Summer classics revisited

It’s my goal in life to read the books I was supposed to read in college. I have looked to the St. John’s College Summer Classics program to help me achieve my goal. This year I took advantage of the Zoom edition of the program to sign up for classes over two weeks, the first on Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and the second on Faulkner’s Flags in the Dust. I am glad to have read both.

The number 7 looms large in The Magic Mountain. It’s one of the many motifs that runs through the novel. Jeffrey Meyers’s New Criterion essay on it describes this motif as Mann’s “playful numerology.”

More than anything, however, the novel is one of ideas. Much of the book consists of argument between two characters contending for the soul of the protagonist. As I say, I am glad to have read the book, but reading it felt like seven years. I didn’t find it a pleasurable experience. I am certain this reflects my limitations rather than Mann’s. It’s a work of genius and an impressive novel.

I was supposed to read The Magic Mountain in Peter Bien’s great Dartmouth comparative literature course on the modern novel. The reading was too damn much — but I still remember Professor Bien’s lectures on The Magic Mountain. They were excellent. Looking around online as I was working through the novel, I found University of Chicago Professor David Wellbery’s lecture on it last fall. He canvassed it in one hour much the way Professor Bien did over a week of classes. Professor Wellbery is breathless as he seeks to cram it all into one hour. If you have any interest, however, this is worthwhile.

Flags in the Dust is the reconstructed version of the heavily edited Sartoris, Faulkner’s first novel of Yoknapatawpha County. It was immediately followed by The Sound and The Fury, Faulkner’s first classic novel. It is amazing to me how clearly Faulkner seems to have foreseen the series of classic novels he intended to write from the beginning in Flags in the Dust, though Flags in the Dust itself is good rather than great.

Faulkner undoubtedly awaits cancelation when the illiterate left get around to him, but his sardonic take on the South is present even in Flags in the Dust. Aunt Jenny — Virginia Sartoris Du Pre — is the family historian who tells the tales of her Confederate siblings to succeeding generations. Her brother Bayard Sartoris was killed in 1862 by a Union Army cook when he foolishly tried to “capture” some anchovies from the army mess. Early in the novel Faulkner writes of Aunt Jenny:

It was she who told them [i.e., the Sartoris family] of the manner of Bayard Sartoris’ death prior to the second battle of Manassas. She had told the story many times since (at eighty she still told it, on occasions usually inopportune) and as she grew older the tale itself grew richer and richer, taking on a mellow splendor like wine, until what had been a hare-brained prank of two heedless and reckless boys wild with their own youth, was become a gallant and finely tragical focal-point to which the history of the race had been raised from out the old miasmic swamps of spiritual sloth by two angels valiantly fallen and strayed, altering the course of human events and purging the souls of men.

I think the tale of the anchovies is a stand-in for the Lost Cause school of Confederate mythology. (Incidentally, I had overlooked this passage until it was pointed out by one of my fellow students in our last class this past Friday.) St. John’s Messrs. Frank Pagano and James Carey taught the seminar on Flags in the Dust. They are fantastic teachers and my fellow students were far more perceptive than I about the merits of the novel.

My wife took the Summer Classics seminar on Moby Dick. That is one book I have read twice. It may be the greatest American novel. It is magnificent. I can’t imagine how Melville survived its lack of recognition. This year I read Andrew Delbanco’s Melville: His World and Work on my own instead.

At the outset of his book Delbanco documents the ubiquity of Moby Dick (both the character and the novel). It’s a theme that Delbanco first tried out in the 2001 New York Times column “Melville has never looked better.” There Delbanco wrote:

Today, Melville and his whale have resurfaced and seem to be everywhere — in popular as well as high culture, in the arts as well as the academy, in this country as well as abroad. Some six million American homes tuned in to the recent USA Network version of “Moby-Dick,” and the book has lately inspired a critically acclaimed opera, a dramatic piece by the performance artist Laurie Anderson, a series of artworks by Frank Stella and a widely read novel written from the point of view of Ahab’s long-suffering wife.

Throughout the world, patrons sipping latte in Starbucks pay unwitting homage to the coffee-drinking first mate of the Pequod; outside the medieval Belgian city of Ghent, a favorite local brothel is called Moby Dick Fun Pub. The lead singer of the rock band Papa Roach has named himself Coby Dick, and, in imitation of what Melville calls Ahab’s “terrific, loud, animal sob,” belts out, “I am a mess! I’ve made a huge mess! I can’t control myself.”

And if the first words of “Moby-Dick,” “Call me Ishmael,” are universally familiar, its last words — “then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled 5,000 years ago” — have currency too: a reporter for Slate.com quoted them recently to describe Pamela Anderson’s breasts after her implants were removed.

Delbanco’s book includes illustrations that add to the humor of his passage on this point.

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