Thursday, April 30, 2009

American Lit Notebook: Melville

Every class we had for American Lit, we were required to write a single page about our reading. I've pulled them together, unedited. So they will read a little odd, as my audience was my professor, and occasionally they refer to lectures (though that is rare).

References are to some stocky, big-boned edition of Moby-Dick. I don't have it with me, so I can only hope pagination has become standardized. Not that anyone really cares and is checking up on me.


Moby-Dick, I

The way one opens a book is massively important, setting the stage and telling the reader what to expect. Those worth reading more than once, let alone down through the centuries, typically do not waste space nor write without design. We all know Moby-Dick’s opening line, “Call me Ishmael,” a short, though drawled summons to gather about its storyteller. However, that is not how Moby-Dick actually opens, not the first pieces of place-setting Melville gives us, just as Hawthorne did not open with Hester in shackles. The first is his dedication—not Mom or a son, but in fact Hawthorne. Melville’s admiration for Hawthorne, if only indicated through the dedication of this book to him, should suggest to us the kind of writing Melville goes in for: compacted symbolism, interplayed ideas through the medium of persons and story.

All great writers view their craft and the nature of words in distinctive kinds of ways, often as a kind of magic, so it is always wise to pay attention as it might give us a clue as to the kind of power the writer is wielding. I have yet to see to the bottom of it, but when Melville further prefaces his story with an Etymology and Extracts, it may be something to press into. The most intriguing line: “He [the pale Usher] loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.”

It seems needless to say that Moby-Dick is deep, but as I have a tendency to say large things, I have a tough time saying much until I have some sort of grasp on the subject, one which still eludes in the present case. But I will say something about Father Mapple’s sermon. Biblical allusions are always important because it contains the West’s central repository of shared reference and quickly allows one to say quite philosophical pronouncements. I particularly liked Mapple’s cable metaphor: “this book [Jonah] … is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures.” (47) This is a nice metaphor, particularly for those who use symbols (one that Peirce uses to describe knowledge). Just like the Bible, a philosophical allegorist’s story is layered, not all in a single chain, but fitted together and twisted, and finding those twists and how the cord all fits together tells us the cord's strength.

Moby-Dick, II

In its simplest terms, Moby-Dick is an allegory about Humanity’s relationship to nature. Ahab stands in for humankind, Moby-Dick for nature. In addition, the contrast of land and sea provide us this conceptual landscape, and heightens the idea of whaling as a conceptual vehicle. In Chapter 23, Melville briefly describes the safety of land as contrasted with the sea: “the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends….” (105) These we get because of humanity, unlike the “uncivilized seas.” (169) The landscape Melville sets is a civilized, peopled land that offers security, but a sea where “in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God,” a “howling infinite.” (105) Melville says “all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea.” (ibid.)

This is something like an echo of Emerson’s self-reliance and Whitman’s rough individualism. Great thinking, and so writing, seeks independence, the howling infinite (something of an image of the sublime we’d inherited from Kant). It doesn’t want the towns, though they offer security, and is indeed why we built them, just as Whitman says in the “Open Road.” What is interesting is that Melville points out that the safety of shore is, in fact, more dangerous for a ship in a storm. If we take sailing to be code for writing, we might say that the shore, the security of writing in an expected manner for an audience, is occasionally dangerous depending on the weather, the “climate of opinion” as Carl Becker called it. “Which way is the wind blowing?” a politician might ask, but the advice Melville is giving is that, in a storm, one might as well be audacious—“better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee” (ibid.).

What’s more, if Ahab is our great writer, then the great are those who seek the storm, that howling infinite. Ahab may have been a good whaler before, but it was because he chose to go up against Moby Dick and was scarred that he “did now possess a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any one reasonable object.” (176) Great writers don’t fight for a reasonable object, they fight for immortality. It is impossible, but it is by insanely going toe to toe with the infinite that they gain the strength to go farther than had ever been achieved before.

Moby-Dick, II

There’s a sequence in the latter half of the book that occurs with one of the Pequod’s crew, Pip, that proves to hook up quite well with the humanity/nature dichotomy, particularly in relation to genius and madness. Pip is a black sailor who is usually left back at the ship when the whalers go on the chase. In Chapter 93, Pip is taken out and, what with one thing and another, cast out into the ocean and left for a time, as the rest go after the whales. Pip, left in the “awful lonesomeness” (383) of the empty sea, proceeds to go insane.

Civilization, people and all of its products, disappear for Pip and he is left with an “intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity.” (ibid.) Pip has only himself and nature. Melville says perceptively that “man’s insanity is heaven’s sense”—we receive from all mystic traditions from the world over a relatively stable body of description of what is experienced, often epitomized with “oneness with everything.” With no other people, and just himself, Pip draws in and concentrates on it as the last vestige of humanity.

This is the true test for a genius, to stare into the abyss and come back. The clichés are many, but Melville stands ahead. Pip is stated to be a smart fellow, and if we take him as a poet thrust into the thick, he is found wanting—like Ahab, he is marred, but Ahab is able to come back and double down, whereas Pip goes off the deep end. Melville tells us that “the sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul.” What is curious here is that the sea is the “howling infinite,” and yet the sea drowns what Melville now calls an infinite soul. I think Whitman helps us here saying, “yes, our soul is infinite, that’s why I keep saying I’m one with God and everyone else.” For both, whatever our “self” is (though not Whitman’s me myself), it is produced by society, humanity, civilization and the towns and ports. Our soul, however, is as infinite and empty as the sea (which is why it is pointless to “ask the world to solve them” (397)). Facing the infinite sublime of nature, we face our own nothingness and, predictably, find nature’s nothingness somehow larger, awesomer, and more infinite, and thus our infinite drowns in nature’s. The great poet, however, is able to empty themselves and stand toe to toe with nature’s infinite.

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