Tuesday 28 June 2016

Revisiting "Bartleby"- questions and more questions

How can I find anything new to write about "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street", Melville's 2nd most known work and perhaps most widely read work, more than Moby Dick (because it's short, more accessible, and taught in schools)?
1 thing though, I won't make any claims or conclusions, because after several readings I've decided that "Bartleby" is a rich, open and ambiguous work that supports multiple interpretations and can mean many things at once.

1/ 1 Sunday morning, the narrator goes to church and, finding it early, decides to go to his office. To his surprise, he discovers that the door is locked from the inside, and:
"... thrusting his lean visage at me, and holding the door ajar, the apparition of Bartleby appeared, in his shirt sleeves, and otherwise in a strangely tattered dishabille, saying quietly that he was sorry, but he was deeply engaged just then, and—preferred not admitting me at present. In a brief word or two, he moreover added, that perhaps I had better walk round the block two or three times, and by that time he would probably have concluded his affairs."
What's Bartleby doing then?

2/ How does the narrator feel, upon discovering that Bartleby has been making the office his home?
"Immediately then the thought came sweeping across me, What miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible! Think of it. Of a Sunday, Wall-street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building too, which of week-days hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home; sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous—a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage!
For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not-unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam."
That feeling doesn't last long.
"... Revolving all these things, and coupling them with the recently discovered fact that he made my office his constant abiding place and home, and not forgetful of his morbid moodiness; revolving all these things, a prudential feeling began to steal over me. My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion. So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul rid of it. What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach."
Then he decides to fire him. That he doesn't do yet, as we see in the next scenes, but he thinks of firing him, even though at that point Bartleby hasn't stopped copying.
The narrator isn't as kind as he thinks and says he is.

3/ Later, having sacked Bartleby, given him money and expected him to have gone, our narrator comes to his office the next morning in a feeling of relief mixed with uncertainty.
"As I had intended, I was earlier than usual at my office door. I stood listening for a moment. All was still. He must be gone. I tried the knob. The door was locked. Yes, my procedure had worked to a charm; he indeed must be vanished. Yet a certain melancholy mixed with this: I was almost sorry for my brilliant success. I was fumbling under the door mat for the key, which Bartleby was to have left there for me, when accidentally my knee knocked against a panel, producing a summoning sound, and in response a voice came to me from within—'Not yet; I am occupied'."
At this point, Bartleby has given up on copying (actually, the word in the text is "writing"). The only thing he does all day, according to the narrator, is standing and staring at the wall.
What's he possibly doing then? Occupied with what?
To me, it's unlikely that he's simply standing there in his dead-wall reveries. There must be something secretive that Bartleby does in the office before other people show up. I have no idea. Let's start speculating.

4/ This is the goodbye scene, when the narrator changes his office:
"I re-entered, with my hand in my pocket—and—and my heart in my mouth.
'Good-bye, Bartleby; I am going—good-bye, and God some way bless you; and take that,' slipping something in his hand. But it dropped upon the floor, and then,—strange to say—I tore myself from him whom I had so longed to be rid of."
What is the something?

5/ Look at Bartleby's corpse: 
"Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby. " 
Like a foetus? 

