Hello all. It’s Paul from Moby Dick. I would have loved to be posting here for Ulysses, but I assumed my work load would be too crazy for the summer, so I deferred). But since I had the Zombies spotlight, I couldn’t give up without saying a few things here.
I’ve been wanting to comment on everyone’s posts thus far, but I have in fact been quite busy. So, I’m incorporating some thoughts here (the rest of this is crossposted on my site too), and I hope to go back and re-read what everyone else has said too.
This is my third time reading Ulysses. The first time I was a freshman or sophomore in college and I signed up for a James Joyce class because, get this, the Canadian band Triumph had released a CD called Thunder 7 which was supposedly based on the 100-letter words in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake(which I had bought and found impenetrable). Our teacher was intense and tried to scare everyone off (which worked for some, but not me). The class was hard (first asignment : read The Odyssey over the weekend for a quiz on Monday). I enjoyed Dubliners and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, but I thought Ulysses was pretty daunting.
I read it again when I re-took the class with the same teacher (not for credit this time, but because I wanted to, imagine that). And that time I learned to really appreciate what Ulysses had going on for it. I was also inspired by it to try and write challenging fiction, paying careful attention to every single word, and even possibly using different writing styles in the same book. (The world appreciates that that never panned out).
But so the careful attention thing: Joyce spent seven years working onUlysses. Every single word was charged with meaning. He even made up his own words. And it’s very apparent that he was the inspiration for countless modern authors (for beter or worse).
I’m excited to pick the book up again. In part, because it was ranked number 1 on the MLA list of books, but also because for twenty-some years I’ve felt the book was fantastic. And I wanted to see if I would enjoy it without guided instruction.
I was curious about which edition to read. Since my class, when there was only really one edition available, many many editions have been published. There’s a great discussion about this at Infinite Zombies, and I considered getting the third one Judd mentions. But when I consulted with my old professor, he said the Gabler edition is still the best, so I went with that one. And that edition is littered with all the notes I took from class and from the supplemental resources.
I decided not to read the supplemental resources this time (although I can;t help but look at my notes), to see what I can get from the story AS A STORY.
I remember a bunch from the class, but one thing that I distinctly remember is that to get everything out of Ulysses, you need to understand Catholicism (the mass in particular), The Odyssey, European history–especially Irish history, and popular Irish culture circa 1920. It also helps to know Latin. And these are all things that Joyce would have known and his audience probably would have known. Every year we move away from its publication, means we know less about what he was writing about. But that’s all the little details and jokes and blashpehmies. I wanted to see (with some background, which certainly gives me an advantage) if I could enjoy the story without all the help.
My proper post begins at my site. Click here for more. And thanks for reading.
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.
Infinite Downshift – Infinite Jest to Dracula is like shifting from 5th to 1st at 75 mph without double-clutching
Fellow Infinite-Zombie Daryl L.L. Houston sez “One of the things I’ll be looking for in the book is style vs. story.”
Infinite Jest to Dracula. Style vs. story. That’s some heavy lifting.
While I wouldn’t be too quick to relegate Dracula to the polite charms of the quasi-epistolary novel – and I don’t think Daryl is either – Stoker’s book is hardly the juggling act that Jest was. Three – five major plot lines vs. one, maybe two. A cast of some two dozen characters versus Dracula’s seven or eight. And a post-modern/pre-apocalypse/fin-de-siecle author who set out to tell a story AND confound the mechanics of the modern novel in Wallace versus a guy who wanted to tell a good story in Stoker. In short, it’s hard not to get caught up in a struggle of style v. story.
However, if I put myself in the fussy, uncomfortable, distinctly not-sensual seat of the Victorian reader, however, the style begins to make much more sense. The epistolary novel – or a letter within standard novels – has always been an ideal vehicle to expose a story through deliberate brush strokes, keeping both writer and recipient in the dark about the true nature of things.
And if, as Beresford asserts in his Demons to Dracula, Stoker’s story represented to first widely circulated telling of a story that combined folk tales from Eastern Europe, his audience wouldn’t have been as inculcated with the whole Vampire Thing as we are. So the novel might end up reading like some sort of gothic horror strip tease, where one gruesome, erotic layer is removed at a time. Only instead of knowing what we, the collective Modern Reader, are going to see next, every letter exposes something new, thrilling and a tiny bit naughty.
“We are not amused,” Queen Victoria might have said of Stoker’s book. “But We are intrigued and not a little titillated.”
About the Post Title: So I got caught up with 3 back episodes of “Top Gear” the weekend to clear off the DVR. Sue me.
From the first time we burble “Again, again” after Daddy reads us The Snowy Day to the last time the mourners utter a pre-Eucharistic “Thanks be to God” at our funeral, we meatsacks are borne swiftly through life on the backs of familiar stories, repeated again and again and again until the words scarcely have meaning any more.
Throughout December and regardless of faith leaning, we hear the story of Christ’s birth. The Night Before Christmas gets endlessly repeated and re-written to fit the most mundane of applications, the office Christmas Party (Twas the night before Christmas/and all through Accounting,/the billing was late, the tensions were mounting).
Star Wars retold The Seven Samuari which retold every Western ever. Stories of the underdog’s triumph unwind endlessly back into history. Even the Creation stories our varied faith ascribe to have the ring of the familiar (Hey Noah. Gilgamesh called. He wants his flood back)
We’re comforted by their repetition.
And it’s that very familiarity I have to work to overcome when reading Dracula. Sure, Dracula is the vampire story that sired them all. But the fact that it’s the source, the ur-Dracula, means that while the plot elements can change from telling to telling, the tropes themselves never will. And, for that matter, they never can.
So we have Harker en route to the castle, with every person he meets along the way telling him not to go. We have a coachman pick him up at the Borgo Pass who we know to be Dracula. The teeth, the pallor, the inhuman strength. The thrall he holds over the canine and lupine.
Has there ever been a book more deserving of having its reader yell, rude-in-the-movie-theater style, “Dude. Do NOT get into that caleche. DUDE! DON’T. Awwww maaaaan!”
We must have the willing victim. We must have darkness and dogs. We must have repressed heroes, helpless women (on which more, later) and the deus ex machina of a wizard/shaman/doctor/Van Helsing.
We welcome them, cheering as they enter on stage. “Hey y’all it’s Jonathan Harker! Hey Jonathan! When you here a slap-slapping at the window, don’t open it dude!”
And yet. As we read, no matter how familiar we are with how the story will play out, we KNOW that we’ll continue to read. In fact, because we know the play and players so well already, we can spend more time peering into the text for subtleties.
Here’s some of what I’ll be looking for.
- Does the Count have a sense of humor?
- Is he playing with his food as he welcomes Harker to the castle?
- Precisely how far up his own ass, careerally speaking, is Jonathan Harker’s head to miss out on the many disturbing signs he sees along the way because he’s so focused doing the job he was sent to do?
- Are the women any weaker or stronger than the men in how they deal with Dracula?
- Is the real evil in the book the Seward/Renfield relationship?
- Is Dracula, for that matter, evil? Or is he merely animal?
- How does Dracula feel about his immortality? Wouldn’t someone who could never die eventually wish he or she could if for no other reason than to try something truly new?
Too, like the story of the Nativity, every vampire tale brings a new element of the overall Dracula universe to light (so to speak).
So that’s my challenge to me.
What will you hope to find in this reading?
If this is your first ride through the Carpathians, what presuppositions will you have challenged? If you’re an old pro, what will surprise you this time around?