Archive for 2008

Morning Read:

Thursday, December 18th, 2008


¶ In “The Spirit-Spout,” the Pequod traverses the calm South Atlantic, where a ghostly silver spout, “like some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea,” teases the crew with the promise of prey, and passes the “Cape Tormentoso,” as Melville would rename the Cape of Good Hope. The chapter is a small masterpiece of uneasy beauty, notable for its varied impressions of unearthly quiet.

Close to our bows, strange forms in the water darted hither and thither before us; while thick in our rear flew the inscrutable sea-ravens. And every morning, perched on our stays, rows of these birds were seen; and in spite of our hootings, for a long time obstinately clung to the hemp, as htough they deemed our ship some drifting, uninhabited craft: a thing appointed to desolation, and therefore fit roosting-place for their homeless selves. And heaved and heaved, still unrestingly heaved the black sea, as if its vast tides were a conscience; and the great mundane soul were in anguish and remorse for the long sin and suffering it had bred.

The hootings are silenced by their ineffectiveness.

Melville wraps all of this up with a picture, for once more grave than off-putting, of Ahab alone in his cabin, “the rain and half-melted sleet of the storm from which he had some time before emerged, still slowly dripping from the unremoved hat and coat.”

¶ Don Quixote discourses lovingly on the horrors of war, his anger spurred only by that most unchivalrous invention, artillery. It was modern artillery, of course, that put the old aristocratic cavalry out of business, setting its horsemen free to dream about the glories of hand-to-hand combat in the very romances that would drive our hero mad.

I grew up hearing the word “cavalry” as a synomym for the American military forces that subdued Native Americans in the old West. It had not occurred to me before today that the revival of medieval warfare made perfect sense when confronted by a Neolithic enemy.

In the Book Review:
The 10 Best Books of 2008

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008


The Times’s choice of the year’s ten best books has already been discussed (in Matins).

While I think I see what Ed Champion means about a different tone in this week’s Book Review, I can’t agree that the issue is all that it could be. Non-walker DT Max’s review of Geoff Nicholson’s book about walking still has me hiccuping.

Daily Office:

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008


Matins: In this time of PETA and no-foie-gras, George lawmakers want to make it easier to secure a death penalty. Save the animals, kill the people: is that the American Way? It does seem so. You could polish up an argument that the nation’s early settlers underwent the harrowing ordeal of crossing the Atlantic because they were pathological misanthropes.

Tierce: Comparing China’s economy to ours, this morning, Tom Friedman reminds us to be careful about what we ask for:

But while capitalism has saved China, the end of communism seems to have slightly unhinged America. We lost our two biggest ideological competitors — Beijing and Moscow. Everyone needs a competitor. It keeps you disciplined. But once American capitalism no longer had to worry about communism, it seems to have gone crazy. Investment banks and hedge funds were leveraging themselves at crazy levels, paying themselves crazy salaries and, most of all, inventing financial instruments that completely disconnected the ultimate lenders from the original borrowers, and left no one accountable. “The collapse of communism pushed China to the center and [America] to the extreme,” said Ben Simpfendorfer, chief China economist at Royal Bank of Scotland.

Sext: Yet another droll site that everybody knew about before I finally stumbled upon it, in the usual way — thanks to Joe or Jason (in this case, Joe).

Vespers: Have you heard of Maria Semple’s This One Is Mine? I hadn’t either, but after reading about it at Three Guys One Book, I’m ordering a copy.


Morning Read:
En boca de la fama

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

¶ Now do we know who those dusky phantoms were, bobbing so gothically about the Pequod before her embarkation, latterly bumping so furtively within the hold. They’re Ahab’s own boat crew, enlisted at his own expense, and in contravention of the joint-owners’ ideas about a captain’s prudence. If what I’ve just written is incomprehensible, then I have captured the spirit of today’s reading.

More than an adventure story, Moby-Dick is a romance, stuffed with wishful dreams.

…but the like of whom now and then glide among the unchanging Asiatic communities, especially the Oriental isles to the east of the continent — those insulated, immemorial, unalterable countries, which even in these modern days still preserve much of the ghostly aboriginalness of earth’s primal generations…

What utter balderdash! There are no such unchanging communities, especially in Asia, which has always hummed with commerce of every kind. Ishmael’s is the paedophilic dream of Western colonizers, always dreaming of yet-untouched lands.

