Heller, Vonnegut, Melville, Twain, Maugham, and Guy de Maupassant

On 17 October 2020, Eric Andrew Gebert wrote:

“Born on this day, 1915, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller (1915-2005). Now might be the right time to re-read ‘The Crucible’ (1953). I’ve always preferred ‘Death Of A Salesman’ (1949). Although, anything written by Miller is a gem.

‘“Don’t be seduced into thinking that that which does not make a profit is without value.” — Arthur Miller’

Eric’s comments prompted the following exchange:

MG,Jr.:
If you read the first few chapters of “Closing Time” (1994), the not-great sequel to “Catch-22” (1961), by Joseph Heller (1932-1999), you are given a very clear and fulsome view of the neighborhood and cultural environment – Jewish Coney Island – from which Arthur Miller and Joseph Heller came. While “Closing Time” is not great, it is nevertheless a tale imbued with “New Yorkness” particularly of the City, and it beats most of the twaddle published as novels and even “literature” today. It came out in the ’90s; Heller died in 1999. And agreed, Miller was a superb author-playwright.

Eric Andrew Gebert:
I’ve never read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I’ve read so many articles about the book and author, yet never read the book. It’s on my list for sure.

My own thoughts prompted by the above:

I read “Catch-22” and “Slaughterhouse Five” in 1968-1969, while I was listed as 1A for the draft (Vietnam War) during my first year in college. I consider both masterpieces of 20th century American literature, and both were written by anti-war WWII veterans who had seen plenty of action – and death – during the mid 1940s (in Italy and Germany, respectively).

It is my opinion that these two books are absolutely essential reading for any American alive then and now, if they really want to gain some insight into fundamental aspects of American culture, and the collective psyche of Americans. If one also wants to get “historical” and can accept immersing themselves in the “literary,” then it is essential they include “Huckleberry Finn” and “Moby-Dick” to that reading list.

There are many comedic elements in both “Catch-22” and “Slaughterhouse Five” (1969), but both books are very clearly deadly serious. With Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s (1922-2007) book (Slaughterhouse Five), the more you think about it, the deeper is your realization of the underlying tragedy; with Heller’s book, comedy carries you to a finale that requires a strong stomach and deep commitment to finish reading, and in this way leads you to the tragic realization equivalent to that which Vonnegut so subtly (well, playfully) presents.

Only AFTER you have read C-22 and SH-5 should you allow yourself to see the movies made of them. The only good movie of C-22 (a recent TV series has also been made, at best a C-) is the excellent 1970 Mike Nichols (1931-2014) film (Catch-22), with a screenplay written by Buck Henry (1930-2020). Parts of that screenplay were so good that Heller said he wished he’d thought of them to put in his novel.

This film is very faithful (but not exact) to Heller’s plot (simplification being necessary since Heller had many, many characters, and a great deal of non-chronological density), and is entirely faithful to Heller’s arc of comedy-to-anguishing reality (with a sparkle at the end of the film to give you hope). Milo Minderbinder, a character in C-22 (and Closing Time), is the absolute quintessential personification of American capitalism, an excruciatingly apt portrayal in both the book and movie.

The only film worth seeing (AFTER you read the novel!) of SH-5 is the 1972 George Roy Hill (1921-2002) movie (Slaughterhouse Five). In that movie the character of Valencia Merble is the quintessential portrayal of the White suburban American mom, not quite a Karen, but a simple self-absorbed but not selfish Americana (a chaste but not fundamentalist version of Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif”); this perfection of depiction being in both the book and movie.

Believe me, those two books of the 1960s, and the two films made of them in the early 1970s cannot be remade today to equal standards of art and psychological insight: “we” are too hung-up on our “modern” (self-delusional) ‘wokeness.’ Here is art that is a mirror of a ‘national soul’ that we generally don’t wish to see in complete clarity. These works are both of their time, and timeless.

Every work of art has its roots in earlier works by earlier artists, and in conceptions from earlier times. One can, with imagination, follow this trail of sequential inspiration all the way back to the 5th Century (BCE) Greeks; and with even more imagination back to the cave paintings at Lascaux (~17,000 years ago) and Altamira (~36,000 years ago). Even though I do not know the history of Heller’s and Vonnegut’s literary inspirations, to my mind these two authors were the 1960s flowering of roots that grew from Herman Melville (1819-1891), Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910), and Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893).

