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Water on the Brain

This week I’ve seen Moby-Dick everywhere I turn. (I’m way behind in the reading.)

• I forgot that I had a Captain Ahab t-shirt and found that at the bottom of the laundry pile.

• I picked up a book in the library because it had a cool cover (The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay) and it turns out to be a novel about a woman searching for a lost Melville manuscript.

• A lunch companion happens to be a specialist in 19th Century American fiction and he recounts the anecdote that Melville was so obscure upon his death that one of his obituaries referred to him (Melville) as “Sherman” Melville.

• The great whale seems to be stalking my salt shaker.

• I come across this tidbit about the original Infinite Jest manuscript: it began with quotes and definitions about addiction. Wallace cut this Moby-Dick-like opening and decided to let Hal summarize his findings: “The original sense of addiction involved being bound over, dedicated, either legally or spiritually. To devote one’s life, plunge in. I had researched this” (IJ 900).

So yes, the novel pervades. It feels as if its influence has never been greater. The canon wars seem powerless against Moby-Dick’s timeless postmodernism. I keep trying to pinpoint what makes Moby-Dick feel so accessible and relevant. Clearly, it’s a combination of things: a linear narrative, first-person narration, vivid characters, empathy, theory of everything, and others. Or maybe not. I don’t know.

The first 40 or so chapters, with all the scene-setting, describing the characters, their jobs, the specific rooms on the Pequod, in some way this all reminds me of parts of The Life Aquatic, with the cutaway ship visuals and the straightforward introductions of the crewmembers. I know the influence is going the other direction, but sometimes your memory does not move chronologically. However, once we’re past chapter 50 and we’re into the complexities of whaling, the details of the characters’ lives, and the interspersed calm days on the water, I find myself thinking of another relatively contemporary work: Stanley Crawford’s Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine. In a way, Stanley’s book is Moby-Dick‘s polar opposite: only 100 pages, narrated by a woman, a madman in search of nothing, two people alone on a massive ship. And yet, since I’ve read Crawford’s book lately, I see the source of his inspiration in new light (really, you should check out Unguentine). Jeff expertly shows how the narration of Moby-Dick is constructed, and thinking about Stanley Crawford’s novel and Wes Anderson’s film leads me to think that maybe Moby-Dick is (also) a novel about “the narrator” and narration.

I cannot let this week pass without quoting one of my favorite passages :

All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.

  1. June 7, 2010 at 11:54 am

    That was my favorite passage of the last week as well.

  2. Greg Carlisle
    June 7, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    Matt mentioned Infinite Jest, and since I always have Infinite Jest on the brain, I thought I’d bring up some IJ passages I thought of as I read Chs. 22-23 of Moby Dick. Consider this incredible passage at the end of Ch. 22:

    “Ship and boat diverged; the cold, damp night breeze blew between; a screaming gull flew overhead; the two hulls wildly rolled; we gave three heavy-hearted cheers, and blindly plunged like fate into the lone Atlantic.”

    Good Lord, that’s awesome. It made me think of two IJ passages. The first is on p. 237 while Joelle is at Notkin’s party: the “gulls stamped to the cleared sky, motionless as kites” are then “bother[ed] into dips and wheels” by the waste projectile “hurtling in a broad upward arc.”

    The second is after Mario talks to the Moms on p. 769: “the river unwinding, swollen and humped, its top a mosaic of oil rainbows and dead branches, gulls asleep or brooding, bobbing, head under wing.”

    Then that beautiful Ch. 23 about Bulkington, a character who apparently appears twice but is given a glorious, significant death scene totally reminded me of Lucien Antitoi in IJ. Compare:

    “O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing–straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!”

    with (IJ 488-9):

    “as he finally sheds his body’s suit, Lucien finds his gut and throat again and newly whole, clean and unimpeded, and is free, catapulted home over fans and the Convexity’s glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues.”

  3. June 7, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    Greg, I was also struck by two things a bit later in the book:

    – In chapter 37, Melville writes that Ahab is “lowly humming to himself, producing a sound so strangely muffled and inarticulate that it seemed the mechanical humming of the wheels of his vitality in him.”

    – At the end of chapter 32, we see the phrase “signifying nothing” (admittedly probably not too uncommon a phrase), which is the title of a Wallace story.

    • June 9, 2010 at 3:07 pm

      To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
      Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
      To the last syllable of recorded time,
      And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
      The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
      Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
      That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
      And then is heard no more: it is a tale
      Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
      Signifying nothing.

      Macbeth V.v

      • June 9, 2010 at 7:49 pm

        Wow, I clearly need to brush up on my Shakespeare! I think I last read Macbeth in 7th grade. Thanks for this.

  4. Joan
    June 9, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Greg – I love the Bulkington/Lucien Antitoi comparison.

    On the theme of this post I’ve also been struck by many Moby-Dick references in recent days:

    Saturday, sitting at the local watering hole having a cold beverage and watching Jeopardy – Answer: Title character in an 1851 novel who does not make an appearance until Chapter (whatever it is, I forget now!).

    Sunday, talking with an old friend who told me Ahab was a crossword answer she wouldn’t have gotten if not for my telling her about the project.

    Tuesday, my dad sends me that day’s comic Non Sequitur (http://www.gocomics.com/nonsequitur/2010/06/08/) about Melville’s first draft idea – “Moby Duck”

    Tuesday, On Point Radio interviews Nicholas Carr on his new book “The Shallows” and he makes a comment about whether we are losing the ability to go from web surfing/instant messaging/etc. to sitting down and reading Moby-Dick for 3-4 hours at a stretch (of course I heard this while I was in bed reading said Moby-Dick and half listening to the radio!).

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