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Posts Tagged ‘Herman Melville’

Going Aboard

December 16, 2014 | by

Retracing Moby-Dick on a nineteenth-century whaler.

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Photo: Ben Shattuck

­­­When Herman Melville was twenty-one, he embarked on the whaleship Acushnet, out of New Bedford. We all know what that led to. This past summer, Mystic Seaport finished their five-year, 7.5-million-dollar restoration of the 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan, the sister ship to the Acushnet. The Morgan is in many ways identical to Melville’s fictional Pequod, save that sperm whale jawbone tiller and a few other sinister touches. Mystic Seaport celebrated the completion by sailing the Morgan around New England for a couple months. I went aboard for a night and a day, intent on following in Ishmael’s footsteps, hoping to breathe a little life into my idea of the distant, literary ship. Below are passages from Moby-Dick that involve the Pequod, followed by my own accounts.
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Loomings

September 2, 2014 | by

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Photo: Walter Smalling Jr., 1980

Late this morning, the pipes of my toilet began to make a noise that I can only describe as haunting. How to explain it? Loud, very loud. Sad, very sad. A sort of melancholy lowing, a primal moan expressing things seen and unseen. One could imagine ancient peoples hearing such things and looking to the supernatural for answers. If they had plumbing, I mean.

It went on and on. It was beautiful. I had been distracted, blue, depressed by the unrelenting humidity of an urban Tuesday on the day after a long weekend. And then I heard the mysterious sound and it calmed me. For the first time, I began to understand the New Agey penchant for whale songs.

I thought I had better look up “toilet groaning” on the Internet and see if it was something I could manage myself. I’m no plumber, but I grew up in a house with very uncertain old pipes, and in such cases you learn to do what you can. It’s very satisfying when you learn to do these things yourself, if you do. And I know an air vent malfunction when I hear it.

But somehow on my way to the computer, I found myself going to the bookshelf, and picking up Moby-Dick, and paging through it, and then, twenty minutes later, there I was, sitting on the floor, reading.

Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

It was at this point that things started gurgling, and of course then the toilet overflowed. I turned off the water source, mopped up, and notified the super.

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Cordelia Bleats, and Other News

July 4, 2014 | by

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A production photo from King Lear with Sheep, via Modern Farmer.

  • Edmund Wilson on the Fourth of July circa 1925: “The last random pops and shots of the Fourth—the effortful spluttering and chugging up a hill—the last wild ride with hilarious yells on its way back to New York. Then the long even silence of summer that stretches darkness from sun to sun.”
  • And here’s a handbook for firework design from 1785. (Note: The Paris Review does not endorse the unsupervised construction or detonation of homemade pyrotechnical devices from any era, past or present—unless you’re reasonably sure you know what you’re doing, in which case, have at it.)
  • Forget King Lear with people—that’s old-fashioned. What you want is King Lear with Sheep. “The actors are actually incapable of acting or even recognizing that something is expected of them.” (Because they’re sheep.)
  • “Here’s the problem for someone trying to give Pride and Prejudice a contemporary twist … Jane and Lizzy Bennet are twenty-two and twenty years old, respectively. This means that, in the novel’s world, the two are pretty much teetering on the edge of spinsterhood. The whole twenty-three-year-old-spinster idea will not resonate, of course, with contemporary readers.”
  • Is Moby-Dick something of a roman à clef?

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Your Likeness in Cheese, and Other News

January 28, 2014 | by

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Vincenzo Campi, The Ricotta Eaters, 1580. Via Wikimedia Commons.

  • Gift idea: cheese portraits. The medium is the message here—this cheese is made with bacteria cultivated from your mouth or toes. It’s you, indubitably, microbially. The artist adds, “The bacteria that you find in-between the toes is actually very similar to the bacteria that makes cheese smell like toes.” You don’t say.
  • Amazon has purchased another block of Seattle. A technofortress, no doubt, soon to be swarming with drones.
  • The Sims is the bestselling PC game of all time. It also has—no mean feat—the most poetic, surreal software-update notifications of all time. “Sims will no longer walk on water to view paintings placed on swimming pool walls.”
  • Presenting the Daphne, an award for the best book to have been published fifty years ago.
  • Melville the prognosticator: Moby-Dick, Benito Cereno, and modern-day imperialism.

 

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Or, the Whale

October 18, 2013 | by

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On this day in 1851, Moby-Dick was published. In a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne shortly afterward, Melville wrote,

… for not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows, or any one of them. Appreciation! Recognition! Is Jove appreciated? Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of his great allegory—the world? Then we pigmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended. I say your appreciation is my glorious gratuity.

Needless to say, recognition did indeed come, albeit posthumously.

 

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Hunting the Whale

September 24, 2013 | by

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Currently on display in halls of the American Museum of Natural History are the complete skeletal remains of two sperm whales, a male and a female. They are the centerpieces of a much-advertised exhibit on whales that opened in March and will remain on view until January of next year.

I don’t know precisely what I hoped to encounter when I visited the exhibit earlier this month, but I knew it had something to do with Moby-Dick. I came with the high and ill-defined expectations of a pilgrimage, harboring vague notions that I might eye a peeking corner of the mystery embodied by Melville’s White Whale; I thought, deep in some inarticulate recess of my mind, that I might have the chance to live a dozen pages out of one of the best books I’ve ever read. I hoped I might come to better know it. I thought that I might see the whale. 

The two sperm whale skeletons are suspended by metal wire from the ceiling of the museum’s fourth floor exhibition space. The male is slightly over fifty-eight feet long, the female much smaller. Seeing them was a shock; reduced to their bare frames they might as well be entirely different animals, so little do they answer to the sperm whale in its skin. They hang in undulating poses over a dais of shiny black plastic, appearing like a pair of monstrous wraiths cresting the surface of forsaken waters. Melville provides a warning of this physical dissonance in Moby-Dick—“For it is one of the more curious things about this Leviathan, that his skeleton gives very little idea of his general shape.”—but that is poor preparation for just how alienating these skeletons can be. There is an unsettling ambiguity in their aspect, like the meeting of bird and snake. While pictures of the whale alive show a creature of curves, sleek fins, and a protuberant forehead, under the roof of the American Museum of Natural History and bereft of their flesh, these whales are assemblies of acute angles. Their peeked skulls, barbed with teeth, taper at the jaws to sharp beaks; looking up at the spiked vertebrae, you see a cutting ridge running along the spine that resolves itself decisively into the pointed tip of the tail. They are almost entirely devoid of the galumphing roundness that makes the living whale seem monumental, endearing, curiously childlike.

More surprising than their shape is their size. Reviewing the exhibit for The New York Times, Edward Rothstein was struck by their “immensity” and “commanding power.” He spoke of the show’s more diminutive attractions cowering in the “shadow of the chambers and curves of whalebone filling the high-ceilinged gallery.” “They loom,” he said, “over the video kiosks, wall panels and specimens, as if daring anything to come close.” That was not my experience at all. The exhibit has many attractions: video animations dramatizing the evolutionary history of whales; scrimshaw and ancient harpoons; Maori art and ambergris; an old ledger recording the events of a whaling voyage and an open copy of Moby-Dick, both under glass; a life-sized model of a Blue Whale’s heart, in and around which children climb like scavengers over deep-sea carrion. There is no want of diversion. Still, in the midst of all this edifying activity, I couldn’t help but think that the two sperm whale skeletons—even that belonging to the male, supposedly longer than a school bus—looked small. Read More »

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