Sunday, September 27, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: The Whooping Imps of the Blocksburg

Argh, I have gotten no further in reading Moby Dick. So I am actually going to backtrack and talk about a passage that comes before the one I discussed last week. This one is from the infamous "Whiteness of the Whale" chapter, which I love but about which I don't have a whole heck of a lot to say--other than it falls into the strategy of verbal / intellectual barrage, through which Ishmael / Melville attempts to "get" the whale. To summarize, "The Whiteness of the Whale" asks why the white is the color (if it is indeed a color) of both holiness and terror. Seems to me the answer is that holiness and terror are closely related experiences; the whiteness of both points to--and is derived from--death. Done: next question...? Anyway, once again, by the end of this chapter, we are no closer to the whale, except in the sense that we have now read further in the text, and so we are closer to the part in the book where the thing itself is going to have to make an appearance.

Still, there is some great writing in this chapter (as everwhere) and I don't recommend skipping it. I was particularly struck by this line:

Or, to choose a wholly unsubstantial instance, purely addressed to the fancy, why, in reading the old fairy tales of Central Europe, does "the tall pale man" of the Hartz forests, whose changeless pallor unrestingly glides through the green of the groves--why is this phantom more terrible than all the whooping imps of the Blocksburg?

Let me begin by saying that I have no idea whence any of these tales derives. I don't know who this tall pale man is,* nor can I begin to credibly imagine these whooping imps--though I am picturing a bunch of garden gnomes hopping furiously up and down. However, my interest here is in the sound of the words.

I remember reading Paradise Lost as an undergrad, and much being made of the way Milton juxtaposed Latinate and Anglo-Saxon words, particularly when talking about Satan. For instance:

High on a Throne of Royal State, which far
Outshon the wealth of ORMUS and of IND,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showrs on her Kings BARBARIC Pearl & Gold,
Satan exalted sat....

The collision of "exalted" and "sat" is meant to mock Satan--the flatness of "sat" undercuts the of grandiosity of "exalted." (As we all know, this trick didn't work; everybody likes Satan better than God in PL, including, according to Blake, Milton himself.)

So back to those imps. As poor a folklorist as I am**, I am an even worse linguist. So I really can't pick apart the origins of the words Melville uses in the passage above. Still, the sound of them reminds me of Milton's collisions. The part of Melville's sentence devoted to the pale man is graceful and alliterative ("glides through the green of the groves," plus those repeated r's); the second part, wherein the imps whoop, is choppy to the point of being funny. In this case the smoothness of the pale man's movement--echoed by the words--becomes more ominous in contrast to the bumpiness of the words at the end. Compared to the pale man, the imps look and sound (sorry, I can't resist) impotent.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us, writers should "try to assemble words in a beautiful fashion." He points to a passage from E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime to show how a great writer puts together word upon word, sentence upon sentence, to create music. Writers are composers. (Interestingly, one of the commenters on this post even talks about Moby Dick in this light.) In music, it's often the contrasts between sounds, the disruptions of a seemingly perfect rhythm, that make it compelling.

So this week's lesson, an oldie but a goodie, is to listen to what we write.

*A person with less intellectual forebearance than I possess might leap to point out that the "tall pale man" may be a version of Bigfoot.

**Except when it comes to Bigfoot.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ta-Nehisi Coates on E. L. Doctorow

Yes. Writers should "try to assemble words in a beautiful fashion."

Inventions That Would Almost Work: Hair Magnet Exer-Suit

This is a padded full-body suit made of a revolutionary, highly static-y material. Put suit on and roll across floor and / or furniture to collect cat hair and strengthen core muscles. Launder suit to dispose of cat hair. Repeat.

ITWAW is brought to you by a restless, slightly underemployed writer.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: Ahab's Soul

This week, we'll have another look at characterization in Moby Dick, courtesy of Ahab. First--and forgive me for stating the obvious with a sense of great discovery--I've been struck by how much Ahab and the white whale are the same character. Melville hits this idea pretty hard in these early-to-middle chapters: both are scarred (by each other), both have wrinkled brows, both are associated with the shape of a pyramid (the whale has a pyramid-shaped hump, while Ahab, in Stubb's dream, is a pyramid that Stubb is kicking).* Both are driven by some unfathomable force, and become that force, sucking in and destroying all around them. Ishmael expends almost as much effort trying to "get" Ahab as he does the equally opaque whale. In Chapter 44, "The Chart," he takes another, so to speak, stab at him.

