Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Ahab and Quixote: The Endless Search

(Courtesy Ecco Press/Harper Collins);(Wordsworth Editions)

“Tell me your company, and I will tell you what you are.” – Sancho Panza, Don Quixote.

“Call me Ishmael.” – Nameless narrator of Moby Dick.

Certain pieces of great writing seem to haunt us throughout our lives. It’s almost as if their authors are stalking us and offering up new reasons for rereading and rediscovering whatever it was about them that mesmerized us during our initial encounter. Of course, which pieces and which authors vary from person to person: for some it’s King Lear or Jane Eyre or For Whom the Bell Tolls (all of which leave me utterly cold, despite the fact that I appreciate their greatness). Such recursively magnetic books might be touchstones from our youth, such as On the Road or Howl, for me, or they might be lighthouses that show us the way out of some dark storm or other, such as all of the poetry ever written by Wallace Stevens.

It often appears as if some people will literally find any excuse at all to read once again and then write again about two groundbreaking novels in particular, Don Quixote by the Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes and Moby Dick by the American Herman Melville, and I readily admit to being one of those people. But I also claim that my excuse is a valid one (don’t we all?) and situate them in a parallel track which becomes obvious once the reader temporarily accepts my obsession with both. I’ll go so far as to claim (almost) that they are the same novel in some salient ways, and that the twisted times we currently are living through contain psychological and even spiritual echoes of each in the same way that Melville himself evokes Cervantes for me.

I’ll go further still, and claim that Jack Kerouac’s masterpiece On the Road similarly echoes the obscure characters of both Quixote and Ishmael, especially in the way it celebrates outcasts on a nebulous mission to achieve an impossible end. Sometimes the greatest thing about great books is the way in which they spawn spin-offs in the form of other great books which are either about them or else evoke them via ekphrastic (and ecstatic) inspiration. So it is with the critical study, a natural history, of Melville’s work conducted by Richard King’s Ahab’s Rolling Sea from University of Chicago Press, as well as the pastiche of Cervantes executed by Graham Greene in his Monsignor Quixote, and even one quirky evocation by Sena Naslund called Ahab’s Wife. The same gift was also bestowed on us by yet another tributary, Aaron Sachs’ Up From the Depths: Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford and Rediscovery in Dark Times, from Princeton University Press.

“These are indeed dark times,” Sachs reminds us, “And as a historian, I’ve been wondering my whole professional life how these dark times compare to other dark times . . . I feel like it’s my job as a historian to really investigate the claim that there’s no precedent for what we’re going through, because that idea is really disheartening in a lot of ways.” Upon discovering the King and Sachs books, while also rereading both Melville and Cervantes, I was the beneficiary of what somehow felt like yet another a momentous rediscovery of several other authors who suddenly appeared to occupy the same mindset: the search for an impossible resolution to the enigma they all shared in a kind of subterranean manner. We often mistakenly imagine that our era is totally unprecedented; in fact, every era may make that same mistake, when actually the annals are crammed with similar dire precedents.

Thus to begin at the beginning and then rush headlong forward: both Quixote and Ahab are fictional protagonists in narratives that are essentially road trips, but road trips plus ultra, road trips (or sea trips) par excellence, which will be evoked later on in the 20th century with stunning clarity by the footloose American style-crusher Jack Kerouac. Quixote and his friend Sancho, Ahab and his obscure narrator who requests, in the opening line, that we call him Ishmael, and the dynamic duo of Kerouac’s Dean Moriarity and Sal Paradise, all travel roads, sometimes on the ocean, sometimes through fields, sometimes across endless asphalt highways, high on pot and Charlie Parker.

The slightly insane road to chivalry passes right in front of the La Mancha home of the character created by Cervantes in what LitHub’s IIan Stavans called “sloppy, inconsistent, baffling and perfect: the magical hyper-realism of a 400-year-old classic.” That road also leads all the way up to the brilliance of the late American author David Foster Wallace, especially his stunning 1996 novel Infinite Jest, which often feels like a surreal musical mash-up of Cervantes, Sterne, Melville, and Kerouac, especially Wallace’s character Hal Incandenza and his corporate shadows. They are all exemplars of a kind of wacky Holy Grail quest, the kind that is both highly amusing and terrifying at the same time.