Melville had a keen and pessimistic insight into the American soul, and a wicked wit, which can be hard for today’s casual readers to untangle from his convoluted and fascinating antique New England prose. I can see Heller’s Milo Minderbinder as a youthfully handsome comic inversion of Captain Ahab (the terrible protagonist of Moby-Dick): both are monomaniacal obsessive-compulsives. Both were avidly mercantile individuals, to devote themselves so fully to their risky commercial ventures. For Milo it was all about money to gain power to make more money (in a vicious circle), while for Ahab it was all about money (his gold Doubloon, and command of his ship’s resources like the breaking out of rum) to gain the mesmerizing power over his men’s hearts and souls to bind them tightly to his obsession for vengeance against the very forces of Nature incarnated as the white whale, Moby-Dick.

Mark Twain, that other supreme giant of American literature (I vacillate between seeing Melville then Twain as the greatest of all American authors, but that is a worthless exercise really: together, they are the sourcepoint of all essentially American literature), was both a comedic genius and a deeply serious writer with a very great compassion for the human condition; and his enlightened outlook on people was far in advance of American norms — to this day!

Kurt Vonnegut was deeply influenced by Twain, he said as much in his introduction to a television movie (shown on PBS) of Twain’s “Life On The Mississippi,” and it is so easy to see many parallels between Twain’s seemingly naïve witticisms and Vonnegut’s seemingly childlike playfulness in prose. And both had very serious matters about America’s dark soul to present back to its people, under the cover of sweet sunny confections of comic storytelling — up to a point.

Guy de Maupassant was a supreme master of naturalness in the telling of short stories, with an economy of style that made his penetrating insight into the psychology of his characters — the people of his day, and ours — transparent. His words speedily take you to the heart of the matter without obscuring it by any pretentiousness, insights and matters that were: comic, tragic, banal, horrible, lovely, socially withering, and of human avarice, corruption, credulity, deceitfulness, and simple nobility.

Like Heller and Vonnegut, de Maupassant mined his wartime experiences as a French solider during the disastrous for France Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Guy de Maupassant’s story “Two Friends,” about the hazards two Frenchmen buddies find themselves facing when they are captured by the Prussians during a surreptitious fishing excursion along a river behind enemy lines, has all the absurdist qualities Vonnegut put into the narrative thread on his avuncular character Edgar Derby, the mentor of Billy Pilgrim (the protagonist of Slaughterhouse Five) while both were prisoners of the Germans in WWII Dresden.

Even more grim a tale about the utterly absurd waste of human life, human innocence, and the permanent loss of happiness because of war, was de Maupassant’s “Mother Savage,” a story about one old French peasant woman’s iron will to wage her personal war against the Prussians, and by extension against all the social forces and higher classes and their attitudes, which had combined to bring that disastrous 1870 war right into her little cottage far out in the country. Where Edgar Derby was an endearingly blithe overgrown lamb oblivious to the hellscape of firebombed Dresden, Victoire Simon (Mother Savage) was an implacable wolverine propelled by grief capping a long hard meager life of scratching the land.

Two de Maupassant stories of desperate personal actions taken by ordinary French civilians against the Prussians, because they just exploded with rage against being bullied, are “Mademoiselle Fifi,” about the stabbing killing of a Prussian officer by Rachel, a Jewess prostitute who successfully evaded capture by being hidden by the parish priest; and “A Duel,” a similar story about a nebbish little man whose sudden rage fills him with power sufficient to kill a Prussian officer in a duel, his first ever, and for the Prussian his last of many. But I did not see any parallel incidents to these de Maupassant stories in either “Catch-22” or “Slaughterhouse Five,” despite their extensive periods in wartime settings.

Heller’s portrayal of the whorehouse in Rome frequented by Yossarian (the protagonist of Catch-22) and his buddies has many echoes of de Maupassant’s story “Madam Tellier’s Establishment,” of simple souls with simple dreams mixed with desperate longings and simple pleasures. Guy de Maupassant wrote many stories involving carnal affairs, licit and illicit, with a keen eye to human foibles and hypocrisy, and a sophisticated savoir faire combined with a very deep compassion to the human condition, so like Mark Twain’s.

Much of the anguish and histrionics of English and American marital-sexual-relationship dramas is refreshingly absent in de Maupassant’s stories because of his honest clear-sighted presentation of the situational and psychological facts. The hypocritical Victorian prudery of the English and the Americans is absent from de Maupassant and many of his characters, who are after all drawn from real life as de Maupassant saw it. That naturalness, pioneered by Gustave Flaubert (among others), de Maupassant’s mentor and teacher of literary art, is at the heart of Heller’s verve in “Catch-22.”

