American Gloom

Month: February, 2012

The Hyena.

by Ezekiel Fry

Anyone who knows me personally knows that one of the most important things in my life is the work of Herman Melville, and in particular Moby-Dick. His masterpiece is a driving force in everything that I do. Be it in the realm of academics, writing, social interactions, views of our country, philosophy, and even spirituality, Ishmael’s vision of the world is a central point to who I am as an individual. This may say something about the level of gloom that hangs about my life, but there are indeed, within Moby-Dick, numerous places where the human condition is celebrated in a most vigorous and powerful manner. In a manner that will one day influence the likes of Albert Camus in his celebration of human frailty. On days when the gloom of existence, the seemingly unending parade of failures and taunts, throw me down into the depths it is important for me to remember that these assertions of humanity exist, whether it be in the form of Melville’s work or merely in the smile of a friend. Along these lines, for today, I wish to share, in its entirety, one of these most pivotal moments, perhaps the most inspirational moment that I have yet to find in the world of literature. That moment is chapter 49 of Moby-Dick, “The Hyena.” Hopefully you find something in it that is akin to what I feel, but if you don’t this entry is pretty much exclusively for me anyways. Here it is:

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange and mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now, seems but a part of the general joke. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object.

“Queequeg,” said I, when they had dragged me, the last man, to the deck, and I was still shaking myself in my jacket to fling off the water; “Queequeg, my fine friend, does this sort of thing often happen?” Without much emotion, though soaked through just like me, he gave me to understand that such things did often happen.

“Mr. Stubb,” said I, turning to that worthy, who, buttoned up in his oil-jacket, was now calmly smoking his pipe in the rain; “Mr. Stubb, I think I have heard you say that of all whalemen you ever met, our chief mate, Mr. Starbuck, is by far the most careful and prudent. I suppose then, that going plump on a flying whale with your sail set in a foggy squall is the height of a whaleman’s discretion?”

“Certain. I’ve lowered for whales from a leaking ship in a gale off Cape Horn.”

“Mr. Flask,” said I, turning to little King-Post, who was standing close by; “you are experienced in these things, and I am not. Will you tell me whether it is an unalterable law in this fishery, Mr.Flask, for an oarsman to break his own back pulling himself back-foremost into death’s jaws?”

“Can’t you twist that smaller?” said Flask. “Yes, that’s the law. I should like to see a boat’s crew backing water up to a whale face foremost. Ha, ha! the whale would give them squint for squint, mind that!”

Here then, from three impartial witnesses, I had a deliberate statement of the entire case. Considering, therefore, that squalls and capsizings in the water and consequent bivouacks on the deep, were matters of common occurrence in this kind of life; considering that at the superlatively critical instant of going on to the whale I must resign my life into the hands of him who steered the boat—oftentimes a fellow who at that very moment is in his impetuousness upon the point of scuttling the craft with his own frantic stampings; considering that the particular disaster to our own particular boat was chiefly to be imputed to Starbuck’s driving on to his whale almost in the teeth of a squall, and considering that Starbuck, notwithstanding, was famous for his great heedfulness in the fishery; considering that I belonged to this uncommonly prudent Starbuck’s boat; and finally considering in what a devil’s chase I was implicated, touching the White Whale: taking all these things together, I say, I thought I might as well go below and make a rough draft of my will. “Queequeg,” said I, “come along, you shall be my lawyer, executor, and legatee.”

It may seem strange that of all men sailors should be tinkering at their last wills and testaments, but there are no people in the world more fond of that diversion. This was the fourth time in my nautical life that I had done the same thing. After the ceremony was concluded upon the present occasion, I felt all the easier; a stone was rolled away from my heart. Besides, all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case might be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault.

Now then, thought I, unconsciously rolling up the sleeves of my frock, here goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost. (188-89)

Works cited: My edition of Moby-Dick is the Norton Critical Edition (2nd Edition). All pagination in this post (and subsequent references to Moby-Dick) refers to it.

Sundays with Ambrose (part one).

by Ezekiel Fry

Every Sunday, it will be our pleasure here at American Gloom to bring you a few definitions from the caustic world of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. I hope you enjoy Bierce’s tragicomic insight into American life as much as I do.

