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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

Plato and the Whale

Moby Dick is not written as cryptography but as mystery.  The agitations of voice, the playfulness through which symbols emerge and then dissolve, the mixtures of incantatory, Biblical, polite, and vernacular language in this and other American books— these are what demand our attention altogether more than do ideas or themes extracted by critics in the interest of tidying up what is mysterious or confused.”  — Richard Poirier, A World Elsewhere, p. 36

“Skepticism of this kind [the authors’ regarding the symbolist tendencies of their central characters], however, need not and does not modify the grandeurs of description in which Melville and Lawrence like to indulge.  The admiration of the writers in both cases goes not to the possible accuracy of a symbolist perspective, but only to the heroic nobility of incentive behind it, its creative responsiveness to the things of this world.” – p. 43

Elsewhere, Poirier says that in the works he is discussing, the reader must ‘submit to a discipline, imposed by the difficulties in the writing, that will develop in us a consciousness rarely called forth…,’ and that, ‘in Emerson’s view, writing is valuable for the stimulations offered locally, by particular moments of the reading experience, and not for any retrospective consideration of the whole.’

After watching Phillip Hoare’s BBC documentary, The Hunt for Moby-Dick, I wanted to read the book, and after reading Poirier, I actually took it down and began to do so.  It’s been slow going, but not because of any difficulty in maintaining interest, really.  I even found fascinating, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, the dreaded ‘Cetology’ chapter, which two friends had warned me was the First Test of Commitment.  No, I’ve been reading it slowly simply because there’s no rush.  Which is new to me.  I’m normally eager to get through a book so I can move on to the next one, or I’m worried that I’ll forget some crucial image or idea and something important will be lost on me in the latter sections of a book.  Proust may have been a remedy for that— it is impossible to remember it all, so you remember what you remember and forget what you forget, and its length seems to be intended to bring about that necessarily cherry-picked memory.  But I think Phillip Roth’s recent comment, that if you take more than two weeks you haven’t really read the novel, is illuminating here, because it strikes me as particularly inadequate.  In most books, there are pivotal scenes supported by groundwork: character background, establishment shots, tension-building, etc.  There is a lot of padding, necessary or not, and it can obscure the significant passages, images, and events, such that if you take more than two weeks you will probably have forgotten something crucial and had something unimportant emphasized by the recession of what surrounds it.  Moby Dick seems different.  That’s not to say Melville doesn’t engage in groundwork— the first sentence is famous, after all— but I feel as if I can wander in Moby Dick, that Melville isn’t trying to direct which moments will provide that ‘local stimulation,’ and is willing to let just about any provide it.  There isn’t the imperative to get it all in quickly, so the stimuli combine to the full effect.  (And on top of that, if you are reading for a culminating effect, you’ve several hundred pages of meticulous anti-climax to get through first.) I’ll read a few chapters, then not pick it up for a day or two, but I still find myself mulling over certain passages and scenes, particular images or phrases. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Melville, Poirier, Writing

A Working Definition: On Roubaud and Poirier

I suspect my fascination with etymologies is rooted in the two semesters of Latin I took in high school.  I don’t remember a lick of it, but I have remembered how to break words down and root out the bits that can (maybe) tell you something on their own, which might get you by if you find yourself in a jam (the jam, at the time, being standardized tests).  I am by no means a linguist; I’ve no formal experience with the inheritances of words.  They’re a playground, a rabbit hole.  I admittedly enjoy how irresponsibly I follow their transformations, considering how the parts of a word have made up that word, and how they mislead, how easily a word’s present form can overwrite its past and still arrive at the same understanding for all the wrong reasons, and how then each root word leads you to suspect it is the root of another.  Suffuse: suf-, alternate of sub-, meaning under, beneath, up to; but ‘fuse.’  I think: parallel to infusion, but, while infuse has pleasant connotations, suffuse casts a glance towards submission, willing or unwilling.  It walks a fine line between terror and bliss, between a hot shower after a hard day and waterboarding.  Of course, this is trumping things up quite a bit, akin to exploring the significance of two plus two equalling four by means of numerology.  ‘Suffuse’ means, simply, ‘to pour liquid over a surface,’ though pour is misleading.  One Established Dictionary says ‘overspread,’ instead of pour, even as it says the root Latin word is ‘to pour.’  (Unexpectedly, ‘fountain’ has nothing to do with fundere, the Latin root.)  Or: one would expect ‘sect’ to follow from the root ‘to cut.’  A sect, one could assume, is a small group separated from— by an incision, a de-cision— but still part of a larger group.  But ‘sect’ comes from ‘secta’ for ‘following.’

‘Do your work, and I shall know you,’ [Emerson] says in ‘Self-Reliance’.  ‘Work’ is a way to confront the essential facts of existence and to discover in doing so the power of human desire which turns facts into mythologies and mythologies into facts.  – Richard Poirier, The Renewal of Literature, p. 94

Perhaps the most interesting aspect, the thing that keeps me going through Roubaud’s not always fun to read The Great Fire of London, is the dissonance of reading in the present tense.  We often consider grammatical tense and the effect it has on what is being narrated.  But rarely do we consider the tense of the activity of writing, except in such rare circumstances when it becomes so problematic, by the author’s intention or not, that we cannot help but notice it.  There is a bifurcation between experiencing self and writing self.  How an author handles such a dilemma, in an individual work or in their general method, I find to be one of the most interesting moves an author can make (can, because many do not). Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Poirier, Roubaud, Writing

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