Ok, so I’ve already violated my posting every week policy. I was on a boat where the only internet cost eleventy-billion dollars for one minute of dial-up-quality access. I’m almost done with the next post, though, which may or may not feature some Britney Spears tune-age. Stay tuned…
About twenty pages and four bowel movements ago, I became acquainted with Melville’s famous harpooner, Queequeg. (I say “famous” because I remember his name being in about 179 practice questions for the English Literature GRE. Which, I suppose, only makes him famous to people applying to English graduate programs. Oh well…) Queequeg, it turns out, is a “savage.” But not one of those evil savages who tries to scalp you or attacks you after you take the land his ancestors have lived on for hundreds of years. Sure, he’s supposedly a cannibal, worships a little carved “negro idol,” and talks like Jar Jar Binks; but you should see how considerate he is! And look how he tries to be a good Westerner: He knows he shouldn’t dress and undress in public, so when he has to share a room with Ishmael, he goes under the bed to put on his boots. Silly Queequeg!
At first, when I read these passages of the ethnically ambiguous harpooner whom Ishmael, impressed with his nobility, describes as “George Washington cannibalistically developed,” I was like, “Man, Melville was so backward! I’m glad I have such a sophisticated and sensitive view of people from other races and cultures!” (Never mind that these descriptions of Queequeg come from Ishmael and don’t necessarily represent the thoughts of Herman Melville. I was having a good time feeling superior, and it’s much more satisfying to feel superior to a literary genius than a fictional character.) Then I started thinking about this musical my wife, Christina, and I saw a couple months ago, Avenue Q. Avenue Q is a lot like Sesame Street for disillusioned twenty-somethings, a song-and-dance journey through the coming-of-age ennui of people. And puppets.
About halfway through the first act, the newbie in town, Princeton, asks Kate Monster, his neighbor, if she happens to be related to Trekkie Monster, a neighbor of theirs who also happens to be of monster origins. What Princeton doesn’t realize is, of course, that this is racist: Just because Kate and Trekkie are both monsters doesn’t mean they’re relatives. Not to be outdone, Princeton alludes to Kate’s life-dream, creating a school for monsters. “Could someone like me go there?” he asks. “No!” she replies, “we don’t want people like you!” He’s got her now. Which leads to a musical number in which the diverse cast of Avenue Q sings a song about how all of them—and all of us—are a little bit racist.
The song is tongue-in-cheek, but true. I notice this every time I’m walking down the street at night, see a black man dressed in scraggly clothes, and immediately look the other way, hoping that he won’t talk to me or come near me. I certainly don’t react this way to white men, or Hispanic men, or Latinos, or Asian-American men—because I haven’t been taught to fear them. I haven’t seen movie upon TV show upon comic book in which the dangerous guys on the street are Hispanic, or Asian, or white. They’re always black. (Ok, I know this is hyperbole; but it’s not much of a hyperbole.) So every time I see a black man walking down the street at night, I have to check myself, try to stop myself from racially profiling him, assuming he’s out to get me or my money. And that, my friends, is a little bit racist. Maybe even a lot-a-bit racist.
So Melville’s Queequeg is probably a racist caricature. And maybe if Melville had lived in our century, he wouldn’t have drawn up a character like this. But he probably still would’ve had some shady looking black guys hanging around the docks at night. Or some lazy Mexicans on board the ship who couldn’t speak English. Or some geeky Asian guys with glasses who kept the ship’s books and were really good at math.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying this makes the character of Queequeg, my own racist issues, or any of the stereotypes mentioned in the previous paragraph ok. They’re not. The point is more that the instances of racism we find in older novels like Moby-Dick aren’t as dead as we think they are. And that, as the cast of Avenue Q sings, “If we all can just admit that we are racist a little bit, and we’d all stop being so PC, maybe we could live in harmony!” Or at least keep moving in that direction.
It seems only fitting that my copy of Moby-Dick got some slight water damage today when I was caught in the type of storm that renders umbrellas useless. Let the journey begin.
Clearly I have too much fiber in my diet. I’ve only been reading Moby-Dick on the crapper for a little over a week, and I’m already on page 58. Ok, so the book itself doesn’t start till page 9, and the first few pages are basically a catalogue of whale-related quotes from the beginnings of Western literature through the 19th century (more on that later), but that’s still a LOT of pooping! Maybe it’s a combo of all the stuff I ate at my sister’s wedding (congrats again, sis!) and all the raisin bran I ate in between. Either way, I’m more regular than vanilla ice cream in a soft-serve machine.
