The New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby-Dick Marathon is an annual non-stop reading of Herman Melville's literary masterpiece. The multi-day program of entertaining activities and events is presented every January. Admission to the Marathon is free.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Ahab and the Village of Morality

It's common to view Melville more as a proto-modern than as a writer of his time. The lack of interest his masterpiece attracted until the twentieth century, when it quickly became seen as one of the peaks of American literature, certainly suggests that Melville was specially attuned to what would be the concerns of a post-Great War, post-Darwin, post-Freud world. His antipathy toward Christian missionary work in the South Pacific, and his relative openness to the native island cultures, further marks him in our minds as one of us, not one of them, those stiff and repressed men of the nineteenth century.

But we oversimplify his art if we ignore the Christian, and largely Calvinist, worldview that still saturated the United States of his day.  There's no question, of course, that Melville knew his Bible.  He also appears to have had some familiarity with Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, which is included in the list of Melville's reading at the end of the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick (2d ed.).  Actually, it would be surprising if Melville were not familiar with Pilgrim's Progress, since every 19th-century Protestant who could read at all read Bunyan's allegory at least once (or it very often seems that way).

In any event, Moby-Dick maps with surprising ease to the Calvinist theology taught by Pilgrim's ProgressMoby-Dick invites the reader to consider why Ahab and all the crew except Ishmael die, while Ishmael lives.  In Christian imagery, death is damnation, while life is eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Further, under Calvinist theology, damnation is the ultimate fate of anyone who does not accept Jesus as Christ, the Savior and Redeemer.

The episode in Pilgrim's Progress involving the Village of Morality provides one explanation for Ahab's damnation. Pilgrim's Progress tells the story of Christian as he struggles to make his way from the City of Destruction (the state of unrepentant man) to the Celestial City (heaven). Christian must begin his pilgrimage by passing through the "wicket gate," representing the individual's acceptance of Jesus Christ. On his way to the wicket gate, however, Christian is led astray by Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who persuades Christian that the path beyond the gate is needlessly dangerous, and that he can more easily and safely put himself right with God by going to the Village of Morality. Christian then heads toward the Village. But as he approaches it, he sees that the road leading into the Village passes close under a mountain that is rumbling and spitting fire. While Christian stands in the road, looking at the mountain and wondering whether it's safe to pass, Evangelist comes upon him. Evangelist (representing the Gospel) explains to Christian that he has been duped, that the Village of Morality offers no hope, and that he must proceed through the wicket gate if he wishes to gain eternal life.

The object of all this, from Bunyan's standpoint, is that mere morality can never be sufficient for reaching heaven.  God's moral law (represented by the fiery mountain) demands more than man is capable of.  Those who, like Mr. Worldly Wiseman, think they can be virtuous enough to be saved without Christ do not understand the superhuman demands of God's law.  Hence the importance of Jesus Christ: he offers forgiveness that enables man to reach Heaven despite man's inevitable failings.

It's possible to view Ahab coherently in these terms.  He (along with the crew he misled) was damned because he put his trust in the Village of Morality.  Instead of accepting God's morality and the need for Christ's mediation, Ahab relied upon his own morality.  And in doing so, he carries the error of Mr. Worldly Wiseman to its logical conclusion -- Ahab takes his human conception of morality as the standard for judging not only himself but also God.  He refuses to accept God unless God conforms to his mortal ideas of right and wrong.

Any interpretation of Moby-Dick that purports to explain why Ahab was damned is not complete unless it can also explain why Ishmael was saved.  One Christian explanation for Ishmael's salvation is his humility.  Unlike Ahab, Ishmael accepts his fallen state, his inescapable human frailty and ignorance.  He does not condemn God because God fails to arrange things to suit man's limited sense of fairness.

Another explanation, more strictly Calvinist, is that Ishmael was saved for reasons we can't hope to understand; all we know is that God's grace was given to him and not the others.  His salvation seems random to us because there is no cause-and-effect relationship between our conduct and God's saving grace.

Of course, while Melville was fascinated by metaphysical questions, he was not a religious author.  Ishmael does not find Jesus the way he would if his story had been handled by Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example.  But intentionally or not, as a thesis to be advanced or rebutted, Moby-Dick has a strong Christian thread running through it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Frank Stella interview

Artist Frank Stella turned 75 on May 12. This is a belated birthday post for him. The original intent was to make a road-trip to Malden, Massachusetts, where he was born and grew up, locate his birthplace, and post some photos, but I missed the hours of the Malden Historical Collection, and the Malden Public Library had nothing that specified his birthplace beyond "Malden, MA."

