Monday, November 30, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: Calmness

Hast seen the white whale? Yes, at last, we hast. The very thing we've been looking for surfaces in Chapter 133 of Moby Dick. Now Melville really has to deliver the goods, after four hundred fifty pages (depending on your edition) of buildup. We've already seen him come through once, reporting rumor after rumor about Ahab, then revealing him with a fireworks display of stunning metaphors. But the white whale is an even bigger deal. And to show the whale at all brings paradox--because the whale represents the unrepresentable. His appearance is bound to be a disappointment, and a failure of sorts.

So how does the whale appear? Melville could have had him shoot up out of nowhere and dash a hole in the Pequod--that would have been exciting. Instead, the whale's revealed gradually and softly. In fact the first hint of his presence is that most insubstantial of presences, a smell.

That night, in the mid-watch when the old man--as his wont at intervals--stepped forth from the scuttle in which he leaned, and went to his pivot-hole, he suddenly thrust out his face fiercely, snuffing up the sea air as a sagacious ship's dog will, in drawing nigh to some barbarous isle. He declared that a whale must be near. Soon that peculiar odor, sometimes to a great distance given forth by the living sperm whale, was palpable to all the watch; nor was any mariner surprised when, after inspecting the compass, and then the dog-vane, and then ascertaining the precise bearing of the odor as nearly as possible, Ahab rapidly ordered the ship's course to be slightly altered, and the sail to be shortened.

The acute policy dictating these movements was sufficiently vindicated at daybreak, by the sight of a long sleek on the sea directly and lengthwise ahead, smooth as oil, and resembling in the pleated watery wrinkles bordering it, the polished metallic-like marks of some swift tide-rip, at the mouth of a deep, rapid stream.

In contrast to Ahab's first appearance, borne on images of torment, Moby Dick's surrounded by a hush. He does not churn through the water; he seems to smooth and calm its surface--even as the tide-rip roars deep below. Shortly afterwards we get this fairly conventional cry (from Ahab): "There she blows!--there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!" Then a lot of rushing around by the crew as the boats are lowered. Still, Moby Dick, like the waters above him, remains unperturbed.

Like noiseless nautilus shells, their light prows sped through the sea; but only slowly they neared the foe. As they neared him, the ocean grew still more smooth; seemed drawing a carpet over its waves; seemed a noon-meadow, so serenely it spread. At length the breathless hunter came so nigh his seemingly unsuspecting prey, that his entire dazzling hump was distinctly visible, sliding along the sea as if an isolated thing, and continually set in a revolving ring of finest, fleecy, greenish foam. He saw the vast, involved wrinkles of the slightly projecting head beyond. Before it, far out on the soft Turkish-rugged waters, went the glistening white shadow from his broad, milky forehead, a musical rippling playfully accompanying the shade; and behind, the blue waters interchangeably flowed over into the moving valley of his steady wake; and on either hand bright bubbles arose and danced by his side. But these were broken again by the light toes of hundreds of gay fowls softly feathering the sea, alternate with their fitful flight; and like to some flag-staff rising from the painted hull of an argosy, the tall but shattered pole of a recent lance projected from the white whale's back; and at intervals one of the cloud of soft-toed fowls hovering, and to and fro skimming like a canopy over the fish, silently perched and rocked on this pole, the long tail feathers streaming like pennons.

A gentle joyousness--a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.

On each soft side--coincident with the parted swell, that but once leaving him then flowed so wide away--on each bright side, the whale shed off enticings. No wonder there had been some among the hunters who namelessly transported and allured by all this serenity, had ventured to assail it; but had fatally found that quietude but the vesture of tornadoes. Yet calm, enticing calm, oh, whale! thou glidest on, to all who for the first time eye thee, no matter how many in that same way thou mayst have bejuggled and destroyed before.

And thus, through the serene tranquillities of the tropical sea, among waves whose hand-clappings were suspended by exceeding rapture, Moby Dick moved on, still withholding from sight the full terrors of his submerged trunk, entirely hiding the wrenched hideousness of his jaw. But soon the fore part of him slowly rose from the water; for an instant his whole marbleized body formed a high arch, like Virginia's Natural Bridge, and warningly waving his bannered flukes in the air, the grand god revealed himself, sounded and went out of sight. Hoveringly halting, and dipping on the wing, the white sea-fowls longingly lingered over the agitated pool that he left.

