Conducting a cursory Google search of the words “Where I Lived, and What I lived For,” I was pleased to discover that an indie-rock/folk album had recently been released under the same title. I was further pleased to learn that the album belongs to a fellow Hamiltonian named Scott Orr.
Orr has recorded three full-length albums and two EPs. He is the Head of Artist Development at Other Songs Music Co., which won ‘Music Label of the Year’ at the 2011 Hamilton Music Industry Awards.
Released in February of 2011, Orr’s Where I Lived, and What I Lived For is a softly-sung and economically written album with a minimalist feel that achieves melodies both calming and haunting. Orr’s aesthetic is, I think, in keeping with Thoreau’s own philosophies and the themes of Walden. I mean it as the highest praise to say that Orr’s songs are simple: honest, unpretentious, and expert – da Vinci said simplicity is the hallmark of sophistication.
The entire album may be listened to, as well as purchased, here: http://shop.othersongsmusic.com/album/where-i-lived-and-what-i-lived-for
He also has a terrific website: http://scottorrmusic.tumblr.com/
It’s a nice reminder that Thoreau and his ideas remain relevant.
There is, I think, a trend spanning art of all genres and media in recent years that summons the philosophies of Walden with a sense of nostalgia. I’m thinking of a number of things: in the culinary arts, slow and local food is in fashion right now, as is urban farming. Buffalo plaid is once again popular, with all its allusions to frontier life and self-sufficiency, recalling the likes of such American folk heroes as Paul Bunyan. In music, such as with Orr, I think of artists like Sufjan Stevens and Fleet Foxes, as well as The Be Good Tanyas, Josh Ritter, and Sarah Harmer (another Hamiltonian). I wonder if traces of Thoreau live on in these ways. Is Walden alive in musical traditions like bluegrass and folk and alt-country?
Of course, almost everything is vulnerable to corruption or, at the very least, use in a way that emphasizes its ambivalence. In recent years, the Levi’s Denim company capitalized on what I would call certain Thoreauvian aesthetics, the suggestion of his philosophes. In commercials directed by Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre and Jayne Eyre) and John Hillcoat (The Road and, forthcoming, The Wettest County in the World), Levi’s summons the great themes of American Exceptionalism, of Manifest Destiny, of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, of living, as Thoreau says, deliberately. Fukunaga’s commercial features a narration using Whitman, who we shall soon read.
The commercials are beautifully rendered, but not unproblematic. Indeed, they are largely problematic. The use of Wagner’s beautiful and ever-ascending Das Rheinegold is particularly effective in achieving a sense that the way of life Thoreau advocates is within our grasp, if only we seize it. Well, it is and it isn’t. Regardless. Judge the ads for yourself:
Relatedly, we sadly will not cover Resistance to Civil Government in lecture. But don’t discount reading it. It is particularly important right now, as the Occupy Wall Street movement that spanned the globe is subject to reassessment, camps having been torn down by dispassionate police wielding pepper spray, obeying orders (however Eichmannesque) while activists remain no less passionate or justified. Indeed, the methods of protestors is not perfect, it is certainly a sort of mishmash movement, but that doesn’t discredit real fear of what Chomsky calls the Corporate-State complex and what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex (among many, many other “state complex” permutations). Ours is fast becoming a frightening and unsustainable way of life. Civil resistance to government is required for democracy to remain democratic. And American writers, in the tradition of Thoreau, are lending their support to this most recent phenomenon of democratic disobedience. Check out the online petition in support of OWS that many notable writers have signed and contributed insightful pieces. Among them: Lemony Snicket, Judith Butler, David Bezmozgis, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Jonathon Lethem: http://occupywriters.com/
As you may know by now, thanks to the screen-spanning Google Doodle tribute, Samuel Longhorne Clemens, better known by his pseudonym, Mark Twain, author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (pub. 1865), was born on this day in 1835.
We read Huck Finn next term. I can’t wait. It’s one of the most exciting novels I’ve ever read. So, from the depths of my bottomless respect for Mr. Twain, I extend best wishes to his lively spirit. He’s stirring up mischief somewhere.
