Monday, June 2, 2014

Melville, Mightiness, and Misanthropes

I finished Moby-Dick. What a tremendous book; what a thoroughly weird book. No less weird today than in 1852, I'll wager, if maybe a little easier to understand in a more fragmented era. It was puzzling and boring; it was frightening and involving; it was pretty much unlike anything else I've read.

In Ahab's speeches it had that too-rare quality of mightiness. It's like I can see Melville at his desk, and for a while he's studiously writing away, like normal, and then suddenly he raises his arms and shouts an incantation and lightning crashes all around him, blazing bright words into the page, and the resulting thunder is what booms through the reader's mind as the prose rolls out. When I read Salvage the Bones I called this quality an author bending the English language utterly to her will. It's a mighty language, a wild rearing creature, and it's a rare and fine thing if a writer is able to pour all that power into sentences while saying what s/he wants to say.

King Lear, Act 3, Scene 2. Lear is all over Moby-Dick.
This is from Good Tickle-Brain, a terrific website that treats Shakespeare in stick figures.
After finishing with the White Whale I turned to something else: a short novel of the late 1930s that had an entirely different tone. It was The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West, a writer who produced four short novels and died in a car crash at 37. Locust was made into a film in the 1970s that was made much of at the time but seems to have been forgotten.

I did not like this book. It's about Hollywood, sort of, and all sources indicate that it's a sort of cruel farce about the lives of these three central characters, but I found it draggy and misogynist and unfun. There was just so little movement. There were terrific set-pieces, but not much plot.

The biggest problem was the tone, though. The book felt bottomlessly cynical. It reminded me a lot of the Neil LaBute remake of The Wicker Man, with Nicolas Cage, which I know I really shouldn't be mentioning in a post that also talks about Lear and Moby-Dick, but just bear with me. Wicker Man is a rotten movie (although the RiffTrax of it is so good that I own the DVD), and the first time I saw it I found it totally mystifying. There was no one to root for! Everyone was terrible! Our protagonist is a pushy, annoying, sexist dick; the people whose lifestyle he finds so unacceptable are hostile and weird and sexist; his guppy-faced twue wuv is hair-tearingly passive and yet obstructive in her own airheaded way. Fuck y'all! Fuck all y'all!

Which is not how you generally interact with characters in a mainstream American film. The dynamic between characters and audience here was so negative, so off-putting, that I really had no idea how to watch the film. I couldn't just ascribe it to the film not working for me, to the characters not being appealing to me in particular; the characters were downright hostile to a viewing audience, I'd wager any audience, which made no sense at all. Until I looked up Neil LaBute and read the word misanthrope used to describe him. And suddenly it all fell into place. He hates everything! So of course everyone is hateable in this film of his. I saw his In the Company of Men years ago and found it intriguing, uncomfortable, and disappointing, but not so openly fuck-you as The Wicker Man is. And I thought that film made a point about misogyny, so I sort of thought Wicker Man was doing the same thing at first, but really no. It's just a ball of hate.

And this is where I go back to The Day of the Locust, which also felt like a ball of hate, to a milder degree. I don't find West's level of cynicism about the world edgy or cool; I find it off-putting. I find it ugly. It's the same way I felt about the Hunter Thompson I've read, about the Bukowski I tried to read. I felt like I was being flipped the bird, that finger being directed mostly at the world in general but also right at me, and that's just not the way I look at life, nor the way I like to look at life.

When I was thinking about putting this post together, I thought of saying that misanthropy is a less evolved way to see the world, but I don't actually believe that's true. I'd never say that full-on optimism is a more evolved way to see the world. I just don't believe in full-on one or the other; life is a mixed bag, and so should art be. Cynicism about Hollywood is fine, but I thought it worked perfectly in L.A. Story, which was extremely cynical but also romantic and sincere. Or Watchmen: Alan Moore strikes me as somewhat misanthropic, but he knows how to seed hope and beauty into a tale to make the ugliness bearable. Misanthropy seems like a deliberate choice for only always bad, and when has that ever worked out?

It didn't work out for Ahab, I can tell you true.

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