Melville: Chapter XI: Nightgown. (Moby Dick. 1851)

32636-le-rire-1901-n-357-henry-gerbault-d-ostoya-scottish-dance-hprints-com“Truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.”

Compare with Chapter 2 of Tao Te Ching (tr. J. Legge, 1891):

1. All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what ugliness is; they all know the skill of the skilful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what the want of skill is.

2. So it is that existence and non-existence give birth the one to (the idea of) the other; that difficulty and ease produce the one (the idea of) the other; that length and shortness fashion out the one the figure of the other; that (the ideas of) height and lowness arise from the contrast of the one with the other; that the musical notes and tones become harmonious through the relation of one with another; and that being before and behind give the idea of one following another.

3. Therefore the sage manages affairs without doing anything, and conveys his instructions without the use of speech.

4. All things spring up, and there is not one which declines to show itself; they grow, and there is no claim made for their ownership; they go through their processes, and there is no expectation (of a reward for the results). The work is accomplished, and there is no resting in it (as an achievement). The work is done, but how no one can see; ‘Tis this that makes the power not cease to be.

This last line reminds me of a concept I learned from James Altucher: by replacing goals with themes, you never cease to succeed. Rather than have a goal ‘to make a million dollars’, your theme is ‘to provide value to other people in such a way that is also financially beneficial to me.’

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Melville: Chapter X: A Bosom Friend. (Moby Dick. 1851)

bosomfriends4“If there yet lurked any ice of indifference towards me in the Pagan’s breast, this pleasant, genial smoke we had, soon thawed it out, and left us cronies. He seemed to take to me quite as naturally and unbiddenly as I to him; and when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married; meaning, in his country’s phrase, that we were bosom friends; he would gladly die for me, if need should be. In a countryman, this sudden flame of friendship would have seemed far too premature, a thing to be much distrusted; but in this simple savage those old rules would not apply.”

Reminds me of when I was in living in the library of a guesthouse of an Oxfordshire MP, and sitting up one night eating my first Indian food with a real Indian man, who explained to me that the problem with Americans is that they’re the only people on earth who you can stay up talking to all night, become closest friends with, and the next time you see them they treat you as if it never happened. I could never understand what his name was, because everyone drops their R’s in England anyway, so it sounded to me like Nasa. Anyway, his analysis was correct, at least going forward in our own friendship.

“I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth—pagans and all included—can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?—to do the will of God—that is worship. And what is the will of God?—to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me—that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world.”

Melville: Chapter IX: The Sermon. (Moby Dick. 1851)

jonah“As with all sinners among men, the sin of [Jonah] was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God—never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed—which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”

Melville: Chapter V: Breakfast. (Moby Dick. 1851)

Split_Decision_BreakfastChapter V: Breakfast

They say that men who have seen the world, thereby become quite at ease in manner, quite self-possessed in company. Not always, though: Ledyard, the great New England traveller, and Mungo Park, the Scotch one; of all men, they possessed the least assurance in the parlor. But perhaps the mere crossing of Siberia in a sledge drawn by dogs as Ledyard did, or the taking a long solitary walk on an empty stomach, in the negro heart of Africa, which was the sum of poor Mungo’s performances–this kind of travel, I say, may not be the very best mode of attaining a high social polish. Still, for the most part, that sort of thing is to be had anywhere.

Updike: A&P (1961)

After the Lord of the Flies epiphany, I went straight to Borders Books and Music and asked at the info desk for more books about “human nature” or “the human condition” or something like that. I remember they chuckled at me, handed me Catcher in the Rye, and suggested I continue down the path of post-war New Yorker writers, including John Updike. I remember sleeping on a sofa in Vermont, perhaps I had a fever, I’m not sure why else I’d be there, but in any case, my grandmother would wake me up every morning insisting I watch infomercials about calcium supplements, which I’m running out of time to take so I’d best start soon, she’d tell me. And I’d read Updike’s The Centaur. I wasn’t sure whether or not I appreciated it, but I finished it. It wasn’t until many years later that I decided I absolutely don’t like anything written by anyone born after 1910. And that’s final. Particularly John Updike, and Cheever, and Heller, and Vonnegut, and the whole lot of anyone born in the past hundred or so years. And that’s final! Mostly because it’s all the same: middle class kids and their middle class dreams and middle class lives. And what am I supposed to learn from that if I haven’t learned it already?

