Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Herman Melville’

15 APRIL, 2014

Herman Melville on Art

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On the mystical mastery of wrestling with the angel.

“Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness,” philosopher Alain de Botton assured in Art as Therapy, one of the best art books of 2013. “Art is not a thing — it is a way,” Elbert Hubbard declared in what became one of the most beautiful definitions of art. But how do we lay the bricks that pave that way and construct the soul? From the 1954 gem Reader and Writer (public library) — a collection of notable meditations on “the technology of language and its human aims,” featuring contributions from such literary titans as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Francis Bacon, and Henry David Thoreau — comes this magnificent meditation on art from Herman Melville, in a poem unambiguously titled “Art”:

ART

In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt — a wind to freeze;
Sad patience — joyous energies;
Humility — yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity — reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel — Art.

Illustration by Matt Kish from 'Moby-Dick in Pictures.' Click image for details.

Also from Reader and Writer, which is a treat in its entirety, see Melville’s poetic daily routine. Pair with history’s finest definitions of art.

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30 JANUARY, 2014

Herman Melville’s Daily Routine and Thoughts on the Writing Life

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“A book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism.”

After my recent exploration of how the sleep habits of famous authors affected their creative output, I found myself revisiting a decade’s worth of notes and marginalia on the daily routines and odd customs of literary greats, and inevitably remembered some I had missed in the visualization project. Among them was the immeasurably beautiful daily routine of Herman Melville found in the wonderful 1954 volume Reader and Writer (public library) — a collection of notable meditations on the osmotic arts of reading and writing, on “the technology of language and its human aims,” featuring contributions from such literary titans as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Francis Bacon, and Henry David Thoreau.

In a letter from December of 1850, mere months before the publication of Moby-Dick, Melville writes to his friend Evert Duyckink, editor of The New York Literary Journal, and describes his life in the country, shortly after he left New York City and settled on a farm in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts with his new wife, Elizabeth Shaw. After a few facetious lines about having neglected to write to his friend for months, Melville paints this beautiful vignette imbued with his nautical obsession:

I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country, now that the ground is all covered with snow. I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin; & at nights when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, & I had better go on the roof & rig in the chimney.

Illustration by Matt Kish from 'Moby-Dick in Pictures.' Click image for details.

He then outlines his daily routine, emanating his equal passion for writing and life — and above all, perhaps, his profound understanding of how the two flow in and out of one another:

Do you want to know how I pass my time? — I rise at eight — thereabouts — & go to my barn — say good-morning to the horse, & give him his breakfast. (It goes to my heart to give him a cold one, but it can’t be helped) Then, pay a visit to my cow — cut up a pumpkin or two for her, & stand by to see her eat it — for its a pleasant sight to see a cow move her jaws — she does it so mildly & with such a sanctity. — My own breakfast over, I go to my work-room & light my fire — then spread my M.S.S. [manuscripts] on the table — take one business squint at it, & fall to with a will. At 2-½ P.M. I hear a preconcerted knock at my door, which (by request) continues till I rise & go to the door, which serves to wean me effectively from my writing, however interested I may be. My friends the horse & cow now demand their dinner — & I go & give it them. My own dinner over, I rig my sleigh & with my mother or sisters start off for the village — & if it be a Literary World day, great is the satisfaction thereof. — My evenings I spend in a sort of mesmeric state in my room — not being able to read — only now & then skimming over some large-printed book.

Melville ends with an endearing, tongue-in-cheek lament about the disconnect between his ambition and his productivity and the general creative paradox of writing:

Can you send me fast-writing youths, with an easy style & not averse to polishing their labors? If you can, I wish you would, because since I have been here I have planned about that number of future works & cant find enough time to think about them separately — But … a book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism. And taking a book off the brain, is akin to the ticklish & dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel — you have to scrape off the whole brain in order to get at it with due safety — & even then, the painting may not be worth the trouble.

Complement with more daily routines from Charles Darwin, William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, John Updike, Joy Williams, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and other literary greats.

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01 AUGUST, 2013

Stunning Handcrafted Felt-on-Felt Typographic Homage to Melville’s Moby-Dick

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“Almost forgetting for the moment all thoughts of Moby Dick, we now gazed at the most wondrous phenomenon which the secret seas have hitherto revealed to mankind.”

Herman Melville (August 1, 1819–September 28, 1891) was the first writer to have his life’s work published by the Library of America. His 1851 masterpiece Moby-Dick (free download; public library) is considered one of the greatest books of all time and has since spawned countless creative homages, from Matt Kish’s irresistible daily drawings of the novel’s pages, which were among the best art books of 2011, to these lovely typographic prints supporting global literacy. To mark Melville’s birthday, here comes a gorgeous felt-on-felt typographic Moby-Dick cover concept by modern sage, author, artist, and interviewer extraordinaire Debbie Millman:

Debbie has previously illustrated Anaïs Nin on love, Edith Windsor’s historic call with President Obama, and astronaut Sally Ride’s legacy. See more of her work on her site and revisit her exceptional commencement address on courage and the creative life.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.