Tag Archives: Melville

Marginalia, no.188

There is at least as great perfection in developing an empty theme as in sustaining a weighty one.

~ Montaigne, ‘Of Presumption’ (Essays II,17)

Cold comfort. The only book I ever really wanted to write was Moby Dick. Unfortunately, it’s been done. In the ‘Fossil Whale’ chapter, Melville staggers under the weight of his subject matter: “Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms!” No one, he says, could write a truly great book on the insubstantial flea. Becalmed in the doldrums of endless half-hearted revision, my own novel begins to taste like chalky hardtack, but I’m no nearer the whale. Some insect has just bitten my arm.

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Under Ursus Major

St Corbinian supposedly rode a bear over the Alps to Rome after it had killed his horse.  In most versions of the story he merely forced the bear to carry his baggage, but in one he actually saddled the bear and rode it, imitating, perhaps, the third-century Cappadocian martyr St Mamas who had ridden a lion.

I have recurring dreams of bears.  In one dream last week I’d unaccountably set up our camping tent mere meters from a bear sleeping on a pile of chewed limbs and mangled carcasses; I managed somehow to keep the children hushed long enough to dismantle the tent without waking it.  In other dreams I’ve been variously pursued or ignored by bears, in wild or in urban settings.  Even when they aren’t particularly threatening, my dream bears are unpredictable, objects of mute horror and chthonic dread, something like Melville’s sharks.

These dreams are probably explained by my three encounters with ursus americanus in the Sierra Nevada.  In the first, a mother bear and two cubs ransacked our campsite several times over the course of a night.  In the second, miles from any roads or assistance, an adolescent male tried to make off with my pack and food and then circled the tent, breathing heavily, till morning.  In the third, I was sleeping without a tent and woke to find a giant black bear immediately beside me tearing open a companion’s backpack, hot on the scent of an empty candy bar wrapper.

At a bookshop I once consulted a poorly conceived dream dictionary and learned that bears represent pretty much whatever you want them to represent: conflict, victory, aggression, mastery, life, death, sexual vigor, sloth, renewal, power.  The bear also, of course, symbolizes Russia, and California, and so it’s possible that my dreams are spurred by unresolved complexes left over from my Cold War childhood, or conflicted feelings for my home state.

St Corbinian taming the bear represents, I suppose, the triumph of the Apollonian over the Dionysian, civilization over barbarism, the light of the Church over pagan darkness.  My dreams are full of foreboding.  If they don’t devour me outright, my dream bears, I think, are as likely to ride me as I am to ride them.


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Notes toward an Arboreal Anthropology

1: Herman Melville, from a letter to Hawthorne:

This “all” feeling, though, there is some truth in it.  You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day.  Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth.  Your hair feels like leaves upon your head.

2. Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Winter:

Arcimboldo's Winter

3: Jean Giono, Joy of Man’s Desiring:

They say that man is made of cells and blood.  But in fact he is like foliage: not pressed together in a mass, but composed of separate images like the leaves on the branches of the trees and through which the wind must pass in order to sing.

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Tracking Metaphors in the Wild

There are furtive joys and obscure pleasures known only to the very bookish.  Last night I was making a sentimental stroll through Book I of Paradise Lost and came across the following passage, a description of fallen angels mustering in their legions on the plain of Hell:

……………[I]n even balance down they light
On the firm brimstone and fill all the plain;
A multitude like which the populous North
Poured never from her frozen loins to pass
Rhene or Danau, when her barbarous sons
Came like a deluge on the South, and spread
Beneath Gibraltar to the Libyan sands.

It was too oddly familiar: the image of barbarians flooding southward, the “frozen loins” of the north, etc.  Then came a leaping Eureka! moment as I snatched up an old notebook and found copied inside this passage from Herman Melville’s marvelously weird (however imperfect) Pierre, or The Ambiguities:

Sudden onsets of new truth will assail him and overrun him as the Tartars did China; for there is no China Wall that a man can build in his soul which shall permanently stay the irruptions of those barbarous hordes which Truth ever nourishes in the loins of her frozen, yet teeming, North, so that the Empire of Human Knowledge can never be lasting in any one dynasty, since Truth still gives new Emperors to the earth.

