Posts Tagged ‘melville’

Some Kind of Monster

Recently my wife and I happened across the last forty minutes or so of the Encore mini-series version of Moby-Dick with Ethan Hawke as Starbuck and John Hurt as Ahab. This was the first I’d heard of this newest version and certainly I watched as I always watch these things: possessed by something like disgust and horror (plus, I’ve never watched Ethan Hawke without wanting to punch him in the face).  This trailer seems to confirm my initial impressions (I don’t think I’m capable of watching the entire mini-series): that this version is about Ethan Hawke’s tug of war with John Hurt’s obsession plus some action and some adventure and some period costumes and some guy with mutton chops playing the role of Ishmael. From what I’ve seen, it is another fairly literal translation of the novel onto the screen with some alterations made to appease Hawke’s ego.

And according to this review from the NY Daily News “For the first 10 or 15 minutes, the film lingers on the genteel life Ahab has built on Nantucket, heart of the whaling industry in 1850.Whaling captains were royalty then and Ahab lives accordingly. This is no ruffian who slouches around until he can climb on a boat and go kill something. Hurt’s Ahab is a man of culture and refinement. He lives in a grand, tastefully appointed house. He eats good food, drinks good wine and enjoys relaxing in his library with a good book. He has an obviously caring wife, Elizabeth (Gillian Anderson) and all the money he needs to live out a comfortable life.”

To me, these seem like perfectly reasonable additions to add background depth to Ahab’s character (even if I disagree with them). In general, I’m in favor of any adaptation that bends from the source material and creates its own logic and reality. If this were, say, Pride and Prejudice I would see nothing offensive in any of this. However, Moby Dick is not a perfectly reasonable book. It is not about period costumes and mutton chops. Moby Dick is a novel written in full fever. It is a little bit insane, in parts, and all parts are written by a writer of high ambition.

I’ve been on a Metallica kick these last few weeks. I have no idea why, but every so often “The Call of Ktulu” calls to me. Anyhow, I’ve been listening to the entire output, but the album that I come back to, and enjoy the most, is the much derided St. Anger, best described as a 75 minute bludgeoning although it is probably most commonly called “laughably bad.”   The 2004 documentary of the recording of this album, Some Kind of Monster, shows a petty, desperate, emotionally strained group of musicians with enormous egos and thin skins who spend as much time in group therapy as they spend recording the album. Most seem to use this documentary to illustrate the reasons why the album is bad. To me, it sort of explains why it sounds so good. To me the album sounds furious and unhinged and frustrated and confused but it also sounds like a band of great talent going all out to make a really good record. There’s something about this coupling of insanity and uncertainty and talent and ambition that, for me at least, makes a really nice sound. At the least, I suggest giving this youtube clip of Frantic a listen. I may be the only person who like this record.

Anyhow, for me, this is what all film versions of Moby-Dick are missing–the unhinged ambition and risk taking and fearlessness. This brings to mind an article (I’ve since misplaced where or when it was from) about Werner Herzog’s Hollywood adventure/ rescue film Rescue Dawn. While making the film the Hollywood crew and producers were horrified by Herzog’s approach–considering him no better than an amateur in his methods. Not surprisingly, Rescue Dawn is a very safe, button-down movie compared to Herzog’s non-fiction take, the slightly unhinged and risk taking Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Dawn only works when Herzog’s madness peeps through, fleetingly, here and there. Give me madness and ambition and risk taking over professional and safe and well done any day.

Certainly, as critics of his day were glad to point out, Melville’s great novels from Moby Dick on were not “well made” in many aspects. Potentially major characters and plot points are introduced and then forgotten, inconsistencies abound in the point of view and in the plots (to the extent that there are plots). And a few even accused him of having gone insane.

I’ve often said that Moby Dick should be made into a film–I’m all for our greatest literatures being translated into other mediums. But it would take a filmmaker of a certain greatness and madness to pull it off. At times I’ve thought the Wes Anderson of The Life Aquatic (probably the film closest in spirit to the true Moby Dick) is just weird and ambitious and fearless enough to pull it off. Other times its clear that the Paul Thomas Anderson of There Will Be Blood and Magnolia would make a masterpiece. What do you think?


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Saul Bellow’s great novel, Humboldt’s Gift, partly fictionalizes his own idolization and subsequent friendship with Delmore Shwartz. The idea of a young, unknown writing a fan letter to a famous writing and then moving half-way across the country to essentially study under the master was a profound one for me when I first read that book.

Rimbaud similarly contacted Paul Verlaine. Their famously tumultuous love affair soon followed.

I doubt Philip Roth had much of a physical relationship with Bellow, but it seems their three decades of friendship began in much the same way—with the young, unknown upstart meeting the literary figure who so influenced him. I’ve
never felt Roth surpassed Bellow as an artist, but he certainly achieved a wider fame and sold more books than Bellow did. No matter these two literary friendships, Bellow did famously complain about the lack of community with his generation’s great writers.

