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Posts Tagged ‘Moby Dick’

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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Bukowski on File, and Other News

September 10, 2013 | by

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  • “The FBI kept a file on noted dirty old man Charles Bukowski.”
  • Indian author Sushmita Banerjee, whose writing inspired the film Escape from Taliban, was killed in Afghanistan on Wednesday.
  • “What I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.” At The New Yorker, excerpts from Flannery O’Connor’s journals.
  • Satan, Humbert Humbert, Moby-Dick, and other curiously sympathetic literary villains.
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    Literate Liars and the Lying Lies We Tell

    July 18, 2013 | by

    The results of Book Riot’s “Books you pretend to have read” survey are in, and they’re explosive. While the usual lengthy suspects—UlyssesMoby-Dick, Infinite Jest—are represented, Pride and Prejudice is a surprise dark horse number-one. (Maybe after investing six hours in the BBC miniseries, people feel they’ve got the idea?) Other surprises include the relatively short To Kill a Mockingbird and Great Expectations—perhaps purely due to their inclusion on hundreds of syllabi?—Harry Potter, and, somewhat mysteriously, Fifty Shades of Grey. And this prompts several follow-up questions: When you listen to a book on tape, does that count? Is there a point at which, via osmosis, adaptations, and self-delusion, one can actually begin to believe he has in fact read a book, and is there a German compound word for this phenomenon? And what of the monstrous Mr. Darcy in the Serpentine?

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    A Week in Culture: Rutu Modan, Cartoonist

    June 27, 2013 | by

    Sunday

    I have no idea how this happened, but apparently I’ve agreed to give a talk to the entire pre-K and first grade at a local school. A total of seven classes.

    While I do, in fact, also illustrate children books, it’s really due to my interest in books and less to my interest in children. It’s not that I don’t like children—I’m quite fond of mine—but speaking to children is a bit scary. They don’t know they’re supposed to hide it if they’re bored.

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    I show the kids books I’ve illustrated, share my work methods, and even throw in a professional secret: I can’t draw horses’ feet. During the Q&A, a curly-haired girl persistently raises her hand and when I call on her she says, “My mother looks much younger than you.” But all in all, I realize that between these kids and my students at the art academy there is no big difference in understanding. Read More »

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    Recovering Muriel Rukeyser’s Savage Coast

    June 11, 2013 | by

    Muriel Rukeyser

    In the Library of Congress archive of the American poet Muriel Rukeyser, there is a vast network of one-sided correspondence, incomplete drafts, unpublished texts, notes, proofs, diaries, and datebooks. It is a space of the unfinished, of process, and of radical possibility. Its silences represent the often violent effects of cold-war intellectual suppression, the sexism of editors, and the deaths of lovers. Over the course of six years I came and went, making the trip from New York to D.C., piecing together a literary history about a writer whose life and work are notoriously difficult to map.

    The archival breaks, aesthetic pronouncements, and biographical lacunae that characterize Rukeyser’s archive do not feel particularly surprising for a writer whose career and work appear always disrupted and open-ended—visible and invisible at the same time. Rukeyser’s poems, biographies, and essays have persistently challenged the rigid artistic, political, and intellectual binaries that have shaped the twentieth century, and because of this she has experienced a continual burial and recovery. She has been alternately denigrated and admired for being an avant-garde and radical poet, a feminist, a theorist, an activist; for being sexually liberated and a single mother. She has been viewed from both sides of the critical establishment as being either too aesthetically experimental or not aesthetically rigorous enough, as too radical or insufficiently Marxist. These dichotomous readings of Rukeyser highlight the ways in which her work defied and remade the political and artistic programs of her historical moment. “For our time depends not on single points of knowledge,” she wrote in The Life of Poetry, “but on clusters and combinations.”

    The Life of Poetry begins on a boat evacuating Barcelona during the first days of the Spanish Civil War. In it, she describes an experience of profound transformation, writing of Spain as the place where “I began to say what I believed.” I followed that thought into her archive and back out again. Almost no one had written on the subject; her writings on Spain were like unmarked graves scattered through her work, identifiable only by a phrase or image repeated and refigured in other works, some of them long out of print, others lost and buried in the archive. But the silences of each gave access to the other: a line in a poem made a map into the archive; the material recovered in the archive made visible not only that which was hidden in her already published work, but elucidated new literary and political histories. Rukeyser wrote about Spain for more than forty years, in every genre. The texts overlap and echo each other; they proliferate across decades and are intertwined with other histories. Always they carry a sense of urgency, and always they return to just five days in 1936. Read More »

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    How to Win at Moby-Dick, and Other News

    May 1, 2013 | by

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  • Moby-Dick: Or, the Card Game takes to Kickstarter.
  • Related: Emoji Dick.
  • Rules for literati. “These rules can be summed up with the overarching theme of Act Like a Normal Person.”
  • How to procrastinate, Kafka-style.
  • Braveheart, and other movies based on poems.
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