My Favorite Chapter of Moby-Dick

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Today is Herman Melville’s 200th birthday. Melville, of course, wrote Moby-Dick, which is probably the best single piece of American art ever created, and quite possibly the best novel ever written in English. In the years since I read it, nothing else has quite approached its sweep, its lambent strangeness, the bright white cosmic godlike fingers of its prose, grasping and bringing up the deep-down viscera of reality like fistfuls of fat gold coins.

I remember lots of favorite passages from books, but I don’t remember where I was when I read most of them; I do remember where I was when I read chapter 96 of Moby-Dick, “The Try-Works.” It was in Johnson Hall at KSU, on the upper floor lounge between Johnson and Stopher. The lounge had big windows looking down on the hill that slopes gently towards the edge of campus and Main Street. I wasn’t an Honors student and didn’t live in Johnson, but my then-girlfriend did, and I was waiting for her to get back from something, I don’t remember what. It was dark and when I looked up from Moby-Dick toward the windows, what I mostly saw was the reflection of the brightly-lit room behind me, laid on the glass like a silkscreen: a second, wavering, diaphanous,  not correct counterimage, interposing.

I was laying on the couch, reading Moby-Dick, mostly oblivious to the comings-and-goings of the Honors students in transit to evening plans, friends’ dorms, to their cars for weekends at home, because I was galvanized by Melville’s book in that sheer, full-body way that only happens a handful of times in your life if you’re lucky; it was like something blue and electric and lancelike was pinning me to the couch, right through a secret heart I was only dimly aware I had.

That memory might be incorrect. For sure, I read Moby-Dick in that lounge that night, but it may have been another chapter that moved me. The book is full of incomparable stuff. It’s a briny trove. But the “Try-Works” has always been my favorite chapter and that night has always been my strongest recollection of reading Moby-Dick, and these two figments have been welded together in my head for years, and it’s a memory now whether or not it ever happened exactly so.

Here’s the chapter in full, thanks to Gutenberg:

Besides her hoisted boats, an American whaler is outwardly distinguished by her try-works. She presents the curious anomaly of the most solid masonry joining with oak and hemp in constituting the completed ship. It is as if from the open field a brick-kiln were transported to her planks.

The try-works are planted between the foremast and mainmast, the most roomy part of the deck. The timbers beneath are of a peculiar strength, fitted to sustain the weight of an almost solid mass of brick and mortar, some ten feet by eight square, and five in height. The foundation does not penetrate the deck, but the masonry is firmly secured to the surface by ponderous knees of iron bracing it on all sides, and screwing it down to the timbers. On the flanks it is cased with wood, and at top completely covered by a large, sloping, battened hatchway. Removing this hatch we expose the great try-pots, two in number, and each of several barrels’ capacity. When not in use, they are kept remarkably clean. Sometimes they are polished with soapstone and sand, till they shine within like silver punch-bowls. During the night-watches some cynical old sailors will crawl into them and coil themselves away there for a nap. While employed in polishing them—one man in each pot, side by side—many confidential communications are carried on, over the iron lips. It is a place also for profound mathematical meditation. It was in the left hand try-pot of the Pequod, with the soapstone diligently circling round me, that I was first indirectly struck by the remarkable fact, that in geometry all bodies gliding along the cycloid, my soapstone for example, will descend from any point in precisely the same time.

Removing the fire-board from the front of the try-works, the bare masonry of that side is exposed, penetrated by the two iron mouths of the furnaces, directly underneath the pots. These mouths are fitted with heavy doors of iron. The intense heat of the fire is prevented from communicating itself to the deck, by means of a shallow reservoir extending under the entire inclosed surface of the works. By a tunnel inserted at the rear, this reservoir is kept replenished with water as fast as it evaporates. There are no external chimneys; they open direct from the rear wall. And here let us go back for a moment.

It was about nine o’clock at night that the Pequod’s try-works were first started on this present voyage. It belonged to Stubb to oversee the business.

