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Monday, 28 August 2017

Moby Dick and The Fallacy of 'Killing the Magic'

One of the ideas I encounter all the time is the strange notion that analysis ruins the experience of creative works. It most often crops up when I'm taking a student through film analysis, as film is usually the medium they also engage with voluntarily in ordinary life. I'll be talking them through various film making techniques and explaining how each element is designed to evoke either specific or varied reactions, and they'll almost always ask, "But doesn't knowing all this stuff kind of kill the effect?". It's a question I get asked so frequently, and so reliably, that I have to conclude that it's a widely held belief.

I think it stems from the kinds of magical thinking we generally foist on children in schools as part of the effort to tame and socialise the human animal. God can see what you're up to. Santa will reward your virtuous behaviour. Imagination exists in a separate and alternate universe to reality, so no, it doesn't work if you just imagine you're wearing pants. And that's the essence of it - the quarantining of imagination away from reality creates the superstition that the analysis of imagination's products will somehow drag them into the 'real' universe, thus destroying their impact and wonder. I call this a 'superstition' advisedly. It's emphatically not true on any level. Imagination and reality are not clearly demarcated. They're not, in fact, even securely defined, understood, or satisfactorily proven to exist. Given that, one of the most important duties of an educator of older children is to repair the crude scars of earlier and necessary cognitive training - to re-knit the internal and external worlds of human consciousness once the child has become 'reasonable' enough to make independent (if necessarily arbitrary) distinctions between reality and unreality.

As a part of this attempt, I usually use Moby Dick as an exemplar. Melville's astonishing, enormous epic is usually first encountered as monolithic, intimidating, and practically incomprehensible. Rather like the bible, it hits the reading mind as a gigantic, towering edifice made from whole cloth, impossible to ever completely understand. For some, this is sufficient to make it unreadable, whereas others read it over and over again, trying to parse the deeper hidden messaging which they know, with absolute certainty, must be contained within it. And there is where it usually stops. The outline or shape of the primary concepts of the novel sit in a sort of fuzzy pool in the vague mnemo-cognate we use to have and store vague impressions. To my mind, this is a goddamned tragedy.

When we come to analyse Moby Dick, one of the very first things which happens is that we lose the idea of the text as monolithic - a single object. Its vast scope and incomprehensibly broad range is discovered for what it really is: not a singular vision, but rather a set of deeply fractured and inchoate explorations of distinct ideas. Basically, just like the bible, or a chance-met stranger, closer examination erases the illusion of a consistent and coherent entity. At this point, someone usually interjects with a kind of QED: "See! You've revealed its flaws, which kills it as an experience!", which is of course entirely wrong. Getting to know a text is like getting to know a person (mainly because that's exactly what it is). The better we know someone, the more inconsistencies, blind spots, flaws, and failings we discover. Thing is, though, when it's the right person, these apparent blemishes actually enrich and enliven the experience of that individual. In the same way, understanding Moby Dick's serious structural and conceptual flaws simultaneously reduces it to a manageable size, while elevating it into a pure act of communion. From an intimidating monolith, the story of the white whale becomes a conversation with a human mind. Flawed, certainly, but real and alive. An abstract interlocutor who asks us questions, tells us what it sees, thinks, and feels, and invites us to contemplate the human condition in all its frailty and majesty through the mythical lens of a failed (or not) monster hunt, and a Gilgamesh/Enkidu style platonic love affair.

And then it all becomes stark staringly obvious, in a way. The very famous first line, "Call me Ishmael," tells us straight out that Melville has created a persona with whom the reading mind is invited to converse. About the tenuous frameworks of society, identity, religion, sanity. About the grand narratives of humanity and its troubled relationship with truth and the rest of nature. About whale penises and tobacco smoking. About anything and everything, really. Its greatest flaw is its greatest strength - there really isn't any requirement to experience this text either sequentially or completely. It's discrete sections stand alone in a way that would make a modern publisher despair, and which make the work such an enduringly rewarding companion. In the case of Moby Dick, as in almost all cases, deeper, analytical knowledge does not in any way destroy its 'magic'. What it does do, however, is create the kind of knowledge which is necessary for all genuine bonding with ideas, images, thoughts, and people.

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