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Why Newtown victim Noah Pozner had an open coffin February 1, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Gun Control/Violence.
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If Americans knew what bullets did to human flesh, they would support gun control.
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Family photo / AP

Noah Pozner, 6: “There was no mouth left,” his mother said. “His jaw was blown away.”

By: Columnist, Published on Tue Jan 22 2013

If Americans knew what bullets did to human flesh, they’d support gun control. So perhaps they should be shown in living colour what bullets do to small bodies. A mere description is insufficient for the literal-minded.

Noah Pozner, 6, was one of the 20 child victims in the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14. All the dead were shot between three and 11 times. Tiny Noah took 11 bullets. His mother, Veronique, insisted on an open coffin, Naomi Zeveloff reported in the Jewish Daily Forward.

You’ll probably remember Noah. He was a happy little guy with beautiful heavily lashed eyes and a cheerful smile. In his coffin, there was a cloth placed over the lower part of his face.

“There was no mouth left,” his mother told the Forward. “His jaw was blown away.”

She put a stone in his right hand, a “clear plastic rock with a white angel inside.” She wanted to put a matching stone in his left hand but he had no left hand to speak of.

Parents of the dead children were advised to identify them from photographs, such was the carnage. But every parent reacts differently. Veronique Pozner did the most difficult thing. She asked to see the body. Zeveloff asked her why.

“I owed it to him as his mother, the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said. “. . . And as a little boy, you have to go in the ground. If I am going to shut my eyes to that I am not his mother. I had to bear it. I had to do it.”

When the governor of Connecticut arrived, she brought him to see Noah in the open casket. “If there is ever a piece of legislation that comes across his desk, I needed it to be real for him.” The governor wept.

Death by gun isn’t real to us because we see it only in the movies. We occasionally see photos of human beings as meat, but they are almost always meat belonging to non-white foreigners after a bombing.

Those grieving often don’t share an editor’s delicate sensibilities. Jackie Kennedy, on Air Force One after JFK was shot on Nov. 22, 1963, was asked to change her clothes because the sight of JFK’s blood and brains was upsetting people. She cleaned her face and discarded her pillbox hat, but kept the bloodstained suit on. “Let them see what they’ve done,” she said. Mass shootings had not yet begun.

And what about the case of Emmett Till? Online Reddit readers commented on one obvious link with Noah.

Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago, was hideously murdered in 1955 while visiting relatives in Mississippi. Allegedly, he had whistled at a white woman. Till was kidnapped, beaten, had one of his eyes gouged out, was shot in the head and his corpse tied with barbed wire to a 70-pound weight and dumped in a river.

His mother asked for an open coffin. “I want the world to see what they did to my baby,” she said.

The photo was reproduced and Till’s death became a huge news story. Three months later, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus and the civil rights movement took a leap forward.

In these three cases, we see the difference between “telling” and “showing,” an old concept in literary criticism. Novelists can “show” events and let the reader draw their own conclusions or they can “tell” the reader the plot as it unfolds.

But the literary critic Wayne Booth came up with the concept of the “unreliable narrator.” Can you trust what you are being told? Reporters can tell you that 20 children were shot. But since American gun owners think reporters are unreliable narrators in the first place, perhaps they have to be shown what one man did to Noah because he had, not just one bullet, but a magazine of bullets.

We saw JFK’s skull fly apart. Emmett’s unrecognizable face was on show.

And that’s why Noah’s mother asked the governor to come and see her child’s corpse. He had already been told. He had to see it for himself.

 

Why can’t a woman write the Great American Novel? February 24, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture.
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Female authors hold their own on the bestseller lists, but Elaine Showalter’s provocative new history wonders why they get so little respect.

By Laura Miller

Feb. 24, 2009 | Every few years, someone counts up the titles covered in the New York Times Book Review and the short fiction published in the New Yorker, as well as the bylines and literary works reviewed in such highbrow journals as Harper’s and the New York Review of Books, and observes that the male names outnumber the female by about 2 to 1. This situation is lamentable, as everyone but a handful of embittered cranks seems to agree, but it’s not clear that anyone ever does anything about it. The bestseller lists, though less intellectually exalted, tend to break down more evenly along gender lines; between J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer alone, the distaff side is more than holding its own in terms of revenue. But when it comes to respect, are women writers getting short shrift?

The question is horribly fraught, and has been since the 1970s. Ten years ago, in a much-argued-about essay for Harper’s, the novelist and critic Francine Prose accused the literary establishment — dispensers of prestigious prizes and reviews — of continuing to read women’s fiction with “the usual prejudices and preconceptions,” even if most of them have learned not to admit as much publicly. Two years before that, Jane Smiley, also writing in Harper’s, alleged that “Huckleberry Finn” is overvalued as a cultural monument while “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is undervalued, largely because of the genders of the novels’ respective authors; the claim triggered a deluge of letters in protest. Alongside the idea that women writers have been unjustly neglected, there has blossomed the suspicion that some of them have recently become unduly celebrated — an aesthetic variation on the conservative shibboleth of affirmative action run amok.

Onto this mine-studded terrain and with impressive aplomb, strides Elaine Showalter, literary scholar and professor emerita at Princeton. Showalter has fought in the trenches of this particular war for over 30 years, beginning with her groundbreaking 1978 study, “A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brontë to Lessing,” and culminating in her monumental new book, “A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx.” Billed as “the first comprehensive history of American women writers from 1650 to 2000,” “A Jury of Her Peers” has to negotiate the treacherous battlefield between the still-widespread, if fustian insistence on reverence for Great Writers and the pixelated theorizing of poststructuralists hellbent on overturning the very notion of “greatness.”

Showalter is certainly the woman for the job. One of the founders of feminist literary criticism, she has also written about television for People magazine and confessed her penchant for fashion in Vogue. Unquestionably erudite, she has always striven to communicate with nonacademic readers, and her prose is clear, cogent and frequently clever. She has insisted that themes central to women’s lives — marriage, motherhood, the tension between family and individual aspirations — constitute subject matter as “serious” and significant as traditionally masculine motifs like war and travel. Yet she rejects the preference of many feminist literary scholars for emphasizing “culture importance rather than aesthetic distinction,” and she doesn’t hesitate to describe some of the writers discussed in “A Jury of Her Peers” as artistically limited, if historically interesting.

