Herman Melville

BITTEN: BREAKING BAD

4  FLY FISHING

 

ahab2

 

Moby Dick is the American equivalent of The Brothers Karamazov.  The two novels are important but flawed.  Both Dostoevsky and Herman Melville had finer moments.  Crime And Punishment by Dostoevsky is both readable and profound.  The best efforts of Melville are found in the great and complex Billy Budd and his fabulous and still provocative short story Bartleby.  Like The Brothers Karamazov, the lumpen Moby Dick has a predictable plot, symbolic mouthpieces as characters and turgid prose.  More than me, though, have read Moby Dick, cursed the damned thing and felt obliged to read it again.  Moby Dick is an essential book that is examined rather than enjoyed.  The sometimes stodgy text remains relevant.  Somewhere a wag spun the alternative title Ish And The Fish.  The irreverent option offers some relief to students.

In Breaking Bad, and after being told he has cancer, Walter White rejects the available and pragmatic solution that will enable him to pay for the cost of his health care.  Walter has too much pride to accept the gift from his old associates Gretchen and Elliott.  Walter has something to prove.  The mild mannered schoolteacher becomes a vengeful drug dealer and, like Gretchen and Elliott, super rich.

sea

Captain Ahab lost his leg attempting to catch Moby Dick, the white leviathan whale that defined the Universe.  Kill Moby Dick, and Captain Ahab can establish that ‘the Milky White Way’ or Universe is nothing more than a white morass of particles.  Ahab has contempt for what the scientist regards as knowledge.  ‘He paints pretty pictures of the Universe but it is all space, all whiteness like the whale.’  Ahab can be difficult, testy and all too willing to sacrifice the lives of the men on his ship but he has a point when he insists that we see too much of ourselves in the world.  Walter White is the clever chemist who can make and fix things but what he sees is distorted by the delusions he has about himself.

On board the Pequod there is debate between Captain Ahab and Starbuck, the second in command.  They discuss the merits of the the decisions taken by Ahab.  Starbuck and Ahab may be more polite to each other but, like Walter and Jesse, the two seamen argue.  Jesse regards making crystal meth as a way of making money.  Walter wants to stop ‘being scared’.  When Starbuck realises that Ahab has ambitions other than collecting the sperm oil which will make the voyage profitable, he argues that ‘We hunt to live.  We do not live to hunt.’  Walt is like Ahab.  He lives to hunt.  He wants power and vengeance against a wasted life. Both Ahab and Walter are wild men.  Elsewhere, Mike is the able but sanctimonious hit man that assists major meth dealer Gustavo Fring.  Mike realises that Walter is as capable as Captain Ahab of wrecking the ship.  Neither Mike nor Starbuck prevails.  Wild men believe in destiny.  The responsible understand the power of fate.  If Mike had read his Bible, he would have realised that Ahab and Walt are willing to be compared to wilful Abraham, to be like the prophet and have every man against them.

capt-ahab

In Breaking Bad the name Walter White is a reference to Walt Whitman the American existential poet.  Walter has a collection of the poems of Whitman in his toilet.  The book is a gift from Gale, a drippy libertarian who, prior to being killed, was a fellow crystal meth maker.  Raw existentialism, rather than mere alienation, has a poor record in American literature.  The books have been fine but the philosophy of authors like Norman Mailer suffered from chest beating and an excess sense of male entitlement to personal freedom.  The tone of Whitman also suggests too much ego but at least Walt understood that individual freedom could not be at the expense of others.  ‘I celebrate myself and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.’  Whitman was searching for an authentic existence, a life that could be lived in good faith and according to personal values rather than those imposed by society.  This search, he urged, must be embraced by everyone or at least all those capable and willing.  ‘But you a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known, Arouse! For you must justify me.’

Walt_blackmails_Gretchan_and_Elliot

Walter White changes after he knows he has cancer.  ‘I am awake,’ he says.  Walter realises that his life has been what has happened to him rather than something he shaped.  Neither himself nor others ‘justify’ poor Walter.  At the end of the series, and in conversation with his wife Skyler, he insists that because of his drug dealing adventure he is justified.  ‘I did it for me.  And I was good at it.  I felt alive.’  Walter, despite the teasing references to Whitman, is not an existential hero.  Walter, like Ahab, is a bad guy.  His fate is that virtue and honour are beyond him.  As a young man, Walter walked away from Gretchen and forfeited a once in a lifetime business opportunity.  Because his potential will now be unrealised, Walter is obliged for the rest of his life to be either submissive or destructive.  This is his fate.  Walter is clever and has scientific knowledge but he has no understanding of these existential limitations.  Ahab did not spend all that time staring across oceans for nothing.   He understood.  Walter the chemist or scientist only sees himself in the world that was around him.

there-are-some-rare-comedic-moments-that-you-don_t-find-elsewhere-in-the-show-photo-u1

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan uses the episode The Fly to emphasise the metaphor.  The use of a common insect as a substitute for the whale is both audacious and brilliant.  Ahab wants to look the Universe in the eye and be its equal.  Moby Dick is the white monument to ‘space’.  Walter wants his crystal meth laboratory to be a pristine universe, something pure and completely free of ‘contamination’.  At one point Walter recognises the impossibility of catching the fly, of creating an uncontaminated universe where the chemistry is controlled by the mastery of the talented chemist.  In frustration Walter suggests abandoning the chase of the fly.  The pristine universe is beyond him.  ‘It is all contamination,’ says Walter.  It is the hapless Jesse, the sidekick with the makeshift harpoon that kills the fly.