Here’s footage taken by Thomas Edison of Twain at his estate in 1909:
It is obvious by now that Melvillean prose features no shortage of allusions to myriad narrative traditions and historical events. His dense stories are indeed exciting, at turns fast paced and electric with drama, action, and philosphy, but there is also the feeling that the author’s wisdom and knowledge was so deep, so detailed, that to try to delve into and eventually achieve an intimate and expert understanding of each and every allusion requires, what, an entire term? A year? Years? A lifetime? Indeed, careers are built on it.
Here to help this ongoing effort is an online hypertext version of Billy Budd, Sailor. It is based on the Weaver edition of the novella, not the definitive Hayford-Sealts edition we use in 2H06, but this resource offers up its own unique advantage: the ability to investigate allusions as one reads.
We know hypertext, primarily I would think, for its ability to keep us wandering through Wikipedia pages for hours on end. However, this online resource, designed by the University of Virginia’s David Padella, is intended to provide readers “a framework for some of the lines of allusion, help the student better visualize the naval scenes, and generally provide some structure for the student so that his reading is as full as possible.” And while Padella emphasizes that “There can never be a substitute for engagement between reader and text,” he nonetheless believes that his hypertext version of Billy Budd may help the reader to “better understand this story by grasping some key vocabulary, recognizing some key literary conventions, and being able to picture the flow of action.”
Indeed, this is a very helpful site worth spending some time with.
So check it out and dive into, if you will, the many fathoms of Melville’s power for allusion: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/bb/bb_main.html
The anniversary came and went, and it even fell on a day we had lecture, and yet we failed to acknowledge the event: on November 14, 1851, the first single volume Moby-Dick, or the Whale was published in New York by Harper and Brothers (now HarperCollins).
Happy 160th birthday, Moby-Dick.
And with that, we leave the white whale (but does the white whale ever leave us?), destined for the pages of Billy Budd, Melville’s final and unfinished book, which remained unpublished until the author’s first biographer discovered the manuscript among Melville’s archives in 1919 and saw it through to publication five years later.
But I am reluctant to leave Moby-Dick behind. I love that book. Anyone who reads it should love it, if only because they read it, if only because they entered into it and made it through, exhausted, but alive and better for it.
So check out this compelling illustration by artist Tom Neely (http://www.iwilldestroyyounews.blogspot.com/), which depicts the novel’s conclusion and shows, upon close inspection, Ahab being dragged to his death, tethered to the monster he obsessed over by the rope of the very harpoon he created and cast into the beast. Queequeg is similarly shown about halfway down on the right hand side; other unique crew of the Pequod appear as well. Ishmael clings to Queequeg’s coffin at the top left of the image; behind him, and only just, the tip of the Rachel appears, destined to save him.
The image at the very top of this post is by Mark Weaver, and is available on his Flickr page (http://www.flickr.com/photos/markweaver/page5/).
Hick’s painting is based on Isaiah 11, which prophesies the coming of the Messianic Kingdom:
11:5 And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.
11:6 The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
11:7 And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
11:8 And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.
11:9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
I’ve belaboured expressing my opinion that the actor Daniel Day Lewis may as well have been bred in a lab for the sole purpose of playing Captain Ahab, so after this post I won’t mention it again. But some video evidence is wanting, so I’ve scoured Youtube for concise examples to illustrate my point in full before I drop it once and for all.
In the first clip, Lewis plays the antagonist Bill “the Butcher” Cutting in Scorcese’s Gangs of New York (2002). With the American flag draped around his neck and over his shoulders, Cutting talks to his protege and would-be assassin about his own obsessions. He describes what may as well be Ahab’s first encounter with the white whale and the event that inspired the megalomania which controls him. Not surprisingly, Cutting, like Ahab, has a scar down his face, the product of that first encounter. With the linguistic flair of Ahab, Cutting describes his violent methods and motivations. Be warned, this clip features some choice language and grisly descriptions and, as they say, may not be suitable for all viewers:
The next clip comes from Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), and features Lewis as the misanthropic oil tycoon Daniel Plainview. Here, speaking candidly to a stranger posing as his long lost brother, Plainview confesses his general hate for everything and everyone (apologies that you must click through. It won’t feature directly):
The trailer, again:
There. Have I convinced you? I hope so. But I must temper my argument with this: while I think Lewis is a robot constructed to the exact proportions of Melville’s Ahab, I am happy that his career circles, as it were, Ahab, rather than casting a harpoon into him directly. Something in the imagination dies when a character from a book is commandeered, often poached, by the performance of a living, breathing actor. For the reader, Ahab is like the white whale: valuable because he is pursued.
