Monday, April 26, 2010

Reflections on Pierre

“Melville, Pennsylvania” Project – Book V

Quick! Raise your hand if you’ve seen that one Star Trek movie from the 80s – I want to say it’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock – where the titular character (let’s assume I guessed right) has indeed been located on this remote planet, but in a larvaic state, i.e., as a youth. Fear not, for soon enough he will be transformed once again into the wise sage all those Trekkies venerate; otherwise, how will they go on to produce a hundred more sequels? But to do so, the youthful version of Spock must first endure an accelerated growth process, “aging” years in a span of a few hours. He writhes; he agonizes; he screams. But in the end, he has been painfully transformed into a new version. Spock 2.0, one night say.

Here endeth the agonizing-in-its-own-right relation between Star Trek lore and the work of Herman Melville, except to say: the present novel in my year-long project, Pierre, or The Ambiguities, kinda reminds me of that sequence from the aforementioned celluloid gutterball.

If I may now shift the tone of this discourse, the preceeding is one way to introduce the idea that Pierre is what is sometimes called a transitional work. It is an unadulterated “hash”, to use Melville’s own word, of many different themes and styles, thrown together in an odd way. As William C. Spengeman notes in his Introduction to Pierre, Melville is “painfully divesting himself of literary habits that had become like his second skin”. Just like Spock did, in another way, on the big screen! You cannot say that Melville was unwilling to step outside of what we might call today his “comfort zone” when he wrote Pierre.

Melville must have been aware of how disjointed the book would seem to most audiences, as it attempted to appeal to readers of a certain kind of contemporary novel (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple from the late 1700s), yet at the same time seems to be lampooning them with its excessive gloominess and extremely inflated language. But this is the book where Melville transformed into something else, and he seemed willing to play that out on the printed page.

He certainly seemed to pay an exorbitant cost for doing so. Pierre flopped in just about every way an artistic endeavor can. One modern-day critic notes that the book sold only 2,000 copies, and that, thirty-five years after its publication, there were crates of it still in the publishers’ warehouse. You couldn’t give it away, as the saying goes.

Not only did the reading public fail to embrace it, but it was also met with a critical bombardment that very few novelists in our history have had to endure. Some of the criticisms are themselves famous, such as the New York Herald’s lambasting of the novel as “the dream of a distempered stomach, disordered by a hasty supper of half-cooked pork chops”. Other critical assaults took on similar tones: “a dead failure”, a “crazy rigmarole”, a “literary mare’s nest”, “an incoherent hodge-podge”, “objectionable”. How did Melville even pick himself off the canvas after such a drubbing?

Why did the novel get treated so harshly? What about it is that horrible? These were some of my questions going in. And I knew I would have some degree of difficulty answering them with objectivity, because of my overall esteem for Melville, especially coming right off of the extraordinary experience of re-reading Moby-Dick. Indeed, it is impossible for me to look upon Pierre as a terrible book that serves no purpose and is revolting or even offensive. But having said that, after reading it, it is easy to see why very few people enjoyed it or even bothered to read it. Pierre strenuously resists an agreeable reception.

This is a novel, after all, that is written in a dense, ornate prose style, loaded down with exaggerated descriptions and philosophical musings; it is sometimes overwhelmingly dark and gloomy; it attempts to be both a domestic sampling of “ladies fiction” while satirizing the genre at the same time; it traffics in unappetizing subjects such as insanity and incest; it abruptly changes its plot, if it can be said to have one, a little over halfway through the story; it invents characters when it needs them for reasons of coherence (a “life-long” childhood companion of Pierre’s is introduced late while having had zero mention in the first two-thirds of the book); it forks off on strange tangents into quack philosophy or obscure mythology (half a chapter late in the book muses about Encedalus the Titan, “the most potent of all the giants”-!!???); and, if all the preceding is not enough, the whole story ends in a dismal tragedy worthy of William Shakespeare, at least in terms of the body count.

Having spelled all that out (in one egregiously long sentence!), can I recommend Pierre on any grounds? Absolutely. But, unfortunately, I know of very few people who would take me up. My personal response to Pierre is a combination of fascination, admiration, and sympathy. I will take these on in reverse order.

