Posts Tagged ‘fate’

This book was published in 1882; the critical consensus, then as now, is that this is really not his best work. Which is to say that it’s still better than loads of other novels, it’s just not as shining a star as The Return of the Native or The Woodlanders. There wasn’t much to stand out as especially beautiful or heart-wrenching for me – the thing is, Hardy had a specific story in mind that was quite shocking for his time, but by now it’s so commonplace that we don’t see the point of writing about it.

Let us begin with Lady Constantine. A beautiful woman, mid-20s, with a jealous yet absent husband. He’s been big-game hunting for years now. Due to his extreme insecurity, he exacted a promise from her that she wouldn’t see any company until he returned, so she’s been completely isolated. Beauty, intelligence, loneliness – she’s very much like a fairy-tale princess, destined to change her life. Enter Swithin St Cleeve. Just eighteen years old, and prettier than any girl you’ve ever seen. He’s just back from college, where he’s been studying astronomy. He starts using a tower in one of her fields as an observatory, with just a telescope that’s half-homemade. She falls for him and takes an interest in the stars to get close to him; she outfits the tower with all the expensive tools he needs. Throughout the first third of the book, he’s too enamored of the stars to see anything as near to him as her heart, and she’s bound by her promise to her absent husband to keep her hands off. The distances between stars tend to make this earthly romance seem trivial; we all dwindle to nothing when we stare into the night.

Then, as luck would have it, she gets news that her husband’s died in distant lands, so she becomes a little more pointed (only a little) in her attentions to the young astronomer. Finally he gets it, and then all the intensity of a celibate adolescent’s first crush overwhelms his science. In Act II, all he cares about is her. They get married secretly in another town, which gives them license to fuck but not to move in together. Suddenly all the conventions of society become significant again, and they’re very secretive about their meetings and affections. So when the bishop comes to town for a visit, he’s taken by the young widow and tries to make a move. She deflects him, but in so gentle a way that he doesn’t realize that’s what’s happened.

Lady Constantine has a ne’er-do-well brother who wants to get her married to the bishop so that he can continue to mooch off of her income. Act III begins when he begins to suspect that she’s interested in the boy. To make things worse, now she hears that her husband is just now dead, a year or two later than she thought. Her marriage to Swithin is invalid because she was still married to the first husband. But she didn’t know that, so all the (I assume) wild sex she’s been having is in a morally grey area. They were never legally married, but they thought they were. Of course, in the twenty-first century this greyness has largely passed away. Nobody cares. She hasn’t seen her husband in a few years, so it seems perfectly natural to me that she’d fall for a guy who’s pretty and unavailable, and that the sex act would be the natural consequence of those feelings. Just as natural for her to encourage Swithin to take an opportunity to go on a scientific voyage around the world, seeing the famous astronomers in South Africa and North America. But with him out of the way, there’s another natural consequence, so she pushes through a quick marriage to the bishop to make her child be born legitimate. Hardy glosses over a lot of what happened in the six or seven years of Swithin’s absence, but the bishop realizes that the child looks exactly like that teenager who used to hang around his new wife, and he hasn’t been married to her for nine months yet. The marriage is not a happy one, and the bishop dies of shame in a few years. He is just as cruel as her first husband, though this time we know the reason for it. Having had three bad marriages, she decides to retire to the country and raise her son in peace.

But when Swithin returns, he really pisses me off. Contact with the world has made him more aware of the world’s values, and he’s now stupid enough to think that a few grey hairs ruin a woman’s beauty. When he was eighteen and she was twenty-six it was all right, but now that he’s twenty-five and she’s thirty-three he’s not interested. Throughout the book he was proud of her and admired her, and then in the last chapter she’s suddenly not good enough for him. I suppose in 1882 it would have been impossible for them to have a happily-ever-after ending, but still. I’m not saying I was a genius at twenty-five, but I could see beauty in a woman who was older than I was.

Some people might refer to these two as star-crossed lovers, but I disagree. The stars are present when they are following their natural impulses; the talk of stars disappears when the lovers remember society and all of its legalistic moral strictures. You can’t blame the stars for people being dumb. We choose our own destinies; you don’t get what you want by waiting for the universe to serve it to you.

So, despite the astronomical references, this book wasn’t that stellar. I’ve been putting off writing about it because I just don’t have anything to say. It is as it is – shocking for the time, but rather commonplace now. I feel like the best I can say is that it’s nothing special.

I know it’s been a couple of weeks that I haven’t written here, but it’s not for want of reading. I have four or five books that I need to write about; I’ve been reading rather a lot. The problem is with my computer – it’s five years old, and they’re not built to last that long any more. It’s reached a phase where it crashes every time it gets jostled or tipped, and that doesn’t fit well with my computing style – I take the term ‘laptop’ seriously. I’ve put it on a desk for the writing today, so perhaps we won’t have any unpleasant interruptions.

Start with Shakespeare. The Winter’s Tale is one of those plays that people don’t always like to call comedies because some terrible things happen. A truly nice guy has to exit, pursued by a bear. It’s not always clear who’s good and who’s bad, though I suppose that’s part of the point. It’s a story of dissolution, followed by gathering and forgiveness. King Leontes is convinced that the second child about to be born to him is not his, so he has one of those huge operatic scenes with his wife and friends after which the lady is unconscious and everyone assumes she’s dead. He sends the baby off to his best friend, whom he believes to be the true father, but the baby gets lost because the courier is eaten by a bear. She gets adopted by a poor shepherd and his idiot son, and sixteen years later she does meet Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, but it’s because her boyfriend Florizel is actually the king’s son. The truth about her starts to come out, but in a distorted form, so Florizel and Perdita run off to Sicilia to get the real story. Leontes, after suffering in isolation for so long, takes back his daughter and his best friend, and they go to see a statue of his dead wife, but the statue comes alive because she hasn’t really been dead all this time. In the end, Leontes’s pain seems to have redeemed him because everyone forgives him, which makes the ending seem unrealistic to me. It’s not enough to suffer – everyone does that. The suffering has to change you so you’re not a jealous homicidal nutbag, and I don’t see enough change in him to warrant bringing him back into Hermione’s life.

