Monday, March 21, 2016

CALL ME ISHMAEL by Charles Olson

If Cormac McCarthy were to write a critical study of Moby Dick, it would probably look something like Call Me Ishmael. American poet Charles Olson's nearly 100-page meditation on the Dick (written in the late 1940s and available today in the volume of Olson's Collected Prose published by University of California Press in 1997) is more than a work of textual interpretation written in an exemplarily muscular prose--although it's that too. Olson's book, like its obvious precursor, D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature, uses the literary text as pretext for a deeper exploration of the darker-than-dark American Insane. After a brief but harrowing, shockingly deadpan account of suffering and cannibalism among the survivors of the sunken whaleship Essex (a sinking that inspired Melville), Olson begins his commentary proper with a first sentence that deserves to be almost as famous as the one he borrows for his title: "I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy." A few sentences later he marries Melville's treacherous Pacific to the crazy weather and maddening geography of these Whitmanic states:

...a harshness we still perpetuate, a sun like a tomahawk, small earthquakes but big tornadoes and hurrikans, a river north and south in the middle of the land running out the blood.
      The fulcrum of America is the plains, half sea half land, a high sun as metal and obdurate as the iron horizon, and a man's job to square the circle.

      Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. As I see it Poe dug in and Melville mounted. They are the alternatives.

All this on the first page--and it's not even a full page of text. Later, about halfway through the work, the author interpolates a single paragraph gruesomely describing the 1824 murders aboard the whaleship Globe, a now-forgotten crime (a minor American mass murder) that again shines a blinding light upon the murky nightmare world of American history--a nightmare from which we, like Stephen Dedalus, are still struggling to awake. As in Lawrence's book, Olson's most powerful insights are suggestive and poetically compressed rather than rhetorically expounded. (Olson's above evocation of the High Plains, for example, has more in  common with Wallace Stevens' vision of "The American Sublime" as "The empty spirit / In vacant space" than with anything published in Critical Inquiry.) Call Me Ishmael might best be understood as a prose poem on themes from the Dick, a work of criticism that is also something criticism almost never is, a work of art. Seek out Olson's little book. Rescue it from obscurity. You won't forget it.

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