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The Whiteboard

Since the beginning of my participation in the Infinite Summer and spin-off reads nearly a year ago, I’ve dog-eared books, scribbled dog-legging notes in the margins, and woken up in the middle of the night to frantically scrawl near-illegible paragraphs in a little notebook. I’ve drafted things in Google Docs, written ideas on decade-old receipts I’ve found tucked into books as bookmarks, and, to my children’s great consternation, inked my hand with sudden thoughts when out of reach of paper. But I had never — until last night — resorted to a whiteboard.

My dilemma was one of what felt like an unrein-in-able tendency toward expansiveness. There’s so much good stuff in this opening week’s reading that I wanted to write about it all. But my children need a father, my wife a husband, my employer a sub-sub of a something or other. So, having broken out the whiteboard to draw diagrams for my day job, I allowed myself a great white tabula rasa (Dare I confess how tempting it was to encircle my my notes in the outline of a great sperm whale? Only my howling ineptitude in the fine arts prevented it.) and narrowed the field of topics to thirteen items.

As I started to try to put an essay together, I found myself yearning to be expansive. I was going to head into a very busy weekend attempting to write a monograph or bust. And since I rather suspect there’s going to be a spurt of really intriguing posts early in the week from the other fine folk blogging here, I decided to pull back a little bit and offer instead a brief statement, a quote, and an invitation to ponder the two together as we go forward.

So, the statement. Moby-Dick has always struck me as an old-fashioned text. I’ve written before about how, before I read it, I expected it to be stodgy and dull and humorless. These things it is not, but it does present its share of sort of epic Biblical language (usually from the Quakers). It is highly allusive, and it addresses philosophical or moral questions in often direct ways, with figurative language, surely, but not in ways so hidden in elements of plot and character that sussing out its meanings becomes a puzzle. Melville will come right out and say something like:

And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

I don’t think you often encounter such direct statements in more recent fiction. Authors these days often deliver meaning via things like character development rather than by just coming out and saying things directly as Melville often does. Of course, allegory and symbolism are as old as the hills, and there’s plenty of less-directly conveyed meaning in Moby-Dick as well. Still, something about this mode of writing has always struck me as not at all modern (or Modern).

That was an awfully long statement. Now for the quote (a lengthy one), from Andrew Delbanco’s Melville, which I’m well over halfway into and am enjoying immensely.

Looking back at his labors on Moby-Dick, Melville saw “two books . . . being writ . . . the larger book, and the infinitely better, is for [his] own private shelf. That is, whose unfathomable cravings drink his blood; the other only demands his ink.” Moby-Dick was Melville’s vampire book. It sapped him — but not before he had invented a new kind of writing that, we can now see, anticipated the kind of modernist prose that expresses the author’s stream of consciousness without conscious self-censorship. Melville was aware of this ideal in its incipient Romantic form, having marked approvingly a passage in an essay by William Hazlitt that declares true writing to be “an ebullition of mind,” a “flow of expression” that, by analogy with frescoes, must be executed with fast and free strokes before the wet plaster dries — a burst of inspiration whose “execution is momentary and irrevocable.” Melville was the first American to write with such outrageous freedom. He was the first to understand that if a literary work is to register the improvisational nature of experience, it must be as spontaneous and self-surprising as the human mind itself. Aware, as Freud later puts it, that “in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish,” Melville also knew that by concealing the existence of earlier versions of his work, he ran the risk of falsifying himself. In this sense, Moby-Dick was like an active archeological site in which the layers of its own history are left deliberately exposed.

So, my old notion of Melville as an amiable if in many ways old-fashioned author is dashed to bits. He’s a pioneer, Delbanco has it, writing in ways that anticipate the sorts of encyclopedic and fractured narratives that have often appealed to me from much more recent authors.

What was your first impression of Melville? Does Moby-Dick have for you an old-fashioned feel or does it (I know we’re only partway through) bear the markings of something newfangled for its time?

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  1. May 24, 2010 at 7:44 am

    I must be really in the Moby Dick zone because as soon as you said White Board, I thought…aha!

    I’m delighted by how much I enjoyed 1-18.

    I hope to get my post up today…I hope no one has taken my wholly original and scintillating ideas!

  2. May 24, 2010 at 8:19 am

    Yeah, I thought about making it more explicit (The Whiteness of the Board, copying a later chapter title) but that was even lamer than this. 🙂

  3. May 24, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    I’ll dive in and answer your question by saying that on the surface, of course, it’s a bit old fashioned – that is, in terms of the vocabulary and sentence structure. But I’ve been fairly blown away by the modernity that lies underneath all that. From Melville’s take on racial issues (some noble savagery not withstanding) to his religious ponderings to the general flow of thoughts and construction of story, I’ve been surprised and delighted and just generally sucked in without reservation.

    Looking forward to the rest, and to what everyone has to say!

    • May 24, 2010 at 3:42 pm

      Brian, as I got a bit deeper into Delbanco’s biography of Melville this weekend, I got to a passage in which he suggests that some of Melville’s work (not Moby-Dick but later things) anticipated even post-modern folk like Barth (“Lost in the Funhouse”). I clearly need to read more carefully the literature from the 19th century to get a better grounding.

  4. mattkish87
    May 24, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    I’v read the book multiple times, at different stages of my life. I feel almost as if, for me, the book has always been there. The first version I read was a heavily abridged and illustrated version, one of those “Big Little” books, so for me it was neither old-fashioned or modern. Just the thrilling story of men chasing a monstrous whale. That dovetailed perfectly with my childhood love of monsters and adventure, and I was predisposed to a favorable impression ever since.

    Each reading, in junior high, high school, college, and adulthood, has revealed new layers and meanings, although I am already astonished at the remarkably high and intriguing level of critical inquiry being presented on this blog! In spite of that, and in spite of the general revulsion that most people seem to have for this “stody” old book, I have never considered it old fashioned at all. It has always seemed just right, and modern in the sense that it was deeply relevant to me in new ways each and every time I read it.

  5. May 24, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    I am working on a post along these lines (re: the Delbanco quote) that examines some of the other American novels published before Moby-Dick. I agree that Melville is a pioneer, creating something new out of whole cloth, but articulating exactly what is hard to illustrate outside of counterexamples.

  6. May 24, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    Matt (B), that sounds like just what the doctor ordered for me. I’ve read a number of British novels from around the same time but precious little American lit.

  7. May 24, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Last time I read Melville was when I suffered through “Bartleby the Scrivener” in the 11th grade. Fifteen years and a comparative lit degree later, I’m having much less trouble with his antiquated style — and really digging the shifts in form and register.

    • May 24, 2010 at 5:48 pm

      “Now I’m writing a reference book.” “Now I’m writing a soliloquy.” Actually reminded me a little of the If on a winter’s night a traveler / House of Leaves style of encyclopedic post-modernism.

  1. May 27, 2010 at 9:11 pm
  2. May 27, 2010 at 9:14 pm

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