I’m going to try and write these looser pieces when I am so inclined.
We don’t need to discuss the obvious. But even before the mind-numbing onrush of March and the coronavirus catastrophe, I wasn’t reading much. My mind was on hiatus, or suffering a kind of shallowing out. It’s a thing that happens to me from time to time.
(In describing this sensation I almost unconsciously purloined, wholesale, a presiding metaphor of Cyril Connolly’s, that of the rock pool that fills and drains with the tides; it only sounded familiar to me once I had finished roughing it out, and was ready to start the refining process; and then I remembered where I had been furnished with the image to begin with.)
It happens to me from time to time: my brain becomes flat and shallow, my interface such that I can engage only superficially with things, and almost by necessity with several things at once; thus when I’m in a mood like this, I tend to watch a lot of different TV shows, play a lot of different games, start many different books in random seizures of intent that fizzle out, so that I make minor ingress into three, four, five novels, possibly never to finish any of them at all, ever, and certainly not then.
Now, however, I feel like I’m transitioning into the opposite brain-state, which I envision artlessly as a narrow channel or fissure shooting into the earth, filled with cold, dark, reaching, unsounded water. This is the mood for obsessive pursuit of single things, which is why, probably, I’ve been absolutely tear-assing through a reread of Moby Dick.
(By the way, the “obsessive pursuit” is not a conscious reference to Ahab pursuing Moby Dick; anyway the book is about, arguably more about, so much more than Ahab’s obsession; actually in this current reading I’m kind of astonished at how little Ahab there really is, and re-impressed by Ishmael, who is probably actually the best, most memorable creation in the whole book.)
I’ve written, briefly, about the way Moby Dick made me feel the first time I read it. Sometimes I worry that I don’t have much of a memory. That is, on the surface level of my mind, I can’t remember with any sort of exacting clarity much of my life; very few scenes return to me with the stage-managed clarity that we are told, or somehow otherwise come to expect, the big moments in our life should/to have.
But I remember in inalienable gravure this one night when I was reading Moby Dick, on the couch in the walkway lounge between the two honors dorms at Kent. It was late, I didn’t live in those dorms but my girlfriend at the time did, and I would loiter in the semi-public spaces of Johnson Hall while I waited for her to get back from whatever journalism things she was doing.
(I’ve always dated people who are busier than me).
Nothing prepares you for Art’s first intrusion into your life. It falls on you like a delicious curse, marking you with a savage discontent for the rest of your life. Delicious, because nothing compares to it. For some, maybe lots of people, that intrusion never comes; and to try and communicate the feeling to them is like attempting to convey the texture of your particular depression to another mind outside your own: a forlorn and hopeless task, as ungraspable as Cassiopeia.
Moby Dick wasn’t the first time that Art broke into my heart like a burglar in reverse, though. That came earlier, possibly across several closely-related instances (instances that will not be related here); but, as anyone who has had that vivifying communion with Art knows, you’re always afterwards looking for things that sensation again; and, for me at least, those Agains come seldomly, and maybe, eventually, evaporate altogether; I still get much profound pleasure from literature, but it’s not ever these days ecstatic and bright like it was those first times.
But that time when I read Moby Dick. I was probably about halfway through the book at the time, and found myself vibrating with that feeling again. In fact, if anything, it was clearer then, nearer, than it had been before; I was pinned to the couch in the lounge; I think of that night as a stormy one, not because it was actually storming out (was it?) but because reading those words on those pages, that night, was like hurtling to the rim of the cosmos to touch, barepalmed, Lightning’s livid brand. And when you’re that close to the dynamo, you know – you know – that Art and Life are somehow one and the same, or inextricably linked like two separate strands of the ancient root the gyres reality together. Life is motion with an endless craving for Art. Art is the aether that underpins every meaningful instance in Life.
Last month, I finished The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a wonderful book that was precisely not what I needed during the mindstate I found myself in at the onset of this coronavirus pandemic. Was it too perfect? Too wise? Too…something? No, it was just itself, and, simply, not what I needed at that particular moment. Upon finishing it I picked up Moby Dick on a whim, and within a few days I knew I was reading it again For Real.
It turned my mind deep again, or corresponded to a deepening that was happening already, a pervading leaden heavy obsessiveness that is conducive to two things: swinging anxiety around my head like a flail and, evidently, reading Moby Dick at a reckless pace. At my normal rate, it would take me about a month to finish it; at my current clip I’ll have finished the whole thing in about two weeks.
“Does it hold up” seems like a deeply irrelevant question, but yes it very much does. It isn’t able to do to me now what it did to me then, but that’s no fault of the book. I’m finding it so rich, deep, and variegated, so almost inexpressibly gloriously weird. It’s the easiest book in the world for me to read, right now. I can finish thirty pages in about as many minutes.
I wonder what I’ll read next. I feel like my current horror-soaked mood wants me to gravitate towards the Big Ones, the unqualified masterpieces. I want to deeply inhabit and feel oh so small in the Big Churches of Literature. I’ve been considering Anna Karenina.
[Image: Moby Dick illustration by Rockwell Kent]