middlemarch or The Portrait of a Lady or The Woman in White or Frankenstein or something. 
I'm too much in awe of Melville's towering genius, and overwhelmed by all the brilliant essays I've come across, to write down anything worthwhile. 

Chapter 112 "The Blacksmith", or The sea is for the broken-hearted

This is probably 1 of those chapters that most people forget, so I have to write about it.
Look at these lines in the 1st paragraph (the alliteration!):
"No murmur, no impatience, no petulance did come from him. Silent, slow, and solemn; bowing over still further his chronically broken back, he toiled away, as if toil were life itself, and the heavy beating of his hammer the heavy beating of his heart. And so it was."
Chapter 112 is 1 of the saddest chapters in Moby Dick. Perth the blacksmith is sadness saddened. 
"He was an old man, who, at the age of nearly sixty, had postponedly encountered that thing in sorrow's technicals called ruin."
"Sorrow's technicals". I need to steal that phrase.
Ishmael goes on to write about the tragedy of Perth's life.
"... one night, under cover of darkness, and further concealed in a most cunning disguisement, a desperate burglar slid into his happy home, and robbed them all of everything. And darker yet to tell, the blacksmith himself did ignorantly conduct this burglar into his family's heart. It was the Bottle Conjuror! Upon the opening of that fatal cork, forth flew the fiend, and shrivelled up his home. Now, for prudent, most wise, and economic reasons, the blacksmith's shop was in the basement of his dwelling, but with a separate entrance to it; so that always had the young and loving healthy wife listened with no unhappy nervousness, but with vigorous pleasure, to the stout ringing of her young-armed old husband's hammer; whose reverberations, muffled by passing through the floors and walls, came up to her, not unsweetly, in her nursery; and so, to stout Labor's iron lullaby, the blacksmith's infants were rocked to slumber."
"The blows of the basement hammer every day grew more and more between; and each blow every day grew fainter than the last; the wife sat frozen at the window, with tearless eyes, glitteringly gazing into the weeping faces of her children; the bellows fell; the forge choked up with cinders; the house was sold; the mother dived down into the long church-yard grass; her children twice followed her thither; and the houseless, familyless old man staggered off a vagabond in crape; his every woe unreverenced; his grey head a scorn to flaxen curls!"
I have nothing intelligent to say. Melville's writing is so good that it paralyses me and takes away my speech. I can merely stand here, beatific, and murmur: look at that, see how well-written it is. 
Is Perth going to be an important character? one wonders. Why do we need to know about him, and his life? Then come these lines: 
"Death seems the only desirable sequel for a career like this; but Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried; it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored; therefore, to the death-longing eyes of such men, who still have left in them some interior compunctions against suicide, does the all-contributed and all-receptive ocean alluringly spread forth his whole plain of unimaginable, taking terrors, and wonderful, new-life adventures; and from the hearts of infinite Pacifics, the thousand mermaids sing to them—"Come hither, broken-hearted; here is another life without the guilt of intermediate death; here are wonders supernatural, without dying for them. Come hither! bury thyself in a life which, to your now equally abhorred and abhorring, landed world, is more oblivious than death. Come hither! put up thy gravestone, too, within the churchyard, and come hither, till we marry thee!"
Hearkening to these voices, East and West, by early sunrise, and by fall of eve, the blacksmith's soul responded, Aye, I come! And so Perth went a-whaling." 
That sounds like Ishmael at the start of the story (except that, unlike Ishmael, Perth ceases to live and only exists, and functions like a machine): 
"... Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me." 
Is going to sea a way of preventing suicide, or a different way of committing suicide? Is going to sea getting away from the world and its sorrows, or coming closer to death and feeling it more strongly? 

