“I’d Strike the Sun If it Insulted Me.”

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I watched the 1956 film version of Moby-Dick, the one directed by John Huston and was predictably and immediately disappointed. Not because I expected the movie to fail or wanted it to fail so as to leave me with the singular experience of the novel, unblemished or otherwise undistorted or untarnished in my imagination by the images on the screen. Concretization mostly being a disappointment when it comes especially to our most cherished images.

Huston’s amazing filmography of course speaks for itself. From The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The African Queen – all the Bogey classics – to later films like The Misfits and even Prizzi’s Honor his work is indisputably iconic and his legendary status legitimate. My brother the painter suggests, “Artistic failures are sometimes as interesting to me as successes.” Well, Huston’s attempt at visualizing Melville’s mega-myth is an unquestionable flop and that Gregory Peck himself pretty much disowned his performance is indicative of the across-the-board, categorical miscasting of the film. There’s not an actor in it that belongs in their role. And don’t get me started on the weirdly horrible choice for Queequeg.

Special effects? They’re beside the point in any great film and we all know (well, all of us except, apparently, CGI proponents) less is typically more in both quantity and quality. Implication. Suggestion. That’s all we need. A glimpse of the pale bulk slipping silently beneath the surface…. We’ll do the rest, thanks. That when we’re forced to suspend our disbelief and tap our imaginations, our own unconscious, we enable the creation of infinite internal horrors is a given. That said, the white whale in this movie is annoyingly incorrect in all things whale. The geysers and frothing and gushing and spouting – as if the beast is propelled by a hundred unhinged boat motors – to say nothing of the animal’s cartoony breaching scenes (a whale has to breathe, after all). An enormous sperm whale, we all intuitively understand I would hope, is not a limber, hyperathletic dolphin or even a springy killer whale. Spare us the hyperbole. Please. Run silent. Run deep. Try that. Gads. Funny ha-ha is not the intention – this isn’t a Godzilla movie and even Godzilla movies at their best (Gojira being the best) usually manage a significant mythological menace.

But back to the opening scene of the film versus the novel. The famous utterance, “Call me Ishmael.” In the novel it is declarative and affirmative: “Call me ISHMAEL.” As in, that’s my name. In the film it’s rather, “Call me… Ishmael?” As if our narrator just made it up on the spot and isn’t quite sure who he is or why he’s veritably skipping through the trees. Of course Ishmael, according to Melville at least, is indeed is a seeker and as such he’s a sufferer; full of doubt and frustration and angst and nagging ennui – “grim about the mouth” as Ishmael describes it – and a longing for, well, as he tells us: “Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”

But what does Huston subject us to but the jarring disappointment of a gutting of this great, mythic beginning. Instead of “watery part of the world” – veritably the best part of the image! – we’re offered the benign, bland, forgettable “oceans of the world.” Huh? NOT IN THE BOOK. What in hell was anybody on this film thinking? That, and meanwhile we have poor Ishmael-of-the-question-mark trundling a little too lightheartedly along through the incongruous woods – apparently in the film he walked from Manhattan to New Bedford, Massachusetts? And in temperate weather no less? Ishmael out hiking, otherwise enjoying the happy day. NOT IN THE BOOK. Melville rather utilizes the season and the inherent exile of the stranger-in-town to help propel us into psychological and existential peril immediately: “It was a Saturday night in December,” he tells us in Chapter II. And further along, “It was a very dubious-looking, nay, a very dark and dismal night, bitingly cold and cheerless.”

Whereas in Melville the metaphors all fit together and enhance each other – the outer and inner worlds are commingled to enhanced effect – in the film it’s as if Huston or Ray Bradbury (who supposedly was hired to write the screenplay when Huston himself is known to have been a legitimately competent screenwriter himself) straight away insisted upon dismantling the novel’s engagingly evocative mannerisms in favor of, I don’t know, foreshortening its vast emotional and psychological depths and distances. So as to get to the point quicker? To fit what may have been interpreted as a difficult, sprawling, unwieldy literariness into a two hour, otherwise more efficiently digestible film? I really don’t know. Oh, the film seems to say, we know the book is such a lot of mythic mumbo jumbo and what’s really important is that goddamn whale.

Ugh. One expects much more sophistication and literary acumen from Huston. If not exactly Bradbury who apparently claimed not to have been capable, for whatever reason, to finish reading the novel. Yikes. Bradbury another miscasting; the whole project, as I’ve said, appears riddled with them. Ishmael is too romantically handsome for an everyman seeker type. Orson Wells as Father Mapple is a tame, rigid, colorless disappointment. Starbuck as First Mate is too depreciated, too strangely urban, stuffy and, well, wimpy. Stubb, in the novel a native of Cape Cod, sports in the film an English accent (while also claiming Nantucket as his home). As for Peleg and Bildad, the Pequod’s executors, so to say, who are on board in port to outfit the ship and hire the hands, their roles are incongruously and maddeningly reversed in comparison to the book. And again, that Queequeg, a file-toothed, burly, dark skinned Polynesian of inscrutable provenance within Melville is played by Austro-Hungarian Friedrich von Ledebur defies all attempts at logic. So too, the discarding of the enchanting bond between Ishmael and Queequeg which guts the film of its humor, too.

