Saturday, August 22, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick (yes, really): In praise of pedantry of a certain kind

This week on BF, we begin a series of writing seminars on...Moby Dick. Good god. Am I really going to wade into this glorious but extremely long, extremely complicated masterpiece, especially when I cannot find my hard copy and so for the time being have to read it online, thus causing my eyeballs to vibrate and my outlook to grow narrow and surly? Yes, I think so. For one thing it's going to help me with my novel, which I would like to somehow mirror the structure and themes of MB, without becoming my own personal white whale.

So, to begin. Call me Ishmael. Or call me crazy. I'd like first to put in a word for pedantry--of a certain kind. As we know, we must not have pedantry in the contemporary novel, unless perhaps it is deeply ironic, hyperbolic, and / or confined to the spoutings of a minor character--or to some dessicated professor, who gets one last shot at really living, courtesy of a twenty-year old free-spirited student.... You sure as hell don't want a long philosophical disquisition in your opening pages. Your potential reader, browsing in Barnes and Noble, will surely set the book down after making a raspberry noise and wander off to the cafe. But we don't want this reader anyway, do we--this middlebrow patsy, this lazybones? We want someone willing to take on the big questions. (Yes, I realize I harp on this. Go big, I say! Big thoughts! Big canvas!)

On page one, before he even comes near the Pequod, Ishmael treats us to a lengthy meditation on human beings' (well, men's anyway) attraction to water.

[...] Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries--stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.

But here is an artist. He desires to paint you the dreamiest, shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape in all the valley of the Saco. What is the chief element he employs? There stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk, as if a hermit and a crucifix were within; and here sleeps his meadow, and there sleep his cattle; and up from yonder cottage goes a sleepy smoke. Deep into distant woodlands winds a mazy way, reaching to overlapping spurs of mountains bathed in their hill-side blue. But though the picture lies thus tranced, and though this pine-tree shakes down its sighs like leaves upon this shepherd's head, yet all were vain, unless the shepherd's eye were fixed upon the magic stream before him. Go visit the Prairies in June, when for scores on scores of miles you wade knee-deep among Tiger-lilies--what is the one charm wanting?-- Water there is not a drop of water there! Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it? Why did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach? Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. 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.

Rather than driving me away, this passage fascinates me. I want even more. How does Melville manage it? First, of course the ideas are interesting. Just the scope alone, the leaps from Rockaway Beach to the ancient Persians to Narcissus; the meadows, the dale, the hermit, the crucifix...we're learning this is going to be a book about the whole world, past and present, real and imagined. And water is what will bring that world to us.

But the key, I think, is the urgency of these musings. Melville / Ishmael draws us in by using the second person, imperative mode. Say you are in the country...try this experiment...Go visit the Prairies in June...The reader is an active participant, a voyager like Ishmael, if only in his (it probably is "his") imagination. We're all travelers, and we, like Ishmael, want not only to see but to make sense of the world. Plus, the imperative mode is also an enthusiastic one. We're not being bullied here, but buttonholed. Our exuberant--if recently suicidal, possibly slightly insane--tour guide is grabbing us by the sleeve, pointing out the intellectual sights. This is far from plodding academic discourse.

Finally, this section draws us in because ultimately it's not about answers, but questions. As much as Ishmael seems to know about history, geography, and philosophy, he doesn't really know what the essence of water is. He keeps asking "why," and the question ultimately isn't rhetorical. He says, rather plaintively, "Surely this is not all without meaning." Of course, that will be the great lament, the horror, of the novel--pursuing "the ungraspable phantom of life...the key to it all"--and not succeeding.

So the writing lesson for today is: go ahead and bloviate on vast, cosmogonal themes (in Thoreau's words). Just 1) make it smart and interesting 2) make it more about questions than answers and 3) draw the reader in with urgency, enthusiasm, the second person (use with caution), and perhaps a drop of madness.

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