Serenity, as the calm at the eye of the storm, is a common way of depicting ominous power. Still, it works here, especially because of the whale's effects on his surroundings. He casts a spell over the waves and the seabirds, making them not only calm, but joyous. The waves are suspended by "exceeding rapture"; the birds "longingly linger" over the spot from which dives. He's beatific. He's seduced nature, or rather "ravaged" it, as the reference to Europa and the bull suggests. Nature seems unnaturally happy, even drugged, and that's how Moby Dick lives up to his billing. The first jolt he delivers is our realization that he's not merely aggressive and violent. He alters things simply by passing by or through them, and makes them strange. This seems like a good way to depict awesome power: show the ordinary world changing in its wake.

For future reference: veggie turkey-like thingies

Slate's Juliet Lapidos wrote a helpful review of vegetarian turkey-like entities, including the infamous Tofurkey. Trev and I bought her favorite, Gardein, for our belated Thanksgiving with his family on Saturday. While the rest of the family had turkey, we heated up these little stuffed soy-twinkies and surrounded them with the usual sides. Report: not bad. Texture very convincing. Flavor somewhere between turkey and bacon. "Crust" so-so. Stuffing negligible.

Trev's mom did a nice thing and bought the Thanksgiving issue of the Vegetarian Times in preparation for the meal. The issue includes a section on vegetarian etiquette for Thanksgiving. One suggestion--do not make the roasted bird the centerpiece at the table. Cut it up elsewhere and pass the slices on a plate. Vegetarians have responsibilities too: for instance, do not say, "Ugh, a bird carcass! How can you be such monsters?" and so forth. The veggie stuffing from VT was excellent.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: How do you solve a problem like Ahab?

In every narrative that is even remotely conventional, there comes a point of no return. A decision is made; destiny is sealed; there's no going back to undo the circumstances that drive the story to its (let's face it, often terrible) ending. This point is also one of great risk for the story's credibility. Because, as a writer, you may have a perfect ending in mind--a great image, or an event that doles out justice with exquisite irony. But can you get there from where you are now? As you translate your outline, or series of "numinous images" (as Joyce Carol Oates put it in her recent talk at Stanford), into prose, you might find things are not going as planned. That is, you cannot quite cross that bridge to "no return," because, on close inspection, your plot is a tad illogical. In other words, you've raised the question, "Why doesn't she just...?" Why doesn't she just tell him the truth? Why can't he just take a cab home? Why, in Moby Dick, doesn't someone just kill or at least incapacitate the mad captain who is ushering the Pequod to certain doom?

It's a question that Melville must dispense with sooner or later. We have to see the confrontation between Ahab and the white whale; that's the whole reason this novel exists. We also have to see Ahab's insanity long before that, so we know how doomed this trip is. The crew members know also. The fact that they know increases the drama; we watch helplessly as they struggle with and tame their misgivings. Still...Ahab is one man, and an old one (with an ivory leg, no less). How hard would it be to take him out? Melville answers the question via Starbuck's interior monologue in "The Musket." Starbuck, watching Ahab sleep in his hammock, has Ahab's musket in his hands. All he has to do is shoot--or failing that, take him prisoner. The latter would seem a fine alternative to out-and-out murder.

Ha! is he muttering in his sleep? Yes, just there,--in there, he's sleeping. Sleeping? aye, but still alive, and soon awake again. I can't withstand thee, then, old man. Not reasoning; not remonstrance; not entreaty wilt thou hearken to; all this thou scornest. Flat obedience to thy own flat commands, this is all thou breathest. Aye, and say'st the men have vow'd thy vow; say'st all of us are Ahabs. Great God forbid!-- But is there no other way? no lawful way?--Make him a prisoner to be taken home? What! hope to wrest this old man's living power from his own living hands? Only a fool would try it. Say he were pinioned even; knotted all over with ropes and hawsers; chained down to ring-bolts on this cabin floor; he would be more hideous than a caged tiger, then. I could not endure the sight; could not possibly fly his howlings; all comfort, sleep itself, inestimable reason would leave me on the long intolerable voyage. What, then, remains? The land is hundreds of leagues away, and locked Japan the nearest. I stand alone here upon an open sea, with two oceans and a whole continent between me and law.--Aye, aye, 'tis so.-- Is heaven a murderer when its lightning strikes a would-be murderer in his bed, tindering sheets and skin together?-- And would I be a murderer, then, if"--and slowly, stealthily, and half sideways looking, he placed the loaded musket's end against the door.

"On this level, Ahab's hammock swings within; his head this way. A touch, and Starbuck may survive to hug his wife and child again.-- Oh Mary! Mary!--boy! boy! boy!--But if I wake thee not to death, old man, who can tell to what unsounded deeps Starbuck's body this day week may sink, with all the crew! Great God, where art Thou? Shall I? shall I?--The wind has gone down and shifted, sir; the fore and main topsails are reefed and set! she heads her course."

