Monthly Archives: April 2006

April 16, 2006

Moby-Dick vocabulary, 7


Me reading (4:45).
UPDATE 5/06 – Links to reading intentionally broken.

3. A shaggy kind of woollen cloth used for overcoats.

mason, v.
2. trans. To build (something) in or into a wall. Obs.
I have not previously but am now going to start informing you whenever the present sentence from Moby-Dick is one of the several quotations cited by the OED. It is now.

Isle of Desolation
Well, “Isle of Desolation” is an old name for the largest of the Kerguelen Islands, in the south Indian ocean. But that’s obviously not what Melville means because he adds “off Patagonia.” A-ha! Google was thoroughly unhelpful with this, but I eventually dug it up: Isla Desolación (seen at center here) is on the coast of Chile and marks the western entrance to the Strait of Magellan. Almost never called by its English name these days, apparently.

1. a. ‘The fore-end of a ship or boat; being the rounding part of a vessel forward, beginning on both sides where the planks arch inwards, and terminating where they close, at the rabbet of the stem or prow, being larboard or starboard from that division’. Smyth Sailor’s Word-bk. Also in pl. ‘bows’, i.e. the ‘shoulders’ of a boat.
I put this here for the plural.

cave of Elephanta
An elaborate temple complex to Śiva/Shiva on an island near Mumbai/Bombay, carved out of solid rock and full of sculpture. Melville’s point? My guess is that he’s saying that the blessings of the Christian god are as inaccessible to these lost souls and their widows as the blessings of the Hindu god would be irrelevant (and is thereby putting in another little dig at the absurdity of Christianity when viewed on a global scale). But he might also be saying something about how remote and irrelevant a place the cave of Elephanta is, and that all places are the same to these dead because their bodies are nowhere. Or something. I’d appreciate any thoughts or input.

Goodwin Sands
In Kent, England, a stretch along the English Channel noted for being the location of hundreds of shipwrecks.

In what census of living creatures, the dead of mankind are included
I give up. In what census? He seems to be saying that they are included. If this is a riddle, I can’t solve it, and if it’s just simple, I can’t see it straight. Please explain this to me.
Having read the whole passage several times I’m now willing to venture that he might simply mean “In what sense, exactly, do we believe the dead are still alive? Because clearly we do believe something of the sort – listen to the following contradictions…” Which mostly makes sense, but it’s still a bit odd. Maybe I’m just letting the syntax worry me. Anyway, weigh in, readers.

so significant and infidel a word
Am I right in thinking he just means “dead”? It’s not that likely to be “prefix”ed to someone’s name, and he hasn’t actually used the word in its adjectival form yet, so I’m a bit confused.

3. concr. That which is forfeited; a pecuniary penalty, a fine. ? Obs.

death-forfeitures upon immortals
This puzzled me but now I’m pretty sure I get it – he’s saying “the church tells us that the soul is immortal and death is an illusion, but when it comes to the practical matter of getting life insurance to pay up, that seems to go out the window.” I.e. all of us are the supposed “immortals.” I think that’s right, especially given the rest of the passage. But tell me if you understand this differently.

stave, v.
2. trans. To break a hole in (a boat); to break to pieces; also, to break (a hole in a boat). to stave in, to crush inwards, make a hole in.
Somehow I missed this one when it first appeared back in the Excerpts.

brevet, n.
2. An official document granting certain privileges from a sovereign or government; spec. in the Army, a document conferring nominal rank on an officer, but giving no right to extra pay.
b. transf. and fig.

lee, n.
The sediment deposited in the containing vessel from wine and some other liquids.
2. pl. b. fig. Basest part, ‘dregs’, ‘refuse’.
This sentence is quoted in OED.

