Discussed in this interview:
• ; or The Whale, by Herman Melville, edited by Damion Searls. Dalkey Archive Press. $8.00.
• Moby Dick in Half the Time, by Herman Melville. Orion Books. $9.95, 336pp.
Notoriously lengthy, difficult, and full of bizarre digressions, Moby-Dick practically invites abridgement. It was no surprise then when Orion Books did just that, offering readers Moby-Dick in Half the Time, a book that chopped Melville’s public domain masterpiece into a far tamer psychological novel. Enter author and translator Damion Searls, who decided to create a text composed of everything cut from the Orion edition of Moby-Dick. The resulting text was published as ; or The Whale in the Summer issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction (exceprts available here). I recently spoke with Searls to figure out what he hoped to accomplish with such a text and whether he thought anyone would bother reading it.
Searls is the author of What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, recently published by the Dalkey Archive Press. His abridgment of The Journal of Henry David Thoreau (using traditional methods) is forthcoming from NYRB Classics. In addition, he is an award-winning translator, and he conducted this interview with his three-week-old son, Lars Alexander, in the house.
Scott Esposito: The first thing I wanted to talk about was process. ; or The Whale is a text that comprises everything that was cut from the abridgment of Moby-Dick published by Orion Books in 2007. What was your process for tracking down all the missing material?
Damion Searls: I wish I could say something interesting, like that I used powerful electrical coils to magnetize all of Moby Dick in Half the Time and then poured Moby-Dick over it so that the matching parts stuck, but in fact it was pretty much what you’d expect. I had Moby-Dick onscreen and Half the Time open next to me and I deleted from the file anything that was also in the book. This meant, paradoxically, that I read Half the Time more carefully than ; or The Whale, because when Half the Time started a new paragraph or chapter, skipping paragraphs or chapters of Moby Dick, I didn’t have to read the skipped parts onscreen. Then a couple rounds of formatting and checking for conversion problems and there it was.
SE: Wasn’t that incredibly tedious?
DS: Well it depends what you find tedious. All it really was was reading Moby-Dick, or at least Moby Dick in Half the Time, very slowly and carefully, and that’s something I like to do. Besides, you have to move a lot slower through any book you’re translating, and many more times: that pace and level of attention is something I’m definitely comfortable with. I learned a lot about Melville’s prose in the process, and Moby Dick in Half the Time is very good, in its own terms, and a work of art came out of it! I’d say it was time well spent.
SE: Speaking of translation, you do a lot of it, most recently a new selection and translation of Rilke and a new translation of Proust’s On Reading. You have said that this process has “all the benefits of being a writer” but without the worries of facing a blank page and doubting what you’ve written. How does your work on ; (as you call ; or The Whale, though the “;” is silent) compare to your work as a translator?
DS: It’s a lot less creative than translation, but it is another way of solving those two problems you mentioned. What it is is part of the tradition of chance-method or deterministic-procedure poetry, as I mentioned in my Believer article: people like Jackson Mac Low, Joan Retallack, Kenneth Goldsmith. In that mode too you never face a blank page and never have to worry about the worth of what you’ve written because it’s not really your responsibility. I wrote a book of collage and chance-method poetry about seven years ago, called Mechanick Exercises Applied to the Whole Art of Printing (also the title of the first ever printing manual in the West, by Joseph Moxon); it’s unpublished, although the great experimental poetry magazine The Germ accepted a long poem called “Accidence” before they stopped publishing (which doesn’t bode well), but I still think it’s good stuff.
; or The Whale and translation are both ways of writing that come fundamentally out of reading, but that’s pretty general. My fiction writing comes out of reading too. In my book of short stories, What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, each story is based on a story by a past master, including one by Moby-Dick’s (and ; or The Whale’s) dedicatee, Hawthorne.
SE: So, in a sense, is the anonymous editor who chopped up Moby-Dick for Orion Books the true author of ;?
DS: You know, I’ve wondered about that. Is ; or The Whale plagiarized? Even though it would be a special case of plagiarism, since literally, rigorously not one word or punctuation mark is that other person’s work. (Of course none of it is either the other person’s or mine, it’s all Melville’s.) If not plagiarized, is it an infringement of intellectual property or something? Maybe that’s why I’ve never gotten in touch with the people at Orion Books—I don’t know how they might feel.
SE: That’s kind of ironic since ½’s creator is anonymous and may very well be a team of editors. How do you feel about it?
DS: I feel fine about not being the true author. That’s how collage or found poetry always works, and it’s not like I’m passing off ; or The Whale under my own name or anything. Even “Edited by” is a bit strong, since I didn’t exactly make any editorial decisions—I’d say “Produced by,” like a record producer.