I always thought the only people who could possibly connect, on that very deep and fundamental level, with a great writer was another great writer. There is something deep and shared between them that is unsuspected by regular people. Or maybe there is no mystical bond. There’s no more of a special connection than the truth that people who share a mutual hobby or interest often flock to each other, while in public and in regular life they often suppress their true passions. Railroad enthusiasts and stamp collectors. I suspect these stories carry across all the arts, though, and there is always something fascinating about the friendship and appreciation between two great artists.

The literary importance of the friendship between Hawthorne and Melville after Melville contacted the older, more accomplished writer (although Melville had the earlier commercial success) is without question. Here we find Hawthorne’s genius (as Melville saw it) awakening something nascent in Melville’s own soul. Under this encouragement Melville ceases to be the man who wrote sea adventures and became the great artist we remember and admire today.

Of course, sometimes hero worship leads not to surpassing the idol, as Melville surpassed his, but to emulation, as Woody Allen, who so admired Ingmar Bergman from afar, and then later emulated in films like Interiors, going so far as to use Bergman’s iconic Persona cinematographer Sven Nykvist in films like Another Woman and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Through this relationship Allen learned of Bergman’s admiration for his films, and the two later became good and mutually respectful friends.

I remember thinking about this story when, years ago, in my early 20s, I wrote an ailing Saul Bellow a letter of appreciation. I may have implied or made assertions of our, ah, kinship, letting the master know I was also, in my small way, attempting to become a writer. Thankfully I did not bore him with any of my pages, although I have since, occasionally, reached out in this way, as they did in the old days—although, mostly out of desire to share my appreciation and humble thanks, than any attempt to make friends.

Who are your idols? Have you contacted them? Met them? Surpassed them?

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I’ve recently been reading the Dalkey Archive’s edition of Lars Svendsen’s A Philosophy of Evil. It has been several years since I read any poetry, but I am enjoying this book, its discussions and ideas and references–particularly those references to works of literary fiction.

Svendsen’s thesis, basically stated, is that the concept of evil continues to have merit in our own time, that it is a persistent problem, and it is our duty as living beings to understand, acknowledge, and combat ‘evil.’ The first part of the book functions as an overview of the different philosophies regarding evil and goodness in the universe and how those philosophies have evolved over time. The next section largely discusses the Holocaust and the impact Holocaust studies have had on the concept of evil, in particular the so-called Banality of Evil and the idea of Stupid Evil.

Svendsen mentions, in the early course of the book, such diverse writers as Milton (whose Satan, Svendenson reminds us, became a hero for Romantics like William Blake as a sort of ‘freedom fighter’), Poe, Keats, Camus, Melville (whose villian Claggart hated Billy Budd simply for Billy’s sublime goodness), Dostoevsky, Thomas Harris, and Bret Easton Ellis.

It seems to me much of the fictional evil discussed in this book, at least those novels of the mid to late 20th century, are of the sort Poe first innovated, the lone maniac, the psychotic, the serial killer. Of these characters most likely Hannibal Lector is the most fascinating and the most important, although I would be hard pressed to call the works of Thomas Harris “literary.”

Another author who deals almost entirely with concepts of evil, Stephen King, goes entirely unnoticed by Svendsen (probably to his credit). King, in his way, (along with other horror novelists, perhaps) seems to continue the tradition of Milton, who could imagine the embodiment of some absolute evil. An embodied evil along the lines of Satan. Although I have not read The Stand or It in 18, 19 years, I still recall those books as vast and ambitious in their themes–more so than most literary fiction since the early part of the 20th century, perhaps.

Indeed, when I think of “evil” in the literary novel I tend to first think of the vast novels of Hugo, Dostoevsky, Melville, and Balzac before I think of Poe’s maniacs or even Hawthorne and his cute symbolism. Stephen King clearly is far from the class of a Dostoevsky, but he may deserve some nod of credit for approaching the idea of evil from something other than the psychological portrait of some lone maniac. Or, he may not. It may be that King’s ideas and themes are slight and outdated and worth only the pleasure they give the Sunday afternoon reader.

It seems to me the only other author of mid-late 20th century novels who approached the idea of Evil with such gusto and ambition was Norman Mailer (although it also seems that William S. Burroughs did it the best).

Perhaps this has something to do with Mailer’s pursuit of writing a book as fine as Moby Dick (a noble, futile pursuit, if you ask me) since, to my mind, Moby Dick deals with the theme of evil in many of its manifestations–the vengeful and fanatical, the ambitious and self-serving, the blind and the stupid and the faithful and the obedient, and those who are willing to question, but lack the courage to go any further. To me it is these evils we see on display each night on the news or on the internet and it is these evils we read about in our Holocaust literature and in our Civil War literature. And it is partly for this that I find Melville’s novel not simply the greatest evocation of evil and ambition this side of Shakespeare and Aeschylus, but the finest novel.