The funny thing about A&P is that you never quite get a grip on who the narrator is. The narrator sometimes speaks like a kid as written from someone who writes for the New Yorker, and sometimes speaks like a writer for the New Yorker.

But there were some lines I liked, and which made it all worthwhile for me, because I feel that same “Ah hah! Somebody gets it! I’m not the only one!” that I got from Catcher. 

…and a tall one, with black hair that hadn’t quite frizzed right, and one of these sunburns right across under the eyes, and a chin that was too long–you know, the kind of girl other girls think is very ‘striking’ and ‘attractive’ but never quite makes it, as they very well know, which is why they like her so much.

All this time, I wondered what girls were up to when they say stuff like that. You never hear guys say “oh, he’s handsome, what do you think of him?” to the girl next to him. Putting you on the spot, as a test, always looking for an excuse to feel badly about themselves or feel badly about your intentions. Human interaction is hard enough, and then there’s that shit too.

So, in conclusion:

You never know for sure how girls’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?)

1. Notice how artfully Updike arranges details to set the story in a perfectly ordinary supermarket. What details stand out for you as particularly true to life? What does this close attention to detail contribute to the story? 

The details that stood out particularly to me were the ones that reminded me of how things have not changed. It was 1961, and yet the whole system of the American supermarket was entirely in place–you walk in, push your cart, select items on your own, bring them to a register lane at the front of the store, pay, depart. This isn’t how it was in the USSR in 1961. There are still “Special” bins. The line driving this home for me included a list of things we still buy, still need: cat and dog food, breakfast cereal, macaroni, rice, raisins, seasonings, spreads, spaghetti, soft drinks, crackers, and cookies. Except that I don’t know what spreads are. You’re reminded of the decade when he mentions the cheap albums, including “Tony Martin Sings” — reminding you of Tony Bennett and Dean Martin, Updike himself being too young to fight in World War II, just over the age that would have purchased these albums, so young enough to laugh at them. Anyway, the point is that all these details draw a portrait of a place that seems realistic to me, and, in its realism, leads me to accept the rest of the episode as real.

2. How fully does Updike draw the character of Sammy? What traits (admirable or otherwise) does Sammy show? Is he any less a hero for wanting the girls to notice his heroism? To what extent is he more thoroughly and fully portrayed than the doctor in “Godfather Death“?

Sammy is drawn real enough that we can guess the rest of his life. His parents are friends with the store’s owner, he writes like someone who writes for the New Yorker, the girls are going to the beach, I’ll assume this is Long Island or New Jersey or something, right down to Queenie buying herring snacks for her mother, which I take as more of an second-generation immigrant than WASPy sort of treat.

3. What part of the story seems like the exposition? Of what value to the story is the carefully detailed portrait of Queenie, the leader of the three girls?

4. As the story develops, do you detect any change in Sammy’s feelings toward the girls?

5. Where in “A&P” does the dramatic conflict become apparent? What moment in the story brings the crisis? What is the climax of the story?

I suppose the obvious answer is the paragraph that begins “Now here comes the sad part of the story.” And then the dramatic conflict becomes apparent at the line, “then everybody’s luck begins to run out,” at which point the owner begins scolding the girls for wearing bathing suits in the store. The climax is likely the point where the girls begin hurrying out and Sammy says he quits.

6. Why, exactly, does Sammy quit his job?

7. Does anything lead you to expect Sammy to make some gesture of sympathy for the three girls? What incident earlier in the story (before Sammy quits) seems a foreshadowing?

“Poor kids, I began to feel sorry for them, they couldn’t help it.”

8. What do you understand from the conclusion of the story? What does Sammy mean when he acknowledges “how hard the world was going to be…hereafter”?

9. What comment does Updike–through Sammy–make on supermarket society?

Chuang Tzu – “Independence” (4th cen. BCE)

Ah, the beauty of textbooks, which tell you what questions to ask.

1. What part of this story is the exposition? How many sentences does Chuang Tzu use to set up the dramatic situation?

Here’s the deal. There’s this guy who sits outside on the back fire escape coughing all day and all night. Literally. 5am? Yes. 3am? Yes. All daytime long? Yes. I checked city records to see who owned the place and it’s a woman. He caught me sneaking around trying to look inside his window and I told him I was looking for a three-legged cat. I’m convinced he works for the CIA pretending to be a deadbeat and that there’s someone more dangerous I should actually be afraid of.