"Stern all! Oh Moby Dick, I clutch thy heart at last!"

Such were the sounds that now came hurtling from out the old man's tormented sleep, as if Starbuck's voice had caused the long dumb dream to speak.

The yet levelled musket shook like a drunkard's arm against the panel; Starbuck seemed wrestling with an angel, but turning from the door, he placed the death-tube in its rack, and left the place.

"He's too sound asleep, Mr. Stubb; go thou down, and wake him, and tell him. I must see to the deck here. Thou know'st what to say."

In the end, Starbuck doesn't have it in him to shoot Ahab. That makes sense; we've seen that Starbuck is the least bloodthirsty of the whale hunters. But he also can't take Ahab captive because he thinks the sight, and especially the sound, of the old man "pinioned" and "howling" would drive him insane. However, surely that's better than the alternative, i.e. death for everyone.

In an extremely realistic story, this rather absurd explanation would be a problem. But MD is not pure realism. The white whale itself is a mythical creature that exceeds the boundaries of the animal form entirely. It's the natural world multiplied exponentially, but also something else that can never be defined. Same with Ahab. He's life itself, but he, too, is "extraordinary." No matter how tightly bound he is, Starbuck thinks, that "extra" in Ahab will never be contained. In fact, through containment, it grows even scarier. Starbuck's sanity--and his fear of that thing in Ahab--means more to him than his life, and others'.

Now, is that satisfying? Are we willing to sail on with Starbuck and Ahab and face the white whale? Well, sure. In the first place, it was never up to Starbuck to stop the story's trajectory; it has always been too relentless. It also appears that Starbuck was lost even before this section began--what he's already seen of Ahab, and the universe, has made him willing to trade life for a few more days of not looking into the void. Starbuck has seemed the sanest of all the characters, so if he can't help, no one can.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The center of the Milky Way

A stunning, hugely informative new composite image from the Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra observatories. There is a whole heck of a lot going on in our galactic center, including a super-massive black hole.

This makes me think, again, about the Wow Signal. It came from the Sagittarius region, which is kinda, pretty much, where the black hole is. Those things emit scads of energy.

Like the tag says, Extremely Amateur Astronomy. Please consult Phil Plait (who mentions nothing about the WS) for expertise.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Wow Signal

So here's how one learns new / old information in the age of the Internet. Inspired by this beautiful Sagan / Hawking mashup, Trev and I re-watched our 25th Anniversary Cosmos DVDs. When we got to the segment on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, Trev moseyed over to the SETI site and found this tidbit about a thing called the Wow Signal. Turns out that in 1977 a researcher at Ohio State detected, via OSU's radio telescope Big Ear, a strong signal that bore several key indications of extraterrestrial and artificial origin. He was so impressed he wrote "Wow!" next to the code on the printout. Many attempts, over many years, to detect this signal again have failed. So it could well be some kind of anomolous, natural energy burst. Besides, if aliens were trying to contact us, why wouldn't they repeat the signal?

Well, in 1974, the Arecibo Observatory zapped a message out toward M13 (which will take 25,000 years to get there). And they only did it once.

Note: the Wow Signal is also the name of a band.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: What is life?

Into the home stretch with Moby Dick...and I'm struck this week by how much the book has to say about characterization. Although if I'd taught it in my "Imitation of Life" class, I don't know if we would have had room for anything else (especially on the quarter system). Perhaps I'll use excerpts in the future. Anyhow, last week, I suggested that Ishmael, as a semi-embodied character /narrator, or an embodied (dis)-embodied (oh, post-structuralism, will you never release my brain from your tentacles?) narrator-device's the point: "Ishmael" is a fundamentally different kind of character than Starbuck, say, or Ahab. The name "Ishmael" does not represent something that we would ever mistake for a living person. This week, we discover that Ahab is the opposite of Ishmael in this sense: Ahab--so he claims anyway--is life itself.

We learn this during a thunderstorm right out of a Gothic novel, with the ship as the lonely castle, complete with the looming forms of scary black men (the harpooneers), their teeth and tattoos illuminated by lightning. Ahab pops up on deck to do his Victor Frankenstein impersonation.

"Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e'en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed. No fearless fool now fronts thee. I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here. Though but a point at best; whenceso'er I came; whereso'er I go; yet while I earthly live, the queenly personality lives in me, and feels her royal rights. But war is pain, and hate is woe. Come in thy lowest form of love, and I will kneel and kiss thee; but at thy highest, come as mere supernal power; and though thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds, there's that in here that still remains indifferent. Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee."

[Sudden, repeated flashes of lightning; the nine flames leap lengthwise to thrice their previous height; Ahab, with the rest, closes his eyes, his right hand pressed hard upon them.]

"I own thy speechless, placeless power; said I not so? Nor was it wrung from me; nor do I now drop these links. Thou canst blind; but I can then grope. Thou canst consume; but I can then be ashes. Take the homage of these poor eyes, and shutter-hands. I would not take it. The lightning flashes through my skull; mine eyeballs ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling on some stunning ground. Oh, oh! Yet blindfold, yet will I talk to thee. Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee! The javelins cease; open eyes; see, or not? There burn the flames! Oh, thou magnanimous! now do I do glory in my genealogy. But thou art but my fiery father; my sweet mother, I know not. Oh, cruel! what hast thou done with her? There lies my puzzle; but thine is greater. Thou knowest not how came ye, hence callest thyself unbegotten; certainly knowest not thy beginning, hence callest thyself unbegun. I know that of me, which thou knowest not of thyself, oh, thou omnipotent. There is some unsuffusing thing beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all thy eternity is but time, all thy creativeness mechanical. Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it. Oh, thou foundling fire, thou hermit immemorial, thou too hast thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief. Here again with haughty agony, I read my sire. Leap! leap up, and lick the sky! I leap with thee; I burn with thee; would fain be welded with thee; defyingly I worship thee!"
The Frankenstein parallels here are really quite interesting, though they are not actually my focus in this post. Maybe another time I'll talk about the business of breathing life / fire into one's "child," the "unbegotten," and who makes whom. I guess this indirectly bears on my point, though, which I will now get to.

In "Imitation of Life," I wanted to ask how authors portray life itself. Not how they create verbal imitations of "living beings," but life--"the life force," if you must. It seems to me that Ahab, here, provides a pretty good answer. The force becomes evident in contrast, in defiance, especially against overwhelming power. Life comes through, even comes into being, in opposition to this book's conception of God: "I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here." Personality--life--comes into relief in the face of impersonal, incomprehensible power. The conflict makes Ahab mad, and it's his rage that makes him more vividly alive than any of the other characters. Rage distills him. We feel Ahab's full commitment to his quest; his racing pulse, his bulging neck tendons as he yells, the pain that (we learn elsewhere) still surges through his phantom leg. And he makes a convincing case here that the best way to worship an indifferent God is to defy him. If God gives us life, the way to accept that gift--to live most fully--is to resist the implacable force to the end of our days. Ahab resembles Milton's Satan, a far more compelling character than God.

Anyway, if you're worried that your characters seem a little "dead," try giving them an overwhelming force to defy. Hopeless rage gives them energy, and also makes them seem both honest and brave.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: What is Ishmael?

This week in Moby Dick, we are given something like an answer to a nagging question. What is the deal with Ishmael? Up until now, I've mainly considered him as a Nick Carraway-style narrator, an actual person who's present at the events he's relating, though more observer than participant. However, in the history-and-anatomy-of-whaling passages, one senses a different narrative voice, an old guy hunched over dusty tomes who might as well be Melville, or "Melville"--since Ishmael mentions, in passing or possibly in jest, that he's "unlettered." So far I've fudged the matter, calling the narrator Melville / Ishmael, or dismissing the question in favor of the larger problems of the moment. But in "A Bower in the Arsacides," we are forced to confront the issue.

Hitherto, in descriptively treating of the Sperm Whale, I have chiefly dwelt upon the marvels of his outer aspect; or separately and in detail upon some few interior structural features. But to a large and thorough sweeping comprehension of him, it behoves me now to unbutton him still further, and untagging the points of his hose, unbuckling his garters, and casting loose the hooks and the eyes of the joints of his innermost bones, set him before you in his ultimatum; that is to say, in his unconditional skeleton.

But how now, Ishmael? How is it, that you, a mere oarsman in the fishery, pretend to know aught about the subterranean parts of the whale? Did erudite Stubb, mounted upon your capstan, deliver lectures on the anatomy of the Cetacea; and by help of the windlass, hold up a specimen rib for exhibition? Explain thyself, Ishmael. Can you land a full-grown whale on your deck for examination, as a cook dishes a roast-pig? Surely not. A veritable witness have you hitherto been, Ishmael; but have a care how you seize the privilege of Jonah alone; the privilege of discoursing upon the joists and beams; the rafters, ridge-pole, sleepers, and under-pinnings, making up the frame-work of leviathan; and belike of the tallow-vats, dairy-rooms, butteries, and cheeseries in his bowels.