Friday 24 June 2016

Vere the tyrant

My book Melville's Short Novels—Norton Critical Edition includes some criticisms, and from the look of it, readers of “Billy Budd, Sailor”, as with “Benito Cereno”, fall into 2 camps: Vere or anti-Vere. 
Here are Robert K. Martin Jr’s anti-Vere arguments in “Is Vere a Hero?”: 
1/ “Nothing that we know about the role of the Captain from the earlier works could lead us to believe that Melville would create a captain who represents the moral perspective of the author: every Captain in Melville is corrupt, a tyrant, or a madman.” 
2/ Vere is a snob. What does he read? “Those books that ‘every serious mind of superior order occupying any active post of authority in the world naturally inclines’ toward (my emphasis). His conservatism is not the product of careful reflection on new ideas, but instead ‘a dike against those invading waters of novel opinion social, political and otherwise’.” 
That’s a good point. Let’s look at Melville’s text. 
“In this line of reading he found confirmation of his own more reserved thoughts—confirmation which he had vainly sought in social converse, so that as touching most fundamental topics, there had got to be established in him some positive convictions which he forefelt would abide in him essentially unmodified so long as his intelligent part remained unimpaired.” 
Vere reads to find confirmation of his own ideas, i.e. avoids books that challenge them. That is narrow-mindedness. We see that later, when Billy Budd strikes Claggart dead, he decides at once that “the angel must hang” and afterwards sticks to it, without much struggle.  
Let’s go on. 
“While other members of that aristocracy to which by birth he belonged were incensed at the innovators mainly because their theories were inimical to the privileged classes, not alone Captain Vere disinterestedly opposed them because they seemed to him incapable of embodiment in lasting institutions, but at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.” 
He’s afraid of change, afraid of anything that looks like a threat to his sense of peace and stability. His fear of such threats later becomes so strong, stronger than anything, that he forgets justice and conscience in his judgement of Billy. 
The narrator then says that Vere lacks “the companionable quality”*, that he is dry and bookish. We see later that Vere thinks in the abstract and forgets that Billy Budd is a human being. 
Besides, speaking of snobbishness, Vere makes allusions without caring whether or not his listeners understand them. 
3/ Martin notes that Vere “betrays the very code he claims to believe in. It is not even necessary to accept the idea of a moral code higher than military justice (although I am certain that Melville did) in order to condemn Vere. Revolution may be a legitimate fear, but does it justify the suspension of legal procedure? And if Vere acts only out of a justified fear of mutiny, why not act on that basis instead of cloaking his behavior in legal self-righteousness.” 
The court doesn’t determine evidence.
“Vere is the accuser, the witness, and the judge; he is even the defense counsel at moments. No witnesses are heard; no attempt is even made to determine the truth of Claggart’s accusation. Of course, the fact that the accusation is false does not alter the fact that Billy killed Claggart, but it does determine a great deal about motive and justification.” 
Martin adds, “it is Vere’s assumption of the danger of mutiny that justifies his suspension of proper procedure, although no effort whatever is made to examine that assumption. Vere has decided Billy’s fate before the court meets, and he uses his power to manipulate the court’s decision. The trial is a sham, the pretense of justice and not justice itself”. 
Now let’s examine Vere’s language as he speaks before the drumhead court. 
“Quite apart from any conceivable motive actuating the master-at-arms, and irrespective of the provocation to the blow, a martial court must needs in the present case confine its attention to the blow’s consequence, which consequence justly is to be deemed not otherwise than as the striker’s deed.” (the italics are Martin’s, to emphasise Vere’s exploitation of the legalese) 
All of those words mean nothing but that Billy struck Claggart. 
“It is not possible to imagine that Melville would cast as hero a man who could so abuse the language.” 
4/ Martin says, defenders of Vere argue that he represents “a higher ethic” than “justice to the individual”, namely “the claims of civilized society”. 
That is not true. “Vere’s decision to hold the court is contrary to law and to the opinion of his officers. It corresponds only to his own desires. Far from establishing a higher social order, Vere imposes the rule of the individual (himself) over social justice.” 
5/ “Vere, that double of Claggart, is driven by ‘the most secret of all passions, ambition’. But as Claggart is never able to profit from his currying of favor with higher authority by denouncing Billy, since he is killed by Billy, so Vere does not live long enough to attain to ‘the fulness of fame’, since he is killed in battle by the French shortly after Billy’s execution. The deaths of the 2 men who might have gained by the death of Billy adds a final turn of the ironic screw: all that killing, and not even ambition is served.” 

*: This is a quality that Melville ranks high, as Carolyn L. Karcher argues in “Melville and Revolution”: For example, see Melville’s description of John Marr “to a man wonted… to the free-and-easy tavern clubs… in certain old and comfortable sea-port towns of that time, and yet more familiar with the companionship afloat of the sailors… something was lacking [in the company of his neighbors]. That something was geniality, the flower of life springing from some sense of joy in it, more or less”. Or Melville’s disparagement of Emerson’s lack of convivial geniality. 

