Listening to Literature, or Hearing Hard Words

I believe I’ve said somewhere else that I really only discovered a “fecundity” of thinking in myself* when I started listening to audiobooks while walking.  You know how you need to justify reading to yourself as an activity that isn’t just “wasting time” (stupid American “values”)?  Maybe you don’t, but something in me, still, even after realizing what a great part of life actual thinking is–discovery of new worlds being the least of it–felt that I couldn’t just read to expand my verbal experiences in such a way to expand my “random” thinking possibilites.  This is a kind of internal metaphorization of, well, everything.  That is, reading had to have a “working purpose.”  That is, it had to be work-related, or it had to be “after hours.”  You know what I mean.  I am probably less prone to “time discipline” than most–having grown up with a farmer for a dad who was “disciplined” by the season, the hours in the day, the status of his machinery, and, well, his mother’s voice either in his ear or inside his head–I didn’t know from “punching a clock” (fascinating, that phrase, as it makes very clear the antagonism towards the act).  But still, “daylight” seems owed to some kind of quantifiable production.  Industrial-capitalism is clearly something etched onto us and possibly into us like an acid.

Enter reading via audiobook  while walking.  Not JUST walking, which would have only the selfish purpose of “health” and personal enjoyment; stress release and exercise still seemingly being something I should only do in the “non-productive” hours of the day.  Rather, I would listen while walking the dogs.  I had to walk the dogs anyway right?  Of course, sometimes I would then walk them four times a day making them more than a little “spoiled” (or, in an unblameworthy manner, habituated to multiple walks).  Another interesting language aside–to say a child is spoiled is a condemnation on the parents, those expected to “grow” the little child like an orchard fruit and then harvest them when ripe for, what, adult consideration?  A spoiled child has either been actively “trained” to want things given to her rather than “earned,” or better, rather than finding and getting what she wants from self-directed desires not borne of exposure to commercial desires fed and “satisfied” by purchase.  But further, spoilage occurs “on the tree” also.  That is, a child who is allowed to be “irresponsible” to the adult world for “too long” becomes “rotten” to those social or rather cultural expectations.  Sorry.  See, I have come to value that kind of thinking on the run–as it comes to me–where else shall I put it?  Should I not record it or share it?

So, to return…having justified reading while being productive of something that my culture would surely approve (though doing it to excess would not be approved), having justified it in much the same way I justify reading in the bathroom enthroned–no one can call me lazy while in the bathroom–I MUST use the bathroom, and in fact, you might call me productive by making better use of the “downtime” necessitated by bodily processes.  Of course, I will admit that I often simply just go to that closet in order to read and not use the bathroom.  You’re not going to deny a guy 10 minutes are you?  Consider it a smoke-break; we condone those minutes which must be admitted as an absolutely detrimental use of “time.”  (But we might say a smoke-break is “productive” of “using cigarettes” and so requiring the purchase of more.  Smoking is productive of commercial capital profit.  Not just productive of disease and death after all; and yet that too is productive of our medical and insurance economies.)

So, as I said, to return…for some reason the walking and listening together seems to release thinking in me.  I am convinced it is this combinatorial action that has led to what I think of as enhanced abilities.  In pedestrian conveyance I carry me and I carry words and for some reason the words seem to be going walk-about as well.


All this in preface to making the claim that Moby Dick will only fully be unlocked by listening to the language of Melville.  I would stress that I find the book generative. By that I mean that every time I pick it up or press play on the mp3 player I read/hear a new connection, have an allusive thought, discover a kind of technique in Melville (seemingly springing fresh and unplanned from his pen) that I know was well ahead of its time

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Melville is hard because unfamiliar, at least linguistically and stylistically…well, so, difficult generally.  But I’m fairly convinced he is readily “unlocked” via repeated (stress that) listening.  And again, before you think anything less of yourself, or of Melville, for your “not getting it” or Melville being a “failed writer,” try the audio performance (i.e. expressive reading) by Frank Muller.  (Muller is, sadly, deceased due to complications that sprung from a motorcycle accident–and I consider this as great a loss as any outside of a personal loss.)  Muller’s reading gave me access to the novel like nothing else I tried (preparatory secondary source reading, for example).  Muller demonstrated to me a proper pace and emphasis on the sentences–releasing the sounds of the letters and words–allowing the words to bounce off of each other, to combine with other words by sound, to echo across the full span of the text, from head to flukes as it were.