All of this is controversial enough in Showalter’s chosen profession, and “A Jury of Her Peers” mostly steers a judicious middle course, examining the major figures in depth while giving a nod to innovators who may not be well known or exceptionally brilliant. (The latter includes many 19th-century authors but also some 20th-century writers more notable for the “cultural importance” of their subjects — Anzia Yezierska on the lives of Jewish immigrants, for example, or Jessie Redmon Fauset on the genteel black middle class of the ’20s and ’30s — than for the power of their work.) Most illuminating, she will, when needed, chart the rise and fall of the reputation of someone like Sarah Orne Jewett (who wrote about late 19th-century life in the small towns of coastal Maine), a trajectory that went from being “patronized as the epitome of the little woman writer” in her own time to being touted as a “recovered” feminist pioneer in the 1970s and ’80s, and finally, in the ’90s, to being “excoriated and banished by feminist critics for her endorsement of bourgeois values and her political thought crimes.”

Jewett’s posthumous “dizzy ride on the roller coaster of critical politics” offers a textbook case of the absurdities of ideological criticism in the late 20th century. One scholar convinced herself that the meandering structure of Jewett’s best-known work, “The Country of Pointed Firs” (a lovely book, by the way), was intended to be a weblike, “feminine” alternative to the oppressively “masculine” convention in which a linear plot accelerates to a climax; a more circular story supposedly corresponds to the purportedly non-goal-oriented unfolding of women’s sexual response. This dubious sort of analogy is surprisingly popular among academic critics, despite the fact that the vast majority of women readers have always exhibited a hearty appetite for linear narratives — much as most women, when given a choice, would prefer to have that orgasm, thanks very much.

Showalter gently but firmly suggests that the lack of resolution at the end of “The Country of Pointed Firs” is instead merely the result of a failure of technique. Jewett had difficulties with plot because satisfying plots are difficult to write, a challenge that most novelists — including Jewett herself and several others covered in “A Jury of Her Peers” — have readily acknowledged. As an active participant in the birth and coming-of-age of a new school of criticism, Showalter knows well that an excessively political approach can lead a critic to similarly silly, baroque conclusions, which may in part explain why “A Jury of Her Peers” contains, on balance, more history than interpretation.

Nevertheless, if you’re inclined to make interpretations yourself, Showalter offers more grist for the mill than a hundred volumes of theory. Why, for example, did Britain produce several women novelists of genius during the 19th century — Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontës, as well as accomplished lesser artists like Elizabeth Gaskell — while America did not? That question could (and sometimes does) lead to a lot of speculation on the national characters of the English-speaking peoples, but Showalter mentions an equally plausible, practical cause: “While English women novelists, even those as poor as the Brontës, had servants, American women were expected to clean, cook and sew; even in the South, white women in slaveholding families were trained in domestic arts.” Quite a few of the short biographical sketches she offers feature women complaining about being compelled by parents to learn to make pies or mend when they would rather write. In 1877, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps made the heroine of her novel, “The Story of Avis,” fume, “I hate to make my bed, and I hate, hate to sew chemises, and I hate, hate, hate to go cooking round the kitchen.”

Housework in America has never been an uncomplicated matter. The class system in Britain consigned a certain set of people to this humble labor, while America promised the enterprising among them an opportunity to make something more of their lives. Nevertheless, the cooking and cleaning still had to be done — especially on the small family farms that were the economic engines of early America — and so the responsibility for it was transferred from a servant class to the female relatives of the new republic’s self-made men.

America is the first nation united by ideas rather than a shared cultural and racial history, and foremost among those ideas is the paradigm of self-invention, via hard work, in the free territory of the frontier. Our literary culture has always hankered after fiction that, in one way or another, embodies this hope. “The answer to the American quest for originality,” Showalter writes, “seemed to lie in the coming of the poet-hero, a genius who, through divine inspiration, would create immortal works, and an art commensurate with the vastness of the nation and the scope of its dreams.” Only such a protean figure could sum up the whole country in a single work. This in turn led to the fantasy of the Great American Novel — and also to a condition that I like to think of as Great Literary American Novel Syndrome, a term whose acronym, GLANS, gives you a pretty good idea of just who’s expected to write the thing.

If rugged individualism was the sacred vocation of the American male, then cooking his meals, keeping his house and raising his children became by necessity the holy and ordained duty of the American female; the very soul of the nation rested upon it! The majority of the women writers whose lives and work Showalter chronicles wrestled with the nagging feeling that they were going against nature as well as country in pursuing what was rightfully a man’s work. She detects the persistent recurrence of images of freaks and hybrids in the poetry and fiction of American women, and a taste for the grotesque and the gothic in writers like Flannery O’Connor and the great, underrated Shirley Jackson. Other women authors constantly made gestures of self-deprecation, beginning with the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, who wrote “Men can do best, and Women know it well./ Preeminence in all and each is yours.” They felt hemmed in by the need to observe a ladylike decorum and to disavow any great literary ambition. No wonder, then, that much of American women’s writing before the 1960s can seem cramped and apologetic compared to their more entitled sisters across the Atlantic, let alone compared to a rampant (if charming) egoist like Walt Whitman.

The obvious subject for such women was what they knew: home life. But, as Showalter observes, “Domestic fiction has been the most controversial genre in the literary history of American women’s writing, an easy target for mockery and an embarrassment to feminist critics who wish to change the canon.” Margaret Fuller articulated that ambivalence when she announced that she wanted to “not write, like a woman, of love and hope and disappointment, but like a man, of the world of intellect and action”; she never managed to pull it off. Meanwhile, titans like Nathaniel Hawthorne complained of a “damned mob of scribbling women,” whose sentimental tales of love and family outsold his own books. By the 1850s, according to Showalter, “the American literary marketplace became a battlefield between women and men,” with the sales mostly going to the women and the esteem reserved for the men. Even socially influential writers, like Harriet Beecher Stowe (teased by Abraham Lincoln for starting the Civil War), got sniffed at by the critical establishment, and it only got worse when the 20th century ushered in the cult of the he-man novelist as personified by Ernest Hemingway. (The leftist writer Meridel Le Sueur complained that an editor rejected one of her stories for lacking the requisite amount of what she called “fishin’, fightin’ and fuckin’.”)