Thursday 23 June 2016

The 2 halves of "Billy Budd, Sailor"

What can I possibly say that hasn't been said of "Billy Budd, Sailor"? 
The story is cut into 2 halves, by the scene of John Claggart speaking to captain Edward Fairfax Vere: 
- The 1st part is chiefly about 2 things: Claggart's envy and Billy Budd's innocence. 
Regarding envy, Melville makes an interesting point: 
"... Now envy and antipathy, passions irreconcilable in reason, nevertheless in fact may spring conjoined like Chang and Eng in one birth. Is Envy then such a monster? Well, though many an arraigned mortal has in hopes of mitigated penalty pleaded guilty to horrible actions, did ever anybody seriously confess to envy? Something there is in it universally felt to be more shameful than even felonious crime."
It makes me think of a passage by Angus Wilson: 
"All the seven deadly sins are self-destroying, morbid appetites, but in their early stages at least, lust and gluttony, avarice and sloth know some gratification, while anger and pride have power, even though that power eventually destroys itself. Envy is impotent, numbed with fear, never ceasing in its appetite, and it knows no gratification, but endless self-torment. It has the ugliness of a trapped rat, which gnaws its own foot in an effort to escape." 
Linked to the theme of envy is the theme of evil and human nature. Knowledge of the world and knowledge of human nature are "distinct branches", and some people, like Claggart, are "a nut not be cracked by the tap of a lady's fan". This theme is connected with another one- Billy Budd's innocence, or his inability to recognise and acknowledge evil. 
- In the 2nd part, Billy Budd fades into the background. He's still there, the characters talk about him, the actions concern and affect him, but the 2nd part is more about captain Vere- more specifically, his rigidity, his reasoning and all of his actions that cause Billy's death. 
There can be several themes: Vere's rigidity and his abstract thinking (reminiscent of Shakespeare's Brutus), the law (Vere mounts a drumhead court instead of turning the case to admirals, and takes over as sole witness, prosecutor, judge, and executioner), and the harm of the inaction of those who are unable to change a thing (intellectually inferior, the men of the drumhead court are unable to articulate their disagreements or hesitations) or who are able but indifferent (the surgeon and the chaplain), for example. 
"Billy Budd, Sailor" is so rich, as Melville's works usually are. We can go on and on and talk about other themes, like Christ, Adam, angels, father and son, Abraham and Isaac (if Vere is Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac, that is, Billy Budd, what does he sacrifice him for?), conscience, fate, God, Billy's last words and Vere's last words, the falsified report... but I'll stop here. (If you're a student stealing my ideas for an essay, please let me know which grade you get). 
What I find really interesting is how sharply divided in half the story is, at least that's how it feels to me.
Do you feel the same? 