To try again, you know when you read a book that uses an unfamiliar idiom, tries to capture speech patterns by writing words “as they sound” and so LOOKS ridiculous to the eye and is nearly impossible to sub-vocalize? Like the example out of Dickens I used in the recent piece on Homeschooling–you just can’t read it correctly without knowing the actual living accents of the speaker.  It is gibberish if you can’t “hear it.”

I think Melville’s style is idiomatic of  his fevered mind mixing the rhythms of the Bible and Shakespeare and shoving them into a work of speculative philosophy and somewhat speculative linguistics (the way we represent being, after all) that he has mined out of “naturalistic” tomes of early works of a zoological intent as well as works of philosophy. And, admittedly, it is at times just way too much!  It is often a bludgeon of words and they don’t always seem right together even if they do swim in the same school.

This is why I encourage listening to it.  Because though textually it is visually thick and linguistically daunting, it is musical, poetic, if read/heard properly.


Now, as to “hearing” allusions or connections.  This will not be true for you unless you read or hear the kinds of things Melville was reading.  Still, you might, if you read modern literature, hear Melville or his techniques in these as they have been brought forward by his admirers (I don’t think there are imitators–maybe Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian in particular, is a kind of Faulkner-Melville blend–which seems a bit sadistic).

A friend has recently told me he is trying to listen to Thoreau (at bedtime, no less!) and that it is slow going at best.  I will admit that I have yet to find a reading of Walden that wasn’t a snooze.  I think that this is because too many people approach that as a kind sacred, quiet text–something like intoning words out Lao Tzu–a reverent reading will not “unlock” the ridiculous amount of word-play found there.  (One critic likened Walden to Joyce’s Ulysses as one of the most experimental and punning books ever written.)  But, there are decent readings of “Resistance to Civil Government” (or “Civil Disobedience”) and I like in particular the “ejunto” reading.  This reading has some unfortunate mispronunciations, but the pacing and tone seems right to me.

“Seems right to me…”  This is how I have always read, thought, taken spelling tests in school, written blog posts.  By sound.  I know many of the rules of grammar and style but primarily, if I do it “correctly” it is due to my repeating conventional “sounds” of these constructions.  I hear discord if I’ve taken a misstep.   This is why, to me, “fluency” in reading requires listening to all kinds of models of speaking written texts.  We must admit that our verbal styles at home, with friends, online, on Facebook, on Twitter, via chat, etc., will not “sound” in the same way.  We may be very conversant and very capable in one style while being utterly incapable of reading other styles.  In other words, we must practice!


An example of “allusive’ hearing that is likely “not in the text” but in my hearing and “reconstructing” brain (making random interpretations).

Here is an “external” example: not long ago I was listening to “The Quarter-Deck” chapter in Moby Dick and “heard” Thoreau’s “Resistance” in the following:

‘Hark ye yet again, — the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair playWho’s over me? Truth hath no confines. Take off thine eye! more intolerable than fiends’ glarings is a doltish stare! So, so; thou reddenest and palest; my heat has melted thee to anger-glow. But look ye, Starbuck, what is said in heat, that thing unsays itself. There are men from whom warm words are small indignity. I meant not to incense thee. Let it go.

Here is what I was “hearing:”

Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. Itmakes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to put out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?

One would think, that a deliberate and practical denial of its authority was the only offense never contemplated by its government; else, why has it not assigned its definite, its suitable and proportionate, penalty? If a man who has no property refuses but once to earn nine shillings for the State, he is put in prison for a period unlimited by any law that I know, and determined only by the discretion of those who put him there; but if he should steal ninety times nine shillings from the State, he is soon permitted to go at large again.

If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

Even should I concede that this is an “audible” stretch–I think, as I noted, that it is generative of new thinking and hopefully, expansive ways of understanding.

And here are two examples of hearing internal connections across the text that likely only make “sense” or seem “linked” to me!

From Chapter 1, “Loomings”

But here is an artist. He desires to paint you the dreamiest, shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape in all the valley of the Saco. What is the chief element he employs? There stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk, as if a hermit and a crucifix were within; and here sleeps his meadow, and there sleep his cattle; and up from yonder cottage goes a sleepy smoke. Deep into distant woodlands winds a mazy way, reaching to overlapping spurs of mountains bathed in their hill-side blue. But though the picture lies thus tranced, and though this pine-tree shakes down its sighs like leaves upon this shepherd’s head, yet all were vain, unless the shepherd’s eye were fixed upon the magic stream before him.

