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January 9, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 2 (p. 21-28)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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"Call me what you will. Some would say that I am the spirit of this house. Others would say that I don't exist at all. Perhaps you will consider me to be only the voice that you give to your own observations or the consciousness behind those random creaks and groans that haunt your ears. Call me what you will. Named, I've been, the Pequod, but I am not the house itself, though we twain are inextricable; no more is an echo the mountain face nor the screamer. I am the echo of time, of experience, and for myself, I call me Ishmael. Listen closely and give me voice, for, whomever or whatever I am, I've tales as much as any whisper.

"When a man has lost his way; when the world no longer holds for him a single mystery; when stones are merely cold, hard, and rough surfaces for the sitting and walls merely planks for the sheltering; yes, when a man has lost his way, the world seems to him only a stage upon which he performs. He reads as if he himself were the author and lives as if he were God. Grand pity, then, upon that man who will not believe that walls can speak. (Do you not see the full extent of the modern man suggested here? Ask yourself: do you believe in me?).

"All sympathy to the man who truly believes that a building's conveyance of ideas ends with the intent of the architect. Is a work of art ever truly finished? Nay, lest that work be set off behind plates of thick glass (or hiddenly preserved deep within an undiscovered cavern). Perhaps not even then. Is not a symphony reassessed with each performance? Does not the conductor add to or take from the notation? Does not the listener translate it to his own emotions? Is a novel not expanded with each published criticism — each pinned upon the dust cover of the previous until six hundred and twenty-five pages are augmented to tens of thousands? Or if not this, then consider the original text. Does a crisp new paperback tell the same tale as an antiquated leather-bound edition? Do not forget the underlines! It must be true that every new crease, fold, or stray mark changes, somewhat, the message.

"Argue if you will that even here it is the influence of outside agents inscribing the wall with character, that marks are placed upon the walls and not derived from within them: a wall merely a slate. Yet what are human beings if not similar tableaux? Who does the marking? Look up. Stare at the wall to your opposite. Perhaps you will someday describe, in writing, the crack which runs its length. Is not the wall then making its own mark upon you? Then you upon the paper? Then that paper upon a reader? And so on. Is not a wall that has been smeared in a child's chocolate making its own smear upon the mother who then relates the story to a friend (perhaps the stain sinks too deeply for bleaching)? Yes, yes, and yes, again! A creation no less than a person is nothing save the sum of its influences. Every work of art is the inevitable outcome of the experiences of its creator, and inevitably an influence on future artists! A wall merely relates the story of all forces which have ever acted upon it, but by relating that story it acts upon the viewer. So verily, any structure can offer its own tale if there be an apt translator.

"What of soul?, you may ask. What of the deep bottomless soul that pervades the self-conscious? Don't thoughts have their value? Can this great fluid body of judgment ever be scarred like so much crumbling plaster? No, you say. Nothing marks a person's mind with any perpetuity. A flow of intuition cuts canyons of ingenuity and whittles away at continents of static belief. Ah but within your argument is your own undoing: a soul is no more mutable than puddles in courtyard turf. The moon conducts the tides, the density of the ground influences the river's path, and those obscure, gliding, beautiful things that elude the senses in deep indiscernibility ripple, though temporarily, the surface. A titanic wave may merely be the piled up plungings of unseen phantoms, but thoughts are merely a visible surge similarly caused. And so, though I'll not dispute that humans are more fickle than walls or stones, we are all created only to be splashed, whittled, or chipped away, and a soul is a fifth wheel on a wagon.

"There are no original thoughts, only new undulations of old ideas, some higher and more powerful. This is why it is the easiest thing in the world for a man to appear wise, as if he hides a great secret within him, for the wisest thing to hide is an empty space; the derivative nature of its contents cannot be divulged if the water holds its stillness. Because people cannot claim their hard-formed thoughts as their own, they merely pretend that a nothingness is the fruit of their wisdom and they the only ones able to see that it is of value. In a building, by contrast, nothing can be truly hidden. Pry up the correct boards, and all is there to see.

"A building holds its mysteries without inhibitions. Take a look. Make what you will of them; they are all given freely beneath that roof, though shingled with riddles. Look again at the crack in your own wall: it is plainly displayed. Dost thou find it distasteful and so wish to cover it with paper? Perhaps the floorboards upon which you tread are knotted and so you carpet them. Do so. Then look at your handiwork. Does not the crack show through? Do not the contortions of the planks create so many frozen waves in your matting, even if only because you know they are there? Now perhaps the years will pass and the cracks and bends will expand. Perchance you've forgotten their origin. Oh the temptation to rip off the superficial covering in order to find the sources of your vain agony and level them! But you will never render the plane even, for even these superficial marks but afford the basis for far other delineations, and all indecipherable.

