Monday, April 5, 2010

The Devil and Descartes

Here are a few other things that I’m pondering of late. Look at how rapidly Melville alternates between the comical, the expository, and the Sublime in the middle portions of Moby-Dick, and how effortlessly he manages to meld the three:

"Still, we can hypothesize, even if we cannot prove and establish. My hypothesis is this: the spout is nothing but mist. And besides other reasons, to this conclusion I am impelled, by considerations touching the great inherent dignity and sublimity of the Sperm Whale; I account him no common, shallow being, inasmuch as it is an undisputed fact that he is never found on soundings, or near shores; all other whales sometimes are. He is both ponderous and profound. And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam while in the act of thinking deep thoughts. While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable moisture over my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition."

Note also the shift between long and short clauses, as when he says, “all other whales sometimes are.” It brings the whole passage back to earth with a clear, crisp focus; it narrows the attention to this one point, and thereby keeps you reading till the end.

Strangely, I stumbled upon some rather pointed affirmation regarding the developing focus and theme of the chapter I’m writing (the focus and theme which I explained at length in the entry previous to this one). In one of my favorite passages in the second book of Paradise Lost, Milton is describing the delightful dalliances of devils:

"Others apart sat on a Hill retir’d,

In thoughts more elevate, and reason’d high

Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate,

Fixt Fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,

And found no end, in wand’ring mazes lost.

Of good and evil much they argu’d then,

Of happiness and final misery,

Passion and Apathie, and glory and shame,

Vaine wisdom all, and false Philosophie…"

In analyzing the plot, themes, and dynamics of the sixth chapter, I’ve discovered that every person I encountered that day, or in the few days following, had a theory they were anxious to relate about the nature of prophecy, man, magic, and the imminent end of the world. I mean, really: Booth and I were standing around and talking in the bookstore, when a man in a long coat and a fishing hat appeared from beneath the stairs, as though from empty air, and presented us an extended discourse on the uses of Finnish magic. Petunia, Priscilla, Corey, Mortimer, Amy, and the Finnophiliac professor, each of these people had secrets they were eager to disclose.

I’m beginning to think that this wasn’t merely a curious circumstance. In the fourth chapter I discovered that there was a subtle and insidious but nonetheless very real evil in the hollowness of airy spectacles, contrived infinitudes, and unutterably endless connections. What happened in the two or three weeks before the end of that trimester appears to have been an outgrowth and extension of this. Because what Milton is doing in Paradise Lost is showing where the subtle, insidious evils which infest our ordinary, human lives in historical time derived their devilish origins. Thus, when he wants to foreshadow the vain philosophies and meandering, endless conversations of the ancient Greeks, he has the devils sitting on a hill, engaged in sportive feats of chatter. It’s a trick he employs throughout the poem.

This wasn’t a coincidence at all. But I would like to know what it means [[ But I should like to have known what it meant ]]. It’s very subtle, and for six years it completely escaped my attention. You wouldn’t normally imagine a lot of people sitting around and talking about philosophy and theology as being the result of some heinous diabolical scheme, and when it occurs in the right context I imagine it’s fine, but I also remember several of the tedious classes I had to endure as an undergraduate, where de Acosta would stand up and start ranting about the great, big, enormous handkerchief that created the universe, and how everyone would argue about whether the universe was more like a handkerchief, or a FAT bowl of ice cream, [[in language so clotted with obscurity, it but clarified the fact that their pretensions had been heightened to the direst limits of endurability]], and [[ ask yourself if you didn’t feel, at the very least, some half a dozen inches closer to that exasperating tedium and numbing, monotonous circularity, which men have ever asserted is among the lesser nuisances of hell, there in the sluggish, Sisyphean torpor of that endless hour, than you did on emerging later into the bright, mild sunlight, and the tranquil, thinly-clouded sky.]]

WHOA! I had forgotten. There is, in fact, a corresponding passage in Melville:

"And let me in this place movingly admonish you, ye ship-owners of Nantucket! Beware of enlisting in your vigilant fisheries any lad with lean brow and hollow eye; given to unseasonable meditativeness; and who offers to ship with Phaedon instead of Bowditch in his head."

(This is incredible! But he goes on: )

"Beware of such an one, I say: your whales must be seen before they can be killed; and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of sperm the richer. Nor are these monitions at all unneeded. For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber…

"But lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature: and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Cranmer’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.

"There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise forever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!"

Well, that’s exactly what I was trying to say; though perhaps said a bit better than I would have done.

Here’s John Calvin, warning of the dangers of attempting to understand God’s election in time:

"The discussion of predestination – a subject of itself rather intricate – is made very perplexed, and therefore dangerous, by human curiosity, which no barriers can restrain from wandering into forbidden labyrinths, and soaring beyond its sphere, as if determined to leave none of the Divine secrets unscrutinized or unexplored. As we see multitudes everywhere guilty of this arrogance and presumption, and among them some who are not censurable in other respects, it is proper to admonish them of the bounds of their duty on this subject. First, then, let them remember that when they inquire into predestination, they penetrate the inmost recesses of Divine wisdom, where the careless and confident intruder will obtain no satisfaction to his curiosity, but will enter a labyrinth from which he will find no way to depart. For it is unreasonable that man should scrutinize with impunity those things which the Lord has determined to be hidden in himself; and investigate, even from eternity, that sublimity of wisdom which God would have us to adore and not comprehend, to promote our admiration of His glory. The secrets of His will which He determined to reveal to us, He discovers in His word; and these are all that He foresaw would concern us or conduce to our advantage."

Presumably the labyrinth is going to become a central symbol, at least of the first part of the novel, and potentially the second as well. Even now I have pictures on Facebook of the labyrinth through which we all wandered together at the beginning of our last semester; I’m sure I could dig up the notes from that venture, as it would be a foolish waste of a maze to have been actually lost in one, in the middle of all this capering madness, and not to employ it somewhere in the story.

And look at what Carl Hovde says about Melville’s use of imagery and allusion in Moby-Dick:

"Melville takes us off the ship by extended similes of the kind so frequent in The Iliad, in which action is similarly constricted to the patch of beach before Troy’s wall. In “Squid” (chap. LIX) ‘the seamen rushed to the yard-arms, as in swarming-time the bees rush to the boughs’ (page 327). We are on dry land again for a moment with an image familiar in country life… All these similes take us off the Pequod’s deck and momentarily ventilate the closed-in scene of action on the ship.

"By far, the most frequent means of widening the stage is the novel’s great allusiveness; the book is a magpie’s nest of information, and these references take us to many other people, ideas, and places in the world. It is hard to think of another work of fiction that so frequently makes overt use of history, geography, travel writing, literature, philosophy, religion, and the science of the day. And it is less remarkable that Melville acquired such wide knowledge than that his imagination could so readily call it up to enrich the narrative by similarities, precedents, analogies, contrasts, contradictions, and illustrations by anecdote."

Heed it well!

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