The first line is the exposition: “Chuang Tzu was one day fishing, when the Prince of Ch’u sent two high officials to interview him…” That’s about all we need to know to understand what’s going on. Chinese man fishing, prince begs him to work in high government post. We can pretty much guess the rest. See: Wordsworth being asked to be poet laureate. As for the dramatic situation, I don’t have an answer for that, because it takes the whole rest of the one-paragraph story to set up what seems to me a dramatic situation. It ends with “ah hah! That jackass,” but the real drama is in wondering what happens when the servants go back to the prince and tell him that the old fisherman turned down the job by comparing himself to a turtle. Then, there’s some negotiation, and that’s real drama.

2. Why does the protagonist change the subject and mention the sacred tortoise? Why doesn’t he answer the request directly and immediately? Does it serve any purpose that Chuang Tzu makes the officials answer a question to which he knows the answer?

I assume he mentions the tortoise because it’s a contrived example–the tortoise belongs in the pond that Chuang Tzu is currently in, but now in an official post similar to that which Chuang Tzu has been asked to fill. Any other tortoise wouldn’t be as effective to discuss–“would a turtle rather be cooped up in an office, or in a pond? duh, me too.” The sacred tortoise, in the meantime, is already dead, and would surely prefer to be anywhere, doing anything, so long as he were alive–the point perhaps being that the tortoise’s role is as a dead tortoise, and that Chuang Tzu, being in a government position, would find it as death. But…let’s be honest…it’s a ridiculous sort of argument he’s making anyway. He should just say no. Why doesn’t he? Because he’s convinced the officials to reject the offer for him through their own logic. This is the question he knows the answer to, and now he doesn’t have to answer it, and if he’s lucky he won’t get his head chopped off.

3. What does this story tell us about the protagonist Chuang Tzu’s personality?

He’s a dick. He’s insufferable. An insufferable dick. A number of people I’ve looked to as wise have also fallen into this category, in which I begin to feel as if I cannot say anything at all without being condemned on some account. Eventually I just keep my mouth shut and I stop learning anything new. So, perhaps the lesson here is that if you’d like to learn something, you must become accustomed to suffering incessant humiliation.

Grimm (Segal) – Godfather Death (1812)

I don’t know upon what tales children are raised anymore, and I know that I had a my fair share of contemporary children’s stories and picture books to make me feel okay about life. The ones that I recall most clearly are the classics, the ones that are a little spooky. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always gravitated toward such folk tales, always torn between wanting to be on a beach, or wanting to be in the Black Forest in some little watchmaking village.

Anyway, by line three, you’re already caught up in the drama. The guy’s in a conversation with God. And then Satan. And then Death. At the end of the day, you know what’s going to happen: the man is going to defy Death because he’s too prideful. And then he’ll die. The moral: don’t be prideful? The other moral: Death truly is the one you can’t hold anything against–it’s the others you have to worry about.

Maugham: The Appointment in Samarra (1933)

This is included in the Kennedy/Gioia “Introduction to Fiction.”

I asked Marna and Barb about when they found the time to read, as it’s been now years since I’ve really given reading any time in my schedule. They read first thing in the morning, and right before bed. I’m desperately trying to cling to any intelligence I may once have had. But I just had to rewrite the word “intelligence” six times to get the spelling correct. I’m doomed.

Maugham, after his Razor’s Edgecan do no wrong in my book. And this example, used by Kennedy/Gioia as an example of a tale or fable, has kept me in thought for days now. In briefer, a man’s servant returns from town, says a woman jostled him in the crowd, and when he looked at her it was actually Death, so now he needs to borrow a horse and ride to Samarra to escape Death here. The master complies, after which he goes into town, finds the woman and demands to know why she scared the servant. She says her expression was just one of surprise, because she’s supposed to meet the servant in Samarra tonight and wasn’t expecting to see him here.

The point is that I laughed when the story ended. The fucking editors then ask: “How would you state the moral in your own words?” And the only thing I can come up with is “trust, but verify.”

Does the fable need a moral? Well, yes, according to this book. And if this one didn’t have a moral, then I suppose it would just be a comic episode. But if I’m trying to learn something about life itself, is it better to let the moral sink in through my dreams? Or is it better to search for it while I’m awake, debate it, use the story to recall it. This, I don’t know.

Boccaccio: Day 2, Story 2

I can hardly believe I haven’t touched this book since October, though it’s been many times that I’ve needed it. This is about as close to success as I’ve ever been, and yet I still feel profoundly sad–the answer, of course, being to just say fuck it and ignore it. I do this by trying to work as much as possible. I avoid thoughtful conversation if at all possible. I had a great longing to sit all day in a coffee shop and read today–the weather reminded me of being a student, the last weeks of classes before exams. So I locate the book that I hope will bring me a smile before bed…Boccaccio.