And I hear that “hollow trunk…hermit and a crucifix” in this passage from Chapter, 34, “The Cabin-Table.”

…in the cabin was no companionship; socially, Ahab was inaccessible. Though nominally included in the census of Christendom, he was still an alien to it. He lived in the world, as the last of the Grisly Bears lived in settled Missouri. And as when Spring and Summer had departed, that wild Logan of the woods, burying himself in the hollow of a tree, lived out the winter there, sucking his own paws; so, in his inclement, howling old age, Ahab’s soul, shut up in the caved trunk of his body, there fed upon the sullen paws of its gloom!


From Chapter 36, “The Quarter-Deck.”

But what’s this long face about, Mr. Starbuck; wilt thou not chase the white whale? art not game for Moby Dick?”

“I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow; but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market.”

“Nantucket market! Hoot! But come closer, Starbuck; thou requirest a little lower layer. If money’s to be the measurer, man, and the accountants have computed their great counting-house the globe, by girdling it with guineas, one to every three parts of an inch; then, let me tell thee, that my vengeance will fetch a great premium HERE!”

“He smites his chest,” whispered Stubb, “what’s that for? methinks it rings most vast, but hollow.”

“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

I find this echoed in Chapter 108, “Ahab and the Carpenter.”

Aye, sir; he must have the white heat for this kind of fine work.

Um-m. So he must. I do deem it now a most meaning thing, that that old Greek, Prometheus, who made men, they say, should have been a blacksmith, and animated them with fire; for what’s made in fire must properly belong to fire; and so hell’s probable. How the soot flies! This must be the remainder the Greek made the Africans of. Carpenter, when he’s through with that buckle, tell him to forge a pair of steel shoulder-blades; there’s a pedlar aboard with a crushing pack.


Hold; while Prometheus is about it, I’ll order a complete man after a desirable pattern. Imprimis, fifty feet high in his socks; then, chest modelled after the Thames Tunnel; then, legs with roots to ’em, to stay in one place; then, arms three feet through the wrist; no heart at all, brass forehead, and about a quarter of an acre of fine brains; and let me see—shall I order eyes to see outwards? No, but put a sky-light on top of his head to illuminate inwards. There, take the order, and away.

This is of no consequence, of course, but of real value to me as a reader.  I feel as though I am hearing Melville weaving with threads that through warp and woof come to make this representation of being more coherent as a kind of unconscious composition…a certain kind of channelling into a living spirit “contained” in words.

*This is not to say my “fecundity” is necessarily good or beneficial but rather just to say that it seems to be happening with greater intensity and I seem to be more aware of words and their connections across all “disciplines” than ever before.  Again, that doesn’t mean I necessarily understand more things, just that I get the feeling that this is how a brain is meant to be used.

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  1. J. Fulford October 1, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    This is a thoughtful response to my stubbornness to continue reading Moby Dick. Perhaps I’ve been thinking of it the wrong way. I must approach it less as a work to trudge through because I must and more as a novel-length poem, one that rests on the nightstand and fills a moment or two before rest. If we are, as you believe, indoctrinated to see all our actions through the lens of work/productivity, then reading Moby Dick must not feel like that. I may or may not try the audio version. I’m not much on audio books, but I haven’t given many a try.

    1. Storm October 1, 2012 at 5:09 pm

      It may simply not be your cup of tea. It could be as Melville expressed to Sophia Hawthorne when she expressed her admiration for the book:

      “It really amazed me that you should find any satisfaction in that book. It is true that some men have said they were pleased with it, but you are the only woman — for as a general thing, women have small taste for the sea. But, then, since you, with your spiritualizing nature, see more things than other people, and by the same process, refine all you see, so that they are not the same things that other people see, but things which while you think you but humbly discover them, you do in fact create them for yourself — Therefore, upon the whole, I do not so much marvel at your expressions concerning Moby Dick. At any rate, your allusion for example to the “Spirit Spout” first showed to me that there was a subtile significance in that thing — but I did not, in that case, mean it. I had some vague idea while writing it, that the whole book was susceptible of an allegoric construction, & also that parts of it were — but the speciality of many of the particular subordinate allegories, were first revealed to me…”


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