The Clare Spark Blog

August 14, 2012

An inside Melville joke

Clare as Isabel with Paul Metcalf’s fake guitar

The first time I visited Herman Melville’s great-grandson, the poet Paul Metalf and his wife Nancy, was probably 1987. He posed me with a guitar that he had made himself as a sly reference to “Isabel”, the dark lady of Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), wherein “Isabel” has a mysterious guitar whose wild melodies inspire “Pierre” the hero (or antihero) of Melville’s “crazy” novel. In a nod to literary cubism, I combined two photographs and here you have me, Isabel curls and all. Paul later made a book out of our correspondence entitled Enter Isabel: The Herman Melville Correspondence of Clare Spark and Paul Metcalf (U of New Mexico P, 1990). One UCLA professor insisted that Paul Metcalf must have invented me out of thin air. What can I add except to say that Paul labored in his vegetable garden daily, and made the Adirondack chairs in which I am seated by himself. Both he and his late wife Nancy were descended from Roger Williams of New England, and Paul was a poet who loved collage, and did his own kind of history. I miss these dear faithful friends more than I can say.


January 31, 2012

The Numbers Game, sadism, and the Decline of Magic

The “real” John Murrell

One of the virtues of the progressive movement in America was the increased deployment of statistics (see Before that, the political culture could rely on wild claims about the nature of the opposition, without deploying expert-developed “scientific” charts and graphs to prove a point. (Not that economists use the same sets of numbers or rely upon identical economic models.)

The reason I bring it up today, is the ongoing appeal of gory stories about the American past that I have found in both fiction and in the writing of history. While reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (1883), I came across his account of the bandit and slave-stealer, “Murel,” but this turns out to be a heavily embellished “tall tale,” according to Wikipedia’s entry on “John Murrell (Bandit).” One cannot discount the public appetite for stories depicting in graphic detail dismembering, disemboweling, decapitations, defenestration, flogging, gouging, cannibalism, vampirism, and every atrocity known to our evil species. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and White-Jacket may appeal to the sadomasochist public more than we know.

After reading about the disgusting “Murel”, I was about to apologize for my reproach to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, for if Murel could perpetrate his massive crimes, why not the horrid characters who murder each other on the borderlands of the Southwest, described by McCarthy?  To be clear, I doubted that records existed that would have matched McCarthy’s imagined violence with real events, especially since McCarthy, unlike the poet-historian Paul Metcalf, did not give a note on sources for the history he purported to represent. The reader may object “but he never said it was history.” That only  makes matters worse to me, for if not grounded in fact, then the author is playing to blood lust in the reader, and to be frank, so does Mark Twain. Why anyone thinks of him as primarily a jolly humorist is beyond me. His work rather suggests a violent, antimodern and misogynistic imagination, larded with a huge dollop of cultural pessimism, (not to speak of internal contradictions). I don’t know how much Life on the Mississippi was influenced by Melville’s synoptic look at industrializing America, also located on the great river, The Confidence-Man, His Masquerade (1857), but the bleakness and accounts of mercantile fraud are common to both. And the Wikipedia article that surveys the many uses of statistical reasoning quotes Mark Twain as a nea-sayer: statistics were damned lies. Here is a sample from chapter nine of Life on the Mississippi that demonstrates a mixture of pride in mastering the technique of piloting a steamboat, but then lapses into regret that the world has been disenchanted by [science]:

[Mark Twain:] “…The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book — a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every re-perusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an ITALICIZED passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?” [End, Twain excerpt]

[Clare:] Many a romantic author (e.g. Wordsworth) has enunciated the same sentiments: “Science”  has disenchanted the world.  Melville made the same complaint in his journal (1857-58), this time blaming the loss of poetic imagination on the higher Biblical criticism. During my graduate school training in history, I remember one tendency among the cultural historians to deplore “fact fetishism.” Such a nosy search for hard evidence was held to be a symptom of feminization, hence the decline of masculinity. The “feminist” demand for “no secrets” was outrageous (again, see Melville’s fear of being caught by the probing female gaze). Similarly, many conservatives rail against “the nanny state.” Are the real men all “lighting out for the territories?”