Wednesday 22 June 2016

Billy Budd's character

I finished reading Matthew Selwyn's book last Wednesday. My initial plan was to read The Sympathiser next, but, as rules are made to be broken, plans are made to be changed- to be safe, I returned to the Melville book, and have been reading "Billy Budd, Sailor". 
What can we say about Billy, more formally William Budd, more tenderly Baby? 
Innocent and simple. The word attached to the character is innocence, innocence, innocence. 
Melville establishes and depicts Billy Budd's character through: 
I/ Telling
II/ Showing (his actions and reactions show naivete, simplicity and slowness)
III/ Imagery, metaphors and similes 
As one may expect, he's compared to a child: 
"In certain matters, some sailors even in mature life remain unsophisticated enough. But a young seafarer of the disposition of our athletic Foretopman, is much of a child-man." 
The narrator goes on to say: 
"And yet a child's utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and the innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes. But in Billy Budd intelligence, such as it was, had advanced, while yet his simplemindedness remained for the most part unaffected. Experience is a teacher indeed; yet did Billy's years make his experience small. Besides, he had none of that intuitive knowledge of the bad which in natures not good or incompletely so foreruns experience, and therefore may pertain, as in some instances it too clearly does pertain, even to youth."
Here is another thing "Billy Budd, Sailor" has in common with "Benito Cereno", besides the ship setting: the incapacity in some people to comprehend and acknowledge evil. 
I also notice that, unlike other characters, he's constantly compared to animals: 
"To the surprise of the ship's company, though much to the Lieutenant's satisfaction, Billy made no demur. But, indeed, any demur would have been as idle as the protest of a goldfinch popped into a cage."
"Like the animals, though no philosopher, he was, without knowing it, practically a fatalist." 
"The ear, small and shapely, the arch of the foot, the curve in mouth and nostril, even the indurated hand dyed to the orange-tawny of the toucan's bill, a hand telling alike of the halyards and tar-bucket..."
"Noble descent was as evident in him as in a blood horse."
"For the rest, with little or no sharpness of faculty or any trace of the wisdom of the serpent, nor yet quite a dove, he possessed that kind and degree of intelligence going along with the unconventional rectitude of a sound human creature, one to whom not yet has been proffered the questionable apple of knowledge. He was illiterate; he could not read, but he could sing, and like the illiterate nightingale was sometimes the composer of his own song.
Of self-consciousness he seemed to have little or none, or about as much as we may reasonably impute to a dog of Saint Bernard's breed."
"Now when the Master-at-arms noticed whence came that greasy fluid streaming before his feet, he must have taken it--to some extent wilfully, perhaps--not for the mere accident it assuredly was, but for the sly escape of a spontaneous feeling on Billy's part more or less answering to the antipathy on his own. In effect a foolish demonstration he must have thought, and very harmless, like the futile kick of a heifer, which yet were the heifer a shod stallion, would not be so harmless."
"In his disgustful recoil from an overture which tho' he but ill comprehended he instinctively knew must involve evil of some sort, Billy Budd was like a young horse fresh from the pasture suddenly inhaling a vile whiff from some chemical factory, and by repeated snortings tries to get it out of his nostrils and lungs."
"This utterance, the full significance of which it was not at all likely that Billy took in, nevertheless caused him to turn a wistful interrogative look toward the speaker, a look in its dumb expressiveness not unlike that which a dog of generous breed might turn upon his master seeking in his face some elucidation of a previous gesture ambiguous to the canine intelligence."
(emphasis mine)
I suppose this means: 1, Billy Budd's simplicity is the simplicity of animals, he neither has nor recognises the hypocrisy, cunning and deceit of people; 2, Billy Budd's position is like that of animals, with little freedom and few rights (the ship he says goodbye to is called Rights of Man). 
What I find intriguing is, do you see how feminine he is? Not only is Billy Budd extolled for his beauty and described as having rosy cheeks, he's compared to women: 
"As the Handsome Sailor, Billy Budd's position aboard the seventy-four was something analogous to that of a rustic beauty transplanted from the provinces and brought into competition with the highborn dames of the court."
And later: 
"Though our Handsome Sailor had as much of masculine beauty as one can expect anywhere to see; nevertheless, like the beautiful woman in one of Hawthorne 's minor tales, there was just one thing amiss in him. No visible blemish, indeed, as with the lady; no, but an occasional liability to a vocal defect."
(emphasis mine) 
What does it mean? That Billy Budd is, like women at the time, limited by nature and oppressed by society? 
Or that Billy is actually a female figure, who is only a man because the setting of Melville's work is a ship? 
Or perhaps the comparisons should be taken singly and have no general significance. 

