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Posts Tagged ‘Herman Melville’

A Cataract of Ruin

October 26, 2015 | by

Hawthorne’s scariest story.

Thomas Cole, A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains, 1839.

“Even his bright gildings,” Herman Melville once wrote of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “play upon the edges of thunder-clouds.” This was in “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” an 1850 appreciation in which Melville reputed the notion that Hawthorne, fifteen years his senior, was merely “a sequestered, harmless man”:

this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free … At all events, perhaps no writer has ever wielded this terrific thought with greater terror than this same harmless Hawthorne … this black conceit pervades him, through and through.

In the reductive churn that comes with canonization, this “black conceit” seems to have washed off Hawthorne—Melville’s nickname for him, “the Man of Mosses,” hasn’t exactly stuck. We have better Moss People: your Poes, your Lovecrafts, your Shelleys and Stokers. Hawthorne, the thinking goes, is too puritanical to be truly spooky. (Imagine the groans you’d get from reading a bit of The Scarlet Letter around a late October campfire.) But his story “The Ambitious Guest” is scarier than anything in Poe, and its dark romanticism makes no recourse to haunted houses, death masques, black cats, supernaturally sustained heartbeats, or any other genre trope. It’s just about a weary traveler and a nice family who open their home to him. Read More »

Western Culture Claustrophobia, and Other News

October 23, 2015 | by

Performance view of Ragnar Kjartansson’s Bonjour, 2015.

  • The artist Ragnar Kjartansson lives in fear (and bemused disgust) of what he’s dubbed “Western culture claustrophobia.” “It’s everywhere!” he’s said: “The same desire for this Western properness is everywhere—it’s like a big block of marble that is hanging all over the world and it’s getting bigger and bigger.” He’s doing his part to chip away at that marble sky with the most radical force of destruction known to man: performance art. His new piece, Bonjour, “takes place on a faux-outdoor set conceived to be as generically French as possible … Real-life actors play two characters, a man and a woman who live near one another and are brought together by a chance encounter at a fountain … The man and the woman say the only word of dialogue, ‘Bonjour,’ to each other … After their greeting, they return to their respective homes and go to sleep, and the piece, which will be on repeat during the duration of the exhibition, begins again.”
  • Proust had his madeleine. Nell Zink has her Friskies: “It had been a long while since I’d seen cat food up close. I opened the bag and crouched to pour it into a bowl on the floor. Instantly I was transported back to my earliest youth. The pantry floor in our house in Corona. My face close to the cats’ food dish. My hand in the dish. The sharply disappointing flavor. Greasy dust integral to crumbly, salmon-pink x shapes, crosses faintly reminiscent of a game of jacks … I knew the brand very, very intimately.”
  • Mind-body dualism: like, is there any bigger drag in all of philosophy? Most analytic philosophers subscribe to some version of physicalism—the theory that the mind is made of the same stuff as the body, and that indeed everything in the universe is made of physical stuff—but dualism remains dismayingly prevalent out among laymen. Where did it come from? “The idea of separation between soul and body may have assumed cultural dominance because of the new importance of political rhetoric within the large urbanized city-states that were formed in fifth-century Greece. The rhetorician and philosopher Gorgias, who was a generation older than Plato, wrote a virtuosic essay arguing that Helen was not to blame for the Trojan War because she was the victim of rhetorical persuasion. This piece … is the earliest surviving evidence of a Greek author making a systematic distinction between body and soul. Gorgias argues that the soul may be powerless against the body—an argument developed in awareness that people often act against their own best interests.”
  • You’ve probably been reading the old, unannotated Bartleby, the Scrivener, haven’t you? That’s why everyone’s laughing at you. They’re all reading the slick new annotated version, which features glosses of criticism by everyone from J. Hillis Miller to Gilles Deleuze—and which airs, on at least one occasion, the theory that Bartelby may be dead for the entire novel, in a kind of Sixth Sense­–ish way.
  • In which Chen Li talks to an old Chinese blacksmith about his working life: “One year, a typhoon blew a foreign ship from the inner to the outer bay, slashing it in half and leading to the death of several foreigners. The coffin shop sent for him and had him deliver some thicker iron nails to the shop to fasten the coffins. Two weeks later, he returned to collect his due. While he was walking into that dark, long, and narrow shop—Oh my, what the heck—someone climbed out of a coffin! Turned out that was the master of the shop; he said it was a cool place to take his midday nap.”

A Polar Wind: Robert Kloss and Matt Kish in Conversation

September 29, 2015 | by

A detail from Matt Kish‘s illustration for the cover of The Revelator, by Robert Kloss.

A detail from Matt Kish’s illustration for the cover of The Revelator, by Robert Kloss.