And all are masterpieces of the first order, novels which have a surprising, even shocking amount in common, despite their disparity in style and time: they were all searching for something they could never ever find, let alone possess. Yet their search, and its recorded literary history, shared an almost delirious depth of soul with the rest of the world. This was especially so in the case of David Foster Wallace, who seemed to acknowledge the impossibility of his own impossible dream, finishing The Pale King, the long-awaited follow-up novel to Infinite Jest, sadly by hanging himself in 2008. But I digress, as Wallace himself did so much in most of his writing that I can comfortably claim that he is worth considering to be our Francois Rabelais, Miguel Cervantes, Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne and Herman Melville, all rolled into one single brilliantly rumpled and sweating package.

So then, let’s start again.

Miguel de Cervantes, 1547–1616.

I’m intrigued by the possibility that for Spaniards, Cervantes can easily be considered the literary equivalent, in terms of stature if not output, of the achievements of that mysterious British author, Shakespeare. Indeed, both transcended their national acclaim and became hallmarks of excellence for readers in every country on earth. For me, however, Cervantes is the more interesting writer by far (heresy, I know) despite the fact that he basically wrote one huge book separated into two parts by a decade, although he did toil at a number of lesser-known pieces as well. The reason is simple: he’s a human being rather than an invisible god, and he was also one we could relate to as humane, one who wrote his book while in prison after an already harrowing, and well documented, life struggle (i.e., five years of brutal captivity by Barbary pirates).

In his observations for the BBC News coverage of quarter-century celebrations of the two legendary authors, who died mere days apart four hundred years ago, James Badcock noted with clarity that the sheer scale of the different global recognition fests for two writers who were each giants in their own language was causing some superfans of the creator of Don Quixote to cry foul: “While ‘all the world’s a stage’ for the British bard thanks to the rollout of the massive Shakespeare Lives programme of arts events around the globe, celebrations of the life of his Spanish contemporary are perhaps more honoured in the breach than in the observance.” Badcock even referenced a number of “Spanish bigwigs” in his support for poor under-celebrated Miguel.

“We’ve had four hundred years to prepare for this,” commented Dario Villanueva, Director of the Spanish Academy, “There are of course a few events lined up but the figure of Cervantes deserves a major gesture on the part of top institutions.” I concur wholeheartedly, and am more than ready to leap to the defense of the superior writer, my Miguel, whose fanciful satire of chivalry has garnered a near-universal understanding for and use of epithets such as describing someone as “quixotic,” meaning a quirky dreamer, or as someone who is “tilting at windmills,” meaning someone who goes off on fruitless or delusional campaigns. But it’s still true, of course, and I admit it, that the difference between them is partly due to the challenges of reading Cervantes and the different ways that their public relates to these two titans.

The contemporary Spanish novelist Andres Trapiello, a writer who, like every other author (including, as my meandering article will eventually mention, Herman Melville in his saga Moby Dick), has been dramatically influenced by the visionary literary stylist Cervantes. And he also understands why many people find him a difficult read, in the same way that many people know they need to read Joyce’s Ulysses but have never been quite able to get around to it or to pull it off once they did. And Trapiello accepts the reasoning behind this phenomenon as well:

Cervantes wrote a number of works but above all Don Quixote, a 1,100-page work which you need to read with thousands of footnotes. Everyone says they appreciate the importance of Don Quixote but there is this national frustration that they cannot read it. People get a complex about it. Every couple of years they sit down to read it and say I am going to do it this time, but they get as far as the windmill story on about page 50 and give up.

Sounds to me like a very familiar struggle which the many people also have with Joyce, not to mention with Melville, and a recent survey revealed that only two out of ten Spanish readers said they had read Quixote completely through, and of those two only half-realized that the chief character’s real name was Alonso Quijano.