Tuesday 14 June 2016

****: the narrator, Kim Kardashian and Lolita

Still reading Matthew Selwyn's ****, or, The Anatomy of Melancholy
Look at this passage: 
“Shoes off, I climb the stairs and drop down onto my bed, covers still falling into the inviting pool of my carpet where I left them this morning. Reaching up, I hit the power button on my laptop, which sits on my desk. Kim Kardashian appears briefly, then the familiar loading screen. Longest 2 minutes of the day. 
I lie back on my bed; close my eyes and rest, wishing away the seconds until I have something to open my lids for once more. The computer’s fan whizzes, the CD drive begins to spin—the familiar routine, the comforting commotion only inches from my ears. 
The computer lets loose another chime, a double-take. I look up, concerned, but see Kardashian’s famous bust right where it should be, the cursor spinning over her right nipple—teasing me and her at the same time. […]
The chimes fire across my thoughts again and I sit up a little, pulling the laptop onto my belly. The icons scatter across Kim’s perfect body before my eyes, the cursor still spinning but more slowly now, easing off, preparing to draw the world into my bedroom. All looks fine, my heartbeat slows, and I rest back on my elbows as the final few programs load. Admiring those perfect caramel tits, hidden now by the mess of files dropped on top of them, I relax—but then the chime goes again. Shit. Maybe the sound card is busted; not the end of the world, but fuck scenes are less animal without the groans. And I certainly don’t want any lovely to be competing with that dull chime, orgasmic screams being beaten out by the repetitive drone.”
Here the phone rings. 
“My eyes focus, I look down at it: ‘Josie’, it tells me, ‘Josie’ is trying to connect with me.” 
Who’s Josie? we wonder. The narrator picks up the phone—Josie turns out to be his mother, telling him to open the door, “knobhead”. 
“The chimes start again, insistent. I blink at Kim’s boobs before they disappear into another loading screen, brother to the one from 5 minutes past…” 
Selwyn gets points for the bit about Josie—an element of surprise (though I’d probably write “I glance at it. Josie.”—that is enough). Here we have a young man who has spent pages boasting of his size, performance and experience, of his conquests, of his independence and nonconformity—despite occasional hints that the narrator isn’t who he says he is, everything has led the reader to expect Josie to be anyone but his mother. When the narrator introduces himself to us, he appears to dominate, to be in control of everything, to understand “the system” and exploit it for his own use, to see through all falsehoods and pretences, to know everything of which everyone else is ignorant. All of a sudden we realise that he’s unemployed. Then it turns out that he lives with his mother and his father left a while ago. Later, we see him with a psychoanalyst. And so on. Slowly, slowly, the character’s revealed to us. 
My chief problem with **** is the prose. If you like it, or don’t mind it, **** might interest you as a book about a loner, a loser, a misanthrope, a kind of sociopath. Now and then I’m not very convinced—for instance, look back at the passage quoted above, does that sound like someone that likes Kim Kardashian? I don’t think so. Clearly, the author doesn’t like Kim Kardashian, and only tries to slip into the mind of someone who does. But in general, Selwyn does depict the character’s misanthropy and cynicism, as well as the insecurities beneath it.  
Another thing that might interest you is the picture of modern society—(if you think) this is an age of the screen, of porn, of plastics and virtual worlds, of sex prioritised over love and hook-ups preferred to relationships, etc. 
On my part, I’m not much of an aesthete, compared to some readers (I’ll pick Tolstoy over Flaubert any time), but I like poetic and rhythmic prose, original and striking metaphors, and have always valued artistic genius over ideas. It’s not that I like elaborate prose (not always), nor that I mind a colloquial style, nor that I have issues with the harshness and vulgarity of the narrator’s language, I simply find it clumsy and clunky. Should we think it’s the character rather than the author that writes clunky prose? Should we think the clichés are his rather than Selwyn’s? 
Let’s talk about another scene. The narrator yells “Where the fuck is Lolita?”. That doesn’t refer to a girl named Lolita, but to the Nabokov book that he has misplaced somewhere and now has to find. What’s the purpose of the scene? 1, he reads Lolita (earlier in the book, we’re told that he reads Kierkegaard and Sartre and Flaubert, knows about Auden and Kingsley Amis, and is familiar with Freud’s ideas). 2, his mother is a philistine, who doesn’t care about books and doesn’t know the difference between Fight Club and Lolita. 3, as a result, the mother and the son are too different to be close—to be precise, he sees her as an ignoramus.
He closes the door and blocks her out. 
This is the passage that follows: 
“Looking around, there’s no sign of Lo. Not that there’s too many hiding places. My single bed, covers thrown all over the place: signs of a good night. My desk, leaning unsteadily against my bed and covered with a few used bowls, the odd piece of discarded toast, and my laptop. A swinging chair, the back broken clean off—this is where Lo should be, it’s where my books live. My wardrobe, cheap and tiny, doesn’t even hold my clothes, which spill out from the open doors and onto the grey-brown carpet, mixing with the normal cocktail of crumbs, dust, and condom wrappers. Shit. There’s nowhere for Lo to hide. Even nymphets won’t lower themselves to hang about in a place like this. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got everything I need. But fuck, life in a box isn’t much to shout about. It’s nothing but a holding pen for the inevitable, for the final box. State-sponsored housing? State-sponsored euthanasia.” 
(The last line reveals the 4th significance of the scene). 
The better passages of the book are when the narrator’s talking—when all we have is his voice, with his remarks and ideas. Once he starts to describe (I shall not type the scene where he talks to his girlfriend Lexi over the screen), it doesn’t work very well. 
What do you think? 