Regarding Ahab, it was Peck, apparently, who suggested that Huston himself ought to have played the part. Which makes intuitive sense for an outwardly craggy and troubled image is a necessary aspect of the character. Peck’s ill-suitedness for Ahab helps describe the perfection of his performance as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (artistic failures are as interesting as successes). There, the man’s measured humanity and smoldering decency are the backbone of the film and make it arguably a more compelling experience than the book. And as sometimes happens an actor steals the character out from under the author. Think Alec Guinness, for lack of a better example, and his role as John le Carré’s George Smiley. Peck’s Ahab? From his cartoony, Abe Lincoln lookalike makeup and frankly fraudulent looking peg leg to his seemingly reluctant physicality, on again off again forcefulness and somehow dubious seaworthiness he seems to be acting in a different movie. It happens.

Melville’s Ahab is the physically and existentially wounded counterpart to the white whale himself – a phantom of life and the pale face of death that sounds the depths of our unconscious and the depths of the cosmos all at once with impossible, fearsome, horrible yet mysteriously accommodating natural presence. Melville’s Ahab also considers himself the equal, as a part of Mankind, to anything in the cosmos, on account of a kind of universal value bestowed upon each us and each thing entwined in the predicament of unknowing that we find ourselves. Ahab hates but not fiendishly or indiscriminately and not, as some other critics may suggest, to the extent of insanity. Hubris? Which is to say excessive pride or self-confidence? Not Ahab. He is a man who has reasoned his way into a heightened, self-aware existential battle, a cosmic one-on-one with the creator or Nature or whatever “unknown but still reasoning thing” that “puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.” [1]

Mouldings? It is the mold, so to say, that the mask forms or impresses upon us and like all masks it entices us with what exists unseen behind it, with what the impressions imply of the truth, such as it may be. To Ahab, encountering reality or the truth of things as they really are – discovering the Wizard of OZ as a man behind the curtain, so to say – is an ascertainable thing. Ahab doesn’t seem to recognize, that is, any requirement for transcendence, any condition beyond that of Man, any transport from this world into an All or One or Deity. He rather seems to regard the cosmos, its mask as he sees it, as a challenge to his self-respect and, in the case of Moby-Dick, a taunting, humiliating mask behind which a First Mover type is laughing at him. And if there is nobody behind the curtain then the fact that a whale can insinuate itself into Ahab’s reason as an image of that insult, well, Ahab is driven to smash that image for its own sake. Where Jonah sought to escape God’s influence Ahab seeks to indeed tempt fate. “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 that 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. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creation. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.

Starbuck of course, symbolizes such natural law as may be perceived to exist in things, in humanity, in Nature, in the otherwise divine grace, such as it is, that binds the world into an intelligible whole. There is physical or at least Newtonian cause and effect and a reliably perceptible sense consequences: equanimity and goodness tends towards goodness, so-called evil or an opposition to virtue tends to engineer its own demise or at least forbids lasting reward and the idea of the Golden Rule as it is framed within Christianity – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – permeates the mythologies of all races, all beliefs, all contemplative traditions of merit. If none of this is certain, Starbuck at least affirms the original obligation of the ship; namely, that of hunting whales to accumulate the oil that, as he suggests, is intended to light men’s lamps at home. That Ahab feels justified in subverting the original mission which to Starbuck amounts to an agreement between man and Nature and legitimizes the whole enterprise in cosmic terms is the pain point that inspires Starbuck to accuse Ahab of blasphemy. Blasphemy against what? Or whom? If not Divine grace then blasphemy against the principle of purposeful shared endeavor, of humanity’s pact with the natural give and take nature of things. Late in the novel (but nowhere in the film), when the crew along with Ahab is out in their boats attempting to engage Moby-Dick firsthand, Starbuck perceives the whale as “only intent upon pursuing his own straight path in the sea.”

“Oh! Ahab,” cried Starbuck, “not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!”

Soon after, the unrelenting Ahab is snatched into oblivion – yanked by his neck from his post at the bow of his little vessel by a runaway rope hauled forth by the whale.

Rereading the book I was surprised to discover that all these years since first my first encounter with the story I’ve been mis-remembering the otherwise unforgettably horrible image of a sailor’s wrecked, drowned body inadvertently lashed to the side of the whale’s bulk. All this time I’d assumed it to be Ahab himself and the last scene before the Pequod’s sinking and Ishmael’s witnessing the Rachel sailing to his rescue as he clings to Queequeg’s casket. Which is weirdly enough exactly how the movie ends. Whale-as-retribution in all its gruesome, graphic finality. The whale wins. And the whole crew witnesses it. I looked at Dahm’s illustration one day, for example, and assumed he’d mistakenly forgotten Ahab’s peg leg. No. Dahm had it right. It is the carcass of the so-called Parsee who is miserably strapped to the whale.