The Winterson novel is a retelling of the Shakespeare play, brought up to our time. There’s a good bit of the weirdness of Shakespeare in her story as well, because I find the story inherently strange. Leo is a successful businessman, married to a famous singer, MiMi. Their friend Xeno has been staying with them, and Leo suspects the two of them of cheating behind his back. Xeno and Leo are so close that they fooled around together in their bicurious stage. Leo has stuck with women ever since, but Xeno identifies himself as gay, though he also admits to being strongly attracted to MiMi. He kind of wishes they could have a three-way polyamorous relationship, but that’s not really an option for anyone else. Leo accuses her and gets to raping her, but her water breaks and they have to rush her to the hospital to give birth. Leo sends the child away to New Bohemia (which feels an awful lot like New Orleans), but his messenger gets killed and Shep and Clo pick up the child and raise her. Shep is an older guy, maybe a little too old to raise a baby, and Clo is his grown son, not bright. MiMi and Leo divorce and she moves to Paris, spending the next twenty-one years in near-total seclusion. As in Shakespeare, their first child, a son, gets killed for no apparent reason except to punish Leo, who loves the boy.

Time passes.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter that there was any time before this time. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that it’s night or day or now or then. Sometimes where you are is enough. It’s not that time stops or that it hasn’t started. This is time. You are here. This caught moment opening into a lifetime.

Winterson often speaks of time as if it were a character, and she titles the book after one of the last lines of Shakespeare’s story. Leontes, newly surrounded by his loved ones, says they’ll all go off and discuss what they’ve been doing in “the gap of time,” the sixteen years that they were all out of contact with each other. The thing that fascinates me about this phrase is that time has no gaps. It just keeps moving on, one second at a time, and there’s nothing we can do to speed it, slow it, or skip over it. The only gap is in our experience as an audience. We don’t see the sixteen years in the middle of the play, or the twenty-one years in the middle of the novel, so we perceive it as a gap, but the characters do not. If Leo had really skipped over all those years of isolated pain, he’d be the same asshole he was in the beginning, and isn’t the lesson here that pain makes people less assholish, more deserving of love? Neither writer shows me convincing evidence that Leontes has changed, and I think that pain in isolation isn’t the best way to teach someone how to love. You have to practice, and that means not being isolated.

Xeno and MiMi talk a lot about Nerval’s dream – a French poet dreamt that an angel fell to earth, in one of those crowded back alleys of Paris. If he opened his wings, he’d destroy everything around him; if he didn’t open his wings and fly away, he’d be trapped and die. Xeno uses it as the basis of a video game he designs, The Gap of Time. It’s all about feathers falling and becoming angels, and deciding whether the angels are good or evil, whose side you want to be on. Of course he and Leo take opposite sides, though they both haunt MiMi’s virtual apartment, where he’s programmed her as a statue. Xeno’s portrayal troubles me because he seems like Winterson’s primary antagonist, but I don’t read him as one in Shakespeare. Polixenes seems a bit clueless, careless and thoughtless but not really bad. Xeno seems bent on making the people he loves unhappy. He’s the dark side of the moon, and Leo is the bright sun that burns. Leontes talks about adultery as the spider in the cup – if you don’t see it, your drink tastes normal; once you do see it, the drink tastes poisonous. But to me, the important part here is that there is no spider in Leontes’s cup – he’s seeing spiders that don’t exist, imagining his wine is contaminated when there’s nothing wrong with it. But Winterson keeps bringing it back, Xeno’s seemingly inherent arachnous nature. For her, Leo does have a spider in his life, even if it isn’t fucking his wife.

I’m troubled by Hermione. She seems like one of those Gothic heroines I enjoy so much, a beauty who falls in love with a beast. She’s an innocent, forced to suffer through the insanity of the men around her. As with Hero from Much Ado About Nothing, the most effective way for her to prove her innocence is by dying when she’s accused. Also like Hero, she doesn’t actually die because life doesn’t work like that, but she pretends to be dead so that the accuser she still loves will suffer. When he’s sufficiently proven his penitence, she takes him back as if that had been her plan all along. If a man is so irrational that he will only believe a woman is telling the truth if she’s dead, he’s not a person that woman should be with. Maybe he’s a murderer. Maybe he’s a rapist. Maybe he sticks with subtler forms of abuse, but that’s no reason for her to share her life with him. In both stories, she’s one of the least realized characters; more of an ideal than a human being. I’d like to read a story where someone really breathes life into her, but neither of these is it.

Winterson seems to connect most with Perdita, the adopted girl who finds out her birth parents are rich and famous. She also discovers that her boyfriend isn’t just a mechanic at the local used-car dealership; his parents are rich too. She’s literally the girl who grows up poor and turns out to be a princess. Polixenes and Leontes are both taken by her beauty, but there’s not really enough time in the story for them to build a relationship with her. Winterson’s Perdita makes the connection clear, but she’s a bit like Miranda from The Tempest. She grows up with a single father in relative isolation, and then she discovers that the world is larger and more beautiful than she had imagined.

Perdita heard his car. Perdita saw him across the fence.

She moved back. Her heart was overbeating. Why do I feel this way? And what is this way that I am feeling? How can something so personal and so private, like a secret between myself and my soul, be the same personal, private secret of the soul for everyone?

There’s nothing new or strange or wonderful about how I feel.

I feel new and strange and wonderful.

Perdita is a girl who loves. Her name points to her as lost, but that only describes her from her parents’ point of view. In herself, she seems to know who she is and what she wants in life, that identity not being solely based on her genetic background. She meets Leo, but still insists that Shep is her father, in all the important ways. And she loves Zel, even if his parentage is different from what she had assumed. Zel grows up knowing who his father is, and hating him. Polixenes spends a year on a visit of state to his best friend, but it’s assumed that he spends the sixteen-year gap with his wife and son. Xeno keeps wandering around the world with very little contact with his son, so Zel has reason not to value someone who shows so little value for him. When Xeno makes an effort, Zel resists, so there’s not a lot of hope for them. I grew up similarly, but when my father reaches out I try to reach back. I don’t think there’s anything productive to be had from being unkind to him. You could read this as contradicting what I said up there about Leontes and abusive relationships, but fathers are different from husbands. I don’t live with my father, and I make sure I filter and evaluate everything he says. I know he’s doing his best, even if I find that best to be wanting at times. The effort would be too much to keep up with a man I lived with. The marriage relationship makes the partners vulnerable to each other in a way that I’m not with my dad. The constant presence of the abusive man would erode his partner’s sense of individuality and freedom. As with MiMi’s interest in the Nerval story, the only way out is to destroy everything. That’s not the case with me, a man who lives independently of his father and only speaks with him occasionally.

Free will depends on being stronger than the moment that traps you.

Time seems to take on the role of Fate – it’s like people are stuck in a story that they’d rather not be living. I don’t believe it works that way. Leontes’s actions have disastrous consequences for the people around him, but none of that is inevitable. It’s not clear how much choice Shakespeare’s queen has, but in the twenty-first century we expect women to be able to choose their own husbands. MiMi didn’t have to marry him. It’s all a matter of accepting responsibility for choices. I think that twenty-one years of misery is a heavy penalty to pay, but that’s the story as Winterson gets it from Shakespeare. Leo has to accept consequences of his own behavior, but most of those consequences he’s forced onto other people as well. MiMi didn’t destroy her world by divorcing her husband – he did that by falsely accusing her and losing her children. Perdita and Florizel didn’t choose their circumstances, but they make choices, hopefully better ones than their parents made. If Winterson is correct, then I believe we are all stronger than time, we all have free will and are only trapped by other people, not by fate or moments or time.