¶ Chapter XXXVII of Don Quixote is the most convivial so far. There is no violence, but only a convivial dinner, after which our hero addresses his friends on the superiority of arms over letters — a venerable topic at the time.

Had I but world enough and time, I would study this chapter, in order to plumb its humanism. The effort made by Don Fernando, by the noble ladies, and, most of all, by Cervantes himself, to make a space in which Don Quixote can be comfortable and even honored is enormously heart-warming, and whatever need there might be to advance the story, the chapter is essentially a grand pause, a sigh of respect for the differences between men and women of good will.

Even so, as a man of his time, Cervantes cannot help marking a great distinction — an unbridgeable divide, really — between the gentlefolk and the peasants, among whom Sancho and the innkeeper figure as insensitive, unimaginative dolts (mentecato).

Daily Office:

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008


Matins: The Cutup-in-Chief is unflappable: ““I’m pretty good at ducking, as most of you will know…”

President Bush ducked — and didn’t get it. He seems to have thought that Muntader al-Zaidi’s outrage was a party prank gone awry, and certainly not representative of any widespread feelings about Duckya’s screwups in his homeland. Who knows what kind of an afterlife the episode is going to take on? Will Mr al-Zaidi one day head Iraq, in the manner of dissident playwright Vaclav Havel?

Tierce: In yesterday’s “Deal Book,” there was a squib about what John Kenneth Galbraith’s study of the 1929 Crash has to tell us about the Madoff Fraud: the first is not the worst.

Vespers: Joseph O’Neill writes! Well, of course…but don’t hold your breath between publications. How exciting, then, to read, at Maud Newton, that Mr O’Neill is a contributor to the current issue of Granta! I rush to yesterday’s mail, and there it is, “Fathers.” Turn to page 76, “Portrait of My Father” — a common title in the book. But what’s this, only three pages! 


Private Library Note:
From Shakespeare & Co
Brands, Filkins, Robb

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008


Having spent much of yesterday looking at book blogs and shaking my head in dismay (I’ll tell you why, some other time), I was inspired this morning, after an impromptu visit to the branch of Shakespeare & Co at Hunter College, to start documenting my book purchases, at least the ones that I make at New York’s excellent independent shops.

¶ H W Brands: Traitor To His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delanoe Roosevelt. (Doubleday; 978-0-385-51958-8). The title says it all: Roosevelt’s greatness sprang in large part from his background in a landed elite that he largely outgrew. We ought all to outgrow our origins, but when men from wealthy families meet the challenge, the results are usually impressive.

¶ Dexter Filkins: The Forever War (Knopf; 978-0-307-26639-2). I can truthfully say that I was pressured into buying this book by the Book Review, which listed it among the ten best of 2008. Do I need to read it? I don’t think so, but I’ll see. Sometimes you buy a book to give to a worthy cause — in this case, first-class reporting.

¶ Graham Robb: The Discovery of France: A Historical Georgraphy (Norton; 978-0-393-33364-0 [paper]).  This is a much-put-off must-read. As I understand it, Mr Robb explains just how recent the fusion of modern France is.

Daily Office:

Monday, December 15th, 2008


Matins: Even though it’s Christmas and everything, and we’re in between presidents who get shoes thrown at them and who won’t, let’s take a moment to wish Thailand well. It’s hard for an outsider to tell, at this point, whether the choice of Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva is a good thing, but the fact that a coalition is now in charge seems like a step forward.

Tierce: The curious thing about trickle-down economics is that, while it doesn’t work so well when times are good — hmm, wonder why? — it kicks in nastily when there’s a slump. New York’s doormen are here to tell you about it.

Sext: The Minimalist Chef, Mark Bittman, writes about the size of his kitchen, which is not unusually small for a New York City apartment but, at six feet by seven, tiny by American standards.


Open Thread Sunday:
How Much Longer?

Sunday, December 14th, 2008


Friday Movies:
Slumdog Millionaire

Friday, December 12th, 2008


To be perfectly honest, I was spurred to see Slumdog Millionaire because of the recent massacre in Mumbai, where most of the film is set. But I lost all sense of investigative agenda almost immediately. Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s Q & A (now for sale under the movie’s title) is a smashingly engaging film. The only thing that could have made it seem bigger would have been to see it at Radio City Music Hall in a holiday extravaganza.