The direct root from Guy de Maupassant that grew out into English literature was W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), another great short story writer, as well as playwright, novelist and essayist. The keenest insights about women that I have seen in literature are by Guy de Maupassant and W. Somerset Maugham. Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) has some as well (particularly in “Tender Is The Night,” 1934), but he was often much more lyrical and because of that honeyed radiance thus more vague.

Guy de Maupassant by contrast offered gems of clarity (not necessarily desired by society at large) cut with such precision as to bring out the sparkle of insights that pierced through the fog of all illusions. This deemed de Maupassant smutty and immoral to many socially correct readers (especially English and American ones) up to the present day.

My favorite novel of Maugham’s is “The Moon and Sixpence” (1919), a novelization of the life of the French Impressionist painter (and pal of Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890) Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), told as the story of Charles Strickland, a fictional English equivalent to Gauguin. Maugham’s “The Moon and Sixpence” is an epigrammatic novel worthy of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and Maugham’s acknowledged inspiration: Guy de Maupassant.

Guy de Maupassant has written the best and most detailed descriptions of eating, food, cuisine and dining that I have ever read; he has done what Flaubert had taught him: to let you smell the aromas and taste the flavors just from reading the worlds. His touching yet earthy matter-of-fact slice-of-life story, “Idyll,” is echoed by John Steinbeck (1902-1968) as the grand and incandescent metaphor at the end of his “Grapes of Wrath” (1939), for the desperate and self-sacrificing human compassion and solidarity during a time of economic catastrophe that some of its victims could find to bring out of their own destitution and grief, to generously give others the milk of human kindness.

How fortunate I am to be able to read so many wonderful books. The overall lesson they have given me is simply to see with greater appreciation the intrinsic beauty of life despite the many hardships and random tragedies it also entails.

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Moon Gliding Over a Time of Stillness

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Moon Gliding Over a Time of Stillness

The Moon rose large over the forested far slope of the canyon, shining its cool reflected effulgence from a pastel blue evening sky down through faint high wisps of nebulous mist and into the otherwise invisible water vapor filling the air to glow with a plush soft burnished halo around that majestically floating orb of crisp ghostly luminosity bringing to sharp silhouettes the forms of branches and leaves interposed between us, as an expansive polyphony of sparkling birdsong gradually diminished toward silence as pools of darkness swelled to merge into a night stillness cored by a tunnel of clarity between that Moon’s silvery pockmarked hemispherical surface in vivid sharp relief, and and my enchanted eyes.

The myriad meshed wheels of the unimaginably vast machinery of the Heavens and of the Earth, from the astronomical to the subatomic, continue their many cycles indifferent to the stoppage of humanity’s wheels of thoughtless contention, what we call civilization, now brought up short by the collision of all our ambitions into the stark terror of an erupting plague, a pandemic of an uncontrolled, evasive and pervasive deadly virus. Many of us hide from each other hoping to avoid chance and fatal infection, and waiting fearfully hoping for the conjuring of a magical medical salvation soon, it can never be too soon. Others hide from reality burrowed into their shaky fantasies of imperviousness and longings for illusions of self-importance, angrily protesting their mandated self-incarceration from a now shattered and scattered society, an anger that is really the roiling surface of the deeply suppressed realization of being inconsequential and superfluous. And then there are those who walk through the undefined extent of the valley of death each day: to battle the virus, attend to the sick, bury the dead; or forced by the needs of their own survival to labor blindly through the pervading pestilence; or moved by a higher calling sacrificing themselves to be of service to others.

For some it is a time of being terribly tested and of exhibiting great nobility, for others of being cravenly malicious parasites taking advantage of a prostrate humanity. It is a time when the contours of authentic merit and of the foulest degradation within the usually amorphous mass of humanity are brought into the sharpest contrast by the glaring light of pandemic circumstances. It is a time when the best hold solidarity with all and affirm life, without denying and being disheartened by the indeterminate inevitability of death. It is a time to savor the great and mysterious gift of life, of consciousness along a stream of time; but in truth it was always that time, now only sparked into many minds by the viral invasion of our human meshwork of flesh, blood and behavior.

How should I conduct the uncertain continuation of my survival? In what form will humanity emerge from this winnowing, and when if ever? I suspect this pandemic is but a skirmish in a much larger and longer war against the unrelenting forces of overstimulated entropy, evolution and extinction. Human consciousness is an evanescent field of scintillating glints flashing off the rippling surface of the deep black night of nonexistence towards which our human world of tragic innocence, of blithe self-absorption and of damning hubris, inexorably drifts.