Often, when forced from his hammock by exhausting and intolerably vivid dreams of the night, which, resuming his own intense thoughts through the day, carried them on amid a clashing of phrensies, and whirled them round and round and round in his blazing brain, till the very throbbing of his life-spot became insufferable anguish; and when, as was sometimes the case, these spiritual throes in him heaved his being up from its base, and a chasm seemed opening in him, from which forked flames and lightnings shot up, and accursed fiends beckoned him to leap down among them; when this hell in himself yawned beneath him, a wild cry would be heard through the ship; and with glaring eyes Ahab would burst from his state room, as though escaping from a bed that was on fire. Yet these, perhaps, instead of being the unsuppressable symptoms of some latent weakness, or fright at his own resolve, were but the plainest tokens of its intensity. For, at such times, crazy Ahab, the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter of the white whale; this Ahab that had gone to his hammock, was not the agent that so caused him to burst from it in horror again. The latter was the eternal, living principle or soul in him; and in sleep, being for the time dissociated from the characterizing mind, which at other times employed it for its outer vehicle or agent, it spontaneously sought escape from the scorching contiguity of the frantic thing, of which, for the time, it was no longer an integral. But as the mind does not exist unless leagued with the soul, therefore it must have been that, in Ahab's case, yielding up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose; that purpose, by its own sheer inveteracy of will, forced itself against gods and devils into a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own. Nay, could grimly live and burn, while the common vitality to which it was conjoined, fled horror-stricken from the unbidden and unfathered birth. Therefore, the tormented spirit that glared out of bodily eyes, when what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to color, and therefore a blankness in itself. God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.
I can't think of a contemporary novel that depicts the soul this way. In this stunning sequence, Ahab's soul is given agency and material reality. I love the idea that the tormented soul is seizing the opportunity of sleep to try to escape the circumstances it's trapped in. It can't quite make it; the soul is stuck with the body and its deranged mind, just as the sailors on the Pequod are stuck with Ahab. But it makes a run for it, dragging the vacated-looking Ahab with it.

These days I think discussions of the soul in literature are out of favor, except in a sort of meta way. We're all past the mind / body split, and we--that is to say, I--don't accept the existence of a "soul" distinct from our physical selves. However, what possibilities are open to us as writers if we re-inhabit that split for the sake of our fiction? If we make the soul a kind of character within the character--and put those two characters at odds? At a minimum, this gives a twist to the usual "inner struggle" or "inner conflict" that interesting characters are supposed to experience. The soul here has a physical presence, literally giving the struggle a new dimension. The connotations here are not overtly religious; but something more than Ahab's sanity is at stake, it would seem, if his soul is running amok in the night.

*Another great way, if not overused, to depict characters--one has a dream about the other. If the dream is weird enough, it gives a nice shading to both dreamer and dreamee.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: The Unfinished

In this week's writing lesson from Moby Dick, we are once again confronted with pedantry. I suggested a few weeks ago that Melville gets away with extended pedantic rants, even on page one, through sheer enthusiasm and judicious use of the second person. However, in Chapter 32, "Cetology," we are in a whole new realm of dust and dryness.

Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored harborless immensities. Ere that come to pass; ere the Pequod's weedy hull rolls side by side with the barnacled hulls of the leviathan; at the outset it is but well to attend to a matter almost indispensable to a thorough appreciative understanding of the more special leviathanic revelations and allusions of all sorts which are to follow.

It is some systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera, that I would now fain put before you.

And "put it before" us he does, over several, I hate to say it, tedious pages. I kind of skimmed them. This is not to say these pages are without interest; there is the irresistible (to Derridians and post-post-triple-double toe-loop-Derridians) intertwining of the whale with the book:

First: According to magnitude I divide the whales into three primary BOOKS (subdivisible into CHAPTERS), and these shall comprehend them all,
both small and large.


As the type of the FOLIO I present the Sperm Whale; of the OCTAVO, the Grampus; of the DUODECIMO, the Porpoise.

