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.


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