Ishmael goes on to say, in his defense, that he once dissected a young sperm whale that was hoisted onto the deck. But this hardly seems to explain the vast scope of his knowledge, as he clearly recognizes. In fact, he seems to toss this whale "cub" at us as a joke and a tease--how do you know so much about the world? Well, I saw a NOVA special once. The teasing, for that's what I think this is, goes on. "And as for my exact knowledge of the bones of the leviathan in their gigantic, full-grown development, for that rare knowledge I am indebted to my late royal friend Tranquo, king of Tranque, one of the Arsicides." Apparently on a visit to this island, Ishmael toured the complete skeleton of a whale that had washed up on shore. The skeleton (like Pip) has undergone a wondrous transformation:

The ribs were hung with trophies; the vertebrae were carved with Arsacidean annals, in strange hieroglyphics; in the skull, the priests kept up an unextinguished aromatic flame, so that the mystic head again sent forth its vapory spout; while, suspended from a bough, the terrific lower jaw vibrated over all the devotees, like the hair-hung sword that so affrighted Damocles.

It was a wondrous sight. The wood was green as mosses of the Icy Glen; the trees stood high and haughty, feeling their living sap; the industrious earth beneath was as a weaver's loom, with a gorgeous carpet on it, whereof the ground-vine tendrils formed the warp and woof, and the living flowers the figures. All the trees, with all their laden branches; all the shrubs, and ferns, and grasses; the message-carrying air; all these unceasingly were active. Through the lacings of the leaves, the great sun seemed a flying shuttle weaving the unwearied verdure. Oh, busy weaver! unseen weaver!--pause!--one word!-- whither flows the fabric? what palace may it deck? wherefore all these ceaseless toilings? Speak, weaver!--stay thy hand!-- but one single word with thee! Nay--the shuttle flies-- the figures float from forth the loom; the fresher-rushing carpet for ever slides away. The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice; and by that humming, we, too, who look on the loom are deafened; and only when we escape it shall we hear the thousand voices that speak through it. For even so it is in all material factories. The spoken words that are inaudible among the flying spindles; those same words are plainly heard without the walls, bursting from the opened casements. Thereby have villainies been detected. Ah, mortal! then, be heedful; for so, in all this din of the great world's loom, thy subtlest thinkings may be overheard afar.

For all I know such a "bower" does exist, but the way Melville / Ishmael describes it, it's anything but real. Yet it is here, amid enchantment and divine mystery, that Ishmael proposes to undertake that most rational of activities, measuring the whale's skeleton for his future readers' edification. The priests object--"Dar'st thou measure this our god! That's for us"--but Ishmael takes advantage of a comical skirmish among them to complete his task. OK, maybe even now, we still believe him. But then there's this, at the end of the chapter:

The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics. But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing-- at least, what untattooed parts might remain--I did not trouble myself with the odd inches; nor, indeed, should inches at all enter into a congenial admeasurement of the whale.

Now Melville's just having us on. We can no longer be expected to believe that Ishmael's an ordinary person. Of course, no one on the Pequod is, as our narrator is at great pains to tell us (the blacksmith, the carpenter, the deranged drowned child who's still alive--every character has a bizarre tale). But Ishmael is something else entirely--a blank page who wanders through the book "composing" himself at will. Sometimes he looks rather like a person; sometimes he sounds like one voice or another. Like the whale, the narrator's "exposed" in this passage, and also hidden. We think we see the apparatus that keeps him together, but the trees are waving, the light is flashing, and Ishmael vanishes in a magical, joking blur. You can call him Ishmael, but that container really does not hold him.

Jonathan Culler's article "Omniscience" takes on the problem of what the so-called "all-seeing" narrator is. How embodied does a narrator have to be--how present? How much of a person can a narrator be, before real human limitations get in the way of telling the story? These can be tough questions for writers to solve. Melville's solution is to have Ishmael appear and disappear as a character, and call his own reality into question. This gives Melville the option of showing the thrilling, and often deeply moving personal experiences on board the whale boat, as one can do with a conventional first-person narrator; at the same time, Ishmael can go anywhere and see anything. Who went down to the depths with Pip's immortal soul and saw, with Pip, God's foot upon the treadle of the loom? Well, Ishmael did. He can do that. This is Nick Carraway as a ghost, or demon.