Why not Ahab, then? Clearly it’s more memorable and galvanizing an image if Ahab is so permanently, ruthlessly bound even in death to the manifestation of his undoing still cruising the watery parts of the world. Did Melville perhaps sell himself short and Huston rather succeeds? I thought so but only until I imagined that Melville likely very much intended to render Ahab’s demise as an ineffable vanishing, a blink of cosmic whim, as if our determined, mad-hearted old Ahab were a mere trifle in comparison to the mighty and mightily indifferent whale. So that in Melville’s eyes Ahab never had a chance.

Effective literary imagery, then, proves itself immune to attempts at foreshortening, dramatizing or concretization. If Moby-Dick may indeed be described as a modern mega-myth then filmmakers perhaps understandably get caught up in communicating mythic grandeur, tripping over themselves as it were, tripping over their ambitions to craft a so-called epic. Myths, however, are little big things, as I like to refer to them. That is to say, in the example of Moby-Dick, it is a little tale with straightforward mythic themes – adventure, trial and return – rendered immense by way of its verily unavoidable appropriation of our inherently cinematic unconscious. Ishmael’s story is each of our stories. Likewise that of Ahab and Starbuck and Queequeg and Stubb and so on. Melville got it all exactly right. Moby Dick himself as the great white spermaceti? Well, read the book and try getting him out of your head.

[1] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, illustrated and published by Evan Dahm, 2017, Chapter XXXVI, 171.

Black Squirrels Matter

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The paying job has since April when I started it destroyed any sense I used to maintain of weekdays versus weekends. So be it, for better or worse at this point in my life such predictability and orderliness has vanished in general. Such is the nature of the unconventional life, I suppose. And while I very briefly toyed with the idea of accepting a full time position it seems an impossibility – that’s how fully invested I’ve become in doing whatever it is I have ended up doing. Writing. Marketing the novel. Doing my best to feed the proper wolf, to fuel the proper energies come what may.

Of course not much seems to be coming. The audiobook has not sold in sixteen days and it feels like sixteen years. Ugh. It’s difficult to avoid rushing to judgement in the sense that it was the audiobook, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, that I’d tried to convince myself would benefit from so much less competition compared to the other formats. And here it is, so far, tanking; selling a mere four copies and garnering zero reviews. Has the sham-demic poisoned the audiobook market? That is, are there that many less commuters no longer listening to audiobooks in their cars?

My twenty-five thank you cards to my Goodreads giveaway winners have disappeared into the void. No response, no reviews, no ratings. One card was a return-to-sender – did the person move with no forwarding address? This is how it goes, of course, for the wannabe, for the emerging author struggling like hell to architect a reliable foundation beneath their otherwise perilously flimsy excuse for a so-called platform.

Keep at it, you say. Don’t give up. It takes time. The cream will rise. Good things come to those who wait. What have you. The fact is, from what I’ve learned about being an entrepreneur in two different fields of endeavor – food and novels – to say nothing of my devoted, life-long investigations as appreciator and discerner and my ten years as an indie scholar, most success stories in whatever field seem to include the bestowing of at least a modicum of early legitimacy. The first record album, the first restaurant, the first art show, the first novel receives enough press, enough recognition from important influencers and enough sales to allow it, by way of marketplace momentum, as it were, to bridge the chasm of oblivion. The chasm of oblivion claims perhaps 85% of all entrepreneurial efforts within what do they say, the first five years? I would correct that data. Because having survived perhaps their first crazily expensive and riotous opening year, if that, the ensuing four likely entail a form of denial whereby the body is on life support, a hopeless, living corpse awaiting the pulling of the plug. Most businesses, as Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s once suggested, are going out of business either quickly or slowly. Regardless of the economy. It’s brutal. It’s the way it is.

I remain an outsider. My vision for the novel and the series remains that of an outsider. I’m an indie wannabe in the worst, no connections, no-platform sense of it. I have not made the leap into legitimacy that, say, First Sister, a first novel I’d mistakenly assumed was struggling at my level of obscurity but instead managed to appear within the NPR Book Concierge and, damn it to hell I’m jealous, a book cover appearance in Locus. In short, The First Sister, sales aside, has accomplished everything my book so far hasn’t. So that if there’s a Second Sister it will steam past TC2 on the buoyancy of a readership and previous critical awareness – the awareness of influencers. So that it has a goddamn chance. Good for you, Linden A. Lewis.

I only single out The First Sister, which I haven’t read (I recall it utilizes first person and the author taps LGTB themes) because it was side-by-side with TC1 in my first Goodreads giveaway, so that I assumed it was starting from scratch like my book. But aligning and promoting a thing, anything at all these days within the accommodating and arguably newly privileged and hotly protective LGTB family, such as it is, sets it apart from my work. I’m the middle-aged white guy sci-fi author who, by default, is regarded as exactly the enemy to be overcome, despite the hard fact that middle-aged white American men established everything about the sci-fi genre as it exists today. So be it, facts are facts and likewise times change. That being a sci-fi author had anything to do with so-called “white privilege” (which is to say white male privilege) in the genre’s Astounding early heyday – the Campbell, Asimov and Heinlein years, for instance – I simply refuse to consider a legitimate issue, despite the ugly reality of modern day authors feeling empowered to voice a bitterness and vehemence against an oppression they never suffered, that doesn’t apply to their own success as they stand clutching their award statuettes at conferences in front of wannabes like me. Hey, life is nothing if not a relentless struggle between insiders and outsiders. And now perhaps I’m the outsider.

