Posts Tagged ‘Herman Melville’

Happy 195th birthday, Herman Melville!

Friday, August 1st, 2014
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melville

What he looked like.

Herman Melville wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne in November 1851: “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.” The book, of course, was Moby Dick. Funny, he doesn’t look like a lamb. See right. He’s kind of a hunk, in a 19th-century sort of way.

Sheila O’Malley of Sheila Variations writes of the two authors: “They were dear friends and there were many dark years in Melville’s life, when his work was either not being published or being published and ignored when Hawthorne was one of Melville’s only champions. Melville opened his heart to Hawthorne, in letters – about what he was going through, what he was working on with Moby Dick – and, like a great artistic friend and mentor should, Hawthorne never said, ‘Don’t you think you need to scale it down a bit?’ or ‘Who will want to read 20 consecutive chapters about the etymology of blubber?’ No. Hawthorne basically just kept saying to his friend, ‘Keep going. It’s brilliant. Keep going.'” He did! So happy 195th birthday, Herman! From all of us!

She continues:

I read Moby Dick in high school and despised it. I thought it was one of the most boring pointless things I had ever read. It was on our summer reading list, and I clearly remember forcing myself to read the damn thing, during the dog days of August … nearly crying from the psychological boredom. Whatever, man … Moby Dick, Captain Ahab, endless discourses on blubber … I was 16. I DIDN’T GET IT.

Cut to many many years later. 2001, to be exact. I read it in the spring of 2001. Around that time I decided to systematically go back and re-read all of the books I had been forced to read in high school (which, obviously, made me despise them at the time). I read The Scarlet Letter (excerpt here) and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (excerpt here) and many others. Moby Dick is such a massive book, and I had hated it so much when I first read it that I hesitated to put myself through it again.

And honestly – it blew the top of my head off. Every page. Every page.

I have rarely had such an exciting reading experience as that one. I didn’t want it to end. I underlined passages feverishly. I put exclamations points in the margins next to particularly amazing sentences. Honestly. It blew me away.

Here’s a couple notable quotes from Melville himself. The first was unburied by colleague Hilton Obenzinger for Facebook celebrations today:.

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

lamb

What he thought he looked like.

This one is from friend Frank Wilson over at Books Inq.:

“To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.”

A few lingering thoughts on yesterday’s post about the current production of Orson Welles‘s Moby Dick – Rehearsed at Stanford. I said Ahab’s face (portrayed by the face of Bay Area actor Rod Gnapp), was a “rictus of resentment,” or words to that effect. It got me to thinking … isn’t that always what revenge is about? To say someone is “obsessed with revenge” makes them sound big and grand and epic and Old Testament-y.  Resentment makes us sound so … so little, so peevish, so trivial. But isn’t resentment, really, what Ahab is about? He goes about jabbing creatures that never harmed him any with sharp spears and then takes it amiss that one of them strikes back. He has an inflated sense of himself  and his importance (“I’d strike the sun if it struck me!”) and takes Moby Dick’s behavior personally. Clearly, I’ve been reading too much René Girard lately; he’s always one to puncture big, grand, romantic emotions that turn out to be rather little, commonplace, self-centered delusions. Looks like I prefer lambs, after all. And not for eating.

birthday cake“Parmacetty” is used several times in the Orson Welles script – “the monstrousest parmacetty that ever chipped a boat!”  It sounded familiar. Where does the word come from? Where had I heard it before? I went to my OED. I squinted and squinted, since I’ve lost my lorgnette, and finally resorted to the internet OED, which calls the word “obscure,” a variant of spermaceti, “with simplification of the initial consonant cluster.” Here we go! First usage was 1545, but third is in William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Pt. 1, when Hotspur jeers at a perfumed soldier wannabe who was telling him that “the soveraignest thing on earth Was Parmacitie, for an inward bruise.”  I knew I’d heard it recently! Read about our Twelfth Night with Henry IV here. But Shakespeare’s parmacetty is another word for the herb “Shepherd’s Purse.”

Meanwhile, and once again, happy birthday, Herman!
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Eros as delusion: Poet Helen Pinkerton tips her hat to Thomas Aquinas (and Yvor Winters)

Sunday, July 31st, 2011
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Helen's hero ... as seen by Bernardo Daddi

Helen Pinkerton‘s interview in Think Journal, “The Love of Being,” starts out slowly – but by the time she gets to Thomas Aquinas, she’s on a tear.

The octogenarian poet came from hardscrabble upbringing in Montana. Her father died in a mining accident when she was 11, leaving her mother with four children to raise – well, if you want that story, you can read it in my own article about her here.

Then, she landed at Stanford, where she was one of Yvor Winters‘ inner circle, along with folks like Janet Lewis, Thom Gunn, Edgar Bowers, Turner Cassity, and J.V. Cunningham.  Although she intended to be a journalism major, her plans changed abruptly: “Winters’ level of teaching, the kinds of topics he expected us to write about, the seriousness of his consideration of literary and philosophical questions of all sorts simply brought out in me a whole new capacity for thinking and writing.”  After that, and a course on narrative with Cunningham, she launched an alternative career as a poet and a Herman Melville scholar, too.

After that experience, Pinkerton found that her subsequent graduate work at Harvard “was a breeze and made little mark on me as a poet or a scholar.”

Fra Angelico's Aquinas

Winters described Pinkerton’s poetry as “profoundly philosophical and religious,” and she discusses how  Ben Jonson scholar William Dinsmore Briggs led her in that direction, though she never met him – his teaching on medieval and Renaissance learning “permeated” the work of Winters and Cunningham, she said.  Helen became preoccupied with the Thomistic notion of esse, and sees “nothingness” as the primary temptation of humankind.  Hence, her poem, “Good Friday” (included in her book Taken in Faith), which claims:

Nothingness is our need:
Insatiable the guilt
For which in thought and deed
We break what we have built.

But more than temptation – it is delusion.  “The chief aspect of the drive is the metaphysical assertion that nothingness is the real reality – that there is no real being.”

She links this drive with the thinking of the 19th and 20th century, particularly romanticism, which she sees as a drive toward annihilation.  “Real love is the love of being. Eros is the love of non-being”:

Helen, me, and the late Turner Cassity

I found my way out of it by grasping the Thomistic idea of God as self-existent being. There is no nothingness in reality. It is a kind of figment of the imagination. To believe that there is is a verbal trick – a snare and a delusion. Much of modern philosophy (Hegel, the Existentialists, et al.) are caught up in this delusive state of consciousness.

I do scorn and critique (always) “romantic religion” – or the religion of eros … as I call it – and I did see in others, as well as in myself – a pervasive “unavowed guilt” in our culture – based on an unavowed longing for “nothingness.” This is a kind of obsession of mine in my early thinking (and consequently in my poems) after I came to a realization of the nature of my consciousness. What was driving me to be dissatisfied with everything and everyone, including myself, was this “eros,” this craving for extremes of feeling, for a kind of perfection in things and in others.

Patrick Kurp has written some lovely stuff about Helen at Anecdotal Evidencehere, and here, and here … oh, just type “Pinkerton” into his search engine.  There’s lots.  I’m proud to have introduced them.

Meanwhile, an Yvor Winters reading was always mesmerizing.  You can get a taste of it in this recording from San Francisco’s Poetry Center on Valentine’s Day, 1958:

Yvor Winters Reading – 1958