Thursday, May 31, 2007

Moby-Dick and Length

Lest anyone be fooled by the farcical tone of the two previous posts, I’m delighting in Moby-Dick, the perfect book for me as I take a little time to recover from the rigors of the academic year, before launching into my next job, wedding planning, and so on.

I suppose as much ink has been spilled on MD as on any book written in the last 200 years, but I can’t help dropping a few thoughts, like paper boats, onto that storm-tossed sea, to see if they float or bog down. After all, the book seems designed to inspire profound ruminations. Any well-intentioned attempt to sail across its vast waters practically requires one to sit at regular intervals, finger poised on the page, gazing abstractedly into the distance for minutes on end. And I have, I have.

But as tempting as it is to delve into a tract on “The Whiteness of the Whale,” or the protean (1851!) whisperings of Post-Modern ambiguity, or (and especially) the conflation of heroism and melancholy – er, as tempting as it is, I say, I will try here to write only of one topic, which, in itself, has provoked many thoughts in me: The question of length.

(A confession: I am only 269 pages in. I have leagues to go before I sleep. But I don’t think I can read anymore without letting off a bit of the steam I’ve built up with all my reflections. I will try to be appropriately modest in my reflections. If you know me, you won’t bank on that promise.)

So: The book is a whopper.

I am told length is all the rage these days. My fianceé, who is a librarian and knows these things (and many more) tells me that kids of 10 and 12 are wating in book-store lines these days so they can get first crack at ripping through the latest 700-page fantasy novel in two and a half days, pausing only briefly to eat. This trend was started by the Harry Potter series, and though I am not a special fan of those books, I appreciate that they have kept alive the the hunger for words on paper in "the next generation," as the pundits love to call them.

But let us not cast Moby Dick in the same dinghy with Harry Potter. Different vessels, indeed.

Melville gives his voracious appetite for all classes of knowledge – and his endless desire to synthesize all of that knowledge – almost completely free reign. He was a writer who, as my father once said of Michael Chabon, “wanted to get absolutely everything in, and pretty much did.” He is a cataloguer, a closet scientist, and a thinker's thinker. As I note humorously in my fourth alternative plot for the story (see previous post), he lectures on cetology, oceanography, history, philosophy, sociology, cosmology, and yet more.

And he seems unable to stop himself from getting wound up into a hypomanic frenzy on a subject. One factual aside might lead to 10 digressive pages, consisting of three references, two side jokes, two lengthy quotations from Ur-texts, and (inspired by all that) a three-page upward-spiraling aria on the nature of the world, or human nature, or God –- or, more likely, all three. Sentences run on until subject and object become tiny flecks of gold flake lost in a maritime gale. Many exclamation points! Hyperbole and simile overflowing and mingling like the varied wines of Life decanted into Jove’s mythical golden all-encompassing goblet, or the good godly frozen oceanic depths pouring through a poor, pityingly scuttled but still noble bark!


Most of the time, the lessons that come tumbling out in this helter-skelter, awe-inspiring jumble take on the feel of a quite home-spun curriculum. Melville is well-known for having mostly educated himself, and I recognize the sometimes frantic, sometimes stunning pattern and sweep of his exposition. I am reminded of conversations with a friend of mine, also an autodidact of considerable intellect, who can flummox me with the number and range of his associations within one (somewhat) cohesive statement.

I wonder if this is a trait common to autodidacts. Not only do they love all of their subjects passionately; not only do those subjects range vastly; but, in their minds, there are also no firm lines between those subjects. They come rushing out in much the same manner in which they live in their mind-home: All grown in on each other like branches of trees that are squeezed together, confounded and conflated in ways that are sometimes frustrating, or just plain senseless to all but the orator – and yet, that sometimes offer flashes of gorgeous insight, which one might not find in a mind more conventionally trained. Frank Lloyd Wright (my favorite architect) was an autodidact, and you can't find a more original body of work standing in the world. Joseph Campbell. Frank Zappa. All created bodies of work unprecedented in style and feel.

But I digress. (Herman would approve.)

My point is, I come not to bury Melville for his verbiage, but to praise him.

Yes, I admit it -- I have skipped a few pages. Not many. The truth is, I took on this book partly as a way to slow myself down during a week or so of recovery from the mania of a very intense academic and professional year. It began doing the trick very early on. When I give in to the way that he luxuriates in the prose, (he slathers it on like cream cheese on a Sunday-morning bagel, no such thing as too much) I usually find myself transported by the rhythms of it (or sometimes, the utter lack thereof) to another era, when people had time to write 650 pages, by hand, by the light of a smelly lamp (powered by whale oil). And to read them, as well.

I can’t help being inspired, too, by the self-indulgence. I was house-trained as a young pup writer by old-school journalists, on the job. "You do not waste a word -- period." I have rowed as a slave to that drumbeat ever since, through business presentations, academic papers, songwriting, and more. But today? Today I have come to write like Melville! Great, heaping helpings of extravagantly-worded thoughts and actions, twisting in on themselves, falling flat… or unexpectedly, lumberingly, creakingly getting one wheel off the ground, then the other and… Wait a minute! What do you know? I think I just read an extremely beautiful passage! Could anything be more American than excess leading to enlightenment? He stamped the mold for the Great American Novel, and many have dashed themselves against it ever since.

American, yes. But also, ipso facto, descended from Europe. I heard a report just a few weeks ago on NPR that we should not feel embarrassed about falling asleep during a Wagner opera. That, in fact, Herr Richard may have written with the intention of so lulling us. Psychologists interviewed for the piece attested that we become more vulnerable to emotional peaks when we are in a state closer to the middle of the sleeping-waking continuum. I need not parlay this for you into an insight about reading a 650 page book.

So, this is more than enough writing for a blog post. And isn't that the point?

Write on, O, my captain! I will follow thee for at least 380 more pages -- or die with your word-waters choking my still-striving reading-lungs!


katie said...

harry, that's my sister you mention as your fiancee! and yes, she knows so much. mind-blowing, isn't it?

so my introduction to your blog was with your entry titled "moby-dick and length." loved it. your writing flows and sketches a graphic image in the head of your reader. i think it may be too good for the blogging world. :-) can't wait to read more.

and i can't wait to actually meet you in person. how cool will that be?

Harry said...


Thanks so much for your kind words! I really appreciate it. I do love to write, have for a very long time. I have hopes someday to move beyond the blogging world, but first, a few other things to tend to, heh, heh...

Speaking of which, it looks like we'll be meeting soon, indeed, eh? I really look forward to it.