 

Aborigines, n. Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country. They soon cease to cumber; they fertilize. (1)

 

Commerce, n. A kind of transaction in which A plunders from B the goods of C, and for compensation B picks the pocket of D of money belonging to E. (17)

 

History, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools. (51)

 

Monarchical Government, n. Government. (82)

 

NOTE: The Edition of Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary that I will be referencing is the “Dover Thrift Edition.” All pagination refers to that edition. ISBN: 0-486-27542-6

The Wisdom of Iago.

by Ezekiel Fry

In a society where everyone is in a constant state of upheaval as to how to view their surroundings it seems we often decide this by centering ourselves not by what we are for, but rather by what we are against. In this sense, it seems important to remember that the question of good and evil is nothing new. Moral uprightness, the idea that there is some underlying universal code, or Truth, that if we were to all follow would lead us to harmonious perfection, is based on a desire to see the world as one of clearly defined contrasts. In essence, it is the attempt to see only the black, and only the white, with a red line of rage placed in the middle to differentiate me from you. In my estimation this type of thinking leads not to oneness, but instead merely solidifies the red line even further. There are no absolutes in this life. With perhaps the exception of birth and death there is nothing in our existence as humans that we may confidently say is certain, and even these experiences of creation and demise are open to interpretation. The question is, how do we deal with one another, and how do we begin to understand not our separateness but our intrinsic unity? It is through, as the philosopher Odo Marquard points out, a celebration of the motley nature of human experience that we may gain some insight into this quandary.

William Shakespeare, some four hundred years ago, wrote, through the character of Hamlet, a basis for this discussion. In response to Guildenstern and Rosencrantz’s denial of Hamlet’s assessment of Denmark (as a prison), Hamlet responds, “Why, then ‘tis none to you, for there is nothing either/ good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison” (2.2.244-45). These lines are lost on the dense interlocutors, but they resound out of the play into our current state of affairs in the United States with eerie truth. From Hamlet’s perspective, we create our world of abstractions (the world of personal feeling, judgment, ideology) out of the tangible, or concrete realities of the world. Denmark exists, that is the certainty here, but what it may represent is clearly open to interpretation. The lens of the self takes Denmark and makes it stand for something else. The concrete texture of Denmark does not change, but the vision behind it becomes a mutable reality—something human. As Hamlet so accurately describes, we take a certainty and place our own secret world behind it never altering the thing itself, but forever shifting the ways in which we view it. It is this fundamental individuating process that gives rise to the desire to see things only as we ourselves view them, and to push aside the contrary, or the new.

Another of Shakespeare’s great figures, not that of the tragic hero, but the villain incarnate, may also give us an insight into this process of defining ourselves against the opposition. Othello’s Iago, in his pragmatic attempt to dissuade Roderigo from drowning himself, throws aside the shackles of virtue stating, “Virtue? A fig! ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus” (1.3.316). Iago’s motivations are assuredly not humanistic in this statement, but nevertheless the statement rings true. Building upon the concept of good and evil in perception put forth by Hamlet, Iago determines that what may be viewed as an evil for one may be viewed as a blessing by others. The definition arises from within. It is not “virtue” that dictates the nature of perception, but the private world of the self. The reality of Roderigo does not change, but the perception of its contents has shifted. The red line of differentiation, of universal opposition has become blurred.

Turning back now to our current moment in time in the United States, as the oppositional forces of “rightness” press against one another in perhaps the most vigorous manner since the mid-19th century, both Hamlet and Iago may hold a key to our own happiness, our motley unity. We are all living in the same reality, but it is within ourselves that we construct our conceptualization of “good” and “evil”, or “right” and “wrong.” There are no universal views, only a beautiful collection of varied experiences, and the sooner we realize this to be a basic truth the sooner we will cease to attempt to destroy one another within the red line of absolutes.

 

Works Cited:

Marquard, Odo. In Defense of the Accidental. Oxford University Press, 1991.

Shakespeare, William. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Oxford University Press, 1988.