Wednesday 20 April 2016

A riff on long novels and the Stockholm syndrome theory

1/ I've been reading Moby Dick for over a month. How many books could I have read during that period? Don't know. Do I care? No.
2/ I don't necessarily prefer long books to short books- it depends. But The Death of Ivan Ilyich, albeit a masterpiece, can't compare to Anna Karenina and War and Peace, just as Bartleby, perfect and wonderful as it is, can't compare to Moby Dick, because great ambitions and mighty themes demand a large scope. In long works Tolstoy and Melville can do, or try to do, things that can't be done in short works, and even if they don't successfully accomplish all they aim for, the fact that they try to do so can be admirable enough, and wonderful enough to watch.
3/ Does Mr O'Connell really think people choose to cling stubbornly to a thick book they neither enjoy nor consider great, for the sense of accomplishment at having conquered it? Who has such time, energy and patience?
4/ I gave up on Les Miserables after about 100 pages.
5/ I very much enjoy reading Moby Dick, a lot more than expected. And had lots of fun reading Anna Karenina and War and Peace.
6/ But didn't get as much pleasure from Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda.
7/ Which doesn't mean I didn't see the merits of Middlemarch, which deserves to be called 1 of the greatest British novels.
8/ Though it's hard to say I wouldn't have given up on Daniel Deronda if I'd had the choice.
9/ I gave up on Bleak House.
10/ The suggestion "the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it" is an insult.
11/ Which shows the philistinism of the person who thinks it.
12/ And why do some people read again and again and again those thick, difficult, "unenjoyable" books?
13/ Sometimes, after finishing a masterpiece, we feel that something significant has happened, we have changed, in what way we know not, but it's a blessing for which we are forever thankful.
14/ Our minds seem to have been expanded. We feel richer, more alive.
15/ As readers we all have our blind spots, some books don't speak to us, in them we find no worth, in their popularity we find no meaning, but I stop at that. Some people, usually those insensitive to classics or "serious literature" in general, have to create theories about why some others enjoy "the struggle": sense of accomplishment and pretentiousness. I'm surprised nobody has suggested masochism.
16/ Moby Dick is a book about everything. War and Peace is a book about everything. How can a book about everything be a thin book?
17/ Another similarity: both sometimes convey a sense of joy, a love of life that I don't see in Middlemarch. George Eliot's too serious.
18/ I gave up on Resurrection after about 2/3. Or 3/5. Too didactic and repetitive as a whole, though it has many great passages. 
19/ I gave up on Ada or Ardor, after about 4/5. Getting to the end would have given me the "status" that I've read it, struggled all the way through it, conquered it- but why should I want that? 
20/ The Sound and the Fury isn't long, but it's 1 of the challenging books I love that many people don't believe anyone can enjoy. The emperor's new clothes, they say. 
21/ Anything long is perceived as tedious, boring. Anything difficult, because of digressions or because of experiments with the form, is regarded as self-indulgent. 
22/ Anyone who claims to like such things is considered pretentious. A poseur. 
23/ Anyone who says that taste is beside the point, that there are good books and bad books, that it's all about quality, etc. is called a snob. An elitist. 
24/ Giving up a book doesn't mean one will never come back to it. Some books need to come at the right time. 
25/ (If it's assigned, that's different. How people can write essays based on teachers' lectures and SparkNotes or Shmoop is hard to comprehend). 
26/ Though there's greater chance when I give up after a few pages or a few chapters than when I give up after a great half of it. 
27/ I'm not sure Moby Dick should be read in high school. 
28/ I'm not sure why some people choose an easy way to read a classic novel just so they can say they've read it. 
29/ Or why some people claim to have read anything they haven't read at all. 
30/ "One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other." 

Sunday 17 April 2016

"There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness."

I'm thinking about this passage in chapter 96 "The Try-Works": 
"There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar." 
The 1st line was difficult when I came across the quote some months ago, before I read Moby Dick, but now makes sense. There is a wisdom in woe, or woe leads to wisdom, because there is much darkness and injustice in life: 
"... that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true—not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon's, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe." 
One has to recognise the dark side of life. And yet woe carried to extreme (i.e. to see life as all evil and darkness) becomes madness, as we see in Ahab. Perhaps also in Pip? They don't survive their woe, and thus become mad. 
Ishmael says: 
"Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! [...] believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly..." 
"Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me." 
Ahab looks so long "in the face of the fire" that he sees nothing but evil, and all the evil of the world is to him embodied in Moby Dick. He gives himself up to passion, anger and his wish for revenge. 
How do you understand the Catskill eagle lines? I'm never good at ideas. Does it mean Ishmael is (kind of) praising Ahab, who is fully human, or superhuman, because his soul is so deep that in madness he experiences the heights and depths of emotion that the average person can't? Or is it the opposite, that Ishmael is talking about the people who can see the darkness of life, and perhaps experience great sadness and despair, yet who can nevertheless rise above it and soar, resisting the woe that is madness? 


