Participation Mystique, some

When I thought about and out of my last post, it came to me that both Melville and Lovecraft were somewhat thwarted in their attempts to reach out the invitation into the (participation) mystique – quite obviously thwarted. Both are posthumous authors,  accepted for the full span of their authorial creativity only in posthumous existence. Melville’s success story is breathing on a grander scale here, maybe – after Typee and Omoo his reception into the literary scene was basically stopped short for another 70 years or so, and that despite perennials like Moby Dick and Pierre dropping out at a fairly regular rate. Lovecraft, at least, had the Weird Tales-ghetto of literature as a forum and a sound, if small, readership by the time of his death.

The date of the Melville revival, the 1920s, keeps stomping me over with some gentle nodges, to that other grand novel of that decade that I find myself citing, in an ongoing soliloquy that set on a few days ago, as a background noise to my reflections on Melville. The novelist-turned-custom-officer is joined in that scene by Hermann Hesse, who brings in his 1927 Steppenwolf

and the two square scenes from their most renowned novels that I find strikingly similar in tone, vocabulary, voice.

First, the opening scene of Moby Dick:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. 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. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Then, from the opening scene of the steppenwolf’s narration –

There is much to be said for contentment and painlessness, for these bearable and submissive days, on which neither pain nor pleasure cry out, on which everything only whispers and tiptoes around. But the worst of it is that it is just this contentment that I cannot endure. After a short time it fills me with irrepressible loathing and nausea. Them, in desperation, I have to escape into other regions, if possible on the road to pleasure, or, if that cannot be, on the road to pain. When I have neither pleasure nor pain and have been breathing for a while the lukewarm insipid of these so-called good and tolerable days, I feel so bad in my childish soul that I smash my rusty lyre of thanksgiving in the face of the slumbering god of contentment and would rather feel the most devilish pain burn in me than this warmth of a well-heated room. A wild longing for strong emotions and sensations seethes in me, a rage against this toneless, flat, normal and sterile life. I have a mad impulse to smash something, a warehouse perhaps, or a cathedral, or myself, to commit outrages, to pull off the wigs of a few revered idols, to provide a few rebellious schoolboys with the longed-for ticket to Hamburg, to seduce a little girl, or stand one or two representatives of the established order on the heads. For what I always hated and detested and cursed above all things was this contentment, this healthiness and comfort, this carefully preserved optimism of the middle classes, this fat and prosperous brood of mediocrity.

(I use the translation done by Basil Creighton, in a tacky Penguin paperback I’ve had lying around for more than 10 years – strange how these great “first” milestone-reading experiences keep popping up when you don’t even see them around the corner)

The steppenwolf, Harry Haller, is ahead of Ishmael by one world war, one revolution, one genocide. There is – more feel? more momentum? more depth? to his implicit threat against the symbols of church and commerce, more historical gravitas than is lined out in Ishmael’s egocentric, romantic self-reflectory morbidity, or rather – Haller takes that morbid hang to the anarchic and adds a more explicitly social and commercial dimension. Still, both rants are railed against behated mediocrity, and from both rise these salvatory expeditions for the chauvinist ego of the great while male who makes a menace of his hatred of society and then settles for a way to find back into it. Ishmael goes a-whaling and is, for the time being, glad to sink back into the collective of the whaling vessel, Haller goes through drugs, sex, and meditative sessions at the neighbor’s araucaria and finally sees his bold, cathedral-smashing agenda reduced into a game of illusions: “One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh. Pablo was waiting for me, and Mozart too.” – as the final sentence of the novel has it.