"So, finding that you will forever fail to cover faults, leave them be. See if you cannot glean their story from the details, for it is only consideration of these that yields a thoroughly appreciative understanding of the revelations signified. Supply your own allusions. Gather your acquaintances together and each impart an origin. What caused this flaw? From whence this scratch? Ask a million men and each will give you a different reading: one rendering after another and another, all from one text. Just as there are all sorts of shades with which to color, so are there of men in this one world, so are there tales to be told.

"But perhaps the crack shames you too much to lay it bare. Look thee then upon this house here and, finding yourself so far from home and your steps so untraceable, feel free to ponder. For it is a rare structure indeed, a mansion of the old school, long-seasoned and weather-stained, old antiquities renewed with each added feature in a curious quaintness of material and device. Tricked forth in the remnant souvenirs of all its ageless inhabitants. Marvel thee at the dark hue of its outer walls? 'Tis merely a touch of the noble melancholy appropriate to a house called the Pequod."

"How it came to stand here is unknown; rather, one explanation is as provable as another. There is no road leading easily to or from it. Perhaps (for nothing true can be bluntly stated) the layer of this foundation was wandering about the Catskills and chanced to catch a glimpse of an eagle diving into a black gorge. Skirting down the hillside and up the next he at last found himself at an impasse, with no idea as to his location save that he was still a great distance from the tauntingly hovering bird. Finally, losing the bird in the sun, he decided to stand his ground, far from any corrupting society: no one near him but Nature herself, and her he took to wife in the wilderness with the whole of March to honeymoon. While reclining in the embrace of his moody amore, he looked to the long-drawn vales (which could no longer be said to be virgin) and the mild blue hillsides, listening intently to the leafy sighs of the trees, the gurgling of the stream, and the over-all hush and hum of solitude. Many a lovely day he may have spent thus engaged.

"But a man will ever stray when pastorality's motherly affection takes him to breast and indulges him with calm and contentedness. Within months of marriage, linking arms with the red-cheeked, dancing girls, April and May, he sent forth his sprouts and tried in vanity to escape his homely bride. Thus scorned, the abandoned spouse — though matronly, still not above the pettiness common to all gods — borrowed from Apollo his song and translated the punishment of the fickle Daphne to her own adulterous lover. But improving upon her example's design, to separate her forbidden mate from his mistresses, she forbade him the branches on which they might have begotten unto him the buds of their affection, instead substituting lattice-work and lath for living bark. Hence was he offered up as a haven for kindred spirits, and the coming of his mistresses in the moist Spring would serve to further rot him through rather than arouse him to life and ecstasy.

"Here fellows inflicted with similar meanderings of the eye would meet with the sympathy of sailors in common pursuit and their shared privations and perils. ‘A home I'll be for hermits, an asylum for the romantic, melancholy, or absent-minded souls,' he would have cried as his head peaked and his mouth opened into a row of sparkling windows.

"And so it stands, this house, eyes facing off into the hills, chin rested atop a steep declivity. Reversed, as if rushing from the plateau on which it stands into the next crevice."

* * *

"Here a brief discussion of architecture may prove meritorious, though it must by necessity be an incomplete one, as the equal part of that science is conducted from an internal perspective as yet unafforded. To the untrained passer-by, this house appears to resemble many of those yet extant examples of Early American domesticity, and indeed they have much in common; but it would be overly dismissive to cast it under this category, because that would fail to take into account the various quirks prevalent mostly by the manner and material from which it was raised and the purposes for which it is used. Granted the feel is much the same as that of the Parson Cape House of Massachusetts, with the dark weathered hue of its exterior walls; it shares a certain educational designation on a level often rivaling that of any building on Jefferson's Quadrangle; in addition, it must be considered as sharing some of the nautical flare reminiscent of that Old Ship Meeting House of Hinghamshire, but that Old Ship has been toppled, and its ribs open downward, whereas the Pequod still floats on; but look here, there are two open towers of medieval stone on each western corner, and the windows that grace the eastern side break any pretense at the symmetry customary in Early Americanism: with five on the second level and two on the ground floor, on which the entryway throws off any hope of evenness as a third entity. No, there's more to this building than any puritan or forefather ever intentionally imbued, having sprung up mythically as it did.