SE: Regardless, your question about intellectual property is an interesting one. It makes me think of creative appropriations of copyrighted work (although the Melville is obviously out of copyright, but not the Orion edition) like in Life a User’s Manual and Jonathan Lethem’s now-famous Harper’s essay, “The Ecstasy of Influence.” Do you think there’s something about our increasingly vocal debate about copyright and plagiarism that inspires artists to try to provocatively play with the rules surrounding them?
DS: I think that artists have always been inspired to play with rules and with other people’s art, and the culture’s having lost sight of how art works is what has generated these often very stupid debates. I mean, people accusing Bob Dylan of plagiarizing Henry Timrod? Bob Dylan!?? If Dylan hasn’t proven his originality and stature as an artist then who on God’s green earth has? And if you pay a 17-year-old who doesn’t want to be a writer for a genre novel cowritten with a marketing team, why would you expect originality? (I totally think the woman she stole from should get her money, of course. That’s the problem: These are issues of money and property, not of art-making. David Bowie was right to sue Vanilla Ice too; but then Seu Jorge made a great album of Bowie songs, he just credited him.)
Lethem’s essay was certainly on the side of the angels, and he’s right about everything he says, but to me his points were so obvious. I’ve quoted Emerson elsewhere: “We need not fear excessive influence. A more generous trust is permitted. Serve the great.” Thoreau started by borrowing his neighbor’s axe, and merely tried to return it a little sharper—he’s talking about language. Proust says that “voluntary servitude is the beginning of freedom. There is no better way to discover what you feel than to try to re-create in yourself what a master has felt.” Shakespeare stole all his plots, The Beatles ripped off Chuck Berry, look at folk music and folktales, none of this is news and none of it is specific to our times.
SE: How would you compare ; or The Whale to that category of works that are playing with notions of authorship, which I suppose ranges from found poetry up through something like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?
DS: I haven’t read PPZ yet but I’m all in favor of its being a bestseller. My hopes for ; or The Whale are decidedly more modest. Mostly I’m just happy ; got published—especially by the eminent Review of Contemporary Fiction.
SE: I wouldn’t necessarily call them modest.
DS: What would you call them?
SE: I suppose you could call them experimental, as you seem to in your introduction to ; when you quote Father Mapple’s “credo of the experimental writer”: “Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal!” Two questions: was that your credo in creating ;, and do you expect people to actually read ; straight through?
DS: That was not my credo, though I think it’s pretty clear it was Melville’s: “To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood!” I do try to please readers, first of all myself: all the weird stuff in Melville is what I love about him and I was genuinely curious to see which half the time would be more worth spending, Orion’s tight plot arc or the whaling chapters and bizarre vocabulary they left out.
You can’t trust that introduction, by the way. It was written by some humorless academic who insists on reading ; or The Whale as a straight-ahead book, “a lost work from Herman Melville’s major period” as he puts it. He doesn’t even mention my role in making the book!
In terms of reading it, I definitely think the chapters of fragments, where Orion cut bits and pieces and so ; skips around, are more interesting to read than the whole chapters that are totally omitted by Orion. I mean, the “Etymology and Extracts,” the “Pulpit” and “Sermon” chapters, “Cetology,” “The Whiteness of the Whale,” and so on are great, of course, but they’re the same in Moby Dick. I couldn’t get through “The Town-Ho’s Story” in ; or The Whale but then again I don’t think I got through it any of the times I’ve read Moby-Dick either. It’s the fragments where you can see the effects and the humor that are unique to ; or The Whale.
SE: That’s interesting that you characterize the introducer as “humorless.” Seems he has a good grasp of irony, a fitting strength for someone introducing this particular text. I thought he hit the spot when he called ; “both a classic and a contemporary work of fiction, avant-garde even.” Is this what the avant-garde has come to: doing, literally, the exact opposite of commercial publishing?
DS: I’m glad you liked the introducer; that’s the idea, of course, with his deadpan assertions and expostulations of disbelief at Orion’s “lapses of principle” and everything. I was only trying to say that he’s an unreliable narrator, or at least that he seems to be less in on the joke of ; or The Whale than you and I are.
Isn’t the avant-garde always trying to be the exact opposite of commercial publishing? You’re right, though, ; or The Whale literalizes the metaphor in a way that’s very pleasing. I hadn’t thought of it that way.
The introducer’s claim I personally like best is that ; or The Whale is avant-garde by being as rearguard as possible: in our present age, after the collapse of literary authority, rewriting or even rereading a nineteenth century classic—the classic American novel—is as radical as it gets.