Have you noticed how ninety per cent of games feature tattooed white men with buzzcuts beating the shit out of the world in stolen cars? It’s like living in a hardcore gay nightclub on a military base.

I love Winterson’s sense of humor.

The endings interest me, primarily because of the difference between them. Shakespeare doesn’t show us the reunion of Leontes with Perdita and Polixenes; that’s narrated by an eyewitness to someone else. Shakespeare’s attention is on Leontes and Hermione, so restoring the marriage is the important thing for him. The other relationships seem harder for him to imagine, which is the explanation I can find for the indirectness of that scene. In Winterson’s story, the important reunion for Leo is with finding Perdita and Xeno. It’s the meeting of father and daughter and the repairing of the gay relationship that matters to her. She closes the scene with Leo and Xeno standing in the aisle of the concert venue, watching MiMi onstage, before they approach and talk with her. For a singer, MiMi has astonishingly little voice in the book, and here when she has an opportunity to talk to the man who hurt her and may or may not be forgiven, she is silent because she’s putting on a show for the larger crowd. Maybe it ends here because Winterson had a hard time facing the next scene, where she is supposed to forgive him and reunite. I’d have a hard time writing that scene, because in my imagination Hermione would not make that choice. I would have written her a community and a job and a life; I would have her prove to Leontes that she doesn’t need him. By ending the book where she does, Winterson doesn’t have to write MiMi’s decision to take him back or not, and we can choose to believe what we like.

I love reading Jeanette Winterson novels. I’ll admit to having found this one weird and a little hard, but I think the same thing about her source text, which means this is a good adaptation. This is dramatically more recent than anything else of hers I’ve read, so it’s good to see that I can enjoy books from different periods of her career. Her writing is beautiful and I get engaged quickly with her characters, even if they’re people I might not like in real life. And I still don’t know what to make of Autolycus, in either version of this story. But it’s a good book, and begins with a summary of Shakespeare for those who are unfamiliar with his telling.

Reading through the title story, I got the impression that it was meant to stand on its own, but ended up shorter than expected, so this is a collection of five fairy stories. The first four are rather short, but that fifth one is no less delightful.

“The Glass Coffin” is very Grimm-ish, with magical transformations being undone by someone who is kind and simple. “Gode’s Story” is about two young people who fall in love but don’t end up together. I wanted it to turn into a ghost story, because that’s where handsome young sailors who like to dance with snobby rich girls can find happiness, but no. It’s one of those stories about how class pride keeps people apart, and how we can choose to make ourselves and others miserable. In some ways, it’s a warning about love unspoken. “The Story of the Eldest Princess” goes back to the Grimm mythos, but the girl recognizes her position in a story, rebels against it, and makes her own choices. Again, there’s a strong emphasis on kindness, but also on the fact that life isn’t perfect, even in a fairy tale. Even when you know you’re in a fairy tale. It’s also an important reminder to me that we are not ruled by fate; even in the face of certain doom, we make choices and it is our choices that steer our lives, not some impersonal force or omnipotent deity. “Dragon’s Breath” is about destruction and loss, and how the stories of real tragedies can in time become legends and fairy tales.

djinn

“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” is about a modern woman who finds a djinn. When I say it like that, it sounds like most of the story is about her and the magical creature, but she doesn’t find the djinn until halfway through the story. Byatt studies stories, so she knows how they should be assembled. Finding the djinn isn’t the spark that initiates the action; it’s the story’s crisis, the turning point. It would be more correct to say that this is a story about a modern woman who goes to Turkey to speak at a conference on the nature of stories, and then goes sightseeing with an old friend. It’s about retelling the stories of Chaucer’s Griselda, Scheherazade and Prince Camaralzaman of The Arabian Nights, and The Epic of Gilgamesh. It touches on belief and deities and fertility and superstition. And then halfway through, the djinn comes out of the bottle and changes everything. Not quite everything, really, externally Gillian’s life carries on as normal. He gives her a body she is pleased with and a love that satisfies her, but the real gift is just his existence. She spends her whole life studying stories and becoming trained to draw a boundary between types of stories, so that reality and fantasy don’t mix. But I believe that the fantastic is real, and the djinn’s intrusion into Gillian’s real life breaks down some of the limits she had set on her perception of the world. And the djinn tells stories too, of his life, and she tells stories of her life, so that there is a real proliferation of narratives held within this frame.

Byatt’s collection gives me the feeling that she has so many stories inside of her, but she hasn’t had anything to do with them, so now they’re bursting out in all directions. There’s an excess, a riotousness in the way the narratives burst out of each other, that only makes sense to me in the context of containment. At the same time, she was already well established by the time these stories were published. Two of these stories were part of her novel Possession, so I’m probably misreading some things. The lavish feeling here could come from any number of sources, and I don’t know enough biography to speak authoritatively, and I’m feeling somehow shy about speculating.

This is a great book, as well-written and smart as Byatt’s always are. The stories are adult without being graphic, fantastic without being unreal, true without being factual. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves stories.

untitled

Sometimes I get to the end of a book and joy lodges in my throat like a stone I can’t breathe through until I’ve undammed my eyes and tears flow as freely as love. This one was different. I wasn’t crushed by happiness; I still had to stop reading and give the emotion space, but it was an expanding joy, as if my chest contained the entire universe still gently growing, my heart a world in a sea of constellations, the infinity of space the air I breathe. I loved this book the way I love my own freedom, the limitlessness of my potentiality, the vastness of experiences I have yet to taste.

This book is part of the same project as Byatt’s Ragnarok, which I still love as my favorite book, but this takes a different myth. Winterson explores the story of Atlas, he who carries the world on his shoulders. She pictures him not just as the strongest man in the world, but as a gardener and a father who guarded too jealously what he thought of as belonging to him. So he loses everything he had and has to support the weight of everything that was never his.

Atlas has a role that never changes, so there aren’t many stories about him. There’s his origin, but once he starts carrying a planet he’s stuck. There’s just one other story – the time he meets Heracles. The great hero, in Winterson’s telling, wanders the world with a weapon in one hand and his dick in the other (it’s a short book, shorter than a lot of films, but he beats himself off in front of others twice). She doesn’t see him as being especially bright, but good at tricks and possessing an immense vital energy. Heracles takes the burden so that Atlas can perform one of his tasks for him, then drops the world back on him and scampers off. You can tell Heracles is working-class British by the way he compulsively calls Atlas ‘mate’, as if it’s a conversational tic that doesn’t mean anything, like the way the Brazilian gauchos call each other ‘tchê’ or Americans who grew up in the 1980s call each other ‘dude’. This is the first time they’ve met; what claims to friendship is Heracles trying to invoke?

