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.

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