I am sympathetic towards Pierre, coming at it a century and a half later, because of the merciless pounding it took and the difficult circumstances under which Melville wrote the novel – he had a young son and a financial imperative to earn money to protect his family, and the magnificent achievement of Moby-Dick had recently been misunderstood. At least the first part of this situation resonates with me where I now stand; it would be nice to have the second problem!

I am also sympathetic to the book for literary reasons. Melville had to do something different after Moby-Dick. He realized, as all great artists do, that certain moments in one’s career call for a complete re-invention. You cannot just remain in one place creatively and continue to further advance your art.

Melville wasn’t very interested in sitting in one place, even for monetary reasons. He’d already tried that with Redburn and White Jacket, novels he had written quickly and competently, but within a year was dismissing as “mere cakes and ale”. Hadn’t he, furthermore, reached the apex of the adventurous sea-tale with Moby-Dick? Indeed, no one had ever ascended higher.

Melville might have tried to take on a lighter, simpler, or more consumer-friendly tale, but his curiosity and artistic vision would not allow it. For him, writing a novel was an epic quest; a philosophical and spiritual journey. As he expresses in Pierre, “the devouring profundities now opened up in him, consuming all his vigor; would he, he could not now be entertainingly and profitably shallow in some pellucid and merry romance”.

I admire the novel, if not for its clarity of vision or precision, for the courage it took to plunge headlong into such “profundities”, knowing that it would not be well received. Melville took on subjects that were considered quite taboo at the time and was willing to weave them into his story. Not that I can condone incestuous behavior, for example; nor can I understand what compelled Melville to hint so strongly towards it in his novel; but I do respect the guts it took to weave such elements into the book when it would only shock and repel readers. Melville was uncompromising. If he was consumed by fear and darkness, he was a writer with enough fortitude and confidence to enter into and try to demystify those same elements.

Thirdly, and lastly, I find Pierre to be an all-around fascination. What drove Melville, ultimately, to write such a strange, unruly, provocative, and baffling novel? Why did he choose above all else to explore those dark corners and expose them to readers who had no willingness to wallow in such things? In at least one place, Melville, seeming to channel his own thoughts through Pierre as he sits in a chamber trying to write his own novel, wonders about similar matters:

Here surely is a wonderful stillness of eight hours and a half, repeated day after day. In the heart of such silence, surely something is at work. Is it creation, or destruction? Builds Pierre the noble world of a new book? or does the Pale Haggardness unbuild the lungs and life in him?

Later on, the author seems to be aware of how it will all end for both himself and his creation: “His soul’s ship foresaw the inevitable rocks, but resolved to sail on, and make a courageous wreck”.

When Pierre finally lunges to its inevitable conclusion, the thoroughly unhinged man at the heart of the story resolves himself irreversibly to terminate his nightmares in a dramatic explosion of maniacal violence. The feeling one gets reading this tragedy is that Melville has launched himself as from a cliff into some unplumbed abyss, unaware of what lies at bottom, but unwilling to turn his eyes away from the ugliness, the horror, but also, sometimes, the crystalline surface shimmering below – at the very floor of the Mystery.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Reflections on Moby-Dick

Book IV of the "Melville, Pennsylvania" Project

“The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run.”
– Ahab, Moby-Dick, Chapter XXXVII

“White whale/Holy grail”
– Mastodon, “Blood and Thunder”

To begin: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, in my opinion, has the greatest, most heart-stopping conclusion of any novel in American literature. It is not even a contest.

If you start Moby-Dick, and you have any interest in literature at all, but fail to finish it, you are doing yourself a tremendous disservice. It doesn’t hurt Melville for you not to finish it, since he lies in that “common pool”, to use the novel’s language, where we all are headed. But it does hurt you, in the sense that you willfully leave untapped an entirely unique and profound resource concerning mankind’s eternal struggle with the reality of evil in this world.