A general question to the audience, at this point, regarding my comprehension. I’m afraid I may have lost the gist of the argument. Our narrator first seems to comment wonderingly/skeptically on the oddity of believing that we are in some respect immortal and that Adam is still lying in some horrible paralysis, or on being scared of the dead, etc. – and says that religious faith feeds off of these “dead doubts” “like a jackal,” which sounds pretty disgusted to me. And yet then he’s saying, as though it’s his peculiarity, that he believes that the body is nothing compared to the soul, and that the soul is immortal. So his beef with the church is not about the immortal soul, as I had thought – he likes the idea of an immortal soul. Rather, he’s accusing mankind of thinking of death in terms that are too earthbound. And yet, then, why shouldn’t we wonder at knocking in a tomb, etc? I guess this is sort of a transcendentalist’s distinction: there is a soul and a spiritual “beyond” but they are natural phenomena, not establishments created by a man-like God or mediated by a man-made church. Fear of ghosts and promises of heaven are an oyster’s view of the afterlife, which is actually something far purer. Is that what he’s saying?

I imagine his thoughts on this subject will be restated as the book progresses (or will be made more clearly and intentionally complex – for now I just feel personally uncertain).

i &middot ii &middot 1 &middot 2 &middot 3 &middot 4 &middot 5 &middot 6

April 12, 2006

Moby-Dick vocabulary, 6


Me reading (4:41).

I tried to improve the comprehensibility of the reading this time by doing it slower and less pseudo-naturalistically, but on listening afterward I found that to be somehow gratingly inappropriate. The text, to me, has the quality of being a long, smirky ramble. With that slow, spacious, over-attentive approach, the flow and attitude of it seemed completely distorted. So then I did the version above, faster and more forcefully. This is still no good but it’s not as bad, either. I’m still not sure what the best solution is.

Part of the problem may simply be that I don’t have a good voice for this book. I have a prissy stuffed-nose-y back-of-the-throat sound a lot of the time, whereas this needs the opposite, a wide-open low voice with some grit in it. But a young one. William Hootkins (the guy who says “top men” to Indiana Jones), reading on the recent Naxos recording, is suitably cranky and confident, but has a nerdish pitch to his voice that seems wrong – I want someone a little more rough. Though I imagine I could get used to it. Hm – I see here that Hootkins died last fall, just after the recording came out. I don’t think I knew that until now.

UPDATE 5/06 – Links to reading intentionally broken. For all that.

nondescript, n.
1. Chiefly Biol. A species, genus, etc., that has not been previously described or identified. Also in extended use. Now rare in technical use.
2. b. A person or thing that is not easily described, or is of no particular class or kind.

Chestnut street
I don’t know – does he mean in Philadelphia or Boston? Or does he quite possibly mean in Salem, MA? The Norton edition of Moby-Dick apparently indicates that this is Philadelphia.

Regent Street
This is definitely London.

1. (Freq. with capital initial.) An East Indian sailor.

Apollo Green
Generally called Apollo Bunder: a wharf in Bombay (now Mumbai).

Water Street
In New York, I assume. Oop, Norton says Liverpool.

Area near the ports in London.

= Fijians, of course, from Fiji. We’ve already seen this one.

= Tongatapuans, from Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga.

= Erromangoans, from Erromango, a large island in Vanuatu. We’ve also seen this one before.

… I’m guessing this is people from Penang (occasionally “Panang”) in Malaysia, which would make some sense because of its colonial history. But I’m not completely sure – I can’t find any source confirming my speculative link to Melville’s alternate spelling.

I HAVE NO IDEA! I’ve pulled out every stop on the internet for this one and nothing. This is my first outright failure in this project and it NEEDS TO BE RESOLVED! Please, please help!

6. Of a coat: Having a pair of pointed or tapering skirts.

sou’-wester = south-wester, n.
2. a. A large oilskin or waterproof hat or cap worn by seamen to protect the head and neck during rough or wet weather.

bombazine = bombasine
2. A twilled or corded dress-material, composed of silk and worsted; sometimes also of cotton and worsted, or of worsted alone. In black the material is much used in mourning.
“Worsted,” by the way, which I never quite know how to imagine, is basically just wool yarn.

dog-days, n. pl.
1. The days about the time of the heliacal rising of the Dog-star; noted from ancient times as the hottest and most unwholesome period of the year. [… In current almanacs they are said to begin July 3 and end Aug. 11 (i.e. to be the 40 days preceding the cosmical rising of Sirius).]

