Friday, January 26, 2007

Give me hunger, O you gods that sit

Title: "At a Window," Carl Sandburg

Look, The Onion wrote an article about my personal life.

I got an envelope in the mail from the Ex, totally unexpected. It contained no personal note of any kind, but some official papers, a few childhood photos that I had forgotten the existence of, and --- most surprising of all --- my original Social Security card, which I had long ago given up for lost and was too busy or lazy to get replaced.


Well, I'm not sure I have anything noteworthy to say about it, but I finished listening to Moby-Dick. It's a long book; a good thick novel (such as the typical Aubrey-Maturin entry by Patrick O'Brien) runs around 10 or 11 CDs. Moby-Dick clocks in at 19 CDs of 75+ minutes apiece. But, man, what a wonderful, rich epic.

The guy who read it, by the way, William Hootkins, was a masterful narrator, so much so that I actually did a library search for any other audiobooks he might have done. That's how good he is, and how much of a nerd I am, I guess.

And now the book. Having never read this classic but (like anyone with a decent education) knowing a bit about the plot, I think I was expecting a dry, meandering discourse, or the dated, simplistic tale of a madman chasing a monster.

But what this book actually is? It's possibly the finest American novel ever written. Seriously.

As a rule I don't care too much for most American classics, being drawn more toward the lofty eloquence of British literature, your Pride and Prejudice, Picture of Dorian Gray, or Frankenstein. American literature, I always felt, is strong in story or message rather than language. This is exemplified by Uncle Tom's Cabin, or the vastly superior Huckleberry Finn. So I never really thought that Huckleberry Finn had a rival for the title of Great American Novel (unless it's Lolita, which I always mentally disqualified because its author was born Russian), but Moby-Dick just might be it.

Yes, this tome has its share of meandering discourse, but it's also refreshingly self-aware and steeped in learning; it contains humor both high and low; sheer drama; poetry; amusingly dated amateur scientific investigations; tragedy; a confident knowledge of what it means to be human and of man's fate; and some of the finest language this side of the Atlantic. Mody-Dick may be one of the last examples of that King James Version-drenched, eloquent, complex English that muscles its way across the page, bursting with meaning without a syllable out of place.

And, of course, this book offers what may the greatest character in American literature, Ahab. Ahab is no one-dimensional madman; he's a masterpiece. He’s a compressed ball of madness and drive powered by a monstrous will to power, but Melville tempe
rs his character with flashes of humanity and compassion, flashes which are driven back by Ahab’s overriding thirst for vengeance. And while the entire opus has some of the most eloquent prose since Shakespeare --- no kidding --- it’s Ahab who gets the really good lines.

Or maybe they just ring home for me personally; I'm crippled and driven by rage at the world, my own self.

Like so, as when the simple carpenter is fashioning Ahab a new ivory leg: "Here I am, proud as Greek god, and yet standing debtor to this blockhead for a bone to stand on! Cursed be that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I would be free as air; and I'm down in the whole world's books. I am so rich, I could have given bid for bid with the wealthiest Praetorians at the auction of the Roman empire (which was the world's); and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with. By heavens! I'll get a crucible, and into it, and dissolve myself down to one small, compendious vertebra."

Or his advice to the ship’s smith: "Thy shrunk voice sounds too calmly, sanely woeful to me. In no Paradise myself, I am impatient of all misery in others that is not mad. Thou should'st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can'st thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens yet hate thee, that thou can'st not go mad?" (Seriously, this sounds just like me when I was in high school, except I didn't say "thou" as much.)

Ahab on looking looking past the merely superficial physique: "Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. 'Tis Ahab - his body's part; but Ahab's soul's a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs. I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break, ye'll hear me crack; and till ye hear that, know that Ahab's hawser tows his purpose yet."

Or his widely-quoted, fearsome final words: "Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!"

This is, quite simply, a mind-altering masterpiece.

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