Friday, December 26, 2008

A Boggy, Soggy, Squitchy Picture

On one side hung a very large oil-painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal cross-lights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant.

Ishmael’s attempt to decipher the painting hanging in the entryway of The Spouter Inn advances an idea that Melville introduced in Chapter 1: our inability to comprehend what we see. In the novel’s first chapter, Ishmael evoked the story of Narcissus, “who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned.” The image Narcissus glimpsed, “the ungraspable phantom of life,” is “the key to it all,” Ishmael claims. But what value is a key which “we ourselves see... in all rivers and oceans” if it is beyond our understanding? The key seems to open no more than the notion that we cannot penetrate appearances to find the meaning we seek.

At the inn, Ishmael tries understand the painting. He proposes various possibilities. “It's the Black Sea in a midnight gale,” he speculates. “It's the unnatural combat of the four primal elements. - It's a blasted heath. - It's a Hyperborean winter scene. - It's the breaking- up of the ice-bound stream of Time.” In the end he settles on a theory that the painting “represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.” The only certainty he has, however, is that the painting holds an “indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity.”

Sublimity denoted a set of attributes that the 18th-century British philosopher Edmund Burke developed and nineteenth-century painters on both sides of the Atlantic adopted. Burke associated the sublime with terror and awe, which Burke claimed were pleasurable as well as overwhelming feelings. Artists could evoke these feelings by painting landscapes that included vast panoramas, dramatic contrasts between light and dark, uncultivated “savage” wilderness scenes, dangerous chasms and cliffs, and life-threatening weather. American landscape painters from Thomas Cole to Albert Bierstadt used Burkean iconography to invest their work with meaning and psychological power. When Bierstadt exhibited Storm in the Rockies –Mount Rosalie, painted fifteen years after Moby-Dick, he provided a pamphlet that guided viewers through the various awe-inspiring elements of his painting, should viewers be unaware of the language of the sublime landscape. The pamphlet was likely unnecessary since the language commonly used to “read” American landscape painting was commonplace by the 1860s. Ishmael’s observation that the painting in The Spouter Inn has an “indefinite” and “unimaginable” sublimity suggests that this language--perhaps any language--is insufficient. With no conclusive meaning possible, we are left with only a theory about The Spouter Inn's boggy, soggy, squitchy picture.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


After the holidays I will begin leading a group through Moby-Dick. Scheduling the class, I simply divided the length of the book by the number of weeks we will meet, which resulted in 100 pages a week of the Penguin edition that Andrew Delbanco introduces. This seemed logical, or at least methodical. However, I have come to realize that the first week will proceed much slower than the 100 pages that I’ve assigned. To digest the first hundred pages of Moby-Dick in seven days would be far too rich a diet.

Consider Chapter I, Loomings. The title itself raises questions. While “looming” is today a commonplace adjective, its contemporary use as a noun is rare enough to consign its definition at the end of the dictionary entry, if at all. In Melville’s time, a looming referred to a threatening apparition that appears out of the darkness or fog. The rising fog bank that the lone fisherman sees over his shoulder in Winslow Homer’s Fog Warning suggests a looming. Yet, in Chapter I we find neither apparition nor threat. Perhaps the title looks ahead to the entire story of the hunt for Moby-Dick.

Moving from the title to the novel’s opening sentence, we continued to be puzzled. “Call me Ishmael,” perhaps the most-known opening to an American novel, immediately establishes a link between narrator and reader, as the Monkey Rope will tie Ishmael to Queequeg later in the novel. The sentence is an imperative, yet resists being treated as a command. Instead, we feel as if the narrator is asking us to call him by a sobriquet while, at the same time, giving us a name that carries great biblical weight. And then Ishmael tells us he is going to sea to relieve himself of the “hypos.” Yet, he describes his depression humorously:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

The novel's first paragraph introduces three facts that seem to evoke their own contradictions. As one reader observed of good and evil in Moby-Dick , Melville’s fictional world cannot be resolved into one condition or the other. Our entry into the novel supports this view.

Ishmael tells us at the end of Loomings that he wanted to ship out because of the overwhelming idea (my italics) of the whale, a “portentous and mysterious monster.” He looks forward to traveling to distant “barbarous coasts,” for he is deeply curious and can not only discern good from evil, but be comfortable encountering both. “Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it – would they let me in…,” he tells us. Events will challenge this claim, as we might expect after reading the first chapter of Melville’s great novel.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Mr. Hulot's Holiday

Seeking a tonic for a lingering illness, my wife and I watched Mr. Hulot’s Holiday last evening. The movie, one of the few DVDs in our library, was a gift from a friend. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Mr. Hulot, Jacques Tati’s masterpiece. The first was in a high school gym. My brother, twelve years older than I, drove us forty minutes through countryside on a dense humid summer evening to the screening. I was sixteen. I thought Mr. Hulot hilarious. But the comedy was also enveloped in a cultural strangeness, transporting me to an emotionally alien place. My laughter was tinged slightly with adolescent anxiety, defensive laughter of release. I sensed, but could not articulate, my discomfort with a world that so badly needed Mr. Hulot.