2. a. Leather made from the skin of a buck; also from sheepskin prepared in a particular way.
5. A kind of strong twill cloth.

bespeak, v.
5. To speak for; to arrange for, engage beforehand; to ‘order’ (goods).

OED classes this under “bell” 11. General relations, c. similative and parasynthetic, where it appears along with “bell-lamp,” “bell-mouth,” “bell-shape,” and others – by all of which I take it to mean a button with a bell-like shape. But since pretty much all Google hits for “bell-button” refer to buttons that ring bells, I’m having a hard time placing this more precisely.

A strap passing beneath the instep and attached at each end to the bottom of the trouser-leg.
i.e. a strap around the bottom of the shoe.

howling, ppl. a.
2. Characterized by, or filled with, howling, as of wild beasts or of the wind; dreary.

I of course know the phrase “land flowing with milk and honey,” but the allusions here to oil and to streets running with milk or paved with eggs make me wonder whether I’m missing other allusions, or a greater depth to this one. Anybody? Also, why corn and wine? Is he saying that either of these is a local product? Are they now? Maybe the point is just that wealth buys these things? Or that in America (unlike Canaan) these are the things connote health and wealth? On rereading it seems in fact like he might be saying that Canaan is a land of those other things while New Bedford is only a land of oil. I really don’t know how to read this passage. Please advise.

1. The slag or dross remaining after the smelting out of a metal from its ore. Also transf.

Herr Alexander
Performing name of Alexander Heimbürger (1819-1909), German magician who performed in New York in the 1840s.

dower = dowry

portion, v.
2. To give a portion or dowry to; to dower, endow.

tapering upright cones
Here’s a picture of a horse-chestnut blossom, and the whole tree.

superinduce, v.
4. In physical sense: To bring, draw, deposit, etc. over or upon a thing as a covering or addition.

carnation, n.
1. a. The colour of human ‘flesh’ or skin; flesh-colour (obs.); b. a light rosy pink, but sometimes used for a deeper crimson colour as in the carnation flower.

sunlight in the seventh heavens
I’m trying to figure out here, as before, what Melville’s source for the whole “seventh heaven” concept was – the idea is common to mysticism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as appearing, depending on how you’re counting, in Dante. I can’t find “perennial sunlight” specifically named as a feature of the seventh heaven of any of these models, but it makes sense that there would be a lot of light up there, doesn’t it.

i &middot ii &middot 1 &middot 2 &middot 3 &middot 4 &middot 5

April 10, 2006

Falling Asleep

Twice in the past week I’ve experienced the same sense of having a basic insight while in the process of falling asleep. Of course, thoughts that form while the brain is in that transitional state are difficult to communicate under the harsh glare of our ridiculously high waking-life standards for “making sense” and “meaning anything.” But the particular sleepy thought that I had twice this week is actually about thought, and about sleepy thought in particular – and I’ve been able to remember it, unlike most of the brilliant thoughts I have in the middle of the night and then lose forever. So here it is, dressed up as though it’s a poetic thought rather than a sleepy one.

When we’re falling asleep, our thoughts do not necessarily become more muddled or less intelligent, they merely break down into their constituent parts; these molecules of thought become less sticky and float by one another detachedly, combining, if at all, into only the simplest structures. This is a limitation on the sophistication of thought, but it also offers a certain clarity. One thinks of things only insofar as they can be perceived as conceptual atoms, like the indivisible objects on flash cards: rope, apple, ladder, house. The image I had was of a configuration of overlapping straight lines that approximated a curve. In waking thought we think in terms of the illusory curve, but in that crippled state of half-sleep, the mind can see only the straight lines. The curve is metaphor and implication; the curve is the world of half-truth that we live in, and falling asleep I felt wonderfully free of it.

You might well point out that my mind was using a visual metaphor in the course of praising itself for having freed itself of metaphor. Actually, it’s unlikely that you’ll point that out because I doubt that anyone has any idea what I’m talking about here. But no matter; I just wanted to record this while I was still able to recall any of it.