“All ready there? Off hatch, then, and start her. You cook, fire the works.” This was an easy thing, for the carpenter had been thrusting his shavings into the furnace throughout the passage. Here be it said that in a whaling voyage the first fire in the try-works has to be fed for a time with wood. After that no wood is used, except as a means of quick ignition to the staple fuel. In a word, after being tried out, the crisp, shrivelled blubber, now called scraps or fritters, still contains considerable of its unctuous properties. These fritters feed the flames. Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body. Would that he consumed his own smoke! for his smoke is horrible to inhale, and inhale it you must, and not only that, but you must live in it for the time. It has an unspeakable, wild, Hindoo odor about it, such as may lurk in the vicinity of funereal pyres. It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.

By midnight the works were in full operation. We were clear from the carcase; sail had been made; the wind was freshening; the wild ocean darkness was intense. But that darkness was licked up by the fierce flames, which at intervals forked forth from the sooty flues, and illuminated every lofty rope in the rigging, as with the famed Greek fire. The burning ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful deed. So the pitch and sulphur-freighted brigs of the bold Hydriote, Canaris, issuing from their midnight harbors, with broad sheets of flame for sails, bore down upon the Turkish frigates, and folded them in conflagrations.

The hatch, removed from the top of the works, now afforded a wide hearth in front of them. Standing on this were the Tartarean shapes of the pagan harpooneers, always the whale-ship’s stokers. With huge pronged poles they pitched hissing masses of blubber into the scalding pots, or stirred up the fires beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling, out of the doors to catch them by the feet. The smoke rolled away in sullen heaps. To every pitch of the ship there was a pitch of the boiling oil, which seemed all eagerness to leap into their faces. Opposite the mouth of the works, on the further side of the wide wooden hearth, was the windlass. This served for a sea-sofa. Here lounged the watch, when not otherwise employed, looking into the red heat of the fire, till their eyes felt scorched in their heads. Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.

So seemed it to me, as I stood at her helm, and for long hours silently guided the way of this fire-ship on the sea. Wrapped, for that interval, in darkness myself, I but the better saw the redness, the madness, the ghastliness of others. The continual sight of the fiend shapes before me, capering half in smoke and half in fire, these at last begat kindred visions in my soul, so soon as I began to yield to that unaccountable drowsiness which ever would come over me at a midnight helm.

But that night, in particular, a strange (and ever since inexplicable) thing occurred to me. Starting from a brief standing sleep, I was horribly conscious of something fatally wrong. The jaw-bone tiller smote my side, which leaned against it; in my ears was the low hum of sails, just beginning to shake in the wind; I thought my eyes were open; I was half conscious of putting my fingers to the lids and mechanically stretching them still further apart. But, spite of all this, I could see no compass before me to steer by; though it seemed but a minute since I had been watching the card, by the steady binnacle lamp illuminating it. Nothing seemed before me but a jet gloom, now and then made ghastly by flashes of redness. Uppermost was the impression, that whatever swift, rushing thing I stood on was not so much bound to any haven ahead as rushing from all havens astern. A stark, bewildered feeling, as of death, came over me. Convulsively my hands grasped the tiller, but with the crazy conceit that the tiller was, somehow, in some enchanted way, inverted. My God! what is the matter with me? thought I. Lo! in my brief sleep I had turned myself about, and was fronting the ship’s stern, with my back to her prow and the compass. In an instant I faced back, just in time to prevent the vessel from flying up into the wind, and very probably capsizing her. How glad and how grateful the relief from this unnatural hallucination of the night, and the fatal contingency of being brought by the lee!

Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. To-morrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp—all others but liars!

Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia’s Dismal Swamp, nor Rome’s accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth. So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true—not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. “All is vanity.” ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon’s wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing graveyards, and would rather talk of operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils all of sick men; and throughout a care-free lifetime swears by Rabelais as passing wise, and therefore jolly;—not that man is fitted to sit down on tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.