Heracles also brings Atlas a question, Why? Why must we accept the decree of the gods and submit to Fate? Hera nudges the question forward a bit by reminding him of all the possibilities that every moment contains. But Atlas feels responsible, and old habits are hard to break, so he keeps holding the world on his shoulders. This resonates with me in a lot of ways, but right now I’m thinking of professionally. I never got into education because I wanted to be a teacher; I wanted to read books and talk about them with people, preferably people who would have something intelligent to say in response. For a while it seemed that becoming a literature professor would be a good way to manage that, so I started teaching composition as a way of building toward that, but my applications for doctorate programs were never quite good enough, so I got stuck bearing the weight of teaching. Many people fall into careers tangentially like this and end up loving them; I haven’t. I like to learn, so I read up on teaching methods and styles and such, but unlike when I read novels, in education articles the words turn into a sea that my eyes can float on the surface of without penetrating the depths. I’m working at a library now (in addition to, not instead of, teaching), and in many ways I’m finding it more personally congenial. But with one of my colleagues retiring at the end of the year, I’m being confronted with a choice: do I apply for the full-time teaching job, which would offer financial security the likes of which I have never known, or do I apply for library school and continue to chase the new experience? A good part of this year has been about reassessing priorities and living according to what I love and not what is merely expedient or easy, which probably means that I’m going to choose library school over a teaching career. Thinking in terms of Atlas, teaching is a weight I would gladly shift onto someone else’s shoulders.

Winterson discusses the story in terms of her emotional weight, as an adopted child rejected by the parents who once wanted a child they could not have.

I am good at walking away. Rejection teaches you how to reject. I left my hometown, left my parents, left my life. I made a home and a life elsewhere, more than once. I stayed on the run. Why then, did the burden feel intolerable? What was it that I carried?

My burdens and rejections are different to hers, but the pattern fits. As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been saying No more than Yes lately, and Winterson uses this same phrasing, but while I do want to say Yes more often, I still think it’s important to take care whom and what I say Yes to. It’s taken me some time to get comfortable saying No, so it seems like that word is a gift from the universe right now, allowing me to choose rather than drift along in the currents of time. No is the rudder I use to steer my ship of Fate, and while I may never reach the harbor I’m aiming at – I may never reach one at all, harbors being as illusive as horizons – manning the helm is my job and I’m not giving it up to impersonal forces or supernatural entities that have no stake in the results. It’s my life, and I’m going to own it.

Which leads us to the Russians. In the United States we tend to think of ourselves as the only astronauts, forgetting that it was the cosmonauts that inspired us to shoot for the moon. The Russians lost a dog in space and were about to put it down when Atlas rescued her. He also loved the space station Mir, which is a word that can mean either peace or the world, which implies that for the Russians the two concepts are blurred.

Atlas spends his immortality staring into space, watching the rocks on Mars, seeing the stars turn in their constellations, galaxies moving through infinity, the entire universe whirling like an Eastern Dervish. Staring at cosmos and wondering why he submits to gods that the world itself has forgotten, Atlas never asks the question, Where did the world sit before I held it? Why is it essential for the world to rest on him? What kind of hubris demands that he carry so much weight? Atlas doesn’t look back to prehistory; his concerns are solely with the future – he only asks, What catastrophe will happen if I put it down? And that question keeps him stuck in his old patterns for millennia. His belief in the catastrophe is his prison. Heracles keeps wandering free, he even liberates Prometheus, but Atlas stays, until Laika the Russian dog shows him the new world he couldn’t see.

Atlas had long ago ceased to feel the weight of the world he carried, but he felt the skin and bone of this little dog. Now he was carrying something he wanted to keep, and that changed everything.

I love this book. It’s weird (Deianeira worrying that one day soon men will no longer want to rape her), it’s funny (Heracles stepping off the world to offer Atlas a hand job), and it’s beautiful (Atlas and his dog walking away from the world into the universe). I wish there were stronger and more descriptive words I could use – everything I think to say seems too dull a tribute.

I’m always a bit curious as to why Penguin feels the need to demand sixty-page introductions of the editors in its Classics series. Generally I skip over them, and I think this is a good practice if you haven’t read the book before. In this case, though, the introduction is longer than the text itself, so I gave it a go. While not as interesting as the Ding an sich, it serves its purpose, explaining where the text comes from and some of the larger decisions the editor made.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is really really old, so it exists in a very fragmented state, and there are several retellings, so the work of the editor is rather significant, as it is in Hamlet or the Dead Sea scrolls. She has chosen a prose translation, or rather compilation, as she admits that the source material is in a few different ancient languages that had already been lost by the time Homer was singing of Odysseus. There are a few different meticulous translations already published that give all possible variants of meaning for each word, but they are prohibitively dense for the casual reader, and this is her intended audience: those of us with enough education to understand references to the Odyssey and the Aeneid, but who are not interested in getting a doctorate in ancient Middle Eastern dialects. There is a little repetition where the stories don’t align exactly, but I think Sandars has done a great job of giving us an approachable text that will satisfy the merely curious and serve as a gateway to the truly passionate.

As with Fenimore Cooper, Gilgamesh’s story is of two journeys: one to the Country of the Living, and one to the Garden of the Gods.

Journey number one. Once upon a time there was a king, two-thirds god and only one part man, and he was wise and beautiful. This part of the book tends to go on about how perfect his body is, which makes me curious about the Sumerian idea of the perfect body. I have to question his wisdom here, though, because as king, the gods gave him the right to have sex with any woman he wants, virgin whore other man’s wife whatever, so of course he exercises that right. The people get sick of him fucking every woman in town – and not just the husbands and fathers, the women themselves are sick of not having the right to refuse – so they pray to the gods to fix this problem. The gods decide to send him an equal, someone whose love will give him focus. He has a few dreams about this man whom he will love as a woman, and that phrase is repeated several times, so I’m guessing there was something sexual here.

