“Melville’s Secrets” in HTML

When my essay “Melville’s Secrets” was published last year by Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, I wasn’t able to obtain permission to post a copy here on this blog. Since then, however, Leviathan has moved to a new publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press, which does allow scholars to archive their contributions on personal websites. With the editors’ permission, therefore, I’m posting the essay here today. (The essay is also available as a PDF at the journal’s website, if you work at an institution with a subscription to Project Muse).

Audio files of my 2003 interview with David Foster Wallace

On 17 October 2003, I interviewed David Foster Wallace at New York’s Park South Hotel about his book Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞, which was then just being published. A week later, a condensed and edited version of the interview was published in the Boston Globe, a version that has since been reprinted in Stephen J. Burn’s Conversations with David Foster Wallace.

After Wallace died in September 2008, I went back to my transcript of the original interview and posted on this blog a few passages that I hadn’t been able to shoehorn in to the published version, including some to-and-fro about God and infinity that verged on the mystical. I intended even then to make audio files of the interview available some day, but at the time, I was a bit shy about the fact that during the interview, Wallace briefly turned the tables and spent a few minutes interviewing me (fortunately, he let me turn the tape recorder off for most of those minutes). Also, it turned out to be trickier than I expected to connect an old-fashioned cassette player to a newfangled laptop. In fact I didn’t figure out the proper Radio Shack doohickey until a few days ago.

Here, then, at last, are MP3 files of my interview with Wallace. The first side of the cassette is about 48 minutes long; the second, 33 minutes. The sound quality isn’t great. In both segments, the tape recorder is turned off and on several times, which may be confusing to a listener. If you hear sudden non sequiturs, you’ve probably just passed a silent lacuna of this kind. From time to time, Wallace plays with the conventions of the audio interview by making a gesture that contradicts the words he’s saying aloud; if you hear me laughing even though Wallace doesn’t seem to have said anything funny, that’s probably why. As I explained when I published excerpts of the transcript in 2008, when the first side of the tape ran out, it took me a few minutes to notice, and so I lost what may have been the best part of the exchange, about Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem and the Infinite Jest character Pemulis (I posted my notes about the content of the missing minutes in the 2008 blog post).

These files probably won’t be riveting to listen to unless you’re both a David Foster Wallace fan and a math nerd, and even if you are, the first twenty minutes or so are fairly slow. I confess that I myself can’t any longer follow all the math talk in this interview; even at the time, I was a little out of my depth. But despite these limitations to its appeal, the audio does offer an unedited sample of what Wallace sounded like in conversation, and I hope it will be of interest to some.

Interview with David Foster Wallace, 17 October 2003, side 1 (mp3, 48:08)

Interview with David Foster Wallace, 17 October 2003, side 2 (mp3, 33:20)

UPDATE, 21 February 2017: A reader/listener named Peter Demers volunteered to excise some of the tape hiss from my files and has shared with me new versions. I’m leaving the original MP3s above, but his versions, which are in the M4A (AAC) format, do sound a little sharper:

Interview with David Foster Wallace, 17 October 2003, side 1 (m4a, 47:58)

Interview with David Foster Wallace, 17 October 2003, side 2 (m4a, 33:05)

Seeing stars after sperm squeezing

Hydria Chananaea
Detail, plate 23 of the Harmonia Macrocosmica of Andreas Cellarius

In my essay “Melville’s Secrets,” I offer an interpretation of a famous passage in Moby-Dick about sperm-squeezing, which concludes with a vision of “long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.” Melville scholar Scott Norsworthy has made a couple of discoveries that he generously describes as a “footnote” to my essay: It transpires that there’s another angel with a jar in Melville’s late prose-poem combination “Under the Rose,” and that, what’s more, both jar-carrying angels may be allusions to a Christianized star-map first published in 1660 by Andreas Cellarius. Norsworthy further wonders whether the row of asterisks that follow the sperm-squeezing passage are meant to suggest a constellation.

“Melville’s Secrets,” the published essay

Jacob Matham, 'Gestrande walvis bij Wijk aan Zee, 1601,' Rijksmuseum

My essay “Melville’s Secrets” has been published in volume 14, number 3, of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies. If you’re a member of the Melville Society, your copy should be reaching your mailbox shortly. If your library subscribes to Leviathan, you can read my article at the publisher’s website. If your library doesn’t subscribe, please get in touch using the form at the bottom of my “About” page, and I’ll send you a digital offprint. Per the copyright agreement, I’m allowed to send the offprint to anyone, but I’m not allowed to post it on a public website—so you have to ask! The essay began life as a talk I gave at SUNY Geneseo on 23 September 2010, for the annual Walter Harding Lecture. I am allowed to post on this website the pre-peer-reviewed version of the article, and eventually I will, but really I’d rather have you read the original version, so please feel free to ask for it!