Thursday, July 22, 2004

Finished Moby-Dick (I told you I read slowly these days). Some thoughts here and there.
In D.H. Lawrence’s “Studies in Classic American Literature, at the close of his essay on Moby-Dick, I can’t help but feel Lawrence missed that he answered his own question regarding whither-the-U.S.’s soul-post-Moby-Dick. Ishmael, water-worshipper, whale-worshipper, in both regards Ahab’s opposite, is untouched by Moby-Dick and continues on down the whale-road, the ‘profound unbounded sea.’ A Bloom, of sorts, to Huckleberry Finn’s Dedalus. I personally find satisfaction that water is the dominant life-symbol in this book, water which is the imagistic foundation for the daoists (‘softness is the quality of life, brittleness of death’ and so on. This is excellent meditation advice, by the way.) and so appropriate to Melville’s theme and tome.
Which is not, by the way, a “searing parable about humanity lost in a universe of moral ambiguity” (from the back cover of my edition). Searing, yes; humanity, yes, but moral ambiguity, no. It does trace the manner in which a man convinces himself he is lost in a universe of moral ambiguity and misproportions his perceptions to maintain his sense of centrality and self-importance. But even he knows his maintenance of such is improper, a malady. Ishmael is not lost, and he doesn’t live in a universe of moral ambiguity, at least not in the second half as I read it (despite the directional difficulties he faces the night of the try-pot fires), which is mostly unambiguous water-worship.
Doesn’t Ahab “dash his heavenly quadrant”? If there’s navigational ambiguity, it is by choice, and the will to maintain the terms of that choice.
Except for “The Candles,” Ahab is, to my reading (conditioned to sensitivity on Joyce and Proust and Spencer and Shakespeare) an absurd. And that’s why he’s so angry. And that’s why he’s impotent. And that pride is why he gets it wrong on purpose. Until “The Rachel,” that is, and as his drama becomes more real, actual and not preparatory. That Ishmael’s waxing more hydrotheistic is the backdrop for this movement helps make his pathos (insanity, wrongheadedness—he is an underground man, in his resistance to the universe’s interpenetration) appear as little as it is. And he sees it, and refuses do discard it, confusing the diminishment he is effecting on himself with that diminishment Moby-Dick has. His own diminishment being the greater mutilation, for it is on that part he claims worships with defiance only. This is to be seen in his absurd omening, for example: he smashes some metal and makes it a heavenly gesture (the quadrant). Like Richard II, he evades facing his own powerlessness with metaphor-making. Ishmael grows strong in his powerlessness and deepens through metaphor-making.
Lawrence asks whither, once the ship of our country’s soul has gone down? The answer he avoided is obvious: as Ishmael does, the better answer to Harold Bloom’s readings than the praise he gives Ahab. Bloom wants to find geniuses who create themselves in a manner he calls Gnostic—who maintain an individual creative imagination in conjunction with the world and apart from it. Ahab loses, his metaphysic is flawed, brittle and unencompassing—monomaniacal. Ishmael is delivered from the wreck, death has no grudge towards him. He accepts what he learns, even if it results in the staving of his conscious, created mind’s, integrity. To quote Lawrence back to himself, Ishmael has ‘prepared his ship of death.’

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