Enkidu is a wild man living in the forest, messing up all the traps and setting the prey animals free. The trapper asks Gilgamesh for advice, and he sends a prostitute out to seduce Enkidu. It works, and she spends a week fucking him into civilization. Here we see the Middle Eastern prudery about sex – after ‘polluting’ himself with a woman, Enkidu can’t return to the forest because the animals no longer recognize him as one of them. He’s lost his innocence, and with it the wisdom of the wilderness. Now he has to go live among people. He hears the stories of Gilgamesh and decides to go stop him from having all this indiscriminate casual sex:

In Uruk the bridal bed was made, fit for the goddess of love. The bride waited for the bridegroom, but in the night Gilgamesh got up and came to the house. Then Enkidu stepped out, he stood in the street and blocked the way. Mighty Gilgamesh came on and Enkidu met him at the gate. He put out his foot and prevented Gilgamesh from entering the house, so they grappled, holding each other like bulls. They broke the doorposts and the walls shook, they snorted like bulls locked together. They shattered the doorposts and the walls shook. Gilgamesh bent his knee with his foot planted on the ground and with a turn Enkidu was thrown. Then immediately his fury died. When Enkidu was thrown he said to Gilgamesh, ‘There is not another like you in the world. Ninsun, who is as strong as a wild ox in the byre, she was the mother who bore you, and now you are raised above all men, and Enlil has given you the kingship, for your strength surpasses the strength of men.’ So Enkidu and Gilgamesh embraced and their friendship was sealed.

Yes, you are sensing the flavor of ancient homoeroticism. Some stories play up the master-servant relationship between them, but Sandars tells the story as if they were equals, brothers or lovers. So Gilgamesh is settling down sexually, but he still needs some kind of conquest or adventure. They set out to destroy a great evil in the Country of the Living, apparently so called because it is directly over where the Anunnaki judge the souls of the dead. It’s a place of abundant forests, compatible with the biblical description of Lebanon (cedars). It’s not clear of what the evil consists, but the forest guardian’s name is semantically linked with the word for Evil, so he must be killed. After some psychological struggles upon entering the forest, Gilgamesh cuts down the sacred trees that give Humbaba/Huwawa his power, and the evil giant begs for mercy. Gilgamesh and Enkidu have none, and behead him for the good of the world. How this is good for the world is again unclear, except maybe he wasn’t letting people cut down the trees to build houses with. They had been doing just fine with bricks, so again, I don’t get the reasoning, but it’s not my culture.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu return victorious with the rare commodity wood, and people are really happy, except for the god of the wind and earth Enlil, who was on the giant’s side. Then Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, tries to marry Gilgamesh, but he points out her commitment issues and tendency to transform her lovers into animals and refuses her. She takes her rage to the gods, and it is decreed that Enkidu must die. There’s a lot of suffering in this part, especially for Gilgamesh, who has to watch his friend/brother/lover die slowly from an illness with poorly described symptoms. Gilgamesh is compared more directly to a woman here, in his weeping. Like Macduff, he has to express his man-sized grief before doing something about it.

Journey number two. Gilgamesh is now deathly afraid of dying. In our culture, people see death as a reunion with the beloved departed, but not in Sumerian. Gilgamesh doesn’t have any hope of seeing Enkidu again. But there are stories of a man who lives forever, the one who survived the Great Flood – Utnapishtim, not Noah. Gilgamesh defeats a bunch of lions and tunnels under a mountain for twelve days to reach the Garden of the Gods, where he sweet-talks the goddess of wine and wisdom into telling him how to reach Utnapishtim. She directs him to the ferryman Urshanabi, who becomes his new sidekick (definitely not an equal like Enkidu was, but it’s nice to have a companion anyway). Urshanabi takes him to Utnapishtim, and they learn the story of the flood. It’s pretty standard flood-narrative stuff, people were too evil so the gods decided to destroy them all, but Ea liked Utnapishtim and told him to build a boat big enough to hold the seeds of all life. Utnapishtim and his family and friends ride out the storm and rebuild the world after the water recedes. Enlil is pissed off about this, but the other gods actually like people and won’t let him kill the survivors. Instead, Enlil ‘blesses’ Utnapishtim with eternal life and makes him live way out at the edge of the world, where the Ocean drops into nothing. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh to stop hunting for immortality, because it’s both impossible and unpleasant. Instead, he directs Gilgamesh to an undersea flower that restores youth, but on the way home a snake eats the flower and that’s why snakes shed their skins. And why people don’t have a magic flower to make them young again.

After the second journey, there’s nothing left to tell. Gilgamesh rules wisely for the rest of his days, and he dies surrounded by his wife, son, and concubine, to the great lamenting of all. They do the sacrifices to the gods and everything else people did for dead kings back then.

In terms of theme, I’m always alert to gender roles and sexual fluidity, so that relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is really interesting to me. They have romantic feelings for each other, and they seem inseparable even in private time, but it doesn’t diminish the virility of either. I’ve had people tell me that in homosexual relationships, ‘They can always tell which one is the man and which one is the woman,’ which I find terribly offensive, but I don’t think that’s always the case. I’ve seen gay couples where one is obviously more effeminate, but frankly, that’s sort of rare for me. We become like the people we spend time with, so when I meet gay couples who have been together for a long time, they seem equally masculine or equally feminine, and frankly it is none of my business which one is the top and which one is the bottom, or whether they like to trade off, so I don’t ask. I think the need to assign homosexuals to heterosexual roles indicates a deeper discomfort with homosexuality; it’s like these people’s brains are somehow completely different from mine, as if for them gender binaries are more important than love or compatibility of spirit.

The theme of divine retribution is important, as well as divine favor. Shamash the sun-god helps Gilgamesh all the time, but the hero is always getting Enlil upset with him. Gilgamesh’s problem is that he doesn’t have all the facts about who or what is important to Enlil, so he frequently blunders into offending the god. That may not say much for his supposed wisdom, but he’s only (one-third) human. This seems to be the Sumerian idea of life on earth: we blunder around accidentally offending gods who take their revenge on us. It’s not a simple case of karma because we can’t know what will offend the gods and what won’t. There’s a fatalistic sense that the gods are to be placated (with or without hope) rather than loved. This idea makes sense to me, because I agree that the universe is a chaotic place where good and bad things happen to everyone regardless of whether I think their actions are good or bad.

This is a good little edition, as I said, great for intelligent people who aren’t scholars in ancient Middle Eastern studies. There are others with the more advanced scholarship, but if you don’t need all that, stick with this one. And it’s a good story, but sad. Fortunately, it’s also too short for me to be so involved with the characters that I get upset – it’s not like The Last Chronicle of Barset, which left me weeping as if I had just seen someone in my own family die. Epic heroes die, it’s what they do, like Beowulf, so it wasn’t traumatic. It’s how this sort of story works. You could see the tragedy as excessive, but these people lived five or six thousand years ago. The story has to end.