On Thursday, October 27th, I published a post in which I hoped to prepare us for the magnitude of Melville’s Moby-Dick, or the Whale. It is unlike any other novel we will encounter in this course. It is, like it’s titular beast, ubiquitous. Days ago I came across a review of a new book called Why Read Moby-Dick? (Viking Books 2011) at the New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2011/11/what-moby-dick-means-to-me.html).
The reviewer, Philip Hoare, admits maintaining a distance from the novel for thirty years before finally attempting to conquer it, after which he found himself unable to put it down: “I’d carry about with me a tiny, Oxford World Classics edition, anonymously bound in blue cloth, to be studied chapter by chapter, like the Bible or the Koran, as I sat on the Tube or on an airplane, or in the early hours of the morning.”
What Hoare discovered was that Moby-Dick is something beyond, something that may even explode, the idea of the novel as a literary institution. “It’s barely a book at all. It’s more an act of transference, of ideas and evocations hung around the vast and unknowable shape of the whale, an extended musing on the strange meeting of human history and natural history. It is, above all, a sui-generis creation, one that came into the world as an unnatural, immaculate conception.”
Reading it, he says, is “a bit like being stoned.”
Calling Why Read Moby-Dick? “provocative,” Hoare praises the author, celebrated American writer Nathaniel Philbrick, for creating “a collection of elegant essays, an eclecticism that it shares with its subject…[which] seeks to make us look again at the paradoxes of what [Philbrick], like many others before him, acclaims as ‘the greatest American novel ever written’.”
Hoare concludes the review by focusing on one of Melville’s semi-prophetic tangential chapters: Chapter 105, “Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish? – Will he Perish?”
Hoare’s interest in ending the review with this question, this chapter, emphasizes Melville’s prescience, arguable his greatness, if only because his work taps into questions and anxieties that continue to haunt us figuratively and very literal:
“[Having] posed this question, Melville, a perennial contrarian, comes to a contrary conclusion, his summary is certainly predictive. Three hundred and sixty thousand blue whales died in the cetacean Armageddon of the twentieth century, reducing the world’s largest animal to a population of just a few thousand.
“Yet, in the wake of the moratorium on the hunting of great whales implemented by the International Whaling Commission, in 1986, whales appear to have recovered. Earlier this year, in the waters of the Indian Ocean off the tip of Sri Lanka, I saw dozens of blue whales, their thirty-foot blows as tall as houses. That vast biomass was an Edenic sight, a glimpse of the world before “Moby-Dick.” Blue whales now swim up the Irish Sea, and last month Captain Mark Dalomba was astonished to see one from the wheelhouse of his Dolphin Fleet whale-watch boat off Provincetown, on Cape Cod.”
Hoare’s focus on Moby-Dick‘s immediacy allows us to consider how else Melville demonstrated an uncanny ability for prescience through fiction. Consider his brilliant story “Bartleby the Scrivener: a Story of Wall Street,” (1853) about a quiet and hard-working human photo-copier in a Manhattan legal office who, as time passes, become less an employee and more of an occupier, until he only ever utters the words, “I would prefer not to.” Soon, Bartleby prefers not to do anything, including the work placed before him or remove himself from the office. He camps out at his desk, repeating his five word phrase like a monk, until his employer is forced to vacate the building and move his business to another. I won’t give away the ending. The story, in its entirety, is available on Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/11231/pg11231.html.
With the Occupy Wall Street movement in mind, “Bartleby the Scrivener” never felt so immediate and the words “I would prefer not to” never so loaded.
In my next post, Youtube videos!
Readings for Monday’s Class, November 14:
Chapter 36: The Quarter Deck
Chapter 72: The Monkey-Rope
Chapter 87: The Grand Armada
Chapter 96: The Try-Works
Readings for Wednesday’s Class, November 16:
Chapter 99: The Doubloon
Chapters concerning Pip:
Chapter 93: The Cast Away
Chapter 125: The Log and Line
Chapter 129:The Cabin. Ahab and Pip.
Chapter 128: The Pequod meets the Rachel
Chapter 132: The Symphony