Sunday 12 June 2016

****: on the narrator/ main character

On Matthew Selwyn's ****, or, The Anatomy of Melancholy

Swearwords, swearwords, swearwords. Rants. Ravings. Violence, tits, cocks, violence, tits, drugs, fucking, cocks, tits, power, freedom, dicks… A seemingly endless monologue made up of profanities, boasting about size and performance, and cynical, misanthropic comments on everything.
Isn’t it tiresome? 
Then I noticed something interesting in ****
There’s a discrepancy between what the narrator says he’s like and what he’s really like. In his own words, he’s confident, free, powerful, independent and marvellous—alienated from others but indifferent because he’s nonconformist and superior. The illusion is unbroken for pages, until we see him with Chloe when she’s late, and before the man at Job Centre Plus. Does he put on an act before the people around him, or does he lie to us? All of his boasting, with all the bombastic rhetoric about life and love and sex and power and everything, is but a mask, a disguise, a cover, a shelter for a lonely, broken young man—underneath all that confidence, arrogance and disdain is deep insecurity. 
I shall not just call him an unreliable narrator. I’m afraid he doesn’t lie to the readers as much as he lies to himself. 


Going around, I came across this review:
“The protagonist came through as a man stroking his own ego and penis and that was certainly some solid characterisation – but in the wrong way. Bombarded by constant reminders of his penis’ superiority, it was difficult to get beyond those thoughts.” 
Disagree. As I wrote above, there’s something more to it. 

Saturday 11 June 2016

Friday 10 June 2016

****: 1st impression

On Matthew Selwyn's ****, or, The Anatomy of Melancholy

“The chemist was closed, so I went to the movies instead; fat lot of good that did me.” 
Is that a good start? I’m not sure. 
Let’s go on. To open a book with the thought “Try not to be so critical” is, I think, rather disrespectful to the author. 
“This wind tonight; cutting across my face, bringing reluctant tears to my eyes.” 
I don’t like that semicolon very much. 
Nor the one in this sentence: “The street lamps light the way; 2 more streets and I’m there.” 
“My soles kiss the pavement—a gentle smack as plastic meets concrete and I propel myself forward, avoiding jutting paving slabs, broken glass; the debris of life as we know it. 
I breathe heavy, rattling breaths, and drive forward.” 
Am I alone in thinking that it clinks?
Perhaps it’s not a good idea to jump straight to the 21st century after several years of 19th century literature (with a few 20th century exceptions). But look at this passage: 
“A blonde with high cheek bones and Nordic looks smiles up at me.
Running her hand faintly across my face and down my shoulder, Lexi glides straight past me and pulls the pocket Barbie away. Wrapping her slim arms around the blonde, Lexi presses herself close—her breasts squashing against the bony shoulder blades of her partner. The 2 writhe together, Lexi driving blondie’s hips and running 1 of her hands through the mass of bleached hair in front of her. Blondie’s eyes close as she rocks her head back into her partner, but Lexi looks only at me. 
I breathe heavy, the air thick with sweat and sex. Lexi pulls away from Barbie and, giving her a small pat on the bum, pushes her back into the heaving crowd. I look on as the whip of blonde hair disappears into the mass that surrounds us, and then there is only Lex.
Her rich breath, still thick with tobacco, engulfs me as she presses me close. Grabbing her wrist, I pull her to the back of the club, to our only chance of privacy. 
Slamming the door to the disabled toilet behind us, I throw my tiny nymph against the wall, and press up against her—the weight of my body reminding her of the eternal truth of our relationship, of every relationship. Lifting her legs so they’re wrapped around me, I press against her, trapping her in the embrace. Pushing my hot lips away, she pauses—places her forefinger against my mouth and reaches into her the left cup of her over-full bra. 
She pulls out a tiny packet of blow; the soft whiteness of the powder highlighting the grime of the surfaces around us. I step back and release Lex, let her cut the stuff. 
Rolling a loose bill, she stoops and inhales a line. Then another. 
Don’t worry, I get my share. 
The fresh, raw feeling overwhelms. The blood flows, and we fuck, right there among the grime.” 
No, it’s not because I’m used to 19th century style. This is simply not what I see as good prose. 
However, I’ve got an idea: I’ll choose another approach. **** doesn’t seem to have a plot. It’s a mind, a consciousness, no, a voice, a monologue, a one-man show—the narrator’s talking, talking, talking; he doesn’t care if anybody listens; his mind wanders and his interest shifts from 1 thing to another. Slow reading is not the way. I’ll let him talk—I’ll read quickly, without lingering, without pausing after a sentence or a paragraph to think, without rereading often; I’ll let go, and go with the flow. 

