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.