February 2017 Books


Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

So I read Moby-Dick. It was…an experience. I’m glad to have read it, but for the most part I can’t say that I enjoyed reading it or devoted the amount of attention needed to get anything out of it. I was surprised by how amusing the first 50 pages or so were–with Ishmael hanging out in New Bedford, meeting Queequeg, etc.–and so was optimistic going in, but yeah, god, it was a struggle.

Mostly, it’s interesting to compare the Moby-Dick that has survived in pop culture vs the book itself. We all know about the monomaniacal Captain Ahab, the white whale being used as a symbol for elusive hubristic goals, “Call me Ishmael,” and the overall length and density, but what hadn’t trickled down to me, at least, was just–the extreme narrative weirdness1 of Moby-Dick: how very few of the chapters are actually the main plot and how many are these absurd encyclopedic tangents2. I sort of respect it, if it’s meant to serve as characterization of Ishmael as this trivia-obsessed, pedantic, inefficient storyteller, but it is hard to read.

It feels like the situation where, to be polite, you ask this guy “hey, man, how was your whaling trip?” expecting a few sentences summarizing the big events, e.g. “Yeah, so the ship’s captain was crazy obsessed with killing this whale Moby-Dick as revenge for his eating his leg or something. We did actually catch a few other whales, and it looked like we were going to make a nice profit from those, but when we finally found Moby-Dick, everything went to shit and I was the only survivor. Oh, also, I met this dude named Queequeg and we really hit it off.” But instead this guy is like, “Well, how much do you know about the history of whaling or whale anatomy? Because I feel like you really need to understand that to understand how my trip was. Oh, and did you know that all of those ‘dragons’ referred to in stories were actually whales? In fact, like, everything is actually a whale. You’re a whale. I’m a whale. America is a whale. Jesus is a whale and/or a whaler. Oh, and we ran into this other ship and asked them if they had seen Moby-Dick, and it turns out that they had some sort of mutiny, and yeah, I know, I know, you don’t know any of the people in this story, but it’s really interesting, I swear, so let me tell you anyway…” and so on and so on.

Selected quote (or: Ishmael is ridiculous and, okay, that’s pretty charming, now that the task of slogging through all of those pages is behind me):

The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics. But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing—at least, what untattooed parts might remain—I did not trouble myself with the odd inches; nor, indeed, should inches at all enter into a congenial admeasurement of the whale.

And of course, all of the stuff with sperm is hilarious, because I am still apparently, like, 12 years old.

ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound

The T.E. Lawrence correspondence with/about Pound made me super curious what his deal was:

Lately I’ve had a letter or two from Pound who (misled perhaps by his name into thinking himself a born economist) seems to have run off on a new hobby-horse of financial theory. I think perhaps my art of boat-building is now the only one the silly ass has not tried and done fairly well. It wouldn’t matter, but that all the time we are missing a full-sized poet, thereby. Still, he might have died young, and that would have come to the same thing, except to himself. Always angry, is Ezra P.

(T.E. Lawrence to A.S. Frere-Reeves, 1/7/35)

I guess I probably heard about his Fascist affiliations whenever I first heard about him in high school and have been automatically dismissing him since then because of that visceral Nazi cringe factor or whatever, but—my views on that have evolved? And I happened upon an appealing hardcover copy of ABC of Reading in a used3 book store, so.

Right, because I’m Jewish, I’m supposed to be especially anti-Ezra Pound, but doesn’t that seem kind of fucked up? Wouldn’t it, after all, be more “just” to ban Wagner’s music in Germany than in Israel? Aren’t I more “entitled” to potentially get into Ezra Pound than, say, a gentile would be? It seems to me like you’re compounding the initial offense by saying, “because this artist hated your people, you must deprive yourself of the pleasure their work might bring you, even X years after their death.”

