Category Archives: Literature

The Great White Death!

Moby Dick is Herman Melville’s greatest work and is one of the greatest books ever written in English or really in any other language. Endless ink has been spilled about Ishmael, the sailor on board the whaling ship The Pequod and Ahab, the mad possessed captain of the ship, out to get his revenge against the greatest sperm whale of all, the great white whale, Moby Dick. Revenge against what? Earlier, Moby Dick had waged a war against Ahab’s ship when the whalers tried to kill the whale. In the course of the tumult and the whale’s attacks on the ship, Ahab lost his leg and now walks with an ivory peg-leg.

Moby Dick himself, or as I refer to him, The Great White Death!

Moby Dick himself, or as I refer to him, The Great White Death!

Really the best part of Moby Dick is the prose. I will print a few samples of it here so you can see how great it is.

Let us look at Ishmael talking.

Here the sea and the land clearly stand in for some deeper issues:

Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?

But in landlessness alone reside the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God – so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than to be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety.

Consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!

Two whale heads of killed whales are fastened to the ship as trophies:

Oh, ye foolish! throw these thunderheads overboard, and then you will float light and right…This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years.

He ponders the meaning of “whiteness,” of the obsessive themes of the book.

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?

Ishmael on what’s eating Ahab:

Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung.

…he strove to pierce the profundity.

The surface of the ocean and its deeper waters are obviously stand-in’s for weightier things:

Beneath this wondrous world upon the surface… another and still stranger world…

Ishmael dislikes philosophy:

So soon as I hear that such or such a man gives himself out for a philosopher, I conclude that, like the dyspeptic old woman, he must have ‘broken his digester.’

Yet he spends quite a bit of time philosophizing himself:

What things real are there, but imponderable thoughts?

And has not much use for religion either.

Hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling….

Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian…

…Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.

…a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world another.

Yet he also wonders about the same obsessions that haunt the religious:

Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance.

But he is brimming with great aphorisms:

…if you can get nothing better out of the world, get a good meal out of it, at least.

Starbuck, a sailor, is a budding capitalist who sees whales as nothing but another commodity:

I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? It will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market…

Pip, a castaway is rescued by sailor Stubb, only to jump off his ship. Stubb, another budding capitalist, albeit a vicious one, leaves Pip to flounder in the sea:

Stubb indirectly hinted, that though man loves his fellow, yet man is a money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence.

And Ahab has a few thoughts of his own:

All visible objects, man, are but pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing put forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?

To me, the white whale is the wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.

Ahab addressing a sperm whale, in a passage in which diving seems imply something deeper than plunging down into the sea:

Of all divers, thou has dived the deepest…


Great stuff or what?


Filed under Literature, Novel

One Island, Three Books

Ok here we go with the old stranded on a deserted island chestnut.

Now suppose you were stranded on a deserted island (not “desert island” as so many improperly say), and you could only bring three books with you, all fiction, all novels. Which do you choose?

I choose:

  1. Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)
  2. James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
  3. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

Now have at it, mavens.


Filed under Literature, Novel

D. H. Lawrence

A lot of people nowadays dislike D. H. Lawrence’s classic books such as Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, The Rainbow and Women in Love. I have read all four of them. Indeed the imagery can get rather heavy-handed and downright idiotic at times. His basic point, that humans should get out of their civilized shells enough to get in touch with their primal and of course sexual nature, is good enough for me, but he can be pretty ham-handed with the way he goes about hammering this point into your head.

Also his paragraphs can go on and on. And as far as erotic literature goes, it’s isn’t even very dirty by today’s pornographic standards, but I think it’s enough to at least turn’s women Romance-novel aware minds on.

I took a class once on D. H. Lawrence. It was all women except for me and one other guy.

Well, it was paradise.

The women in the class were turned on enough by Lawrence’s prose. I remember one very beautiful young woman, maybe 27 years old, often sat next to me. We were talking about one of the books and she was basically saying how she was getting so turned on reading them that she couldn’t wait for her husband to get home (he was off on some trip).

But I would like to point out, just for a moment, one thing often overlooked about Lawrence: what a great stylist he could be. Here is a passage from one of his classic travel books, Sea and Sardinia:

Cold, fresh wind, a black-blue, translucent, rolling sea on which the wake rose in snapping foam, and Sicily was on the left: Monte Pellegrino, a huge, inordinate mass of pinkish rock, hardly crisped with the faintest vegetation, looming up to heaven from the sea.

Strangely large in mass and bulk Monte Pellegrino looks and bare, like a Sahara in heaven: and old-looking. These coasts of Sicily are very imposing, terrific, fortifying the interior. And again one gets the feeling that age has worn them bare; as if old, old civilizations had worn away and exhausted the soil, leaving a terrifying blankness of rock, as at Syracuse in plateau, and here in great mass.

Oh! Man that is nice!

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Filed under Literature, Novel

Try Until You Die

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

– Robert Browning

That’s right. Never give up. Never stop trying. Never say uncle. Never say never. Keep on keeping on. Carry on, carry on. Get up and do it again. Nobody likes a quitter.

P.S. Browning is a really great 19th Century poet. You might want to check him out.


