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October 30, 2009

CAAF: Commitment anxiety

Goodness gracious, the dithering I've done since I wrote here that I'd only be reading Herman Melville in November. Melville's an author (like Nabokov and Dickens) I'm always sort of in the midst of reading -- which is why I initially thought he'd be a good choice. My affection for him felt big enough, burgeoning enough, that it could last out a month of one-on-one fidelity. Also, the writing itself is so varied, with so many moods and voices, that it wouldn't be such a narrow diet. But no sooner had I stated publicly, "It's Herman, nothing but Herman," then I began to feel hollow the way you do when you're telling a lie and panicked that I'd chosen wrong. I padded into the library, got one of his Library of America books off the shelf and opened it to a random page. It fell open to this passage from White-Jacket:

"The Sultan, Indiaman, from New York, and bound to Callao and Canton, sixty days out, all well. What frigate's that?"

"The United States ship Neversink, homeward bound."

"Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!" yelled our enthusiastic countryman, transported with patriotism.

By this time the Sultan had swept past, but the Lieutenant of the Watch could not withhold a parting admonition.

"D'ye hear? You'd better take in some of your flying-kites there. Look out for Cape Horn!"


Christ, I thought, I'll never make it. By Wednesday night I had decided on Nabokov instead, with a focus on the Russian novels (i.e., Invitation to a Beheading, The Gift, Laughter in the Dark, etc.). This would make a neat segue to reading Pushkin and Gogol in December (a Russian Soul odyssey), as well as allow for a day trip to The Original of Laura. Then yesterday it was Eudora Welty -- a writer I've never read but always meant to. And so on ... (The terrible thing: As tiresome as this recital is, it actually represents a radical condensation of interior vacillation.)

I'm now calmed down and it's back to Melville (Herman, nothing but Herman). The proposed syllabus: Typee (first time); Redburn (partly read, loved, yet inexplicably abandoned halfway); Moby-Dick (a reread); and, time allowing, The Confidence-Man (first time), which makes an arc from the start of his writing to the near-end.

Two things that brought me back to Melville. First, this famous note from Hawthorne's journals about a visit the two had in England*:

... on the intervening day, we took a pretty long walk together, and sat down in a hollow among the sand hills ... and smoked a cigar. Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated;" but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists--and had persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before-in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth of immortality than most of us.

(Excerpt taken from Elizabeth Hardwick's marvelous Penguin Life study.)

The second, if you can bear it, has to do with the opening of his story "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids," which, as I've recalled it and let it play in my head, has gradually overridden the panic engendered by the White-Jacket passage. Here is how it starts:

It lies not far from Temple-Bar.

Going to it, by the usual way, is like stealing from a heated plain into some cool, deep glen, shady among harboring hills.

Sick with the din and soiled with the mud of Fleet Street -- where the Benedick tradesmen are hurrying by, with ledger-lines ruled along their brows, thinking upon rise of bread and fall of babies -- you adroitly turn a mystic corner -- not a street -- glide down a dim, monastic way flanked by dark, sedate, and solemn piles, and still wending on, give the whole care-worn world the slip, and, disentangled, stand beneath the quiet cloisters of the Paradise of Bachelors.

Sweet are the oases in Sahara; charming the isle-groves of August prairies; delectable pure faith amidst a thousand perfidies: but sweeter, still more charming, most delectable, the dreamy Paradise of Bachelors, found in the stony heart of stunning London.

In mild meditation pace the cloisters; take your pleasure, sip your leisure, in the garden waterward; go linger in the ancient library, go worship in the sculptured chapel: but little have you seen, just nothing do you know, not the sweet kernel have you tasted, till you dine among the banded Bachelors ...

Read the rest here.

* Hawthorne's journal also notes that Melville " ... arrived in Southport with the least little bit of a bundle, which, he told me, contained a night shirt and a tooth-brush. He is a person of very gentlemanly instincts in every respect, save that he is a little heterodox in the matter of clean linen."

Posted October 30, 2009 1:35 PM

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