SE: That reminds me of something William H. Gass once wrote about the avant-garde, “how backward-looking this forward-looking group of revolutionaries is.” I suppose that would be in accord with how a lot of postmodern fiction is looked at these days. In keeping with this theme, I’d like to ask if you see this as all part of something you wrote in n+1 (quoted in the intro to ;): “If we are indeed at the end, let us make our work a fitting coda to what came before us.”
DS: The n+1 piece was a response to an essay on post-apocalyptic novels, which is a whole nother discussion. But yes, I do see these as parts of the same thing. I’m a writer who looks backwards, as I put it in a manifesto I once wrote.
To get crackpot for a moment, I think the spirit of literature oscillates between vertical and horizontal: there were the Classical plains of Augustan literature and then Romantic heights and depths, realist and Victorian outward scope (horizontal again), Modernist archaeologies (vertical),* postmodern ingestion of popular and advertising-based language (horizontal), and now a new turn back to digging down, reaching back into the tradition, Zadie Smith rewriting Howard’s End as On Beauty or me reclaiming the five stories in my book. This new citationism, an effort to root oneself in the past, may look like postmodern collaging but I think it feels different.
SE: Is that reclamation only taking place in terms of substance—e.g. Zadie Smith reworking E.M. Forster—or is it also happening formally and stylistically? (I guess this is a subtle way of asking for your odds on realist fiction becoming the dominant mode again . . .)
DS: I can’t say I see it in those terms, with realist fiction in one camp and everything else in the other. I studied this in grad school—the “invention” of realist fiction, as we liked to put it—and that’s part of why I see realism as just one formal convention among others, no more or less real than whatever you’re opposing to it. For example, in realist fiction plausible and thoroughly described content is usually overlaid with extremely stylized plot structures: subplots that correspond to the main story, well-timed reveals, happy endings, etc. A first-person narrator telling his or her story out loud in real time, or a magic omniscient third-person with access to everyone’s mind, is as artificial as an epistolary novel or postmodern fragmentation or anything else. (I don’t mean “artificial” in a bad way, obviously. Every writer uses artifice, art!, to tell a “real” story.)
Empirically, I would guess that the vast majority of fiction books always have been and always will be straight-ahead storytelling. But those straight-ahead stories are constructed too, if they’re any good.
SE: Since we’re talking about labels, I might as well include Adam Gopnik’s, who in The New Yorker characterized Moby-Dick in Half the Time as a “realist psychological novel,” something that the full Moby-Dick obviously isn’t. What label would you apply to ; or The Whale?
DS: Gopnik also says Orion turned “a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book, [lacking the original's] flaccid, anxious self-consciousness,” so I guess that makes ; or The Whale an example of all-mad, flaccid hysteria. Gopnik calls the Orion book all Dick and no Moby, so ; must be all Moby, no Dick.
As I talked about in the Believer essay, the fragments in ; or The Whale strangely track the emotional arc of Moby-Dick as a whole, like watching a DVD of a movie (even a “realist psychological movie”) skip ahead on fast forward. In that sense, you could put ; or The Whale, at least the fragment chapters, with post–stream of consciousness novels of inwardness like the nouveau roman, Nathalie Sarraute, etc. In truth, though, I’d say the generic category is what I talked about earlier: chance-method poetry (another midcentury, second-generation-modernist genre).
SE: It sounds like the ½ text takes out all the things that make Moby-Dick contemporary. Is “Moby” then contemporaneity?
DS: If you say so! I want to come back to something you asked before, about whether I expect anyone to read ; or The Whale. Beneath or beside the gimmick of the book is a real issue, which I was hoping to generate a real conversation about: What is literary value? What is worth reading for, so if you’re going to abridge for what’s important, what do you keep? I was honestly setting out to see which demi-book would preserve more of what makes Melville Melville. And that’s a question the whole community of readers has to answer, not just me.
SE: Moby-Dick seems like an ideal book to perform this kind of an experiment with, since the bifurcation between the two modes is so pronounced. For instance, you mentioned earlier that you couldn’t get through the “Town-Ho’s Story” chapter, and I think your experience is common in that even self-consciously “good” readers find parts of this book extraneous, and much more so than in other classics.
DS: I agree—I was never tempted to reclaim the other half of Anna Karenina or Vanity Fair or the other Orion abridgments.
SE: In the end, do you think the most Melvillian thing about this book can be found in either of the two demi-texts—or is it instead inherent in the fact that someone decided to create such a schizoid work?
DS: The way I’d put it is that the most Melvillean thing about Moby-Dick is how close the feel of it is to the feel of ; or The Whale: he poured the excessive, encyclopedic, expendable—everything that gets cut from a taut, spare, driving narrative—into a book as a whole.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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