Given the option to teach literature again this month, I was firmly against repeating The Old Man and the Sea, so I chose the other option for a really short book that the company had in inventory. I hadn’t read it before, and reading a new book to teach it was a really strange experience. I kept looking for new vocabulary and literary elements, thinking of ways I could assess my students’ reading instead of enjoying my own. It’s like knitting projects to sell – it turns a hobby into work, and I’m not that fond of working. It takes the joy out of it.

Steinbeck was working on crossing the line between prose and drama, so this novel is set up like a play. Each chapter begins with a description of the scene, and everything happens in that confined place. There’s a lot of dialogue and not really a lot of action. It’s mostly, people walk on, sit, and talk. It’s a three-act tragedy, with each act having two scenes (six sections that are not actually named chapters).

George and Lennie are migrant ranch hands in California during the Depression, a time and place that are practically owned by Steinbeck. George is little and sharp, Lennie is the opposite, large and dull. My international students were fairly familiar and comfortable with the idea of Lennie being a grown man with the mind of a small child (one of them has a relative with Down’s Syndrome), and I don’t have the training to diagnose his particular brand of developmental delay. George grew up in the same town, so he keeps him around. Lennie is a habit he just can’t break, even though he complains about how much fun he’s losing out on. He could be going out and getting drunk and laid like all the other guys if he didn’t have to take care of Lennie. Yet, the two of them have plans for the future precisely because he does take care of Lennie. Other migrant workers drift without a sense of direction, but these two have a definite plan to get some money together and buy a specific plot of land. They’ll have a house and animals, and Lennie will take care of the rabbits. He loves touching soft things. They’re starting a new job, which is the exposition.

The big trouble at the new job is with the boss’s son. Curley is a little guy who likes to fight, and he’s stupidly jealous of his too-sociable wife. He thinks Lennie is laughing at him because of his wife’s wanderings, so he starts a fight that he can’t finish. Lennie breaks his hand. That’s the climactic turning point that leads the wife of the pugilist to cast her eye on the over-big child. Now, at their last job, Lennie started touching a woman’s dress that was soft like a rabbit or a dead mouse, and she freaked out and he couldn’t figure out what to do except close his hand tight and hold on for dear life, while the poor woman is screaming Rape just as loud as she can. George had to whack him over the head with a fence picket and they ran off to keep from getting killed. Curley’s nameless wife lets Lennie pat her hair, and then when he clamps on and can’t release she starts screaming, but he covers her mouth to shut her up and accidentally breaks her neck. At this point all George can do is shoot Lennie before the lynch mob hangs him.

At one point Steinbeck said that this woman wasn’t actually a character; she’s just a symbol of evil, a piece of forbidden fruit. Lennie falls because he can’t resist, even though he remains innocent, just like Billy Budd. I’d like to argue for a minute that she’s a real person. She grew up in a little town, dreaming of something better, and then she met a few men who promised her Hollywood and glamour but didn’t deliver, though I imagine she delivered her goods to them. Then she meets a guy who’s little but strong, and instead of promising fame he promises love. It sounds like a good deal, but then it’s all isolation on a farm outside Soledad CA. Every time she tries talking to anyone, her husband shows up and makes trouble. It’s not her fault there aren’t any other women around. Some people are cut out for solitude, but some aren’t. This girl needs people, society, conversation, but all she gets is trouble and loneliness. I didn’t notice any evidence of domestic violence, but I think more careful readers have made a case for it. Her life is miserable. She found acceptance in the past by treating men a certain way, and now she’s punished for it. The Depression may make the workers’ life miserable, but hers is just downright untenable. Then someone defeats her guardian monster, and she shows a little interest, but the new champion is even worse than the old one. He kills her. Lennie didn’t slut-shame her like everyone else on the ranch, but I’d say death of the body is worse than death of the reputation. The explicit narrative centers its pathos on Lennie, but in a time when there was no good treatment or care options for the developmentally delayed or mentally ill, his fate is inevitable. Hers could have been avoided, if the author had seen the woman as more than the instrument of a man’s downfall. You know, if he had bothered to give her a name.

Race is another isolating identity. Crooks works in the stable, and lives in a little room off the main part of the barn instead of in the bunkhouse with the other hands. He’s crippled from getting kicked by a horse, showing just how little valued the lives of black men are. In his isolation, he becomes misanthropic instead of social, with a sort of self-protective hostility. Lennie doesn’t notice and befriends him, but not too closely.

Candy is isolated by his age. Ranch work is for the young and strong, and he is neither. It doesn’t help that he only has one hand. But he’s the right sort of different, because George and Lennie make space in their plans for him.

When it comes to the others, mainstream society, it’s a toss-up. You could get Slim, who’s compassionate and a real friend to George, or you could get Carlson, who sees that George has just killed his best friend and says,

Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?

A lot of people are just not good at emotions. Carlson is a bit of a psychopath, intent on killing whoever doesn’t serve him, like Candy’s smelly old dog. It’s unfortunate, but hard times like the Depression bring out the utilitarian in some people. I have to confess to having this unsentimental streak as well, because circumstances in my life are also sometimes difficult and necessitate parting with people or things that I would prefer to keep. It doesn’t help that I love people who aren’t good for me. He’s working at being better, these last few weeks, so I’m hopeful for our future. I know I should be thinking about how good I am to him too – I am a bit self-centered. I do my best for him, but I express my own needs to myself more clearly than he expresses his to me, so it’s easier for me to evaluate whether my own needs are being met than his. Yes, I need a break from these fatalistic modernist texts, but it’s nice to come back to the real world and know that there are people who care about me, and that there’s a handsome man I’m going to sleep next to tonight, and he loves me.

BILLY BUDD

Billy Budd is sort of a gay Christian allegory. The Christian part is fairly obvious – Budd is falsely accused of mutiny and accidentally kills his accuser, a superior officer. Even though that officer was the only man on ship who wasn’t openly in love with Billy Budd, the captain has to kill him to maintain law and order.

And yes, it’s quite gay.

When Claggart’s unobserved glance happened to light on belted Billy rolling along the upper gun deck in the leisure of the second dog watch, exchanging passing broadsides of fun with other young promenaders in the crowd, that glance would follow the cheerful sea-Hyperion with a settled meditative and melancholy expression, his eyes strangely suffused with incipient feverish tears. Then would Claggart look like the man of sorrows. Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.

This short novel wasn’t published in Melville’s lifetime, and it was written toward the end of his life, forty years after Moby-Dick. The big whale book has some clearly homosexual passages, and here Melville just drags it into the fore. The only “ban” against Claggart loving Billy is society’s ban against homosexual behavior, and in single-sex environments like a warship that ban is a little relaxed. After all, there’s an older Dansker who calls Billy “Baby,” and Melville just says that it’s for “some recondite reason.” Even casting my imagination back to 1891, when the story was written, or to 1797, when the story is set, trying to reason that there’s a nonsexual yet secret reason to call a grown man Baby is kind of complex.

