Today Viking Press released Why Read Moby-Dick?, a slim volume written by Nathaniel Philbrick that is exactly what it sounds like. Philbrick, best known for his National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (about, duh, the event that inspired Melville to write Moby-Dick in the first place), really, really likes Moby-Dick, which is cool, and really, really knows a lot about Moby-Dick, which is cool too, but the end sum reads less like a critical analysis and more like the best book report ever.
Here’s the quickest version: Moby-Dick is a great book, and, as Philbrick writes, an important one. “As individuals trying to find our way through the darkness, as citizens of a nation trying to live up to the ideals set forth in our constitution, we need, more than ever before, Moby-Dick.” It’s a nice sentiment, and one repeated endlessly over the next 120 pages, but it’s one we already all know by heart.
The question that concerns me the most is not why read Moby-Dick?, but why read Why Read Moby-Dick? I’m still trying to decide whether the fact that this book exists is even a positive thing. Sure, one can argue yes it is – any book that is championing a text is beneficial to that text. But it’s different for Moby-Dick. 100 years ago no one had heard of Herman Melville, and when critics began realizing and articulating the value of his work that was unequivocally a good thing for his books. Now? Not so much. In a market now oversaturated with Moby-Dick already (earlier this month Tin House Books released Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page), this book adds, at most, a mixed layer of fanfare and kitsch to the discussion. If anything, the fact that this book exists is a bad sign for Moby-Dick – can you imagine anyone reading or writing a book called Why Read Hamlet?
Melville’s greatness lies not just in his genius but also in his torment. Moby-Dick’s history of critical and commercial failure should be familiar, and Melville’s writing resilience in the face of these conditions is as noble as it is tragic. Jonathan Franzen, in his ballyhooed “Harpers” essay, writes: “Reading Melville’s biography, I wish that he’d been granted the example of someone like himself, from an earlier century, to make him feel less singularly cursed.” I can’t help but agree. Anyone who feels even an itch of literary ambition should heed Melville’s plight and thank him for profusely for it. Why read Why Read Moby-Dick? I really can’t tell you. Why read Moby-Dick? If you even have to ask, it may be pointless.
A deerheaded woman does it with a hunter. A heart falls out. A herd of goats clog dance in pistol fire. A missing limb grasps at nipples. An older brother named Royal with a fighting problem goes missing, sends his mother human-sized stuffed bunny rabbits for Valentine’s day.
This transcendent circus danced from the minds of some of the best authoresses I can think of at the most recent Sunday Salon in NYC: Ethel Rohan, Heather Fowler, and Kathy Fish. I got a little star crazy and said “I’m just such a big fan” probably too many times. Then I bought Kathy Fish’s new book Wild Life, and Ethel’s two collections Hard to Say and Cut Through The Bone. Thanks to MCs Sara Lippman and Nita Noveno for the splendid evening.
Why does it so often seem that the most revolutionary actions come in the form of nose-thumbing conventional taste? The argument runs that everything is connected to everything else and so the ripple caused by one stinky person refusing to wear a corporate product under their arms is surely at its core just as revolutionary an act as beheading Lloyd Blankfein would be. Maybe even more so. I’ve written on this website before about pushing back, hard, against The Liberal Project, something that’s difficult to discuss without sounding like a Pound broadcast from Ravenna circa 1941. But with all these very earnest political actions and discussions taking place, it’s important to remember that not all effects are created by intentional causes. And so we take a moment to examine accidental revolutionary acts. Specifically from my childhood.
1. The time that I grew a beard when I was 16 because I sucked at shaving and kept cutting myself - “How is a beard Revolutionary?” you might ask. Well, anyone who has read Iron John knows that in facial hair there is a sexual energy that is so powerful it may disturb your mother (seriously, Robert Bly says this, look it up). Teachers couldn’t look me in the eye. It looked like a cheap drama club prop hanging on my face. Adults, specifically people between the ages of 60 and 90 who are from small Midwestern towns, don’t like beards. They hide scars from sabre fights, signs of disease, and alter the general appearance in such a way that local authorities may have trouble picking out the features of a wanted man’s face. Add all of this to the phenomenon of anything even slightly out of the ordinary being a REALLY BIG DEAL in high school, and you had a revolutionary on your hands. If I had to rank the gravity my teenage beard according to the Upton Uxbridge Underwood standards, I would have scored it a 17.
