Monday, December 14, 2015

"by diligent study and a series of systematic visits" Melville admires Turner

Moby-Dick, Chapter 3 "The Spouter-Inn"

Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. On one side hung a very large oil painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal crosslights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.--It's the Black Sea in a midnight gale.--It's the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.--It's a blasted heath.--It's a Hyperborean winter scene.--It's the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture's midst. THAT once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?

In fact, the artist's design seemed this: a final theory of my own, partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject. The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.


8 comments:

  1. frequently unnoticed or misunderstood is melville's sense of humor. it's there in the above quote, but really breaks loose in the episode inwhich queegqueeg and ishmael share the same room in the spouter inn. it's been fifty years or more since i read the book, but i still get a smile when thinking about it...

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    1. There's humor all through Moby-Dick. It's an amazing book; I should read it again soon. There's even humor in Queegqueg's demand aboard the Pequod that the carpenter build him a casket.

      I read somewhere recently that Melville was living in London when he started writing the novel, going to see Turner's maritime paintings, walking along the Thames, talking to sailors and whaling men. Far across the sea from Nantucket. Allegedly the painting in the above passage is inspired by the work Turner.

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  2. what's the attribution on the painting? looks like a turner, but qien sabe? what with the whale eye and the blood, it would sure fit with the book... looking closer, the pointy images to the left of the ship(portside) might be boats, i presume. it almost looks like there's another ship behind the front one. i've had trouble in the past trying to figure out turner's paintings sometimes. and it kind of looks like a rock reef beside the boats. altogether, probably more in my brain than in the picture...

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    1. "Whalers," circa 1845, JMW Turner. Given that date, clearly not the painting Melville was thinking of when he was writing Moby-Dick. Some of Turner's later whaling pictures are quite abstract, very beautiful.

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    2. Wait, Melville was in London in 1849, while he was writing the novel I think. I was a decade off with my date on the publication of MD. Anyway, I don't want to make too much of the Turner/Melville connection.

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  3. Melville would have been able to see Turner engravings in the US, too, so he would not have to rely entirely on memory.

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    1. A couple (at least) of American scholars have argued that Turner's influence is all over Moby-Dick. I think that might be too much to claim, as I don't recall the novel being particularly visual. But I think I'll read it again this summer and see what I think.

      There are so many ways a novelist can assemble his materials, fill up his creative well as it were. At some point, though, history and facts and reality stop mattering as much as the novelist's imagination, which in a good writer is always stronger than reality (or "reality"). So does knowing about Turner help us understand Melville's book? I'm not sure I know what "understanding" a work of art actually is, though. This is why I'm not a great blogger about literature: I have no place to stand, no position to defend. I'm like a picador, pricking away at and exhausting the bull of literature, but never moving in for the kill.

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  4. i remember when i read it my high school english teacher's only comment was"what about the biblical language?". i think too strictured criticism often degrades into personal bias; a larger view is more useful. nicht wahr?

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