Hopefully Trapiello’s new translation of Cervantes into modern Spanish, which sold a surprising immediate thirty thousand copies upon its release, will assist in Miguel’s rehabilitation among those readers flummoxed by the original. Meanwhile, I openly admit to having a complex about the book, but more of the sort where I need to read it once every other year, if only to acquire a better grasp about what qualities it is I love so much about the literary architecture of Joyce, Proust, Melville and even one of my favourite American authors, Wallace. The Quixote translation I personally favour, not because I read Spanish but solely because her English is so spritely, is the new one by Edith Grossman, and it is far more welcoming than the first version, translated by Walter Starkie, which I read as a teenager in two massive hardcover tomes while toiling in a publisher’s warehouse and hiding out in the skid storage zones in order to avoid doing any actual work.

Badcock also provided us with an incisive nutshell version of Cervantes’ fever dream, often characterized as the first ‘modern’ novel (despite the fact that the Japanese noble lady Murasaki Shikubu wrote her Tale of the Genji over five hundred years earlier, in about 1008, before any other novels even existed, thus making it modern if only by virtue of being that visionary a creative product). Quixote, whose proper title is The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of la Mancha, released in 1605, and followed by a sequel in 1615, traces “an elderly fan of chivalric literature, Alonso Quijano, who decides to become a knight-errant and sets off in search of adventure on his aged mount, Rocinante. He thinks of himself as Don Quixote of La Mancha, imagines a farm girl is his lady love, Dulcinea, and a villager, Sancho Panza, is his squire. Panza’s earthiness contrasts with Quixote’s wild imagination, but he too is fooled into thinking he has become the governor of an island. The novel’s second part sees Quixote wrestling with the fact that he is now a famous literary character, thanks to the success of his first book.”

Thus in his sequel, Cervantes somehow manages to become the first-ever practitioner of postmodern meta-fiction, by including his own labyrinthine book within itself in a very Joycean and Wallace-like manner, despite the fact that self-referential ‘modernism’, in the formal historical sense of the term, was still some four hundred and fifty years away. And perhaps the first exponent of another actual modern novel, not in the experimental sense of Joyce’s or Pound’s or Wyndham Lewis’ vorticist formulas but more in terms of sheer obsessive and almost solipsistic self-absorption, would be the American novelist Herman Melville, whose 1851 fictional outlier Moby Dick is yet another literary albatross which everyone says they have read but very few have managed to successfully navigate.

It too was a quest sage, a maniacal search for the unholy grail of sorts: the great white whale who ripped off the leg of a determined, if slightly bent and Queeg-like, seafaring adventurer whose chief motif has also entered the pop culture lexicon in the oddest of ways. An example of that weird symbolic absorption by our collective unconscious might be Brian Wilson’s Beach Boy masterpiece Smile, an unfinished album that was aborted and deemed too drug-addled and experimental by his group. It took about thirty years for it to finally be released in the shape he had intended for it, and along the way it was repeatedly referred to as Brian’s great white whale.

Moby Dick’s creator, Herman Melville (Joseph Eaton / Met).

My perverse fondness for the story unfolded by Melville in his masterpiece is so pervasive that not only must I re-read it with alarming regularity, but I also find it necessary to re-view the splendid John Huston cinematic adaptation from 1956 featuring Gregory Peck as Ahab, with Richard Basehart as the besotted Ishmael, whose real name remains unknown to us. This I am prompted to do at all hours of the day and night if it pops on television, usually on Turner Classic Movies, of course, though I also own a DVD copy in case the urge overtakes me any old time, just as the fateful urge to go to sea overtook Basehart’s own character in the film.

In the case of both Ahab’s Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby Dick by Richard King, and Up From the Depths: Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford and Rediscovery in Dark Times by Aaron Sachs, an overlapping reference is made to the great cultural historian of cities and their inhabitants, who was himself, I’m pleased (or perhaps relieved) to say, was also obsessed by Melville’s book, and by the dark metaphors embedded at its heart. “Each age,” Mumford said in his study of Melville from 1929, “one may predict, will find its own symbols in Moby Dick. Over that ocean the clouds will pass and change, and the ocean itself will mirror back those changes from its own depths.”