So, as I was saying, after a brief etymology of the word “whale,” Melville (the author) goes on to list just about everything he can think of that’s been said about whales from the Bible on through the 19th century. To complete his catalogue, I will now list everything important that’s been said about whales since Melville’s time:
“Uhh! Water everywhere! I’m getting wet! I’m falling! You’re falling! We’re falling! Whaaaale!”
-Master Doe, while falling over a waterfall then randomly being followed by a whale in Kung Pow: Enter the Fist
“Quiet…A whale is in trouble. I have to go.”
-Al Gore to Liz Lemon on 30 Rock
“Nuke the whales? You don’t really believe that, do you?”
“I dunno. Gotta nuke something.”
-Conversation between Lisa Simpson and Nelson Munce
“The fidelity question is difficult for me. Society has made us believe we’re supposed to be monogamous when we’re not killer whales, or whatever the monogamous species is.”
-Rachel Hunter, obviously-not-monogamous ex-wife of obviously-not-monogamous Rod Stewart
“Yo Fail Whale, I’m really happy for you, and Ima let you finish…But Ahab’s whale was one of the best whales of all time. Best whale of all time!”
-A Kanye West impersonation from imaletyoufinish.com.
Clearly Melville is missing out.
In his extensive list of whale shout-outs, Melville does something fascinating: he creates a whale myth. Or maybe he builds on a whale myth that was already circulating in Western culture. Either way, by the end of eleven pages of whale citations, he’s established an image of the whale that is mysterious and terrifying, an untamable beast that rules the seas and can destroy a fleet of ships with a single leap. Much more interesting than Free Willy, if you ask me.
It almost seems like whales are for Melville what the aliens of science fiction are for us today. They’re strange beings that bring you in contact with another world, providing experiences of horror and delight that are almost impossible to have in the predictable world of dry land.
No whale sightings yet. Or boat sightings for that matter. In fact, after 40 pages, I’m still in the inn Ishmael stays in the first night he tries to find a ship to hire himself out on. Ah, the slow development of the 19th-century novel. They don’t make ‘em like they used to. (Actually not being sarcastic here. I LOVE Dostoevsky, who basically describes characters for chapters at a time and has multiple-chapter subplots. This is why Henry James called his novels “fluid puddings.” Mmm…pudding…*drool*)
I’ll keep you all posted and let you know of any whales or whale-like turds that come along this week. Until then, keep reading and pooping. Preferably simultaneously.
Reading on the can has held a special place in my heart and bowels since college. Like many undergrads, I spent the majority of my college education seething with coming-of-age angst. Unlike many undergrads, I found great consolation from said angst in the bathroom, dropping deuces and reading Beowulf, Dickens, Dostoevsky. That’s right—I didn’t mess around on the john, reading the usual male bathroom tomes: Sports Illustrated, the newspaper, porn. No. I BM’d to the Fairie Queen, waited out constipation with Wordsworth.
This became an especially precious time for me during one semester where I felt I was, quite literally, going crazy. I was extremely depressed, was having trouble concentrating, had just started taking antidepressants. It felt like my whole life was slipping away from me, spiraling out of control. Except when I was sitting on the porcelain throne, a book on my lap. In those brief moments, I could relax and just read. I experienced a sliver of peace. Unless I had explosive diarrhea.
Creeped out yet? You should be.
Years later, I still find solace taking a #2 with a book in my hands. But, now that I’m out of college, I don’t have any classmates to discuss what I’m reading while I defecate. That’s where you, the blog reader, come in. As accomplished as I feel having read Joyce’s Ulysses while pooping, because I wasn’t sharing my impressions with anyone, I don’t think I really ever had any idea what was going on. Except when Joyce was making horrible biblical puns.
So, blog reader, will you read with me? Or at least respond to my thoughts on the books I read while I take care of business? And, if you, like me, do enjoy a good read on the can, please feel free to post about what you’re reading. Perhaps you’ll inspire us in our creations of our own bathroom libraries.
Given the epic nature of a blog about reading while pooping, I decided to start with the most epic book I could think of: Moby Dick. Stay tuned for thoughts on Ishmael, Ahab, the white whale, and…well…taking a shit.