Ishmael can resist the madness. 

At the beginning of the novel, he's depressed, suicidal: 
"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship."
Instead of knocking people's hats off, he takes to the ship. And lives. And dreams. And finds joy in life. 
Ishmael can be melancholy and dejected sometimes, but he always retains some humour: 
"I quickly followed suit, and descending into the bar-room accosted the grinning landlord very pleasantly. I cherished no malice towards him, though he had been skylarking with me not a little in the matter of my bedfellow.
However, 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." (chapter 5)
He has some humour and acceptance even when speaking like a cynic, after he almost dies: 
"There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when 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." (chapter 49) 
And then: 
"... After the ceremony was concluded upon the present occasion, I felt all the easier; a stone was rolled away from my heart. 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." (ibid.)
And, in spite of everything, Ishmael has a calmness in his soul: 
"... And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy." (chapter 87)
He takes everything, and because he's sensitive, may sometimes get angry or dejected, but he can embrace, accept and absorb everything, and can find joy. 
Another character we should talk about is Queequeg- he's at peace with the world, he also resists the woe that is madness. 


Perhaps next time reading Moby Dick I should collect the great quotes and create something called "Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings of Ishmael". Would definitely include this one from chapter 87: 

"[T]here is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men." 
And from chapter 68: 
"Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it."  

Saturday 16 April 2016

Again on the whale chapters

(People who haven't read Moby Dick, especially those who expect it to be tedious, should skip this post). 

What do you think the function of the whale chapters is? Explanation and clarification, like footnotes, for the story- making everything more concrete, more specific, more visual, more realistic? You can argue that, for example, in chapter 61, Ishmael describes a whale-killing scene. Then in chapter 62, he describes the process- the dart, the harpoon and the lance, the change of places. Then in chapter 63, he writes about the crotch, where the harpoon is kept. "Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters." 
Or do you think the whale chapters are there for themselves, because they're interesting in themselves? You can say, part of it is that Ishmael wants to grasp the whale, to know it inside out, from head to tail, from blanket to case. That is his quest. His feelings are mixed, the whale is so many things at once: whale and leviathan, God and Satan, a vast, noble, majestic creature and a victim, etc. The attempt to understand stresses the elusiveness of the whale and proves how silly, pointless and unrealistic such a "project" is. Apparently Ishmael's interested in whale facts also because he likes whales, not just because by understanding the whale he can make sense of Moby Dick and the hunt. 
Now, starting to read chapter 93, I've just had a theory that Melville ultimately only cares about whales, that Moby Dick is really an encyclopedia about whales and whaling disguised as fiction, that the story serves the infodumps more than the other way around. For example, Melville wants to compare 2 kinds of whales, so he lets Stubb and Flask kill a right whale after a sperm whale; he wishes to show different methods and techniques in whaling, so he introduces them in chapter 61 "Stubb Kills a Whale" (throwing a harpoon and stabbing the whale repeatedly with a lance until breaking its heart), chapter 84 "Pitchpoling" (throwing a spear made of pine that is furnished with a small rope called a warp) and chapter 87 "The Grand Armada" (among gallied whales, using druggs- thick pieces of wood attached to a harpoon). So now, to tell us that from whales we can get not only oil and spermaceti but also ambergris, Melville creates the story about the Rose-bud and 2 blasted whales in chapter 91. 
No wonder some readers feel cheated, not getting the novel they want, and put down Moby Dick

Thursday 14 April 2016

"No, his great genius is declared in his doing nothing particular to prove it"- The noble sperm whale

