Thursday, June 7, 2012

Herman Melville, Vampire Hunter

Trying Hard to Talk to the Dead

After he wrote Moby-Dick and more or less sealed his reputation as a failure and a nutcase for the rest of his own lifetime, Herman Melville took a little-known trip to the Holy Land in the winter of 1856-1857.  He visited cemeteries and leper colonies and stayed in fleabag dives and worried about the fate of Christianity.  His journal of that trip, known only to specialist scholars, has launched my own writing project, exploring his mental perspective at this time (he had what we might now call some kind of bi-polar disorder) as well as just the landscape of 19th century Levant.

At the moment I am in Istanbul, trying to pick up his trail.  Melville knew it as Constantinople.

Some of the views today he would be familiar with, other than the size of the tankers.

Istanbul though has become as modern as Paris or Las Vegas or Hong Kong, and some of the present world would seem to Melville as more futuristic than Blade Runner.  Here is the facade of a boutique hotel in the oldest part of the city.

Is this a hotel or the set for some kind of space opera set inside a nightclub the size of Venus?

Melville's era still exists, albeit not for long.  Once real estate prices zoom back up again (as in time, I am sure they will), the last bits of the pre-Modern era will disappear under the wrecking ball.  Here is a quick survey of things that seem to connect me to his journal from 1856.

This little series above may make Istanbul seem like some kind of Greek Orthodox version of post-Katrina New Orleans, but the point is that buildings such as these are no longer the norm.  More typical of my experience would be a picture such as this one, the wrap-around ad for a tram that will take me to the Castle of Joyful Shopping:

or this one, tagged on the side of a bridge over ten feet tall....

or this one, with a wall of merchandise floor to ceiling.  Istanbul has to have more touts per square meter than any city in Europe.

Or this one, the most authentic restaurant for the next five feet. 

 Or this one, the Turkish Delight that include authentic rubber ducks.

I do not to be mistaken for saying something I am not.  Let's not mock the modern world.  I am a very big fan of the modern world.  For example, travel guides advise against drinking the water in Turkey, which means no ice in your Coke.  I for one miss it --- and after the third day of the air-con being out in my hotel room, I asked to be moved.  Well, of course it wasn't just air-conditioning: the toilet didn't work either.  Note to self: when I next come back, don't stay in this same hotel.  It is not that I don't want happy toys when I buy my candy, just that having come here to chase the ghost of Melville, I find such a ghost harder to conjure up than I expected. 

One of the questions to ask is what has changed about our lives compared to Abraham Lincoln's time or the not-so-long-ago reign of Queen Victoria?  The same pigeons and seagulls are in Istanbul as were wheeling around during Melville's visit --- he comments on pigeons multiple times in fact.  (Our pigeon is actually a dove that originally came from Africa.)  The gulls, too, are the same.

The Blue Mosque, other than being nicely lit these days, is the same as when it was built hundreds of years ago.  Melville appreciated the staggered domes, and wondered if some ur-architect had based his design on the layered crown shape of cypress trees.

Even what's for lunch is probably the same, with the added benefit now of Seran wrap to keep the flies off the demonstration plates.

What has changed the most --- what might cause him to reach for his garlic, his Buffy crucifix and silver bullets, what would make him wonder if the zombies have won after all --- are us: the Americans, and our friends the Germans and Italians and Japanese.  Here is a visual survey of humanity, 2012 style.  All of these pictures come from the same stretch of Old City open space that in the time Justinian and Constantine was the public race track, known as the hippodrome.  Here we are, the devout and the infidels, the trendy and the timeless.  Who's who I leave it with you to decide.

In the end, maybe I need to slow down, just go back to the journals, as his prose is the best time machine of all.  He says that a camel has a stiff, crane-like neck, "like a clergyman in a stiff cravat."  He also in his journal says that a camel is a cross between an ostrich and a giant grasshopper, and in describing the winter mud, says that a camel's large hoof, soft and mud-covered, makes it seems "as if he is stalking along on four mops."

I try to imagine lingering over coffee with Melville, and try not to wince at how he would descibe me, afterward, in his journal.  In the end, maybe we would just be too elderly gents, tryin to puzzle out our places in the world.

Next stop, for this blog and for my book project?  I will follow Melville to Jerusalem.  Until then, time for another glass of strong, milk-less tea.

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