I’m not whining, either. It just is what it is. You’ve got to pay to play in all kinds of ways, it’s never been any different in any field of endeavor and especially within art-craft. If I were a black lesbian, for example, that would be my number one marketing angle for TC1 and the book’s cover, as it stands, would lend itself readily to that pitch. For the record I am not “anti” anything regarding race or lifestyle and frankly I’m a little disappointed in myself behaving here, within my own damn journal, as if I have to somehow justify or establish my position on things that, in a perfect world, would be irrelevant to the genre of science fiction. Science fiction to me still stands for freedom and that includes freedom from the burden of the stance of freedom. Science fiction to me always seemed, if nothing else, refreshingly egalitarian and happily subversive in the manner of rock and roll. Geeks. Nerds. Suburban ciphers. Outsiders. Outcasts. Exiles. Sci-fi authors and rock bands were rebels with a cause. The cause being a wholehearted longing to connect. With as wide an audience as possible.

Sure, some rockers just like some authors seem to prefer the same polarization most of us readers and listeners simply don’t give a damn about. But I’ve never listened to music or read a book to set myself apart, let alone piss anyone off. No. It’s always been the exact opposite for me: I seek to connect, to join the club, tribe, gang, what have you. Or start a club. I seek inclusion. And that’s the irony and poignancy of the outsider life: we only really seek to overcome exactly that which empowers us. Namely, the same sense of exile and resistance to arrival and belonging that fuels so much significant art-craft, so much worthy, even game-changing creativity is the otherwise burdensome, crippling, ostracizing dark energy we so often are merely seeking to overcome; to purge and to transform into acceptance, welcome and, for the writer, a readership. None of us desire to sell out, as it were; rather, we long to participate. Knowing, of course, that we ought to be careful what we wish for; that success – acceptance and commensurate reward for one’s work – will bring everything else besides individuation with it. That’s the mythology we all live by.

Perhaps that’s why I get so many clicks on my Amazon adds and so few purchases. And the purchases I do get don’t result in reviews, ratings and any kind of buzz. That is to say, TC1 gets what appears to be relatively (for an emerging author) significant visibility on Amazon or Goodreads but something, unless I’m mistaken, is getting lost in translation. Perhaps I’m just impatient. Perhaps it’s that the book cover entices but the content disappoints. I have to allow these incongruities as possible explanations. I’m convinced the writing is at least competent. But a buyer’s expectations have to be not only met but exceeded if there’s to be any opportunity to generate a buzz. Meanwhile, regarding the judging-a-book-by-its-cover idea: (1) TC1 isn’t about pandemics (Vixy isn’t wearing a mask; her face was intended to be half in shadow or, in my interpretation, evocative of the veil she wears in Egypt); (2) Vixy is of combined European/Haida Canadian heritage and her dark complexion on the cover is indicative of her desert-tanned skin and, (3) Vixy is a co-protagonist alongside Mr. Z. and Five and various other characters – TC1 is not, that is to say, a feminist, girl-power,  strong-female-lead focused novel. Rather, it’s indeed a classic sci-fi vibe with a modern mythology twist! Does that sound familiar to anyone?

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DEVOTED READER GIVEAWAY ALERT! If you’ve read this far and would like a signed hardcover, first edition, first state (the current version is so-called second state which means I corrected a handful of typos and increased the size of the text in the running heads), email me and I’ll send you one for free if you live in the U.S.A. or Canada.

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Meanwhile, I once again wholeheartedly thank everyone who has purchased a copy of Time Crime. Again, you are the intrepid risk takers and, if you liked it, the essential first adopters and if it weren’t for you folks I’d have lost heart long ago. Nevertheless, sales are sales and TC1 is merely limping along. Is Humble Hogs Press, then, three-quarters into its first year of operation already a goner? Am I kidding myself that this holiday season may generate a life giving surge of attention and sales for the novel, that it will get the patient off the table? Is the TCT and my vision of authorpreneurship otherwise a living corpse? Ought I to just pack it in? Would indie publishing TC2 next year be throwing good money after bad?

I don’t know. I do know that I’m going to keep at it. And political correctness be damned I’m going to publish this post in the spirit of inclusion and mindful intelligence and friendly, wholeheartedly happy subversion that drives my reading, listening and writing. That drives all good science fiction and all good rock and roll. And I will continue to reach out in this way, to seek my tribe until, I don’t know, the cosmos deems otherwise. Differences are important and human and necessary. Black squirrels matter. So does a sense of humor. We aren’t all the same and shouldn’t be if only because it would be boring as hell. May you live in interesting times is of course a famous Oriental curse. These days it all seems a bit of a curse. Things aren’t as they should be. But when are they? When have they ever been as they should be? Read your mythology and there’s a place for all of us even it’s only in our own heads. And hearts. And while I’m convinced there isn’t any such thing as unprecedented times – not if you read your mythology, that is – I’d admit that 2020 is something more or less atypical.