1/ Most of the chapter names are literal, i.e. tell us what the chapters are about: "The Chapel", "The Pulpit", "The Sermon", "The Ship", "The Cabin-Table", "The Mast-Head", "The Chart", "The Gam", "Brit", "Squid", "The Dart", "The Crotch", "The Tail", etc. 
Some chapter names, especially the anatomy chapters, are metaphorical: 
- "The Blanket" is about the whale's blubber. 
- "The Battering-Ram" is about the front of the whale's head. 
- "The Great Heidelburgh Tun" (I saw it on my trip to Heidelberg 2 years ago, by the way) is about the upper part in the whale's head called the case. 
- "The Prairie" is about the whale's "forehead". 
- "The Nut" is about the whale's skull and brain.
- "The Fountain" is about the whale's spout-hole. 
Ishmael wants us to see the whale, especially the sperm whale, clearly and does so through: 
- Descriptions. 
- Comparisons with human beings, and other animals: the whale in perspective. 
- Metaphors and similes. 

2/ Do I make it seem like Moby Dick is a tedious book filled with whale facts nobody cares about? Oh Melville is hilarious. I mean, read the passages where Ishmael praises the majestic look and superiority of the whale! 
From chapter 79 "The Prairie": 
"Physiognomically regarded, the Sperm Whale is an anomalous creature. He has no proper nose. [...] Nevertheless, Leviathan is of so mighty a magnitude, all his proportions are so stately, that the same deficiency which in the sculptured Jove were hideous, in him is no blemish at all. Nay, it is an added grandeur. A nose to the whale would have been impertinent. As on your physiognomical voyage you sail round his vast head in your jolly-boat, your noble conceptions of him are never insulted by the reflection that he has a nose to be pulled. A pestilent conceit, which so often will insist upon obtruding even when beholding the mightiest royal beadle on his throne..." 
Same chapter: 
"In thought, a fine human brow is like the East when troubled with the morning. In the repose of the pasture, the curled brow of the bull has a touch of the grand in it. Pushing heavy cannon up mountain defiles, the elephant's brow is majestic. Human or animal, the mystical brow is as that great golden seal affixed by the German Emperors to their decrees. It signifies—"God: done this day by my hand." But in most creatures, nay in man himself, very often the brow is but a mere strip of alpine land lying along the snow line. Few are the foreheads which like Shakespeare's or Melancthon's rise so high, and descend so low, that the eyes themselves seem clear, eternal, tideless mountain lakes; and all above them in the forehead's wrinkles, you seem to track the antlered thoughts descending there to drink, as the Highland hunters track the snow prints of the deer. But in the great Sperm Whale, this high and mighty god-like dignity inherent in the brow is so immensely amplified, that gazing on it, in that full front view, you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature. For you see no one point precisely; not one distinct feature is revealed; no nose, eyes, ears, or mouth; no face; he has none, proper; nothing but that one broad firmament of a forehead, pleated with riddles; dumbly lowering with the doom of boats, and ships, and men. Nor, in profile, does this wondrous brow diminish; though that way viewed its grandeur does not domineer upon you so. In profile, you plainly perceive that horizontal, semi-crescentic depression in the forehead's middle, which, in man, is Lavater's mark of genius.
But how? Genius in the Sperm Whale? Has the Sperm Whale ever written a book, spoken a speech? No, his great genius is declared in his doing nothing particular to prove it. It is moreover declared in his pyramidical silence..."
From chapter 80 "The Nut": 
"... Now, I consider that the phrenologists have omitted an important thing in not pushing their investigations from the cerebellum through the spinal canal. For I believe that much of a man's character will be found betokened in his backbone. I would rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are. A thin joist of a spine never yet upheld a full and noble soul. I rejoice in my spine, as in the firm audacious staff of that flag which I fling half out to the world.
