We’ve seen a man shaving, two breakfasts, nude swimming, a bath, and a trip to the outhouse; who didn’t see the “Hades” funeral coming? When part of the point is apparently to depict the pure embodiedness of living, death has to hover on the horizon. And notice how almost none of the physical living we’ve seen has been done by Stephen? Bloom gleefully feeds his body on other bodies; the “Odyssey” section, the “Calypso” episode, and in fact Bloom’s whole appearance in the book all begin with an almost Rabelaisian catalog of body parts he loves to devour:
Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish [fun garden path here—condiment or contentment?] the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
Check that out: His favorite flavor comes sauced with piss.
Stephen, on the other hand… He’s mostly just unsettled or disgusted by bodies. He seems to appreciate hands, but otherwise the bodies that come up in his episodes have so far been dead mothers, bloated, drowned corpses, a dead dog. Oh, and he wipes some snot on a rock. There’s none of the earthy appreciation for embodied living that fills Bloom’s episodes with such gusto.
Which is why I’m so pleased that it’s Bloom in the funeral carriage, rather than Stephen. We can probably guess what kind of morose, depressed-person, self-centered piece it would be to read if it were focused through Stephen. But with Bloom instead, it’s lively and funny and touching and humane. (I hope to come to feel warmer toward Stephen over the course of the book.) He has both a sentimentality and a pragmatism in this episode that I just love. His wry outsider’s perspective on the Christian burial ceremony is awfully percipient, and there’s an undeniable frisson to his description of postmortem liquefaction and his meditations on maggots and how even a graveyard rat’s gotta eat.
I’m getting a little scattershot here, but it’s because this post is more appreciative than interpretive. I can go through bit and bit describe for you what moves me in this episode and why, but it amounts to the presentation of Bloom as—to quote the man himself, in his private appraisal of Martin Cunningham—a “sympathetic human man.” In all its mundanity and gruesomeness and sorrow and totting up and shallowness and sympathy and bruised pride and sexual desire, Bloom’s internal experience of the funeral of an acquaintance feels entirely real. What most rouses my great tenderness for him here is his repeated return to thoughts of his dead infant son and his father’s suicide. His observation on the pointlessness of staking a suicide’s heart—“As if it wasn’t broken already”—is so sad and so empathetic. Joyce shows him in this episode as a man who, for all the energetic joy he brings to living, carries enormous sorrows with him but still looks out for the sufferings of others. (That’s why he says a sudden death is best: no suffering.) He’ll spend part of his day looking to see whether statues of goddesses have anuses, but he also thinks about how comforting it must be for the dead to hear jokes or fashions discussed by the corteges that tromp over them.
Eh, I’m rambling. My point is: The “Hades” episode is a beautifully empathetic portrait of a normal, everyday, empathetic man who understands that life you love more than your own can begin with the sight of two dogs mating in an alley, and that that doesn’t diminish it even a little.
I had originally planned to call this “Death and All His Friends” which seemed so clever and eerily appropriate. And then I realized it was the title of a Coldplay album and decided that all my street cred would be lost (even though I do like the disc).
I was also considering talking about omens in the book, but that has been well covered by Daryl (I do have some specific omens in this post). And finally I considered revisiting religion since Ahab has the audacity to baptize his harpoon in Satan’s name (and there’s a Starbuck as Jesus motif going on). But really what could be more right than death?
I had noticed throughout the book that there was very little death (except for the whales of course). This is despite the opening scene in the church with all of the grave markers and Ishmael slowly reading them all. In fact, despite Pip’s falling over and Queequeg’s “fatal illness” no one had died at all aboard the Pequod.
Then in this final week’s reading–which was really fantastic. I can’t get over how gripped I was by the build up and the whole chase sequence–death starts to poke its head out of the waters.
The first death is very cryptic, and possibly not even real (?). In Chapter 126 (The Life-Buoy) we learn of one of the crew (who, strangely, remains unnamed) who fell overboard:
At sun-rise this man went from his hammock to his mast-head at the fore…he had not been long at his perch, when a cry was heard – a cry and a rushing – and looking up, they saw a falling phantom in the air; and looking down, a little tossed heap of white bubbles in the blue of the sea.