And the U.S. presidential election is going to be divisive, there’s no getting around it. There will be conflict. Conflict is essential in a novel. Trials to overcome are part of any mythology, any worthy story. Conflict is part of life. Hence, I’m not here to suggest we ought to work to eliminate conflict, either. Neither am I here to tell you which way to vote. Or to vote at all. Have your opinions, live your passions, be who you are – the careful reader knows this all plays to the subtext of Time Crime. None of us have all the answers. Our shared predicament necessitates moving forward, making decisions without all of the information. That’s life within the Mystery. Life imitates art-craft. Life is a play of opposites. When we meet in the middle it’s called humanity. When we meet in the middle good things happen.

The War Within

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Evan Dahm, from his publication of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, 2017, p.594

I’ve never used a journal entry as a platform for anything new to do with Time Crime 2. Nevertheless, yesterday I was compelled to address an idea there before pasting it into the manuscript which I did without committing to any of it. Which is to say it’s just more first draft stuff to edit. And I don’t know that I’ll have it in me, this business of editing anything more about the Time Crime Tetralogy which at this point, with a quarter of the year left in this wannabe-an-indie-novelist year. Still, after all the work and fussing and time and money spent on this adventure, having so far failed to garner the attention of even a single critic-influencer, I’m feeling as if everything about my dream, my vision, my authorpreneurial adventure remains up in the air, as if I’m still, crazily, waiting for the shoe to drop. Devoted readers will suffer my mixed metaphors because their share my belief, hopefully, that it’s not a crime. To mix metaphors, that is. Do what works, damn the torpedoes.

In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed. They must be for it; they must not do too much of it; and they must have a sense of success in it.[1]

This is John Ruskin, an artist and instructor of drawing and painting at a time, namely, the middle nineteenth century, when there really wasn’t such a thing unless you were an apprentice to a working master. And if you were an apprentice then you weren’t reading about how to draw or paint but rather learning by doing exclusively. So, Ruskin was unique then. But he wouldn’t be read today – his little book, The Elements of Drawing, published in 1857 has been variously reprinted, remarkably, ever since – if what he wrote didn’t transcend mere mechanical instruction or technique and speak to, well, personal mythology as I would refer to it. Or individuation if you’re reading Jung. So that here we see Ruskin anticipating Malcom Gladwell’s suggestion in his popular Outliers (2011) that meaningful work consists of autonomy, complexity and commensurate reward by one-hundred and fifty years. But then truth is timeless.

Take the commonest, closest, most familiar thing, and strive to draw it verily as you see it. Be sure of this last fact, for otherwise you will find yourself continually drawing, not what you see, but what you know.

The best practice to being with is, sitting about three yards from a bookcase (not your own, so that you may know none of the titles of the books), to try to draw the books accurately, with the titles of the backs and patterns on the bindings as you see them. You are not to stir from your place to seek what they are, but to draw them simply as they appear, giving the perfect look of neat lettering; which, nevertheless, must be (as you will find it on most of the books) absolutely illegible. Next, try to draw a piece of  patterned muslin or lace (of which you do not know the pattern), a little way off, and rather in the shade; and be sure you get all the grace and look of the pattern without going a step nearer to see what it is. Then try to draw a bank of grass, with all its blades; or a bush, with all its leaves; and you will soon begin to understand under what a universal law of obscurity we live, and perceive that all distinct drawing must be bad drawing, and that nothing can be right, till it is unintelligible.[2]

My brother the painter and teacher came to this idea intuitively, as Ruskin must have unless he heard it from someone he didn’t feel compelled to reference. No matter where it comes from, if Ruskin is the first to write it down, so be it, again, the truth is what it is and furthermore attainable by all. But my point within the context of personal and cultural mythology (which naturally contains a pedagogical and supporting psychology as one of its four functions) is to suggest that the obviously traumatic encounter with oneself and life as it is versus how we perceive it (and ourselves) to be that seems to occur for many if not all students in an introductory drawing class – an encounter with symbolic forms and fits of tears, literally or figuratively –  is indeed traumatic and not to be taken lightly nor glossed over as an insignificant aberration in either the process or the person. Rather, an introductory drawing class ought to be regarded as the hothouse of personal growth that it is, rife with mostly unhinged transformative energies – that is, with birth, maturation and death – that makes for being truly and properly alive and truly and properly on the adventure.

Seekers invite such experience and perhaps such seeker-students, whether they possess an ability in the visual arts or rather a flair for the psychology of self-work and self-exploration, or both – of regarding or “seeing” themselves and their strengths and weaknesses revealed or reflected, as if within a mirror – may flourish in a drawing classroom. To paraphrase Jung, they may swim in the waters of the unconscious where others may drown. Which is to say a student in an introductory drawing class more or less possesses the tools to cope with, endure, learn and emerge from the experience or they do not.

Can a drowning student be taught to swim? Can someone entering a drawing classroom acquire the psychological tools they may not possess? My brother, I think, would answer Yes and No. In other words, it simply depends upon the psychological (I would say personal mythological) resilience and readiness of the student. Every term, as he has described it, demonstrates the usual mix of game students and those handful, one or two, whom sink to the bottom and need to be hauled from their sea of despair and disorientation as a soggy mess – they drop the class perhaps never to be seen again.

