Tag Archives: Herman Melville

Ray Bradbury on Shakespeare

How long he stood he did not know, but there was a foolish and yet delicious sense of knowing himself as an animal come from the forest, drawn by the fire. He was a thing of brush and liquid eye, of fur and muzzle and hoof, he was a thing of horn and blood that would smell like autumn if you bled it out on the ground. He stood a long long time, listening to the warm crackle of the flames.

—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury’s work transcended genre, as shown in the above lyrical passage from his classic tale of a dystopian future in which books are banned and burned. He was a great poet in all senses of the word because he was a genius, because he was original. And he was original because what underlay his science fiction—its origin—was the best literature. As a boy he was transfixed by The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. But he especially credited Shakespeare and the Bible for providing the metaphorical underpinnings of his visionary prose.

At least that’s what he told Terry Gross in a 1988 interview. Gross asked him how he got to write the screenplay for John Huston’s version of Moby-Dick, which he hadn’t read at the time:

Ray Bradbury’s photo by Steve Castillo/AP

By staying true to my own sense of the poetic. Again, here’s the influence of Shakespeare on my life, the influence of the Bible, which I was raised on. And by staying true to my own sense of poetry and my love of metaphor, which you learn from the Old Testament and the New Testament and you learn from Shakespeare. To speak in tongues, which are so vivid that people will remember the metaphor. And also by staying in love with dinosaurs. I fell in love with dinosaurs when I was five. I was walking along the shore with my wife one night down in Venice, California, this was 1949, and we found the ruins of the old Venice pier, all the bones and the skeleton, the tracks and the ties of the roller coaster, lying there in the sea. And I turned to my wife and I said, “I wonder what that dinosaur is doing lying here on the shore.” She was very careful not to answer. And three nights later I heard something in the middle of the night, I sat up in bed, looked at all the fog out beyond the window, and way out in Santa Monica Bay I heard the braying, the calling, the oconing of the foghorn. Over and over and over again. I said, “Yes that’s it.” The dinosaur heard the foghorn blowing, thought it was another dinosaur calling from a billion years of slumber and swam for an encounter, discovered it was only a damned lighthouse and a damned foghorn, tore the whole thing down and died of a broken heart on the beach. I got out of bed the next day and wrote “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” sent it to the Saturday Evening Post. It was published.

John Huston read that one story, and that changed my life forever, because he thought he smelled the ghost of Melville in that story. What he smelled in it was the ghost of Shakespeare and the ghost of the Bible, huh? And so he called me on the phone and offered me the job and a year later when I was working on the screenplay one night I said, “John, how did I get this job? You know, everyone thought you were crazy.” He said, “Well, I read that story about the dinosaur.” And I said, “Well, I was very honest with you. I told you when I met you, I had never read Melville.” But once I got into Melville, I discovered he had been inspired by the same people who inspired me. So we were twins. He had been called upon by Shakespeare to cough up the white whale.

Bradbury, who never learned to drive a car, wrote about 1,000 words a day on an electric typewriter. He hated negative people, negativity—for all his warnings and dark imaginings, he believed in our species, in its potential and in its latent greatness.

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Filed under Author Interview, fiction, metaphor, NOTED, symbolism, working method

Noted: William T. Vollmann

I believe in the American myth that it is both admirable and even possible to devote one’s life to a private dream. The probability of failing oneself, either through laziness, incompetence or bad luck, or else, worse yet, through dreaming what one only imagined one desired, is terrifying. All the same, you had no more obligation to public dreams which dreamed you wrongly.—William T. Vollmann, Riding Toward Everywhere

W.T. Volmann

I believe Vollmann is some kind of genius, as well as being brave and incredibly hard working. Recently I added to my reading stack his first book, An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or How I Saved the World, written about going to Afghanistan in 1982, at age twenty-three, to help the Afghanis fight the Soviets, and his historical novel The Rifles, and Riding Toward Everywhere, about riding the rails with hoboes.

Publishers Weekly called Volmann “a kind of rogue innocent, a Candide with a supply of condoms and a girl in every port.” Booklist said “differentiating between a Vollmann novel and a collection of his stories is often difficult, because, in his hands, the two forms share a similar structure—are surrealistic, sordid, sensational, and terrific.”