The indignant litany of insults and hindrances flung at woman writers throughout history has become a familiar motif in feminist literary criticism, and Showalter wisely refuses to indulge in it overmuch. She prefers to focus on what they brought to the table. Still, surveying this history, it seems that before the 1970s there was nothing more conducive to a woman’s literary success than the failure of the men in her life. More often than not, what prompted these writers to sit down at their desks and send out their manuscripts to magazines and book publishers was the bankruptcy, desertion, idleness or death of her husband or father. When the touted sanctuary of the nuclear family let them down, and they needed the money to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads, their talents were finally loosed. Women like Stowe apparently supported hordes of relatives with her pen. Yet despite this manifest evidence that the traditional, conventional gender roles really don’t fit all, only a few American literary women (rich women like Edith Wharton, lesbians like Willa Cather and the odd wild card femme fatale like Edna St. Vincent Millay or Katherine Anne Porter), ever felt entirely at ease in their profession.

This began to change in the 1960s and ’70s, and Showalter, building on past work, describes the evolution of “the American female tradition” as going through four stages: “feminine,” “feminist,” “female” and finally, the current one, which she has dubbed “free.” By this she means that “American women writers in the 21st century can take on any subject they want, in any form they choose.”

This may indeed be true, but to a certain degree it always was; a writer’s feeling of artistic power — her authority — has been there for the seizing, even if at times it’s been almost impossible to lay hands on it, given the fog generated by our national myths, rigid ideas of the genders’ innate capabilities and downright sexism. The difference between then and now lies just as much in the ability to get published and read, and in the economic factors, from book sales to teaching gigs to grants and fellowships, that permit a writer to support herself in her chosen vocation. Francine Prose, in that Harper’s essay a decade ago, argued that the prestige awarded by critics and prize committees is crucial in securing these supports for literary writers (as opposed to commercial and genre writers), and they are still distributed unfairly.

Prose maintained that the authorities in charge of these goodies still harbored the tacit assumption that “women writers will not write anything important — anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise.” Prose is right that many critics and editors, especially male ones, make a fetish of “ambition,” by which they mean the contemporary equivalent of novels about men in boats (“Moby-Dick,” “Huckleberry Finn”) rather than women in houses (“House of Mirth”), and that as a result big novels by male writers get treated as major events while slender but equally accomplished books by women tend to make a smaller splash. One response to this situation is to argue that the novel of psychological nuance focused on a small number of characters shouldn’t be regarded as less significant than fiction painted on a broader social canvas.

Another is for America’s women writers to seize their share of those big canvases. Showalter seems to feel that they are now doing so, and lists authors like Annie Proulx and Jane Smiley as examples. It’s difficult, however, to think of the equivalent — both in attempt and reputation — of “Underworld” or “Infinite Jest” by an American woman. By contrast, with examples ranging from Iris Murdoch to Doris Lessing, British women are perfectly at home with the capacious novel of ideas; after all, George Eliot practically invented the thing.

The great exception to this rule is women of color — most notably Toni Morrison, but Prose also singles out the Native-American novelist Leslie Marmon Silko — whose work became mainstream in the 1980s. Apart from their own considerable talent, these writers have been politically liberated to claim a big swath of territory that white male novelists could not make a feasible bid for anyway; Don DeLillo knows better than to attempt the Great American Novel about slavery. Morrison’s black male counterparts, on the other hand, have raised an infamous ruckus over her apotheosis, which suggests that winning the right to speak for an entire people is still, in some minds, a prerogative of men.

Great Literary American Novel Syndrome is a surprisingly persistent condition, despite the increasingly obvious likelihood that no work of art can sum up a nation as heterogeneous as ours without neglecting somebody. And in the end, critical reputation might become a moot point; substantive book reviews are a vanishing phenomenon, and the guardians of the citadel are fading away on every front. The last generation of old-fashioned androcentric Great American Novel practitioners will die out with Philip Roth; it’s difficult to picture a new version of that crew gaining a foothold in a marketplace where the vast majority of those who buy and read fiction are now women. Furthermore, in my (admittedly limited and anecdotal) experience, literary men under 45 are as likely to idolize Joan Didion or Flannery O’Connor as Norman Mailer or John Updike.

And perhaps the literary novel itself is doomed. “A Jury of Her Peers,” while a fascinating and often revelatory history, is decidedly historical. The boundless horizon that Showalter sees opening up before us is more likely to feature memoirs and other forms of nonfiction as its landmarks, yet her book barely touches on these genres. Whatever the future of America’s women writers will be, it is women readers who will have the most say in it, and their tastes are shifting. This is, indeed, a jury of her peers, and every American writer now finds her- or himself hanging upon their decisions.

Toulouse Lautrec and Frida Kahlo: Women, Pain, Death and Joie de Vivre August 26, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Literary Essays (Roger), Tulouse Lautrec and Frida Kahlo.
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Toulouse Lautrec and Frida Kahlo: Women, Pain, Death and Joie de Vivre

 

 (Paper given in Spanish at the II Symposium in Celebration of International Women’s Day, March 12, 1999, Guayaquil, Ecuador)

 

 

The subject is broad and the time is short.  Frida Kahlo and Henri Toulouse Lautrec, their lives and their art, and their relation to the themes of women, pain, death and joie de vivre.  I am an expert in none of these areas.  I simply wish to share with you some of what I have learned in my investigations, based largely upon two excellent biographies, Frida, by Hayden Herrera; and Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Perruchot.

 

I will begin and end with Frida.  An inventory of her suffering over a life that lasted only forty seven years is enough to numb the mind.  As a child of six she suffered from polio and was confined to her room for nine months.  It left one leg crippled for life and made her the object of teasing by other children.  At the age of eighteen she suffered an accident in which the bus that she was riding was rammed by a trolley and a metal bar literally impaled her.  Her spine was fractured in three places, her pelvis was crushed, her collarbone and two ribs were broken and her right leg and foot were dislocated and crushed.  The fact that she survived is a miracle in itself.  They say that the scream that came out of her when they pulled out the metal bar drowned out the noise of the ambulance’s siren.  A friend said: “they had to put her back together like a photomontage.”

 

Frida also suffered from congenital scoliosis of the spine, and later developed osteomyelitis, an inflammation of the bone marrow that causes degeneration of the bones.  Toward the end of her life she developed gangrene of the foot and eventually had to have her leg amputated.

 

The suffering that resulted from her accident became a daily reality for her.  She lived with pain and the constant threat of illness.  She underwent 40 surgeries, miscarriages and at least three therapeutic abortions.  In an attempt to alleviate her pain she endured  25 different corsets, made of leather, steel or plaster, which she referred to as “torture devises.”  From her operations she suffered infected wounds, paralyzed intestines, and a fungus infection from a bone graft.  At one time she spent three months in a vertical position, hung from steel rings, with sacks of sand tied to her feet, in an attempt to straighten her spine.

