Thursday, July 20, 2006


This is one tough novel: big, confusing. It leaves you wanting to re-read it

If you wanted to know the difference in structure (as opposed to scale) between a short story and a novel, Moby-Dick (or, The Whale) is probably the as good an exemplar one would find of the novel form. Where a short story focuses on a single event, action, or mood, a novel tends to take the air a bit more -- perambulate, follow its own muse, wander. And wander Moby Dick does. It goes and goes and goes. Melville wrote that he had written a wicked novel. I wonder if that is perceptible to a 21st century sensibility. He strolls through various modernisms: Calvinism, pantheism, Kantianism, indifferentism, relativism, pessimism. Ahab -- what to make of him: sacrilegious, demonic, monomaniac, striving. A shadow of Christian belief, no longer sufficiently vital to bring salvation, but more than adequate to reinforce notions of depravity and condemnation, hangs over the novel.

Also, Moby-Dick will give you a new appreciation for Star Trek. The episodic nature of the novel makes possible a bunch of self-contained mini-plots, each of which could be spun into its own little story. There's the encounter with a ship that has been taken over by a charismatic preacher and his converted followers. There's a ship in search of an abandoned crew, and one that is filled with bon vivants, appropriately named The Bachelor.

There's undoubtedly a lot I've missed. Like a whale, this novel's soul is submerged most of the time, only occasionally spouting or breeching to reveal awesome and fearful sights.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Not getting to De Botton of things

Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy is a chatty collection of six essays on selected thinkers from Socrates to Nietsche. Unfortunately, de Botton favors cartoons over examinations of text. His Socrates is reduced to simply a man who bucks conventional wisdom -- a kind of Athenian whistleblower. We could picture him arguing in the city council about heavy metals in the local water supply, whereas in reality he was much more radical. The actual ideas that he championed (e.g., the Good) languish unexamined. Similarly, Nietzsche becomes a kind of drill instructor or personal trainer, doggedly barking motivational truisms like "No pain, no gain."

De Botton's choices of philosophers (the others are Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, and Schopenhauer) indicates a preference for pessimism and materialism, a kind of flinty cynicism that sees itself as practical. Don't read this expecting even modest rigor or reflection. There's no dialectic here. His breezy style and penchant for cute illustration (yes, the chapter on Nietzsche does include an illustration of DC Comics's Superman) keep things moving, but at the end there's not much meat on these bones. De Botton is an affable, diverting, but ultimately unsatisfying conversationalist.

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