The life-buoy – a long slender cask – was dropped from the stern, where it always hung obedient to a cunning spring; but no hand rose to seize it…and the studded iron- bound cask followed the sailor to the bottom.
And thus the first man of the Pequod that mounted the mast to look out for the White Whale, on the White Whale’s own peculiar ground; that man was swallowed up in the deep (516).
And from that anonymous death, things really escalate.
Of course, there is the obvious omen (I couldn’t resist) of using a coffin as a life-buoy, but the very next encounter is with The Rachel. Unlike all of the other ships that the Pequod has encountered (all with varying degrees of success) none has suffered a fate as wrenching as this one: the captain’s own 12-year-old boy is lost at sea, and he had to choose his other son’s life over this one. And the Rachel has been looking for him (and his boat) for a day already…it’s hopeless. That whole boat’s crew is dead.
This visit is followed by a visit from The Delight. The Delight has encountered the White Whale and has suffered terribly for it
“I bury but one of five stout men, who were alive only yesterday; but were dead ere night. Only that one I bury; the rest were buried before they died; you sail upon their tomb” (532).
As ships near the white whale, death cannot be far. (In fact the most successful ship, the Bachelor–which was laden with sperm–didn’t even think the White Whale was real). Then, just to rub it in a little, as the Pequod sails away from The Delight, she is
not quick enough to escape the sound of the splash that the corpse soon made as it struck the sea; not so quick, indeed, but that some of the flying bubbles might have sprinkled her hull with their ghostly baptism (532).
Given this portent, and the seeming snowball of deaths, the actual Pequod deaths do not come fast and furious. On the first day of the chase, everyone is spared. On the second day of the chase, only Fedallah is killed [must...not...mention...prophecies]. This wounds Ahab terribly, but he manages to press on.
Of course, on that third day everyone dies, so I guess the trickle became a gusher. But it’s fascinating to see how delicately Melville handles this mass death. Even in that last scene when the Pequod sinks, only a few crewmen are mentioned by name–and Tashtego is still engaged in an activity when the boat goes down: “Tashtego’s mast-head hammer remained suspended in his hand” (563). No one is said to suffer (Pip suffered far more on the page during his ordeals), and it ends very quickly.
What I found most interesting is that as a reader, I was picking up on all of the omens, the prophecies, the greater and greater deaths, and yet, like Ahab I read nothing into them. I was sure that the ending…well, what? I didn’t think it could be a happy ending (whatever that might mean), I wasn’t even sure if I thought Ahab would be victorious (I wasn’t holding my breath for him). And yet, I never imagined that the whole ship would sink.
And even though this ending happens remarkably quickly (the ending scene is the last three pages of a 469 page book (the Norton edition)), it doesn’t feel like what my friends and I have called The Star Trek ending–[Five minutes till the end of the show, Captain, shall we release the dilithium crystal and huzzah!--we're all safe (I like Star Trek (especially TNG) but it's funny how many of their shows end like this)]. Obviously, Moby Dick doesn’t have that ending because in everyone dies, but what I mean is, the ending feels like a natural, almost inevitable end. I was shocked–completely shocked–when I read that everyone died. And yet in retrospect it is the only reasonable outcome.
I am still really surprised that Queequeg dies. I realize there’s no way to save him and have it be believable, but still. It’s also weird how little is made of Queequeg going down too. [Can you imagine is he somehow managed to get Ishmael and Queequeg rescued on the coffin together--it's sequel city baby!].
I mentioned in my other post how beautiful I think the Epilogue is, and I will do so here as well. It’s tidy and elegant and unlike many epilogues which sort of tidy up loose threads a little too neatly, this one pulls together various ideas (the coffin, The Rachel) and uses them to give Ishmael a fully believable rescue.
When you reach the end, you realize that this story is something of a eulogy; a whale tale told to someone about the death of his shipmates. This gives the entire book an angle that didn’t exist before. Were I the kind of person who did this sort of thing (I’m not) I would re-read the book with this new information in mind to try to see if the book reads differently knowing the outcome.
I am really very pleased for having read this book. And I’ve more than very pleased to have been able to write these posts here. I hope they’ve been interesting. Thanks for reading.
Of Katherine Hepburn’s death, Zadie Smith wrote the following:
Two days ago she died, aged ninety-six. I don’t know why I should be surprised, but I was, and when I found out, I wept, and felt ridiculous for weeping. How can someone you have never met make you cry?