And for those that do not a stronger medicine, so to say, is required to be prescribed than most humble art instructors, prepared as they themselves may or may not be to guide the traumatized through their agonies, ought to be expected to deliver. So that Introductory Drawing or Drawing 101, as it were, ought not to be included amongst the otherwise incidental, mild or spurious electives such as gym, or pottery or basket weaving or music appreciation – classes that are essentially impossible to fail because they are merely crafty and subjective – or, as we used to term them, “blow-off classes.” If we’re not going to retitle drawing classes we ought to at least remodel the prerequisites. Namely, discard the dismissive idea of Drawing 101 and rather offer Introduction to Art Therapy and Self Analysis 301. Open only to college juniors. Or remove the class offering from the category of art-craft entirely and place it within the psychology department. And as a required course for those studying mythology and specifically personal mythology. The Affecting Image 401, for instance.

If I’ve failed to capture the proper academic technicalities it’s because it isn’t my talent as a comparative mythologist, mythographer and sci-fi novelist. But I trust the reader gets my drift; namely, that art class teachers are psychologists and mythologists as much or more than vocational trainers – that someone teaching drawing is thrusting a hot iron into the molten soul of a student, young or old – and they deserve a higher place and commensurate support and compensation within academia. Visual art instructors (hell, include the basket makers) are risking, along with their students, the whole world within and without and precisely for that a greater intensity of care and resources ought to be bestowed and made available on both sides, to both student and teacher. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life – Melville’s sea and the white whale within it – and the mirror unto the self, all and any such powerful, unwieldly, resonant, affecting images that we encounter in the otherwise humble drawing classroom. The war within is the war we all know.

[1] John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing, (New York: Dover Publications, 1971 [1857]), xi.

[2] Ibid., ix-x.

The Ungraspable Phantom of Life

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Moby-Dick. I’d been itching to reread it. Books like this with significant mythological substance tend to work on you and mostly, of course, unconsciously. The formidable, mysterious white whale. The formidable, mysterious ocean. The formidable, mysterious depths of our unconscious and its unwieldly manifestations. I’d forgotten that Melville spells it all out plainly enough in the beginning pages of the book.

If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity…? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we  ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

Indeed. Likewise I’d forgotten Melville’s knack for humor. But of course any great, so-called classic mythology must be shot through with humor so as to properly empower it, to balance and make real the play-of-opposites dynamic reflected, as if in a glassy pool, perhaps, that same sense of fraught endeavor that permeates and fuels our own lives. “I have to laugh ‘cuz I know I’m gonna die – WHY?” Kiss, “Detroit Rock City” from the 1976 album Destroyer. Great album title, great album graphics, great tune. Same predicament, same resonance, same mythic vibe.

But I’m not merely referring to the type of pointed irony expressed in a Kiss song; to the sense of impossible irony evoked by our confrontation with death, say, or the Mystery in a general sense; to the revelation of irony that we may experience as a last resort, of sorts, just shy of our insanity whereby we laugh at our unholy predicament because somehow there is nothing left to do. Ahab, of course, in the end, is swept away, literally and figuratively by this confrontation with life, death and ourselves; with the white whale (a Sperm whale, after all) symbolizing all the strength, force and potency of life. Why not weep? It’s a good question. Perhaps laughter better approaches, better effects an exaltation invoked by our experience of the divinity?

Meanwhile, well, a great myth will contain all manner of funny, hence inviting, endearing, humbling, welcoming and ultimately human scenes. Humor in its pedestrian sense right sizes an otherwise psychologically, pedagogically and aesthetically unmanageable myth into a story, a tale, a yarn worth telling and hearing. And reading.

Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.

A myth never resorts to deception, then. It never attempts to drive home a point or even to teach at all. A fable weaves a moral lesson into things, it beguiles in the manner a parent must beguile and deceive, however wholeheartedly, a child into paying attention to something that ought to be learned. Any great myth rather flaunts morality and lessons and everything to do with contemporary adjudications. A myth is free. It is freedom. Always. Or it is not a myth. It is truth – true fiction – and we recognize it as such intuitively. We see ourselves in it. We identify with its image or images and they affect us biologically like the air that we breathe and the food and drink that we consume. Myths are our adventure of life and death expressed without intention. A myth is a metaphor but, as the devoted reader will recall from the last post, it is a unidirectional congruence: myth => metaphor. Not all metaphors are myths.

Moby-Dick, then, is a legitimate and especially full blooded myth. It may be, I think, the greatest example of what I call new mythology or modern mythology wrought since the end of so-called Industrial Revolution in the West which is said, arguably, to have occurred more or less between 1760 and 1840. To make a myth is never a successful myth-maker’s intention. One can consciously address and utilize the mythic form – the structure of myth – include references to other myths and even parody and satirize myth and fail to create a myth. Myth arises from zeal and from the depths of the unconscious and by way of things – characters and their stories – not fully under the control of the writer. Hence, not by any intention of Melville’s is Moby-Dick so mythic and so great a myth. Nay. Melville was just a writer like the rest of us. Responding to his muse. And if his readership – the readers of his previous books, that is – and the critics of his time somehow mostly failed to identity with the images of Moby-Dick; namely, with Ishmael, Queequeg, Starbuck, Ahab and their conflict with the whale and their adventures upon the sea – with the waters of the unconscious and the mystery of life – then it can only be perhaps that the revelation wasn’t shocking or revelatory enough in its time.