 

One major operation, a spinal fusion caused her two weeks of excruciating pain and screaming and eight months in a steel corset when it was discovered that they had fused the wrong vertebrae and they had to operate again to remove the metal from the first operation and do a bone graft.  This led to drug addiction on morphine and hallucinations.  In 1950 she spent an entire year in the hospital.

 

I hear you begging.  Enough!  There is more, but I think you see the picture.

 

Frida’s father was a photographer, and the family was economically stable, although much of that was upset by the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920.  Frida was born in 1907, but she liked to give 1910 as her birthday, the year of the revolution.  She attended the elite National Preparatory School, was one of 35 women in a student body of 2000.

 

Henri Toulouse Lautrec was born in 1864 to a Count and Countess whose pedigree went back to the early Middle Ages.  He thereby had an income for life.  His father was an eccentric sportsman who lived for the hunt and the outdoor life, and Henri was to follow in his footsteps.  But Henri was a frail child, suffered broken legs that would not heal properly, and suffered from a bone growth disease that left him looking like a grotesque dwarf.  He had a normal torso but his limbs did not grow, he had swollen lips, a broad nose, a lisp and a drool.  Because of this he was unable to take advantage of his heritage and enjoy the easy life of the sportsman.  Rather, he was ridiculed and laughed at when he simply appeared in public.  More important, and for him more tragic, because of his appearance, he was repulsive to women and never knew female love.

 

It is hard to imagine two human beings cursed with a more cruel fortune than Frida Kahlo and Henri Toulouse Lautrec.  Both seemed to be destined to lives of uselessness and self pity.

 

Instead, two of the greatest painters of modern history emerged.  Their story is one of courage and heroism. 

 

Both eschewed self-pity and were determined not to live the life of a cripple.  Both developed gigantic personalities, lived lives in the fast lane, died young, and left a heritage of some of the finest works of art in human history.

 

Frida, of course, married a man who was already a legend in his time, the great muralist, Diego Rivera.  They were the Anthony and Cleopatra of their era, an epic love story, one filled with rancor and tragedy.  Frida used to say, “I had two accidents in my life, one was with a trolley car.  The other was Diego.”  There is no time to go into the depth of the love they had for one another, a love that survived despite the constant philandering on the part of Diego, Frida’s clandestine affairs and a divorce and re-marriage. 

 

I’ll just give you two quotes. 

 

Diego: “If I had died without knowing her, I would have died without knowing what a real woman was.”

 

Frida: “I take care of him the best I can from a distance, and I will love him all my life even is he wouldn’t want me to.”

 

Lautrec in his youth agonized over passions that could not be realized because of his ugliness.  Finally, a friend arranged for him to spend a night with a young woman who had a taste for the unusual.  With his name, ancestry and fortune of little use to him, Lautrec took up art as a career, initially with the approval of his family.  He studied rigorously at the Ecole de Beaux Arts and under recognized masters.  However, although he was schooled in the orthodox classics, he was influenced by the revolutionary impressionism of his time and eventually created his own iconoclastic style.  Rather than accept his aristocratic station in life, perhaps because he knew what it felt like to be an outcast, he immersed himself in the burgeoning night life that was developing in the Montemarte district of Paris.  He came to live in and paint: cabarets, dance halls, brothels, opera, theatre, ballet, and costume balls in neighborhoods that were populated by prostitutes, rogues, outcasts, unemployed, failed poets, anarchists, art students and models.  He would sit at a table in one of Montemarte’s night spots with a drink in one hand and his sketch book in the other, observing each and every detail: provocative gestures, deal making, decadence and sophistication, dancers high kicking, lacy underclothes, pimps, and the police guarding the limits of “decency.”  The names “Moulin Rouge” and “Toulouse Lautrec” have come to be almost synonymous.

 

Frida Kahlo was encouraged to paint by her father.  After her accident it became an obsession with her.  “I only know,” she said, “that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.”  As opposed to Diego’s huge public murals depicting life and history, Frida painted small cuadros, and her primary subject was herself.  “I paint myself,” she said, “because I am so often alone, and I am the subject I know best.”

 

But it wasn’t until later in life that her work as a painter became recognized.  Apart from her art, to compensate for her physical pain, the heart-rending tragedy of her inability to have children, and the loneliness of the wife of a man who was both notoriously famous and unfaithful, she developed a stunning personality.  Here is a brief picture of Frida Kahlo:

 

Piercing eyes, a hoarse (bronca) voice, a laugh full of carcajadas, sensuous, flirtatious, seductive, audacious.  As part of the revolutionary generation reacting against the European influence of the 34 year Diaz dictatorship, she loved to dress in Mexican peasant costume, which became an integral part of her self and public image. She spent hours arranging her clothing, her jewelry, her hairdo.  It was almost as if she painted a portrait of herself every day.   She was fluent in both written and spoken English, and she loved to use slang freely in both languages.  Hijo de chingada madre” was a favorite of hers.  Picture a gutter vocabulary emanating from a feminine looking creature who held her head high on a long neck, like a queen.

 

She once took the North American art historian, Parker Lesley, to a dance performance.  Here is his account: “No one paid any attention to the dance performance … everyone stared at Frida, who wore her Tehuana dress and all Diego’s gold jewelry.  She wore gold caps with rose diamonds on her front teeth so that her smile really sparkled.  During intermission, she led me to the bar.  The crowd parted before us as if she were a queen.” 

 

In her visits to San Francisco, Detroit, and New York, children followed her as she walked down the street.  “The circus is coming,” they shouted.

 

Apart from her paintings, the most amazing thing about Frida was the spirit of joy she projected in spite of a lifetime of intense pain and suffering, both emotional and physical.  She literally spent years of her life in the hospital, where she always painted.  A friend who came to visit her describes this scene: “I was horrified.  She was hanging by steel rings, had her easel in front of her, and she was painting and telling jokes and funny stories.”

 

Frida clung to the sense of the ridiculous.  In the hospital, on days when the pain was not insupportable, she designed a stage from metal that kept her legs raised, and she did a puppet show with her feet.

 

A student of hers described her as being so full of alegria that she makes a party around her. People who came to visit her in the hospital came away comforted and morally fortified.  Another visitor said this of her: “she did not concentrate on herself.  One did not feel her miseries when with her.  She was full of interest for others; she even worried herself sick about the well-being of the other patients in the hospital.  It was as if she herself was on a vacation.”

 

She drank too much and freely admitted it.  “I drink to drown my sorrows,” she said, “but the damned things learned to swim.”

