Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Following Story

When, Herbert Mussert, narrator of Ces Nooteboom’s The Following Story, wakes in Lisbon after having gone to sleep the evening before in Amsterdam, he finds himself in the bedroom where he began a love affair 20 years earlier. A pedantic, elitist misogynist, Mussert—“Meatball” to his lover—taught classics in a Lisbon private school. Now mysteriously in Lisbon again, he tells us that he writes Dr. Strabo’s travel books, carefully withholding information about important writers from the “fools” and “sods” who buy the guides.

Dr. Strabo’s Portugal guide limits information about Ferdinand Pessoa to a description of Lisbon’s Brasileira, where the poet drank nightly. “For the rest I’d rather keep my mouth shut,” Mussert writes. He won’t “breathe a word about... the liquid multiform persona who still roams the streets of Lisbon in all his brilliance, who has insinuated himself invisibly in tobacconists, quaysides, walls, dark cafes…” Having left teaching decades before, Mussert has no interest in educating, especially the plebian readers of his guides. Travelers who had written about his failure to explain how to read the clock in the British Bar. “Ninety-one correspondents have so far explained to me that you can tell the proper time on the clock by looking in the mirror. Only they didn’t add ‘meatball’.”

The wall of the Lisbon bedroom holds a portrait of the “overestimated” Luis de Camoes, generally considered Portugal’s greatest poet, and an engraving of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. We may take the portrait as a sign of Mussert’s elitism and his greater admiration of Pessoa. The engraving is a reminder of a seminal event in Lisbon’s history, the earthquake that killed as many as 100,000 people.

The effects of the disaster extended far beyond Portugal, shaking many in Europe and America of their belief in God’s benevolent plan for the world. Most famously, Voltaire used the earthquake in Candide to attack the logic of Leibniz’s assertion that this is the best of all possible worlds. The tremors reached Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. in Boston a century after the quake. Holmes, a physician, had made important advances in containing communicable disease, coined the word “anesthetic,” and developed the stethoscope into a modern medical instrument. His was a scientific mind open to rationality and closed to “forms of speculation which involve an approach to the absurd.”

The quote comes from Holmes’ The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, a once hugely popular collection of mostly one-sided conversations between a narrator and guests at a boarding house. The Autocrat includes the poem about the “one-hoss-shay,” the story of a deacon’s futile attempt to build a buggy that will not wear out, as all buggies must. The deacon finishes building the buggy on the day of the Lisbon earthquake. The buggy disintegrates all at once exactly one hundred years later. “Logic is logic,” the poem concludes.

Written in mid-nineteenth century Boston, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table is unflaggingly optimistic about the power of rational thought to advance civilization. “All economical and practical wisdom is an extension or variation of the following arithmetical formula: 2 + 2 = 4,” the autocrat declares in the book’s opening paragraph. The deacon’s effort to build an everlasting buggy violates the universal, empirically verifiable logic implied by this formula, as do attempts to account for a deity who would prevent disaster in the face of forces that threaten catastrophe.

Faced with the carnage of the Civil War, Holmes’ son, who later would become one of the great justices of the United States Supreme Court, went further than his father, jettisoning logic and rationality for the time being because they were useless in explaining the war experience. Echoing his father’s arithmetical formula, Holmes Jr. wrote home from the battlefield, “I have you scout the possibility of the human reason ever conceiving that 1+1=3 and 2+2=5—and further deny the possibility of the truth of this proposition.” It can be true, the young Holmes argues, “wh.[en] our senses would present us of the juxtaposition of one perceptible to a second” that results in a third. The argument is cryptic, drawing upon the writings of a long-forgotten Dutch physicist, but it was important enough for Holmes to keep in the diary he heavily edited after the war.

The volumes that have been written about the sea change in rationality and faith since Holmes’ day would make a substantial private library in themselves. We, however, have no need to trace the meandering path that has led us to accept without a blink how space and time fragment and slip away from Herbert Mussert. Mussert is talking to us when he says of one of his fellow voyagers at the end of the novel, “he had been taken by how logically—that was the word he had used—his life had taken its course.”

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.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Moby-Dick Reading Group

For those in the Seattle area (sorry, we don't have the capability to phone you who live far away), Richard Hugo House is offering a six-week reading group on Moby-Dick. I'll be leading the group. I have a non-reductive approach--I'm not tempted to find the meaning of Melville's masterpiece. In addition to discussing the text, I will be presenting mini-talks on various aspects of 19th-century American culture that are relevant to the novel, including a slide show on American landscape painting.

The class will be one heck of a lot of fun.

The class begins January 20th and meets on Tuesday evenings from seven to nine.

Join us!