Millennialist dreamers, both romantically religious and technologically ideological, envision humanity’s future to be a unanimous transformation of attitudes and behaviors that coalesce as a new self-perpetuating good life of affluent coexistence, a hoped-for transformation of our civilization prompted by the finally awakened realization of its self-caused catastrophe of increasing inhospitability to our form of life, as well as to that of many other organisms, by this Planet Earth.

I would wholeheartedly welcome such a transformation, but I suspect such a desirable outburst of human behavioral evolution as the endpoint of our old paradigm inflecting into the gateway to an imaginary new utopia, will never occur. I expect the actual finish of our human world will be, metaphorically, as the ending of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: The brute force of Nature stoves in our obsessive, exploitative, narcissistic, predatory collective boat and it plunges to oblivion, with Tashtego — the “native” worker whose life was a struggle for survival against extinction, by being carried along as an underling in the Great White Conquest of the Living, to Gain Wealth — climbing the sinking mainmast in a vain attempt to evade engulfment, and finally — as the last gesture possible from the Earth-connected people of his kind — nailing the American Sea Eagle bannering master-race illusions to the mast-top, so it too would vanish with those it had entranced, and those enslaved to that entrancement, to their self-imposed and necessarily collective doom.

But why give oneself over to such thoughts, even if ultimately true? One’s life will have its extent, and between its dawn and dusk spans a spectrum of opportunities to apply one’s energy and talents to the creation of beauty, dignity, truth, healing, and noble connection, all independent of fate’s hazards and happenstances. It is from each individual’s weaving of all these efforts that whatever fulfillment is possible for them will be found. And the commitment to this attitude forms the center of gravity, the stillpoint of a calmed awakened mind, of a life of balanced openness and worthy purpose though immersed in the endless uncertainties, luckless cruelties, and constant flux of unfolding existence.

The Moon has arced far across my night thoughts, dispelling my illusions of judgement and knowledge while infusing me with a wordless sense of acceptance, of trust, in just being. In this I may have finally achieved after seven decades the intrinsic wisdom of my self-assured night-ranging cats, of my feisty day-flitting hummingbirds, and of all the lovely Sun-soaked non-human life I will see and hear all along my wooded canyon when day comes. Life continues by being, not wanting. It is only our wanting that is extinguishing itself in the flood of its own excesses, and there is no necessity that we extinguish ourselves by only being our self-absorbed wanting.

A White-throated Swift twitters at the first blush of eastern light, rippling the once glassy surface of the evening silence as the cool ghostliness of moonglow fades into the dusky shadowless twilight before dawn, and a Chestnut-backed Chickadee then lilts its pulsating greeting to the day seeping up from the horizon into the sky. Goodnight Moon.

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Happy 200th, Herman!

Herman Melville, 1870

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Happy 200th, Herman!

The first of August 2019 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick or, the Whale (1851), as well as numerous other novels, short stories and much poetry.

Because of the depth of his thought as well as the range of his invention, Herman Melville (1 August 1819 – 28 September 1891) remains America’s greatest writer of literary fiction, and also one of its superior poets. I consider Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910) the quintessential American novelist because his masterwork, the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), is such an exquisite encapsulation of anti-slavery and anti-bigotry moral principle within a widely popular coming-of-age boy’s adventure story. But Melville is America’s deepest literary artist, his novels are metaphors for long-running threads of reality entwined as the American experience.

While Mark Twain’s facile humor and droll prose made him very popular with his 19th century audiences — both through publications and with live appearances — Herman Melville remained largely neglected during the last forty years of his life, by a reading public that was alienated by the complexity of his art. That complexity resulted from the combination of his literary sophistication, strongly influenced by the poetic language and moral insights of both William Shakespeare and the King James Bible; his personal philosophical thought as the fundamental source for his writing; his morally enlightened (non-racist) attitude about the world’s people; and the wit of his continuing critique, embedded in his fiction, of Americans’ myopic for-profit utilitarianism and obsessive hucksterism and con-artistry, which continues to this very day.

Herman Melville, 1860

I am no amateur scholar of Herman Melville and his literature, nor do I pretend to be. I am just one of millions of readers who since 1851 have been entranced by Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick. I have read this book at least three times since 1961. With each reading I was older, more experienced, and was able to gain more insight about and appreciation for the literary use of the American language, and 19th America, out of the richness of Melville’s prose. I used the image of Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal and fatal obsession to hunt down and kill the white whale Moby Dick, in a recent article of my own, as a metaphor for humanity’s current obsession to continue racing with its self-destructive fossil-fueled capitalism, which is the profligate source of greenhouse gas emissions causing anthropogenic global warming climate change.