There were much larger implications to the thought, at the time, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to recover them very well. I think – can surmise – that the rest had to do with seeing life for what it is, without trepidation… facing human mortality and insignificance with clarity, freed of the imaginary, implied curves that seem to make them unbearable by day.

My waking-self commentary on all this is that I recognize it as being typically googly falling-asleep thought and, nonetheless, also not untrue. I am moved and grateful to think that there is any moment in my life, waking or otherwise, where I am capable of feeling that I have thought my way into a geometric clarity that dispels the fear of death. You’d be hard pressed to prove that I was “wrong,” after all, so why not?

Also, in a more earthbound connection, I stand by the general observation about the detached/crystallized nature of thought while falling asleep. I have noticed on many occasions that I perceive and parse music with greater clarity and fluency when I am falling asleep, and Beth recently reported the same experience. It’s as though my mind, having given up the task of investigating implications, is freed to devote itself entirely to manipulating the surface of what it hears; I feel particularly ready to grab on to, say, a melody, and recognize and enjoy it as itself. My intuition tells me that this has something to do how my brain is allocating the resources of its linguistic component. I vaguely remember reading some science article long ago about how the sophistication of human visual processing somehow evolved from a part of the brain that originally served a language-related function. Maybe I have that completely backward or maybe I invented it. Anyway, the idea that our visual thought is somehow quasi-linguistic has an intuitive appeal to me, and this feels like a related phenomenon – like the language unit has been given free rein with all the thoughts; or maybe the opposite, that the language unit has shut down and the thoughts are let loose to be themselves. Though, regarding the experience with music, it definitely feels like my brain is reading the music like language and deriving the same sort of immediacy of meaning from it.

Anyway, I thought it would be a nice gift to my falling-asleep brain, who is in some ways a slightly different person from me, to post his thoughts on the internet and thus give him a sort of foothold in the real world. Although he would probably take issue with the patronizing implication that his world isn’t the real world.

But for better or for worse, I get all the mail. This argument seems pretty solid to me. I’ll check in with him and let you know if he has a rebuttal.

Have I just typed something absolutely incoherent? I have the strange snaky sense that I have finally gone and blown my nose all over the internet. But I guess that’s the sort of looseness I’ve been working toward all along here. I feel remarkably disengaged from any kind of shame about this, which is exciting in its way. The question is: in the absence of shame, what will motivate quality-control? I think that I (and others) tend to feel rather invested in vigilant shame as a crucial element of personal upkeep. In my case I’ve finally come around to accepting that it’s more of a hindrance than an asset, but if I’m to become shameless, is there no way to avoid becoming shameless? One wants to establish a mechanism for self-improvement independent of shame. Harder than it sounds. Maybe some shame is a necessity. But, if I’ve really managed to erase it, it’s entirely unobvious where to redraw that line.

The title of this entry, if you hadn’t noticed, has a double meaning. Possibly a triple meaning.

April 9, 2006

One more from Sibley

After those first two days of trying to play and post everything that the Sibley library scanned, they really let loose with a whole week’s worth of heavy posting – piano concerti, sonatas, heavy, time-consuming stuff. And I had other stuff to do. So forget that.

But I did end up making one more midi, and so I’m posting it. It’s a full-fledged piano quintet! Of course, I had to start and stop to play the various instruments, and to get things to line up, and to play this nasty, Brahmsian piano part, but don’t let all that fool you – this is still a devil-may-care mistake-ridden rough-through of a piece that I didn’t know. You’ll notice that my tempi are often significantly too fast the first time through a section. On the repeats I usually learn my lesson.

Obviously, all that (plus the fact that midi violins invariably sound absolutely godawful) doesn’t exactly make for much listening satisfaction, but in this case, more than with the previous entries, I actually think these files are legitimately interesting. This is an extremely rare score, never reprinted, of a piece that seems never to have been recorded and, for all I know, has not been performed for 100 years, by a fairly forgotten composer whom I had never heard of before Sibley started scanning his chamber music. And it’s a pretty damn good piece! I certainly got a kick out of it.