Now, these ideas are clearly not yet focused on my part, but Svendsen’s book has me thinking and wondering:

Has he left out any great authors on the topic of evil? I have not read any novels about the Holocaust, for instance–should these be included along side Primo Levi and the works of philosophers?

Who are the finest contemporary literary writers on the theme of evil? Brian Evenson, for one, comes to mind immediately.

What are the greatest (or your favorite) works concerning the idea of evil?

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This morning I’ve been reading a blog called bad reviews of good books. This blog is devoted to “laugh[ing] at people inferior to ourselves” and is, apparently, mostly made up of selected Amazon.com reader reviews of “classic” works of literature. Many of these reviews involve apparently semi-literate readers insisting that they are really actually quite intelligent and that they really do read a lot. Some of the reviews are humorous misreadings (of Lolita one person wrote “Girls want to be Lolita—they hold her up as—if not a role model, then a relatable character or a heroine. A sexually powerful child ahead of her years”).  Most of them are superior in tone, are cruel, are nasty.

Many of them are similar to the professional reviews these “classic novels” were initially given. For instance, one modern reader asserts that Herman Melville’s “writing style and sentence structure are poor. It is hard to read. like work. Doubt he could get published today” while a reviewer for the New York United States Magazine and Democratic Review 160 years ago insisted:

Mr. Melville is evidently trying to ascertain how far the public will consent to be imposed upon. He is gauging, at once, our gullibilty and our patience. Having written one or two passable extravagancies, he has considered himself privileged to produce as many more as he pleases, increasingly exaggerated and increasingly dull…. In bombast, in caricature, in rhetorical artifice — generally as clumsy as it is ineffectual — and in low attempts at humor, each one of his volumes has been an advance among its predecessors…. Mr. Melville never writes naturally. His sentiment is forced, his wit is forced, and his enthusiasm is forced. And in his attempts to display to the utmost extent his powers of “fine writing,” he has succeeded, we think, beyond his most sanguine expectations.

Many of the reviews assert how boring, how unreadable literature is. Dickens, we are told, is just as dull as Melville, and George Eliot is even worse. Or we are told how very unprofound these supposedly profound works are–Beckett, for instance, simply isn’t that “deep” (nor are his characters “believable”). Many of these reviewers wish these writers would have written more interesting books and done so in a more easily digestible, readable manner. 

Many are an assault on academics and know-it-alls who don’t have the good taste to say that a book is bad. Classics are just the dusty, boring books know-it-alls like to keep around to prove their superiority.

I’m reminded of a professor in college who answered my questions about Pynchon (I didn’t get around to him until I was 21, 22) by saying “Oh, he’s one of those ‘important’ post-modernists” in a way that let me know that none of those “post-modernists” were worth any young scholar’s time. I’m also reminded of the instructor in graduate school who would use Saul Bellow as an example of a tiresome, unreadable novelist who wasn’t actually a novelist, but a very dull essayist.

I’m also reminded of our ongoing frustrations as a writing community. In the year-and-a-half or so since I became acquainted with “indie” literature and “online” writing I’ve often read how frustrated writers and editors and publishers are at the lack of an outside readership. We are, I read, writing for each other rather than to a wide or general audience. Occasionally folks who insist this is not a bad thing are criticized as snobs or elitists. Writers who are pleased to write for other writers are accused of missing the point–as if a writer should be a builder of chairs and these chairs should be intended for everyone to sit on.

We are not builders of chairs. If I built a chair it would have teeth on the backrest and it would have two legs. It would fall when someone leaned on it. The polish would be smeared. It would sneer.

I’ll have to admit now that I consider the lack of any readership outside the readership of peers or like-minded writers of benefit, both to our art and to our emotional health. Very often on this level our writers are either supported or simply not read. We are free to write to our consciences, not what a public or professional critic will find interesting or relevant. Writing to impress one’s peers or to engage with one’s peers is writing that is free to experiment, to be specialized and difficult, to be new. Writing to please an audience is, naturally, limiting. We may never be in an issue of Rolling Stone (as Karen Russell recently was), but our writing might be better off for it.

I should add that I have no issue with those writers who write for money or acclaim or for wide readerships. But I’m glad to know there are more than a few writers around who do not do that and want to support each other in not wanting to do that. Some of us are better off not doing so or not wanting to do so. Not every writer can be a craftsperson. Not everyone should write to be read on the train by a “readers.”

I wonder how Melville’s career would have evolved without worrying over the cold shoulder of a dwindling popular readership or the abuse he received from increasingly nasty critics (he was called insane, in print, more than once before he was completely forgotten). Perhaps he would not have given up writing prose and “experimental” literature. Perhaps nothing would have change: Melville never quite writing, of course, he wrote as many of us write, he wrote after work, in his spare hours, and he wrote without expectation of being read or making a profit. The commandment “be true to the dreams of thy youth” is etched into Melville’s work desk and I have often thought this is the only commandment one need follow.

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