Reading Moby Dick

Moby Dick big readRecently, coincidental to while I was reading Herman Melville’s classic novel, I read a story that some folks in Vancouver took offence to the name of a restaurant: Moby Dick’s Fish & Chips.

Apparently the property overseers mistook the “Dick” in the name for a euphemism for penis, rather than reading the name of the famous novel in the whole title. A wholly puerile response, I’m sure you can agree. Perhaps many people in Vancouver haven’t even heard of the book, let alone read it, otherwise why would anyone protest? Which is a much sadder statement that the one about political correctness gone wild that the news story makes. It exposes the threadbare fabric of the protesters’ cultural upbringing and education.

But despite these philistines, I finished the book. It took a long time because it’s a long book (more than 206,000 words) and not the easiest to read for several reasons. Not least is my absolute loathing of the whaling industry and the killing of sentient cetaceans. And frankly, my aversion to the whaling aspect had stymied my several previous attempts to finish the novel. But this time I persisted, and was rewarded for the effort.

It’s also difficult because of the way Melville wrote it (first published in 1851) – dense, florid, perambulating stuff. It’s not so much a novel as an extended meditation on sailing, the ocean, whales, whaling, ship technology, weather, natives of the South Seas, the commerce of Nantucket, American values, religion, life and fate. Among other things. He digresses often and at great length. But those digressions add such riches to the narrative that you can’t really bypass them.

Moby Dick is one of those many “must read before I die” books that I have on my bookshelves that I know are great milestones in literature, but have either not caught my prior interest or simply defeated my attempts in the past (I tend to read mostly non-fiction and a lot of it). Many of these titles I know somewhat of through synopses or abridgments, through other media like movies, or through my childhood favourite: Classic Comics. Moby Dick is one of those: I’ve seen the movie, read the comic, read it analyzed and dissected in other books.

A few years back I wrote a post on Melville’s poetry, inspired by reading his powerful poem, The Shark, which got me to thinking about him. Last year, I stood in the Melville Hotel, in Mazatlan, built in the 1870s, and named after the author who had stayed in the town in 1844. That also got me thinking about Melville again.

And finally, I was watching an episode of CSI on DVD, one day in 2016, and the character Gil Grissom, when asked what would he do if he had more time to live, replied he would read Moby Dick again. That stuck with me. It seemed incongruous, and I wondered what impelled the script writers to add that line; why that book. My curiosity was aroused, which encouraged me to finally pick up Moby Dick and not give it up.

Easier said than done (I read around a dozen books at a time, and flit from one to the other every day). But I had help. I came across Moby Dick: Big Read, a project to bring the novel back to prominence through art, and through a reading of its entirety.

All 135 chapters plus the epilogue are read by different people. Normally I don’t like my audiobooks read by such a diverse group, and prefer just one reader, but this worked marvellously well.

I read, I listened, I read some more. I sometimes read a chapter then listened to it. Sometimes I listened to one, but unable to complete it on my walks, returned to finish it through reading. Sometimes I listened then went back to read the words again simply to see if the rhythms were the same as when spoken.
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Auden, Trump and poetry

W. H. AudenThere’s a poem by W. H. Auden (1907-73) going the internet rounds these days with suggestions of Auden’s prescience towards the latest American president and contemporary politics. It’s a powerful piece, but the bad news for conspiracy theorists is that Auden was a poet, not a prophet. A good poet, even a great poet, mind you, but not one to predict much of anything outside the local reaches of the human heart.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s unusual, perhaps bordering on blasphemy, to put poetry in the same headline as the notorious philistine, but worlds do collide at times, even if awkwardly. Lipstick sometimes becomes conflated with the metaphorical pig, guilty by association.

The poem in question – Sept. 1, 1939 – opens like it could have been written by a somewhat later Charles Bukowski:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Waves of anger and fear/ Circulate over the bright/ And darkened lands of the earth… sure sounds like it might have been written with the vast protests that followed Trump’s inauguration: more three times as many people came out to protest in Washington alone than showed up at his inauguration, and that doesn’t include the numbers who marched worldwide. Waves of anger and fear, indeed. But it wasn’t an augury.

September 1, 1939 would have been for Auden’s era and generation a landmark date, like Nov. 22, 1963 was for my time. Maybe January 20, 2017 will be for the current generation. One of those where-were-you-when dates frozen in the neuronic amber of memory. The place, the sounds, the grubby details of that day forever etched in our brains. Auden’s 52nd Street dive. The panzers tearing across Polish farmlands. People running through the crowded streets of Dallas after the shot. The bleak day when Trump raised his hand to be sworn in. Where you you when…?

The date must have been doubly important for Auden, because earlier that year he had left England for America, where he remained the rest of his life. When war was declared, he offered to return home to serve, but was politely rebuffed. At age 32, he wasn’t needed. He stayed in America from then on – making it somewhat difficult to identify him as a strictly English or American poet in anthologies. So the poem is, in a way, a goodbye to a life he left behind.

Auden had increasingly deep political beliefs that sometimes peer through his writing and show their complexity growing with age and wisdom. He spent a year living in Berlin in 1928, and would return to the city several times before WWII broke out. He watched the rise of fascism, anti-semitism. He loved Berlin, but hated what it became under the Nazis.
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On growing old

The first senior's moment

No man is so old that he does not think himself able to live another year. (Nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse vivere)

I was thinking of that line from Cicero this week when I attended a friend’s drop-in post-Christmas party. Most of the many people in attendance were my age or older. Few were under 50. All were active, engaged, alert, conversing and despite the relentless march of time, as alive that evening as they had ever been in their lives. And I suspect most, like me, believe they have many more years, even decades of life ahead of them. We all do, no matter how old we get.