October 15, 2011

Philip Weiss channels Hawthorne at Arrowhead, 1997

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[This posting may seem frivolous to those new to my website, but since Captain Ahab has come to signify imperialist Amerikkka, what people today say about him has resonance beyond the apparent silliness of this event. To be clear, Adrienne Metcalf is the great-great granddaughter of Herman Melville, and her father Paul Metcalf, was his great grandson, and a poet of some note, also a close friend of Charles Olson, author of Call Me Ishmael, which is still read, and which is still interesting. My mini-biography of Olson in my book, shows his transition from Ahab fan to Ahab opponent, as he climbed the academic ladder.  CS, 10-17-11]

What follows is an excerpt from the Appendix to Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival ( Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 2001, 2006). Weiss’s NYT article supported the rumor that Melville had abused his wife and sons. This rumor had been floating around since the 1920s, but was unsupported by documents from family members and descendants. But discrediting Herman Melville (a stand-in for Captain Ahab) was a major project for the conservative liberals who controlled literary scholarship in the early-mid-20th century.

Philip Weiss, as shown on the Uprooted Palestinians website

[Philip Weiss, author of “Herman-Neutics,” NYT Magazine, 15 Dec. 1996, interrogates the ghost of Herman Melville as channeled through a descendant at Arrowhead, 1 Aug. 1997:] “…My father is a big scientist. As a boy I was sent to science school, taught to shun my grandmother’s superstitions, and packed off to Harvard. Still, all that rationalism hadn’t helped me to get at my true interests. Or as Melville put it: “Science explains it. Bides no less/ The true innate mysteriousness.”

…[Adrienne Metcalf] had artistic ambition, but struggled with the shadow of an ancestor who had “crashed and burned.” Melville’s lesson was that if you followed your passions, you risked madness.   We went to dinner at a tavern, and [Josh Schwartzbach , Adrienne’s companion] said that Melville’s unhappy energy was still in the world, fucking people up. If we channeled Herman we might be able to “heal” him. [The channeling follows: Melville speaks through Adrienne, Ezekiel through Schwartzbach, Weiss pretends he is Hawthorne]:

“Oh lighten up, you old fart,” Ezekiel said.

Suddenly she spoke in a deeper voice.

“Yes well—you are a sonofabitch!”

It was very loud. I was afraid they could hear us back at the house. She pointed at me.

“We don’t want to talk to him!”

“All right well, will you speak with us?” Ezekiel said.

“You are a sonofabitch too!”

“We never had a mother, thank you.”

“Do you think we wanted this?”

“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “Herman , aren’t you ready to give this up?”

“Then die?” she said in a stern crotchety voice.

“Then live. You’re already dead.”

“Well, it has had its perverse pleasures.”

“Yes, certainly so—and admit it, those were the only pleasures that you allowed yourself, the perverse ones.”

“You sting,” she said.

“And we love you.”

“Such is this love—that stings! It is real then is it not.” [sic?]

   Metcalf’s face looked different, more masculine, contorted with anger. She spoke in a weird Englishy old American accent. I couldn’t tell if we were playacting or something was really happening, that Melville was flooding through her. In a way I didn’t care. I had a wash of impressions: How immature Melville was! He was a two-year old, with a two-year old pettishness and playfulness and sulks, something I’d never fully understood from reading him but that now made perfect sense. Then, too, I was slightly horrified at the connection I’d made with Adrienne. I’d met this woman once, now we were virtually confessing love. Was I
connected to her for life? Were we supposed to have sex? Would she hang around my neck? I wanted to get out of there before she overwhelmed me…. When Melville’s waves of atheistical horniness crashed over him, Hawthorne surely had similar feelings and split….

  “You know, Adrienne, I think that Hawthorne compromised himself because of the cerebral judgmental aspect. His art is never as interesting as Melville’s.”….  …I followed their car into Lenox and we had
turkey sandwiches and talked it over. Schwartzbach said that by channeling the energy and healing it, we had changed Melville forever. No longer was Melville an angry betrayed energy. Yes, the love and betrayal had happened between Melville and Hawthorne, but now it was healed it could stop being an urgent emotional reality for us, and became a fable. We could move on.[i]

[i]               59. The report extracted here is taken from the original version of Weiss’ shorter article in the New York Observer; it was sent to Joshua Schwartzbach by e-mail, 20 Aug. 1997 and sent to me by Paul Metcalf, with a note, 5 Sept. 1997, advising “Make of it what you will.” Hershel Parker suspected that I had invented the whole thing. Not true.

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