Tony DuShane interviewed for Bookslut the prolific journalist, story writer, and novelist Volmann—author of twenty books totaling many thousands of pages—who won the 2005 National Book Award for his novel Europe Central.

An excerpt of Volmann’s comments to DuShane:

I would say, don’t fixate on getting published because that’s really the least important concern. If you really care about writing, you should do it because it makes you happy and you should be just as happy if you can write something that you think is beautiful and you can keep it in a drawer and show it to a few people and they’re thrilled. That’s just as important. If you can have that attitude, then no one can take the pleasure of it away from you. So often there are beginning writers who put “copyright by” on every page of the manuscript, and they’re so anxious to get an agent and do this and do that. That stuff is irrelevant. That’s like asking a photographer, which is the best equipment, and all that matters is the image. With writing, all that matters is the word.

You have to think of the sad lives and commercial failures, which so many great writers have experienced. Look at somebody like Melville. If you’re an aspiring writer, do you want to write Moby Dick? Sure. Well, if you’re going to do that, that means you’re willing to accept not just no success, but poverty and even a certain measure of disgrace for the rest of your life. Can you proudly accept that? If so, you may still not be a good writer, but you’re on the right track. If your thing is getting recognition as quick as possible, then I would say why, why do you want that, and is writing going to help you do that? And are you going to be a happier person by having that recognition?

Madison Smartt Bell interviewed Volmann for The Paris Review. In it, Vollmann discussed the effects of his sister’s death on him and on his relationship with his parents. He was nine when she drowned, at age six, while he was supposed to be watching her and momentarily daydreamed. Vollmann has typed so much that he suffers from carpal tunnel inflammation and chronically sore hands, and speculates he may have to give up the keyboard for writing by hand in notebooks.

Excerpts of Volmann’s comments to Bell:

When I was writing the first few books, what I would do is write a bunch of sentences and then go back and expand and explode those sentences, pack as much into them as I could, so they’d kind of be like popcorn kernels popping . . . all this stuff in there to make the writing dense, and beautiful for its density. I still do that from time to time, but I’m getting increasingly interested in taking things out as I write. It’s fun for me to try to write concise, compact things. It’s a very good exercise for me. And I think it’s important to try to do different things—change what I write about, and also the way I write. Otherwise, I’d just be repeating myself, which wouldn’t be good for me, or fair to my readers. . . .

The computer really does help. One good thing about having had a job as a programmer is that I learned to look at things on the screen. I don’t really need to hold a piece of paper in my hands to see if the thing works or not. When it’s alive and volatile on the screen, that’s just as good for me. . . . But I think a crucial part to writing, always, is letting it sit; a greater efficiency on the computer can’t really address that problem. Once you’ve finished typing and moving text around and everything else, you have to leave it alone for a while. You do that to see if it stands up, to see if all the loose edges have been trimmed, if it makes sense, if it’s consistent, what shape it really has. You can’t tell that while you’re working on it. The computer also helps in that I work on a lot of books at once—as many as six or seven. . . .

Visual aids are very important to me in my writing. I like to see places that I’m writing about, experience things that I’m writing about. So throughout my career I’ve taken photographs of things, which I can then study. The whole business in Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, when he talks about the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility—a photograph can help you do that. . . . For me, at least, it’s easier to create coherence and beauty on a small scale. Organize a block, reread and rewrite from beginning to end. Afterward, the blocks can be arranged in a narrative or architectonic way, rejiggered accordingly. . . .

I figure some people are watching, but I really don’t care what anybody thinks. All I want to do is be able to have my freedom and do the things in life that I have always wanted to do. I want to see all of these unknown places, walk on the frozen sea as often as I can, and see the jungles. I want to fall in love with beautiful women of all races. Rescue somebody every now and then, improve my painting, and improve my sentence structure. If I can make a living doing that stuff, that’s great, and I will keep doing it, and they can do whatever they want with my image. I couldn’t care less.

 

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Filed under fiction, journalism, NOTED, syntax, working method

That sweet white space

The line break, an extra return after a paragraph that adds white space to a text, has practical and dramatic uses I was slow to understand. I was proud of my verbal transitions, and physical ones seemed like cheating. It took me a while to transcend my guilt, undoubtedly forged in newspapers where column-inches are precious.