And there's the horrifying juxtaposition of real fondness for at least some of these creatures with the cold-blooded calculations of the butcher:

BOOK III. (Duodecimo), CHAPTER 1. (Huzza Porpoise).--This is the common porpoise found almost all over the globe. The name is of my own bestowal; for there are more than one sort of porpoises, and something must be done to distinguish them. I call him thus, because he always swims in hilarious shoals, which upon the broad sea keep tossing themselves to heaven like caps in a Fourth-of-July crowd. Their appearance is generally hailed with delight by the mariner. Full of fine spirits, they invariably come from the breezy billows to windward. They are the lads that always live before the wind. They are accounted a lucky omen. If you yourself can withstand three cheers at beholding these vivacious fish, then heaven help ye; the spirit of godly gamesomeness is not in ye. A well-fed, plump Huzza Porpoise will yield you one good gallon of good oil. But the fine and delicate fluid extracted from his jaws is exceedingly valuable.
Nevertheless, what is this "systematized exhibition" doing, plopped down in the middle of a narrative that has, like the Pequod, just now gotten underway? Is there some value in disrupting narrative momentum and taxing the reader's patience like this?

Thematically speaking, yes. In many senses the author of the novel is more Ahab than Ishmael. Like Ahab he seeks to get at the whale by any means necessary; he corrals it and aims at it every verbal weapon he can think of--straighforward narrative, theater, and now scholarly discourse. This latest stylistic shift also adds to the growing hodge-podge effect of the narrative, which I find appealing, even though I was glad when this particular part was over. While the voice in this section is still pretty dry, the overall sense is of an already oppressive desperation: we can't get (i.e. undestand) the whale; we will never get the whale.

And then there's this little outburst at the end:

Finally: It was stated at the outset, that this system would not be here, and at once, perfected. You cannot but plainly see that I have kept my word. But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the cranes still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught--nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!
As I've said before, I'm a big fan of these authorial yelps. And what yelp is closer to the heart of a struggling novelist than "Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!"? You said it, dude. But what's also fascinating here is the announcement that this whole enterprise is incomplete. We're looking at the frayed edge of the fabric; if we pull one of the threads, the whole novel might unravel. Melville's almost daring us to do it.

So what's the point of that, and how might other writers put such a ploy to good use? A lesser author might use it as a cheap way out. Yeah, there are crappy parts here, but I was rushing, and everyone knows it's impossible to finish anything anyway. But the meticulousness of this section in particular shows that the author is in fact trying his damnedest to "get" the whale. The slap-dash aesthetic of the novel (created by all the different verbal styles, as well as this and other outburst of despair) is a result of over-work, not sloppiness. So, in short, a section that is radically different in style, not only from the rest of the novel, but from the novel genre, can work even if it bogs down the narrative--if it furthers the novel's tone. Plot can wait. Character can wait. Desperation is what's most important here, and it probably helps if the reader starts to feel a little of it too--Good god, get on with it already!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The return of Hubble

The Hubble space telescope has been repaired and is sending back better pictures than ever. This is awesome news--especially for those of us who like to get our regular doses of awe from the cosmos.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Attention AP and Yahoo News

It is not Obama's speech to students that is "sparking controversy." It is the media, who come running every time right-wing racists set their hair on fire.

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: Ahab

At the rate I am making my way through Moby Dick, I should be done with it by, oh, 2015. What will the world be like then? Will we have universal health insurance in the US? Will we remember who Levi Johnston is? Will the Internet be transmitted directly into our brains, or just the Netflix pop-up ads? The good news is that there is so much to learn and savor in this novel that my lack of speed will result in no lack of material for our writing seminar. Oh, and more good news: Ahab has appeared.

This week: how to make a character larger than life.

Obviously there's the old trick of delaying his entrance while other characters build him up. Ishmael keeps wondering where Ahab is, why he hasn't met the captain of the ship on which he's going to spend the next three years. This is most irregular. He keeps hearing that Ahab is "sick" but will be better soon. Meanwhile a self-appointed prophet named Elijah shows up, twice, to deliver warnings about Ahab and the Pequod.

"Stop!" cried the stranger. "Ye said true--ye hav'n't seen Old Thunder yet, have ye?"

"Who's Old Thunder?" said I, again riveted with the insane earnestness of his manner.

"Captain Ahab."

"What! the captain of our ship, the Pequod?"

"Aye, among some of us old sailor chaps, he goes by that name. Ye hav'n't seen him yet, have ye?"

"No, we hav'n't. He's sick they say, but is getting better, and will be all right again before long."

"All right again before long!" laughed the stranger, with a solemnly derisive sort of laugh. "Look ye; when Captain Ahab is all right, then this left arm of mine will be all right; not before."