Daily Office:

Friday, December 12th, 2008


Matins: An unpleasant story about layoffs from today’s Times. I cite it not as news but as fodder for thought: consider how poorly the philosophy (so to speak) of de- or unregulated free markets has served smart men and women — in particular, what an infernal idea it has been for the ever-fewer occupants of the ever-more-massive pinnacles of American business.

Tierce: Rapacious enough when things are going “well,” the Republican Party shows its fangs — and its tail — when the going gets rough. Currently presiding over an American economic disaster for the second time, they stand forth as the Take The Money And Run Party.

Boy, does Mitch McConnell not get it.

End of Afternoon Update: Even more shamelessness, as conservative senators attempt to break the UAW as part of any bailout deal.

Compline: I’m off to Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Museum, for a chamber concert to be given by Musicians from Marlboro. Will there be yet another Elliott Carter centennial celebration?


Housekeeping Note:
The Problem

Thursday, December 11th, 2008


If I seem to have been shirking my duties lately, it’s for a very good reason — but also a very boring one. Perhaps the most boring one. I’ve been getting my house in order, literally.

Don’t ask me why it took this look to see the light, but, talking things over with Kathleen in St Croix, I realized that I could no longer coexist with miscellaneous piles, bags, and other accretions of stuff in an already overfurnished apartment. It was clear that I need to live in a world where “catching up” is as uncommon as a triple bypass.

Not just catching up, then, but trying to obviate future catchings-up is what I’ve been up to. The going is very slow. (And the side effects! My mind set to Drudge, I’ve read little and written less.) But my working principle is to deal with each item on the list until it no longer exists. Until the contents of the bag or pile have either found a permanent home in one of my smallish rooms or been discarded.

That is so much easier said than done!

For example: there’s a quaint basket that’s full of photo albums. Not all the photo albums, mind you. Our wedding pictures are kept separately, and two albums of my favorite law school photographs (one black-and-white, one color) may be found, side by side, in the interstice between a bookshelf and a structural element in the bedroom — where they just fit. And the vast bulk of our photographs are housed in “shoeboxes” (actually pricier storage boxes from Exposures) and stacked in a purpose-built unit (also from Exposures) that reaches almost to the ceiling. The albums in the basket are truly miscellaneous. I don’t know what I’m going to do with them — especially the ones that I just inherited from my late stepmother. My inclination is to digitize the lot and toss the prints. But I don’t have one of those neat scanners yet.

And that’s just one problem. Two items on the list are heaps of magazines. Thinking about them makes me break out in the moral equivalent of hives. This afternoon, I went through a pile of Saveurs. I clipped very little, and what I clipped I put in a manila folder that I will purge in a couple of months.  The recipes that I haven’t used will go down the dumper.  That’s the theory, anyway. Mind you, the Saveurs weren’t even on my list, because the magazines weren’t in a bag. They formed a stack on the sofa, shown above. (The sofa, that is; I took the picture after the culling.)

By now, regular readers will by shaking their heads slowly: I sound just like someone who has sworn off drink — for the umpteenth time. And what arrests me is not that I’m promising yet again to keep up with the influx of printed matter. It’s that I believe, in some rock-ribbed way, that I owe you an explanation for what I’ve been doing, instead of writing up books and concerts and whatnot.

Or perhaps it’s just that I don’t want anyone to think that I’ve been out having fun. One thing is clear, though: I blog about The Problem in good faith. It may be boring, but I don’t know a soul who doesn’t face the same Collyer-esque nightmare. There’s something about the way we live now, some side-effect of our best intentions, that generates unmanageable middens of information. We live in The Information Age, after all! No one has ever had to cope with such pressures. It seems almost ungracious, if one is at all historically-minded, to complain about a vexation that does not involve death or dismemberment. Hey, I’m not complaining!

I’m just wondering if LXIV was right, this afternoon, when he saw Hedge Funds for Dummies in one of my book piles. He said that I can throw it away now.

Daily Office:

Thursday, December 11th, 2008


Matins: Murder will out — especially, it seems, when the criminal has been goaded by his wife. Janet Blagojevich, herself the daughter of a political mogul, “appears to be an influential and demanding partner to her husband’s schemes.”

