29 March 2010

Bartleby the Scrivener

Some years ago I attended a piano concert at Wells College in Aurora, New York. There were eight pianos on the stage. Elsewhere in the history of musical performance and theatrical circus-mongering, there have been numerous occasions when such concerts have been held (oftener in the eighteenth century); sometimes there are twelve pianos, and sometimes there are eighteen. These concerts are called “monsters.”

Some of the keyboards endure four hands, and the warm-armed bodies of page-turners and the principal persons themselves populate the stage with something that might resemble a throng, if not a rabble. Inevitably, the music as a whole seems to exist entirely for the rousing. This is a not entirely involuntary kayaking down fabulous whitewater cascades. One may be forgiven for leaving the concert hall seeming to possess the feeling of complete inclusivity and fulfillment.

I am suggesting that it is a useful, if ultimately an indefensibly pointless exercise, to finally press one’s sensibility and view of literature to the point of making a form of declaration in which is identified what might be called the seminal American work of writing. Normally, if I am drinking martinis on the rattaned-deck of a motor schooner on a bright blue day in the Mediterranean with a spontaneous cluster of blowsy and fun graduates of Oxford University, and graduate students from the University of Toronto Department of Comparative Literature and Media Studies, and University of Paris literature dropouts who have decided that busking on the boulevards is, as we learned to say in 1968, more relevant, I proffer and foment upon them Gatsby, than which nothing more beautiful, lyrical, and knowing has ever been found (ever I quoth). But I am uncomfortable thereby neglecting all of American literature that existed prior to the country’s headlong fall into usury and cinema, and in a more thoughtful milieu (sherries) will mention "Bartleby the Scrivener," who saw what was coming, and preferred not to be any part of it.

Fugues and crescendos, torrents and floods, starbursts and comets, tender kisses and ‘round the worlds, Benito Cereno and Billy Budd, Queequeg and Starbuck, Pierre or the Ambiguities and Isabel, pi and om, Herman Melville contained multitudes too, and made for us the concordance of ubiquity, of sentiment, and of martial execrations that leads us out of the perplexing bramble of thickets into which we are all born dumb.

One of the benefits of becoming walking-lost in a large city about which you have no geographically-orienting knowledge, is that wandering loose vectors perhaps in the direction of your chief known (hotel) landmark, you may see blossom before you an expanse of park, and that may have been the last thing on your mind as you sought to mouse-trail the canyon streets, or gain a useful vista from the middle of a large intersection crosswalk. These parks (speckled throughout Paris, riverside in New Orleans, and curious lowlands in New York) may have been institutionally landscaped, but botanical growth and neglect can have formed bowers and groves that equal the hyper-designated installations in formal estate gardens, and, perhaps overwhelmed by outbursts of chlorophyll and moist shades from the sun, a wanderer may swing and swoon in the delusions of the American counterpart of Roman Fever (Daisy Miller, always and forever our Beatrice). If one has been thinking of Melville, then, these swings and swoons will include transcendentalism, gender politics, spurious redemptions, cetology, discontinuity and partially overlapping non-simultaneous events, revenge and orality, factitious familiality, black despair, the art of violence, Quichottism, ontology, boats and fishing, ordeal, galvanization, Orion, and the world as an orphanage. Then everybody dies, except for the one wise orphan: thyself.

West Ham United has lost six in a row (27 March 2010) and shudders towards relegation. One of the ways in which I feel myself related to Pierre, or the Ambiguities, and Ishmael (yclept), and the dying scrivener, is that they have joined me on the island off the coast of Chile, while all the other persons whose spirit resides in novels have been unable to sustain my love, and have perished in the wreckage of the ship. Becky Thatcher – and, let’s face it, she is Dolores Haze, and Pia Zadora, and Buddy on the ABC show “Family” – never really unbridles the boys’ from their scampish delinquency; there is a single muffled kiss in PORTRAIT OF A LADY; and Candace “Caddy” Compson, felt by Faulkner to be the sole source spring of THE SOUND AND THE FURY, never quite steps into the light, as I so wanted her to do. Banished, punished, all but forgotten: relegated. All that remains are Billy Budd the beautiful and the soul under the counterpane, but even these cool cats retain a fervid glimpse of aspiration and will bale the bilges. Bartleby alone abdicates from personality, function, and partiality, and adheres to a humanitas uncorrupted by intentionality. He is as pure as a gem-like flame.

1 comment:

Mark Reep said...

Actually, John Crowley's 'Little, Big' is the highpoint of American literature.