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Time crunch or no, I'm going to fit in Moby-Dick, which I'm amazed to realize I read ten years ago. During my first Vancouver rainy "season" (lasts October to March) which was appropriately gloomy. Probably also helped that the ocean was a block or two downhill.

I remember trying to read it for the first time in 2000 on a trans-Atlantic flight. It was too good. I read one or two paragraphs and said that to myself: this writing is too good to even read. And set it down for three years. Never said that to myself about another book. "How amazing" plenty of times, "so good I need to stop for a minute," but not three years.
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Allegories have to be short or episodic, or they run that risk of obvious 1:1 correspondence with something that could be expressed better literally, non-fictionally, the kind Borges and others attack. Novels with allegorical, or anyway universal, aspects can get away with length by opening the text out in certain places (esp. the end - most novels are justifications for allegory, or allegory justifies most novel endings), contracting it back to mere plot interests in between them. It's not that allegories can only be static images, emblems - clearly they can involve happenings, characters, conversations, sequences - but that it's hard to come up with a vast number of details that enhance a single embodied meaning. And if you could, perhaps particularly hard to get a reader to follow or care to. So you reboot - Spenser does it many more than five times, in his endless sequence of dream houses, command centers, flowings, loomings and whatever I haven't identified yet.

(Melville too - though his digressions about whales, which so many people hate, are the most brilliant solution to providing traction to allegory I'm aware of; they're there to set up that final sequence, to make it vivid in every possible way at once, so that every physical detail in the chase is something you understand well enough by then that you can both take it into account on a literal level and not be distracted by these images from the meaning of what's happening. Perhaps he gets away with something no one else has?)

Spenser is also great at making variety come from the various ways to fail - which for him is a way to get the right path felt, even where it's hard to represent that path both directly and uninsipidly. Lindsay, Bloom and Borges follow him in this - they're all basically categorizing personality types as though they were religious heresies. More later.
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Returning to Ohio for one week Easter Sunday to take care of a dozen nagging financial matters.

I'm very stupid lately. My mind works again when jogged but so often drifts back into a blank, comfortable rest.

I'm getting A's of course; but that's in competition with the latest, stupidest crop of teenagers.

Haven't been exercising or cleaning. Same damn set of bad habits reasserting themselves across a lifetime.

In nooks at school yesterday I read Emerson's "Circles" and most of Anne Carson's "Glass Essay" and recommend both. Also read around in The Melville Log, a two-volume anthology of contemporary excerpts about Herman from various people's journals and letters and newspaper articles. His son killed himself at 18 for reasons unclear. Melville was very strict with him but surely that means little in itself? A professor of mine at OSU (who made the most annoying mouth noises at the end of every sentence) who's now head of the Women's Studies Library there wrote an article in the '80s suggesting he may have been a wife-beater or worse. There does seem room for this interpretation: his daughter refused to speak of him at all in the 1920s when interest in Moby-Dick revived; his wife seems worshipfully codependent; family letters whisper of mental problems; the patriarchs keep giving him money to go on long trips. Then that suicide.

Most fascinating are his annotations in others' books: Emerson, Shakespeare, Balzac, Shelley. Presumably he'd read plenty of things previously but it wasn't until at work on Moby-Dick that he's suddenly reading high literature nonstop and reacting passionately to it, Hawthorne (see the "Mosses" essay) and Shakespeare especially. He lived an exciting life, wrote financially and critically successful novels and -then- fell in love with literature! And wrote his and maybe America's great work over a year or two at c. 30 during/after his first immersion in Shakespeare & Co. This amazes and depresses me. It shows how fragile masterpieces are, how each barely happens. Not that great authors aren't well-read, but each has to have some remarkable drive independent of literature... and their exposure to literature has to be well-timed and well-placed or their own impulse will be mixed to nothing by those of the established great.

I've also been reading lots of Robinson. He shares Browning's and Melville(-as-Poet)'s characteristic opacity of diction--though all three are lucid when they like. Why don't they like? What is it poets get out of seemingly unnecessary difficulty anyway? Is it a way to hide, and if so from what? Melville turned to poetry after his prose career burnt out, the last productions of which were often about hiding, had a similar style and imagery of branching ambiguities, and were published in magazines under pseudonyms to boot. The best of these (all of the Piazza Tales, the Paradise/Tartarus sketches) are about as good as Moby-Dick, but they're the self-communings of a forgotten man, whereas Moby was a public challenge to Shakespeare and the sun. During his poetry phase Melville's annotations in others' works were almost confined to passages on failure, ingratitude, scorned artists and prophets, and despair.

Of course artistic despair and a difficult style don't always correlate. The end of Robinson's "The Man Against the Sky" is suddenly lucid:

If after all that we have lived and thought,
All comes to Nought,—-
If there be nothing after Now,
And we be nothing anyhow,
And we know that,-—why live?
’Twere sure but weaklings’ vain distress
To suffer dungeons where so many doors
Will open on the cold eternal shores
That look sheer down
To the dark tideless floods of Nothingness
Where all who know may drown.
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from Moby-Dick, Chapter 114--"The Gilder", Herman Melville

At such times, under an abated sun; afloat all day upon smooth, slow heaving swells; seated in his boat, light as a birch canoe; and so sociably mixing with the soft waves themselves, that like hearth-stone cats they purr against the gunwale; these are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean's skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.

These are the times, when in his whale-boat the rover softly feels a certain filial, confident, land-like feeling towards the sea; that he regards it as so much flowery earth; and the distant ship revealing only the tops of her masts, seems struggling forward, not through high rolling waves, but through the tall grass of a rolling prairie: as when the western emigrants' horses only show their erected ears, while their hidden bodies widely wade through the amazing verdure.

The long-drawn virgin vales; the mild blue hill-sides; as over these there steals the hush, the hum; you almost swear that play-wearied children lie sleeping in these solitudes, in some glad May-time, when the flowers of the woods are plucked. And all this mixes with your most mystic mood; so that fact and fancy, half-way meeting, interpenetrate, and form one seamless whole.

Nor did such soothing scenes, however temporary, fail of at least as temporary an effect on Ahab. But if these secret golden keys did seem to open in him his own secret golden treasuries, yet did his breath upon them prove but tarnishing.

Oh, grassy glades! oh, ever vernal endless landscapes in the soul; in ye,--though long parched by the dead drought of the earthy life,--in ye, men yet may roll, like young horses in new morning clover; and for some few fleeting moments, feel the cool dew of the life immortal on them. Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:--through infancy's unconscious spell, boyhood's thoughtless faith, adolescence' doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood's pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling's father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.


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