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.

That boar was a pig

I want a porkchop, real bad. And an assault rifle to defend myself against these unruly giant pigs that keep terrorizing the world. Sows like this one. A nine-foot-hog the shape of a sperm whale, minus the flukes and the sperm, and minus the size.

I can’t point out exactly just what is unnerving me about the story – maybe it is that innocent but ham-handed trophy picture and the size chart it contains.

Once the origin of the sow is accounted for, the case pops into banality in a way – the monster hog was bought only a few years ago, raised to an abnormally fat greatness, and finally killed by that brave, good, and 11-year-old boy, Jamison. And, so the story goes as narrated by the proud father, this Alabama pig was a ferocious fighter –

The pig that Jamison killed did not act like a family pet. It was a very aggressive animal.

I’m just trying to follow the drift into fable that goes with this piggish adventure. Let’s see – the pig – going by the name of Fred – is characterized thus –

He [that is, Fred’s owner] said all of their pigs had just recently been sold for slaughter and the big boar was too big to be a breeder because of his massive weight and stature and would certainly be unsuitable for slaughter, referring to him being an uncut boar hog.

[uncut, that is not castrated, I take it – and therefore more overtly aggressive in its behavior in the pen and more boar&musk-like on the plate]

He said that on several occasions, he had seen this massive pig throw other pigs around, once even over the fence. Mr. Blissitt also told of building the pig a large shelter that was big enough to cover him and keep him out of the weather but he said the pig tore it to bits in less than 40 minutes.

The pig had to die – for? Its excessive strength? Because its masquerade was so successful? A domestic pig going all the way to a feral juggernaut, whose only acceptable end is necessarily violent, if end there be?

The episode, clumsy as it is, dotes on a rhetoric that Melville is spinning out at great length in Moby Dick, and hence the earlier reference to sperm whales – that peculiar predatory rhetoric that abstracts the beast to transform it into a sort of spiritual entity that is is easier to connect to than, say, a breathing animal whose veins will spill blood when knives or bullets are being sunk into them: Moby Dick, of course, goes one step further than Bigger than Hogzilla!and then some thousand steps more. Melville makes the effort to go beyond predatory rhetoric: the Leviathan by-name is never used on Moby Dick exclusively, but on all whales. Moby Dick becomes THE whale exactly when he drops out of the biblical-epical pattern of the demoniac and unapproachable super-beast to chew Ahab’s leg off.

It is Ahab who fights for the distance between himself, the Pequod’s crew, and the whale, in order to swear in the crew on the fight – in a way, he is de-whaling the whale and whips his crew into frenzy with his appeal to the threat the white whale carries. The crew take it enthusiastically –

I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine. With greedy ears I learned the history of that murderous monster against I and all the others had taken our oaths of violence and revenge. (chapter 41)

When I tried to teach that passage last week, as part of an overall not so very successful shot at reading the novel as an apocalyptic epic, I originally thought about bringing in Shakespeare, for the heck of it, and for Mark Anthony’s grandiose necrologue on C.I. Caesar (Act 3, Scene 2) –

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;

[Sailors, Mates, Polynesians, lend me your ears!]

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

[I come to kill Moby Dick, but you may also praise him.]

The evil that men do lives after them;

[The evil that whales do lives after them;]

The good is oft interred with their bones;

[Their bones are oft interred into Nantucket soil;]

So let it be with Caesar. […]

[So let it be with Moby Dick]

Ishmael, despite his hearty embrace of Ahab’s end, see above, has other plans and spends a great deal of his narrative to counteract the captain’s will-bent intention: Ishmael chips off facet by facet and applies details in an abundance that, I remember, simply got me skipping all these beautiful chapters on “Brit“, “Squid“, and “The Sperm Whale’s Head“, when I first read the book as a teenager. With every detail added, he pulls the whale in general, and Moby Dick by implication, into the concrete, shaves off all demonology and Leviathanity and connects to its physical body. That culminates in a scene late in the Pequod’s voyage: a whale is lying on deck, dead, and Ishmael’s hands dive into its head to extricate the precious sperm

As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, wove almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as. I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma,- literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger; while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,- Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! [chapter 94; emphasis so mine]

Naturally, Ishmael will be the lone survivor: he is the only man on board to have eroticized the whale & to have endorsed it as a spiritual, in fact: beautiful being. He has absorbed its beauty and also – its substance. There is that passage, and I won’t look that up now, where he confides that he occasionally hides on deck to gulp some of the spermacetti-wax – in an act of transference, he assumes the stance of the noble savage toward his prey (while Queequeg is all harpoon-darting business) and experiences his fellow creature only when he gets as close to it, physically, as possible, then to finally swallow it.

Lovecraft never wrote about whales, and I say that not from the vantage point of empirical certitude: in that legion of letters he mustered whales may have their role, or not: who can tell? My next post will look into the human-monster-interrelations in Lovecraft’s fiction, and how it relates to Moby Dick and other stories pitching their characters against apocalyptic beasts.