 

Lautrec as well developed a magical personality.  He was passionate, interested in everything and everyone, he won friends with kindness, sympathy, intelligence and wit.  He laughed at his own misfortune: “I am half a bottle,” he said.  When someone commented to him, “you have a beautiful wit, Monsieur Toulouse Lautrec,” he answered: “my family has done nothing for centuries.  Without it I’d be a total fool.”  About the cruel fate of his crippled body, he commented with characteristic humor and irony: “To think that if my legs had been a bit longer,” he said, “I never would have taken up painting.”

 

Once, at the Moulin Rouge, two women were arguing about the pedigree of a dog.  One woman said, “Impossible, look at its crooked paws.”  The woman said, “no matter, of course it’s a pedigree,” and she turned to Lautrec, “Am I not correct, Monsieur, in saying that a dog may be ugly and yet have a good pedigree?”  Lautrec rose to his feet, gave a military salute, and said:” Madame, you are talking to the right man.”

 

As with Lautrec, Frida too developed the strategy of making fun of her pain.  Speaking of her accident and the metal bar that entered her from the hip and exited through her vagina, she quipped: “I lost my virginity.”  She also boasted proudly, “I hold the record for operations.”  She was full of mischief.  To Henry Ford, a known anti-Semitic, she asked: “Mr. Ford, are you Jewish?” and she spoke to America’s foremost capitalist about nothing but communism.  At his parties she used vulgar English, pretending not to know what it means.  “Shit on you,” she told a guest with an innocent smile on her face.

 

“Nothing is worth more than laughter,” she said, “it is strength to laugh and to abandon one’s self, to be light.  Tragedy is most ridiculous.”

 

What Frida put up with from Diego, no modern feminist woman would likely tolerate.  For Diego art came first and Frida second; for Frida it was the reverse.  Diego lived the classical male double standard, justifying his own sexual adventures, but becoming murderously jealous of Frida’s.  He once confessed: “If I love a woman, the more I love her the more I wanted to hurt her.  Frida was the most obvious victim of this disgusting trait.”

 

However, in every other respect, Frida was a paragon of independent feminism.  Her favorite Mexican costume was that of the Tehuantepec, whose women were famous for being stately, brave, strong, intelligent, sensuous and beautiful.  A present day Mexican artist summarized Frida’s effect: “She embodied the whole notion of culture for Chicano women.  She inspired us.  Her works didn’t have self pity, they had strength.”

 

Frida, who later rejected the categorization, was baptized a surrealist by the “Pope” of surrealism, Andre Breton.  Here is what he said of her work: “There is no art more exclusively feminine in the sense that in order to be as seductive as possible, it plays alternatively at being absolutely pure and absolutely destructive.  The art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon wrapped around a bomb.”

 

As a woman, Frida was strong, independent and iconoclastic, brazenly defying the moral standards of her age and culture.  She gradually broke away from playing the traditional role of wife to Diego, and after their second marriage virtually lived independently and self-sufficiently.  In this, the last years of her life, she came into her own, both as a woman and an artist.  She finally had her work exhibited, won prizes and scholarships, obtained a teaching position, and was the first Mexican artist to have a work acquired by the Louvre.  She was bi-sexual, and had numerous affairs, not of the casual and promiscuous nature as Diego, but serious and intense.  In her lifetime she knew and befriended some of the most interesting and important historical figures of her day: Andre Breton, Sergei Eisenstein, Henry Ford, Nelson Rockefeller, Delores Del Rio, Maria Felix, and of course, Leon Trotsky.

 

Her work was admired by Miró, Kadinsky, and Picasso.

 

Lautrec found his refuge in the most unlikely of places, the bordello.  Rejected and despised himself, he went to women who were rejected and despised.  From sporadic visits, he eventually came to make whore houses his home away from home.  He would “disappear” for several days at a time.  He eventually brought his easel and materials with him and set up his workshop there.  Brothels are accustomed to the bizarre and not impressed by social status.  He did not stand out.  He was accepted for his kindness and generosity.

 

Prostitutes were the only women who brought a little tenderness into his life, which he referred to as “a sweet that cannot be bought.”  He brought gifts, played cards, listened to confidences, drafted their letters, consoled, and remembered birthdays.  And of course, he observed and painted.  He was charmed by the almost bourgeois calm and family atmosphere once the doors closed for business.  He found prostitutes to be the perfect models; accustomed to being nude, they posed naturally and without pretensions.  He painted them dressing, bathing, in their sleep, in the medical inspection line-up, with and without make-up, and in sexual activity.  He painted not only their defects, but also their freshness and innocence.  He was particularly touched by their lesbian love for one another.  “No one could be more loving,” he said, “they’re like two birds burying themselves in each other’s feathers.”  Of one of his paintings that show two women dancing, he commented: “Look at them gazing into each other’s eyes, even when they’re closed.”

 

Of the brothels he said: “I don’t feel at home anywhere else.  At last I’ve found women who suit me.”

 

An art critic suggested that his paintings of prostitutes sadly gave the impression that many of these women with ingenuous faces might have lived happy regular simple lives, and that he expressed this with such clarity and bitterness.

 

Both Frida and Lautrec, in rebellion against their family tradition and the accepted social mores of their societies, were avowed anti-Catholics.  Hence their outlook on death was to accept it as a natural phenomenon rather than a transcendental event.  For both of them their “strategy” in the face of the inevitability of death was to mock it by living life to the fullest.

 

Lautrec joked, “I am doomed, I may as well enjoy life.”  He rejected his parents’ constant urgings to lead a religious life and he laughingly told his friends: “my mother has a nun employed full-time praying for the salvation of my soul, so that makes me free to do anything I want!”  Perhaps Lautrec had absorbed the philosophy of his contemporary, Vincent Van Gogh, who had once cited St. Paul’s admonishment to live “as being sorrowful yet always rejoicing.”

 

For Frida, suffering and death played a central part in her painting, where death often was a palpable presence.  She symbolized death with skulls and skeletons, as in the Mexican tradition.  The poet Sylvia Plath remarked about death that the ego is symbolized in reflections (mirrors and water), shadows, twins – dividing off and becoming and enemy or omen of death … or a means by which one denies the power of death by creating the idea of the soul as the deathless double of the immortal body.”  Compare this to a friend’s statement about Frida: “She was the only painter who gave birth to herself.  She did not die during the accident.  The struggle of the two Fridas (the name of perhaps her most well-know painting) was in her always, the struggle between the dead Frida and one Frida that was alive.  After the accident came a re-birth, her love for nature and beauty was renewed.”