Paul Juon (1872-1940)
Quintett für Violine, 2 Bratschen, Violoncello und Klavier, Op.33 (1906)

I. Moderato quasi andante (14:29) &middot II. Molto adagio (6:42) &middot III. Quasi Valse (6:54) &middot IV. Allegro non troppo (6:59)

The piece is one of those sturdy, vigorous Late Romantic sonata-form affairs, and this sort of conservative craftsmanship always pleases me when it’s well-executed. The piece reminds me a great deal of Medtner – one of my favorites – not only in its “Russian Brahms” forms and textures, but also just in its unpretentious conviction; you get the sense that Juon knows exactly what he wants to do and how to do it. It’s the opposite of the Rebikov from the other day, which was more invention than art; there’s no experimentation here, even when the chromatic coloring becomes more “advanced.” Juon is in command of his technique and is working within it.

At some point in the past several years, I realized how much more satisfying I find art made this way – as craftsmanship and taste exercised within standard boundaries. Exploration and innovation is an important part of art, too. But art that accepts a set of terms because they offer promising potential rather than because they are interesting in themselves, and then doesn’t question them – basically, “old-fashioned” art – always leaves me feeling like I’ve encountered something done right, and I genuinely miss that feeling with art that tries to blur or erase the idea of “right,” no matter how intriguing it may manage to be. This is a much much more complicated issue, waiting for the day when I finally talk about the wildly heartfelt anti-modern manifesto I picked up in a bookstore last year, written in the 20s by an aging sculptor of kitschy Romantic monuments, bemoaning the confused mess of pretension and perversity that has killed off the natural meaning of “art.” The upsetting thing is that I think he has a point.

Anyway, there are lots of conservative pieces from the turn of the century in a similar style, but where most of them bore me, this one pleased me because it has flair and drama and a smart, sympathetic sense of what’s interesting. That right there puts it above and beyond your average forgettable Romantic-era chamber work. There’s something broad and clear-headed about the grand Romantic gestures here that puts me in mind of theater or movie music, in a good way, such that even when it’s dripping with dated sentiment, I’m happy to luxuriate in the wholesome old-fashionedness – like watching a charming black-and-white movie; somehow I’m able to genuinely enjoy the content and savor the datedness at the same time.

The first movement has a (to me) thrillingly shameless dark main theme and the whole structure plays out with satisfying strictness. It’s “motivically unified” by that descending 6-note figure, which is a scheme just simple enough to be actually audible. The second movement manages to be both nostalgic-sentimental in a sepia-tinted way and, also, truly unpredictable and odd in its harmonic choices; the overall emotional atmosphere is not what it seems at first. The third movement is a comic waltz-parody thing, with a truly unexpected trio that sounds like it might be a Russian work song. It should maybe all be slower than I played it. The effect is strangely, mysteriously dark, in that indirect “literary” way that I associate with Mahler. The fourth movement is supposed to be one of those energetic folk-tune finales but it gets completely distracted by an outlandishly lavish “love theme” that proceeds to writhe around chromatically in a 1906-ish way. This is my least favorite movement, but by this point I’ve been won over, and the coda makes amends by acknowledging the best parts of the previous movements.

The whole thing has that lovely effect that good classical music can have, of implying vaguely that there is a secret emotional life veiled behind the surface. This is to say that the overall implication of the piece is, to me, darker and more thoughtful than anything that actually happens in it. I think that’s just what good craftsmanship earns you. So maybe the piece isn’t actually the most edifying or brilliant thing out there; so maybe Brahms is more humane and profound, and maybe Medtner’s very similar works are more ambitious and tighter-built. But: it’s all so satisfying and respectable and professional! The existence of music like this, forgotten, unexceptional and also good and well-made, reminds me how high our standards, as audience, ought to be.

I also think this German construction / Russian materials thing just works particularly well for me. Does anyone have any other comparable composers to recommend?