“The one thing to remember about Melville is that he wrote Moby Dick when he was thirty years old. Thirty.” I hold up a battered paperback copy. The same copy I read in high school.
“And he’d already written Typee, Omoo and Mardi. These books,” I said, holding up the single volume Library of America edition that miraculously contained all three of these very lengthy books about Melville’s trips to the South Sea Islands. “Over a thousand pages.”
I want them to get a sense of his accomplishment. Most of the students in the graduate program were in their 20s. They had been in school most of their lives. Some of them taught high school and junior high and returned to school for a graduate degree because it meant a higher salary. Others had a dream of becoming writers themselves. It was up to me to help them find their way, but I was as much in need of guidance as they were, if they only knew. The notion of necessity—of waking every morning with no choice except to continue the work from the day before—was foreign to them. It was the hardest thing, to keep going, as if nothing else was important. It was like breathing, I knew, but how to say it? Some of them had traveled around the world and knew many other languages and a few of them had young children. Even curiosity about the insides of books was lukewarm at best. Many of them were going to go on to PhD programs in literature and hoped to become teachers, just like me.
No one in my family could believe I preferred reading to watching television or playing sports or applying makeup in front of my bedroom mirror or saving my weekly allowance for clothes. The last thing I wanted was to spend my weekends at the mall. I preferred the library, with its cool shadows. You could hear the sound of someone across the room turning the pages of a newspaper. You were with the shellshocked veterans and the dowagers with purple hair. My town, Lenox, was a summer tourist destination. There was a bookstore and a library. The people I liked best in town were Katy Flume, the head librarian, who would order any book I wanted, and Mitch Tauber, the owner of the bookstore, who let me borrow newly published books for weeks at a time. (It was Katy who I confided in about Marco and it was Katy who I kissed goodnight with my mouth wide open. It was Katy who read my first poems and stories—nothing I would ever show my high school English teacher or my mother—and who recommended books by Djuna Barnes and Octavia Butler—books I wouldn’t have read otherwise. It was Katy who got me a job as usherette at Tanglewood one summer and who recommended me for the job as tour guide at Arrowhead. Katy, who wrote me from China, not long ago, where she’s living with her girlfriend and teaching English.)
The urge to write—the primary drive to do anything—was still dormant in most of these students. I had learned early on that I was more adept at reading than writing, that I could see how it worked for other writers, but it didn’t work for me. Katy Flume kissed me in the garden behind her house and put my hand on her breast. She had wanted to be a writer, as well, but couldn’t do it. She could only be alone with her own thoughts for so long. We could commiserate with one another, if nothing else, and she could encourage me to do the opposite of what she did—too much alcohol, too much insecurity, too many one night stands, one abortion too many, too many jobs leading nowhere. Talking with Katy, I felt the pressure to be a writer lift from my shoulders. I saw a path into the future which ended with me standing in front of a classroom talking about the books I love. It made me sad that I would never be like Melville, or Virginia Woolf, or Edgar Allen Poe, but at least I could do something else. I could be crazy in my own way. There were other stars out there, all the constellations Marco and I tried to identify from the field behind Arrowhead. We spread a blanket on the grass. Insatiable. It was the only word that made sense. I knelt on the blanket, he lifted my skirt. We couldn’t stop. An hour in the bath the next day to ease my soreness. Even my mother, who knew nothing, looked worried, suspicious, about how I spent my weekend nights, but she’d never have the courage to confront me. All the afternoons in the basement at Marco’s. It was like we were training for the marathon, trying to do everything at the same time. We knew our time was limited. After the school year was over we would go separate ways. I had already applied to NYU. I assumed they would accept me, but you never know. I was the salutatorian of our senior class, after all. I had high 700s on my SAT’s. It was mostly a matter of how much scholarship money they would offer. I also applied to Amherst and Brown. Marco and I wandered through the rooms of Melville’s house. A girl named Marianne, who wore her hair in a pony-tail, and was on the volleyball team, and whose last name was unpronounceable, one of our classmates in high school whose family had migrated from Eastern Europe, dusted the rooms a few times a week so they would be spiffy for the visitors, but not too spiffy—you wanted to catch the old time feeling of the way it had been. (Marianne, with her long legs and bony knees, was already on Marco’s list of old girlfriends—I wasn’t surprised.)