And Canadians have good reason for that optimism, given our high standard of living, our clean air, water, our access to good, healthy food, our civil society, and our excellent publicly-funded health care service. In Canada old age in reasonable health and mental acuity is available for most of us, not just the rich.

As a generation, we are, I think, changing the conversation about aging; changing the social and cultural context around growing old and the inevitable death we all face. It’s in part because the Boomer generation has reached the threshold where death is not some distant possibility and we recognize that. It’s here. Nearby. We read the obituaries of contemporary friends and pop icons almost daily.

But because we have approached our lives more actively and energetically than many previous generations, we bring our optimism to aging. And for many a more pragmatic, accepting approach to death.

I just finished reading two translations of Cicero’s book Cato Maior de Senectute – variously translated as On Aging, On Growing Old or as Philip Freeman gives us, How to Grow Old, written in 44 BCE when Cicero was 62. I recommend it to everyone for its clear, practical approach to old age and dying.

It’s not really a manual, as Freeman’s title suggests (and his, I believe, is the best translation), rather it was written as a series of conversations between an older man and two younger men. Cicero puts his own thoughts and reflections on age into the mouth of the late Cato the Elder (Marcus Porcius Cato) to “give my essay greater weight” as Cicero himself wrote. You can read a Loeb Classic translation from 1923 here.
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The vulgar crowd

HoraceProfanum vulgus. The vulgar crowd. Not, however, as you might suspect, an apt description of the remaining few supporters of The Block that rules Collingwood Council. While perhaps appropriately described, to me that small handful are better described as naïve, gullible and even intellectually vulnerable, moreso than merely vulgar. But that’s not what this post is about.

Odi profanum volgus et arceo. The words open the first ode in Horace’s third book (Carminum Liber Tertius): I shun the profane crowd. Or the uninitiated crowd. The rabble, or mob. As A.S.Kline translates it:

I hate the vulgar crowd, and keep them away:
grant me your silence. A priest of the Muses,
I sing a song never heard before,
I sing a song for young women and boys.

True, the poem has a subtle political context that might make one think of the Block and their disingenuous election campaign, as Kline translates:

It’s true that one man will lay out his vineyards
over wider acres than will his neighbour,
that one candidate who descends to
the Campus, will maintain that he’s nobler,

another’s more famous, or has a larger
crowd of followers: but Necessity sorts
the fates of high and low with equal
justice: the roomy urn holds every name.

The poem is really about the equality that death brings everyone and the pointlessness of our base pursuits. That roomy, capacious urn at the end of the line is where we all eventually end up regardless of our status and wealth. Horace also contemplates how little riches and rank offer in comparison to his small Sabine farm, and says how content he is with his lot.

But as usual, Horace isn’t that simple; the poem has more to contemplate than just one notion. I’m trying to understand it all and the choice of words in the translation matter.
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Eheu fugaces, Postume…

Old ageAlas, Postumus, the swift years slip away. Those words are one translation of the opening line of the 14th Ode in the second book of Horace’s carminas, or songs: Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume/labuntur anni… *

For me, it’s his most moving piece, a bittersweet acceptance of mortality; the inevitability of age and death. Something no one in his or her sixties cannot help but think about. And about which Horace wrote several times.

Many of Horace’s poems are moving; very down to earth. His most touching odes read not so much as poetry meant for a wide audience, but rather as personal meditations on life. Perhaps that accounts for their continued popularity.

I’ve been reading a lot of Horace of late, thanks to a very personal and entertaining book about the poet by Harry Eyres (I reviewed it recently and more about it, below). Being an unlettered autodidact struggling to look ad fontes (to the sources), I find it helps to be introduced into the classics by those who know them better. Once there, I may find my own way or search additional help in understanding.

(Why, I ask myself, did I not take these in school, why was my education so thin on the classics? Remedial self-learning is required…)

For me, these poems also cement a connection across the millennia that divides us. There’s a comfort in knowing that the Romans and others in the past were concerned about the same, basic things that still concern us today, that they wrestled with the same thoughts, worries and joys that keep us awake at night. Once stripped of our shell of trivia, technology and consumerism that often cocoons us, our core focus is still small, biological and deeply personal: life, death, love, sex, relationships, friendships, pleasure, pain, food. Horace writes about them in a very matter-of-fact manner.

And while the ancient Greeks and Romans were also deeply immersed in debating faith, politics and war, Horace for the most part ignores them. Sure, he mentions people, battles, gods quite a lot, but they appear as (for him) common cultural signposts on the journey, not matters of deep concern or belief. Which helps both his continued relevance and allows modern writers (like David Ferry) to translate the poems into something that speaks to us now. Perhaps the continued rewriting for a new audience is why, as Horace wrote, his poems would outlast bronze.

Viktor Frankl wrote that our most deeply held drive is our search for meaning. We all to greater or lesser degree, question why we’re here. What differs, I suppose, is how we choose to deal with that questioning. Do we accept a fixed ideology, a faith, a belief as the unalterable bedrock of meaning, and stop looking further? Stop questioning, stop diving into the dark, unanswered depths? Or, as the Buddha admonished the Kalamas, do we question everything, build our own meaning from the individual blocks of knowledge like some philosophical Lego set?

I prefer to find my own way, even if it means stumbling in the dark for some time (and, yes, I have stumbled, and continue to stumble because it’s a journey with no real end). I personally like to look into the mirror of what others have found to see if I can find my own reflection. Sometimes I can recognize the face peering back. Other times it’s a fun-house mirror that stares at me. What matters is that I keep looking, keep peering into the glass. True my personal, philosophical Lego construction looks a bit dodgy and unstable a lot of the time, but at least it’s my own.

Frankl wrote, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” So I keep looking, keep walking into the dark passage using for a light the works of someone who went before me. Horace is just one of those candles.

But a comforting, increasingly familiar one these days.
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