But even Solomon, he says, “the man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain” (i.e., even while living) “in the congregation of the dead.” Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

If you decide to buy Moby-Dick on the strength of this post, please consider purchasing it from a local used or new bookstore, or from an independent bookstore’s online storefront.

Happy Birthday William T. Vollmann

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Today is the birthday of William T. Vollmann, one of the primal demiurges of contemporary American literature.

I haven’t read much at all of Vollmann’s work. Not more than few pages. For a long time he occupied the margins of my awareness, a name that always came up alongside others that I was reading: Pynchon, Gaddis, etc. I’ve been thinking a lot more directly about Vollmann this year. I admire him, or at least I admire my conjured perception of him; admire the things that everybody admires about him; I’d like to hang out with him sometime and talk about The Tale of Genji. I’ve semi-committed myself to reading Imperial this year and if I hadn’t been unsuspectingly pulled into reading the entire Lyonesse trilogy I would be starting it today, as originally planned.

Here are a few selections from the very beginning of Imperial that I liked. I’d bet it’s a more relevant book than ever, in these hellacious times.

Shrine

Now we arrived at a little shrine to the Virgin and a cross. Someone had died, perhaps a solo [defined by WTV as “A person who attempts to cross the border illegally and alone”]. Juan read the inscription. Yes, he said, the man had drowned trying to cross into America, where everything was wider, cleaner, safer, more expensive, more controlled and more homogeneous. And by this shrine we parked the car and ascended the levee of crumbling mud-dust to gaze at the United States, where of the three of us only I could legally go. It was hot and thorny and dry on the Mexican side with all those American fields appearing so cruelly green like Paradise, because the water belongs to America, as Juan put it. Beside us, a skinny horse browsed in garbage.

Alpha and Beta

In the clipped lingo of the Border Patrol, American sentinels were called Alpha, while their Mexican counterparts were Beta. Accurate as they undoubtedly were in their depiction of the power relation between the two nations, those designations scarcely overwhelmed with their tact. Alpha pursued Beta’s nationals whenever, like Carlos, they tried to breach Northside [the United States]; Alpha’s nationals swaggered around Southside [Mexico] like lords.

The Fence

Yes, they slithered up and down the fence with ominous grace, like the floor-show girl in her summer dress who flew around the catpole at the Miau-Miau Club on the Mexican side, spreading her legs to show each sector of her audience in turn that she wore no underwear; she did pull-ups, flashing her bottom in the red rotisserie-light that turned her into meat; then she somersaulted naked up the pole and descended it upside down, her hands outstretched, gripping it between her thighs solely, until her long hair was sweeping the floor and the men shrieked in triumphant admiration. And the aspirants flowed paley up and down that metal fence in strange and elegant ways which should have elicited equal applause; but they were men who mopped their forehead with bandannas and who stank of swaet which is our humanity; maybe they’d earn a hundred dollars somewhere before Border Patrol caught them. They became bodies.

A Passage from Darconville’s Cat

As I round the corner on J R, I’ve been weighing up which book I want to read next. A strong contender is Darconville’s Cat by Alexander Theroux, a novel that wrecks Ford Maddox Ford’s tried-and-true Page 99 Test. It’s an 800-page basket of oddities, with strange words, musical lists, incantatory passages, huge burning swathes of satire, all folded denser than protein and pressed into service in order to tell a story of love, rejection, and – if the book itself’s narrator, Augurello, who describes himself as a “personal jurisconsult and theological wiseacre,” is to be believed – murder . Flip it open to any page and you’ll find something interesting – interesting even without the context of what came before or after, independent of the usual narrative incentives. Unforgettable tchotchkes and one-liners crop up everywhere. Every chapter kicks off with a quote from another author. On page 99 itself one character whispers something “as if she were breathing on glass;” looking up at the chapter titles you’ll see such ones as “The Deipnosophists,” “Chantepleure,” “A Digression on Ears.” It goes on and on, brilliantly, in all directions.