2. The time I got a rock stuck in my ear - Again, you’re wondering how revolutionary that can be. But when you’re physically unable to follow a Nun’s instructions because you can’t hear her speak, the situation can potentially escalate to such a point that the so called “brutal” actions of the NYPD would seem like coddling in comparison. Also I was 5-years-old and in tears. The plaintive wail of a child is where all revolutions begin.
3. I thought I had to keep a dream journal for a class - but I didn’t. I’m not sure what the disconnect there was. Regardless, I complained in class that I could only remember like 1% of my dreams, and so was having trouble accumulating enough dream experience to record. The silence that followed was heavy. That silence is often the response to the plaintive wail of the child mentioned above. It’s the fecund womb in which a truly revolutionary person analyzes their relationship to power. Or in which a teenager is mortified. Or in which society examines itself. A lot of things happen in that silent womb.
4. I made a joke about Burning Man - I called it ‘Burning Person’. I’m sure this has been done before, sincerely. And unfortunately. What began as a Mad Max-esque gun-and-fire show in the desert has blossomed into something that I can’t critique without Burners, or whatever they call themselves, getting really really emotional. And although the joke I made contained both critique and praise for the direction that the festival has taken, it was taken as me placing my ideological flag down in a certain soil. A soil, while not as fecund as the silent womb in which we confront society’s, failures to address the needs of the plaintive wail of the child with the rock stuck in his ear, still amazingly amenable to human settlement. Let’s call this soil: “me scoring points in a gender studies class.”
That all being said, whatever comes out of Occupy Wall Street will be interesting. The things that happen accidentally will be just as, if not more, interesting and noteworthy as every placard request being fulfilled. Like prayers to a living god.
Today, Occupy Wall Street turns one month old. Since September 17th, its outrage at the banking and financial sector has resonated with thousands of frustrated individuals within and without American borders.
I can admit, walking around Zucotti Park on that overcast first day of the occupation, that I did not give the movement much of a chance. It was too much of the introverted radical scene I had circulated among since my mid-teens, too youth-oriented and shamelessly idealistic. I loved it, but I did not see 20,000 marching on City Hall just two weeks after. I did not see Occupy Des Moines.
Writing about a movement in the moment is incredibly difficult. You can record an event journalistically, but it takes great skill to actually capture a sense of the dynamism involved in something that explodes with such populist fervor. A movement can make even the most gifted writer come off like an idiot scribbling platitudes.
Here are a few pieces that rise above the noise to provide clarity, insight, and a deep regard for their subject.
• STEVE ALMOND, “Occupy Your Conscience: A Rumpus Exaltation,” The Rumpus. October 11th.
“The Occupy Wall Street movement is an effort to identify the perpetrators. It takes direct aim at the financial speculators and corporations who caused the economic implosion of 2008, the corrosive influence of money in our political system, and the obscene economic inequality this influence has wrought.
It consists of citizens – mostly progressives, but also independents and conservatives – who decided spontaneously to take to the streets. They were not exhorted by for-profit demagogues, or chauffeured to the site in luxury buses airbrushed with focus-grouped slogans.
They take their inspiration, at least in part, from the protests of the Arab Spring. They are not seeking to overthrow the government. They are simply tired of listening to politicians parrot the sick myth that unfettered greed will lead to shared prosperity. Their prospectus is that of Jesus of Nazareth, not Karl Marx.”
• JASPER BERNES, JOSHUA CLOVER, and ANNIE McCLANAHAN, “Percentages, Politics, and the Police,“ Los Angeles Review of Books, October 15th.
“It is hard to imagine anyone denying that it would be a good thing if the police were to take the side of the occupations. This is a far cry, however, from the belief that such a thing could reasonably happen. We must distinguish between analysis — an analysis of the concrete situation and accompanying historical record — and wish fulfillment fantasy. The latter tends, after all, to lead toward quite disastrous strategic and tactical decisions. In Tahrir Square — a place and idea toward which the Occupy movement swears fidelity — there was, despite some folks’ hysterical amnesia on this score, no commitment to non-violence, no gesture of complicity with the police, and no hesitation in resisting the government’s armed thugs. The Egyptians understood with clarity who their antagonists were, what their relationship to them was, and what would be needed to prevent the movement from being crushed by the folks with the guns and clubs.
