Posts Tagged ‘Melville’

Blessed if I understand

For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.
– From “The Wreck of the Deutschland” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

My travails with Donne as recorded in my previous post, and, more especially, a Facebook conversation I subsequently had regarding that post, raise some wider interesting questions on how we understand poetry, and, indeed, art in general.

My own academic background is in science and mathematics, and, at least to the levels I attained, understanding in those areas is a very precise thing: each symbol in each equation or formula is precisely defined, and the relationship between these precisely defined symbols is itself precisely defined, and the scientific mind is trained to understand each of these things precisely, so as to leave no room for ambiguity or uncertainty. Even where the formula denotes uncertainty – the famous Uncertainty Principle of Heisenberg, say – there is a precisely defined limit on the product of the uncertainties involved. When trying to absorb anything of a mathematical nature, to come to an understanding, one has to understand precisely what each of the elements means, and then understand, again precisely, how they come together, and relate to each other. Now, clearly, this is not the way we take in poetry, which, as T. S. Eliot once said, is something that can be appreciated even before it is understood. There are a great many poems that I love greatly, that haunt my mind, but which I would be at a loss to explain in clear terms: like this poem by Yeats, for instance. Unlike Heisenberg’s formula that puts limits on the product of the standard deviations of the momentum and position of a particle, there seems no limit here even to the myriad uncertainties. Could I explain what is meant by the “gong-tormented sea”? No, not really. It seems to make its impact not at the level of consciousness, exposed to light and to precision, but rather at some mysterious subterranean level of the mind.

All of this makes it difficult to talk about poetry. To define precisely each term, and explain how everything fits together to cohere into a whole, seems to be missing the point. And yet, merely to say how wonderful it is without expanding on what it is that makes it wonderful seems mere pointless burbling.

It is at this point that a scientifically trained mind unsympathetic to the claims of poetry is likely to ask how, if understanding at a conscious level is not the point, one may distinguish between poetry and gibberish. The cynic may say there is no difference, but that won’t do: Yeats’ “Byzantium”, no matter how obscure, is a work of art, and a very great one at that, whereas a few random words and phrases that I may put together is unlikely to be, and there must be some reason for this. Nonetheless, a poem is not a mathematical formula, or a crossword puzzle awaiting a solution: obscurities in a poem are to be absorbed, not explained away, as any explanation is likely to be facile and reductive. Some years ago, I confessed on this blog that I was still “puzzled” by Moby-Dick, but even as I was writing this, I knew I was meant to be puzzled – that, paradoxically, if I wasn’t puzzled, that could only mean that I hadn’t taken it in at all adequately.

Bearing all this in mind, I have to ask myself whether my confessed befuddlement with Donne’s poetry is but an indication that I have been approaching it wrongly – whether, indeed, my desire to “understand” is itself misplaced, and an unfortunate by-product of my scientific background. Although I am not entirely sure on the matter, I am inclined to think not, as my puzzlement relates not to that which lies hidden deep below the surface, but to the surface itself. My puzzlement is not akin to my wondering what the White Whale represents, but, rather, to my not even getting in the first place that Ahab is hunting the White Whale. In short, my lack of understanding, so far, is on a very basic level – too basic, indeed, even to be recorded in a blog that, I like to flatter myself, is sophisticated and cultured. Or something like that.

But I trust that it won’t take me too long to get to a level where I can, at least, grasp the surface. And then will come the really difficult bit.

Reading Lawrence

Books are often recommended on the basis that it is “unputdownable”. That it is a constant page-turner”. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down till I had finished. And so on.

Let’s not be sniffy. I have enjoyed such books also. The Three Musketeers, Farewell My Lovely, the Flashman novels – all compulsive unputdown-ers, and splendid they all are. To this day I can remember that shiver of excitement I had felt as an eleven-year-old when Dr Mortimer had leant forward and confided: “Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound.” How could any first-time-reader – or, for that matter, any hundredth time reader – not turn the page at that point?

But even acknowledging the immense pleasure of a quality page-turner, there exists another kind of book that deserves our attention. Not page-turners, but rather, books where you often find yourself reading over the page you’ve just finished; not books that you can’t put down, but on the contrary, books that you need to put down frequently to savour and think about what you have just read. Such books may be hard for publishers’ PR departments to promote – which, I imagine, is the reason why publishers’ PR departments don’t bother – but they’re often worth the effort.