 

Frida herself said: “I tease and laugh at death so that it won’t get the better or me.”  She once painted a child who had died because he had been attended by a witch doctor and not a medical doctor.  She was the child’s madrina (godmother), and the painting was entitled “El Difunto Dimas.”  The painting expresses fatalistic sorrow rather than shock or sentimental passion.  When she exhibited it in New York she gave it the ironic title: Dressed for Paradise.  Both Frida and Toulouse Lautrec faced death stoically and without the assurance of religious faith.  The poet Wallace Stevens said: “Death is the mother of beauty, hence from her, alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams and our desires.”  Freud said: “The aim of all life is death.”  Frida said: “we look for a calm or peace because we anticipate death, since we die every moment.”  Both artists mocked death, laughed in its face, and as an antidote to death lived full and joyous lives and produced lasting works of art.

 

You will notice that I have spoken a great deal about the lives of my two subject artists and much less about their work.  This is partly due to the limits of time but also because I would rather you see for yourself than listen to the opinions of art critics or of myself.  I will limit my remarks to the following:

 

Lautrec was known for his lucidity.  He painted what he saw without imposing his own opinion.  “I paint realistically not idealistically, I have no mercy on warts,” he said.  He broke away from natural laws of perspective and went beyond impressionism.  He was influenced by the graceful brush strokes of Japanese art. He invented new ways of rendering movement by the rhythm of his lines, which, like his colors, he reduced to essentials.  Although he acknowledged the excellence of their technique, he rejected the classic masterpieces with their historical personages congealed in conventional pomp, with their angels, sirens, and satyrs.  For him outward appearances were shallow, and art was of no use except to give expression to psychological truth and the life of the city.

 

Of Frida, many considered her a better painter than Diego, including Diego himself.  Her style was primitive in conformity with Mexican indigenous culture, that is, festive, alegria, theatrical and bloody.  “I paint things as I see them and nothing more.”  Her subject was herself and her own notion of psychological truth.  In her paintings she performed a form of surgery on herself, probing deeply.  She painted herself bleeding, cracked open, weeping, and being born.  She painted with a kind of defiance of suffering and death, she didn’t beseech heaven for solace; tears dot her cheeks but she refuses to cry.

 

After a miscarriage in Detroit, according to Diego Rivera, “Frida began work on a series of masterpieces which had no precedent in the history of art – paintings which exalted the feminine qualities of endurance, truth, reality, cruelty and suffering.  Never before had a woman put such agonized poetry on canvass as Frida did at this time in Detroit.”

 

As artists, of both Frida and Toulouse Lautrec the words of Diego Rivera apply: “I am not merely an artist, but a man performing his biological function of producing paintings, just as a tree produces flowers and fruit.”

 

It would not be fair, in any discussion of Frida Kahlo, to omit mention of her political beliefs, which formed a central part in her life.  The subject is too complex to go into here; I will only mention that she was a passionate Mexican nationalist and a lifelong believer in communist revolution.  She said, “I want my work to be a contribution to the struggle of the people for peace and liberty.”  She and Diego were instrumental in bringing to Mexico the exiled Trotsky, who was later murdered by an agent of Stalin, and whom Frida and Diego later renounced.

 

I wish to conclude this presentation with some comments on meaning in art.  The British novelist Iris Murdoch has complained that the two main views of human nature as expressed in by logical positivists and existentialists (and I note that she was speaking before the advent of post-modernism) are shallow and flimsy.  They assume, she asserts, that humans are solitary and totally free and the fundamental virtue is sincerity, or self-consistency, or being true to one’s self.  To what she referred to as the “facile ideal of sincerity” she suggests that what we need is “the hard idea of truth.”

 

The Russian novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent eleven years in prison for his opposition to Stalinism in the Soviet Union, has said: “In battle with the lie, art has always been victorious, always wins out, visibly, incontrovertibly, for all.  The lie can stand against much in this world – but not against art…”

 

Henri Toulouse Lautrec and Frida Kahlo, for me embody, both in their lives and in their work, these ideals of truth and art.

 

I said I would give the final word to Frida – and, by the way, she was always referred to simply as “Frida,” which I have done throughout this talk. The last words in her diary were: “I hope the exit is joyful – and I hope never to come back.”

 

But, let’s not end there.  Let’s instead look at her very last painting, a still life (In Spanish still life painting is referred to as vida muerte, which literally means “dead life.”  Frida, however, always referred to them as “vida viva” or “life alive”).  This painting pictured a watermelon, the most beloved Mexican fruit.  The painting shows none of the degeneration of style that had appeared in her later work due to the effects of pain and drugs.  It is signed eight days before her death with her name, date, and the name of her lifelong pueblo, Coyocán.  Then in large capital letters she wrote her final salute to life: VIVA LA VIDA.

Moby A-Dick-ted August 26, 2008

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Moby A-Dick-Ted?

 

(A blasphemous review)

 

 

“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.”  Isaiah

 

There comes a time in one’s life when one must face up to the shameful fact. Although I consider myself a literate person, I nevertheless have never attempted, much less finished, a reading of Moby Dick.  Now, having crossed the threshold of my sixth decade, how can I continue to look in the mirror and abide the visage of such an imposter, the reflection of virgin landlubber eyes that have yet to navigate the oceanic pages of what is by near unanimous consent … The Great American Novel?

 

So, when, whilst perusing the bins at my local [Reseda, California] library’s annual used book sale, a Signet Classic paperback version of Herman Melville’s 19th century masterpiece leaped up and harpooned my conscience, there was naught left for me but to dig fathoms deep into my pocket and deposit my ten cents, one thin dime; and I couldn’t help thinking about how many times I had been told that “a ship cannot turn on a dime;” I said to myself, “could than ship not have been the Pequod herself?”

 

I confess that I have anticipated visits to the dentist for a root canal with less trepidation than I approached the opening pages of Moby Dick.  But, with the determination and patience of a Nantucket whalesman, that valiant sojourner, who, when he signed on, bargained for nothing less than a three year voyage around the globe without once touching land, I took the plunge.

 

And I must tell you, dear reader, it has been a thousand times worse than I thought it would be.

 

I sailed past the first section, whose title is “ETYMOLOGY (Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School),” and which contains spelling of the word “whale” in thirteen different languages, including “Fegee” and “Erromangoan.”  Then I tacked into a trade wind consisting of eleven pages of “Extracts (Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian),” which contained illuminating quotations, such as:

 

“This whale’s liver was two cart-loads” – Stowe’s Annals

 

“What spermaceti is, men might justly doubt, since the learned Hosmannus in his work of thirty years, saith plainly, Nescio quid si”’ – Sir T. Browne, of Sperma Ceti and the Sperma Ceti Whale. Vide His V.E.