The argument that “the cops will eventually come to sweep us away” may seem to open onto the conclusion “thus the cops must be befriended” — but only if one somehow suppresses the very reasons that the cops will come in the first place, and the long history of the police in relation to popular militancy. Cairo is one such example; others multiply throughout history. On the other side of the ledger: few entries indeed. It is true that armies and navies have been known to take the side of the people in revolutionary moments, but they are in the business of taking and holding territory, a portable trade. Police are charged with disciplining populations. Were they to take the side of the population, they would be without a trade. Any serious reading of history suggests that the police everywhere maintain their fidelity to the task of performing as bodyguards for money, property, and power.”
[UPDATE: Here is a really good response by Jeremy Kessler. Intellectuals all up in this shit!]
• ELI SCHMITT, “#occupywallstreet,” N + 1, September 27th.
“A few days later, as I was trying to write this piece, I came across a passage in George Eliot: “For in general mortals have a great power of being astonished at the presence of an effect towards which they have done everything, and at the absence of an effect towards which they have done nothing but desire it.” Was this us? Are we living and working in a city where in order to subsist, we must cooperate with the very injustices our demands were attempting to combat? A friend I saw that night asked derisively, “What were you protesting?” Then he laughed and added, “What weren’t you protesting?” Is the whole thing stupid?
There is a temptation to say yes. Since Saturday, it has been harder for me to remain hesitant, to maintain my uncertainty about whether the people still occupying Liberty Plaza are succeeding, or could succeed, or even what they might succeed at. We still don’t know exactly what the demands are. One of the members of our group, in discussing the criteria for a good demand, noted that Americans like to “get something” out of a political action. Repeal, enact, ban. We want visible, measurable outcomes. But we have no Mubarak, no Qaddafi. We are the country that reelected Bush, that bailed out the banks, that has stalemates in Congress about paltry tax increases. Our partial joblessness and alienating democratic system may be very real, our reasons for congregating concrete, but the precise causes of our distress are still far off, the specific solutions perhaps further.”
• SLAVOJ ZIZEK, taken from a speech in Zucotti Park on October 9th.
“Communism failed absolutely. But the problems of the commons are here. They are telling you we are not Americans here. But the conservative fundamentalists who claim they are really American have to be reminded of something. What is Christianity? It’s the Holy Spirit. What’s the Holy Spirit? It’s an egalitarian community of believers who are linked by love for each other. And who only have their own freedom and responsibility to do it. In this sense the Holy Spirit is here now. And down there on Wall Street there are pagans who are worshipping blasphemous idols. So all we need is patience. The only thing I’m afraid of is that we will someday just go home and then we will meet once a year, drinking beer, and nostalgically remembering what a nice time we had here. Promise ourselves that this will not be the case.
We know that people often desire something but do not really want it. Don’t be afraid to really want what you desire.”
• OLIVIA ROSANE, “Inside Occupy Wall Street’s Nearly Last Night,” Yes! Magazine, October 15th.
“I left that morning feeling that Occupy Wall Street had proven that it had created something worth defending—no small feat in a country where protest has followed the basic pattern: get a permit, make your complaint, go home. But if it is to grow, the Occupy Wall Street movement does need to think about how it can effectively challenge the injustices occurring outside of the community it has created and maintained.
Saturday’s international day of action was a good start, spawning demonstrations in some 900 cities worldwide and drawing large crowds to New York’s Time’s Square and Washington Square Park. As I joined the thousands gathered in Washington Square Park for a General Assembly Saturday night, I found myself agreeing with Columbia Professor Gayatri Spivak as she addressed the group through the people’s mic, explaining that she felt the ultimate goal of the protests was to separate politics from money. ‘Don’t let just survival, especially as winter is coming, be enough of a victory,’ she said.”
Happy one-month birthday, Occupy Wall Street.
Like a classy little glass of Chanel No. 5, visions of our dystopian future never go out of fashion. In this month’s Reading A Book By Its Cover, we’re dressing like our last meal was last week (and it was a grimy mix of radioactive ash and future-fascist propaganda) as we
walk battle our way down the imaginary catwalk in some of our favorite versions of humanity’s post-apocalyptic future.
“There is no God and we are his prophets.” — Cormac McCarthy, The Road
“Ending is better than mending, ending is better than mending.” — Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
“How could someone not fit in? The community was so meticulously ordered, the choices so carefully made.” — Lois Lowry,The Giver
[Thanks to the illustrious Kelly Schmader for her prophetic sense of doomsday fashion.]
I’ve had a difficult time writing about Occupy Wall Street. I’m either too exhausted, stunned, or ambivalent about what I have just seen or taken part in that very little of what I write ends up coherent or somehow nuanced.A great deal of incredible writing has been generated by this movement, and on Monday I will be posting an Occupy Wall Street Reader to highlight some of the work. Still, something happened this morning that I can’t just keep in my head: Michael. Bloomberg. Blinked.