I opened Darconville one day recently and found the following, a description of – I believe – a particular kind of person living in rural Virginia:

“It’s a kind of club—300-pound dipshits, always named something like ‘Hawg,’ Clayton, or Orval—who drink flask bourbon, have chigger-bites on their arms, and wear their hair either short or slicked back (the comb tracks are always visible) to reveal faces like those reversible trompe-l’oeil funheads you snip from the Sunday paper to fool someone with. They have no chins, are inclined to be goitral, and are always chewing down on a blade of grass fiercely and absentmindedly. They are given to wearing suntans, white socks, work boots, and cheap acetate shirts, the sleeves of which are always rolled up to a point higher than the triceps brachii in tight little knots. They like whiskey with good bead, respect Shriners, whistle a lot, drive with one hand, slide crotch-first onto barstools, and—just ‘funnin”—love to hang around butt-slapping and goosing each other, punctuating certain remarks of course with that significant nudge just before they’re going to fart. They like to wade into swamps and jacklight rats, are big lodge-joiners, and know everything about guns which they handle, silently, with phallic reverence. They have hands like cowhorn, with nails bitten to the quick. They have spools of rusting cable in their backyards, nail coons to the walls, adore rodeos, and their execrable grammar is half informed by protective coloration, half by rank stupidity.

They loathe sentiment but thrive on sentimentality, violently beat their women with pony-leads on Saturday night but weep with guilt at Sunday-Go-to-Meeting during the singing of ‘The Old Rugged Cross,’ their favorite. In groups, they’re dangerous; each, alone, is a simpleton. Fanatically patriotic, they’re all knee-jerk defenders of state sovereignty and go blubbery at the mere sight of the Confederate Battle Flag. They’re either whispering sideways about Jesus or bawling obsceneties, georgic in imagery, with stentorophonic might. They’re handy, can always tell one car from another, know the right weights of oil, love to use the word ‘ratchet,’ and always know when to use bailing wire and when to use bagging wire. They know everything about loggerheads, trace-chains, and hames and can always be found driving the backroads in trucks, filled with wood, wedged with chocks, toward a sawmill shed in the mountains. They all smoke, snite from the nose with the forefinger, and suffer from very particular ailments: Basedow’s Disease; gleet; fishskin itch; furunculosis; rodent ulcer; pyorrhea of the gums; Walking Typhoid; mucous patches; and tic douloureux. They all know shortcuts through the woods. They lurk.” (Pages 164 – 166)

My copy, which I found miraculously at a thrift store in Colorado at precisely the time I was looking for it, belonged to somebody else before me, a person named Diane; she has tidy, curvicular handwriting and annotated extensively as she went, often saving me the legwork of looking up definitions for the many obscure, outmoded, or self-fashioned words Theroux infamously employs throughout, but sometimes just apostrophizing her frustration in the margins: on the page with the above passage there’s a frustrated outburst: “rambling descriptions – over my head!”

I understand her vexation, and naturally this kind of writing, Theroux’s Gothic cathedral maximalism, is even more “Not for Everybody” that most things – but I eat it up, and I read and reread this passage with relish. It’s rife with the violence of specificity, pinning something real to the page with hilarious, necessary exactitude. It also, naturally, goes way overboard; it’s insensitive, and there’s a heavy snobbery throughout; also I detect aggression towards homosexuality in the “just funnin'” bit and. actually, omitted a middle paragraph that made distasteful accusations along those lines.

But this passage, it’s like a song I can’t get out of my head, and Darconville is the strong favorite for my next book – even though it could be too much, or overstep too many lines; and even though I’ve been spending some time on the side with Lonesome Dove and am – whoops – already 100 pages in…

By the way: it doesn’t look like Diane made it all the way through Darconville. Her notes burn out ’round page 400. She also listed her five favorite books on the fly-leaf:

Love in the Time of Cholera

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Rain of Gold

The Big Sky

The Alchemist

I’m deeply interested in three of the five.

From J R, Which is a Good Book

In this scene J R, an eleven year old entrepreneur, is trying to get his teacher Mrs Joubert (who has just learned her estranged husband took her son out of school and left with him), to organize a field trip to a museum so he can use the trip as an excuse to arrange a business meeting.