So, how is Stella relevant to us Melvillians?  In 1985, already an influential figure in American art, he "conceives of a Moby-Dick series after taking his sons to the aquarium [at Coney Island, Brooklyn]." (See Frank Stella's Moby-Dick; Words and Shapes; Robert K. Wallace; University of Michigan Press, 2000.) Stella is not the first or last American artist to be influenced by M-D. Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Richard Serra, and Jean-Michel Basquiat have all taken stabs at the beast. But Stella's may be the most ambitious. Between 1985 and 1997, Stella produced a series of 266 pieces—including large metal reliefs, prints, monumental sculptures, and a mural—with titles taken from Moby-Dick. In Unpainted to the Last, Elizabeth A. Schultz wrote, "Perhaps no one but Rockwell Kent and Gilbert Wilson has created as many images as Stella that look to Melville's novel." (Written before Matt Kish's herculean effort.)

In 1989, Stella told the New York Times:
The idea of the whale reminded me of Moby-Dick, so I decided to go back and read the novel, and the more I got into it, the more I thought it would be geat to use the chapter headings of the novel for the titles of the pieces.
Speaking in 1995, Stella said:
Moby-Dick and Melville are not something I'm trying to touch or follow along with. ... But I really don't want to be parallel to it, either. I guess what I'm tryting to find is ... a way to make some kind of equivalence.
Frank Stella was interviewed on May 25, on NPR's On Point. You can see some photos of his work and listen to the interview here. At 33:52 into the recording he talks about the problems involved in communicating "narrative content" via abstraction, and how an off-hand remark by his son drove him to develop the Moby-Dick series.

Some pieces from this series (along with the prices they fetched at a Christie's auction in 2007) can be seen here.

Happy Birthday, Frank Stella.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Latest News from the Feejees - 5

Ah, the joys of squandered time! I just stumbled on the end of the 1958 revenge-oater, Terror in a Texas Town. My on-screen guide summary mentioned oil and a man with a harpoon, then I saw Sterling Hayden hefting a harpoon the way Alan Ladd caressed his six-shooter in Shane, so I un-muted the TV.

The bad guy's hired gun is intimidating the locals so he can get their land (and oil). Sterling Hayden plays a retired Swedish whaleman or something, who has a particular affection for his own harpoon. Yadda, yadda, yadda. There's a climactic showdown in the dusty street.

The screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, while he was blacklisted, so it may be better than I'm making it sound. You can buy the DVD from Amazon ($3.98 new!), or just enjoy the incredible (the only apt word) finale here...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries...

From MDM15 at 10:55 AM, Chapter CXXVI, The Life-Buoy, read in Portuguese by Dr. Fonseca, Portuguese Consul:

...which is so sweet a music, for one who has an ear for music.
                         - Molloy

Monday, May 9, 2011

...when Leviathan is the text - 11

A couple of "Critical Editions" considered, for those of a scholarly bent. (11th in the search for the ideal edition for an MDM)

In the Wikipedia article entitled Textual criticism, a "critical edition" is explained as "a text most closely approximating the original, which is accompanied by an apparatus criticus (or critical apparatus) that presents: the evidence that the editor considered [...], the editor's analysis of that evidence [...], and a record of rejected variants."

By definition then, a critical edition is going to come burdened with a boatload of what, to the marathoner, are extranea. This is content of no use at an MDM; that will provide only distractions and unwelcome weight. (Recall the criteria for an ideal MDM tome.) Still, you see these editions at the MDM (bought for some Literature course, probably), so a quick review might be of some value to someone out there.

The Norton Critical Edition, Second Edition was published in 1999 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of M-D's appearance. It presents the Northwestern-Newberry text, and is edited by two of the scholars whose research produced that text: Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. Although some readers may prefer the First Edition of this title, Parker and Hayford's Preface explains that the Second Edition reflects their study of the "Augusta Papers" and other caches of family letters that were discovered after the First Edition. The Preface also explains that "Note on the Text" and "Historical Note," detailing the editorial decisions of Parker and Hayford, were left out of this Second Edition because they are included in the Northwestern-Newberry edition. Perhaps to compensate for the excision of those notes, this edition has footnotes up the wazoo. Melville's own footnotes are mixed in with those of the editors, with "[Melville's note]" appended. (Not ideal for the marathon, if you're at the podium and choose to read M-D's footnotes.)