Baby Budd is a great Christ figure, and after the book was first published in 1924 there was a rash of Christ figures in American literature. The classic elements are derived from him – blond, innocent, acting spontaneously from his own good nature. Billy is beautiful and charismatic, despite his naivete and tendency to stutter. Everyone loves him, and the one who lets that love get twisted is the only one who works against him. It’s a tragedy in that an innocent man has to die, but it’s also a tragedy that Claggart has to distort his entire character for some imaginary social code that no one else cares about and that he dies for it.

I am not certain whether to know the world and to know human nature be not two distinct branches of knowledge, which, while they may coexist in the same heart, yet either may exist with little or nothing of the other.

I think the world is beautiful and fascinating, and with the amount of traveling I’ve done, I could be considered to know something of it. But while I do all right understanding people in books, in real life I’m a little less skilled. Real people have all kinds of secret motivations and do underhand things, like spying on a significant other online or selling shoddy merchandise or plagiarizing an essay. I’ve been feeling a little taken-advantage-of lately; while that may just be the effect of reading about a Christ figure or two (remember The Old Man and the Sea), it may also have some merit. For a long time I’ve been worried about my mental stability, but I’m not going crazy. I’m struggling not to overreact, because I know I do that, but at the same time I know that I can trust my feelings. If I feel this way, there’s a problem, not with my brain function, but with the way I’m being treated. I wish I knew how to fix it.

THE PIAZZA TALES

The Piazza Tales is a short story collection that Melville published in 1856. Except the first, these were all written for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. He was simultaneously publishing other stories in Harper’s, and those were collected after his death and published as The Apple-Tree Table and Other Stories. That later collection is now a little harder to find, but it contains the frequently anthologized “Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids” and “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” Piazza has the stories that people generally think of, if they think of Melville short stories at all, “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno.”

The Piazza

Just to be clear, Melville loved Nathaniel Hawthorne. I mean, so much that after they met Hawthorne started avoiding him because there was something a little excessive in his fan-boy-ish-ness. NH sometimes used the first piece in a story collection to establish a sense of place, as in “The Old Manse” (Mosses from an Old Manse) or “The Custom-House” (The Scarlet Letter, which was originally conceived as the beginning of a short story collection). Melville gives this strategy a try here. He’s settling into a house in the mountains, and decides that it’s a real crime to have a spectacular view and nowhere to sit outside and enjoy it from, so he builds himself a deck facing his favorite view. He becomes interested in a spot on the mountain opposite, investing it with all sorts of fairy qualities from Shakespeare and Spenser, and one day he goes to see it. It turns out, there’s an isolated girl in a cottage there, and she spends her time looking over at his house and imagining how happy and magical his life must be.

There are a few ways to read that. People often say that it just means that our fantasies are all just illusions, and that if we get to the heart of what we really want there is only equal or greater unhappiness. But I’m feeling optimistic this morning, so I’d rather say, even in the least happy life there is magic, if we have eyes to see it. Glory and beauty are all around us; we just have to learn to look for them. We need to value what we have instead of letting familiarity breed contempt. And perhaps the good things are easiest seen at a little distance.

Bartleby

In many ways, I think this story is a response to Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government.” We’re familiar with the idea of civil disobedience that has shaped protests in the West, particularly with the American Civil Rights movement, and so we typically see this as a good thing, a way to get stuff done. Melville imagines a passive resister in ordinary life. Bartleby isn’t making a political point or taking a stand on an issue; he just quietly says that he “would prefer not to” do anything he is asked. In other ways, this is a response to Dickens’s Bleak House, which began serial publication the year before “Bartleby” was published. The characterization here, with the quirky extreme personalities, is very similar to Dickens, and both stories tell about law-copyists. Before the Xerox machine, the courts still needed several copies of legal documents, so someone had to copy all those papers by hand. Scrivener is a dull, mechanical profession, and both Dickens and Melville try to humanize these machine-like people. Enter Bartleby, the copier who won’t do what he doesn’t like.

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity, then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.

The narrator, the lawyer who employs Bartleby, is an older, active gentleman who takes a paternal interest in his employee, but he cannot figure out all of this preferring not to do things. This type of polite disobedience leads to Bartleby doing some inappropriate things, like living in the workplace outside of working hours, eavesdropping on important meetings, and being insubordinate to his employer, to law enforcement, and indeed to everyone else. He clings to the secret dictate of his heart, just like Robinson Crusoe or Ralph Waldo Emerson, but “doing his thing” is doing nothing. Narrator can’t figure out what to do with him, so eventually he moves to a different office. The new lawyer who takes the office eventually has Bartleby arrested for vagrancy, and he dies in jail after refusing his meals.

I’ve been taking the lens of Transcendentalism, but you could also read this story as a warning against depression-induced inanition. Bartleby used to work in the dead letter office, burning all the letters that could not be delivered. If every letter represents a desire, a wish to connect with another human, the dead letters are the failures. After who-knows-how-long destroying all these wasted desires, Bartleby lost any desire of his own. There’s no implication that he’s looking to the future; he seems like a remarkably clear example of what clinical depression looks like. No active sadness, but no hope either. Just doing nothing, wanting to do nothing, until death. I admire Bartleby’s adherence to himself, but the result makes me sad.

Benito Cereno

Oh my god, the racism, the racism. I suppose you could argue that this is free indirect discourse, or a narrated monologue, so these terribly offensive opinions are Captain Delano’s and not Melville’s, but even so. The racism.

“Benito Cereno” is the most like Billy Budd, it being a naval story featuring The Handsome Sailor set in the 1790s. Captain Delano seems like what Billy Budd could have been, had he lived and advanced.

Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories at that day associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man.

This is also a classic Gothic tale – Captain Delano gets into a mysterious and vaguely threatening situation, until about two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through, when the real threat is revealed and he defeats it.

The threat comes from the extreme racism – think Heart of Darkness. Don Benito Cereno is captain of a merchant vessel carrying slaves along the coast of South America. They’re in distress and put in for water on the same island that Captain Delano has stopped at to restock his water supply. He goes on board to render assistance, and the Nordic-looking white boy (I always picture him as whiter than white, sort of glowing) is surrounded by Africans. His inner monologue is full of comments on the ethnic differences between himself and the Africans – he thinks of them as the perfect servants because of their (he thinks) natural stupidity and servility. He thinks of them as animals, little different than deer or monkeys. Even the few Spanish he sees are marked in the text as different, not quite as white as he is. He can tell that something fishy is going on, maybe Don Benito is plotting to murder him, but he quickly dismisses the thought because he’s such a nice guy (as some of my acquaintance would say, “It’s awful white of him”). Of course, the truth is that the slaves have taken over the ship and are much more intelligent than he had taken them for, but the intelligence is bent toward evil so the white captain is still better than they are.