Thursday 9 June 2016


I've just started reading ****, or, The Anatomy of Melancholy by Matthew Selwyn. 
Unless I decide to put it down to get back to Melville or move onto The Sympathiser (because I'm depressed at the moment and the book doesn't look like something that goes well with depression), I'll (try to) write about it, and readers of this blog should keep these facts in mind: 
Matthew Selwyn has a few things against him: I generally don't read contemporary novels and over the past few years I've mostly read books that have stood the test of time; I read Moby Dick just a short while ago and it's likely to affect my standards and expectations (see what happened when I read Doctor Zhivago right after Anna Karenina and Lady Chatterley's Lover right after War and Peace?); I generally don't like books with colloquial, slangy style as though the narrator's speaking (The Catcher in the Rye is 1 of the few exceptions). 
There is 1 thing against me: I know Matthew- we haven't met, but we may, he's a blogger friend and the person that sent me the book (signed, last year). You know what that implies. 
Why do I make a public announcement? Because that would make it harder for me to break my promise. Not that I've never made a fool of myself on this blog before, but still...  

Sunday 5 June 2016

"Benito Cereno"

In "The Topicality of Depravity in "Benito Cereno"" (included in the Norton Critical Edition of Melville's Short Novels), Allan Moore Emery remarks that commentators of the story fall into 2 camps:
"(1) those who read the tale as a powerful portrait of human depravity, with a sadistic Babo as the prime embodiment of evil, an obtuse Delano as Melville's figure of naive optimism, and a doomed Cereno as his contrasting symbol of moral awareness, and (2) those who view the tale as a stern indictment of American slavery, complete with an amply prejudiced Delano, a guilt-ridden Cereno, and a sympathetic (or even heroic) Babo, driven to violence by an insufferable bondage."

I belong to the 3rd, or the middle camp- both interpretations are right. The colour grey on the 1st page of "Benito Cereno" isn't only a foreshadowing device for the gloom to come, but also a reminder that things are not black and white, between them are 254 shades of grey.  
A more important theme is perception. Whether Babo is seen as heroic, because he does everything for freedom, or evil, because he kills most officers, controls Cereno and plans to take over another ship, the focus is still the fact that Amasa Delano misunderstands and misinterprets everything, and he does because of his racism. Delano's perception is distorted partly because he has a sunny outlook on life, incapable of recognising evil, but more because he thinks in stereotypes and attaches certain attributes to certain groups of people and doesn't think blacks are capable of cunning. He fails to see people as individuals. In "Benito Cereno", the actions of different characters show that evil can be found in everyone, white or black, male or female, and Babo is neither purely this nor purely that- to put a definite label on him would be reductive. 
"Benito Cereno", I think, is ultimately about perception and racism.