People who enjoy literature eventually come to realize the simple truth that the best books are the same ones that demand more from you as a reader. “You get out of it what you put into it” is an unsufferable cliché, yet it’s never more correct than it is here. But even if you cast completely to one side all of the thematic and literary considerations, and the broad legacy of the novel throughout the decades since it appeared, and consider it purely from the standpoint of an entertainment, this book is still far superior to almost any other American novel I can think of. The last 50 pages of the book make everything else, from those techno-thrillers written by Tom Clancy and his literary progeny (that I loved as a very young man) to Stephen King’s latest horror novel to any Harry Potter novel, look like those fat board books that you hand to babies to chew on.

But is Moby-Dick worth the 750-odd page slog to get to the final chase? Is the rest of the book worth the time? What makes the novel on the whole so great? I will try to provide my own answers to these questions.

One of the reasons that the conclusion to the novel works as well as it does is because of that lengthy time you’ve spent with the characters and with the natural world. To address the latter first, Moby-Dick is nothing if not an immersive experience. Melville does not just do a credible job of describing the white whale itself and the sea in which he resides. Famously, in a manner than is practically Darwinian, he examines the entire whale species, smallest to largest. The well-known chapter titled “Cetology” scientifically catalogues every species of whale known to mankind (at least in Melville’s day), although Melville approaches his subject with awe: “To grope down into the bottom of the sea after them; to have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing.”

Melville clearly has a separate, greater fascination for the mighty Sperm whale, for he “lives not complete in any literature. Far above all other hunted whales, his is an unwritten life.” Later in the novel he examines every facet of the inside of Sperm whales as well, from their bones to their teeth to the blubber and innards. When the crew of the Pequod actually hunts and kills a Sperm whale, well before the final encounter with Moby Dick, there are vivid descriptions of the immense work associated with vivisecting the carcass, how it is done, how its oil is drained and stored, how its flesh is hacked from the bones and segmented into steaks, and what becomes of the remainder of the whale’s corpse (food for sharks). The reader can all but smell the slaughter and feel on the soles of their feet the slick planks of the ship’s deck as it runs free with oil, blood, and general “gore”, as Melville calls it.

Melville’s attention to natural details, whether it be animals, the sea itself, lush plants on South Pacific isles, or weather, was always specific, and expressed in rich colors and shapes, from his vibrant first novel (Typee) on. Moby-Dick sometimes recalls the early chapters of that earlier, philosophically-inclined novel Mardi, when the escaped narrator and his companion Jarl drift in small boat for weeks searching for a hospitable coastline, and spend much time dwelling on the varieties of fish they observe and accounting for their collective behaviors. It is abundantly clear in all of Melville’s novels up to and including Moby-Dick that one of the great gifts he was graced with from early on was an extraordinary capacity for observation and mental recollection of what he saw in his career as a sailor.

Beyond the great witness to nature that Moby-Dick represents, which alone makes it well worth the investment, there are the full-blooded and believable characters. Of these, none is greater than Melville’s most famous, most culturally enduring creation, which is not the white whale himself (who actually had at least one real-life antecedent), but Captain Ahab. As Elizabeth Hardwick eloquently argues in her lucid and brief biographical study Herman Melville, there is “nothing to stand with him in our literature before or after”.

What compels a writer to create such a persona? Did Melville base this captain on a real person, perhaps someone he had known or served under? Or did his conception come from a completely alternative process, wherein Melville conceived of the white whale first, realized its significance as a symbol of evil, and needed to construct out of whatever materials he could gather a representative figure, a stand-in for all of us, who could only get more and more crazed as he pursued something that could never be captured, let alone conquered? I don’t know the answers to these questions now. I may never find them, although later I hope to cast at least some light on these mysteries through further reading.