Melville, I realized, as I stood in front of the classroom, seventeen years later, was the Mount Everest of comparisons. It was an achievement for anyone to even approach the foothills of what he had done.
“How many of you have read Moby Dick?”
I had asked this question earlier in the semester.
“Don’t lie,” I said. Most of them raised their hands, too embarrassed to admit they had only heard about the book but never read it. “It’s easy to lie and say you read Moby Dick because everyone knows what it’s about.”
“I don’t know what it’s about,” Tony said.
The room went stone silent. Honesty was the first step. It was hard to hide behind ignorance, but worse to pretend you had done something when it never happened. There were even some people who believed their own lies.
“I don’t mean to scold, or browbeat you, but it’s your responsibility to read this book. Not just because you’re English majors, but because you’re human, and this is an amazing achievement by someone who was born on this planet. A troubled person, in many ways, and different from most people. It’s part of our job to figure out how he was different. And why people basically ignored him during his own lifetime. He wrote Moby Dick and not many people were very impressed. Though he spent the later half of his life in New York City, he wrote Moby Dick while he was living in Western Massachusetts, in a house outside Pittsfield called Arrowhead, which is now a museum.
“And what’s the difference, you might ask, between these books—Mardi, Typee, Omoo—and Moby Dick? These other books are like adventure stories and were much more popular in his own time. More people read these books than Moby Dick. A lot of his readers thought he was making it all up—all these stories about the South Sea Islands. About Tahiti. They didn’t believe he’d actually been there.
“The difference between these books and Moby Dick is something that happened to Melville himself. He read Shakespeare, for one thing. He decided he was more interested in being a great writer than a writer who was accessible to a lot of people. He began to define himself as a literary person, instead of a popular writer. He had tried that already, with moderate success. It wasn’t like his South Sea adventures sold a million copies and made him rich. But that’s what the public expected—adventure stories. No one was ready for Moby Dick. It sounds, on the surface, like it’s going to be another adventure story, obsessive captain of whaling boat goes after the whale who bit off his leg. So why shouldn’t Melville—maybe a stand in for Captain Ahab himself—go for broke? He had a lot of ambition, very similar (though in a different way) to Walt Whitman, who was alive at the same time. Expansiveness, growth—that’s what was happening in this country. The every day reality. Plus a lot of deviousness and corruption and not much introspection. Plus the underlying tragedy. Genocide. The killing off of the native Americans. And slavery. People like Melville and Whitman could see it more clearly than most people. They weren’t in denial. These things were happening on their watch though they didn’t have the power to do anything but write about what it felt like to be alive in this country, in the middle of the nineteenth century, when slavery was a fact of life. You have to begin somewhere, and all countries begin with violence. But it’s no excuse, really. There are some good things about this country, but we can’t deny our history. Here it is, we all know it, but we prefer not to think about it, except maybe when an event like 9/11 happens. Then it might dawn on us that the historical record tells a different story than the one we want to believe—about Christopher Columbus discovering America, and all the other myths and feel-good fantasies that seem to perpetuate themselves year after year.
“Anyway, as a consequence of all this, of seeing into the world around him with eyes wide open, Melville created a monster.”
I realized that my voice had become very serious, almost solemn, and the students—on either side of the long conference table—were looking up at me, wide-eyed. They had me pegged for an easy-going laid-back type who didn’t take anything too seriously, but now I was showing them a different side. Ray DeForest was taking notes on a yellow legal pad. The students were all aware of why he was visiting. They knew it was important to make a good impression.
It was like something really mattered, for once, and all anyone could do, beyond the infinite distractedness of present time, where nothing was more important than anything else, was stare into space, eyes glazed over, almost tearful, barely comatose, and reflect on your own life, and how little you had done.