And, in a blast of vulgar language, Ms. Blagojevich eggs on her husband when he reportedly threatens to prevent the Tribune Company from selling the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field unless The Chicago Tribune fired editorial writers who had called for the governor’s impeachment. Ms. Blagojevich is quoted in the complaint as saying that the state should “hold up that [expletive] Cubs [expletive] … [expletive] them.”

Tierce: A suit that ought never to have been entertained has been resolved more or less correctly. “Princeton Settles Money Battle Over Gift.” The heirs of 1961 donors, themselves heirs (of A & P money), challenged Princeton’s use of a $35 million gift (since considerably ballooned). The case ought to have been thrown out on its merits.


Midday Craving:
The Designated

Thursday, December 11th, 2008


This afternoon, at Feldman’s Housewares, the ladies behind the counter tried to sell me one of these. Whether it was the charm of their attempt, or the delicious incongruousness of a plastic pickle that, upon request, produces a rather cackly yodel, I can’t say. But although I didn’t buy one, I think that I must have one.

Like Philip the Good, late duke of Burgundy, I shall “entertain” dinner guests by making them wonder why such a ghastly sing-song seems to be pouring forth from their derrières.

Here’s the rub: do I order the Yodelling Pickle from Amazon, at a savings of three or four dollars? (I should note that even Feldman’s, on Madison Avenue in Carnegie Hill, isn’t charging Amazon’s “list price” of $22.96) Or do I support the neighborhood by trekking back up to 92nd Street? Either way, I’ll be mincemeat when Kathleen finds out.

LXIV tried to explain this to the salesladies. “If he buys it, his wife will never forgive me,” he pleaded. I nodded. “He’s the designated grownup,” I said. The ladies loved that one.

Daily Office:

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008


Matins: Novelist and former prosecutor Scott Turow has a very readable piece online about the arrest of the Illinois governor who appointed him to a state Ethics Committee… but the last paragraph requires more parsing than I’m up to.

This astonishing state of affairs persists 32 years after the Supreme Court, in Buckley v Valeo, recognized “the actuality and appearance of corruption resulting from large individual financial contributions” in approving limits on such donations to candidates for federal office. One can only hope that even in Illinois we are too ashamed now to tolerate business as usual.

Prime: “Why I Blog,” by Andrew Sullivan: an endearing, utterly characteristic piece. Mr Sullivan manages to make keeping a blog sound like NASCAR racing, reinvented for writerly types. (via Farmboyz)

You end up writing about yourself, since you are a relatively fixed point in this constant interaction with the ideas and facts of the exterior world. And in this sense, the historic form closest to blogs is the diary. But with this difference: a diary is almost always a private matter. Its raw honesty, its dedication to marking life as it happens and remembering life as it was, makes it a terrestrial log. A few diaries are meant to be read by others, of course, just as correspondence could be—but usually posthumously, or as a way to compile facts for a more considered autobiographical rendering. But a blog, unlike a diary, is instantly public. It transforms this most personal and retrospective of forms into a painfully public and immediate one. It combines the confessional genre with the log form and exposes the author in a manner no author has ever been exposed before.

Vespers: Sam Jordison writes about “The Tyranny of the To-Read Pile,” at the Guardian. 

Bibliophiles everywhere will be only too well acquainted with the demons of guilt and shame that such explorations would conjure. The to-read pile is more than just a physical stack of books: it’s a tower of ambitions failed, hopes unrealised, good intentions unfulfilled. Worse still, it’s a cold hard reminder of mortality. Already, I have intentions to read more books than I can hope to manage in a normal lifetime. How will this pile of books taunt me when I’m 64?


Museum Note:
At the Frick

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008


While my young friend looked at the pictures in the Living Hall at the Frick this afternoon, I stared out the window at the passing traffic on Fifth Avenue. If I lived in that room, I thought, I would always be looking out the window, and there would be no need for world-famous masterpieces to hang at my back.

After years of wondering what to say about art — given the fact that I have no technical training of any kind — I’ve suddenly realized that I’m as free to talk about art in the world as anyone is; my only obligation is to make interesting sense. With that perception, there is suddenly much to discuss. I’m fascinated, for example, by issues of authenticity. What does “counterfeit” really mean in the context of fine art? We’ll look at that another time. The issue that came to mind at the Frick was the matter of the private ownership of art.