On the relatively short list of authors and artists who have collaborated on multiple books, there are few who so perfectly mirror one another’s sensibilities that it becomes difficult to imagine art and word as separate entities. I’d place Aleksei Kruchenykh and Olga Rozanova, A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard, Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake in that select group. And now I’d add author Robert Kloss and artist Matt Kish. The pair have, to date, worked together on two novels (Alligators of Abraham and The Revelator), a hybrid novel written with Amber Sparks (The Desert Places), and an ongoing project they call the “Bestiary.”

The two have published work independently—Kish, notably, has illustrated every page of Moby-Dick and Heart of Darkness—but their joint efforts are of a different order, primarily because, being of like minds, one’s work influences the other’s in the course of making. The Revelator, which was just published this month, is a psychologically brutal tale about an itinerant zealot in nineteenth-century America. In the opening paragraphs, a group of forlorn sailors, “their faces blistered and their minds bleached and weary,” espies a mountain: “some named it the ‘Finger of the Evil One,’ and some called it a tower of soot, dreamed it an ancient citadel misshapen by flame, the horror of all trapped within.” Kish’s illustrations, sprinkled throughout, are correspondingly prophetic, alien, and apocalyptic.   

Kloss recently moved from Boston to Boulder, Colorado; Kish lives in Ohio. The two have never met. Earlier this month, they conducted a conversation via online chat about the nature of collaboration and working in the shadow of Melville.  

—Nicole Rudick

Kish: I’ve been thinking about this conversation for some time, alternately veering between excitement and intimidation. Aside from our numerous e-mails, this will probably be the most in-depth communication we’ve shared, at least on a sustained level.

Kloss: Let’s start with Melville then, since I don’t think we would be having this conversation without his work. Read More »

Naptime with Mrs. Melville

July 30, 2015 | by


A portrait of Maria Gansevoort Melville by Ezra Ames, ca. 1815.

Yesterday we posted Rick Moody’s introduction to Genoa: A Telling of Wonders, a searching 1965 novel by Paul Metcalf in which he grapples with the influence of his great-grandfather, who so happened to be Herman Melville.

Metcalf makes liberal use of Melville throughout the novel, often quoting his work for paragraphs or pages at a stretch. He also inserts his own asides, and one of these in particular I’ve found striking. “I think, for a moment,” he writes,

of Maria Melville, Herman Melville’s mother, who, it is reliably reported, would require her eight children to sit on little stools around her bed, motionless, while she took her daily nap, that she might keep track of them.

Read More »

On Paul Metcalf’s Genoa

July 29, 2015 | by

Metcalf’s “poeticized collage” reckons with his great-grandfather, Herman Melville.

Paul Metcalf

It is extremely rare, these days, to encounter something that feels completely new. That is, most literary artifacts are pretty easy to slot into one format or the other.What a gift then, what a rare, beautiful turn of events when you stumble on a book that seems to come from some spot entirely its own. What a gift, the moment in which you must summon all your readerly resources to grasp the enormity of what you are encountering, to see the pages as they are. I can count these reading experiences on one hand, and in each case I was somehow improved,made better as a reader (Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes; Sanitorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, by Bruno Schulz; The Recognitions, by William Gaddis; The Rings of Saturn, by W. G. Sebald; The Beetle Leg, by John Hawkes). Often the reason we read is in the hope of having these experiences of the truly, unmistakably original.

Paul Metcalf is one of these original writers. A writer who had to follow his own path, at significant cost to himself, over many decades, without a large following. A writer who took the forms that were at hand and shook them up, recast them, repurposed them, so that a traditional approach, after beholding his model, seems almost ludicrously simplistic. A writer of the new, the surprising, the arresting. Read More »

Novels Are Made of Words

March 31, 2015 | by

More on automated sentiment-analysis, and Moby-Dick.

neiman mobydick

Leroy Neiman, Moby Dick Assaulting the Pequod.

Paul Valéry tells the story: The painter Edgar Degas was backhanded-bragging to his friend Stéphane Mallarmé about the poems that he, Degas, had been trying to write. He knew they weren’t great, he said, “But I’ve got lots of ideas—too many ideas.” “But my dear Degas,” the poet replied, “poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made of words.”

Paintings, for that matter, are not made of pretty ballerinas or landscapes: they’re made of paint.

Which brings us to Syuzhet, Matthew Jockers’s new program that analyzes the words of a novel for their emotional value and graphs the sentimental shape of the book. Dan Piepenbring has explained it all here and here on the Daily, with links to the original postings and the various outcries, some of them in the comments, that have blown up around Jockers.

Many people apparently find Jockers’s research the latest assault of technocratic digitocracy on the citadel of deep humanistic feelings, but that’s not how I see it. What the graphs reveal about potboiler narrative structure versus high-literary arcs, for instance—Dan Brown’s higher average positivity than James Joyce’s, and his more regular cycle of highs and lows to force the reader through the book—is insightful, useful, and great. Read More »