Apply this spinal branch of phrenology to the Sperm Whale. [...] For, viewed in this light, the wonderful comparative smallness of his brain proper is more than compensated by the wonderful comparative magnitude of his spinal cord..." 
From chapter 85 "The Fountain": 
"... But then again, what has the whale to say? Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living. Oh! happy that the world is such an excellent listener!" 
Later in the same chapter: 
"... My hypothesis is this: that the spout is nothing but mist. And besides other reasons, to this conclusion I am impelled, by considerations touching the great inherent dignity and sublimity of the Sperm Whale; I account him no common, shallow being, inasmuch as it is an undisputed fact that he is never found on soundings, or near shores; all other whales sometimes are. He is both ponderous and profound. And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts. While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition.
And how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behold him solemnly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapour, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapour—as you will sometimes see it—glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts..." 
From chapter 86 "The Tail": 
"Being horizontal in its position, the Leviathan's tail acts in a different manner from the tails of all other sea creatures. It never wriggles. In man or fish, wriggling is a sign of inferiority. To the whale, his tail is the sole means of propulsion." 
Same chapter: 
"It is a little significant, that while one sperm whale only fights another sperm whale with his head and jaw, nevertheless, in his conflicts with man, he chiefly and contemptuously uses his tail. In striking at a boat, he swiftly curves away his flukes from it, and the blow is only inflicted by the recoil..." 
"... Excepting the sublime breach—somewhere else to be described—this peaking of the whale's flukes is perhaps the grandest sight to be seen in all animated nature. Out of the bottomless profundities the gigantic tail seems spasmodically snatching at the highest heaven. So in dreams, have I seen majestic Satan thrusting forth his tormented colossal claw from the flame Baltic of Hell. But in gazing at such scenes, it is all in all what mood you are in; if in the Dantean, the devils will occur to you; if in that of Isaiah, the archangels. Standing at the mast-head of my ship during a sunrise that crimsoned sky and sea, I once saw a large herd of whales in the east, all heading towards the sun, and for a moment vibrating in concert with peaked flukes. As it seemed to me at the time, such a grand embodiment of adoration of the gods was never beheld, even in Persia, the home of the fire worshippers. As Ptolemy Philopater testified of the African elephant, I then testified of the whale, pronouncing him the most devout of all beings. For according to King Juba, the military elephants of antiquity often hailed the morning with their trunks uplifted in the profoundest silence.
The chance comparison in this chapter, between the whale and the elephant, so far as some aspects of the tail of the one and the trunk of the other are concerned, should not tend to place those two opposite organs on an equality, much less the creatures to which they respectively belong. For as the mightiest elephant is but a terrier to Leviathan, so, compared with Leviathan's tail, his trunk is but the stalk of a lily. The most direful blow from the elephant's trunk were as the playful tap of a fan, compared with the measureless crush and crash of the sperm whale's ponderous flukes, which in repeated instances have one after the other hurled entire boats with all their oars and crews into the air, very much as an Indian juggler tosses his balls." 

