Moby Dick is an epic piece of literature on a par with Homer’s Iliad and Shakespeare’s King Lear and the Bible’s Job. It is densely rich in language and structure, in character and story. Its account of a man against a whale is a story that had never been told before with such grandeur. Yet, it parallels other efforts by master storytellers down the centuries to portray humans confronting the unanswerable questions of existence. Like Job grappling with the question of why bad things happen to good people — indeed, why suffering is in the world. Like Lear raging against the deterioration of the body, the betrayal of others and, even more, his own betrayals of himself. Achilles, the unconquerable, fights and dies because of a fatal flaw. Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and has sex with his mother because of the blindness that every human being is born with, the inability to know everything, to understand the consequences of actions. To fully understand Moby Dick would require months, probably years. And I read it just once. I know how weak my understanding of the novel is. Still, I was able to spot certain aspects that I found deeply enrichening. […]
One of the great pleasures of reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is his wondrously muscular prose. So thick with meaning and image, so meaty with psychological insight, so dense and meaty. Often, reading one of his paragraphs — even one of his sentences — I was struck by the poetry of his prose. It is a prose-poetry of rhythm and sound, of deep echoes (of Shakespeare, of the Bible, or the vast store of literature), of hard edges and the softness-hardness of the ocean water. Here are ten examples: The Pacific When gliding by the Bashee isles we emerged at last upon the great South Sea; were it not for other things, I could have greeted my dear Pacific with uncounted thanks, for now the long supplication of my youth was answered; that serene ocean rolled eastwards from me a thousand leagues of blue. There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John. And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide-rolling watery prairies and Potters’ Fields of all four continents, the […]
Out of the blue By Patrick T. Reardon Sure, paint the door with blood and get a pass. But, tomorrow, Death’s angel will again be on the lookout. Sure, read the litany of vitamins and sugars. But, out of the blue, the heart strangles itself. Sure, crouch away from the stranger here. But, listen, aren’t we all? Sure, stay between the white lines. But, you know, a steering wheel slip has no conscience. Sure, the best is yet to come. Sure, lover come back. Sure, someone to watch over me. Sure, all of me. Sure, it was a very good year. Sure, that old black magic. But, amen, amen, the numb mystery at the center of things is a kernel that can’t be digested. Patrick T. Reardon 2.20.19 This poem was original published in Spank the Carp 39 in 2018. It also appears in the Spank the Carp 2018 Anthology.
The United States is an exceptional country, and it stands as a shining city upon a hill as a model of freedom to the rest of the world. That’s the message that American politicians and history books have preached over the past six decades, using, as illustration and proof, what they and scholars have called one of the founding documents of the nation. The document, “A Model of Christian Charity,” was written, the story goes, as a lay sermon delivered by John Winthrop, the elected governor of a community of Puritans, to his followers in 1630 on a small wooden ship in the mid-Atlantic as they headed into the unknown of the New World. Its key sentences come near the end: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.” “At least half wrong” In As a City on a Hill, Princeton University scholar Daniel T. Rodgers, an […]
Photograph: Bullet Through Apple By Patrick T. Reardon The dark fashioned metal beyond impact, its line still true. The fruit drawn to the left as if it would follow. The shards of pulp — so many zygotes suddenly granted life. Patrick T. Reardon 2.13.19 Originally published in Seems #17, 1983
Terry Pratchett, whose life was cut short in 2015 by Alzheimer’s disease, thought much about death during his 66 years. And, in his 41 hilarious, witty and silly Discworld fantasy novels, he wrote a lot about death, especially Death, a tall, skeletal guy who was one of his main characters. Perhaps that’s why the books are so full of life. And perhaps why they’re so funny. In the face of the downright, absolute unreasonableness of human existence — you and I were born to die — what’s a better response than to laugh and live fully? “Really good there” In Pratchett’s 1991 novel Reaper Man, Death, the character, is front and center, and the story revolves around the effort of some higher-ups (even Death has bosses) to, well, not exactly ease him out of his job. To put it bluntly, they set it up so that Death himself will die. Early on, right after Death has gotten this news, Pratchett writes: The shortest-lived creatures on the Disc were mayflies, which barely make it through twenty-four hours. Two of the oldest zigzagged aimlessly over the waters of a trout stream, discussing history with some younger members of the evening hatching. “You […]
Unlearning with Hannah Arendt by Marie Luise Knott is a sparse, poetic examination of a profound and humane 20th century thinker who was deeply learned, richly insightful and, above all, intellectually courageous. Never more courageous than in her realization that, in the aftermath of World War II, she needed to, as Knott puts it, “unlearn” all that she knew — her entire frame of reference and body of knowledge — in order to incorporate in her understanding of human existence the reality of the Nazis and the Holocaust. In other words, to take all the psychological and scholarly framework that she had worked all her life to develop and throw it on the garbage heap. And, then, to build a new framework. Arendt did this several times in her life, reframing for herself her understanding of evil and its presence in the lives of human beings. “Allows them to go missing” Knott, a German journalist and literary critic, delves into the heart of Arendt’s thinking and its evolution in this thin volume of 113 pages, about 30,000 words, published in 2011. It is divided into four sections, one each for four important “pathways of thought” that the philosopher-political theorist employed. […]
No Clouds The moon is a silver weight. A man walks his dog and smokes. Tides pull. The trees are saints: the old, the tested, those at peace. Patrick T. Reardon 2.4.19 Originally published in Lucky Star, 1986.