Whaling from tall sailing ships in 1851 was perhaps still too common an industry, too familiar a vocation, too pedestrian a calling to be recognized, then, as anything as potently symbolic as it was to become mere decades hence, when somehow the story was rediscovered and its mythology properly happened, so to say, in the world. That, and Melville’s readership simply didn’t expect it. One reads Typee, for example, and discovers a fine adventure tale chock full of engaging characters and a worthy, even mythologically resonant story arc, a hero journey, a there and back again. But that book is not mythic in the sense that it will activate one’s unconscious and compel a person like me, for instance, to chew over the thing year after year, to encounter and reencounter it’s words and images and, inevitably, one’s self within it. So that Moby-Dick is a myth. It is fully functional within the context of awe, cosmology, sociology and pedagogical psychology. It is perhaps classic and indeed the best new myth ever written because, well, its four functions, hence its images have yet to do all their work on us all.

How, then, to reread Moby-Dick? Just pick up a copy, any copy and dig into it, right? Yes and no. Yes, because one can find a version catering to any part of the book that one is particularly sensitive or otherwise attracted to, namely, the story of the whale or the adventure of whaling or the conflicted nature of Ahab and so on. One can approach it in a more academic or scholarly manner and seek out, as I did at first, the latest Norton Critical Edition, for example. Which happens to be the third edition. Except I couldn’t live with the cover art. You can’t judge a book by its cover but you can hate the artwork nonetheless so that it kills the vibe, “harshes” the buzz, hobbles the mythology and ruins the experience. The nature of the physical book matters. So that I spent some weeks mulling over what goddamn copy I was going to read. As the book resides within the gnarly realm of the public domain, its editions, abridged or unabridged are ubiquitous. And most of them just don’t get it. They don’t grasp let alone seek to support the mythology.

Thankfully I fell upon the melvillesociety.org and discovered within a reference to Evan Dahm’s illustrated 2017 edition. Besides a whole realm devoted to all things Melville, here you will find a link to Dahm’s blog on Tumblr related to the project and his personal encounter with the story: https://melvillesociety.org/news/169-new-illustrated-moby-dick-evan-dahm

Illustrating Moby-Dick? Yikes, right? Well, mostly I would agree that it’s a doomed endeavor to concretize a myth in this way because the best myths rely upon our own images, the act of reading the words generates the most effective imagery for most of us at least. One can illustrate the Bible and the Mahabharata but always something about the effort fails to deliver, as it were.

Evan Dahm. I made a point to research his take on Moby-Dick before leaping into a purchase of his otherwise visually appealing craftwork at a hefty $70. For his book is not so much another edition as a personal expression of art-craft. There is no ISBN, for instance. And he crowd-funded the project, something that hardly guarantees anything but earnestness. But it turns out Dahm not only did his research but he’s what I would call properly invested in the mythology – he understands, that is, the depths, unholy or otherwise, of his own attraction to the tale, all that is fine and unsettling about any great mythology. We don’t ever fully understand or entirely grasp what puts us within the grip of a myth other than its fueling of our own zeal. When we relate to our personal myths by way of cultural myths we have the experience of being properly alive, a phrase I borrow from J. Campbell. And with that I will only go as far as to recommend this project, this iteration by Evan Dahm, as a worthy consideration.

The Future is the Past

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The city of Babylon was part of ancient Mesopotamia, itself the proposed birthplace of writing some 5,500 years ago.

The residents of Babylon in the first millennium B.C. saw themselves as facing their past and walking backward into the future. In the Akkadian language of ancient Mesopotamia, the word panu, or “face,” relates to the past, whereas “behind” is a word associated with the future (Jarrett A. Lobel, “Magical Beasts of Babylon: How the Ishtar Gate Safeguarded the Mesopotamian World,” Archaeology, Nov./Dec. 2019, 45).

Meanwhile, periods of transition require a talent for patience that I do not possess. What next? Well, I don’t know. I’m feeling my way through things. Which is to say I’m relying on intuition. Of course TC2 editing awaits and I’m determined to do my two pages today come hell or high water and whether I’m inspired or not. Which is to say I don’t expect to be inspired to edit in advance of immersing myself in the work: inspiration will not come of its own accord, I must resolve to just do it, bit by intolerable bit, to the best of my ability and come what may. That’s how I’ve always approached the novels, after all, call it a long illness to overcome or, more cordially, a long walk to complete. Step by step, day by day, brick by brick, choose your metaphor, the things gets built, I arrive at the last page, on to the next edit. It’s not pleasant and it ain’t pretty. Rather, it’s fulfilling. Bliss is not happiness. Bliss is the experience of being properly alive which is the experience of proper emphasis, proper direction, progress, single mindedness and wholehearted immersion in one’s proper work. Sustained zeal, too, except in a measured, patient manner, setting aside the sense of urgency in favor of diligence.

