Thursday, February 18, 2016

Pet causes: Herman Melville on corporal punishment

William H. Myers

Lately I've been reading White-Jacket, Herman Melville's fourth novel, whose publication in 1850 antedates that of his masterpiece Moby-Dick by one year. I'm really digging it so far—Melville's jaunty prose and his focus here are on par with what he brings to Moby-Dick, as is his knack for parabolic and metaphorical flourishes. Readers who enjoyed Moby-Dick's descriptions of the tools, practices, and procedures aboard a nineteenth-century whaling ship—bathed profusely in wry wit, corny jokes, social commentary, and philosophical rumination—you're in luck: that's all of White-Jacket (except here the topic is a US Navy frigate, not a whaling ship).

Obviously this makes White-Jacket a relative featherweight: you've got almost none of the man/nature dialectic, no towering symbol of the unknowable and unconquerable, and no luciferous sea captain's quests for supernatural revenge, which together form Moby-Dick's supermassive barycenter. But you can see White-Jacket as a shuddering chrysalis, ready to tear. (You can also see it as a much brisker read than Moby-Dick.)

One of White-Jacket's claims to fame is its place on record as one of the last arguments in the public debate over corporal punishment in the US Navy. (The novel was published in March of 1850; Congress passed legislation abolishing flogging in the Navy in September of the same year.) Melville had spent more than a year overseas in the Navy around 1843; obviously he was outraged to witness more than once the punitive whipping of a fellow crew-member.

Today I think it would be fun to take a look at White-Jacket's chapters regarding flogging. (The text here is cadged from Project Gutenberg.) There's a lot of interesting stuff on the periphery here. Look for Melville making uncharacteristically overt political pronouncements; notice the passing allusions to the American South and slavery with nary a peep of criticism for that institution (possibly so as to conciliate southerners who might otherwise be on his side in the matter of corporal punishment in the military); observe the points of contact with the setting and context of Billy Budd, Melville's final story; witness how in the climate of 1850, a man as sensitive as the young Melville, who saw nuance like a mantis shrimp sees color, is compelled to strike up his own note in the chorus of Manifest Destiny.



If you begin the day with a laugh, you may, nevertheless, end it with a sob and a sigh.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Infinite Jest and the path of least resistance.

By ElDangerrible. Very cool.

I began reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest sometime in September. Last Wednesday I finally, finally, finally finished it, and just in time for the flurry of INFINITE JEST TWENTY YEARS LATER news feed items commemorating the anniversary of its publication in February 1996.

Before you run away screaming, this is not a review of Infinite Jest. That fucking book. No, it's too titanic, too involute, too revelatory for a few paragraphs of a blurb of a blog post. It's the kind of book that other books are (and should be) written about. But I do aver that yes, it does live up to the hype, even though some of the obloquy directed at it isn't without reason; you won't see me exerting myself to refute epithets like "self-indulgent," "in desperate need of an editor," "mashup of instructional manuals for cheap electronics and obtuse postmodern academic criticism," etc., etc. But for all the frustrations and difficulties that accompany a trip through Infinite Jest, it is indisputably a raiser of the bar, a pusher of the envelope, and an argument for the enduring relevance and extant potential of the novel. (I would even make the totally unqualified claim that it's the best American novel since Moby-Dick, which was also a big hot glorious wet self-indulgent heap of a book.)

The sixty seconds that elapsed immediately after I read Infinite Jest's final sentence ("...and the tide was way out.") were eerily reminiscent of how I remember reacting to the end of Chrono Cross when I was seventeen, i.e., WHAT? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? WHAT IN HELL JUST HAPPENED? WHAT? WHAT. WHAT?

If nobody has made the joke that Infinite Jest is like the American novel meets Dark Souls, please allow me to be the first. This is a book that does not make it easy on the reader. To call the narrative "nonlinear" is like saying a Kandinsky painting is "colorful." Most chapters are datestamped, but since the book takes place in a North America where calendar years are "subsidized" by consumer brands, you'll spend a good 200 pages trying to figure out whether "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment" comes before or after "Year of the Whopper." There are enough characters swinging around in an n-body orbital knot to make War and Peace seem rather sparsely populated. The book ends on a flashback, and, on an initial appraisal, with none, none of the major plot threads terminally resolved. There are 1079 pages of text in all, strewn from the very beginning with clues to the story's mysteries, and to the first-time reader they are very well camouflaged.

Here's the thing: the story does not come together. Not on its own. Not unless the reader makes the effort to put it together for him or herself.

(Minor spoilers ahead. You ready?)

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The truth will set you free (but are you better off?)

Continuing from where we left off:

During my tenure at the Quaker center, I occasionally measured my own life, my own happiness as an atheist against the pilgrims and seekers sojourning at the place. In retrospect, unless the people under examination had serious mental health problems (which wasn't common, but not exactly rare) I found that the majority of religious visitors, while not without their problems, were buoyant, scrupulous, friendly people of conviction and élan. I recall a man from Kenya named Shem who practically glowed in broad daylight. Kenyan Quakers tend to be of a Christocentric, veritably evangelical strain, and Shem's beliefs had a distinctly pentecostal complexion. The termini of his emotional gradient were "cheerful" and "ecstatic." As he roved the campus cum arboretum, his faith-steeped gaze found, as Shakespeare wrote, "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks / Sermons in stones, and good in everything." The world was a parable for Shem; nothing he encountered was not somehow representative of the Trinity, of grace and divine reason, or of man's progress from the womb to the world to the loving embrace of the Creator.

I could not (and cannot) believe in the things that Shem believed, and I did not (and do not) wish to. But I can only speculate as to what it must be like to exist in a world where everything from the commonplace to the celestial stands inextricably braided with the transcendent, and these relations are not only patently obvious but explicable. Listening to Shem speak I imagined he must experience his whole waking life the way the most of us most of us momentarily feel while reading a really good Rumi poem (if we're lucky).

I have to make the assumption that Shem's joie de vivre was the flowering of his faith, and I do acknowledge and emphasize that this is an assumption. Even though a wealth of studies (some of which we'll look at shortly) have suggested a correlation between religion and happiness, they are to be taken with a grain of salt. Secular-minded critics of these reports point out, often correctly, that many of the people and institutions conducting these investigations follow agendas that stand to benefit from promoting a link between happiness and religious belief. (But many of the atheists who impugn the credibility of all such studies are no less guilty of arguing in bad faith, as it were).