 

“The aorta of a whale is larger in the bore than the main pipe of the water-works at London Bridge, and the water roaring in its passage through that pipe is inferior in impetus and velocity to the blood gushing from the whale’s heart.” – Paley’s Theology

 

Eleven pages!

 

Well, I thought, having made it out past the breakers, perhaps I am at least gaining my sea legs, and I hoped and prayed that the beginning of the actual story might make for smoother sailing.

 

Call me a big sissy, Ishmael, but you had me treading water for untold hours waiting for something to happen.  One hundred and eleven pages before you even set foot on the big ship.  Oh yes, intrepid Narrator, you can spin a tale when you want to, I will give you that.  Reading your account of your of meeting up with, sharing a bed and getting physically intimate [it’s not what you might think, reader, this was the 19th century, after all] with Noble Savage Cannibal Harpooner, Queequeg; I thought to myself, “well, this might not be so bad after all.”  That was before you decided to interrupt yourself and pepper throughout the next four hundred odd pages, everything anyone could ever want to know about whales and 19th century whaling but was smart enough not to ask.  “Am I reading a novel,” I asked myself, “or an outdated manual on the whaling industry?”

 

We’re talking entire chapters on the paraphernalia used in hunting the Leviathan.  An example from Chapter 60, “The Line:”

 

“The line originally used in the fishery was of the best hemp, slightly vapored with tar, not impregnated with it [thank God!] as in the case of ordinary ropes; for while tar, as ordinarily used, makes the hemp more pliable to the rope-maker, and also renders the rope itself more convenient to the sailor for common ship use; yet, not only would the ordinary quantity too much stiffen the whale-line for the close coiling to which it must be subjected; but as most seamen are beginning to learn, tar in general by no means adds to the rope’s durability or strength, however much it may give it compactness and gloss.”

 

You will notice that this vital information is put forward in a single sentence, containing no less than twelve clauses, six commas and three semi-colons.  And it is one of the shorter ones.

 

Other chapters on whaling technique tell us all about “The Dart,” “The Crotch [not what you think],” “Cutting In [has nothing to do with dancing],” “The Blanket,” “The Monkey-Rope,” and if I were to go on you might think my own literary style was turning Melvillean. 

 

And have you ever wondered about the anatomy of the Sperm Whale?  If so, you are in for some delightful chapter-long descriptions of its “Head” (with a corresponding chapter on the head of the Right Whale, to give you a point of comparison), “The Battering Ram,” “The Nut (brain),” “The Prairie (brow),” “The Fountain (the spout),” “The Tail,” etcetera, etcetera.  Entire chapters.  Our narrator, as erudite on cetology as he is on the Old Testament, Shakespeare and Greek Mythology, shares with us some interesting 19th century science.  The whale is a fish, not a mammal.  It makes no sound.  Porpoises are a species of whale.  St. George’s dragon was really a whale.  I’m not making this up.

 

Now I know that everyone has her or his own tastes when it comes to character versus plot.  I am a plot man myself, but I also thoroughly enjoy good characterization.  Nevertheless, I believe that any novel worth its salt water should not be too overly balanced towards one or the other.  Captain Ahab, our valiant protagonist (if you don’t count the whale), finally shows up on page 128, nearly a quarter of the way through the novel.  In Moby Dick, we navigate choppy waters with absolutely no advancement of the plot (in my Signet Classic paperback edition, from page 111, when Ishmael and Queequeg board the Pequod, to page 510, when they finally spot the White Monster, and the denouement at long last begins).  By this time I am beginning to root for the whale.

 

And what does the ship’s mess offer up during this interminable voyage as an antidote to literary scurvy?  There are occasional skirmishes with various “rascally Asiatics” (so now we know Elmer Fudd was derivative).   Indeed, there are some gems of prose as the secondary characters take shape – Ahab’s Parsee stowaway, First Mate Starbuck and the second and third mates, the three pagan harpooners – but all this lost in a sea of some of the boringest chapters on whaling, mentioned above, that you will ever want to cast off upon. This seasick wayfarer longed in vain for some plot.  Four hundred pages.  That’s a ship load of filler.  Was it Melville’s intention to give his readers the dubious pleasure of experiencing the ennui of three years at sea? 

 

Now I think that many of us have had the following experience.  We have netted all we can from the encyclopedia for that high school science project assignment, and we cast sad eyes upon our three or four anemic typewritten pages – wide margined, double spaced.  So what do we do?  We go whaling for maps, charts, photos, drawings, news clippings, anything we can find, however tangential to our subject, to give our project bulk, to turn those three or four pathetic pages of research into an impressive half inch of whale blubber.  I am not suggesting this was Melville’s motivation; and I am not comparing a typical high school student’s limited imagination with Melville’s incomparable literary genius.  I am just empathizing with how I think my science teacher might have had to deconstruct the mounds of data thrown at him, how he might have needed to separate mountains of chaff to get at those few grains of wheat (if you will pardon just this once a non seaworthy metaphor).

 

Let’s talk about what meager plot there is.  Big White Whale (whole chapter on significance of whale whiteness) chews off captain’s leg (you’ll have to wait for the “prequel” to read about the actual chewing); captain not too happy about that, is obsessed with getting even; wanders endlessly in search of said leg-chewing fish (we moderns know it’s really a mammal); finally meets up with him (her?).  I will not spoil it for the reader by revealing the ending.  Let’s just say that it leaves one with a sinking feeling. 

 

O.K., it’s not much of a plot, but as well written and erudite as it is when it wants to be, I am sure it would have made an extraordinary short story or novella.  However, it’s the drawn out wandering endlessly that had this reader longing for that soothing sound of the dentist’s drill.  Melville uses these four hundred in-between pages to give the Narrator his big chance to show off knowledge, some of it actually scientifically accurate, of whales and whaling; and to try to convince us of the nobility of massacring, for profit, one of nature’s most noble wild creatures – I was particularly enchanted, for example (page 372) when they harpooned a mother whale while in the process of giving birth, and the harpoon line got tangled with the umbilical.

 

From one perspective, Melville could have ended it all right after page 167, where he has the Pequod’s First Mate, Starbuck (immortalized all over again in the 20th century in his reincarnation as the world’s largest retail coffee monopoly), question Captain Ahab’s obsession:

 

“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct!  Madness!  To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.” 

