Posts Tagged ‘Herman Melville’

When I was doing the whole Sick Desperation In Your Laugh thing, I’d hoped to include Beau Travail, Claire Denis’ adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. Though I’d never seen the film before, I’d heard wonderful things. Problem was, Beau Travail isn’t exactly one of the most readily available films out there, so I didn’t get a chance to watch it until it Turner Movie Classics aired it earlier this week.

Toward the end of my first viewing, I was thinking that even though I admired Beau Travail, I probably wouldn’t’ve included it in Sick Desperation In Your Laugh anyway. While I thought the film was quite good, pretty dark, and even hypnotic at times, overall it was rather humorless, and not terribly subversive– and therefore it would’ve been somewhat out of sync with the vibe I was looking for in my exploration of the cinema of 1999.

And then, after it looks like Sgt. Galoup (Denis Lavant) might commit suicide as a result of his court martial, effectively ending the film on a tragic note, the film ends instead with this magical scene, so out-of-nowhere baffling and so reach-to-the-heavens joyous and so completely-and-utterly 1999 that it literally made me stand and applaud:

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Van Gogh - The Potato Eaters

The Potato Eaters, Vincent van Gogh, 1885

Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.

Those of us who consider ourselves “artists” are always comparing ourselves to the greats. Not just our work, but our lives. There’s a bit of conceit in this habit, to convince ourselves that there’s greatness in us too. But mostly we do this for humility and comfort: Well, Poe ended up drunk and crazy, and Erik Satie lived the second half of his life in indigence, and Herman Melville never lived to see his reputation recover after Moby-Dick… so all things considered, I guess I shouldn’t complain

The world has no pity on a man who can’t do or produce something it thinks worth money.

Says Gissing in New Grub Street.

Technically I met David Markson, but I never really spoke with him. I might have helped him find a book once, but I can’t remember for sure. He often came into the bookstore where I once worked. He’d sign copies of Wittgenstein’s Mistress and talk a while with the clerks. He was always warm and smiley in the bookstore, not the way you might expect the author of lonely, death-obsessed experimental fiction to act. I kept meaning to read Wittgenstein’s Mistress, but I didn’t get around to it until after he died. If I had read that book when I was still working at the store, I might have tried to get to know David Markson. At the time I was just too shy to get to know an author I hadn’t read. Jeff Laughlin worked at that store with me, and he knew David Markson much better than I did, and he wrote the perfect obituary for him.

Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has half foundered because of it– that’s all right.

Says a last unfinished letter of Van Gogh’s found after his death.

I love the parts of The Last Novel when Markson (“Novelist”) calls his dead friends to hear their answering machine messages. That’s something I’m totally gonna do when my friends start dying.

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Moby-Dick is one of the most spoiler-proof books I’ve ever read. Maybe more spoiler-proof than Treasure Island. Thanks to cultural osmosis I already knew Ahab’s fate, and yet as I was finally, actually reading Moby-Dick, the whole time I was still whirring, waiting to see what would happen to that crazy dude.

I’d get so buzzed reading the book, I never minded all the Whaling Encyclopedia chapters. For one thing, they put me right on the Pequod. I got the sense of time stretching out, with nothing of consequence happening for days on end, which heightened my anticipation of the hunt. Meanwhile I never felt like my time was being wasted because I was learning a ton about mid-19th Century whaling. (An obsolete practice, yes, but one blubbery with timeless metaphor!) And even when I did get a bit bored by all the pitchpoling talk, ultimately I was just grateful to always be one sentence closer to the Main Event.

By the time I got to “The Symphony” (Chapter 132), I may have been trembling. I knew the whale’s arrival couldn’t be any more imminent, and the words all shimmered like God’s sacred promises, as read by Orson Welles.

And when the chase was over I felt destroyed, and I was humble for it.

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"Tahitian Mountains" - Paul Gauguin (1893)

“Tahitian Mountains” – Paul Gauguin (1893)

Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider… the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

Consider all this, and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; 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 all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

When a Jeopardy! answer in an art category mentions Tahiti, the question is always, “Who is Gauguin?”

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Men may seem detestable as joint-stock companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominous blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes.

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

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