Monday, April 26, 2010

The Sluttish Word

Woods, Pennsylvania

A wan Herculean effort to expurgate my “holdings” of the insignificant, the laps’d, the temporary, &c. (All the truck I drag home out of the library, rocket’d up into the stacks at the crack of any bat, a Fulke Greville of the left field wall, chasing even what’s so obviously pulling foul . . .) That, and work diligent at adding some sophistical whatnot and gauds to my late “Obloquy to a Beetle.” I am remind’d of Dahlberg’s assessing Edgar Allan Poe a somewhat shrewd “charlatan,” making him—Poe—precursor and contemporary to “our” own age of snatch and file. Dahlberg points to Increase Mathers’s Remarkable Providences with its condensary of “Sir Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, Dioscorides, Hesychius, Ovid,” &c. and calls it “loot for a man of letters who wants to be a sage.” (Dahlberg knowing of what he speaks?) Lovely sentence: “Poe was a genius whose awe of knowledge was as great as that of the ancient Jews, who could not see God face to face, but were told that if they looked upon his hinder parts they could be prophetic.” And thus finish’d Alms for Oblivion. “One should save stones for the mercenaries of letters, and not cast them at a broken Ishmael of truth.” (One mercenary band—in Dahlberg’s loveless planh—the Dadaists, who “had resolved to be outrageous.” Attention, tender bourgeoisie of the Flarf odium et tedium: if one needs resolve, one’s likely not. Dahlberg: “When everybody wants to paint or write, the arts are very bad.”)

The singular essay in the book: “Moby-Dick: A Hamitic Dream.” In it—is it fallout, in part, of the earlier Olson / Dahlberg imbroglio?—Dahlberg says “I have changed my mind about Herman Melville, for I once loved this Cyclops whose father is Oceanus.” And, in a blast still resounding—just try plugging any gull’d and earnest critical goon’s poet-of-the-moment into the slot occupy’d by Philip Freneau or Charles Brockden Brown—Dahlberg writes:
It is natural that we should have a wizened, intellectual literature—and who would want to empty our little Hippocrene?—but it is malignant to feign that we are the new Attica of literature. When poeticules assert that Philip Freneau is a bard or that the pages of Charles Brockden Brown are not hellebore to the reader, he is establishing a republic of letters for solemn apes. How much noise is made for a drumbling poetaster or a Thersites of scatological fiction! Let a man, as Rabelais writes, “chew ordure” in twenty novels, and for such coprology he is wreathed in tamarisk as though he were a god instead of a sweeper of privies. We venerate size and bulk and the surest way to be accounted a genius is to write the same big, ignorant book many times.
Attention, size queens. (Dahlberg’s consistency loves that pairing: in “Laurels for Borrowers,” the 1951 defense of Olson against the thievish ravagings of Newton Arvin, he notes how the “pedagogues were too busy with such wights as Freneau, Brockden Brown, William Dunlap and the Peabody sisters to pay heed to Emily Dickinson, Melville or Poe.” And: “It would have taken the bold simplicity of a Goya kitchen trollop to weep out such gnomes as Freneau and Brockden Brown.” Attention, criticules of the minor marketing agents of “our” fustian “era.”) So, according to Dahlberg’s late screed, the book―Moby-Dick―is too long, a watery malform’d deluge (“a rabble of words which could not have been excreted without much travail”). It is fill’d with “the scantiest humdrum minutia” (the chapter titles tout seul the equivalent of “a bill of lading of a clerkly Triton sitting in a shipping office on lower Wall Street.” The book is shrill, repeating (“he had a pelting memory and repeated the same desiccated, gothic descriptions frequently,” thus glutting the “huffing treatise” with the “fifty phrases, more or less” that label Ahab a monomaniac: “‘the whole grim aspect of Ahab,’ ‘he was a raving lunatic,’ ‘moody, stricken Ahab,’ ‘his delirium,’ ‘the old man’s delirium,’ ‘Ahab’s full lunacy,’ ‘madness sat brooding on his brow,’ ‘the whale’s direful wrath,’ ‘all the subtle demonism of life,’ ‘the demoniac waves.’”) Dahlberg: “One might say of Melville what Swinburne said of Byron: “Much of the poem is written throughout in falsetto.” (A fine counter to Byron’s heaves at Keats, calling the poetry: “mental masturbation―he is always frigging his Imagination” and “Johnny Keats’s piss-a-bed poetry.”) Melville is one of a number of misogynist littérateurs (of “no likerish palate”) of these States (“Perversity is the black angel of our century, and the hatred of the clan of females, so deep in Melville, Poe, Whitman, and Thoreau, is our Atlean inheritance,” writes Dahlberg, and insists that “Melville composed amorous canticles to an oceanic brute, and the sea was his hymeneal bed. Leviathan is a ‘luxurious Ottoman,’ with ‘all the solace and endearments of the harem’; the Sperm Whale has a ‘beautiful and chaste-looking mouth . . . glossy as bridal satins.’”) Sounds like a reprise―Moby-Dick: A Hamitic Dream” work’d up in 1959 and print’d in The Literary Review in the autumn of 1960―of Leslie Fiedler’s 1948 Partisan Review essay, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!”―precursor to Love and Death in the American Novel with its talk of hint’d at homoeroticism between men, and misogyny towards women in the classics of American literature. In Dahlberg’s vain and flighty (and mighty) opprobrium, the notion becomes a clout—one attends to the thrashing of Melville with a kind of awe, dispel’d only by a sense it is Dahlberg’s undoing of Dahlberg that is at stake. Toward the end:
There is now a pederastic hagiography composed of people who prefer the bad to the good, who like excrements instead of pond-apples, sumach, dogwood, or hyacinths, and who choose men rather than women to be their paramours. Intellectual sodomy, which comes from the refusal to be simple about plain matters, is as gross and abundant today as sexual perversion and they are nowise different from one another. This kind of pathic in literature has wan, epicene affections. A misologist, he takes ophidian pleasure in the misuse of words, and his sacerdotal gibberish sounds more like the cries of animals than the holy Logos or the alphabet of the god Thoth. Is there a genius in Christendom whose holy credo is not: “In the beginning was the Word”? Specious rebels, they are the advocates of the rabble arts.
What is, of course, lovely (and sobering) about that―is how Dahlberg “doth protest too much”―the faults of splendid misuse and unreasonable misology (if they be faults) too obviously “fit” to Dahlberg’s own tizzy and bombast. He writes in one paragraph how “Melville’s jadish vocabulary is swollen into the Three Furies, and we flee from them as Ben Jonson in his Poetaster took flight from ‘furibund,’ ‘magnificate,’ ‘lubrical,’ ‘fatuate,’ ‘turgidous,’ ‘ventosity.’” And in the next writes: “The atrabilious Ahab is only wicked in the sluttish, supine words with which the author depicts him.” Atrabilious: “Affected by black bile or ‘choler adust’; melancholy, hypochondriac; splenetic, acrimonious.” My question: who is’t calls a particular word “sluttish,” a vocabulary “swollen”? (Mightn’t one argue “plain speech”—the Wordworthian “real language of men in a state of vivid sensation”—the most acrimonious of all? And what if one’s prefer’d “state of vivid sensation” is gain’d by the sluttish word?)

Herman Melville, 1819-1891