Tati filmed Mr. Hulot less than eight years after the end of the Second World War. Eight years was a very short step forward in France’s recovery from the war. Those years included one of the coldest winters in memory, with severe fuel shortages, and a severe economic crisis. The French also witnessed the decline of political power. The United States excluded France from intelligence information shared with the British during postwar reconstruction. Worse, Britain emerged as a nuclear power. It may have seemed to the French that DeGaulle’s efforts to restore the glory of France was being limited to the achievements of his cultural minister, Andre Malraux, who was rehabilitating Paris’s historic buildings. Not an inkling of these difficulties is present in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.

Midway through the movie my wife remarked, “Nothing is resolved.” An old man opens a window to see what is causing a racket on the beach. Mr. Hulot, turning, holds a rocket like an umbrella under his arm. The man closes the window, which blossoms into a bright flash. The next morning he’s among the crowd saying goodbye. Mr.Hulot’s entry into the fireworks’ shed; the rocket’s effect on the man and the hotel room—all irrelevant. The beach hotel and its guests are setups for Tati’s pratfalls. They are the straight men to Tati’s jokes. There is no need for resolution. The joke is the point. So I thought all these years. Blinded by Tati’s brilliance, I saw only half of what he had achieved.

Mr. Hulot’s is a world of play. Among the first people we catch sight of when Hulot arrives at the seaside resort is a couple leisurely walking through the town. We soon discover that throughout Mr. Hulot’s holiday, they stroll up and down, back a forth, greeting fellow vacationers, like weavers creating the warp and woof of the resort’s social community. The other visitors to the resort swim, sunbathe, picnic, dance, and play tennis, ping pong, and card games. Above all, card games occupy their time in the hotel’s dayroom. Work has no place in Hulot’s world. A man who places a business call from the hotel has difficulty making a connection and, later in the movie, misses a ride to a picnic when asked back to receive a call.

Repetition, a characteristic of play, is prominent. The same song recurs from a variety of sources, at various times, and places. The young beauty occupying the corner hotel room opens her window to look out onto the beach the same way each morning, and we see Mr. Hulot amusingly pop his head up from his skylight each time he returns to his room. In the dining room, Mr. Hulot discovers that guests who have dined once are expected by other guests to sit in the same place for the rest of their visit.

This is an idyllic harmonious world, a world of slow rhythms and expected recurrence. It is significant, I think, that one of the most vocal characters in the movie is an English woman who speaks no French yet clearly understands and is understood by other vacationers who never speak English. She seeks out Mr. Hulot and presides over the absurd tennis matches that he wins against all odds. Her inclusion in the movie extends the world Tati portrays beyond what might be seen as French provincialism. There are no barriers among the people of Mr. Hulot.

This world demands no resolution to Mr. Hulot’s pratfalls. Mr. Hulot stumbles and bumbles along in a world impervious to harm, a world which, one feels, has never experienced it. Watching Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, we laugh and laugh and laugh and, at the end, declare, “Yes, there is balm in Gilead.”

Friday, April 4, 2008

Jacques Réda: Expectations

Suddenly it's a matter
Of one of them abruptly getting dressed
And blushing, believing someone had called him.
Then he collects himself and, still, considers
The chairs, the elder trees pressed between the window
And the icy crystal of the sky he'd like to see fall.
And from the other side voices return, are trapped
In the thickness of walls held up to summer
(All of summer, outside, panting in the dust
Like a large black dog, a black and blue dog.)

Friday, March 28, 2008

Friday Photo (26)

Woman in the Dunes (Cinematic Reveries)

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

All Will Be Well

The phrase is John McGahern's, from his last book, a memoir of that title. After reading the story of McGahern's early years, in which so much was not well, one believes him. All will be well. When I put the memoir down yesterday, I was surprised to feel so much sentiment from a book so resolutely unsentimental.

I saw John McGahern in 1977 at Harvard's Memorial Hall. The event was a reading by Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and McGahern. I'd come to hear Lowell. Bishop--of course--was magnificent. I'd not heard of McGahern before that day. He read a stunningly simple, beautiful, and powerful short story. Occasionally, luck favors us. Bishop, McGahern, Lowell.

