- Knopf Publishing Group
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1 / Forbidden Pleasure
I really started to read in earnest as my sight began to fail when I was twelve. I had learned how to read a few years earlier, as any kid would, but this became more of a secretive, obsessional delusion, a pondering over words that left me groping and gasping, wandering through the corridors of etymology and wondering about the consequences of language. These activities were strangely both unhealthful and unlawful for me at the time.
In fact, reading was forbidden. My eyes were just too sensitive to tolerate any light. I had spent the previous summer in a perpetual squint, unsuccessfully trying to lure potential playmates into innocently sandy pleasures under the boardwalk in Long Beach, Long Island, cool and protected from the blinding sun.
Two large brown doleful eyes: irritated, itching incessantly with a dry rasp. In the mornings, they were caked with a congealing discharge and had to be bathed with boric acid solution. My left eye was constantly at half-mast, its lid drooping like a punctured parachute. Often, when I was awake, my vision would be blurred by bitter, seeping fluids.
Any aversion to so fundamental a quality as light might suggest a metaphysical dimension. "Optics," the medical term for "sight," derives from the Greek word for "eye" and is the root of the word "optimism." We associate the light with everything positive in our world, with knowledge, happiness and nature's bounty. Indeed, although my condition was medical, it had spiritual origins of which I was unaware.
Afflicted by a rare condition known as vernal catarrh, a growth on the inner eyelids encroaching onthe cornea, I was limited to radio, and eagerly anticipated each spooky episode of Lamont Cranston in The Shadow, or The Lone Ranger, the western adventures of the masked man on his white stallion who posed as an outlaw but always did the right thing. I could listen to early monologists like Jean Shepherd or even occasionally Lord Buckley, or tune in to Symphony Sid, who played jazz until dawn. There was a special license in this activity which was out of parental control and exclusively in mine. Except for the radio and the cooling, tranquil dimness, I had only the slow passage of moments. Living without shadows, behind venetian blinds which were taped into place so that even a breeze could not disturb them, and unable to see invited access to an interior space usually unfamiliar to twelve-year-old boys. One way to reach that space was through reading, which had been placed out of bounds for me because, of course, it required light and strained my eyes.
Disabilities can cause their curious compensations, but my case was a story of disobedience as well. I had announced that quality of troublesome prankishness at the age of four, when I threw my grandmother's hat out of the window.
My father's mother, Manya--a small, scowling woman who limped with a cane--suffered from an advanced case of diabetes which would end her life shortly. She had every right to be peevish and irritable. Her illness and consequent frailty provoked me, and by sending her hat with its artificial roses and veil cascading down to West End Avenue on a blustery afternoon, I was voting for health, my own at least. I admit the incident left me with a certain reputation for wildness in my family, and it did nothing for my health.
My bedroom prison was a place of safety, as every bedroom is a sanctuary of sorts. Reading, mostly at night when everyone else was asleep, defied the injunction of my mother and the ophthalmic surgeon who every few months decided he had to curtail the growth approaching my cornea. This operation, which Dr. Chamlin minimized as a "procedure," was the most frightening aspect of my childhood. Strapped on an operating table, I had to watch a needle delivering the anesthesia penetrate my inner eyelid, gradually piercing deeper, burrowing and slicing, while releasing its liquid. Years later, I saw a similar tableau of horror flash by in the opening moments of Un chien andalou, a short film by Bunuel in which, early in the film, an eye is sliced by a razor blade, its contents pouring out like an outsized tear.
All I would feel during the procedure was the dry scratching of the scalpel as the growth was being removed. A meticulous spider was trapped in my skull, engaged in a sort of paraplegic Kafkian crawl to freedom through the portal of my eye. Although the surgery lasted less than ten minutes, it seemed endless. Dr. Chamlin was a very short man resembling the actor James Cagney. Imperious, almost Napoleonic, radiating authority and control, he ordered me into my dark room after his seventh attempt at shaving my inner eyelid.
2 / A Lowlands Confluence
It was under these compromised circumstances that I began reading Herman Melville's stories, a collection I borrowed from my parents' library. The magniloquence of Melville's embroidering reach, the clotted, sometimes coagulated syntax of some of his sentences, his capacity for a circular sentence strategy to accommodate one qualification after another all reflected the complexity of his thought. The richness of his diction and the Elizabethan reach of his language--the word "welkin" used three times for blue in Billy Budd, for example--did much to deter me in a quest I have already characterized as "delusional," fogged by uncertain vision and the limitations of being twelve. But I had a dictionary to help me like some monk in the medieval night, and the adventurous content of Melville's sea stories to sustain my interest.
