Melville the Television

Lucky for us, popular culture does not need to be affirmed or denied. It’s happening, and you and I, as members of the populace, are in it. This is not to say that there are not all sorts of ways to bargain with our position, en masse or otherwise. But this is to say that popular culture is nothing if not adaptable, adjusting its rhetoric and bullseyes to fit the times, persuasions, and lifestyles of its potential patrons.

And yet. And yet. The word ‘popular’ is vulgar, yes? Who wants to figure themselves a forgettable-if-not-already-forgotten fixture in what is by definition a generality? Not I. I am you, and we are special beyond all reason and articulation. The first bell the word ‘popular’ rings is of middle/high-school, the ‘popular kids’ usually something vile or cruel; at best they can’t help that they’re the ones that were blessed with cheekbones or waists or breasts or charm or money or or talent. I see a paradox here; in some sense, popular is something we reject as repulsive and cheap, and yet it is also, at least in the popular mind, something to which we aspire, something we are lonelier for having been excluded from. Note that in Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman, America’s archetypical Suicidal Father, makes his bread by being “liked.”

Popular in the popular mind is a bit of a paradox also. The situation I’ve described, popularity in a school setting, is one of the most heavily mediated experiences of my childhood. Indeed, I don’t know whether I actually experienced the hierarchy of high school from within or without stuff like Saved By the Bell, Hey Arnold, or Mean Girls.

The favorite instrument of popular media probably being the television, everyone’s favorite release valve/whipping boy. Notoriously pandering to the lowest common denominator, if art is food TV is a sugar rush. [Note: I am by no means the origin of that analogy.] It was oft repeated in middle school, the average American spends six hours a day consuming television, and although given that the rise of the do-everything-screen (the computer) has probably lowered the national average of TV proper, I nonetheless doubt that recreational viewership has seriously declined. No: At least for me and my peers, television is a fundamental human experience.

So fundamental, in fact, that I find myself either reading our American “classics”–“difficult, challenging” texts, mind you–through its glass; or I am seeing that television has just brought some of our creative blueprint to bear. For instance, Melville, specifically Moby Dick, is a creative origin of the television. I will provide three examples.

Firstly, Moby Dick‘s plot or premise is incredibly simple, yet magnetizing: Boy is sad. Boy boards ship, ship steered by maniac. Maniac wants whale. Ship pursues whale. Wacky drama ensues. Whale sinks ship. Fin. The dramatic action of Moby Dick is not at all why readers have returned and returned to it for going on two centuries. This five hundred to six hundred page novel easily could have been rendered in one hundred pages. What happens between the dramatic action, however, is the feature of this text. Loaded with interpolated stories, cliff-hangers, and digressions so unexpected they’re practically commerical breaks, the premise of this story is only a seductive measure, an excuse to continue reading through its sub-plots, oddly-developed themes, and money makers. The commercial break is, after all, why you’re reading. It was designed that way.

If “pyschological depth” is why you read fiction, Moby Dick is a let down. The characters are exceedingly vibrant, they are funny and interesting and they say the darndest things. But aside from Ishmael and perhaps Ahab, maybe Pip, Starbuck has a few nice moments; these characters are entirely two-dimensional and are practically revealed from the mention of their name. Moby Dick is high drama, but it’s operatic (read: soap operatic?). It doesn’t care to show you how characters are changed by their circumstance. It shows you that circumstance owns character, and it does so with great expansiveness. Sorry Melville, but Moby Dick is first and foremost an allegory, and, like Lost or South Park, its characters at best force certain ideas and subject matter to errupt, at worst they’re stuck in the fourth grade for enternity.

After it all, the voice of Ishmael is why Moby Dick will continue to be read and reread. Moby Dick is told in the first person from its outcast narrator, and Ishmael governs the text with a poetical voice that is, in my mind, much more exciting than Shakespeare. Let’s be honest, Shakespeare’s heights are completely unwarranted in some of his characters. In our age, poetry has proven itself to need justification. Because the world is told by this one Ishmael (who may not even be named Ishmael; he just instructs us to call him as such) every inch of Moby Dick flows through a mind intent on telling a dazzling story. But this voice, the reason for Moby Dick, is it not also something of a gadget? A bit of trickery? It reminds me of that show Lie to Me with Tim Roth, a show where a man could instantly tell if someone was lying. It was an exciting show; but the gadget, this “power” of Roth’s got old, and alas, the show was cancelled. Indeed, those who don’t make it through Moby Dick have often told me, “the speaker is just too much.”

Nevermind that Melville’s father was a failed businessman, that Melville’s early successes were cheap action novels, that Melville had had what proved to be a monumental encounter with that dark-alley of allegory, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Nevermind that Moby Dick sold five hundred copies and that Melville tore his subsequent novel, Pierre, to bits, later injecting a few chapters with reference to America’s conditions being impossible for artistry, or that he would work a stupid job in Manhattan and die insane, alone, in Maine or somewhere. Formally, it seems to me that this “lonely genius” introduced the material to mark art and artistry as almost a moot point. If one picks their subject matter to reflect what one already knows, and structures the content so as to induce creation, any team can assemble what is a successful episodic narrative. Thus, the creation of television is as much an exercise in form as it is one of mechanical reproduction. Again, popular culture does not need to be affirmed or denied. It is popular, and it is culture.

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