But verbal transitions can be lame—they are artificial devices themselves windowblogand often clunky—and line breaks do more than indicate a major shift of location or time: they underscore the material where the break ends. That white space is a dramatic transition and a resonant pause filled with meaning and its own kind of content, a space pregnant with time’s passage and unstated events.

In his essay “This is What the White Spaces Say,” the writer and nonfiction writing theorist Robert Root discusses today’s segmented essay in which the line break is a significant element in the composition. “Segmented essays . . . depend on space, usually expressed as numbers or rows of asterisks or squiggly lines or white breaks in text, as a fundamental element of design and expression,” he writes. “. . . Like musical compositions, nonfiction need not be one uninterrupted melody, one movement, but can also be the arrangement of distinct and discrete miniatures, changes of tempo, sonority, melody, separated by silences.”

My students love trying the technique and discussing their thinking about where and why they’ve used breaks. (One girl confessed they seem like cheating to her, so this Puritanism isn’t just mine.) Undergraduates may miss the rhythm involved, and some happily hit an extra return after every single paragraph in an otherwise linear traditional essay. Students also like to put a dingbat of some sort in the white space, which I dislike but rarely mention. With today’s nonfiction writers using more white space, the unnecessary philodendron leaves or flowers or chuffy hogs that some publishers stick there can annoy. Asterisks are bad enough.

Perhaps the most basic reason for line breaks in traditional work is that they give readers an island where they might rest amidst a sea of dense type. Which raises the question of how white space is used in America’s greatest novel, Moby-Dick, which sprawls to 654 pages in the copy I own. In the book, white represents a hostile blankness epitomizing the indifference of the universe, so one wonders if Melville would dare employ white pauses, and if typographic conventions of the day were a factor when the book was published in 1851. Moby-Dick is famous for its 135 chapters, many of them very short; and Melville regularly ended a chapter and began the next as an almost-seamless continuation—a perfect place for a line break transition.

But . . . he does use line breaks, about four, and the short chapters supply even more emphasis and resonance than mere pauses. (In fact, one famous chapter, 122, is only four lines and is itself mostly white space.) To Melville, the matter was organic, as he explains in the opening of Chapter 63: “Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters.”

Melville employs his  line breaks in the way we do. The first doesn’t appear, by my count, until page 234, in the middle of the short chapter “The Mat-Maker.” His white spaces aren’t completely empty, as they bristle with five asterisks harpooned across their modest wake. The publisher’s unfortunate decision? Maybe not, because there’s a strange place in Chapter 54 where four asterisks trail a sentence, telegraphing a break typographically, not physically—yet another innovation, an ugly one. I wonder if Melville drew them into his draft, though technically dingbats are the publisher’s lookout, at least nowadays, and I think a pure uncluttered white space there would be better. Yet preserve Moby-Dick with such eccentricities: Melville also uses the dash like we do—but sometimes like this,—with that comma, or sometimes a semicolon, before the dash. That’s the nineteenth-century showing in this startlingly modern book. Dash-wise, Melville may seem caught typographically in the evolutionary middle, halfway out of the sea, so to speak; but there were reasons for his variance, subtle in the case of the comma; the semicolon and dash pair makes more obvious sense: a pause;—and then a leap. We’ve largely abandoned that flexibility and have stripped to the plain dash; and to wider, more frequent, and less ornamented white spaces.

These may be small matters in a masterpiece. Yet white space is a powerful structural device and, as I like to tell students, structure is what writers talk about when they talk about writing.

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Annie Dillard on structure in nonfiction

from “To Fashion a Text,” collected in Zinsser: Inventing the Truth

“I like to be aware of a book as a piece of writing, and aware of its structure as a product of mind, and yet I want to see the represented world through it. I admire artists who succeed in dividing my attention more or less evenly between the world of their books and the art of their books. In fiction we might say that the masters are Henry James and Herman Melville. In nonfiction the writer usually just points to the world and says, ‘This is a biography of Abraham Lincoln. This is what Abraham Lincoln was about.’ But the writer may also make of his work an original object in its own right, so that the reader may study the work with pleasure as well as the world that it describes. That is, works of nonfiction can be coherent and crafted works of literature.”

“When I gave up writing poetry I was very sad, for I had devoted fifteen years to the study of how the structures of poems carry meaning. But I was delighted to find that nonfiction prose can also carry meaning in its structures and, like poetry, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme. The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than it is in poetry, and it can handle discursive ideas and plain information as well as character and story. It can do everything. I felt as though I had switched from a single reed instrument to a full orchestra.”