The book I am reading on my commuter train these days – The Rainbow by D. H Lawrence – is very much like that. Well, re-reading  I suppose, but I got so little out of my first reading (over thirty years ago now) that it doesn’t feel like a re-read. When I wrote about Lawrence here some three years ago, I couldn’t help expressing an admiration for his seriousness of purpose, and for his intensity of utterance; but I confessed myself defeated: I really could not understand it; and worse, I didn’t even know how to begin to understand.  Lawrence’s concerns, I concluded, weren’t mine.

However, a few months ago, a number of Lawrence’s  short stories – most especially, “The Odour of Chrysanthemums” – struck me with a force I had not expected. The time was ripe, I felt, for a revisit. So I went to my shelves, and dug out those copies of The Rainbow and Women in Love that I had bought way back in what seems like some long lost period of history, when Lawrence’s reputation as one of the major novelists of the century was more or less undisputed.

What I am reading is still puzzling me, but I am now finding myself more engaged with the puzzles than I had been before. Progress is slow: that is inevitable when I find myself re-reading passages to try to get a better grasp of them, or simply to enjoy the sounds and the rhythms of that very idiosyncratic prose. It is by no means “unputdownable”; there are no footprints of gigantic hounds to keep me turning the pages.

Lawrence’s ambition is tremendous. He depicts three generations of the Brangwen family – landowning farmers in Central England – tracing the rise and eventual decline of each generation, and picking up the thematic threads with the newer generations as the older decline. But it is no mere family saga: Lawrence is not much interested in the events that form the plot, nor even in why those events occur .  His interest is elsewhere.  Lawrence here grapples with what Will Brangwen sees as lying beyond “the rind of the world”:

He surveyed the rind of the world: houses, factories, trams, the discarded rind; people scurrying about, work going on, all on the discarded surface. An earthquake had burst it all from inside. It was as if the surface of the world had been broken away entire: Ilkeston, streets, church, people, work, rule-of-the-day, all intact; and yet peeled away into unreality, leaving here exposed the inside, the reality: one’s own being, strange feelings and passions and yearnings and beliefs and aspirations, suddenly become present, revealed, the permanent bedrock, knitted one rock with the woman one loved.

The rind, the external everyday reality that earlier generations of writers had captured so unerringly, has now burst open; and the mysterious inside, that hidden reality behind the pasteboard masks that Melville’s Ishmael had talked about, is now out in the open.

But where is the language to describe this inner reality? Our language has been fashioned to describe the rind only; can it be up to describing workings of the soul that are so nebulous and so intangible? Can it capture – or, if not capture, at least glimpse as they pass – the most profound and mysterious movements of our innermost selves?

For this was Lawrence’s ambition. The opening sentences of the novel may seem like the introduction to a traditional family saga, but we are still on the first page when we are startled with this:

But heaven and earth were teeming around them, and how should this cease?

In sympathy with the worlds inside us, the worlds outside, heaven and earth, are also teeming, seething, constantly in turbulent motion. Language stresses and strains in the process, coming close at times to fracturing, as it tries to express that which it had never been designed to express. The sounds and rhythms of the prose are often striking, often magnificent, its repetitions casting at times an incantatory spell; and sometimes, it is, it must be admitted, awkward. But, one senses, it had to be.

I am fascinated by what I am reading, but, although I am closer, much closer, to understanding this novel than I had been before, I really do not know how to describe this work, or the effect it has on me. I know that, as a book-blogger, I really should be putting down at least a few personal impressions if nothing else; but never have I felt, I think, quite so unequal to the task.

At my current pace of reading, I should be finished this novel around the end of next week, I think. So I will have a bit of time to think about how best to approach it here. But let that wait. For the moment, I am carried away – dizzy, lost, yet unbewailing – by the sheer torrential force of Lawrence’s vision.

It was a dark and stormy night

Well, it was a dark and stormy night last Sunday. Not, perhaps, quite as stormy as had been forecast, but stormy enough. In the context of natural disasters worldwide, five fatalities in the entire country may not seem like much, but I doubt the grieving families of those five would agree.