While standing at the special General Assembly this morning after a night of nervous speculation (would the Unions show up?, what’s the Direct Action plan?, why are people duct-taping themselves into boxes?, Is that weed or is someone smudging the space with sage? If smudging, awesome), I was as certain as ever about how this was going to end. The police were going to arrest everyone who stayed in the park past 7 am, the hour that Bloomberg (in person!) had told protestors to vacate the space.
This is how third-term Bloomberg do — he is ham-fisted and obstinate, especially when things aren’t going his way. To back away from this arbitrary deadline for the removal of protestors would be to back down from the idea that his rule is somehow imperfect, or meriting an actual debate besides his usual blunt force. But he is not a politician- he is a Wall Street businessman, especially targeted by these protests for his staggering accumulation of wealth. The $1-a-year mayor made $4.5 billion in 2009, at the height of the economic recession. To think he acts out of the interest for anyone besides the business elite is the wonderful result of an extremely shrewd marketing campaign (one that he spent $5.6 million on last year). In short, he is a rich man who would like to wave a dismissive hand at these protests like they are the work of a belligerent child.
In the early morning, the park kept filling. By the time of the special general assembly, it was as crowded as I had seen it since the massive march of October 5th. I grew incredibly nervous. How was this going to play out? We agreed to form a human chain around the park. No one wanted to lose this space. They would have to arrest over 1500 people. Around 6:30 AM the general assembly received word that Brookfield Properties was postponing the clean-up, and would work with the protestors on a way to clean the park together.
An eruption, total joy, followed by the usual general assembly bickering, but for a moment, absolute release. And I thought about how this moment might be the biggest yet. A man who gets his way, who bought a third term, who represents all that is wrong with a financial system that believes it is righteous, above-the-law, and too important to not have its way, blinked. He bended to a group of people who refused his edict. In the history of the the Bloomberg mayorlty, this is unheard of. This is something to celebrate.
Most Baby Boomers are dorks. That they set themselves up in opposition to the Greatest Generation as The Coolest Generation only makes them dorkier. They invented the New Age aesthetic. They wore top hats. They literally sported rose colored glasses. Further evidence: the shitty ‘classic album art’ that they’re always going on about. Anything The Beatles did on the cover of Sgt. Pepper had been done before, and better, in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. I’m sorry you mistakenly think it’s “revolutionary”. And Pink Floyd art is what the kids refer to nowadays as “retarded”.
But the Boomers weren’t all dorks. The best album covers to come out of Post-War America? This series by awesome, non-dork Baby Boomer/designer Rudolph de Harak. Yeah, he’s American – a California-born, New York-based, now dead, Modernist designer who came up with some fucking awesome designs for album, book, and magazine covers. For a short time he was even the art director ofSeventeen.
His style of mid-century modern is definitely minimalist, but always playful. His use of color is never garish and he has an eye for very interesting shapes. Sure, it’s not prism shooting a rainbow into space, but also you didn’t have to be there to “get it”.
As promised, here are the answers to the Europa Editions Existentialism Quiz:
2. In a car crash.
4. Martin Buber
6. Simone de Beauvoir
8. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
9. A letter-opener
12. Addie Bundren
13. Existence > Essence
14. ‘Aujourd’hui Maman est morte.’