I reached my position some time ago: The art world depends on collectors, so the purchase of works by living artists is only to be encouraged. When a work reaches its century, however — assuming that the original collector is no longer around to enjoy it — the public, in the form of museums and other institutions broadly open to everyone, ought to have the right to acquire it. (Let’s worry about valuation some other time.)

Quite aside from affording public access to major work, museums are also professional conservators, at least as a rule. Conservation is no less a function of the modern museum than display. Private owners are free to mistreat their holdings. I don’t see the interest in that kind of property right.

(Regular readers will see parallels to my thoughts about intellectual property — not as of yet gathered in one place; but this will serve for anyone interested.)

The time period might be extended for prints and other works that exist in multiples. In a weak moment, I might be persuaded to let heirs and assigns hold on to drawings, but they would have to beg most convincingly.

So, if I lived at the Frick — and, oh, could I ever! — I’d put a new entrance somewhere along 71st Street, to allow public access to what would now be the ballroom (and to the excellent Music Room), which I’d fill with rotating displays of new art. The Collection itself would be shipped across the street and up a few blocks, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art — from which it could be borrowed for shows at other institutions, just as all serious art ought to be. I wouldn’t miss a single famous painting.

I’d be looking out the window.

In the Book Review:
Holiday Books

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008


The editors of the Book Review take a holiday from serious reading this week, indulging us with a lot of titles that sound loaded with empty calories. The two long reviews, by Witold Rybczynski and Toni Bentley, are detached essays that have little regard for the books under review.

As always, there are lots of topical roundups in this issue, written for people who are thinking of giving books to other people. They’re an ancient feature, but they’re as out of place as ever. I’ve overlooked them, as I do roundups generally.

Daily Office:

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008


Matins: It’s hard to cry real tears over the bankruptcy filing of Tribune Corp, the media empire that, among other things, has imperilled the integrity of the Los Angeles Times.

Prime: At yesterday, Jason Kottke took a look at his own early stabs at Web sites. I hope that someone will undertake a comprehensive overview of Web design history, because I’m sure that the lessons taught by evolution would be useful to know. 

Tierce: What’s this? Riots in Greece? Sparked by the police shooting of a fifteen year-old boy? Okaaay… But wait. Why did you say they are rioting in Greece?

Sext: Timely advice from Debrett’s/Telegraph on how to behave at the office Christmas Party. Nothing you didn’t know — which is why you ought to write it out on the palm of your hand.


Reading Notes:
Lukacs on Kennan

Monday, December 8th, 2008


The more I learn about George Kennan, the more clearly he stands out as my favorite American. After an unexceptional start, he became just about the only man in this country’s foreign service capable of grasping the fact that, in Russia,

what had really happened during the purges of the 1930s was that “the ship of state had been cut loose from the bonds of Communist dogma”; that Stalin was a limitless autocrat, a peasant tsar, and not an international revolutionary.

That’s John Lukacs, writing in George Kennan: A Study of Character (Yale, 2007). A few pages later, a footnote ends: “…at a time when ideological anticommunism became not only an element of but a virtual substitution for American patriotism.” Indeed. The thought strikes an interesting chord: for many on the conservative side of American political life, Christianity has taken the place, exactly as Mr Lukacs limns it, of “ideological anticommunism.” I find patriotism tiresome to the extent that it doesn’t involve the defense of the nation from actual, manifest attack; but if there have to be patriots, I prefer them to take Clint Eastwood as their model, and to eschew position statements. Mr Eastwood inclines toward the right, if ever more loosely, but I don’t doubt for a minute that he would agree with Kennan that the enemy, during the Cold War, was Russia, not the Soviet Union. Have you ever asked yourself how it was that the Soviet Union came to a virtually bloodless end, in a puff of gay bravado? Kennan, Mr Lukacs tells us, addressed the Foreign Service School in 1938 thus:

We will get nearer to the truth if we abandon for a time the hackneyed question of how far Bolshevism has changed Russia and turn our attention to the question of how far Russia has changed Bolshevism.

As for Mr Lukacs, he is something of a conservative himself, in the old, old sense: his books about Churchill’s conduct of the Battle of Britain give the measure of that. It’s no real surprise, then, to read the following gratuity:

Their friendship was an example of the condition that the sessence of true friendship between men is almost always intellectual: a genuine appreciation of a friend’s mental and spiritual, rather than of his physical or material qualities.

