Thursday, April 30, 2020

The American background: from active strain to estrangement

Edward Hopper, Intermission (1963)

Two months in, it might be measurable in petabytes: the internet traffic to newspaper articles, thinkpieces, and short YouTube about the ways in which COVID-19 has unraveled the fabric of day-to-day life in the United States. To be sure, sickness and death, a six-month freeze in public education, and the frightful economic costs (which undoubtedly are being and will be borne most by wage-earners) are nothing to be dismissed. But the parts of our day-to-day repertoires that stay-at-home orders and social distancing have left unaffected also deserve some attention.

A joke circulated on Twitter in mid- or late March; I won't pretend to remember where it originated or in what form (it might have been a comic strip), but the gist of it was:

"What did you do yesterday?"

"Oh, you know, I stayed at home, bingewatched Tiger King all afternoon and then stayed up until two in the morning playing Doom Eternal."

"Well, it's good to give yourself a break from worrying about the pandemic."


"Americans are," runs the headline of a Forbes piece from early April, "Excessively eating, drinking, smoking pot, playing video games and watching porn while quarantined." So—what we've already been up to, but a bit more of it. Businesses have closed their doors and self-isolation guidelines preclude public gatherings or events, but American cultural life doesn't look that much different from before—especially if you're in a sub-middling income bracket and are not yourself a Highly Effective Person or keep such people in your company.

The museums, concert halls, and community theaters have closed—but let's be honest, most of us weren't visiting them more than once a year, if that. Ditto libraries and bookstores. Those of us upset about the closure of our favorite little coffee shops are probably less disappointed about missing out conversations with other regulars or open mic night than having nowhere else but our own homes to hunch over and punch at our laptops. The average sports enthusiast is more likely mourning the national leagues' hiatus than disheartened at having to miss out on attending or playing games on an amateur team. If we go out to see local bands play in small venues more often than never, odds are we're in our twenties and personally know at least one person taking the stage that night.

Subcultures and small arts scenes do exist, but to most of the population of a given city, these strains are irrelevant.1 Those who are not directly involved in them pay them no mind (possibly while deriding its participants as "hipsters") while they watch Netflix, follow strangers on Instagram, read middlebrow thinkpieces by people living in Brooklyn or San Diego, pantomime congregation on Reddit, play video games, or watch remote strangers playing video games—like everyone else does everywhere else.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Mardi: Devil Fish, Bone Sharks, Killers & Thrashers

some inexplicable impulse recently led me to pull my copy of Herman Melville's Mardi, and a Voyage Thither (1849) off the shelf and leaf through it a while. As you may remember, Mardi was the young Melville's first "true" novel (as opposed to a roman à clef), and it's a goopy hot mess.

However awkwardly Mardi's individual pieces fit together, there's a lot to like about it. Revisiting the early "open boat" chapters was an especial delight, and today I'd like to share one of them with you. The book's thirteenth chapter is a brief introduction to marine life for the nineteenth-century landlubber, and I've supplemented it with visual aids. Enjoy!

A contextual note: at this point in the novel, our as-yet-unnamed narrator and his Scandinavian companion Jarl have absconded from the whaling vessel on which they were employed, and are floating on the South Pacific current on a small boat. In an earlier chapter, our narrator likened the craft rising on and descending the swells to a mountain goat—hence the "Chamois" appellation.

A paratextual note: I consulted Richard J. King's Ahab's Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick (2019) for help matching the nineteenth-century critter names to their modern-day equivalents. All the photographs but one are from Wikipedia, and the exception is noted in the caption.

CHAPTER XIII — Of The Chondropterygii, And Other Uncouth Hordes Infesting The South Seas

At intervals in our lonely voyage, there were sights which diversified the scene; especially when the constellation Pisces was in the ascendant.

It's famous botanizing, they say, in Arkansas' boundless prairies; I commend the student of Ichthyology to an open boat, and the ocean moors of the Pacific. As your craft glides along, what strange monsters float by. Elsewhere, was never seen their like. And nowhere are they found in the books of the naturalists.

Though America be discovered, the Cathays of the deep are unknown. And whoso crosses the Pacific might have read lessons to Buffon. The sea-serpent is not a fable; and in the sea, that snake is but a garden worm. There are more wonders than the wonders rejected, and more sights unrevealed than you or I ever ever dreamt of. Moles and bats alone should be skeptics; and the only true infidelity is for a live man to vote himself dead. Be Sir Thomas Brown our ensample; who, while exploding "Vulgar Errors," heartily hugged all the mysteries in the Pentateuch.

But look! fathoms down in the sea; where ever saw you a phantom like that? An enormous crescent with antlers like a reindeer, and a Delta of mouths. Slowly it sinks, and is seen no more.

Doctor Faust saw the devil; but you have seen the "Devil Fish."

Manta ray ("Devil Fish")

Look again! Here comes another. Jarl calls it a Bone Shark. Full as large as a whale, it is spotted like a leopard; and tusk-like teeth overlap its jaws like those of the walrus. To seamen, nothing strikes more terror than the near vicinity of a creature like this. Great ships steer out of its path. And well they may; since the good craft Essex, and others, have been sunk by sea-monsters, as the alligator thrusts his horny snout through a Caribbean canoe.