(Courtesy University of Chicago Press)

It is indeed a dark mirror, hidden beneath those rolling waves, and one that certainly can, and does reveal a certain essence to those souls who are brave enough, or foolhardy enough, to go out into the middle of its immensity searching for something, whether it be meaning, whales, or revenge. In Richard King’s masterful study, which really is a natural history, almost as loaded with nautical lore and whale music as Melville’s own work of fiction, he invites us to consider what drew Ahab first to the sea, then to Moby, and finally to his own death, and what draws some of us, to him as a literary character: “On the morning that Captain Ahab is going to die, he stands aloft at the masthead for one last time. In a few hours, the line attached to the harpoon that he’s going to hurl at the White Whale will snatch around his own neck and pull him overboard to drown. ‘But let me have one last look around here at the sea, not changed a wink since I first saw it as a boy. The same—the same as Noah as to me.’” King then asks us to consider if the sea really is the same one that Ahab saw as a boy, or if it’s the same one we see today in a sense: “Melville completed Moby Dick, or The White Whale in 1851, [but] he set the story about a decade earlier. His mid-19th century was a period of tremendous upheaval and revelation about humanity’s place in the natural world, and his novel was by far the most profound American literary work about the ocean at the time. It would remain so for another century, and perhaps it still is.”

That same tumultuous overturning of many assumptions and beliefs is being experienced in our time, especially those ecological concerns which have taken so damn long to fully sink into the consciousness of the public, political and corporate worlds of our potentially doomed epoch. It was evident even in the second decade of the 20th century, when Lewis Mumford began his prognostications about the dangers of unchecked urban growth and thoughtless consumption of resources. That is ostensibly the theme of Sachs’ own study and dual portrait of Melville and Mumford in his cautionary tale Up From the Depths, in which he hastens to re-ring the alarm bells Mumford gently chimed, in more innocent times perhaps, but with a far greater force now in keeping with today’s urgent need for global awakening on a host of subjects, the most dire being what our industries have done to something as massive and uncontrollable as our planet’s climate.

(Courtesy Princeton University Press)

Sachs deftly draws our attention mutually to these two great writers, and the resonances between their work, one in literature and the other in urban planning and a hope for civilized progress. It was Mumford, in fact, who helped to spearhead – driven possibly by his own personal compulsions and pessimistic fears about the power-brokers – a revival of appreciation for Melville’s work, which at the time had begun to drift away into the historical mists. He wrote about the machine age with scary prescience, touching on themes of urban decay, global aggression and environmental fragility, in much the same way that Melville had cast his own wary glance back to the crisis of civil war, slavery, industrialization and the imagined reconstruction of the social fabric.

Mumford, among a few other perceptive thinkers, wanted to canonize Melville as “America’s greatest tragedian,” and he was quick to point out that despite his own often fateful sense of impending doom, fictionalized so vividly in Moby Dick, that the author’s darkness was “balanced by an inspiring determination to endure.” That might be what, in the end, manages to save America from itself during our current era of disintegrating truisms. “Amid today’s foreboding,” Sachs reminds us, “over global warming, racism, technology, pandemics and other crises, Melville and Mumford remind us that we’ve been in this struggle for a long time. To rediscover these writers today is to rediscover how history can offer hope in dark times.”

And so I need not overemphasize the obvious fact that Quixote’s driven appetite for embodying the legends of chivalry in his own time, and Ahab’s driven desire to destroy the overwhelming creature who has largely destroyed him, are one and the same urges. To dream, as the song’s passage goes, the impossible dream. Maybe that’s what makes me feel such compassion, not just patience, for the fictional protagonist’s plight in both novels: it’s a shared plight, in which we are all equally complicit.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work in progress is a new book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.

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