“I mean there’s so much stuff…he got the half step ahead,  —like did you ever think Mrs Joubert everything you see someplace there’s this millionaire for it?

—Is that all you think about!

—Sure I mean look back there. . . he’d blocked the door by way of opening it for her with his back against it, bringing the wind in, —like right now someplace there’s this water fountain millionaire and this locker millionaire and this here lightbulb one I mean like even the lightbulb there’s this glass millionaire and this one off where you screw the, oh wait wait a second. . . Down that bright empty corridor the telephone rang in the booth, —could you just wait up for me a second Mrs Joubert . . . ? But she reached past him to push the door leaving him off balance there a foot in each direction where the wind brought in a wrapper from a Three Musketeers candy bar —see I just , just, okay wait a second I’m coming . . . and he ran up against her on the steps.

—Just stop and look for a minute! she caught an arm round his shoulders, —just stop and look . . . !

—What? at what . . .

—At the evening, the sky, the wind, don’t you ever just stop sometimes and look? and listen?

—Well I, I mean sure, I . . . He stood stiff in her embrace, his armload holding her off between them, —like it’s, I mean it’s like getting dark real early now . . .

—Yes look up at the sky look at it! Is there a millionaire for that? But her own eyes dropped to her hand on his shoulder as though to confirm a shock at the slightness of what she held there. —Does there have to be a millionaire for everything?

—Sure, well, well no I mean like . . .

—And over there look, look. The moon coming up, don’t you see it? Doesn’t it make . . .

—What over there? He ducked away as though for a better view, —No but that’s Mrs Joubert? That’s just, wait . . .

—No never mind, it doesn’t matter . . .

—No but Mrs Joubert . . . ? The wind blew her from behind, seemed to blow him after her whirling the leaves up before them toward the station’s lights, —like I just wanted to ask you are we going on another field trip soon?

—To a bakery yes, she said over a shoulder, —I’m sure there’s a millionaire for that too.

—No but wait I meant like some museum. . . he was up beside her again, — like that one at New York where we . . .

—The Metropolitan, no the home economics class is going in to see their costume collection but you wouldn’t . . .

—Like do you think I could go along? I mean it sounds . . .

—You?

—Sure I mean it sounds real interesting, like it’s all these olden time clothes and all? I mean that sounds real in . . .

—No don’t be silly  no you’re not in the sewing, is that the train?

—What those lights? No that’s over on the highway hey Mrs Joubert? did you ever hear of the Museum of Natural History?

—Of course but . . .

—See well anyways I was thinking like we’ve been having about Alaska and these her Eskimos and all? he came on near a trot beside her, —and like you know in our book Our Wilderness Friend? there’s this picture of this exhibit they have in there of these stuffed Eskimos? see so I was thinking . . .

—What?

—Of these here, wait you’re right in a puddle . . .

—What did you say? exhibit of what?

—Like didn’t you see that picture? These here stuff Eskimos that shows how they live and all these here handicrafts they, what’s the matter . . .

—Do you really think that? can you, God can you think that? That they’d take Eskimos and, and . . .

—Sure well no I mean I, I mean like these other pictures they have in there of these exhibits that look real alive like these here stuffed wolves and all I . . . His voice was gone, buried in her breast with his burning cheek where she held him hard for the moment it took him to twist free enough to gasp —holy . . . to drop from reach to one knee wiping his free hand across his face, —what’s the matter anyhow I mean why does everybody always . . . and he broke off for the sound of the train above, —but hey? he called after her.

—No goodbye goodnight I can’t wait . . .”

– William Gaddis, J R, pages 473-75

“Get a radio or a phonograph…”

“Get a radio or a phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony or of Schubert’s C-Major Symphony. But I don’t mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down on the floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music.

Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? It is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is; and nothing can equal the rape it does on all that death; nothing except anything, anything in existence or dream, perceived anywhere remotely toward its true dimension.”

– James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men