Even Ray was staring up at me with a bemused look on his face, not as if he was undressing me in his mind but actually considering the words I was staying, possibly remembering his own days as a graduate student and all the dreams of youth he had tossed overboard, all the late-night discussions in a bar or cafe with his friends in the PhD program, all of them assuming they would be great writers some day, that they might even change the world, all of them claiming they were “writing a novel” when they were mostly staring at the same blank page, year after year, the one who shot-gunned himself into eternity in despair when his girlfriend left him for his best friend, the one who dropped out of the program and was discovered years later with his head in a noose hanging from a beam in a flophouse on the Bowery—all this had happened and of course some of the people in the program turned out like Ray DeForest: PhD, dissertation, marriage, one child, publish dissertation with a university press, then a few articles in magazines no one ever sees, a few panels, conferences—assistant professor, associate professor, tenure!, full professor—that was enough—that was more than enough for what constitutes a life for many people, and eventually he would make a pass at one of his young students, she was sitting in his office only a few inches away—and everything leading up to this moment: PhD, dissertation, wife, child, even the job which made this moment possible—would fade in comparison to the girl with naked shoulders sitting beside him. Every year there would be an influx of new students and after awhile he could assess the willing candidates, the ones most in need of a father figure or an older mentor, and those were the ones whose work he praised the most, whom he called on most frequently in class, who felt free to visit him in his office and then one day it would happen, he would close the door of the office behind him (as no doubt Heidegger did when Hannah Arendt came to see him) and it would begin all over again, and no one really cared, it happened everywhere, in every school, and of course the young women told their friends, that was the whole point of it all, to brag that they were sleeping with their teachers, though some of them were more discrete, and some of them threatened suicide, or ended up in therapy for years afterwards, when he told them it was over, when he moved on to someone else, and some of them even fell in love with him and stood naked in his office and visited him in the small studio apartment he rented just for this purpose, and which his wife would eventually discover, and getting a divorce made life even more interesting because now he could do what he wanted without lying about it, and who cares what people thought about him, they were jealous—those other teachers who stood in front of the classroom while all these young women, young enough to be their daughters, clamored around their desks after class. Look at me, they seemed to be saying, as if attention from the teacher would make them feel special. It would go on forever, and he would eventually get involved with the new teachers in the department as well—just for a change of pace—and maybe he would meet someone else, closer to his own age, and re-marry, and the young women would still come to his office but he was frightened of something now, of himself, of his own sad flesh, and it was hard for him to understand why anyone would be interested in touching him. Yet even now when he reached out the students closed their eyes and let him do what he wanted. He was amazed! Just when he thought this part of his life was over! It was like every fantasy came true in the end if you were patient. He loved his second wife more than his first, but she was jealous as well, and when she found out he had slept with the new English teacher, Greta Robbins, the Melville expert, she began stalking her and making threatening phone calls and other teachers in the department found out about it and for the first time he felt his reputation—he was now chair of the department, after all—was in danger of going down the tube, even with tenure he could still be fired if one of the students complained—and wasn’t there a story in the newspaper every other day about a priest or a politician or a coach—someone in authority—who had been accused of molesting, groping, seducing, actually having sex with someone in his or her charge. And if he didn’t have this job—this place of refuge from the rest of his life—what would he do? It had been years, almost a decade, since he had published anything—not even a book review. He would die, that’s what. He would sink to the bottom and never come up. He would suffocate in his own stagnant juices.
“And then he went on to write another monster,” I said (and there he was, pen poised in mid-air above his yellow pad), “that had nothing to do with whales or boats or far-off islands, this book, Pierre, and the Ambiguities, one of my favorite books, another book not many people were interested in during his lifetime, and which didn’t really get any attention until the 1950s.
“The unconscious. He had discovered his unconscious, or his unconscious had discovered him.
“Imagine the necessity involved in writing these books. The sustained effort, day after day. The cold winter nights—winter, in the Berkshires, which is the area of Western Massachusetts where he lived, can be very cold. Lots of snow. No cars. No snow plows. No telephones. No computers. Nathaniel Hawthorne lived a few miles away. They visited each other, but not as often as you might expect. At the same time that Melville was writing Moby Dick, Hawthorne was writing The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne was one of the few people who realized what Melville had done. The book—Moby Dick—is dedicated to Hawthorne. No surprise.
