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A Democracy of Ghosts
Ciao, My Shining Star
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I never shook the feeling that Manchester studied London with the suppressed  but still malign contempt of a younger sibling desperate to win the parents’ southern-facing affection. That’s not a friendly comparison and I’m only half-certain it’s accurate. But there is something about the city that always suggested a sort of desperate adolescent runt-twin parroting that never quite comes off right. 

Take Manchester’s burning heart of consumptive energy, where the High Street meets Market, a bald emulation of Oxford Circus’ manic frenzy that somehow fails (though not for lack of trying) to match it. A stroll through each of  these commercial districts induces an immediate and  elemental nausea, filling your mouth with the taste of  iron, coating your tongue with a persistent film bitter as day old coffee grounds.  A walk up Broadway from Times Square sets off a similar intestinal turbulence, an internal barometer fixed in the gut that measures what I can only think to call proportional maladjustment. We’re all outfitted and it sings out, this sensor, whenever it encounters both the grotesque and improbable grandeur in a simultaneous pulse.

What Manchester lacks is the countervailing pulse of towering imperiousness. The sensor shudders but collapses just as suddenly, a heart murmur. The smell of rot lingers and there’s nothing--no towering stretch of horizon-blotting skyscrapers or time and history burdened stone--to mask the stench. It just comes across as too much and too little all at once. Like the ferris wheel in Exchange Square that dominates--but only in the least menacing sense--the city skyline, a sort of half-measured forgery of London’s towering eye.
You have to wonder what contemporaries must have made of the thirty-sixth chapter of Moby Dick. Readers who would have surely long before had misgivings about the path they and the crew of the Pequod had been set on, readers who would have warily read the misanthropic (but early stage) ravings of a closeted lunatic at the helm. Readers who, expecting a travelogue tale of an adventuring initiate sailor, would be startled, as early as chapter 35, by Ishmael's dark murmurings on the subject of young philosophers pulling bird's nest duty and thrown, in a moment of idle reverie, directly into the wide maw of speculative extinction.

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at midday, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.

At that point, surely, the game is given up. Abandon all hope.

But should you have any doubt, do continue on. Chapter 36 (Enter Ahab, then All) takes you up by the collar and introduces you, with the literary equivalent of a punch to the kidneys, to the new reality: your promised high seas adventure will be supplanted. And what with? We won't say outright. But a once honest citizen will strike a force of nature with a six inch knife blade, lose his leg and his mind in the process and you just might not think of your comfortable middle class life the same way again. Much like Joyce, Melville was a bit of a sadist. He aims to entertain but also to brutalize.

What else does Melville seem desperate to tell us? That madness is catching. Which is why it's not long before Ahab hijacks the happy novel of brotherhood and sells the crew, by way of a drunken orgy steeped in Christian and Bacchanalian imagery--on politics by other means against an inviolable force of nature. And not just a physical force of nature, no. Not just a Goliath sperm whale with a thyroid problem and a pale cast but the embodiment of end-of-days annihilation. Chaos. Dismemberment. Disinterment. Death. Moby Dick is all these things and more.

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

We're not in Nantucket in anymore, Toto. Pity the casual 19th century reader. Mortality. The relentless struggle of life, for place, understanding, physical well-being, social accomplishment, home and hearth, a small pittance, the slightest grace of what one might call wisdom, culminating, somewhere (if you're lucky, near the far-end of seventy good years) ten feet west of the Mariana trench.

This is the true subject of Moby Dick and it doesn't end well reader. Not well at all. We will be led to the conclusion that the crew--the precious international cargo--Ishmael, Ahab, is us as we travel along a continuum understood to be a single human life. We all end up in a whale's jaw, either in pieces or swallowed whole--this seems to be Melville's cheery direction. And this, Herman, this isn't what I signed up for.

No wonder the critics were so unforgiving.

Hell, no, you can't!" Boehner shouted at the Democrats.

"No, you can't! No, you can't!" echoed the protesters outside.

But they could. And at 10:45 p.m., after 14 months of trying, 219 Democrats finally did.


You'll arrive too early to catch Stockholm charging hard through its brief spring and summer if you visit, as I did, mid-April.  Heavy rains keep much of the city in strict overcast seclusion throughout winter and then well into the new year. Behind gallery windows in Old Town, you'll find city scenes that depict local weather patterns in every light but flattering. A troubled but enduring melancholy pervades. The images suggests a sort of waiting, shielded or cocooned expectancy.

The metaphor extends into daily life. So many of my conversations with Swedes began quietly, almost morosely, but lit up like a scattering of dry leaves suddenly catching fire. A subtle point, perhaps. But a far departure from the American convention where two strangers on a bus, finding between them no greater connection than mutual satisfaction in publicly announced results of a baseball game, will commune loudly and intimately like long-lost brothers for eight city blocks. In Sweden, familiarity is never easy. It builds and approaches  from well out on the horizon, a hesitant cat. Turn your head for a moment and look back and it's on you. Now less like cat than panther.

So too does summer arrive in Stockholm. It's a wait you invest in and don't by any means take for granted. The sunrise pastels that layer so many of the box top buildings throughout the streets of Gamla Stan and Sodermalm offer little solace to a city starved of color.

But there are exceptions and rare days when the clouds clear out, pastels deepen into sharp twilight explosions of rose and ocher.  If you squint you see the promise of the  deep hues of summer by virtue of  slight green extrusions that blanket tree and shrub, a tiny horde, in an almost opaque halo of emerald.

Don"t I know you from somewhere?
Dear Crazy Bitch,
No matter what tomorrow's outcome, you are not America. You're a throwback. An angry, likely racist, likely woefully uneducated citizen. The State failed you. Your party failed you. I'm sorry about that. I really am.

But, please, get out of the way. Thank you.