However Melville generated this monumental, maniacal character, once he had done so, Ahab clearly became a channel through which this uniquely brilliant writer and thinker could convey his ideas about revenge, destiny, the fate of man, and the very meaning of our lives. Ahab’s presence in the novel is obscure for more than half of its length. He’s someone people know of by reputation, or allude to only in hushed tones. He doesn’t even show his face on the deck of the Pequod until well after the vessel embarks on its voyage, and when he finally does emerge, one of the first things he does is pass around a pewter chalice and force the crew to join him in a blood oath to pursue and destroy the leviathan, the white whale that is responsible for chewing off his leg:

“Now, three to three, ye stand. Commend the murderous chalices! Bestow them, ye who are now made parties to this insoluble league. Drink, ye harpooners! Drink and swear, ye men that hunt the deathful whaleboat’s bow – Death to Moby Dick!”

Then, of course, as the novel progresses and the ship begins to draw close to the leviathan’s home waters, Ahab makes careful preparations for the final battle. He orders the ship’s blacksmith to create a custom-made, ultra-deadly harpoon. He has the carpenter build him a new leg for the upcoming fight. He bribes the crew with gold, to be awarded to the man whose eyes first alight on Moby Dick (it turns out to be himself). Yet all the while, the closer the inevitable clash draws near, the more Ahab himself seems to writhe in the grip of internal turmoil:

“Rat-tat! So man’s seconds tick! Oh! How immaterial are all materials! What things real are there, but imponderable thoughts….But no. So far gone am I in the dark side of earth, that its other side, the theoretic bright one, seems but uncertain twilight to me.”

More than once, however, Ahab’s loyal but tortured first mate, the Quaker Starbuck, who has long hence perceived the captain’s madness, makes impassioned please to Ahab for his own soul’s sake to give up, turn away, resist the terminal pull of vengeance. But his appeals are in vain, for as Melville writes, “the eternal sap runs up in Ahab’s bones again”. The last time Starbuck tries in desperation to stop him, on the second of three days of the final hunt, Ahab lays out for the first mate the inevitability of his own end: “In this matter of the whale, be the front of thy face to me as the palm of this hand – a lipless, unfeatured blank. Ahab is forever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.”

This astounding passage opens the entire novel towards the deepest of inquiries: Are we fated to do everything that we do? Are we merely God’s playthings? Can we change anything – and if not, is there any reason to struggle, to dream, to resist, to love, to exist? In this great and thrilling hunt, Herman Melville has created both a staggeringly profound, ageless drama and a fiercely entertaining adventure. It’s an incredible achievement; a literary performance of bottomless bravery and strength.

One has to admire – in spite of the tremendous struggle and the black sins he commits along the way, dispensing with an entire crew of men to service his own twisted end – the awesome courage with which Ahab meets his adversary at very close range at the end of the novel:

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee …. Let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”

I urge all readers, everywhere, to face down this mighty and worthy novel if they so dare. To conclude, I offer the passage below, lest anyone wonder if Ahab’s adversary, the white whale itself, does not “bring it” to the final throwdown, to use current parlance.

“All their enchanted eyes intent upon the whale, which from side to side strangely vibrating his predestinating head, sent a broad band of overspreading semi-circular foam before him as he rushed. Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and in spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled. Through the breach, they heard the waters pour, as mountain torrents down a flume.”

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Christ is Risen, and Brings the Joy!

That triumphant refrain echoes through this beautiful Easter poem, brought to my attention by my sister. It was written by St. Nikolai Velimirovich of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who served for a time as Rector of a seminary in Serbia. Since this is the season of Easter and Resurrection, I thought it would be appropriate to post - if nothing else, as a reminder of the great victory over death our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, earned for us all. Happy Easter, one and all...


Christos Voskrese - Christ is Risen!

People rejoice, nations hear:
Christ is Risen, and brings the joy!
Stars dance, mountains sing:
Christ is Risen, and brings the joy!
Forests murmur, winds hum:
Christ is Risen, and brings the joy!
Seas bow, animals roar:
Christ is Risen, and brings the joy!
Bees swarm, and the birds sing:
Christ is Risen, and brings the joy!

Angels stand, triple the song:
Christ is Risen, and brings the joy!
Sky humble yourself, and elevate the earth:
Christ is Risen, and brings the joy!
Bells chime, and tell to all:
Christ is Risen, and brings the joy!
Glory to you God, everything is possible to You,
Christ is Risen, and brings the joy!