Thursday, January 15, 2009

Breaking through Appearance

It is perhaps wholly coincidental that dissociation—the disintegration of a person’s psychological integrity—figures in Moby-Dick and Swann’s Way as a way to break through Appearance to what the narrator perceives as Truth. Early in Moby-Dick, Ishmael experiences a disconcerting dissociative experience when waking to find Queequeg beside him in bed. “My sensations were strange,” remarks Ishmael, who goes on to recount a similar experience when he was a child. “The circumstance was this,” he tells us.

I had been cutting up some caper or other - I think it was trying to crawl up the chimney, as I had seen a little sweep do a few days previous; and my stepmother who, somehow or other, was all the time whipping me, or sending me to bed supperless, - my mother dragged me by the legs out of the chimney and packed me off to bed, though it was only two o'clock in the afternoon of the 21st June, the longest day in the year in our hemisphere.

Ishmael lay in bed for a time, calculating how many more hours he’d be condemned to his room. Finally, in desperation, he went to his stepmother, begging to be released from his punishment, but “she was the best and most conscientious of stepmothers, and back I had to go to my room.” Eventually falling asleep, then into a nightmare, from which he slowly awoke.

I opened my eyes, and the before sun-lit room was now wrapped in outer darkness. Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bedside. For what seemed ages piled on ages, I lay there, frozen with the most awful fears, not daring to drag away my hand; yet ever thinking that if I could but stir it one single inch, the horrid spell would be broken. I knew not how this consciousness at last glided away from me; but waking in the morning, I shudderingly remembered it all...

In his Melville biography Andrew Delbanco argues this passage signifies Ishmael’s release from the bonds of tradition and a society that strictly defined and rejected those who did not share its values. Whether Delbanco means the childhood punishment or the recounting of it isn’t clear, but the dissociation is, in any case, the ground on which Ishmael can stand to establish his friendship with the cannibalistic, Polynesian harpooner.

The young Marcel has a similar, if less troubling, experience while watching a magic lantern in his Combray bedroom. The lantern projects a scene from the medieval story of Geneviève de Brabant. The seducer Golo rides toward the her castle, his “mind filled with an infamous design.” “The body of Golo himself,” Marcel says,

being of the same supernatural substance as his steed's, overcame all material obstacles--everything that seemed to bar his way--by taking each as it might be a skeleton and embodying it in himself: the door-handle, for instance, over which, adapting itself at once, would float invincibly his red cloak or his pale face, never losing its nobility or its melancholy, never showing any sign of trouble at such a transubstantiation.

As the lantern opens “mystery and beauty” onto Marcel’s bedroom, he feels an “anesthetic effect,” just as Ishmael’s sense of bodily disengagement characterizes his awakening from the nightmare. In both cases, a momentary disintegration of the narrator’s sense of psychological coherence reveals mystery.

Ishmael and Marcel are alike also in their reluctance to embrace the dissociation that each experiences. Ishmael tells us that “for days and weeks and months afterwards I lost myself in confounding attempts to explain the mystery.” As he laid next to Queequeg recounting his childhood banishment, his “sensations at feeling the supernatural hand in mine were very similar, in their strangeness, to those which I experienced on waking up and seeing Queequeg's pagan arm thrown round me.”

Yet, he quickly is able to place himself in the inn and integrate his recent memories “one by one, in fixed reality.” Instead of mystery accompanied by terror, Ishmael finds this time “alive to the comical predicament.”

Marcel too is shaken by the radical alteration of the familiar. “I cannot express the discomfort I felt at such an intrusion of mystery and beauty into a room which I had succeeded in filling with my own personality,” he writes. He is disturbed by the effect dissociation has had on his customary life. Opening the door-handle of his room had been habitual and unconscious; it “was different to me from all the other doorhandles in the world, inasmuch as it seemed to open of its own accord and without my having to turn it.” The lantern had transformed it into “an astral body for Golo” and—introducing a point that Proust returns to many times in the Search—the momentary replacement of habit by mystery became a threat to simply going on with life.

This threat is dramatically illustrated in "The Try-Works" chapter of Moby-Dick. With responsibility for steering the Pequod, Ishmael is drawn into the nighttime activity of the crew working the try works. Watching the “fiend shapes” as they moved about the deck, he began to see “kindred visions” and an “unaccountable drowsiness” descended upon him.

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 … Convulsively my hands grasped the tiller, but with the crazy conceit that the tiller was, somehow, in some enchanted way, inverted.

Ishmael had turned himself around, facing the stern of the Pequod. “In an instant I faced back, just in time to prevent the vessel from flying up into the wind, and very probably capsizing her.” Melville and Proust both show us that dissociation may yield mysteries unseen without the momentary dissolution of one’s personality, but it carries with it the danger of radically disrupting life.

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