Write about "Benito Cereno" without discussing race and slavery

1/ Here is something I noticed- Melville's or the narrator's fondness for double negatives:
- "With no small interest, Captain Delano continued to watch her—a proceeding not much facilitated by the vapors partly mantling the hull, through which the far matin light from her cabin streamed equivocally enough; much like the sun—by this time hemisphered on the rim of the horizon, and, apparently, in company with the strange ship entering the harbor—which, wimpled by the same low, creeping clouds, showed not unlike a Lima intriguante's one sinister eye peering across the Plaza from the Indian loop-hole of her dusk saya-y-manta."
- "But as if not unwilling to let nature make known her own case among his suffering charge, or else in despair of restraining it for the time, the Spanish captain, a gentlemanly, reserved-looking, and rather young man to a stranger's eye, dressed with singular richness, but bearing plain traces of recent sleepless cares and disquietudes, stood passively by, leaning against the main-mast, at one moment casting a dreary, spiritless look upon his excited people, at the next an unhappy glance toward his visitor."
- "Still, Captain Delano was not without the idea, that had Benito Cereno been a man of greater energy, misrule would hardly have come to the present pass." 
- "His manner upon such occasions was, in its degree, not unlike that which might be supposed to have been his imperial countryman's, Charles V., just previous to the anchoritish retirement of that monarch from the throne."
- "That strange ceremoniousness, too, at other times evinced, seemed not uncharacteristic of one playing a part above his real level."
- "One, too, at that period, not unknown, in the surname, to super-cargoes and sea captains trading along the Spanish Main, as belonging to one of the most enterprising and extensive mercantile families in all those provinces; several members of it having titles; a sort of Castilian Rothschild, with a noble brother, or cousin, in every great trading town of South America."
- "Here Babo, changing his previous grin of mere animal humor into an intelligent smile, not ungratefully eyed his master."
- "And among the Malay pirates, it was no unusual thing to lure ships after them into their treacherous harbors, or entice boarders from a declared enemy at sea, by the spectacle of thinly manned or vacant decks, beneath which prowled a hundred spears with yellow arms ready to upthrust them through the mats."
- "Not unbewildered, again he gazed off for his boat."
- "Not unlikely, perhaps."
- "Captain Delano crossed over to him, and stood in silence surveying the knot; his mind, by a not uncongenial transition, passing from its own entanglements to those of the hemp."
- "Not uninfluenced by the peculiar good-humor at present prevailing, and for the time oblivious of any but benevolent thoughts, Captain Delano, who, from recent indications, counted upon a breeze within an hour or two at furthest, dispatched the boat back to the sealer, with orders for all the hands that could be spared immediately to set about rafting casks to the watering-place and filling them."
- "... said Captain Delano, not unpleased with this sociable plan..."
- "There is, too, a smooth tact about them in this employment, with a marvelous, noiseless, gliding briskness, not ungraceful in its way, singularly pleasing to behold, and still more so to be the manipulated subject of."
- "But to his great satisfaction, Don Benito, as if he began to feel the weight of that treatment with which his slighted guest had, not indecorously, retaliated upon him, now supported by his servant, rose to his feet, and grasping Captain Delano's hand, stood tremulous; too much agitated to speak." 
- "After a moment's pause, he assured his guest that the black's remaining with them could be of no disservice; because since losing his officers he had made Babo (whose original office, it now appeared, had been captain of the slaves) not only his constant attendant and companion, but in all things his confidant."
- "Not unaffected by the close sight of the gleaming steel, Don Benito nervously shuddered; his usual ghastliness was heightened by the lather, which lather, again, was intensified in its hue by the contrasting sootiness of the negro's body."
- "On their way thither, the two captains were preceded by the mulatto, who, turning round as he advanced, with continual smiles and bows, ushered them on, a display of elegance which quite completed the insignificance of the small bare-headed Babo, who, as if not unconscious of inferiority, eyed askance the graceful steward."
- "Not unaffected, Captain Delano would now have lingered; but catching the meekly admonitory eye of the servant, with a hasty farewell he descended into his boat, followed by the continual adieus of Don Benito, standing rooted in the gangway."
- "The tribunal inclined to the opinion that the deponent, not undisturbed in his mind by recent events, raved of some things which could never have happened."
And so on. 
(my emphasis)
Melville does use double negatives in other works too, but not as noticeably as in this short story (or novella).
If you pay attention, you can also see that there are lots of Nos and Nots.
What does it mean? That Delano, in his optimism and naivete, is in denial (of evil), which makes him incapable of seeing things as they are? Or does Melville want to focus on the complexity, the nuances of life, by constantly making us think of the subtle difference between a double negative and a positive? Or does the "no/not+ a negative word" structure point to the fact that Delano is never opposing, because he's always affirmative, in the sense that he holds all the stereotypes in his culture/ race of others, without questioning? Or there's no further meaning in it- Melville only aims for precision?

 2/ "Benito Cereno" isn't called a mystery story, but it has a mystery. All the details are there, laid out before us, but we're led onto the wrong track because we see them through the subjective eyes of a naive, unperceptive, prejudiced person, and this is achieved through the use of 3rd person limited/ subjective. Then we go back and can't understand how we could have missed it in the 1st reading.
Reminds me of another novel also from the 19th century that does the same thing: Jane Austen's Emma.