We had to drive down from Lancashire that Sunday, and, since they couldn’t forecast with any certainty whether the storm would begin on Sunday night or in the early hours of Monday morning, we tried to get back home as early as we could, to be on the safe side. And, once home, it was but a matter of waiting. It could be that the winds would be so violent as to carry away our very roofs; but since there was little we could do about it even if it did, it seemed best merely to pour ourselves a civilised drink, and wait.

I have never quite decided whether ghost stories are most effective when read in the unearthly silence of a preternaturally still night, or in the tempestuous turbulence of a violent storm, with the wind is howling outside like the voices of the dead. Either way, sitting in my armchair with a dram in hand, a ghost story seemed like a good idea. Hopefully, I thought, the storm would begin while I was reading. But no – I finished the story, the clock ticked away, and still, all I could discern outside was a mild breeze. I couldn’t stay up all night, I thought to myself: I had to get up for work the next morning. And with that, I retired to bed, thinking – as one does – of the various storms I had encountered in books.

Strangely enough, storms are not so common in ghost stories as one might think. At least, the only one I could think of off the top of my head was the high wind that blows up in M. R. James’ “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. Perhaps writers of ghost stories feel it is too hackneyed a device – that its use would appear so contrived an artifice that disbelief would become difficult to suspend. But even when we move away from the genres of the ghost story or the horror story – the former being, of course, but a subset of the latter – storms are not used in fiction as much as one may think. I lay awake that night trying to think of the various storms in fiction. The most famous fictional storm, I’d guess, would be the one that occurs in the third act of King Lear, but even here, Lear assures us, it is the tempest in his mind that affects him more. It is also the tempest in Prospero’s mind that seems to provide the title of Shakespeare’s late play: the actual physical tempest, seen only in the brief first scene, is no more than a plot device to shipwreck various people on to Prospero’s island; and, once that tempest has served its purpose, there follows a stillness so profound that even dramatic tension, it seems to me, vanishes. In what follows, we have some of the most beautiful blank verse that even Shakespeare ever wrote; but unlike the blank verse in his earlier plays, this blank verse is not dramatic, let alone tempestuous. It is a work of extraordinary beauty, but as drama, I must confess I continue to find it puzzling.

Of course, Shakespeare had used the storm as a plot device before: to bring characters into a strange and unknown land, a storm is about as good a plot device as there is – from the early The Comedy of Errors to the late The Tempest, taking in Twelfth Night on the way. There is good precedence for this – from Odysseus in The Odyssey to Sinbad the Sailor in A Thousand and One Nights.

There is a storm and shipwreck in the third act of The Winter’s Tale also, but here, it seems more than a mere plot device: it seems, rather, a measure of divine anger in the face of man, proud man, dressed in his little brief authority, playing such fantastic tricks before high heaven. For there is something about storms, something about the helplessness to which the forces of nature reduce even the most civilised and seemingly secure of humans, that suggests divine wrath. As with Lear or Prospero, a storm may reflect the tempest in our own minds; it may serve also to remind us of the precarious nature of our very souls, balanced so finely between the heaven and hell of our own making. It is through a snowstorm that Ivan Karamazov, his soul tormented, staggers back to his room, where he meets with the Devil in the guise of a shabbily-dressed gentleman; and, as the Devil goads him further into the abyss of insanity, the blizzard outside intensifies. And it is in a snowstorm also that Vronsky, on a railway platform somewhere between Moscow and Petersburg, declares his love to Anna:

“I didn’t know you were travelling. Why are you here?” she said, letting fall the hand which had been about to grasp the handrail. And her face radiated irrepressible joy and animation.

“Why am I here?” he repeated, looking straight into her eyes. “You know I am travelling in order to be where you are,” he said. “I cannot do otherwise.”

At that very moment the wind, as if it had overcome an obstacle, showered down the snow from the carriage roofs and rattled a loose sheet of iron while, somewhere ahead, the deep whistle of the engine gave a mournful and gloomy wail, All the terror of the storm struck her now with even greater splendour.

[From Anna Karenina, translated by Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes]

And in that one scene, the entire human tragedy of Anna and of Vronsky – the terror and the even greater splendour of it all – seems encapsulated: the rattling of that loose sheet or iron has only just begun. Vronsky cannot do otherwise. None of the characters in this novel can do otherwise: they all seem driven by forces they cannot even begin to understand, forces as irresistible as the storm itself.

