Posts tagged Moby-Dick
Ruined by Reading (Romance Novels)

The first time I read Madame Bovary, a few summers ago, my reaction was basically: Oh! It's readable. (Meaning: it's not written in the archaic language I'd been expecting.) And I liked it. Which is about all I remember now of the experience. 

Earlier this summer, I reread it and felt some sort of sisterly affection for Emma. I sympathized with her. But I read her existence mostly as one of three Madame Bovarys, and I thought a lot about "fate" and how, for Emma, there weren't a whole lot of options for what a Madame Bovary could be. Then I met with Rachel and Ed and listened to them talk about the bourgeoise and provincial life and the balcony-and-manure scene. I pretty much always fail to see the humor in anything, so the comic element in their conversation was for the most part lost on me. Alas. After that discussion, though, I went home and reread Madame Bovary and tried to read it as if I, too, thought Emma an empty-hearted, empty-minded joke of a character at whose expense Flaubert had made ironic fun. Even still, I thought more of Emma than that. She's complicated, I believed, really she is! She's a fully realized female character! I left it at that but skimmed one last time, just to mark the passages detailing (those evil) romance novels that ruin her life.

Ever since Don Quixote, my historical list has been a veritable whirlwind of characters ruined by reading: Pamela is accused of having stuffed her head full of romantic novel foolishness, which is the cause of her hysterics; Francesca and Paolo end up in hell for reading about Lancelot and Guinevere; Tristram never lets us forget we're reading his book; Rousseau confesses everything about everything he's ever read, ever; Maria's books are a sort of balm to soothe a hurt, but only because what else is there to do when your husband's thrown you into an insane asylum?; Frankenstein's ruined by his education just as Doctor Faustus was ruined by his; Lockwood reads Cathy's diary and shrieks when her ghost appears, then goes back to Thrushcross Grange and writes in his diary, which in turn ruins us (can you keep it all together by the end?), not to mention Anne Carson; Moby-Dick's infected by about 80+ texts and a sub-sub library before we even get to "Call me Ishmael"; Esther's full of fairy tales she retells on the way to Bleak House; the Underground Man just can't even with Chernyshevsky's crystal palace — because really, what is to be done?; Dorian goes down thanks to the "yellow book," within which Des Essientes goes wild about the Satyricon; the governess's screwy story on those pages turning in hands we never see again is super creepy; young Marcel involuntarily remembers a whole childhood of reading. . . .

And now, also, Anna (Karenina), who wastes no time finding a train after that fateful ball and desperately rushes home (with her red bag! Honestly, Tolstoy leaves no detail to whimsy; even the figurative pistol in I.VII literally goes off in IV.XVIII). And we're told: "At first she could not read" — because she was distracted by all the activity around her. But later:

Anna read, and understood what she read; but the reading, that is, the necessity of entering into the lives of other people, became intolerable to her. She had too keen a desire to live for herself.

At this point, we might be thinking: Ah, she's rejecting books! But no:

She read how the heroine of her story took care of the sick: she would have liked to go with noiseless steps into the sick-room. She read how an M.P. made a speech: she would have liked to make that speech. She read how Lady Mary rode horseback, and astonished everyone by her boldness: she would have liked to do the same. 

Which, basically, she does from that point forward (astonish everyone by her boldness). And now that I've finished Anna Karenina, I can't help but think that Emma Bovary really is empty-hearted and empty-minded. Anna's so full of life. She saves, she reasons, she plays, she flirts, she dances, she runs, she reads, she thinks, she mothers, she lies, she loves, she confesses, she leaves, she lives, she fears, she struggles, she dreams, she dies, etc. And all around her all the characters in all the locales all over the country are all full of life and fully realized, too. Like Bleak HouseAnna Karenina is a sweeping panoramic view of a nation in a revolutionary time, a kaleidoscopic, epic in scope, weaving of the stories of the many lives ruled by blood, marriage, society, government, history, and protest, and the subsequent unweaving and re-weaving of those many lives with necessary births and deaths along the way. Madame Bovary is not. "Manure!" I understand now. 

So what are we to make of all our reading about characters reading and being ruined by reading mostly romance novels? To be honest, I don't really know. I guess, at this point, I just keep thinking: Isn't every novel a romance novel? If not, why do we insist upon asking students: What do your characters want? Desire, longing, yearning, wanting, needing — these aren't limited to "romantic" content or even content period. They're the structural scaffolding on which we build and layer our stories. Our characters either get what they want (comedy), or they don't (tragedy). And everything until the end is romance (a twenty-year journey home, a dance, a game, a nightmare, a dream) filled with obstacles — which is (isn't it?) to say: plot. 

The Sandman, Vols. 4, 5, 7, 9

During my list meeting last spring, when Eric (out-of-department committee member) and Scott (history) debated which volumes of Sandman I should read, I wasn't against the idea of having Neil Gaiman on my contemporary reading list but I wasn't thrilled about it either. As I understood them, my reading lists were meant to fill in holes in my reading history (e.g., thou shalt not embarrass thyself on the job market by admitting to not ever having read Moby-Dick, Anna Karenina, Swann's Way, etc. despite holding how many English degrees?). Our lists are our future syllabi in the making, countless combinations of teaching texts to have at our immediate disposal, should we be asked to teach any class on any subject in under a moment's notice. By the time my committee gathered for my official list meeting, Lance (chair) had probably overseen a few dozen revisions. I don't remember which text was given the boot in order to make space for Sandman, but I felt its absence as a loss. At some point along the way, getting it on the list had been a win — a text I'd justified or defended for its own special reasons. And just like that, it was gone. On the other hand, I'm realizing now, if I had in fact really cared so much about the change, (1) I could have said so at the time and (2) I would probably still remember today which text it was and lament its banishment with specificity, no?

So, for the past several hours, I've been wandering through "the Dreaming." Dream (who defines, because he is not, reality), or Morpheus, is a character in a universe I'm glad to have met. In fact, I kind of even wish I was one of the Endless (his family). I haven't even read the entire series, but this universe is vast and filled with people and places I think I recognize. My inability to talk about Dream and Delirium and Destruction, etc., only proves how transportive these texts are. I will have something more coherent to say about them, and soon, but here's what I can offer now. . . .  

I've also been reading Moby-Dick. Random? I know! But yeah, I had hoped to finish it entirely this weekend, but the more pages I flipped into my left hand the thicker the stack in my right seemed to grow. The only way to feel as if I was making any progress at all toward reading/studying was to move on to another text. I opted immediately for Sandman because I've borrowed the volumes from someone in the program and I'm nervous about glopping Amy's mac & cheese all over them. Of course, I'm not eating or drinking anywhere near them but because, as glossy-paged illustrated book objects are far easier to destroy than the "good" or "very good" used copies of most of my other books, my paranoia deepens by the day. I want to give these back this week. 

Anyway, here is my observation: I know I am about to re-enter the strange whaling world of Moby-Dick. I only left it a few hours ago, but when I did Ahab, the Pequod, Queepeg, Starbuck, and Ishmael felt so hyper-real and at the same time so historical. Lost people. Lost objects. Lost time. Lost world. Jumping back into that whale-hunt, though, after hanging out in "the Dreaming," I can't shake the sense that I'm still in "the Dreaming" and that the Pequod is a ship not from the written past but sailing now, still, outside of time, and that I've stepped onto its deck via some weird intertextual, extradiegetic dream I'm having.