But instead of the monk's candle and its telling scent, I had a heavy flashlight whose white beam meant focus. Reading is a form of decoding, an unscrambling of what are essentially a series of abstract signs with little organic or inherent significance, signs which need to be deciphered and then visualized for the sake of comprehension. Though we tend to take this process for granted, it is one of our most intelligent opportunities in the world. Most of us rush along while we read, eager to turn the page, conditioned to move in life as relentlessly as factory workers with a drone ethic. But the best readers are the slowest. Speed-reading--an American invention--turns out to be skimming, which is not reading at all.
Limited as I was, squinting and tearing because of the very light that illuminated my page, with the buoy of Melville's seriousness in my hand, I made deliberate and very slow progress, with time demarcated only by the prospect of the dawn and the fear of discovery.
At twelve I should have been reading Zane Grey, Black Beauty or Jack London's Call of the Wild, great stories written in a more accessible manner. I had been led to Melville because of a mutual Dutch background.
I was born in Antwerp, a port city about a half-hour drive south of the frontier with Holland. My father and his father had been born there before me, and from childhood I was taught about its European reputation as the "city of iconoclasts." The soul of that reputation had slowly evolved through the sixteenth century, a time of fierce repression of Protestants in Antwerp by Spanish Catholic overlords.
Belgium and Holland were separated by Spain after the Renaissance, trussed into tiny countries by a larger power. Flemish, a dialect related to Dutch, was spoken in the northern half of Belgium, the part contiguous with Holland. The Walloons were mostly Protestants in the South who spoke French, even though for centuries they were the butt of Parisian jokes which identified all Belgians as unrefined cartoons in a provincial backwater. Actually, although the Dutch get the official credit, the original settlers of the fort that became Nieu Amsterdam were thirty Walloon families, the clerks and accountants who administered the Dutch West India Company, which acquired New York.
The Walloons have had an abiding contempt for their Dutch cousins, and one index of European xenophobia, ever since modern Belgium was established early in the nineteenth century, has been the mutual disdain of the French and the Flemish in Belgium, who have generally refused to even speak the other's language.
The "nether-," or "lowlands," the rubric for the entire area, gets its name from the peculiar fact that much of its shoreline is below sea level, implying both a particular vulnerability to the ocean and a stoical, stubborn resistance to its perils. The people who live there tend to be imperturbable, stolid, full of a preservative, tough sanity that helps them to stare down the sea even when it is at its most turbulent, or when its presence ensures incessant rain, fog and dreary weather. The inhabitants of the lowlands accept their geography and, as all people must, allow themselves to be somehow shaped by it. It is the calm stare and placid pose Vermeer so often caught in his paintings, a beautiful certainty in static arrest. However, the implacable and indomitable North Sea can cause its particular creative backlash, a wild subterranean manic spirit struggling with the Dutch placidity that one can sometimes see in the cornices and Gothic arabesques carved on the outsides of buildings in Antwerp, or in the paintings of Breugel, Bosch, Van Gogh or Magritte.
The Dutch tend to be both cosmopolitan because they were a seafaring people and, inexplicably, smugly insular in their prosperity. In the seventeenth century, when they settled Nieu Amsterdam, they were reputed to be the most tolerant of different religious practice among the Europeans--which is why the English Puritans settled in Leyden before emigrating to Massachusetts---but a more cynical perspective may affirm that their true god was Mammon and trade was what they worshiped. Banks, as Simon Schama puts it in The Embarrassment of Riches, were the churches of Dutch capitalism.
Today, we know the Wall Street area in lower Manhattan as the central shrine of world finance, but originally it was the perimeter wall of a fort. Nieu Amsterdam, it is important to understand, was a fur traders' camp that grew into a fortified town of only a few hundred settlers before developing into the huge metropolis it is today. Early growth was very slow. By the end of the seventeenth century, its population was less than 5000 and by the time of the American Revolution, still less than 25,000. When the Dutch, at the start of the seventeenth century, settled the region from the Battery in lower Manhattan to what they called Fort Orange, present-day Albany, they took a considerable risk for the sake of acquisition in the fur trade. Amsterdam in Holland was a perilous four-month sea voyage away from Nieu Amsterdam, not a six-hour flight by plane.