Storms feature frequently in the poetry of Tagore – hardly surprising given that he hailed from a land lashed annually by the monsoon. It features prominently also in Bubhuthibhushan Banerji’s Pather Panchali (and also, of course, in Satyajit Ray’s film version). The depiction of the storm is impressive enough in the translation by T. W. Clark and by Tarapada Mukherji: in the original, it is a thing of wonder. That this wonderful novel seems to little-known outside the Bengali-speaking world I find unaccountable and saddening in about equal measure.

Perhaps the most terrifying and elemental of storms occur in the various sea stories of Joseph Conrad – Youth, Typhoon, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’. The storm in Moby-Dick, where the lightning sets fire to the tops of the mast to make them resemble giant candles, is also magnificent. Perhaps it is not to be wondered at that writers who have experienced storms at sea should be able to present them in all their terror: no-one can be so vulnerable to the brute power of a storm as those at sea.

There was also a most impressive storm in Pasternak’s  Doctor Zhivago, I seemed to remember, that is presented as a sort of harbinger of the revolution that was to come. But I couldn’t remember exactly where in the novel this occurs, as, by this time, tired of waiting for the wind to howl outside like the voices of the dead, I was already half-asleep. And next morning, my thoughts were far from the elemental upheavals in Conrad, from Ivan Karamazov sinking into madness, from Lear and Prospero enduring tempests in the mind, or from Anna and Vronsky driven to their doom by tempestuous forces they cannot even begin to understand: my first thought on waking was to check that the tiles on our roof were still in place.

Ah – what mundane lives we lead!

“Needs a good editor…”

Books are often accused these days of being “over-written”, but rarely, if ever, “under-written”. Brevity and concision, even to the point of sparseness, seem to be valued for their own sake, and, if my forays around the net are anything to go by, “could have done with an editor” is a frequent criticism – as if the author’s task were merely to say as quickly and as tersely as possible whatever it is they have to say before vanishing discreetly from the scene. Enjoying words, luxuriating in language, expanding to take in vast vistas, seem often to be looked down upon.

This criticism – “could have done with a good editor” – is frequently made of books where expansion is the very point. One could, no doubt, edit Moby-Dick down to the point where it becomes a thrilling adventure yarn and nothing more; or cut Bleak House down such that it becomes merely an intriguing Victorian mystery. But those of us who love these books even to the point where they become central to our understanding of the world may well feel that such projected operations would reduce these massive novels merely to what is incidental in them, while discarding that which is essential. For the artistic purpose of certain works requires expansion.

When Mahler and Sibelius – arguably the two greatest symphonists of their generation, unless anyone out there wants to make a case for Elgar – met, Sibelius argued in favour of tightness of structure, of concision, of formal logic; while Mahler declared that the symphony should encompass everything: it should indeed, he argued, be like the universe itself.

These two very different composers remained true to their respective ideals: the symphonies of Sibelius became increasingly concise, and his output culminated in the single movement 7th symphony, and in the symphonic poem Tapiola (the latter built upon one single theme), each about only twenty or so minutes long, and yet in its extreme concentration packing the kind of punch one might expect from works many times that length. (Some would argue that in the 30 or so years that followed Tapiola, Sibelius took the concept of concision to its ultimate and logical end by producing absolutely nothing.) Mahler, on the other hand, continued to compose symphonies that attempted to encompass “the entire universe”. And for many admirers, he succeeded in doing just that.

These Sibelian and Mahlerian extremes of the spectrum have their counterparts in literature also, I think – particularly when it comes to the novel. There are certain novels – Moby-Dick, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov – that attempt, with a Mahlerian megalomania, to encompass the entire universe; and there are others – Emma, Madame Bovary, The Portrait of a Lady – that focus more intently on a more limited scope, and aim for a perfection of form that the Mahlerian attempt to encompass everything must, perhaps necessarily, forgo.