Excuse me while I choke! The observation is fundamentally so true that one must wonder why Mr Lukacs makes it. Does he wish to defend his late friend from the implications, whatever they might be, of having “a kind of sensitivity so fine as to be somehow feminine — surely feminine rather than masculine”? (And what’s that about, the “feminine” nature of a “sensitive” mind?) Then there’s the Cartesian dualism inherent in Mr Lukacs’s analysis of friendship: men bond with their minds and overlook their bodies. Which I rather doubt. The tall and dominating, deep-voiced man will invite far less rigorous review of his opinions than the stammering pipsqueak. But it’s the tail of the observation that stings: the implication that relations between men and women are “physical and material.”

It would be naive to deny that that’s exactly what they are in many, perhaps most cases; but it would be obtuse to deny they’re that way largely because it is convenient for men so to limit them.

If I fuss, it’s because I admire John Lukacs. A man of compleat and correct education, fluent in a second language, he thinks, as one might have said, nobly. But it raises an eyebrow, does it not, to read that he is “past president-elect” (?) of the American Catholic Historical Association. That suggests the kind of nobility that the West has been trying to shrug off since 1789.

Daily Office:

Monday, December 8th, 2008


Matins: We hear a lot of oppositional talk about capitalism versus socialism these days, but as a rule it’s utterly misinformed. There is no conflict, for example, between capitalist markets and socialist redistributions of wealth (ie, taxes).

Here’s one to puzzle out: the Tulfan Terrace development in Riverdale. Neighbors objected when developers wanted to put up a high-rise. The developers made promises out the proverbial wazoo that, had the building been completed, city government problem would probably have held them to. But they went broke — leaving the shell of a building. What now?

Prime: Reading David Carr’s “Media Equation” column this morning, “Stoking Fear Everywhere You Look,” inspired an impish thought: what if the privileging of “diversity” has undermined genuine diversity? Consider:

Every modern recession includes a media séance about how horrible things are and how much worse they will be, but there have never been so many ways for the fear to leak in. The same digital dynamics that drove the irrational exuberance — and marketed the loans to help it happen — are now driving the downside in unprecedented ways.

The recession was actually not officially declared until last week, but the psychology that drives it had already been e-mailed, blogged and broadcast for months. I used to worry that my TiVo thought I was gay — doesn’t everyone enjoy a little “Project Runway” at the end of a long, hard week? Now I worry that my browser knows I am about to lose my job.

Compline: Here’s a book that I don’t think I’ll be reading: Mrs Astor Regrets. I’m still digesting the revelations of The Last Mrs Astor. Frances Kiernan’s book used up all of my Schadenfreude. Rich, dysfunctional families are always interesting, because the dysfunction usually stems from inattentiveness, and people do overlook the most obvious things. But it was unpleasant to see the nimbus of grande-damitude tarnish. (more…)

Morning Read:
Picking Up

Monday, December 8th, 2008


Slowly resuming the Morning Read, I confined myself to this season’s two principal books, Moby-Dick and Don Quixote this morning. Both of the day’s chapters pick up after exciting events. That I knew right away where I was with Don Quixote, but had completely forgotten the foggy squall in which Ishmael’s story nearly came to an end, gives some indication of my very different feelings about these books.

Creaky and improbable, Don Quixote is nevertheless always familiar, probably because it seems to have been well-known to everyone who wrote an opera in the Eighteenth Century.

When Cardenio heard the ay! that came from Dorotea when she fainted, he thought it had come from his Luscinda, and he rushed out of the room, terrified, and the first thing he saw was Don Fernando with his arms around Luscinda. Don Fernando also recognized Cardenio, and the three of them, Luscinda, Cardenio, and Dorotea, were left speechless with astonishment, barely knowing what had happened to them.

This is a moment for one of Mozart’s finely-tuned thunderclaps. So what if our hero makes no appearance in the chapter!

Melville’s sense of humor reminds me of long business dinners that I have sat through, laughing reluctantly at the would-be hilarities of ponderous humorists. “The Hyena” begins,

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. … There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object

“Queequeg,” said I, when they had dragged me, the last man, to the deck, and I was still shaking myself in my jacket to fling off the water; “Queequeg, my fine friend, does this sort of thing often happen?” Without much emotion, though soaked through just like me, he gave me to understand that such things did happen often.

It fails either for being not funny enough or for being funny at all; I can’t tell which.