Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Shorter Herman Melville

As a means of building my attention and concentration back to the task of reading Moby Dick, inspired by this artist's ambition to illustrate every page of this ponderous work, I have been working my way through a volume of Melville's short stories, mostly written around 1855, and published, in this edition, in 1950, which having rested on various shelves and in various boxes, migrated through used bookstores and moving vans until divulging itself from our storage shed a few months ago during the reestablishment of my reading-room. 

Now reading Melville, my own sentences grow tendentious in sympathetic echo.

Despite the effort of attention these stories require, they are marvels of lingering truth, speaking to archetypes of human experience and building up, through elaborate structure, this sense of kinship with the reader who, much in the way of a passenger who cannot understand the meaning of each dial, switch, lever, and pedal in a baroque airliner cockpit, nevertheless experiences the sum total of these mechanisms and the elaborately riveted shell that contains them as the uplifting, thrilling experience of flight, and no doubt lands in a location far removed from their departure, grateful and exhilirated.

Lots of these stories are timely, despite our 150 year remove.  "Benito Cereno" suspensefully tells the story of a slave ship rebellion, touching on levels of hatred and moral ambiguity that illustrate the horrors and motives of modern terrorism.  "Jimmy Rose" tells of how a succesful merchant and socialite survives when he falls upon hard times, after "Sudden and terrible reverses in business were made mortal by mad prodigality on all hands."  (Kind of nice to be reminded that the financial troubles of this decade were not the first we've known.)  "The Fiddler" addresses the problem of striking a balance between genius and simple worldly happiness, and speaks a great deal to my new approach to the piano. 

There's "Bartleby", of course, --but of course you're already familiar with Bartleby, who when presented with the bureaucratic errand running he was hired to do, decides that he "would prefer not to."?  This story was, by the way, the first encounter I've had in literature with the literal application of "red tape" around a bundle of documents.

So far the most appropriate and haunting passage has to do with fear-mongering and salesmanship, and strikes to the heart of our current mad "War on Terror."  It comes from end of The Lightning-Rod Man, which I'll reproduce here without fear of ruining the story, since there's still so much pleasure to be had from reading the beginning, and then the end a second time. 

"You mere man who come here to put you and your pipestem between clay and sky, do you think that because you can strike a bit of green light from the Leyden jar, that you can thoroughly evert the supernal bolt?  Your rod rusts, or breaks, and where are you?  Who has empowered you, you Tetzel, to peddle round your indulgences from divine ordinations?  The hairs of our heads are numbered, and the days of our lives.  In thunder as in sunshine, I stand at ease in the hands of my God.  False negotiator, away!  See, the scroll of the storm is rolled back; the house in unharmed; and in the blue heavens I read in the rainbow, that the Diety will not, or purpose, make war on man's earth."

....But spite of my treatment, and spite of my dissuasive talk of him to my neighbors, the Lightning-rod man still dwells in the land; still travels in storm-time, and drives a brave trade with the fears of man.

It's a shame Moby Dick has overshadowed the rest of his works to the extent that most folks haven't heard of these.  They are every bit as worth reading, (not to mention a good deal shorter) and surprisingly appropriate to modern experience.

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