June 5, 2009KR BlogKR

In a Landlocked Summer City

What does your summer mean, chap?

The summer my summers mean, it turns out, is this one: for the first time in years, I’m sleeping in grass, playing guitar, drinking rather a lot of beer, and reading the big books I’d managed to miss, glance at, or wimp out on for 25 years.

I’m two books into Paradise Lost and picked up Dante’s Purgatory today. Next is, probably, Middlemarch, Wise Blood and some Wright Morris.

Moby Dick, begun when I was feverish and all-digesting in Seattle, got finished on a plane flight (the fate-forecasted climax, after dozens of chapters of butcher-talk and color theory, done in fifteen horrible accelerating pages) and I put the book down, three afternoons ago, as the plane dropped onto Ohio through a sea of clouds. Or a downtown, or a stone-field, of clouds. Or a whatever: a bigness I couldn’t measure, something big enough to embrace, therefore span and probably obliterate, little people and endeavor.

Moby Dick begins in the heart of the capacious, chipper sea-hand Ishmael and winds up in the brain of the brutal monomaniac Ahab–the two persons, says my friend Helen, that Melville and every other artist contains.

Ishmael says he goes to sea on a lark. He’s probably lying. Urge, madness, formlessness and passion, in Melville’s psyche-diagram, live not in an inner cave–its grotto of appetite–but in an outer sea. It rings us: in every town we live in, we walk down the docks, at least once, to stare into it, or strike up to sail. We maybe drown.

For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy but encompassed by the horrors of the half known life. God help thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!

Which warning is a touch funny, coming from a sailor. What on earth–noting Ishmael didn’t heed his own advice–could persuade us to do so? But I forgot: we can diagram the spirit and have summers to lie in the grass.

Hey, what of canon should I read next?