None of his means, of course, that there isn’t dead wood in Moby-Dick, or in Bleak House. Or in War and Peace, or in The Brothers Karamazov, or in Ulysses. Or in Mahler’s symphonies. Or even, for that matter, in King Lear. But it is, perhaps, the very nature of the beast that works such as these –works that attempt to encompass the entire universe – should contain dead wood. Ishmael, Melville’s alter-ego in Moby-Dick, says at one point that he tries all things, and achieves what he can. And, yes, it can be argued that he tries far more than he achieves, that most of his trials end up as failures. But even the failed attempts are important: even these depict the author’s heroic endeavours to approach the unapproachable. A novel such as Moby-Dick is, and has to be, a record of those failed trials as well as of those that succeeded. We are placed in the laboratory of the author’s mind, and, unless one is looking merely for an adventure yarn, we must accept the flaws, for they are integral pieces of the whole. In works such as these, removal of flaws, instead of enhancing, paradoxically diminishes the whole.

Of course, if one personally prefers the Sibelian ideal of concision and perfection of form, then that is fine: there are sufficient masterpieces at that end of the spectrum to keep one busy for an entire lifetime. But, speaking for myself, while I can and do admire many works of that type, it is those massive, over-reaching works that are closer to my heart. Flawed, yes, no doubt: but even the flaws I find I value, as the whole would become shrunken without them.

Still puzzled by “Moby-Dick”…

I have been delaying putting down my thoughts on Moby-Dick, as I wanted to allow some time to let it settle in my mind. Well, it’s been a few weeks since I finished it, and it hasn’t settled yet. I doubt it ever will.

It is unlike any other novel I know of. At times, I wondered whether what I was reading could be described as a novel at all. It’s easy to say it’s flawed, but that hardly helps matters: indeed, perhaps it isn’t flawed at all; perhaps what Meville wrote was precisely what he intended to write. On reading The Brothers Karamazov lately, I found myself thinking that, yes, there is much wrong with this, much that one may take issue with; but given there’s so much that is so uniquely, so breathtakingly brilliant, why focus on its shortcomings? But this is not how I feel about Moby-Dick. While there is much here also that is uniquely, breathtakingly brilliant, I am not sure that I understand Melville’s vision well enough to be able to point out possible shortcomings with any degree of confidence.

It is, quite clearly, an experimental novel. Melville makes his narrator Ishmael say at one point: “I try all things; I achieve what I can”. The entire novel may be seen as a series of experiments, of “trying all things”; and if some, or even most, of these experiments fail, then that in itself does not betoken failure, as the novel seems to me intended, at least on one level, as a record of these experiments, successful or otherwise: even failed experiments deserve a place here. And of course, on those occasions where the experiment succeeds, or even only partially succeeds, what we get defies belief.

But what is the end of all these mad experiments? The white whale, Moby-Dick, is, as everyone knows, a symbol. But the question “What does it symbolise?” is incapable of being answered. However, the question has to be asked, as the mainspring of the entire novel – Ahab’s monomaniac desire to destroy the White Whale – comes from Ahab himself seeing Moby-Dick as a symbol. But these two impossibilities – the impossibility of not posing this question, and at the same time, the impossibility of ever answering it – grind against each other to create at times an almost unbearable tension.

But much of the time, the narrative tone is surprisingly light, even humorous. By the time the Pequod sets sail, we are some fifth of the way into the book, and, barring some passages of dark introspection (including the magnificently titled opening chapter, “Loomings”), any reader unaware of the novel’s reputation may well think they are reading a comic work, a patchwork of light and mainly humorous seaman’s tales.

Even after setting sail, there is, to begin with, little indication of what lies ahead, despite the ominous absence of Ahab. But Melville rather curiously moves away from a narrative mode to give us very full and detailed accounts of whales and of whaling. There is barely any aspect of the subject he leaves untouched – from the natural history of whales to its various classifications; the economics of whaling; the techniques of whale-hunting; how the oil is extracted from whales after a successful hunt; the anatomy of whales; whales in history, religion, and folklore; and so on. The narrator, Ishmael, is tremendously erudite, referring with ease to various writers, philosophers, and religious beliefs from around the world. And he can even be whimsical, as when he compares the skulls of a right whale and of a sperm whale hanging on either side of the ship to philosphers:

Can you catch the expression of the Sperm Whale’s there? It is the same he died with, only some of the longer wrinkles in the forehead seem now faded away. I think his broad brow to be full of a prairie-like placidity, born of a speculative indifference as to death. But mark the other head’s expression. See that amazing lower lip, pressed by accident against the vessel’s side, so as firmly to embrace the jaw. Does not this whole head seem to speak of an enormous practical resolution in facing death? This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years. This reminds us that the Right Whale really has a sort of whisker, or rather a moustache, consisting of a few scattered white hairs on the upper part of the outer end of the lower jaw. Sometimes these tufts impart a rather brigandish expression to his otherwise solemn countenance.