Melville, it seems, had Milton on the brain.  As a general statement this is no great revelation – not since the unearthing some years ago of Melville’s own copy of Milton’s works and the publication of his annotations to Paradise Lost.  But as a particular instance of Miltonic influence, I like to imagine I am its sole discoverer.  It feels something like playing Galileo and being first to glimpse the lunar mountains or to measure the tail of an unknown comet.

Was it a conscious reference on Melville’s part?  Likely not.  The transposition of truths for devils is intriguing, but there’s not enough to go on, I think.  Still, it’s a great find.  Just there, for the briefest moment, we catch a sort of celestial alignment of the minds and Melville (who is quite opaque most of the time) becomes temporarily transparent: along the axis of metaphor we see right through him all the way to Milton.

Literary detective work like this, when done in the way of duty, is the daily sweat and toil of graduate students locked in cold, dim reading rooms of university libraries.  They note each minor find dispassionately and move on.  But when made years out of school in the embrace of a plush armchair and solely by power of chance and memory, such discoveries are moments of rarest serendipity, enough to sustain us for a week, even two, in the long march through the Vale of Tears that is our life.  Only those who suffer from my particular malady will understand.

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Showing a Little Plumage

James Wood is still raising hackles.  Back in 2000, before he ascended the throne at The New Yorker, Wood published The Broken Estate, a tour by essay of various nineteenth and twentieth century literary greats.  In a piece on Virginia Woolf, Wood speaks fondly of her critical work, which he calls  “a writer’s criticism, written in the language of art, which is the language of metaphor.”  A “writer-critic” like Woolf, he says,

has a competitive proximity to the writers she discusses.  That competition is registered verbally.  The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.

Reading this, one has the strong sense that Wood is talking as much about himself as about Woolf.  Wood published a novel in 2004, and whether or not one agrees with his methods or judgments, Wood’s prose is full of glittering precision and dreamy metaphorical effects that often top the novelists he’s examining.  Wood is forever showing plumage.  A few examples: 

Of Melville: “No other nineteenth-century novelist writing in English lived in the city of words that that Melville lived in; they were suburbanites by comparison.”

Of Chekhov: “He found the world to be as deeply evasive as he himself was – life as a tree of separate hanging stories, of dangling privacies.”

Of George Steiner: “[His] prose is a remarkable substance; it is the sweat of a monument.”

His metaphors do sometimes fail.  Take this, for example, from Wood’s summary of Anthony Julius’s screed against Eliot: “The idea seems to be that the three demons are separate but pull together, like hardworking chefs, to prepare the feast of prejudice.”

No one hits the bull’s eye every time.

It’s a tired old saying that ‘those who can’t, teach,’ and something similar is said of critics: that they make their way by praising or deploring the works of others because they themselves are unable to create anything original.  Like Flaubert’s Pellerin who “held the old masters in such veneration that it almost raised him to their status,” the critic schemes to win status by counterfeit means: If he can’t join the club by the front door, he climbs the trellis to break a window.  The assumption here is that it’s easier to be a critic.  Everyone is, so they say.  But being critical is not at all the same thing as being a critic.  I congratulate myself that Montaigne agrees:

Here is a wonder: we have many more poets than judges and interpreters of poetry.  It is easier to create it than to understand it.  On a certain low level it can be judged by precepts and by art.  But the good, supreme, divine poetry is above rules and reason… It does not persuade our judgment, it ravishes and overwhelms it. (Essays I, 37)

I wonder if we aren’t after all better served by “writer-critics” like Wood who possess some sort of artistic capacity, who because they share in the writer’s perspective are perhaps less confounded by the ravishment of words.  Or does that make them more susceptible?  But Wood at least is a pleasure to read, which is more than can be said for certain of his fellows.  (Sam Anderson considers reading Wood “practically a form of intellectual erotica.”)  I’ve personally benefited by Wood’s discussion -in the middling How Fiction Works– of the novel’s free indirect style, by which “we inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.”  I’ve also gleaned a few satori moments meditating on Wood’s philosophy of metaphor (“the whole of the imaginative fictional process in one move”) and its function within narrative:

Narrative sequence, at bottom, is nothing other than the materiality of words, which forces us to place one word after the next, rather than on top of each other…  Metaphor is the way to explode sequence.

Despite the occasional “feast of prejudice” flop, this kind of stuff is, I think, reason enough to hope that Wood keeps peacocking around for some time to come.

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