“When Melville died, he was a very obscure writer. The question is what happened—why did people become interested in his work? How did that come about? The arc of a writer’s reception—that’s spelled, “a,” “r,” “c,”—in his or her own life time, and then what happens after the person dies, is of interest to me. Some say this is a secondary topic to discuss alongside the actual texts, and that’s probably true, but it’s an important topic nonetheless. And the example of Herman Melville is one of the most extreme, and sobering examples. If you think of Charles Dickens, for instance, who was a contemporary of Melville—Dickens was immensely popular in his own time, and became even more popular after he died. His books, unlike Melville’s, have always been available.”
He’s actually fucking writing all this down, or something.
He’s writing something.
“I’ve been there,” Tim said, without raising his hand.
“To the Melville museum. The house where he wrote Moby Dick. Some lady gave me and my parents a tour. It cost twelve bucks to get in.”
I want the students to feel like their lives will be empty, or incomplete, until they read this book—that seeing your own existence through the veils of literature or music or painting is one way to transcend the getting and spending life handed over to us at birth. I want to protect them from the pitfalls, all the obstacles and random occurrences, all the mistakes I made. All I know is that I wanted to be a poet. I had written a poem almost every day during that year in high school with Marco. We had read each other’s poems out loud. We had discovered new poets none of our teachers knew about, like Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldman and Bernadette Mayer, for instance. I still have their books. Mayer even lived in Lenox, my home town, for a few years before I was born. I saw her give a reading my first year in New York, when I was still holding out a lifeline to the dream I could one day write like her, that I could do more with my life than simply read the books others had written. It was my comfort zone, writing and talking about books, and I was good at it. My undergraduate English teachers all encouraged me to get a PhD. They called me into their offices to give me encouragement. I had sex with one of them at the Chelsea Hotel, in a room overlooking a dumpster.
At first it seemed like there was a thin line between writing one’s own books and writing about other people but after awhile the chasm widened and there was no turning back. I could hold out hope of becoming a public intellectual, like Susan Sontag, a dying breed, who wrote novels as well and made movies but was mostly known for her theories about reading and writing, and for discovering obscure European writers like Robert Walser. At the least, one could become a teacher, an admirable thing to do given the other possibilities, as long as you didn’t become bitter, or feel like a failure because you gave up on your own creative aspirations. It was Melville who encouraged people not to lose sight of the dreams of youth, something he himself had done. He had lost sight of everything. He had pushed his wife down a staircase. He moved from the house in the Berkshires to New York City and took a job as a custom’s official. No one cared about the books he had written. He let his brain go to waste. His wife wanted a divorce. His son, Malcolm, committed suicide. Reading his life story, which I did, many versions, I realized it was safer to be a spectator, to stand on the sidelines. There were enough poets out there, enough bad poets. I had their books on my shelves. I could go to readings and sit in the back row and ask the authors to autograph their books, as if that meant anything. I could become a collector. It was my way of keeping the flame alive. I had a photograph of Frank O’Hara above my desk at school. He had died age forty, run over by a dune buggy on a beach in Long Island in the middle of the night. I used to read his poems and then take out my notebook, with the rhythm of his poems still in my brain, and write a poem of my own that sounded too much like him, in the long run, but at least it was there and I could type it up later and maybe make something of my own out of it all, as if my only talent was stealing energy from someone who had done it better.
At least that’s what it felt like when I read over what I’d written, and a few days later I’d read it again, and after awhile I began to doubt whether it was any good. Changing a word or two wasn’t going to help. I began thinking, instead, of O’Hara, and how he had stopped writing when he turned thirty-five, how young he had been—much like Melville—when he wrote his greatest work. I felt a weight lift from the base of my spine, from my heart. One day, and with a moment of regret, I put the notebooks with my poems on the shelf above my desk, almost out of reach.