The week’s best online fiction, with recommendations from FictionDaily‘s Editors
“Fandy On Strings” by Adam King, Summerset Review
This excellent, poignant story is written from a child’s point of view. This kind of young, innocent, and precocious voice feels like an archetype at this point, which is to say that one finds a lot of stories using it (I’m thinking most of Jonathan Safran Foer’s oeuvre, but I can’t think of anyone else.) This child’s point of view is clever, honest, and human. It has an appreciation for tragedy, but in a way that preserves the magical innocence of childhood, never giving way to the impurity of adulthood. Just by viewing and describing the adult world around him or her, this child can distance him or herself from it, not having to critique it–because where, exactly, has critique got us?–and not having to revolutionize it–because where, exactly, has revolution gotten us? Just seeing the world through eyes of this child is enough. Through these eyes we can make some sense of the little, minimal moments that compose life beneath the grand narratives our grandparents and their parents invented for themselves. These are the stupid, frustrating, and hurtful things we do to the people we love when we’re down the block, at the mall, or on the phone–all occurring while one person or another is trying to become king somehow. Why are we drawn to the child’s point of view? Maybe adulthood failed us. Maybe seriousness and grandstanding and ‘growing up’ hasn’t fulfilled its promise. Maybe we feel small. Maybe we feel confused. Maybe we feel like puppets instead of people and, scared of the fruits of our anger and skill, wish to retreat to the tree-houses, crayon images, and new-best-friends of our youth. That was a time when adults were dumb, noisy, and incomprehensibly big. When we could blame them for not thinking of us and still wonder at the world, smiling, only feeling what it was all about, not yet having to know.–David Backer
“Three Girls” by Trent England, Smokelong Quarterly
Trent England knows, or used to know, two of the three girls he writes about here. That’s almost 67%. That’s pretty high. And he knows what he’s doing, writing-wise. He shows it, and then he takes it away, reveals, retracts, etc. It’s like a seduction dance with scarves. I read this line – “So many eye doctors, one after the other, that I wonder how many optometrists can exist in one city. I thought there was a law” – and I had a good, long laugh. Then all the jealousy came surging back and I sat resenting Trent England, as usual. Consume these alone, or with a little tangy, brown mustard.–Ryan Nelson
“The Caretaker” by D.A. Kentner, Calliope
Remember the refined age when horror was tinctured with sorrow, making scary stories eerier than startling. Evidenced by “The Caretaker,” D. A. Kentner does. He brings a chill to the story that evokes shades of Shirley Jackson and Ramsey Campbell, steadily building subtle, distilled terror until the final sad conclusion. This is a ghost story without rattling chains and bumps in the night, without blood running from the walls or severed heads discovered in the garden. Kentner alarms not suddenly, but slowly, and this makes the shock linger all the better.–Matt Funk
My attempts to be civil with my friends and coworkers who use the blood-sucking, skull-fucking, Juggernaut of books just suffered another setback. Spencer Soper of The Morning Call (possible thriving local newspaper) muckraked around at the local Lehigh Valley Amazon.com warehouse and produced this long, well researched piece about terrible work conditions (dangerously high temperatures in the warehouse, mainly) and Amazon’s exploitation of a quickly turning over temporary work force.
Choire Sicha at The Awl excerpted a few of the best (worst) bits and while I appreciate Sicha’s picks, my personal disgust reached the highest level as Soper reached the culmination of a slow burning examination of how Amazon sets up their employees to fail:
[An unnamed male employee in his 50s] got mixed messages from ISS managers, he said. He received gift cards and won a laptop as rewards for being a good worker. But he also got written up for not working fast enough. He started the temporary position with about 100 others. When he was terminated seven months later, he was one of five remaining. Three of the temporary workers with whom he started got converted to permanent Amazon positions, he said.
“I don’t want to say anything bad, but they almost set you up to fail,” he said. “They always stressed safety and drinking water, but I always thought the rate [we are expected to work] is not safe.”
Here’s the link to The Morning Call again, in case you missed it above and now you’re angry enough to click.
Up until now, most of Amazon’s bad press came from people inside the publishing industry, people who dealt with Amazon as a corporation rather than people who dealt with it as a store. Amazon is very, very good to their customers and even if the customers were aware of Amazon’s shady business practices, the victims seemed like entities (governments unable to collect taxes, bookstore chains going out of business, publishing houses getting strong armed) not like people. Now, Amazon is hurting individual humans, who probably resemble the humans that buy from Amazon. For the first time, Amazon could be seen as hurting their own customers. This perception of Amazon as an aggressor against people not just companies might not catch on – I hope it does, but that hope is dim. I won’t be able to say this better than Mac McClelland did in her brief piece for Mother Jones:
In the meantime, every one of Amazon’s millions of customers should write them a really angry letter demanding change. Except we won’t. Because then our shipping wouldn’t be free.
Amazon could probably benefit from the lesson Teen Freak Peter Parker learned back in 1962: with great power comes great responsibility.
(ed. note: I suppose this is as good a time as ever to announce that we’re leaving the Amazon Affiliate Program. We’ve been planning on announcing our departure for quite a while, but, to be honest, we’re second rate activists and just kept forgetting to do it. Since starting Full Stop, I’ve struggled with what I suppose you could call the ethical responsibilities of literary journalism (thankfully there are very few), and our decision to leave the Affiliates Program is partly the result of that thinking. This is all a somewhat roundabout way of saying that we’re resigning in protest of Amazon, though not as a direct result of the appalling story in The Morning Call. - Alex Shephard)