Filed under Literature, Philosophy, Poetry

Humans Are Perverse

Only part of us is sane; only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us.

The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright nature fights in us with this yeasty darkness, and neither part is commonly quite victorious, for we are divided against ourselves and will not let either part be destroyed.

Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941)

So we all have a bit of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in us, and to be human is to have a dark side. The universe is bipolar, and both visions are correct, even at the same time as we learn in Zen. The world is either a good place where the possibility of decency and success combined exists, as in soaring goodness of Shakespeare’s best characters, or it is consists of a blackened existence, as in a Ben Jonson play where near every character is a scoundrel with a depraved heart  and the the few good men are ineffectual and impotent and as in Dostoevsky, evil always triumphs and good falls down in the gutters to defeat.

Bottom line: the human heart is both divided and perverse.

P.S. That Rebecca West book is not only one of the finest novels of the 20th Century, but it is also one of the greatest works in English-language literature. And it’s only 1,181 pages long!


Filed under Literature, Novel, Philosophy

Jeff Bezos, POS

In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction, Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the Antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the Four Horsemen. Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world …

But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?

As fewer and fewer readers are able to find their way, amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews, to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer – I’m thinking of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Adam Haslett’s You Are Not a Stranger Here, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles, Clancy Martin’s How to Sell – Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, laboring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they’re the only business hiring.

Jonathan Franzen, The Kraus Project (2013)

Actually, Bezos is The Antichrist. Perhaps you are following the latest nonsense whereby the Amazon monopoly is strong-arming publishers. I am not exactly sure what is going on there, but a lot of authors are really angry at Amazon over it.

Bezos, of course, is a Libertarian. What else could he be? He has positioned himself as one of these Web 2.0 hipsters, but he is just a corporate goon like all the rest of them. These Net billionaires are no different from any other corporate POS’s, and in a lot of ways, they are actually worse since so many of them are monopolists and because of the way that they have destroyed things like customer service, refunds, actual humans answering telephones, and the like.

Bezos, as might be expected, exploits the Hell out of his workers. His warehouse workers are worked nearly to death like field slaves in overheated warehouses where they are paid a pittance with few or not benefits. He prefers to hire elderly men because he can treat them crappier and get away with it.

Bezos is a slimy little turd of a man.

P.S. What do you think of Franzen? He is supposed to be one of our greatest new writers, but he has his critics who say he is an overrated, arrogant, annoying little twerp. Granted, he probably does have a lousy personality. He’s a Jew, not that it matters.

Of the books listed above, Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is supposed to be very good.


Filed under Capitalists, Labor, Libertarianism, Literature, Political Science, Scum

Alexander of Macedon

Ah yes, Alexander the Great. Perhaps the greatest military strategist that even lived, no?

But what did he want? What were his goals? William Woodthorpe Thorn, the great classicist, birthed the Napoleonic notion that Alexander was after nothing more than “the Brotherhood of Man” or uniter of nations. This view was later popularized by Mary Renault in a series of popular novels.

I disagree.

Alexander wanted merely the same thing that all other conquerors (and all colonists for that matter) want:

  1. Land
  2. Money

In other words, the booty.

Let’s not romanticize these militarists too much.


Filed under Ancient Greece, Antiquity, Colonialism, History, Literature, Political Science

What Is the Definition of Time?

Most places mentioned in old poetry can never be exactly located. Mountains crumble through time, landslides change the river’s course, floods wash out roads, hardly anything remains where it was for long. Thus faced with this monument of nearly a thousand years, I felt such a powerful link with the past, so connected at the heart with men of old, I forgot the aches and pains of the journey, and, in gratitude for such a traveler’s blessing, wept for joy.

Matsuo Bashō, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no Hosomichi)

Well, there is one definition for you.

By the way, the Japanese work above, written around Shakespeare’s time in the late 1600’s, is one of the greatest books ever written by anyone anywhere in the last 500 years.


Filed under Literature, Metaphysics, Philosophy

Who Authored William Shakespeare’s Works?

Yes, there was a man named William Shakespeare who lived around that time. However, he was merely a petty bureaucrat who quit his job after he made a pile of money so he could retire early. He was also a very bad person. He was mean and ugly. In the midst of a horrible famine, he hoarded food for himself and his family. He sued friends when they owed him mere pocket change. He left his family little in his will, and most shockingly, the will contains no mention of plays or any other writings by him or anyone else. His death went utterly unnoticed by society, which would seem to make little sense.

It is for reasons such as these and for no others than the question, “Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays” is so endlessly debated.

Although the question has been tossed about for years and there are many contenders, scholars have not yet decided, who, if anyone other than Shakespeare, wrote his plays. Sir Francis Bacon is one of the most frequently tossed about names, but on style alone he needs to be thrown out. The other top contender died in 1604 in the middle of Shakespeare’s career, which makes no sense and would require a redating of many of the most famous plays.


Filed under Literature

Epitaph for Elliot Rodger

“Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition…Man is…a search for communion. Therefore, when he is aware of himself, he is aware of his lack of another, that is, of his solitude.”

Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950)

Great words from possibly Mexico’s greatest poet.


Filed under Literature, Philosophy