The man made a mess of things. He got all balled up with Christ. He made a white marriage. He had one son die of tuberculosis, the other shoot himself. He only rode his own space once—Moby-Dick. He had to be wild or he was nothing in particular. He had to go fast, like an American, or he was all torpor. Half horse half alligator. – Charles Olson
The writer no more creates writing than the electrician creates electricity. Invisible currents move at their own speed, out there, among unknown elements – and the writer merely captures a bit of that invisible world in the poor conductors available to him, and measures it and deludes others – though not himself – that he made the conductor, the current, the speeds and fluctuations.
New, yes, to our science, but not to that invisible world itself. Nothing is new or old, there.
So … I received a salutary shock, much like that given to Franklin by the key tied on the wet kite string, from a paragraph I wrote today about ghost stories. Making a plebian précis of Machen’s glorious image of Grimaldi the clown pursuing the spectre of his brother through the London streets, always a minute or two behind him at every house, I wrote:
“That echoing minute behind, that tardiness as a suddenly autonomous and separate domain of time chunked off of secular time, in which you have a chance to “be on time” – as though one were caught in a world of “too late,” with only one possibility – the unlucky one. If one is looking for the “effect” of the Enlightenment, vide our last post, one of them is surely that the ghost story, the uncanny that so fascinated Freud, fills the place in Western culture that the ghost once filled.”
Well,I looked at that graf with a little amazement, because – although not precisely worded, I should have been a little less gnomic about the kingdom of heaven, or being on time, and pandemonium, or being late -- I should have pointed to the root of meritocracy in the schedule, the saint's luck of always being on time -- I should have pointed out how its negation, being late, is not precisely its negation but a sort of parody, a shadow of being on time that infects its victim even when he is on time, so that his on-timeness is always slightly addled, unlucky –anyway, all of this somehow met in that paragraph, and it seemed to be the missing piece I was looking for, or at least one of them, in my project of understanding success and failure in America. In fact, the psychoanalysis of the meritocracy should definitely accord a large place to the uncanny. Anyone who has read Freud’s essay On the Uncanny will see a parallel in Grimaldi’s hopeless bummel.
And thinking of this, I also thought of a line from Olson’s Maximus poem. A line about failure. I’d stored that line up, put it in some notebook, but I couldn’t find it. I looked for it and stumbled across Olson’s essay on Melville.
I decided to put up the first part of it, Call Me Ishmael – also the name of the whole book. The essay has the spaced intensity of poetry. Olson is an essayist along the same lines as Emerson, or Nietzsche –the pendulum is always swinging between the vatic and the vapid. It is a prose that makes large bets. This excites adolescents, and gives those who have outlived all avatars, moderate souls dessicating their way towards retirement, something to jeer at
What I like best about Olson was how intensely he felt about failure and success in America – how he knew some bone truths about this gristle hearted country. Of course, poets in the fifties and sixties, like novelists, could be successes. Not in the way they are successes now, with the soft shoe act on NPR, the terrible kindergarten readings, all so educated in not dramatizing a line it is funny, the last horrible debris of modernism combined with the complete eclipse, in America, of oratory – an art that only survives, heavily disguised, in hip hop. Successes nevertheless, in the fifties -- Robert Lowell got his face on the cover of a Time magazine. Meanwhile, Olson taught, delivered the mail, and watched the Organization Man, the tranquilized behemoth, bestride the suburbs.
Anyway, Olson’s essay on Melville gets the elements right away:
"I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.
It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning. That made the first American story (Parkman's): exploration."
He also gets a basic fact about the culture, one so disguised that you can only see it historically, at a distance, it so goes against the grain of what you are supposed to feel in this place:
“Americans still fancy themselves such democrats. But their triumphs are of the machine. It is the only master of space the average person ever knows, oxwheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory.
To Melville it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people. Ahab is no democrat. Moby-Dick, antagonist, is only king of natural force, resource.”
And Olson gets the polarity right. It also gets the mythic names right. The polarity is Melville and Poe:
“He had the tradition in him, deep, in his brain, his words, the salt beat of his blood. He had the sea of himself in a vigorous, stricken way, as Poe the street. It enabled him to draw up from Shakespeare. It made Noah, and Moses, contemporary to him. History was ritual and repetition when Melville's imagination was at its own proper beat.”
The names are strewn through the text (John Henry, for instance, is there) like so much phosphorescence. Here’s an instance of it:
“This Ahab had gone wild. The object of his attention was something unconscionably big and white. He had become a specialist: he had all space concentrated into the form of a whale called Moby-Dick. And he assailed it as Columbus an ocean, LaSalle a continent, the Donner Party their winter Pass.”
That the polarity and the names are all of the peculiar dialectic of success and failure – the way failure searches through the street for its lost other, is killed on the Texas coast and cannibalized in the Sierra Nevada and comes out of that innocent (I’ve always loved that one of the survivors of the Donner Party opened a restaurant in Sacremento – the most American of stories!) – is where you have to begin to look at the whole odd structure of petrified luck and its worship in these here States.
"Whitman we have called our greatest voice because he gave us hope. Melville is the truer man. He lived intensely his people's wrong, their guilt. But he remembered the first dream. The White Whale is more accurate than Leaves of Grass. Because it is America, all of her space, the malice, the root."