In addition to the "copious footnotes" are maps; a glossary; an illustrated discussion of whalecraft; contemporaneous engravings, articles, letters, essays, and reviews; 20th-century essays from William Faulkner to Camille Paglia; and a nice piece by Hershel Parker himself, discussing Melville's lifelong difficulties with lucre.

The specs: 5.5" x 9.3" x 1", 768 pages, 22.5 ounces. There are almost as many pages of addenda (310) as primary text (427). Chapter title headings on the recto pages; chapter number headings on the verso pages. The paper is rather thin, smooth, and white with moderate show-through. It has a sturdy glued binding and is "floppy"—no problem lying open. There's no mention of acid-free paper. A note on the copyright page states that the text is set in Fairfield Medium, display is set in Bernhard Modern. The typeface isn't distracting, but smallish for old me (the footnotes are a blur). See the Typeface Tally for a sample.
This would make a great "study" edition, for when you're at your desk delving into M-D's obscure references and connotations.

The other edition considered here is the Longman Critical Edition (2007), currently out-of-print, but available on Amazon.   This edition aims to improve the Northwestern-Newberry text by adding "certain corrections and revisions derived from the British edition as well as changes made by the editors." I'm no Melville scholar, but I'd be interested to hear Hershel Parker's take on this effort.

At MDM15 I noticed that the esteemed M.I.T. Senior Lecturer and Melville Society member Wyn Kelley read from this edition for her turn at the podium. Can we take that as a tacit endorsement? Probably not. Maybe she'll suffer an interview on the subject at MDM16.

This edition also has copious footnotes, that are set apart from Melville's footnotes to avoid confusion. Text that differs between the original American and British editions is set in bold grey type. If the difference merits explanation, a "Revision Narrative" appears at the foot of the page.

In addition to the footnotes, there are seventy pages of Explanatory Notes following the text. Then thirty-nine pages of further Revision Narratives, notes on other changes, and a bibliography of Melville's sources. The edition concludes with maps, whaleship illustrations, and a nautical glossary. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of unravelling M-D as Melville intended it, this book's for you.

The specs: 6" x 9" x 1", 660 pages, 28.5 ounces (on the heavy side).  Chapter title headings on the recto pages; chapter number headings on the verso pages; each chapter begins on a new page. The paper is smooth and bright white, a bit more substantial than the Norton, with a bit less show-through. It, too, has a sturdy glued binding and flops open easily. There's a note on the copyright page, next to the IBSN: "(alk. paper)," meaning alkaline (or acid-free) paper. The type is about ten percent larger than the Norton; the text's typeface looks identical. See the Typeface Tally for a sample.
So there you have it, uh, them.  Two editions for study, rather than for a marathon. Good for training, for developing your muscles, but not ideal for the long race.

To be...

Friday, May 6, 2011

Today in History

From The New York Times, on this day in 1894:

LONG ISLAND WHALE HUNT; AMAGANSETT VILLAGE HEADQUARTERS FOR THE SPORT. Men, "Women, and Children Equally Interested When a Whale Is Sighted -- A Long and Sometimes Dangerous Chase -- How the Harpooning Is Done -- Bombs Used as a Last Resort -- The Bone the Most Valuable Part of the quarry.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bernard Herrman's "Moby Dick" cantata

I just tuned in to "The Bernard Herrman Centenary Orgy" on Harvard University radio. (Harvard radio's "Orgies®" are a May and December tradition. Works of a particular composer, group, or genre are researched and presented "marathon-style.") They were in the middle of Herrman's Moby Dick, a cantata for male chorus, soloists, and orchestra, 1936-1938.

Turns out that, before his career as a composer of film scores (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Taxi Driver, and many of Alfred Hitchcock's most-remembered films), Bernard was a "legit" composer, schooled at NYU and Julliard.

For M-D aficionados who appreciate "classical" music, this piece is well worth searching out. My suburban-Boston library consortium does not have it, and I doubt you'll find it "shared" online. You can listen to clips at If you have an extra $55 in your M-D budget, you can score a used CD there.