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Filed under aesthetics, craft, technique, creative nonfiction, Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-narrative, fiction, flow, NOTED, poetry, structure

Melville’s thematic fluidity

This is a guest post by Tom Gilbert, my son, a college sophomore majoring in philosophy and film.

“To write a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme.”
–Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

“Everyone knows I’m not a folk singer,” says Jude Quinn/Cate Blanchett/Bob Dylan at the end of I’mbluewaterblog2 Not There, and I might have taken that a little easier if it was said to a superimposed LBJ or questioning reporter. But as it stood, right into the camera, with such an acerbic smile on Blanchett’s face, it was jarring. Todd Haynes’s biopic of Dylan lives on that fleeting edge of self, not so much breaking the fourth wall as balancing on its edge. I reflected on this on my half-hour walk back to my dorm in the bitter cold of finals week, wishing that shot could have lasted a little longer instead of clipping along at 24 frames per second. Film is better at portraying the fluidity of ideas than measuring their depth, and I wished for something that could penetrate that search for identity while balancing the audience’s knowledge and emotions separately. And then I remembered Moby-Dick.

I realized the two works are surprisingly similar: both are immersed in the search for truth, and use a pantheon of characters to portray a fundamentally ambiguous symbol. But where Haynes assumes we already know Dylan and uses that knowledge against us, Melville is tasked with telling an ignorant public just what the hell whaling is. And so he decided to write a textbook.

For nearly every narrative chapter, Melville crafted an explanatory one that dealt with the art of whaling or whales: harpoons, compasses and blubber have entire chapters to themselves. It is impossible to imagine a publisher in today’s world who would be hunky-dory with this. But a writer who allows structure to define narrative will quickly allow it to define theme: the path to cliché., No wonder, then, that the mind-blowing depth and breadth of Moby-Dick would lead to such structural digressions.

So what was Melville’s theme? Many commentators have tried to tear apart the book and find its nub, from the book’s rediscovery in the 1920s to now, but its structural variance defies such a rudimentary summation. What is the whale? Everything and nothing. What does Ishmael want? Truth, companionship, love—the list goes on. Any book with an entire chapter dealing with a whale’s penis is understandably hard to swallow, but as Ishmael opines to the reader, we must look closer.

Amidst myriad chapters of whaledom, let us look at “Fast-fish and loose-fish.”In whaling, Melville/Ishmael explains, a whale is either a fast-fish, meaning that another boat has already spotted it and has first poaching rights on it, or a loose-fish, meaning it is still up-for-grabs. Ishmael believes these terms were introduced in the British fishery for economic reasons, and were modeled after the legal practices in matters of land ownership and marrying women (harpoon puns abound). However, these whaling terms soon became popular with competing religious sects about new converts, or the dynamics of communism, or in philosophical circles (loose-fish retain free will!). Finally Ishmael asks us, are we not all a fast-fish or loose-fish?

Whatever truth Moby-Dick ultimately aims for, we see these kind of rhetorical questions in nearly every chapter, and slowly the reader realizes that Melville’s theme is the search for meaning itself. Ahab’s hunt for Moby-Dick and Ishmael’s digressions are both attempts to understand and quantize the universe. Therefore, such digressions are hardly nonsensical, but instead essential to theme. The anatomy of a whale’s head is itself meaningless to the story, but given a contrast, or a history, or an idea, and suddenly Melville can confront the tenets of transcendentalism. Symbols are meaningless without context. Such a radically changed structure is merely Melville’s decision to let the symbol carry the structure. The divorce of narrative and thematic development is therefore superficial. The epistemological chapters provide character development, philosophical possibilities, and even narrative foreshadowing (I was surprised to find while rereading the novel that Ahab’s fate is revealed in a chapter on harpooning). These two halves of the novel need each other to coexist and point to the philosophic implications of the plot.

We are taught that theme should be woven into a story seamlessly, that the reader should only experience a story’s raison d’etre like the sherbet after a five-course meal, or else the reader will be distracted by inefficient storytelling. This method flows well and sells well, and Hollywood is defined by it. But Melville’s complex structure, which appears to subvert his narrative, is truly in service to his theme.

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