From its inception, Nieu Amsterdam was governed by corporate rule with strict regulation over all economic activity; there was no town governance as with the English on western Long Island. The Dutch traded hatchets and hoes, guns and scissors for beaver pelts and venison. Purchasing Manhattan in a scandalous barter that became a paradigm for imperial exploitations to follow, the Dutch West India Company took the right to award or sell the land north of it. The Hudson River was a funnel for warmer southern air, and this made the region temperate and good for farming.
Melville's mother, Maria, was a Gansevoort, the Gansevoorts being a family of master brewers who emigrated to the Hudson valley of New York in the seventeenth century to grow the hops, malt and other grains they needed to brew beer. She spoke Dutch in her childhood home near Albany and was raised with all the phlegmatic Calvinist expectations of piety and moral rectitude, as well as a proper puritanical suspicion of all art, especially fiction.
The Dutch presence in the colonial era was distinct: gardens had tulip beds, roof tiles were imported from Holland, rooms were heated with immense fireplaces whose chimneys were inlaid with parti-colored Dutch tiles. Since there was little glassware, punch was drunk in huge bowls and beer passed in large silver tankards, giving the Dutch a reputation for conviviality.
Furnishings were built of oak or maple, and Dutch women were particularly concerned with the comforts of the bedroom, the curtained bed usually being the most ornamental object in the home. Sheets were homespun linen and every home had several looms. Mattresses were stuffed with goose feathers, coverlets with goose down, and the bed was topped off with a calico quilt.
The Gansevoorts were an important patroon family with a street named after them in lower Manhattan. They were cousins of the Van Rensselaers, the Van Vechtens, the Ten Eycks and van Schaicks, friends with the Van Cortlandts and the Schuylers, invited to balls and weddings by the Frelinghuysens and Rutgerses of New Jersey.
The Dutch influence from Albany to New Jersey was strong through the eighteenth century. English and Dutch are sister languages, descending from what linguists call Low German. The closeness is reflected linguistically in such cognates as baas, which becomes boss; boek, which becomes book; dag, which becomes day; and stoep, the stoops under low projecting eaves where neighbors smoked their long pipes. The Dutch left many local New York place names like Breukelyn, Haarlem, Vlissingen (Flushing), Amsterdam Avenue and the Bowery (which comes from the Dutch word for farmhouse, bouwhuys). Perhaps, because of the swaggering British seizure of Nieu Amsterdam in 1664, the Dutch were patriots during the American Revolution, and George Washington saw the region as his "Loyal Dutch belt."
My father, who spent the First World War among the twisting canals and fantastical colorations of old Amsterdam in Holland, would introduce me familiarly when he met friends on Broadway in Manhattan after the Second World War as his "little Dutch boy." It was this Dutch connection which brought Melville's fiction into my parents' library and, through a corridor of purloined stealth, into my dark sickroom when I was a child.
3 / Chronometricals and Horologicals
I began with Melville's last story, Billy Budd, charmed by the goodwill, the natural grace and the spontaneously cheerful exuberance of Melville's Handsome Sailor, whom he describes as an illiterate twenty-one-year-old youth with a luminous glow and a "smooth face all but feminine in purity of natural complexion." With an "irresistible good nature," the "gaiety of high health," and a "genial happy-go-lucky air," Billy is a figure of strength and beauty. Admired by most of his fellow sailors, Billy's "cheery halooing" is a sign of his uplifting, unifying force.
Lying in my bed, I was so drawn to Billy's healthy strength. Literature is often a source of a subtle though transformative compensation for the deficiencies in our lives. Melville associates Billy with vigor and sunlight, quite different from the obscurity of my bedchamber and the murky glumness with which any invalid sees the world.
Melville stresses that Billy has a "free heart." He begins his nautical career on an American ship allegorically called The Rights-of-Man, and is brusquely forced to serve on the British seventy-four-cannon man-of-war, the Indomitable. Such involuntary conscription of Americans by the English led to a second stage of revolutionary battle, the War of 1812, which was mostly fought at sea, and established a quality of American pugnaciousness which our tattered regiments found difficult to suggest during our initial struggle for independence. For Melville, such matters were of primary importance because his paternal grandfather had inspired a group of American rebels to pour a quantity of imported English tea into the Boston harbor, a mercurial event which triggered the American Revolution and put the Melvilles on the American map.
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