 

This American Identity.

by Ezekiel Fry

Is there something—a feeling, a word, an action—that can effectively summarize the American character as we see it? Probably not, but in exploring the possibility that a culture, and specifically one as ubiquitous as the 21st century American has become, could be condensed into one word, I stumbled across a possible solution. Nathaniel Hawthorne, that gatekeeper of our shadowy past clear back to the first days, in perhaps his most famous work, The Scarlet Letter, touches on an intrinsic characteristic within our national mind and spirit—the prevalence of American gloom. Hawthorne writes of our stern forbears:

But we perhaps exaggerate the gray and sable tinge, which undoubtedly characterized the mood and manners of the age. The persons now in the market-place of Boston had not been born to an inheritance of Puritanic gloom. They were native Englishmen, whose fathers had lived in the sunny richness of the Elizabethan epoch; a time when the life of England, viewed as one great mass, would appear to have been as stately, magnificent, and joyous, as the world has ever witnessed. Had they followed their hereditary taste, the New England settlers would have illustrated all events of public importance by bonfires, banquets, pageantries, and processions. (202)

Here, in the incubational stage of the American people, as we shifted from an English identity to something new and untested, perhaps lies that jumping off place towards American mock seriousness, melancholy, and general malaise. Hawthorne calls it “Puritanic gloom,” and from this we can see how this gloom is broadcast forward in time to become an embodying quality within the fabric of our national identity. The English cheerfulness and merriment has been erased. The only relic which has been inherited is the overwhelming feeling of gloom.Hawthorne further describes the situation of the native-born American:

Their immediate posterity, the generation next to the early emigrants, wore the blackest shade of Puritanism, and so darkened the national visage with it, that all the subsequent years have not sufficed to clear it up. We have yet to learn the forgotten art of gayety. (204)

The scene which Hawthorne describes on that festival day in the early years of Boston has faded into the realm of myth. While there was never truly the joyous release that might be present in England, Hawthorne intimates to us that the memory of that release was present. As soon as that memory died off, the nation, with its witchery and dark forests, was left only with the “blackest shade” of their English parents, and each generation, down through Hawthorne’s day, and into our own, has worn no single thread of that original memory of joy. We are a people who stand beneath a shadow, whether consciously or not. Every movement to step outside of this national shadow has been thwarted just as Endicott thwarts the gayety of Merry Mount in Hawthorne’s prescient “The May-Pole of Merry Mount.” The earth of our continent is drenched in the black blood of the many peoples who have been thrown down in front of Endicott’s puritanical sword. The characters have shifted, the language has changed, but the same gloom surrounds us all. We are not a people comfortable with belly-laughter. The only laughter we truly understand is the high-pitched cackle of the piously mad. It is our national heritage.

It was with these thoughts swirling around that one word—gloom—that I returned from Hawthorne’s work to reassess my initial question. If gloom truly is the word that best describes us, and I think that there is more than a shred of truth to this, then what does this say about our society today, our world view and politics, our interactions with one another and with ourselves? Have we come forward in time, away from this historical and social millstone that Hawthorne describes in such clear detail? Is there hope that we will one day relearn the zest and freedom that colored the memories of the earliest English settlers on this continent, or has it been forever lost through four hundred years of vigorous bloodshed? Within the subsequent installments of this series of essays we will attempt to probe the literary, social, and political world surrounding this idea of American gloom. We may not speak directly to the issue, but we will endeavor to look at each subject through the lens of the melancholy, the vision of an eternal twilight on this continent. Be it in the form of an assessment of our fiction, that of our neighbors to the north and south, or historical influences on our current state of affairs, the goal here is to generate discussion. This begins with an attempt to admit, on all levels, that Hawthorne’s assessment of our culture is greatly accurate. In so doing we hope to not escape what seems inescapable in our collective existence, but to thrust our minds and our hearts directly into the shade of this gloomiest of subjects and to touch a piece or two of lost joy. Hopefully you will enjoy walking these dark paths with us.

NOTE: Both quotes in this introductory section are from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (Chapter: “The New England Holiday”). My pagination refers to the Library of America edition of the book.