I tried to convey to the students what it was like when I was in graduate school, before the internet, when I spent most of my waking hours at the NYU library on East Third Street. Open till midnight during the school year. I practically lived in the stacks. It was easier to concentrate in the library than in my dorm, and later in my apartment, with my roommates and their occasional drunk boyfriends who would be lurching toward the bathroom to throw up at all hours of the night. When my father died, he left me enough money to rent my own apartment, the same one I’m living in now, even though I worked part-time at a restaurant, The Blue Peacock, right around the corner from the English Department offices. It was a rare moment that I didn’t have a book open in front of me. I would fall asleep reading with the lights on. But today, in the library of the school where I teach, there are no people perusing the stacks; there are the books, the same unopened books, year after year, but there are no people. I’m on a first name basis with the head librarian (“Hi Susan!”) and no one cares how long I keep the books. No one even sends me a notice informing me that the book is overdue. The librarians are just happy someone is there. Many of the books haven’t been opened in years. I can remember the days when each book had a card in a pocket on the inside back cover listing all the people who had ever checked it out of the library and how I could spend hours examining the handwritten names on the card, to what purpose I’m not sure. And occasionally there was the name of someone I knew, someone out of the distant past, a former teacher in the English Department who had retired, or died. The librarians roll out the red carpet whenever I walk through the door. “Welcome, Doctor Robbins.” It’s like they haven’t seen anyone in years.
“Think of the country in 1850,” I say. “The early heady days of Capitalism. And then think of another word: Imperialism. These are important concepts to keep in mind when you read Melville. His greatest works are fueled by his critique of America—this country was only seventy-five years old at the time he wrote Moby Dick and Pierre, but expanding every day. People didn’t like Moby Dick—it was too philosophical, the story line wasn’t linear, it wasn’t a page turner, and many people were offended because of his critique of Capitalism. His early books defined who he was as a writer. His audience wanted to be entertained, and he served up endless adventure stories about places they had never been. He portrayed the missionaries as idiots. They came to the South Sea Islands to convert the natives to Christianity. They tried to impose their moral values on the natives. And there certainly wasn’t any titillation in Moby Dick. It was like a textbook on the whaling industry, and who wanted to read that?
“And what about ‘Bartleby’?” I ask. “What part of society is Melville critiquing here? It’s really obvious, in a way, since a variation of the world he describes is going on not far from here, on Wall Street, and everywhere, really. The deadening nature of work—meaningless work, heartbreaking work, really, just to survive.”
I scan the room looking for some response but the students don’t want to hear all this bad news because it’s really about their future. Melville is writing about them and it’s too painful to listen. They’ve all had dead end jobs. They’ve even experienced some form of heartbreak. They don’t want to turn into their parents—that’s why they’re here, in the classroom, like an alternative reality, or so they think.
Ray DeForest runs his fingers through his hair, what’s left of it. His eyes, like slits, roam from one face to another. He’s sizing them up, undressing the young women in his mind, or whatever it is men do. I’ve never “undressed” anyone “in my mind”—that isn’t the way it happens for me. I admire people’s beauty, but it’s like a light flickering on the horizon. Sometimes the light is too bright and I have to look the other way. Sometimes I’m surprised how one thought bleeds into another, without anyone at the controls. It just happens, I let it happen, like in a dream. I don’t impose my will, but get caught in the flow, like an old log or piece of debris from a sinking ship, floating downstream, and it isn’t just my memory (all the nights with Marco on the floor of Melville’s office) but imaginary conversations with people I haven’t seen in years, interconnections between ideas and books that seem unrelated on the surface. Everything interesting is happening beneath the surface, one might say, and just as easily argue that the opposite was true. And unless I write it down—every detail, every fact, every reference point, every point of view—it all disappears, like a dream that begins to fade after you wake up.
The silence is painful.
“And what about the narrator? Why doesn’t he fire Bartleby?”
Ray DeForest looks confused. Why isn’t anyone responding?
I smile—this is for you, I think, whoever you might be. This is for Marco, and Natalie, and even Robert. Everyone I’ve ever loved for a moment.
I turn my back on the class and begin unbuttoning my blouse.
If this doesn’t get their attention, nothing will.
The Rail is proudly serializing Delusions of Being Observed by Lewis Warsh from the Oct ’16 issue through the Winter of ’18. Please join us every month for a new installment.