3/ From chapter 85 "The Fountain": 
"Now, why should the whale thus insist upon having his spoutings out, unless it be to replenish his reservoir of air, ere descending for good? How obvious is it, too, that this necessity for the whale's rising exposes him to all the fatal hazards of the chase." 
What gives them life may be the very thing that brings them death. 
Just a short while ago Ishmael talked of the honour and glory of whaling, and described the skills, strength and bravery of whalemen, now: 
"For not by hook or by net could this vast leviathan be caught, when sailing a thousand fathoms beneath the sunlight. Not so much thy skill, then, O hunter, as the great necessities that strike the victory to thee!" 
Humble, hunters. 
Ishmael not only jumps from 1 topic to another, having an infectious enthusiasm for everything, but also constantly changes in his views and keeps contradicting himself. That's what makes him so fascinating. 

Sunday 10 April 2016

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Why are there so many films and books about a woman isolated from the world and cut off from life, forever imprisoned in some glorious past, craving love or attention and mistaking fantasy for reality? Miss Havisham is the ultimate example. Another is William Faulker's Emily. In film, we've got Vivien Leight's Blanche DuBois and Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond, 2 of the greatest performances in cinema (strictly speaking Blanche's not so isolated, but even whilst living among other people, she lives in her own world and has her own version of truth). What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has not 1, but 2 characters that live in the past: the crippled Blanche, in a wheelchair, watches her own films from 3 decades ago and keeps talking about a successful career killed by a car crash; whilst her sister Jane, more extreme and more pathetic, keeps talking about her fame as a child star, which is even further back in the past. 
The film is a psychological thriller. Crippled and isolated from almost everyone else, Blanche is dependent on 1 person, who unfortunately hates her. It can be seen that from an early age, the sisters don't get along very well. I hesitate to say they have a love-hate relationship- is there any love in it? There's certainly lots of loathing, especially on Jane's side. One wonders why they keep living together in the same house- they just do, detesting and tormenting each other. Imagine being entirely dependent on a person who not only hates you from the core of their being and has lots of power over you but who is also mad. As Blanche talks of her plan of selling the house and having someone to take care of Jane, Jane becomes madder and madder. What do you think she can do? How far do you think she can go? Where is the limit for a deranged person?
The problem with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is that, as in the novel The Woman in White, the villain is surrounded, and unhindered, by a bunch of slow, dim-witted characters, whose stupidity is part of the plot mechanics. The tension is increased and the film becomes more horrifying as Jane slowly takes away everything from Blanche and cuts off all of her connections with the outside world and increasingly terrorises her, but because the helpless one continually fails and the evil one consistently wins by always getting back in time to catch everything and thwart all of the captive's attempts, it increasingly feels like a farce. Impatience leads to annoyance. Why is Blanche so idiotic? Why doesn't she shout to get the attention of the neighbour? Why does she take so much more time to type a note and throw it than for her sister to go out, do something and then drive back? Why does she not look before throwing the crumpled note? Why does she try to watch/ eavesdrop on Jane and the piano player instead of taking advantage of the moment, when Jane's busy, to find a way to escape? Why does she take so much time getting down the stairs and making the phone call that Jane drives away and does several things and can still get home on time to catch her? Why does she call the doctor instead of 911? When she gets hold of the doctor, why does she not go straight to the point, that her sister's getting more seriously sick mentally, terrorising, isolating and starving her, forging her signatures on checks and perhaps planning to kill her? Why does she talk in circles so the doctor doesn't realise the seriousness of the situation? Why does Elvira, the maid, spend so much time opening the door? Why does she stand till and make a whole speech before it, that when Jane comes back from a drive, she still hasn't forced it open? Why does the neighbour, always finding Jane obnoxious and unbearable, still have a friendly talk and tell her everything? Why does she not notice something strange in Jane's reaction? Why does she not notice anything? Why does Elvira threaten Jane to call the police, which is more likely to do harm than good? Why does she put down the hammer? Why does she let Jane stand behind her, and not look around? Why does she not see that the gagged Blanche's panicky, alarmed look is a way to signal danger? etc.
Or maybe they aren't slow, I'm just quick (having learnt quite a few things from suspense and thriller films and crime series).
However, those are minor nuisances. What we get is Bette Davis at her best, perhaps even surpassing her own performance in All About Eve. Jane's face's full of contempt whenever she walks into the room and looks at her own sister; everything she does seems filled of loathing; even the way she walks around, carrying the tray, shows a kind of resistance- we can see, watching her walk alone, that she's fed up with the job and sick of the person of whom she takes care, but can do nothing about it. At some point her resistance no longer stops at making known her hatred (shown in the walk, for example), reading and throwing away the fan mail or quarrelling and mocking; she goes further, and further, and further. Bette Davis portrays Jane as ugly, selfish, self-absorbed, grumpy, rude, deceitful, mean-minded, envious, vengeful, cruel, ruthless, violent, merciless and, above all, unpredictable. And yet, she doesn't make Jane a complete monster- she humanises her. The same way she has no fear depicting all the odiousness, meanness and brutality of the character, she shows no hesitation in looking absolutely ridiculous, especially in the scene where she, looking more like a waxwork than Gloria Swanson does in Sunset Boulevard, wears a dress and sings "I've Written a Letter to Daddy". That scene and the little moments when she says she's Baby Jane Hudson and expects recognition and an enthusiastic response from a stranger make her pathetic and awfully pitiable in her delusion and madness. And when she, after a moment of delirium, suddenly sees herself in the mirror and screams in horror, it's devastating. The different facets of her character and the contrasts between when she knows what she's doing (and doing something cruel) and when she's detached from reality, give Jane Hudson depth, complexity and a kind of humanity.
Bette Davis transforms into the character. She can look grotesque, but her grotesqueness never seems out of place. Her style is forceful and intense, and there is a kind of rawness to her performance that is both terrifying and heartbreaking. This is a performance that once seen, can never be forgotten. 