This story is based on the real events that happened on board the Amistad, which were memorialized in the film of the same name with Matthew McConaughey and Anthony Hopkins. Africans who had been illegally kidnapped and sold into slavery took over the ship and forced the Spanish to sail them back to Africa, but the Spaniard turned the ship north and it was taken off Long Island. The film focuses on the trial and how the brave white lawyers overcame their own racism to rescue the poor black victims, so I think it’s still a little white-centric, but it’s better than Melville. “Benito Cereno” moves the story back into the time when slavery was legal in South America (The United States was about forty years behind the times when it came to abolition) and makes the Africans evil murderers and thieves, the worst of mutineers, slaughtering the beloved slaver Alexandro Aranda. Don Alexandro is Don Benito’s childhood friend – some people read the relationship as gay because they think Don Benito is effeminate, but the evidence is not as strong as it often is in Melville. They want to overtake Captain Delano’s ship too, but of course they are sufficiently white to conquer the former slaves quite easily, incidentally killing most of the remaining Hispanics in the process.

“Benito Cereno” is just as long as Billy Budd, but without chapter breaks, which helps build suspense and all but makes it harder to find a good place to stop. The sentences are also simpler, and it’s less allegorical, which will appeal to a lot of readers who aren’t put off by the racism, which is so intense I would feel bad quoting any of it.

The Lightning-Rod Man

A short piece about a man who makes his living by scaring people to death, and Melville’s “The Piazza” narrator is having none of it.

The Encantadas; or Enchanted Islands

A series of ten sketches describing the Galapagos Islands. They’re mostly volcanic rock, and while I’ve seen some really beautiful specimens of black glass from volcanoes, Melville sees them as ugly misshapen hellrocks. They’re called enchanted because sailors had some major problems with their navigation; people thought they moved around because they’d find them a hundred miles away from where they were expected. There are a few narratives, but this is mostly description – I would go so far as to say that it’s of limited interest. The descriptions are only partially original; he’s writing years after he came back to shore, so he did some borrowing from previously published accounts.

This group does have the second female character, Hunilla the Chola widow. She’s a mixture of Hispanic and Native American ancestry, which the Latins call Cholo (though anthropologists lean toward Mestizo). She was left on an island with her husband and brother, who both died. There’s some implication that passing ships would stop and the seamen would do unspeakable things to her, before Melville’s ship rescues her. Melville usually writes about male-only worlds, so he doesn’t do much with female characters, and this lack of practice is evident. He seems to understand that the lives of women are unnecessarily difficult because their dependence on men (and transportation by them) isolates them, but he seems incapable of realizing or understanding their characters. It’s like women are another species to him, as different as the Africans in “Benito Cereno.”

The Bell-Tower

This is another piece strongly influenced by Hawthorne. Think of the Promethean allegories, like “The Birth-Mark” or “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” A Renaissance architect builds a bell-tower. He goes way overboard, both with the height and the ornamentation, even making a mechanical man with arms like clubs to strike the bells. Like any good Frankenstein story, the attempt to create life leads to death, so it’s hardly cheerful, but then Hawthorne is seldom cheerful himself. In all his admiration for Mosses from an Old Manse, this is his closest approximation to one of those stories, which I suppose makes it a fitting bookend for “The Piazza.”

The Piazza Tales is a weird collection, indicative of the weirdness Melville got into after the failure of Moby-Dick. Pierre has a lot of that reaction, when Melville suddenly stops telling his story to complain about literary critics for several pages, but the insistence on writing what he likes to write instead of what paying customers might like to read is still evident, as is his problematization of ideals beloved by Emerson, Thoreau, and their attendant Transcendentalists, as well as his extreme admiration of Hawthorne. Very intertextual, sometimes engaging, interesting reading.

THE TOWN-HO’S STORY (CHAPTER 54 OF MOBY-DICK)

I guess whoever edited this collection for Signet Classics thought the project wouldn’t be complete without a little Moby-Dick, so here’s the obligatory excerpt. It works well as a stand-alone piece. It covers mutiny at sea, so it’s thematically linked to Billy Budd and “Benito Cereno,” but there’s a much stronger sense of destiny. This collection is arranged roughly backward, chronologically, so it seems that Melville’s interest in predestination waned over his lifetime, because here in Moby-Dick everything is predestinated or foreordained. The white whale is not just one face of God, as in Ahab’s “strike through the mask” speech, it’s the bringer of Fate. The whale decides men’s destinies at sea.

The Town-Ho is a leaky boat, which is apparently not unusual at the time. It’s a bit like my friends who have a fluid leak in their cars and just keep putting water in before they drive to town. You keep your men on the pumps and go where you need to go. Working the pumps can be exhausting work, so another type of The Handsome Sailor (but without the innocence of Capt Delano or Baby Budd) wears himself out and sits down for a rest. The ugly commanding officer tells him to get up and sweep the pig shit off the deck. Steelkilt replies that that job is for the little boys, who aren’t busy just now. Radney tells him to get off his ass and clean the deck. Now in one sense Steelkilt is right, cleaning the shit isn’t in his job description, but in another sense he doesn’t have the right to refuse a direct order. He refuses anyway, they get into a fight, and Steelkilt breaks Radney’s jaw. He starts up a mutiny, but the captain gets it under control. Radney gets to whip Steelkilt, who then starts plotting murder. Fortunately, the white whale comes along and removes temptation. Ahab may have lost a leg, but Radney got straight up eaten by Moby Dick. Steelkilt later gets everyone to defect and the captain never sees him again, but Ishmael swears that he has seen and spoken with him, I guess in a White Whale Survivors’ Club meeting.

Looking at the collection as a whole, it seems Melville had a real issue with authority – the artificial distinctions created by society keep us from acting toward each other as equals. Men are divided by arbitrary social roles, which leads to poisonous behavior. Maintaining a sense of freedom and innocence is a natural response, but when an underling does not conform there are unfortunate consequences. Similarly, when a leader abuses his power there are unfortunate consequences, because the abuse of power leads to rebellion. Love seems like a good answer, but it’s not always enough. We love and admire the extraordinary, but the world insists on conformity to usage, so it’s safer to be average. Don’t get noticed and you can lead a long, mediocre life. Be amazing and you die young. I don’t agree with this attitude, but it does seem to be what Melville is pushing. I get in the mood for Melville every so often, and Billy Budd is a much quicker fix than Moby-Dick, but this fatalism is not the direction I want to go in. I steer my course, and I’m guiding my ship to a happier port.