Many readers today would find Melville prolix, abstruse, convoluted, and with a confounding multifarious vocabulary. This obviates Melville’s work from achieving instant contemporary mass pop-appeal. However, that prolixity, abstruseness, convolution and wide-spectrum vocabulary we grumble about now could reflect the devolution of Americans’ thought processes and language from a measured 19th century pacing of consideration to a hurried jittery 21st century attention-deficit superficiality: the shorn American language of today, our no-brainer “New Speak.”

Herman Melville, 1861

Herman Melville gained popular success as an author with his initial novel Typee (1846), a romantic account of his experiences of Polynesian life, gathered during his time as a whaler and seaman in the South Pacific between early 1841 and late 1844. Typee was followed by a sequel, Omoo (1847), which was also successful and paid him enough to marry and start a family. His first novel not based on his own experiences, Mardi (1849), was not well received. His next fictional work, Redburn (1849), and his non-fiction White-Jacket (1850) were given better reviews but did not provide financial security. (1)

Moby-Dick (1851), although now considered one of the great American novels, was not well received among contemporary critics. His psychological novel, Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852) was also scorned by reviewers. From 1853 to 1856, Melville published short fiction in magazines which were collected in 1856 as The Piazza Tales. In 1857, he traveled to England and then toured the Near East. The Confidence-Man (1857) was the last prose work that he published. He moved to New York to take a position as Customs Inspector and turned to poetry. Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) was his poetic reflection on the moral questions of the American Civil War. (1)

In 1867, his oldest child Malcolm died at home from a self-inflicted gunshot. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land was published in 1876, a metaphysical epic. In 1886, his son Stanwix died of apparent tuberculosis, and Melville retired. During his last years, he privately published two volumes of poetry, left one volume unpublished, and returned to prose of the sea. The novella Billy Budd was left unfinished at his death but was published posthumously in 1924. Melville died from cardiovascular disease in 1891. The 1919 centennial of his birth became the starting point of the “Melville Revival” with critics rediscovering his work and his major novels starting to become recognized as world classics of prominent importance to contemporary world literature. (1)

Most of Melville’s works can now be found on-line. (2)

Herman Melville, 1868

A most interesting and knowledgable commentator on Herman Melville’s works is Louis Proyect, both because of his familiarity with Melville’s texts, and because of his discussions of how Melville’s themes are critically reflected in the social contexts of both the 19th century and today, and of how Melville’s anti-racist attitudes contrasted favorably with the “utilitarian” consensus of his times, and even ours. (3), (4), (5).

To end this commemoration of Herman Melville and his literature, on the occasion of his 200th birthday, I borrow the following paragraphs from Louis Proyect (3). Mark well what ye read here, for we need slake our forgetfulness and remember this conviction today.

Melville’s Redburn is one of his lesser-known books, but it comes as close to a conscious expression of the world we are trying to build as will be found in all of his works. He writes:

There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled that, in a noble breast, would forever extinguish the prejudices of national dislikes. Settled by the people of all nations, all nations may claim her for their own. You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. . .Our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world. . .Our ancestry is lost in the universal pageantry; and Caesar and Alfred, St. Paul and Luther, and Homer and Shakespeare are as much ours as Washington, who is as much the world’s as our own. We are the heirs of all time, and with all nations we divide our inheritance. On this Western Hemisphere all tribes and peoples are forming into one federated whole; and there is a future which shall see the estranged children of Adam restored as to the old hearthstone in Eden.

Herman Melville, 1885

Notes

(1) Herman Melville
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herman_Melville

All images of Herman Melville here are from Wikipedia.

(2) The Life and Works of Herman Melville
http://www.melville.org/

(3) Deconstructing cannibalism
5 January 2016
https://louisproyect.org/2016/01/05/deconstructing-cannibalism/

includes Louis Proyect’s articles:

Shakespeare’s Tempest and the American Indian
6 December 1998

Herman Melville’s Typee: a Peep at Polynesian Life
18 October 2004

(4) The Confidence Man
23 December 2013
https://louisproyect.org/2013/12/23/the-confidence-man/

(5) Herman Melville and indigenous peoples
16 February 2008
https://louisproyect.org/2008/02/16/herman-melville-and-indigenous-peoples/

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