"The solid construction, in contrast to the perishable foliage all around, exudes a sense of eternity only accomplished by those grand, skyward-pointing pyramids of ancient Egypt, and certainly the designer had those far away erections in mind when considering the house, though it is an elongated block in shape. How small the approaching visitor feels when enshadowed by this magisterial imposition, especially when approaching from down hill, but alas the morbid design of those deserted pharaohs' tombs makes the difference irreconcilable on account of the drabness of their effect: there is more here than raw magnitude. Perhaps you may suggest that, with their intricate friezes, Mesopotamian ziggurats would bear more close an aesthetic resemblance; however, not only are those too frighteningly covered in human-headed, winged lions, not only are those temples inverted, with their most important shrine singly on the outside top, but look closely and you find that this comparison must be discarded by the actuality that it is the corners of a ziggurat which generally point to the four dominant directions of the compass and not the walls, as is the case with the specimen being here considered.

"Now, if the mountains over which you've traversed remind you of a rolling green sea, so might the house remind you of the Cretan culture of which Homer offered the slightest description in the Iliad, yet verily must the intelligent design be more like the democratic clarity of Athens' buildings, which welcomed any and all to enter. And yes, the columns that support the portico roof are almost overly Doric in their wooden-beam simplicity, but the steps insinuate a Roman mentality by their broken positioning on three sides only: a Grecian ideal would have demanded that they be wound completely about the circumference. But the Roman architects' tendency toward derivativity disqualifies them from the description, for this house here is the archetype of originality. Additionally, the intricate Composite style of many Roman columns and the walls that grew up to twenty feet in thickness, as those of the Pantheon, were indicative of an inapplicable and overstated philosophy made apparent of that race in Virgil's Aeneid. What's more, Roman homesteads tended toward modesty, a quality which hardly coincides in this case.

"Perhaps looking at churches will provide a more directly enlightening path to a designation for the Pequod. And yes, it is true that the walls of Early Christian churches faced the same directions of the compass as this secular temple and that they share an emphasis on interior, but the Christians' use of plain wooden roofs hinted at an impermanence hardly similar at all to a pyramid. Indeed, perhaps, the pagan churches of India, such as the Dargan Temple of Aihole, intended to be the seats of gods and the orificial sites for worshippers to enter into their wills, were more wisely designated by translating a wooden erection into obdurate stone. But the Indians were too free with their decoration and so ruined any semblance to the somber-looking mansion. The same is true of the Byzantine Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the well-proportioned but morbidly decorative Islamic Taj Mahal.

"So can consideration of the entire Renaissance be ignored for the opulence of the Louvre and the two-dimensionality of Pazzi's Chapel in Florence. Even Post-Renaissance Baroque, aided by Palladro's books and the sculptor's eye of Michelangelo for the manipulation of light, even these did not prevent the gaudy exuberance of Bernini and Barromini. Only Versailles, with its windows facing out over extensive gardens, bears any similarity in view to the structure in question. Though the trends of those times may have been somewhat improved by the intimacy of Rococo and the pedimented porticoes of the Georgian style, still the ensuing nostalgia for preceding cultures undermines any perceived redemption of the opulently vulgar Victorians. Only Eclecticism incorporated a sufficiently scholarly sympathy for design to overcome a reliance on the past, just look at the tasteful facade of General Lee's Mansion in Arlington, with its unpretentious wooden imitation of the Greeks, and by contrast you will see that surely this northern structure outdoes any created through the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries.

"The studious listener may have noticed that one important architectural genre has been conspicuously absent from this discourse so far, and it is here that the grandest comparisons may be made. With its infinite aspect and lack of definition, the Gothic style had an ambiance that is directly parallel to that of the house. In English hands, the minsters were surrounded by vast lawns and trees similar in texture to the forests of New York State, and towers were erected on the western end in both locales. Indeed, when considering the complementary harmony of John Ruskin's cathedrals in Stones of Venice and his insistence on the human beauty inherent in flaws, it looks as if this house has found a home. Even the Gothic spirit, with the entire community hauling stones upon their backs for the construction of Chartres, could hardly fail to be, as a social statement, emulated by the Pequod's folk. Truly, what are radiating chapels, pointed arches, and flying buttresses but the excessive, but forgivable, flamboyance of the Frenchmen who first instituted the Gothic?

"Yet, still does this partial deliberation fall short. For what is this house but the very transfer of the Forbidden City of Peking to America? And what are the Appalachian mountains but an earthly version of the Great Wall of China? And how, pray tell, does one account for the deceptive normality of the thing? It looks much like any large house, yet it is not. No, this speculation is doomed to failure. Truth to tell, the Pequod, having sprung from a human head, will ever defy description. But is not the same true for all natural mysteries? And aren't all human conventions and sciences really only a far-sighted search for themselves? Ach, in codifying, the possibilities are endlessly obscure. So approach, ye traveler, approach and look for truth, not explanation."

Posted by Justin Katz at January 9, 2005 2:27 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches