Sunday, January 24, 2010
Dan Beachy-Quick: A Whaler's Dictionary
Dan Beachy-Quick is one of the country's finest young poets. Now he has produced a brilliant work as unclassifiable as the novel it seeks to understand: A Whaler's Dictionary (Milkweed Editions, 2008), a deeply felt and deeply searching meditation on Moby-Dick. Or, rather, a meditation on how Beachy-Quick understands, or tries to understand, Moby-Dick...a meta-cognition but one annealed with a poet's rigor.
For more on Dan, click here. To buy the book, and others from Milkweed Editions, click here.
Lobster & Canary: Italo Calvino (as translated by Martin McLaughin) in "Why Read the Classics?" asserts: "Reading a classic must also surprise us, when we compare it to the image we previously had of it. That is why we can never recommend enough a first-hand reading of the text itself, avoiding as far as possible secondary bibliography, commentaries, and other interpretations." A typically Calvinoesque admonition it seems to me, insofar as all his essays in Why Read the Classics? are, of course, commentaries. But leaving that aside, how do you respond to him? My take is that, in A Whaler's Dictionary, you have not only grappled directly with the book (whale) itself, but have gone even farther (as if that were not enough!)...I see A Whaler's Dictionary as also belonging to a very rare and special genre, that of sharing with another reader your own act of reading. (I am not even sure what we might call the genre). James Woods does this in his writing, Francine Prose, Annie Dillard, Pope in The Dunciad... Robert Motherwell likewise for the process of painting, M.F.K. Fisher on the savoring of food. Does my observation feel right to you?
Dan Beachy-Quick: The irony that you point in connection to Calvino’s claim is, I think, an important one, and shouldn’t be put aside. I do most certainly share in his notion that one must confront the work directly. There is a strange otherness in books whose fame precedes them. A middle-schooler could speak bluntly but accurately about the plot of Moby-Dick—the novel continues to find urgent location in the popular mind, mentioned in newspaper articles and political blogs and so on. We grow up—some of us, many of us—knowing that in this country there is a mad Captain chasing a White Whale and more, that we are somehow implicated in this chase. But what a surprise it is to read the book and find ourselves inside of it. This is to say that to read Moby-Dick is to become a whaler, to be aboard the ship, to chase the whale, with the terrible, almost inconceivable irony that what one holds in one’s hands—the book—is both ship and whale at once. I suppose it is deep inside the human psyche to express what one witnesses, to give it its words, to re-experience the experience at language’s forced remove, that remove which miraculously makes possible the entrance into the experience for others. What other art is there that contains in it this double-motion of farthering and nearing at once? I think of A Whaler’s Dictionary as a kind of witness in this sense, not only of the experience of reading, but the experience that is reading, the faulty map that is thinking. My hope was to write and construct a book in such a way that a reader of it must also face her or his own readerly experience. It is a faulty experience, always, a failed hunt—this hunt after meaning. That failure, too, necessitates the work of writing as response, of needing to create in order to re-create that which already exists. It is an absurd activity. But so is chasing one whale hidden in the depths of the whole world.
L & C: To take another slice at the matter, consider that Michael Chabon, in Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, characterizes the following quote as "Herman Melville, on the writing of fan fiction": "The more I dive into this matter of whaling, and push my researches up to the very spring-head of it, so much the more am I impressed with its great honorableness and antiquity; and especially when I find so many great demi-gods and heroes, prophets of all sorts, who one way or the other have shed distinction upon it, I am transported with the reflection that I myself belong, though but subordinately, to so emblazoned a fraternity." Melville himself acknowledging the futility of claiming genuine originality-- the whale forever diving beyond our capacity to capture it?
D B-Q: I do think much about the fathomless—that is, a fathom being based on the span of the outstretched arms, and so what is without fathom being fundamentally ungraspable. But you bring up an even more intriguing point—this question you are asking about the nature of the “original.” I suppose in some sense we live in a writing culture that fetishizes the notion of being original, that is, being unique. But what is original and what is unique do not seem to me to be synonymous. Actually, I tend to think of them in opposition to one another, or at the very least, that the drive to be “unique” in voice or style or approach or topic presents an almost insurmountable obstacle to the work of being original, or more to the point, seeking origins. Ahab’s work in chasing Moby Dick is in great part a genuinely original work—that is, he is seeking a type of knowing not predicated on experience, the abysmal nothing, the white-dark chaos whose inchoate urge molds itself into a world. The White Whale is an original being, a kind of ur-text whose message is a blank message, a blank page—not a writing, but a space against which writing becomes possible. Ishmael is one who creates world, who needs world. Ahab abandons world to ask questions the world cannot answer for itself. He seeks a limit, and the whale’s limit is different than his own—and so he seeks it because it, the whale, asks for him his question in a way that he cannot. There is a Talmudic quality to Melville’s quote above—that is, this sense that his writing can at best only be a commentary on another text. This notion allows the work of writing to become not a creative endeavor in a normal sense, but an ontological and atavistic exploration for that series of links that might take one back to a first consciousness. The work becomes a discovery of beginnings—we must write toward it, but it seems never to simply be our own.
L & C: Ah, but then I think of Keatsian claims for imagination. You open The Whaler's Dictionary not once, but twice, with quotes from Keats: a quote on the heart as horn book, and then on the next page, a quote about dim perception. Keats figures throughout your book. Tell us more about how you see Keats, particularly his philosophy vis-a-vis that of Melville.
D B-Q: think I should perhaps begin with Melville, and in particular, his “review” of Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse in which he writes: “Now it is that blackness in Hawthorne, of which I have spoken, that so fixes and fascinates me. It may be, nevertheless, that it is too largely developed in him. Perhaps he does not give us a ray of his light for every shade of his dark. But however this may be, this blackness it is that furnishes the infinite obscure of his background,--that background, against which Shakespeare plays his grandest conceits, the things that have made for Shakespeare his loftiest, but most circumscribed renown, as the profoundest of thinkers. For by philosophers Shakespeare is not adored as the great man of tragedy and comedy.--"Off with his head! so much for Buckingham!" this sort of rant, interlined by another hand, brings down the house,--those mistaken souls, who dream of Shakespeare as a mere man of Richard-the-Third humps, and Macbeth daggers. But it is those deep far-away things in him; those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality:--these are the things that make Shakespeare, Shakespeare.” One might say that Melville, too, has an overdeveloped darkness in him, one so piercing that in almost miraculous ways the darkness becomes a form of vision if not a form of light. “Darkness visible.” What I find so helpful in Keats, so human in him, is that he refuses to let absolute dark and absolute light be the limits of the spectrum, but instead, combines them into one, a half-light in which what is perceived is dimly perceived, but perceived nonetheless. This is not an authoritative place from which to speak, but a necessary, because a helplessly honest one. I hope to write my own criticism—as well as poems—from such a place. No certain ground, but a suspicion nagging enough that it must be uttered, and the one uttering it implicated wholly in the result. It is in Keats that I find such encouragement toward the need of difficulty in life and thinking and reading and writing. I trust to his “world of troubles” as the difficult gift out of which actual experience and thinking must occur. I also think of reading as a primary form of experience, or at least one that is as real to us as is any real activity. He sees an astonishing and terrible reciprocity between what we live through in the world and who in the world we become. It is, in the end, that sense of one always becoming oneself, of self never being a status quo or a known quantity, but a continuously developing receptivity to the basic condition of being in the world that is essential to me. I find that in Keats.
L & C: Ishmael's dictionary, and your gloss upon it, bring to my mind the efforts of Johnson a century before Melville to capture the entire English language on the page. Henry Hitchings, in his Defining The World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary, sums up the enterprise: "In one of the best essays in the Adventurer, published in October 1753, [Johnson] describes the importance of grand projects. Whoever devises them, [Johnson] tells us, 'unites those qualities which have the fairest claim to veneration, extent of knowledge and greatness of design.' The danger he or she faces lies in 'aspiring to performances to which, perhaps, nature has not proportioned the force of man.' Such performances are characterized by 'rash adventures and fruitless diligence.' " Yet we persist. Why? (Or how, at least, might Melville have answered Johnson?)
D B-Q: Part of that answer, I would suspect, would come from the 32nd chapter of Moby-Dick in which our narrator writes, reflecting on his own audacious lexical effort in cetology, writes: “Finally: It was stated at the outset, that this system would not be here, and at once, perfected. You cannot but plainly see that I have kept my word. But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the cranes still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught- nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!” Melville (and Ishmael who might be considered Melville’s imperfect mask) knows that the world and the systems used to describe the world are never commensurate. A dictionary that fails gives in its failure a sense of scope of what is real that is at one and the same time full of awe and awful. What becomes important in the work isn’t the nature of its success, but the nature of its failure—for it is in the failure that one can sense the necessary, if still maddening, ambition of the effort. At the same time, I recall this passage from a letter Melville wrote to Hawthorne, a letter that still haunts me: “My dear Sir, a presentiment is on me,—I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg.” There is the same insight as in the quote from the novel, but rather than a cathedral’s grandeur, we have the lovely and domestic image of the nutmeg grater. But here it is Melville who is the nutmeg grater, and the nutmeg-world so over-ponderously large that it will wear away the tool that makes it edible. That too is the importance of failure. It forces us to recognize a reality larger and more profound our own.
L & C: One of the other great 18th-century projects of classification-- Linnaeus's taxonomies--also comes to mind. It is an odd coincidence that on the wall above the door leading to Linnaeus's bedroom at his Hammarby estate he hung a drawing of a female whale with its offspring. The umbilical cord shows plainly in the drawing, and it was this feature that convinced Linnaeus to classify the whale as a mammal rather than as a fish. Yet from its/their beginnings, Linnean and all other systems to classify the natural world have run into conumdrums, porous borders, the sui generis. Is language simply incapable of coping the world?
D B-Q: What you write above brings so many things to mind for me. In the same chapter in Moby-Dick mentioned above, Ishmael goes defines the whale—with strange, almost comical force—as a fish, despite the evidence he names to the contrary. The foregrounding of that error has always been curious, and curiously important to me. I also recall the great chapter “The Grand Armada” in which Queequeg, looking deep into the underwater cosmos of the pod, sees what he fears is the line of harpoon in a baby whale, and only after realizes that he is seeing the umbilical cord. But to address the larger question you’re asking, I turn to Wittgenstein, who late in Tractatus writes of the way in which a system of description always says more about itself than it says about the world it’s trying to measure. Language is a kind of net out of which much escapes, and one could think of poetry—and I do think of Moby-Dick as a poem—as the effort to change the shape of the grids that make up the net. What fascinates me, what thrills me and fills me with doubt, is that language speaks of itself as it speaks of the world, and as such, is a tremendously faulty system at the same time that it is our most flexible, most necessary one. It fails, but as spoken of above, it fails in living, life-affirming ways.
L & C: Other than Melville or Keats, which dead author would you like to talk with, and why? What would you want him or her to tell you?
D B-Q: Right now, Thoreau. I would like to go on a morning walk with him, and for him to identify all the birds he can hear by their song.
[To which, in conclusion, the canary trills his thanks!]