These chapters dealing with the various aspects of whales and of whaling are not digressions, as the greater bulk of the novel is taken up with them; indeed, it’s the narrative chapters that appear discursive.

So why does Melville do this? On one level, it’s a sort of delaying tactic: he could not cut straight to the hunt for Moby-Dick immediately after setting sail. Of course, Melville could have filled up the gap with, say, sailors’ yarns, but that would have distracted attention from the main thrust of the novel. But this does not seem a good enough explanation: surely, Melville did not fill up the greater part of the novel with chapters on whales and whaling simply to fill a narrative gap? Unlike many readers, I actually found the content of these chapters fascinating, but I nonetheless find myself at a loss to answer to my satisfaction the question “What purpose do these chapters serve?” To anyone looking simply for an exciting adventure yarn, these chapters are obviously irrelevant; but they seem less than relevant also to the reader looking for glimpses something deeper.

As the novel progresses, we are increasingly given glimpses into this “something deeper”, and these glimpses terrify. In “The Whiteness of the Whale”, one of the most remarkable chapters of a novel full of remarkable chapters, Ishmael muses on the terror that the very thought of the White Whale inspires in him. Ahab, for much of the time, is kept away from the action, but as the novel accelerates towards its denouement, he appears more frequently. And when he does so, he speaks lines of Miltonic grandeur, unlike anything, I suspect, ever spoken by any character in novels. For this is a figure who belongs not to mere paltry novels, but to epic poetry, or to blank verse drama: indeed, one suspects that it wouldn’t be too difficult to turn his utterances into lines of Miltonic or of  Shakespearean blank verse:

Hark ye yet again, – the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.

Ah! constrainings seize thee; I see! the billow lifts thee! Speak, but speak! – Aye, aye! thy silence, then, that voices thee. (Aside) something shot from my dilated nostrils, he has inhaled it in his lungs. Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion.

This speech, with its image of striking through the pasteboard masks, is famous, perhaps too famous to allow the reader to perceive it from a fresh perspective. But it is a speech that belongs to drama rather than to the novel. Even the stage direction “aside” towards the end betrays its provenance. But whatever its provenance, this speech poses far more questions than it answers. Of course, it is not the purpose of a work of art to answer questions: enough that they are asked. However, if we take the pasteboard masks to be outward appearances; and if Ahab means to discover the truth of what lies beyond these masks by “striking through them”; then how can this be achieved by destroying the White Whale? What does Ahab hope to perceive by destroying Moby-Dick?

Ahab does not accept God (“Who’s over me?”), but has a dread of nihilism: he suspects, and fears, there may be nothing beyond these pasteboard masks. But he has to find out. And he knows also that the White Whale is a metaphor (“To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.”) – a metaphor representing all that prevents him from apprehending some truth beyond external appearances. But why should he think that he will be able to see beyond these appearances better by destroying what is, in essence, but a metaphor? There is a mystery here that I cannot fathom – that, possibly, cannot be fathomed – but it is presented in terms that have assumed the proportions of mythology.

Throughout, there are echoes of the Bible, of Milton, of Shakespeare. Here, for instance, is the scene between Ahab and the ship’s blacksmith:

“…What wert thou making there?”

“Welding an old pike-head, Sir; there were seams and dents in it.”

“And can’st thou make it all smooth, again, blacksmith, after such hard usage as it had?”

“I think so, Sir.”

“And I suppose thou can’st smoothe almost any seams and dents; never mind how hard the metal, blacksmith?”

“Aye, Sir, I think I can; all seams and dents but one.”

“Look ye here, then,” cried Ahab, passionately advancing, and leaning with both hands on Perth’s shoulders; “look ye here – here – can ye smoothe out a seam like this, blacksmith”, sweeping one hand across his ribbed brows; “if thou could’st, blacksmith, glad enough would I lay my head upon thy anvil, and feel thy heaviest hammer between my eyes. Answer! Can’st thou smoothe this seam?”