John McGahern died last year. The Irish Times declared a truth with a front page headline: "The Master is Dead."

John Naughton offers a moving account of McGahern's funeral. "I would like to have been in Ireland yesterday for John McGahern’s funeral," Naughton writes...

but I’d already been over in Monday for another one and it would have been logistically impossible. Besides, it would have been impertinent, for I knew McGahern only through his writing. But he and I had a good friend in common, and my friend went to Leitrim for the funeral. This is how he described the day.

It was a traditional Irish funeral in a country church. There was no music, and there were no speeches by the graveside.

His first cousin said the mass and gave the homily, which had been worked out between the two of them for several days and contained McGahern’s own directions as to what should be in — lines from John Donne, from Proust, from Yeats, and then a version of himself, why he ended up back in the church, though he was an unbeliever. For all his differences with the church, it was where he first discovered his first book, his first magic, his first aesthetic, his first sense of beauty, and he could no more turn his back on it than he could turn his back on a part of himself.

[Seamus] Heaney and [Brian] Friel and all the boys — they all travelled. The Minister for Culture was there …. All the playwrights were there, and the short-story writers — Eugene McCabe, Colm Toibin, Tom Murphy — they all turned up and stood in the rain outside the door. The two Lessons were read by neighbours from the area in which That They May Face the Rising Sun is set.

He was buried behind the church, in the same grave as his mother, under that same headstone that he had laughed so much about — his father showing off what a big man he was by getting the biggest headstone in Ballinamore. And there it was: “Susan McGahern N.T.” [National Teacher] He was buried with her, and his instructions were that the four local men from around his area were to fill it in the grave fully. There was to be no token spadeful and then waiting for everyone to go. It was to be filled in fully, and while that was going on the rosary was to be said by the graveside so that people could hear clay returning to clay.

It was a wild Leitrim day — clouds scudding across the sky, but bright. An Irish spring day. Not cold. Just as the coffin was being lowered into the grave there was a peal of thunder and a shower of rain. Then it cleared as quickly as it had come. The four sisters were there, and Madeline, his second wife.

The locals turned out for him. He was brought from Dublin this morning, and at every village in Leitrim the route was lined by locals. Apart from anything else, there was a sense of silent gratitude to him for his redemption of other people’s shame — because the Ireland that hammered him is now coming out in the tribunals looking into corruption, child abuse and the rest. And people who did nothing then were just so grateful that there was a wholesomeness about him that they hadn’t realised at the time. There was sense of gratitude to him for having stayed rather than having gone. It would have been awful if he had died in exile in Italy or somewhere. But to have stayed on and then to have seen through the change was what everyone was grateful to him for.

He had extraordinary integrity. But also an extraordinary concern with his place in history and the rest of it. He choreographed the last few years of his life once he got the cancer — in the televison programmes he made for example: there wasn’t a single aspect of his version of himself that he wanted to leave to chance. It’s going to be a hard job for a biographer to crack into an alternative version. He has left such a definitive — and it would seem irrefutable — set of answers to questions.

He left instructions that everyone that was at the funeral was to be invited to a proper wake, with drinks laid on in the hotel in Carrick-on-Shannon. It was like a wedding reception rather than a funeral. The hotel staff were welcoming people with drinks. Then the bell went and everyone was summoned in to “Mr McGahern’s Meal”.

The best piece about him was by Colm Toibin in the Irish Times. It ends like this:

One night in Co Leitrim, when he had recovered from his first bout of illness, Catriona Crowe and myself sat up late with him. We drank and talked. He’d found the hospital and its community of doctors and nurses interesting and funny but also difficult. He was half amused and half annoyed at being offered professional counselling in the face of death, he said. He sighed at the very thought of it. Then he lifted his glass, drank his whiskey and having left a few seconds of silence he spoke again. “We bloom only once and you’d want to be very foolish not to know that”. He looked at us and laughed calmly and resumed the earlier discussion about some recent books he had loved. In the morning, he and Madelaine took us for a walk around the lane by the lake — the world of his last novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun. I remember him explaining the strange brutality of the way swans send their young away from them and into the world. He was, as always, fascinated by things in their variety. He was also laughing and talking, managing his manners and responses — the same gift for poise and grace his readers find in his sentences. In ‘Memoir’, his last book, he was to find that gift useful one more time. It seems immensely sad despite his own calm acceptance of our fate in the world, that his great gift for words and for friendship had bloomed only once, and will not come again.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Monday, February 18, 2008

Cigarette Pack 0280218

Click image to enlarge

Friday, February 15, 2008

Friday Photo (24)

Skagit Tree (Twilight)