 

If I were Herman Melville, I would have had Ahab say to his first mate at that very moment, “Lord praise thee, Starbuck, if thou doest not cast a hitherto unthought-of perspective on a matter that long hast troubled this seafaring vagrant.  Coming to put mind and greater sensibilities upon the question, thou mightest have thee in thy craw the tapered end of a dart, to wit, a point.”  He would then have ordered the Pequod to turn around (on a dime!), and, after making a couple of stops in Brazil and Columbia where they would fill the Pequod’s hold with those aromatic caffeine saturated beans, head back to home port for a grand opening of the first Starbuck’s.  In Nantucket, of course.  I know, I know, it might not be easy to picture those hard nosed sea salts sipping their lattes and munching on a cranberry oatmeal muffin, but by God, reader, this is literature, use your imagination.

 

O.K.  So what about it?  Are we talking the Great American Novel or not?  Maybe in its time.  It certainly is a grand and epic work, and a fine example of the naturalism that began to emerge in the 19th century American novel.  But does it stand up today?  Setting aside the fact that there is no accepted criteria for measuring the greatness of a novel, and certainly not for singling out one novel as the greatest of all time; I have to say that, regardless of what genius it does contain – and some of the prose is stunningly brilliant – because so much of the novel is irrelevant to anyone other than an archeologist of 19th century whaling, its value to the contemporary reader is likely to be little more than it was to me, to wit, the satisfaction of having finally read it.

 

Of course we can have some fun with the question of whether the novel is just a picturesque story, or a metaphor carrying deeper meanings.  Was the whale, for example, as it was for Starbuck, just a big dumb animal?  Or does it represent through its grace and whiteness the purity of nature, while at the same time through its destructive powers, the amoral and potentially deadly forces of nature?  Is the novel a metaphor for America?  Its indomitable spirit of adventure in the face of overwhelming adversity?  The passion and hubris of Manifest Destiny?

 

Now, if you want to give Melville credit for being really prescient, you could take up the question of whale oil.  The entire purpose of whaling at that time was to cut up the whale’s blubber and render it into what in its day was the highest quality of lamp oil available.  It was used throughout the globe to lighten the night-time darkness (‘Twas Thomas Edison who put an end to all that, and there is not a whale alive today who doesn’t thank him for it).  Was Melville perhaps foreshadowing the invention of the internal combustion engine and industrial capitalism’s dependence on Middle East oil reserves?  Was Ahab Rockefeller?  Starbuck the Sherman Anti-Trust Act?  Queequeg (noble savage, yet savage harpooner) Israel?

 

Or should we cast about for a more modern metaphor for America?  Is not W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (the movie Field of Dreams), for example, a better candidate for The Great American Novel?  What could be a more apt metaphor for America than a bunch of grown adults chasing a small spherical projectile with a tapered wooden club and earning in the tens of millions of dollars?  And Shoeless Joe doesn’t bore us to death with four hundred pages explaining everything from how the Louisville Slugger is manufactured to the geometry of the pitcher’s mound to what Umpires do in their spare time (come to think of it, what those spoiled millionaire gold-chains-around-the-neck-steroid-saturated athletes do with their spare time might indeed make for interesting reading, but I digress).

 

I have my own metaphorical interpretation of Moby Dick.  Starbuck is Colin Powell.  The honest and loyal soldier.  The follower of his Commander-in-Chief’s orders, even if he thinks they are apt to lead to disaster.  I cannot bring myself to say that Ahab is George W. Bush, since the former was a literate genius, a master of iridescent and philosophic prose; the latter one step, if that, above Moby Dick himself in intelligence.  But I will take literary license and let Ahab represent all the perverse and satanic intelligence of Dubya’s nominal subalterns (the Cheneys, Wolfowitzs, Rumsfelds, Rices, etc.). 

 

Starbuck is characterized over and again by Melville as honest and clear headed.  Ahab single minded, dogmatic and tyrannical.  Time and time again Starbuck beseeches Ahab to call off his mad project that was bound to end in the destruction of them all.  At one point even (Chapter 123, “The Musket”) he has Starbuck consider a pre-emptive strike against Ahab.  Upon encountering Ahab asleep in his cabin and noticing his loaded muskets in their rack, Starbuck for an instant considers the unthinkable:

 

“Starbuck was an honest, upright man; but out of Starbuck’s heart, at that instant when he saw the muskets, there strangely evolved an evil thought …”  To wit, “Aye and he would fain kill all his crew … But shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship’s company down with him? – Yes, it would make him the willful murderer of thirty men and more, if this ship comes to any deadly harm; and come to deadly harm my soul swears this ship will, if Ahab has his way.  If, then, he were this instant, put aside …” (pages 482,483)

 

Yes, Starbuck, muskets loaded and ready to go, Ahab peacefully asleep in his hammock, does actually consider for a brief moment preventive warfare against Saddam, excuse me, Ahab.  O.K., I am taking even more literary license, I realize.  I now have Starbuck considering the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war (if you ever have trouble staying up at night, read the “2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America” issued by George W. Bush, and I guarantee you will not sleep for weeks).  For a moment, Starbuck is Bush, Ahab is Saddam Hussein, the muskets are the unparalleled military might of the United States of America.  But Starbuck is “an honest, upright man.”  He soon reverts to his true self – the United Nations, the world community – and rejects the idea. I admit that I’m playing fast and loose with my metaphors.  Saddam never did have weapons of mass destruction.  Ahab did.  Bush does.

 

Ahab unfortunately chooses to stay the course.  Like Bush and company, he will brook no self criticism, nor admit to any mistakes.  It is full sail ahead into the madness of mass destruction.  And like Bush, Ahab, speaking to Starbuck, justifies his madness in the name of God: “But in this matter of the whale … Ahab [speaking of himself] is forever Ahab, man.  This whole act’s immutably decreed.  ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled … I am the Fates’ lieutenant.” (my emphasis)

 

Reader.  Read Moby Dick for yourself.  I dare you.  Slog through the muck, mire and glory of 19th century whaling for five hundred and thirty six pages, and reward yourself with your own metaphorical interpretation.  As for me, I shall move on.  I have learned my lesson.  I am thinking of the next classic I need to approach.  It should be something more of a page turner.  Something perhaps a little more accessible to the Stephen King narcotized modern reader. Yes, I have always thought I really should one day read James Joyce.  Now where did I put that paperback of “Ulysses” I’ve been meaning to start for some time?

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