Wednesday, December 28, 2005

D.H. Lawrence on Moby Dick

It is a great book.

At first you are put off by the style. It reads like journalism. It seems spurious. You feel Melville is trying to put something over you. It won't do.

And Melville really is a bit sententious: aware of himself, self-conscious, putting something over even himself. But then it's not easy to get into the swing of a piece of deep mysticism when you just set out with a story.

Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville, even in a great book like Moby Dick. He preaches and holds forth because he's not sure of himselœ And he holds forth, often, so amateurishly.

The artist was so much greater than the man. The man is rather a tiresome New Englander of the ethical mystical- transcendentalist sort: Emerson, Longfellow, Hawthorne, etc. So unrelieved, the solemn ass even in humour. So hopelessly au grand serieux, you feel like saying: Good God, what does it matter? If life is a tragedy, or a farce, or a disaster, or any- thing else, what do I care! Let life be what it likes. Give me a drink, that's what I want just now.

For my part, life is so many things I don't care what it is. It's not my affair to sum it up. Just now it's a cup of tea. This morning it was wormwood and gall. Hand me the sugar.

One wearies of the grand serieux. There's something false about it. And that's Melville. Oh dear, when the solemn ass brays! brays! brays!

But he was a deep, great artist, even if he was rather a sententious man. He was a real American in that he always felt his audience in front of him. But when he ceases to be American, when he forgets all audience, and gives us his sheer apprehension of the world, then he is wonderful, his book commands a stillness in the soul, an awe.

In his 'human' self, Melville is almost dead. That is, he hardly reacts to human contacts any more; or only ideally: or just for a moment. His human-emotional self is almost played out. He is abstract, self-analytical and abstracted. And he is more spell-bound by the strange slidings and collidings of Matter than by the things men do. In this he is like Dana. It is the material elements he really has to do with. His drama is with them. He was a futurist long before futurism found paint. The sheer naked slidings of the elements. And the human soul experiencing it all. So often, it is almost over the border: psychiatry. Almost spurious. Yet so great.

It is the same old thing as in all Americans. They keep their old-fashioned ideal frock-coat on, and an old-fashioned silk hat, while they do the most impossible things...(full here)

courtesy of John Pistelli


Az said...

I tried to read Moby Dick for the first time a onth or so ago. DH is right, sometimes it's dreadfully sententious and self-conscious and awful. But riveting. Mostly. I gave up when he started with the screenplay bits and sea shanties...Not atmospheric in the right way.

Anonymous said...

The Romantic tradition was not quite the same over here, no. But it does still have it's charm!

Amie said...

well, here i go dragging the french into the fray again...

Amie said...

i tried to post this once before, so if it is just a matter of it pending approval, please excuse the repetition, and delete one - or both! after all, here i go draggin the french into it all - here is a link to a really fine text on melville and moby dick

i have to add, i fail to see how moby dick - and melville's writing in general - is 'sententious'? DL seems to be missing the considerable humor and irony in the writing, to say nothing of melville's contestation of 'america'. charles olson in 'call me ishmael' has some intersting things to say re the latter.

Matt said...

Thanks Amie; that does look interesting. You're very right of course. Leave it to the French to appreciate literary distance.