I find it hard not to think of Macbeth speaking to the doctor:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

Similarly, when Ahab is struck by the ravings of the mad boy Pip, and insists that Pip stay with him, it’s hard not to find echoes of Lear’s insistence on keeping with him the mad Poor Tom:

KING LEAR  Noble philosopher, your company.

EDGAR  Tom’s a-cold.

GLOUCESTER In, fellow, there, into the hovel: keep thee warm.

KING LEAR Come let’s in all.

KENT This way, my lord.

KING LEAR  With him;
I will keep still with my philosopher.

The final part of the novel breaks the bounds of what we may imagine a novel can achieve. Ahab refuses to help the ship Rachel, weeping for its lost children; he himself weeps precious tears into the sea. And then, we come face to face with the White Whale itself. The final three doom-laden chapters possibly rank with some of the finest of Dostoyevsky as the most exciting of any novel; and, as in Dostoyevsky, the excitement here is more than merely physical. When, finally, the Pequod goes down to Hell taking a bit of Heaven with it, one can but gasp in astonishment, even without understanding what it may betoken.

Did I understand what it was all about? No, I don’t think I did. But perhaps one is not meant to understand it anyway. Were there longueurs? Yes, a great many. But no matter. What other novel can provide an experience to compare with this?

Bartleby the Scrivener, and Billy Budd, Sailor

Please note: The following contains “spoilers” for both “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Billy Budd, Sailor. But since the actual plotlines of these works seem to me among their less interesting aspects, knowing them beforehand is unlikely to detract from the experience of reading these works. 

Before tackling that monster Moby-Dick, I thought it best to ease myself into Melville’s fictional world with two shorter works – the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener”, written in the early 50s shortly after Moby-Dick; and Melville’s late novella, Billy Budd, Sailor, found amongst his papers in an incomplete state after his death in 1891. Both are works of a startling vision and originality, and, for all the solidity of the prose, seem more elusive the more deeply one peers into them.

The setting of “Bartleby the Scrivener” could not be further removed than the open seas of Moby-Dick: we are in Wall Street, then, as now, the financial centre of America. The narrator seems an affable and kindly gentleman – a lawyer, who deals in deeds, bonds, mortgages, and such-like. This fictional world seems bricked in by walls, and by the minutiae of documents and of articles. Into this world enters Bartleby, the scrivener, whose job it is to copy faithfully these documents which, to any but the most dedicated professional (and even, one suspects, to them) are dreary and dry-as-dust. Bartleby is quiet and undemonstrative, and does his copying diligently, but when he is asked, as is usual, to carry out tasks beyond mere copying, his answer, though quiet, is firm: “I would prefer not to.” And this simple little formula – “I would prefer not to” – seems to become a sort of motto for Bartleby; whatever is asked of him is met with this response – “I would prefer not to”.

As time passes, Bartleby refuses even to carry out his copying: his refusal, once again, is not demonstrative in any way, but it is firm for all its quietness – he would prefer not to. When even the narrator – a far more gentle employer than he might have been – dismisses Bartleby from his post, Bartleby refuses to leave the office: he would prefer not to. It becomes clear that he has made his office his home, sleeping there at nights, taking there his frugal meals, such as they are. The deadening world of brick walls and dead documents is also Bartleby’s world: it has ground him down, and he wants to take no further part in it: to every question, the answer remains the same – he would prefer not to.

Rather than evict Bartleby by force, the lawyer finally moves his office to different premises, but Bartleby remains fixed where he had been. Finally, the new occupiers do evict him by force, and Bartleby, in prison, effectively starves himself to death. Even his suicide – for such it undoubtedly is – is passive: he does not so much rush to his death, as allow death to come to him. He would prefer not even to live.

What are we to make of this peculiar story? As with the stories of Kafka, it invites interpretation, but as soon as one tries to interpret, one feels one is reducing the story. Is Bartleby merely suffering from what we would nowadays call “clinical depression”? Is there something more to his insistent rejection?

He certainly reminds one at times of Akaky Akakievich Basmatchkin, the downtrodden clerk in Gogol’s story “The Overcoat”, but perhaps a more interesting literary forebear is the legal copyist in Bleak House, which was published is serial form shortly before the writing of “Bartleby”. Dickens’ clerk, whose job, like Bartleby’s, was to copy out mind-numbingly dull legal documents, dies in great poverty and distress; and he had called himself “Nemo” – Nobody. A human being reduced to being Nobody, who takes leave of life without leaving behind even a trace of his existence … Could this, I wonder, have been the starting point for Melville’s imagination? Whether or not such is the case, the imagination that produced this remarkable story seems a long way off from that which conceived the infinitely vast fictional world of Moby-Dick.