I’m not the first to express a similar sentiment about the death of David Foster Wallace. There’s a crucial difference, however. His death, for those of us well outside of his intimate circle, was a very big surprise indeed. Still — Smith gets this part just right — to have felt so ragged after his death felt strange. I felt somehow orphaned.
Intimacy is concentric, and fortunately for those of us stuck in orbit on the outer rings surrounding the bright light that was David Foster Wallace, David Lipsky was admitted to a nearer circle during the final week of the book tour for Infinite Jest. Or, I should say, he was admitted to one slightly more interior circle and seems to have worked his way yet closer. And he recorded it all.
Just out from Broadway Books, Lipsky’s chronicling of a handful of days on the road with Dave (I’m going to call him Dave sometimes from here on out, because it makes me feel better and because the book made me think of him as Dave) might have been a savage, painful read. I expected as much, imagining myself with a box of tissue in a dimly lit room trying once again to work out how a guy like Dave could be gone and what the ramifications of that were for a know-nothing yutz of a no-talent hack like me.
With one minor exception in part of the afterword, Lipsky has avoided the maudlin, and instead of finding myself wallowing in the book and the sadness that attends the realization that its subject is no longer with us, I found it invigorating and validating and playful and fun and mostly delightful.
Lipsky gives us something of a soft landing in the preface, which provides just a teensy bit of background information before setting us gently on our way. The afterword he places curiously before the main body of the text, but even this turns out to be a considerate gesture, for Lipsky wants to leave us with the words of the living Wallace rather than sending us home from the journey with a meditation on his death. Read the afterword when you will, Lipsky advises us, at some break of your own choosing within the text.
I, being sort of rigidly conformist in some ways, chose to read the afterword last, and even that turned out to be an ok decision. For though there was that one crushing moment in the middle of the afterword, Lipsky leaves us with two wonderful things. First, he has given us a picture of Dave as a real live human being (with flaws, yes, but with many personalizing charms as well), which sister Amy had written that she hoped might happen. And second, looking back to a conversation about books as a way of seeking refuge from loneliness, Lipsky closes by saying this lovely thing about his road trip with Dave: “I’d tell him it reminded me of what life was like, instead of being a relief from it, and I’d say it made me feel much less lonely to read.”
This sort of escape from the loneliness of the inner self was, of course, one of Wallace’s projects. Late in the road trip, Dave says, of the particular edge good fiction has over other art forms:
And the big thing, the big thing seems to be, sort of leapin’ over that wall of self, and portraying inner experience. And setting up, I think, a kind of intimate conversation between two consciences.
I am in here.
I’ve listened to many interviews and readings Dave gave, and so I have something of an idea of what he must have been like to listen to. Yet in interviews and readings, people tend to speak in different registers than in everyday life. (I’m reminded of the distinction Dave makes in the grammar essay between time and place for saying “that ursine juggernaut bethought himself to sup upon my person” and “goddamn bear!”) One of the great pleasures of Lipsky’s book for me was his emphasis on Dave’s midwesternisms. They reminded me always that Dave was, mostly (especially after the first day or so of the trip), just a guy having a conversation. Taken in hand with the audio I had previously heard of Dave, they made Lipsky’s transcription seem real and alive. I felt as if I could hear Dave himself speaking the words. It was kind of Lipsky to have emphasized this for us.
Some have complained that Lipsky himself was too present in the text, that he peeks in with a too-high frequency with brief bracketed interpolations. I found the interjections helpful and well-meaning where others have found them self-serving and annoying.
The deeper into the book I got, the more pages I dog-eared, so that by the end, I figured I might as well just enlist the help of a strong friend and fold the corner of the whole book down on itself. The two men talk about movies, parties, fame, loneliness, the genesis of Infinite Jest, and much more, and it’s all riveting.
Lipsky’s book is a real gift. He brings us maybe one concentric ring closer to a sort of intimacy with Wallace, who sought in his work to learn how to leap over (and outward from) the walls of the self in which he was (we are) imprisoned. While Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself can’t help but remind us of Wallace’s death, it is most concerned with a pivotal point in his life, and it was — contra my fears — a real joy to read. Gaudeamus igitur.