Short stories of the O. Henry era relied on twists in their endings. The only other short stories I know, Gogol? Hawthorne? even at that early time relied on twists just the same. They’re now seen as somewhat juvenile. The same goes for the use of coincidence in all those novels like Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. Twists and coincidences are seen as phony. But I don’t mind them. Because literature is phony. And I suppose I always reach that aesthetic viewpoint in this blog–that I care about what’s beautiful, and very little else.

So it goes in this story, a series of twists and coincidences tightly bundled. Such reflects the Catholic sense of fate due to saintly intervention, indiscernible from that older belief of Italy’s pagans. In this story, a merchant is traveling and ends up with some highwaymen who pretend to be nice guys and later rob him of his money, clothes, and horse. Earlier in the day they’d been discussing what prayers they say, and the merchant declared that every morning he says a prayer asking for safe lodging for the coming night. This night, however, he finds himself hungry and nearly naked in the snow, teeth chattering beside a door in the wall.

Well, it just so happens that on the other side of the door is a beautiful widow taking a bath, and the door he’s at is the one her secret lover uses to sneak in and fuck her. Unfortunately, her secret lover can’t make it that night, on account of some urgent business that’s come up. So she decides to take the bath she’d prepared for him herself.

Now, here’s where I began taking note of a series of events that seemed to me remarkable, being the repossession and sharing of things.

She’s taking the bath she’d prepared for her lover; when she asks her maid to bring in the merchant, she gets out and lets the merchant take the bath; after he finishes, she goes on and takes it. 

Second, her husband has only recently died. She still has all his clothes. The merchant puts on the dead husband’s clothes. And they fit perfectly. This is the glass slipper sort of thing that I love in a story–when by external means a spiritual match is discovered.

Third, she “[makes] him sit familiarly with her by the fire.”

And then, as they talk she “found him much to her liking, and her desires being already aroused for the Marquis, who was to have come to lie with her, she had taken a mind to him,” later explaining to him, “you are in your own house.”

She decides she definitely wants to fuck him, and since the Marquis isn’t coming that night, her maid encourages her to try hooking up with the merchant. Her pick-up line is, essentially, “you remind me of my dead husband, and all night long I’ve just wanted to make-out with you.” The merchant has no problem with this…and then comes the best description of sex I’ve ever read:

The lady, who was all afire with amorous longings, straightaway threw herself into his arms and after she had strained him desirefully to her bosom and bussed him a thousand times and had of him been kissed as often, they went off to her chamber and there without delay betaking themselves to bed, they fully and many a time, before the day should come, satisfied their desires of the other.

And somehow he still gets up in the morning and goes on his way. Oh, and the bad guys get caught and he gets all his stuff back.

Hilarious. And rewarding. I feel a lot better now!

Sade: Philosophy in the Boudoir: “First Dialogue”

So, we proceed through the first dialogue, which contains a hint of incest, some men engaging in violent anal play (a girth of six inches rammed in without lubrication), and perhaps the finest description of a girl ever written in any language.

The audience? Those of whom have a classical education under their belts:

Dear brother, this is my bizarre fantasy: I wish to be the Ganymede of this new Jupiter, I wish to savor his tastes, his debaucheries, I wish to be the victim of his follies.

…I have chosen you…to cull the myrtles of Cythera, and Dolmancé to cull the roses of Sodom.

And the line that made me laugh:

…his bearing and his posture are slightly effeminate–no doubt, because of his habit of frequently acting like a woman.

If you were wondering, I still have a dearth of feeling. You know how, when you are sick, and you don’t want to eat or drink anything, but you know you must, that even if you are not hungry, your body needs nourishment? So you go through the motions, you pretend, you hope that with time you will heal. But for now, you know there are things you cannot fake, you must stay in bed, you must rest and sleep and wait. I’m faking all that I possibly can, but everything, joy, high spirits, anger, fear, desire, thrills, escapes me, in their stead a throbbing dullness that subsides only long enough to discover a stretch of still and uninterrupted sadness, punctuated by little puckering bubbles from whatever little worms are buried beneath, hiding, exhaling, leaving the glassiness pockmarked and sour, before the dullness sets in again. I somehow assume that it’s what I need right now, that there’s something else I should be doing rather than feeling.