"What do you know about him?"

"What did they tell you about him? Say that!"

"They didn't tell much of anything about him; only I've heard that he's a good whale-hunter, and a good captain to his crew."

"That's true, that's true--yes, both true enough. But you must jump when he gives an order. Step and growl; growl and go--that's the word with Captain Ahab. But nothing about that thing that happened to him off Cape Horn, long ago, when he lay like dead for three days and nights; nothing about that deadly skrimmage with the Spaniard afore the altar in Santa?-- heard nothing about that, eh? Nothing about the silver calabash he spat into? And nothing about his losing his leg last voyage, according to the prophecy. Didn't ye hear a word about them matters and something more, eh? No, I don't think ye did; how could ye? Who knows it? Not all Nantucket, I guess. But hows'ever, mayhap, ye've heard tell about the leg, and how he lost it; aye, ye have heard of that, I dare say. Oh, yes, that every one knows a'most--I mean they know he's only one leg; and that a parmacetti took the other off."

"My friend," said I, "what all this gibberish of yours is about, I don't know, and I don't much care; for it seems to me that you must be a little damaged in the head. But if you are speaking of Captain Ahab, of that ship there, the Pequod, then let me tell you, that I know all about the loss of his leg."

"All about it, eh--sure you do? all?"

There's nothing like a crazy minor character to deliver lots of disturbing information efficiently. One has to be careful with this, as the technique has become something of a cliche. Still, a crazy person can get away with babbling out fragments of story after story, creating a swirl of mystery and chaos around the character in question. And of course the person hearing those stories has an excuse for denying them and resisting the warning to stay away. Perhaps a contemporary variant on this type of crazy person could be of use in our stories.

So over a hundred pages have gone by, quite enjoyably of course, and finally we meet Ahab. Melville has given himself quite a task in not letting us down after such a buildup.

It was one of those less lowering, but still grey and gloomy enough mornings of the transition, when with a fair wind the ship was rushing through the water with a vindictive sort of leaping and melancholy rapidity, that as I mounted to the deck at the call of the forenoon watch, so soon as I levelled my glance towards the taffrail, foreboding shivers ran over me. Reality outran apprehension; Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck.

There seemed no sign of common bodily illness about him, nor of the recovery from any. He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini's cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded.

Could a writer get away with this today--the vaguely threatening sky, the bald statement that "reality outran apprehension"? The quick piling up of similes--a man cut away from the stake, a bronze form, a tree struck by lightning?

In the case of the similes, anyway, I think one could, especially if one is not given to larding one's prose with these in general (confession: guilty). Obviously one should ensure that the figures are striking, original, and highly revealing. The first one, about the man who's been burned to at the stake, is stunning. Not only does it create an unforgettable visual image, it suffuses Ahab's whole character with horror and pain. Being burned at the stake is usually a punishment for heresy--and Ahab is tormented metaphysically, spiritually; but the fire also comes from within him. The bronze image that follows quickly tells us that although he's been consumed in fire he is not fragile. He is a work of art for the ages. And then the tree tells us that, lo and behold, he's still alive--"greenly alive," possibly even more alive than anyone else--despite or because of what he's gone through. In other words, these similes work because they are not just physical comparisons but expressions of Ahab's inner being, and his history. They join inside and outside, and they comment on each other: burned but enduring, not paralyzed but alive. And, yes, larger than life.

And then Ahab really does come to life. I love the last bit of this chapter, in which, after quite a bit more description, we get this:

Nevertheless, ere long, the warm, warbling persuasiveness of the pleasant, holiday weather we came to, seemed gradually to charm him from his mood. For, as when the red-cheeked, dancing girls, April and May, trip home to the wintry, misanthropic woods; even the barest, ruggedest, most thunder-cloven old oak will at least send forth some few green sprouts, to welcome such gladhearted visitants; so Ahab did, in the end, a little respond to the playful allurings of that girlish air. More than once did he put forth the faint blossom of a look, which, in any other man, would have soon flowered out in a smile.

This is charming, even funny. Ahab becomes just a tiny bit approachable. We root for him to smile, knowing now what he's been through--not the literal stories, exactly, but their physical and spiritual effects, which are worse. I think this is key to creating the larger-than-life character--just a little touch of humanity, struggling to get out. Now we, like the sailors on the Pequod, are hooked for good.