Whether or not it ever becomes explicit that Archimboldi’s name is a reference to 16th-century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, it is certainly a strikingly similar enough name that one is tempted to infer a link. The paintings for which Arcimboldo is most famous will be familiar enough to most of us, I think. After looking them up during my first read of the book a year ago, I was surprised to learn that a friend had had small prints of them hanging on a wall for years. I had simply never known who had painted them. The paintings are composite portraits whose parts are things like vegetables and fruits and fish and other people. Get a look at them here. (Side note: I learned while clicking around today that the familiar or spirit (or whatever; in any case, a humanoid whose body is composed of vegetables) who helps the chef cook soup in the movie The Tale of Despereaux is named Boldo after the artist who inspired that character’s composition.)
From the beginning of my first reading of the book, it occurred to me that the four Archimboldians seem to move and function almost as a single unit. Early on, they can always be found talking to one another in various permutations or walking together with one or another pushing Morini’s wheelchair while the others walk along beside or behind. If Pelletier’s not bedding Norton on a given night, Espinoza is, and for the life of me, I can’t keep the particular attitudes and traits of those two men straight. Norton stands out because she’s a woman and Morini because he’s crippled, but the other two are virtually interchangeable. Matt Bucher suggests that the way Bolaño tosses these people — all of different nationalities, recall — together points to a porousness of national borders, perhaps a comment on the degree to which nationality matters at all to this Chilean author who was himself a man more, in a way, of other countries than of his own. Arcimboldo too was a multi-national, Matt points out.
It strikes me that in the part about the critics (at least early on), it’s less the individual characters Bolaño has given us than the sum total of their collective experience as critics that is interesting. Maybe I’m just a cold fish, but I don’t have much feeling for any of the characters; still, I find their adventures intriguing, their slightly different introductions and approaches to Archimboldi of some interest. But it’s the composite of them all that I’m drawn to, I think, and the good-natured derision that I think attends the descriptions of some of their activities. It’s the critics and not any one critic whose story pulls me along. That they should spend their lives pursuing an author whose namesake seems to be a painter who created composites seems only fitting.
The parts of the book are listed as follows:
- The Part about the Critics
- The Part about Amalfitano
- The Part about Fate
- The Part about the Crimes
- The Part about Archimboldi
Note that three of the five sections refer to things in the singular. Since we all know by now that the book is at least in part about a bunch of murders, I don’t believe it’s really so much of a spoiler to give away in advance that a bunch of bodies will pile up in the part about the crimes and that, as with the critics (though to a more pronounced extent), the particulars of the crimes and their poor offended bodies will begin to run together. Thus the part about the crimes also becomes a composite of sorts, the bodies constituent parts of something bigger (though exactly what, who knows? Evil? The human condition? That oasis of horror in a desert of boredom that Bolaño invoked in the epigraph?). And so, again, the reference to Arcimboldo, with his composite images, seems fitting.
Archimboldi’s portrait of Eve depicts her wearing a low-cut bodice (whether or not immodest for the period I can’t say) with a rose and red bows. In her hand she holds the fateful apple, her pinky upraised (phallic or just dainty?). Her face, in profile, is composed of what look to me like children cavorting, some in possibly sexual attitudes. One has his back turned and his hand apparently down in his lap. Others are embracing. One is bent over, as if presenting for rear entry (though to be fair, he or she is the cheekbone, so the pose may be more pragmatic than risque). In the portrait of Adam, the children seem younger and more innocent (perhaps in keeping with some readings of the Bible in which Adam is lured by temptress Eve), though here and there a hand does seem to be exploring a crotch. Of note with respect to our critics, Adam is cradling a book and wielding a rolled paper, almost as if he’s holding forth (perhaps, paradoxically, from a scripture that didn’t yet exist?), looking for all the world like some literary critic.
I imagine Bolaño working backward from these images of bodies made of bodies, with the Cuidad Juarez murders in mind, and constructing a composite of horror using the pile of murdered bodies and a composite of academic endeavor (with its fun and its follies) from the four critics. It’s a weird intersection of knowledge in the Biblical sense and knowledge in the academic sense. I think it may be useful, as we move forward, to consider our attitudes to reading both sections and what effect the blurring and blending of critics/victims (a parallel Bolaño must have seen if not written purposefully) has on our take on the different portions of the text.