Saturday 9 April 2016

Cutting down Moby Dick

I've just come across a lovely essay discussing Moby Dick: In Half the Time.
"... There is nothing self-indulgent about Moby Dick. Ishmael, the narrator, is self-effacing and rarely speaks about himself. He always step backs, placing himself in the vast perspective of the subject matters of the novel. It is one of the least egotistical books I’ve read.
Self-indulgent, however, is a word I’ve often heard lately from readers and reviewers—and editors and agents. Pretentious is another. Again, I’m not sure what they mean, but these words seem to be applied to anything that taxes them in content or form, or slows them down, or stretches their frame of reference.
If these editors have their say—and they have—this is my greatest regret about writing today, that we can’t have anxious, half-mad, much less fully mad, novels. For me it is enough cause to write one.
But the novel is an exploration of sanity, set against the serious madness of Ahab. Not mentioned in Gopnik’s comments is what buoys the narrative and helps keep madness in check, Melville’s generous democratic spirit and the expansive humor that infuse his book. Nor does Melville ever rest with certainty, or the appearance of certainty. He does not claim to have all the answers, or any of them. This, to me, is sanity, and Moby Dick is as sane as a novel can get.
Moby Dick is a ponderous book that promotes pondering. Is there a god or gods, thus a basis for religion? Is there any point to philosophy? Is our culture determined by anything other than our desires and their manifestations and perversions? I have no idea, but all of these are engaging esthetic propositions that give a novel depth and extension..."

"... These editors suffer, I fear, from a modern condition known as sanity. Fiction has made progress, and we have discovered its true structure. There is no longer any need to experiment with the form. Novels must be terse, direct, and clean, where motives and actions are what count most, perhaps all that count. Action speaks louder than thought and should be decisive and quick. There is no room for doubt or hesitation, no reason to question ourselves or look for other contexts. Our references should come from the things that most catch our attention at the moment, that most thrill. We know all we need to know now and have no need for looking back..."
Well, personally I think if you don't want to read the whole book, you might as well go for Cozy Classics and read Moby Dick in 12 words:
Sailor. Boat. Captain. Leg. Mad. Sail. Find. Whale. Chase. Smash. Sink. Float.


I've been watching over and over again this video of a young sperm whale: 

My blog's turning into a whale blog.

Friday 8 April 2016

Other thoughts on the whiteness of the whale

Earlier I wrote that in chapter 42, Ishmael challenged the association of the colour white with positive qualities such as purity, sublimity, honour... by suggesting that white could cause/ intensify fear. Now, reading it again, I still don't know what the chapter means, or what Melville means to say, with all the ideas and symbols, but I'd put it differently: if we put aside Daggoo's remark 2 chapters earlier about black, and don't assume that chapter 42 is necessarily about race, what Ishmael does is writing about the 2 different, or opposite, effects of the colour white, thus pointing to the elusiveness, indescribability, ungraspability and, most importantly, the duality of the colour. It can be beautiful, it can also look bleak and desolate. It can be sweet, it can also heighten dread and terror. It can be a colour of innocence and purity and sacredness, it can also be a blankness, an absence of colour. White has a duality the way the whale has double meaning: both God and Satan, both good and evil, both a victim and a sea monster, both a dumb brute and a force of nature...
The point is not which of the 2 sides is the meaning. It's the duality that is the point.
Moby Dick is built upon a double quest: Ahab's is to hunt a whale, Ishmael's is to understand both the whale and the hunt. Ahab simplifies (seeing Moby Dick as the personification of all the evil in the world, giving up on life and concentrating all of his time and energy on the pursuit of the whale), Ishmael elaborates and complicates (combining book-learning and actual experience, bringing in history, religion, philosophy, biology... to get to know the whale). Ahab has 1 obsession and cares about nothing else ("This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne'er enjoy"), Ishmael embraces everything and finds great joy. And, as John Bryant and Haskell Springer put it, the novel's structured around 2 consciousnesses, with Ahab as a force of linearity and Ishmael a force of digression. 
I think of Moby Dick in terms of number 2 (pairs, doubles, opposites, foils).