It is this unglamorous, workaday aspect of writing that I’m convinced separates the published, traditional or indie, from the wannabes. As I’ve suggested before, literary talent is not the essential talent if you want to be an author. Rather, it’s the drive to write to completion; to create a beginning, middle and end to a novel, to establish at least one disaster (or compelling conflict) that comes to a resolution – the story arc – and meanwhile to express conflict (mini disasters) within each main character – character arcs – so that when the novel ends things have changed. That’s it. If it’s one book then nothing is left unresolved: they lived happily (or unhappily) ever after, that kind of thing. If it’s a series, each book ought to express a certain sense of independent completion, a legitimate story arc, so that it stands on its own as a book but with an unresolved twist at the end – an open ended conflict that invites a new adventure, an epicycle within the context of the old or macrocosmic adventure.

Time Crime, then. Its macrocosmic adventure or story arc is that of personal and cultural mythological freedom in the face of tyranny – the conflict posed by the tyrant monster who appropriates and hoards, as Campbell has phrased it, the general benefit. Mr. Z., Vixy and Five experience or otherwise express their own internal, microcosmic adventures from which they emerge, for better or worse, changed. The supporting characters – Neutic, Captain Chase, Professor Wilhelm, General Ten-Square, Cog, et al. – their personal myths are intended to exist in less forward terms, their stories are subservient to those of the main characters – they add special sauce to the main dish.[1] Gosh, you might say, that’s nothing new. And I am telling you that if you think you’re going to write anything new, let alone be obligated to do so, you are deceiving yourself. For there really isn’t anything new under the sun when it comes to storytelling. It is the hero journey in the very general sense, namely, departure, trials and return, or it is not an adventure. Which is to say that you are free to write any literary experiment you choose – abandoning story arcs, character arcs, linear time (a beginning, middle and end) – in favor of, say, dreamscapes and impressions and, well, happy nonsense of any type you can manage to conjure. Except that you will not have written a story or a tale, let alone a myth. Recall that a myth in particular, to be fully functional, will render (1) a sense of awe, (2) a cosmology that supports that awe, (3) a sociology that establishes ethics, and (4) a pedagogical, otherwise supporting psychology. These are the four functions of a mythology as identified by Joe Campbell and there is no argument to be had against them.

Oh, no, you say, that’s a tyrannical attitude towards writing a mythology and a story – it can’t be that rigid, there must be mythologies and other ways of writing (or orally communicating) mythologically legitimate tales that suspend these bullshit rules. No, there aren’t. I’m merely being specific because things in life are what they are. Which is not to say rules cannot be broken – rules are made to be broken, yes, I get it. But a myth is a myth, a mythology is a mythology, a story is a story with a certain recognizable, definable structure or architecture and that’s that: it’s not a tyranny, it’s a fact. Akin to the Earth revolving around the sun, you can deny the case and you will be incorrect in relation to the facts. No, you suggest, the sun is a god and the moon is a goddess. And there are no planets and no deep, undiscovered universe; no expanding (or contracting) cosmos, no reliable physics, and so on. And you would be right in a certain sense to deny reality as such in favor of your own hermeneutic, your own interpretation, your own metaphors. As long as you understand them as metaphors. This is how your life becomes infinitely enriched and a joy to experience. That is to say, when you live oriented within your personal and cultural mythology you both align yourself with and are free from the hard scientific realities of life. It’s a kind of special and glorious paradox that humanity enjoys, creating – inventing – the world around us just as we also discover the facts of it. Call it imagination, call it myth-making, call it the true fiction of life but it’s what humans do and we do it out of necessity. We mythologize. We both invent and discover true fiction. In this way we approach whatever it is that falls within your particular definition or experience of the divine.

Myth is metaphor, after all. And I have discussed at length, in other journal entries, the equation, as it were – a unidirectional congruence, as I’ve termed it – to describe this: MYTH => METAPHOR. It is unidirectional because while every myth is a metaphor, not all metaphors are myths. Remember that a myth, to qualify as a myth, must contain the four functions (awe, cosmology, sociology, pedagogical psychology). Otherwise, dear readers and writers, you are reading or writing something else besides a myth.

Which is okay. I’m only pointing out that people at some point in the development of human consciousness arrived at the preferred or even arguably necessary or essential structure of storytelling, of story as we prefer it, and this is not a bad thing. And it’s hardly an end to things, if you’re concerned about that. Rather, it’s a beginning. Which is to say the content of the form has no limit – we need not fear the exhausting of the font or reservoir of mythology. We will never run out of mythological resources. Call it infinite variations upon a theme. For while we share so much as humans we each contain the spark of individuality that bestows our special place within the cosmos. We are of the Earth and ultimately of stardust. From that we have come to be and to that each of us will return. Meanwhile we enjoy our own individual adventure in the middle. We express time within eternity.

[1] That said, every character you introduce into your story must be developed, they must be real and believable as people with lives of their own. Such is the nature of character development and the talented writer – read any great book or watch any great film – can render even the most otherwise incidental character whole and complete and worthwhile, even memorable, in a sentence or two; by way of a line or two of dialogue, that’s all it takes. And things change: that is to say, Herman Neutic, for example, within TC2, becomes one of the main characters, taking his place fully beside Mr. Z., Vixy and Five as protagonists.