When someone asks me if I’ve read anything amazing lately, I always seem to qualify it, which makes me feel stupid and evasive. “Amazing? Like blew me away amazing?” How lame. I’m thinking this even as I say it. But part of what I mean, I can’t say. I like plenty of books -- recent novels, short stories, nonfiction. There’s no shortage of decent ones out there. Increasingly, though, the books I read give me a sinking feeling. It’s as if I’m drawn to the writer’s world, his or her sensibility, because it agrees with my own take on things. This happened to me recently with Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. Like a lot of people, I’ve long admired Denis Johnson’s work -- Jesus’ Son and Fiskadoro in particular. These books took me out of myself, what I thought I knew. But I kept wanting Tree of Smoke to be better, more self-shattering (of himself, myself), in some vague way. Less intent on being the idea of a legendary book and more intent on creating a legendary book’s effects, on doing what legendary books do. What are those effects? Where are my criteria? I’m a novelist; shouldn’t I know? Again, the sinking feeling. The stammering on about whether I’ve been amazed or blown away.
The past few years, I’ve turned to reading fiction I raced through or ignored when I was younger. Books that under-whelmed me then, most likely, because I lacked the sustained attention to read them. Or maybe they’re simply books you grow into. In any case, there’s something about the way they speak to me now. They touch on that vague sense of what’s missing, if they don’t always name it. They make me think that, even now, if we’re looking in the right place and in the right way at the right time, we might just be blown away. Moby Dick is this kind of book. And whenever someone mentions it, there are usually three distinct responses -- eyes rolling dismissively, eyes averted in shame at never having read it, or eyes flashing ecstatically -- then the stammering starts.
In November of 1851, Herman Melville wrote an ecstatic letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne thanking him for his kind words about Moby Dick. Melville most likely felt, in his heart of hearts, that Hawthorne had misgivings about the book -- probably thrown off by the novel’s bizarre structure and odd tone, what Melville called his “botchings.” Waiting on Hawthorne’s reply, Melville had lost sleep. Wasn’t eating much. During the day, he most likely sat fidgeting at his writing desk, Greylock Mountain looming darkly in his window, like a photo negative of a breaching whale. But here, finally, was a letter from the man who wrote The House of Seven Gables, a writer Melville had called an American Shakespeare, praising Melville’s plunge into the depths. Melville was drunk on Hawthorne. Possessed by his darkness. And quite possibly in love. Melville tries, with something close to a stammer, to tell Hawthorne how his letter has affected him.
Your letter was handed me last night on the road going to Mr. Morewood's, and I read it there. Had I been at home, I would have sat down at once and answered it. In me divine magnanimities are spontaneous and instantaneous -- catch them while you can. The world goes round, and the other side comes up. So now I can't write what I felt. But I felt pantheistic then -- your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God's. A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb. Ineffable socialities are in me. I would sit down and dine with you and all the gods in old Rome's Pantheon. It is a strange feeling -- no hopefulness is in it, no despair.
You get the sense, reading Melville’s reply and a few of his other letters at the time, that he was terribly lonely. That there were few people he could talk to (his marriage was drifting sideways and down), fewer still who understood how far out to sea he’d gone with his whale. He was trying to establish some kind of common footing on a pitching deck, something, given his and Hawthorne’s different temperaments, that was probably impossible in the end. And though Hawthorne’s original letter of praise has been lost, Melville senses that this letter might be a frozen moment of understanding, a flash of lightening illuminating some impending wave:
Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips -- lo, they are yours and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces. Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling… you did not care a penny for the book. But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled [it] -- and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul. Once you hugged the ugly Socrates because you saw the flame in the mouth, and heard the rushing of the demon, -- the familiar, -- and recognized the sound; for you have heard it in your own solitudes.
The language is over the top, sure. But that’s the point. Something big is at stake here. Time and space maybe. We’re talking about the “flame in the mouth.” The prophetic voice. It’s interesting that Melville implies, at the end of the letter, that you can only hear this voice in solitude -- in your own aloneness. As you read the endorphin-fueled P.S. at the end of his letter, a part of you -- even if you know the tragic trajectory of the rest of Melville’s life -- thinks maybe, for a short time, he’s somehow transcended that aloneness, that Hawthorne’s heart does beat in Melville’s ribs and Melville’s in Hawthorne’s, and both in God’s. You feel caught up in the essential recognition of something imperative but hard to name, just as you do in Moby Dick, when you read it with fresh eyes. Melville suddenly casting the Pequods crew in play on the quarterdeck. Pip, thrown over board, seeing God’s foot on the treadle of the loom of time. Ahab and his humanities. Queequeg’s mysteriously carved coffin bobbing to the surface. And it’s this ineffable experience, the delving into the mystery of things, that many of us are looking for, I think. We know it. We can feel its shape. Hear it in the silence. Melville again:
PS--I can't stop yet. If the world was entirely made up of Magians, I'll tell you what I should do. I should have a paper-mill established at one end of the house, and so have an endless riband of foolscap rolling in upon my desk; and upon that endless riband I should write a thousand -- a million -- billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you. The divine magnet is on you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish question -- they are One.
E.M. Forster said in his excellent chapter on the prophetic voice in Aspects of the Novel: “Nothing can be stated about Moby Dick except that it is a contest. The rest is song.”
And where do we find more songs that begin in a stammer?