I hate favorites. It smacks of black and white thinking. I can't single out a blue ribbon
winner from the collections of things I enjoy, not even a select few. How am I to make some concrete choice?
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)*
Launching into a tirade
against the oppressive singularity of picking a favorite does not do wonders for the flow of conversation, however. So I must reach a compromise. My favorite movie is Amelie (joy distilled from an abstract principle to a crystaline fable)
. My favorite food is bruschetta (earthy and messy and intermingled scents of oily freshness)
. And my favorite book is Billy Budd
, Herman Melville
's last hurrah before he died a broken and disappointed man.
An odd choice. Why? It's oppresive with its insistance on taking the deepest, most base forces of human nature and dragging them painfully to the light of day. The writing style is dense and messy. It is filled with ugly, pretentious, overlong words so packed together they stumble over themselves and sentence lengths that would make Baby Jesus cry. Unwilling to let any barely related tangent pass him by, our good sir Melville digresses for multiple chapters at a time, with an insincere apology and commentary prefacing each. Billy Budd is boring. Why would I ever choose such a deadweight book among all the wonderous things I've read as my favorite?
Because I was blind, and now I see.
On my first read, I crawled through it tortuously, absorbing just as much as I would need to know for tomorrow's quiz and discussion. Nothing more. After all, it was just another author masturbating himself with words. There was nothing to take from this. Yet the further I went, the harder movement forward became. It was a true struggle to keep my eyes open, the prose was such a strong sedative. Every sentence seemed optimally designed for destroying my will to continue. He was speaking about nothing for paragraph upon paragraph. It took multiple readings to even realize. I was infuriated with our friend Herman. There was no need for him to make this such a horrid experience. He could've flattered his ego in a way less reminiscent of a root canal, if only for the sake of his poor readers. Somehow, I reached the climax and the dénouement, exceedingly grateful to be finally rid of this stain on my reading list. And then there came a poem. Insult to injury. Billy in the Darbies, the fiend declared. And if density seemed a talent of Melville, he didn't truly show his stuff until this moment. For gods' sakes why? I was ready to scream, to toss my book across the room and trample over it in the righteous anger of an English student abused for the last time. What are you trying to tell me you bastard's ghost?!
I'm trying to show you my world, and yours. Look closer.
And all the cogs clicked into place. There's a concept of chaos theory, the sudden, dramatic emergence of activity from a dormant system. The graph's line stays at a steady low ebb, then without warning climbs violently upward. It is not that this progress has come from nothing. Just beyond observation, many small things have changed. They're so unobtrusive as to seem irrelevant. Yet with all the right changes in all the right places, new order blooms. It just needs a catalyst. Look closer. And now, the whole novel fresh in mind, I saw layers and layers of delicious meaning. This encounter between Billy and Claggart happened for a reason. Look closer. This conversation is communicating more than its surface irrelevance. Look closer. These characters are themselves, but they are more than themselves. They are the embodiments of principles, they are the prime movers, the actors, the billions of men and women stretching backward through history and forward through prophecy.
It was as if I had stood on a boat, looking into the water and straining for something to interest me. From time to time someone would surface and describe all the bright, wonderful things down there. I'd shrug indifferently; after all, from here I can only see distorted, color-bled two-dimensional blurs of movement. It can't be all that great. And they'd beg me to join them below the waves, to experience this for myself. I'd shrug again, refusing. "I can't swim." Herman Melville snuck up behind me, quiet as a mouse, and gave me a shove. When I stopped splashing, sputtering, and gagging, these hazy things I'd seen from the surface took shape before me. Iridescent tropical fish, towering coral canyons, the sensuous wave of seaweed in a current. All this was open to me.
It was meaningless until now.
He gave me the key to the kingdom. Now literature, art, film, music, all exploded in new brilliant hues. These gorgeous, sexual, spiritual things became so much overwhelmingly more than they had before. I could see life through the artist's eyes. I could taste of his experiences, lap up as much from the stream as my stomache could bare. To know this world for what it is. To love this world for what it is. To welcome it into my home for evermore.
I never felt so alive.
I don't need to be spoon fed my meanings anymore. Instead of being sullenly dragged along, I'll use my own two feet. For saving me from the curse of Cliffs Notes and cheat sheets. For transforming the boring into the wonderous. For giving me eyes. For freeing me.
Thank you, Mr. Melville.