It all depends on one’s views on the statute of limitations for Problematic behavior and the Purpose of Art, I guess.When we’re talking about dead artists–so dead that the financial aspects of boycotting are no longer involved–just, like…at what point are someone’s beliefs excused as a product of the times they lived in? (We’re basically fine with Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism, because 19th century Russia, what can you do, right?) At what point is the art they produced “good” or “important” enough that they get a little leeway? Who does it actually benefit to dismiss the work of artists whose beliefs don’t line up with the progressive ideals of today? Or even if they don’t line up with the progressive ideals of their own time? Why should someone necessarily have to be a “good” person to produce appealing Art? I mean, if you think the Purpose of Art is solely to teach morality (and a very specific kind of morality, taught in a very specific way), then yeah, sure, boycott away, make sure everyone knows that Sylvia Plath was actually racist and anti-Semitic and thus any poignancy one might find in her writing about depression or whatever is totally invalid. But god, what a bore you must be.

I’d say any work is worthwhile if it give you pleasure; and, well, I suppose the moral righteousness one feels from boycotting is its own form of pleasure. Still, the type of people who wanted to see Manchester by the Sea but refused to because of Casey Affleck’s involvement4…ugh. (And the type of people who had no interest in seeing Manchester by the Sea but reframed that as righteous boycotting: even worse.)

Anyway, Ezra Pound, in particular, is such a ridiculous figure that it’s hard to take his economic/political beliefs seriously. And what is the risk of a contemporary person getting so into Ezra P. that they, too, start to believe that USURY5 is responsible for all of the world’s problems? If they didn’t already; I don’t see Pound as being a gateway to Fascism for the modern youth, but then again–who thought that modern youths being into6 Fascism would be a thing?

All that said, I enjoyed this book, more or less, although I can’t actually remember any of its points, just the general tone of making semi-ridiculous (but also semi-valid?) statements about literature occasionally with EMPHATIC ALL-CAPS and the sense that one needs to be fluent in at least six languages to TRULY UNDERSTAND what it’s all about. And Ezra P.’s massive hard-on for Chaucer.

Selected quotes:

Jealousy of vigorous-living men has perhaps led in all times to a deformation of criticism and a distorted glorification of the past. Motive does not concern us, but error does. Glorifiers of the past commonly err in their computations because they measure the work of the present DECADE against the best work of a past century or even a whole group of centuries.

Obviously one man or six men can’t produce as many metrical triumphs in five years or in twenty, as five hundred troubadours, with no cinema, no novels, no radio to distract ‘em, produced between 1050 and 1300. And the same applies in all departments.

1. Although it’s not like I have a great existing context of American Renaissance literature to compare it to; for whatever reason, 19th century America automatically just screams “BORING AS SHIT” to me, so I only have a high school required reading background for that period. The Scarlet Letter was structurally much more straightforward, though, right?^
2. One wonders what it would look like in the age of Wikipedia–did Douglas Coupland do something similar in Worst. Person. Ever or was that just a coincidence? ^
3. Like, the ethical equivalent of buying vintage furs, right? ^
4. Complicated by the fact that Affleck is a living actor, and you might think that boycotting his work will discourage people from casting him and thus punish him for the sexual harassment allegations. I mean, sure, but seems kind of futile after a certain amount of critical acclaim has been achieved. Imagine how the moral gymnastics surrounding this Oscar season could have been made simpler–without likely impeding the quality of any of the movies involved–if Ryan Gosling had starred in Manchester by the Sea, Andrew Garfield had starred in La La Land, and Casey Affleck had starred in Hacksaw Ridge^
5.”More like JEW-SURY, am I right?” said Ezra P., probably.^
6. And to what extent–for all of these Reddit/gamer types in the “alt-right”–was it a case of “lol, this is ridiculous”-> getting into it ironically -> accidentally being genuinely into it? Which I kind of get. Ironic detachment is not super sustainable, so I feel like that sort of interest either fades quickly or ends up becoming an identity. (See also: the My Little Pony phenomenon.) But yeah, the whole thing is creepy as shit. ^


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