A more fanciful comparison between Breaking Bad and Moby Dick exists in the presence of Walt Junior.  The son of Walter White has cerebral palsy and walks with the aid of crutches.  R J Mitte the actor who plays Walt Junior also has cerebral palsy but he does not need the aid of crutches to walk.  Despite them being used for dramatic effect momentarily in a couple of instances there is no obvious need to have the actor walk around on crutches.  The son of Walter perhaps represents the wooden leg, the legacy from Moby Dick that Captain Ahab curses.

walt_jr

Both Walter and Ahab have skills and knowledge that make them valuable, a utility for others.  ‘Do something scientific,’ pleads drug partner Jesse.  Almost without realising, both Ahab and Walter cease to be a utility.  Their knowledge feeds obsession and becomes a destructive power that leads to the premature death of others.  Ahab destroys his ship the Pequod, and the interventions of Walter help explode a Boeing 737.

Walter controls his drug business in the same way Ahab is dictatorial on board his ship.  The two men believe in an order based on merit, last in and first out, winners and losers, survivors and the deceased.  The author Melville insists upon the opposite, we are all equal, Indians, Africans and the white man.  According to Melville, the ruler is made infirm by his power and is not fit to have authority over anyone.  Often the ruler is compelled to pursue valediction for this inappropriate enhanced status.  The altar of a ruler is not a place where he seeks comfort but inspiration.  His enemies are the altar.  They inspire the powerful man to seek conflict and to triumph.

Breaking Bad Anna Gunn, Bryan Cranston  CR: Ben Leuner/AMC

If Moby Dick is a tale about men then 150 years later Breaking Bad imagined a contribution by women.  For a brief period Skyler helps Walter to launder his drug money.  Ishmael became a confidante of Captain Ahab.  For most of the voyages of Ahab and Walter, though, Ishmael and Skyler are obliged to be observers.  Skyler sets out on a marriage with someone who perhaps she hopes may complement her own middle class ambitions.  Instead she is led out of surburbia, and across the ocean that is Albuquerque, by a remote man with a private obsession, someone who ‘hunts to live’.   In the final conversation between Skyler and Walter there is the revelation that Walter ‘felt alive’ as a drug dealer.  Walter has made mistakes, done a lot of damage but has also had his Whitmanesque moments.   At least Skyler at the end of Breaking Bad has her two children.  Like Ishmael, she has returned to dry land.  While Walter says goodbye and attempts to explain, Skyler remains silent.  What she learnt from the voyage will remain a secret but, like Ishmael, she will remember the journey and now be alert to the mystery that is her fellow men and women.  Walter leaves Skyler and returns to the ocean where he will soon destroy his enemies.  He will then swallow what remains of the ocean and drown.

Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here. 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

BLAST FROM THE PAST

WALT WHITMAN AND ELVIS

Walt Whitman Poet Literature

 

French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote this in Democracy In America

There will be more wit than erudition, more imagination than profundity  … performance will bear marks of the untutored and rude vigour of thought, frequently of great variety and singular fecundity.

It sums up Elvis Golden Records Volume 1 quite well.  This is what Walt Whitman said in his poem Song Of Myself –

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,

The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,

The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.

Whitman was determined to deny himself nothing, to embrace the whole world because he was, like all  human beings, ‘inevitable and limitless’. He was not necessarily the father of American ambition but he was adamant that it was different from what had gone before and that the possibilities and consequence could be enormous. Others who have written about Elvis have mentioned Walt Whitman and also Herman Melville. Comment, though, has been restricted to saying no more than Whitman, Melville and Presley are all American artists and democrats, as if the mere mention of an actual poet in an essay on Elvis requires discreet footsteps.

In Mystery Train – Images Of America In Rock And Roll Greil Marcus criticises Elvis for not giving an emphatic no to the tasteless elements of American culture.  Marcus quotes the novel Bartleby by Melville with its hero who ‘prefers not to’ and argues that all serious artists must say no to something.  But Marcus also uses Whitman to emphasise the importance of Elvis and so contradicts the Bartleby assertion.  Both Whitman and Elvis were determined to contain everything.  Whitman does say no but his no is different because he is saying no to saying no to anything.  He rejects the discriminators.  Our lives will not have the required grandeur unless we are sensitive to everything and welcome all into our sensibility.  He does not respect racial or cultural birth right in the way of blues and country music purists.  We are universal and share entitlement, the oppressed and the privileged.

1_J6r1Mv3oX3qbqp7iz0on8g

Although Whitman was white and from New Jersey, he claimed –

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs.

And –

I celebrate myself and sing myself

And what I assume you shall assume

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

In the inclusive world of Whitman there is no patent on virtue and talent.  It demands to be shared and copied.  The vibrancy of contradictions is more important than identity.

Do I contradict myself

Very well then I contradict myself.

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

If he draws a line, it is not with the benefit of taste and intelligence but a resistance to corruption –

Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,

Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.

If we all have the same ambition to embrace the world, we will not be identical because there is so much that is diverse; Whitman describes himself as the arbiter of the diverse.  But our potential to welcome all and experience it with the weight of memory means that every human being is sacred and that means we are all both individual and universal.

whitman_360x450

Elvis needed to embrace not only the American continent but also his personal complexity.  Of course, the tilt towards universality taken by Elvis may have been a consequence of the greed of Parker who wanted Elvis to appeal to as many suckers as possible.  The purpose of Parker is, though, less important than the performer who is required to play.

‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’

And Elvis did.  And this by Whitman, written in the middle of the 19th Century, anticipates Elvis and rock and roll.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Elvis has been accused of naïve narcissism and it was in his nature but Whitman would recognise the trait as a virtue, especially if personal delight is extended to others.

I sing the body electric,

The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them

should_walt_whitman_be_cancelled_1050x700

Moby Dick is the novel that can be compared to Song Of Myself.   Both stress the variety, detail and transcendental grace of ordinary life, and the failure of Ahab is that he confuses ambition, which is good, with obsession, which is bad.  True ambition, that is non-judgemental ambition, will seek everything.  Obsession is obliged to exclude others and to dismiss nature and material that has worth.  The warning against the false glory of obsession or singular ambition has a tragic consequence in Moby Dick but the warnings also exist in the poetry of Whitman.  All writers need sales but this judgement is particularly harsh –

Let him who is without my poems be assassinated.

He is not, of course, criticising a failure to buy his book but an unwillingness to embrace his writing into a comprehensive sense of self and the material other.  If his ambition embraces the stranger then the stranger has to embrace him.  We have to engage.

Stranger if you are passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me?

And why should I not speak to you?

To the European ear, this quote may not mean much but its simple description of the responsibility for strangers to speak captures American optimism. When Elvis visited a French nightclub he posed for photographs with strippers and whores. He spoke to those who would speak to him. For all his faults he did the same with the fans, he would pose with the glamorous and the ugly, the slender and the obese. This does not make him a wonderful human being, merely an American.

7fb820f8020f5813a64a8f8b62f3b4b9

 

The desire by Whitman for grandeur can easily be mistaken for gluttony.  Whitman avoided it by travelling the country and staying poor.  Elvis made the mistake of retreating to Graceland and indulging his wealth.  His rich democratic instinct, which was initially rooted in Whitman type appetite, was soon scarred by fear and excess comfort.  And American appetite, like its ambition, is different. The poetry of Whitman exalts the common man but faith in human beings untarnished by hierarchy is not unique to America.  To convince the reader that he was serious about how he could embrace the world and acknowledge the ordinary, the poems of Whitman often contained long lists.  The amplitude of the continent defines Americans as blessed. Pablo Neruda in his poem Oda Al Hombre Sencillo also stresses the importance of the common man but Neruda also insists on old world restraint –

Ves tú qué simple soy,

Qué simple eres,

No se trata

de nada complicado

Roughly translated this means – you see that I am simple, that you are simple, one should not try for anything complicated.

lead_720_405

Both Whitman and Neruda imagine a state of grace for the common man but Whitman imagines it as momentary and random.  Neruda insists, though, that mutuality, and not just indiscriminate universality, is important.   The mutuality of Neruda requires the curiosity of Whitman but also a sense that dignity demands restraint as well as experience.

Ando, nado, navego

Hasta encontrarte,

 y entonces te pregunto

como te llamas,

calle y numero,

 para que tu recibas

mis cartas,

para que yo te diga

quien soy y cuanto gano,

donde vivo,

y como era mi padre.

The recognition of inevitably muted existence by Neruda challenges the universality of Whitman which is rooted in appetite.  Translated it means – I walk, swim and search until I find you and then I will ask you your name, street and number, so that you receive my letters, so that I tell you who I am and what I earn, where I live and who is my father.

This is not man in a new vast continent. What is best shared is our simplicity not our magnificence.  Only this will endure.  Magnificence dies in the second act.  But Elvis had talent, he was the well-made man that Whitman promised.

journal-article-elvis-presley-bodhi-tree-book-list-1-2

But you a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known

Arouse! for you must justify me.

When Elvis was interviewed on board USS Randall he was asked what book was he reading. Elvis said Leaves Of Gold.   The poems of Whitman are contained in Leaves Of Grass. Unfortunately, Elvis picked the wrong book.  But the title is close.  Elvis was nearly there.  His initial promise that he could contain multitudes and stay healthy and clean was ultimately denied.  Whitman is still waiting to be justified.

Howard Jackson is suffering from influenza.  He will return to Bitten: Breaking Bad when he has recovered.

Howard Jackson has had eight books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.