With Billy Budd, Sailor, we are back at sea. This novella was found amongst Melville’s papers shortly after his death, still in, one suspects, an incomplete form, and wasn’t published till 1924, by which stage Ulysses, “The Waste Land”, and A la Recherche du Temps Perdu had already defined what we can now recognise as the high-water mark of modernism; and the posthumous publications of The Trial and The Castle were just round the corner. These were exciting times for literature, and I do not know how much of an impact was made by the publication of a newly discovered work of a writer associated with what must have seemed by then a long bygone age. And yet, Billy Budd, Sailor, seems as startling in its vision as those products of the heady days of modernism.

There is, once again, a precision, a solidity, to the prose, resonant as it is with Biblical phraseology and images; and yet, as with Kafka, the more solid the representation, the more elusive seems that which is represented. The action, which takes place on a British battleship at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, is very simple: Billy Budd, the innocent, is victimised by John Claggart, and when Billy unintentionally kills his tormentor, the ship’s captain, Captain Vere, insists that Billy be hanged, even though he knows Billy to be innocent. Once again, this story invites and at the same time rejects interpretation.

What is the cause of Claggart’s evil? Melville, who comments on the action throughout, suggests that Claggart had been born with it. Not for Melville the Wordsworthian view of humans born in innocence, and of Evil as a force that enters our being only as we become older:

…in [Claggart] was the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short “a depravity according to nature”.

Neither is Billy’s innocence entirely admirable: innocence is merely the absence of the awareness of evil, and in this world, such naiveté is not an admirable quality.

And yet a child’s utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes.

But not in Billy case. He has remained a child, but the innocence which characterises the child is not an admirable trait: it is a consequence merely of a lack of intelligence, and, in Billy’s case, intelligence has not waxed. His innocence is, indeed, a danger.

And it is Vere who has to bear the responsibility of it all. Vere sees himself almost as a father to Billy, but it is his sworn duty to maintain order on the ship. And, at a time like this, in the wake of naval mutinies and at war with a dangerous enemy, Vere feels he has no choice but to sacrifice Billy, whom he loves. Billy seems to accept his fate with equanimity: such innocence as his, indeed, such ignorance as his, has nothing to fear. But it is the more knowing Vere who has to take upon himself the burden of the tragedy. Shortly after Billy’s execution, Vere himself dies after being mortally wounded in a conflict: his last words are “Billy Budd”. The physical agony may have been Billy’s, but the mental agony is Vere’s.

The above is a gross simplification of a deeply complex story – a story complex not in its outline, but in its implications. It is not, it seems to me, about the problem of Evil: rather, it is about the problem of Innocence. That Melville sees Innocence as a problem is in itself startling, but the conclusion seems inescapable: Vere could have dealt with the Evil that was Claggart, but dealing with the Innocence that is Billy is another matter. If we are to live together in this world, and prevent it sinking into anarchy, Innocence itself is a danger, and must be suppressed. Such, it seems to me, is the deeply pessimistic final testament of Melville.

And yet, such an interpretation leaves open many questions. Why is Vere in such a haste to convene a drumhead court in which to condemn Billy? Why could he not have deferred the case to the higher authorities? Presumably, Vere does not wish to abjure the responsibility he has voluntarily undertaken, but the fact of Vere’s haste is one of the many knots in the wood that refuse to be planed away. And what is one to make of the miraculous absence in Billy, after the execution, of rigor mortis, or of the erection that accompanies a hanging? If this is to be regarded as Nature’s vindication of Billy’s innocence, should it also be regarded as Nature’s condemnation of Vere’s justice? I think, at this stage, we find ourselves in deeper waters than I, for one, am capable of navigating. Perhaps there are some questions which we are not intended to solve.

Billy Budd, Sailor seems to me one of the finest masterpieces of fiction. The simplicity of the story it presents on the surface is at odds with the dizzying depths that lie below.

Right, now I am ready – or as ready as ever I can be – for Moby-Dick.