Inverted Commas 15: a vast joke
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.
— Moby-Dick, Chapter 49
When I’ve recently mentioned that I found Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick humorous I’ve received quizzical responses, as though this was a distinctly novel if not idiosyncratic concept. It may, as far as I know, be both, but I can’t help thinking that if not guffaws then wry smiles can only follow many of Melville’s passages.
And the passage quoted above only helps to confirm my view. How else but to view this vast literary exercise, like life itself, as a vast literary joke, though not all apparently discern the wit Melville invests it with?
I half snorted when I read the ornate description of the Pequod decorated over with whalebone just like so much the bare carcass of the cetaceans it hunted. I was amused at the long digressions, piling Pelion on Ossa in an attempt to see how far Melville could test our patience with his hyperboles. I smirked at Ishmael’s overblown bromance with Queequeg and even the novel’s opening, taunting landlubbers’ romancing of the ocean. And so it goes on.
In fact I’ve been taking a somewhat slow cruise through the pages of Moby-Dick yet have neglected writing up a log of my progress up to now. At present a little past the halfway point, having followed the whaler from Nantucket across the Atlantic and into the Indian Ocean, I just felt the need to express how much my initial expectations of the novel — as a po-faced quasi-religious text, laden with deep symbolism and manly exploits — have been utterly subverted.
True, Melville had experience of whaling, and understood its vicissitudes, but we have to remember that he did jump ship in the South Seas, recognising that the trade’s heroic and romantic attributes didn’t outweigh butchery, bullying, physicality, tedium and, of course, danger.
It was in fiction that he would be able to distance himself from the tribulations of seafaring by concocting a “desperado philosophy” for it. When, in chapter 45, he deprecates “what there may be of a narrative in this book,” when he then recognises that land-based readers might see the novel as “a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory” not only is he alluding to its metafictional aspect but also, I’m sure, slyly inserting his tongue in his cheek.
There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of general, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regard this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object.
Monstrous fable? A hideous and intolerable allegory? Be sure that if I detect any developments or changes in Ishmael’s philosophy I shan’t hesitate to let you know.
On a related note, April 23rd is World Book and Copyright Day, or International Day of the Book. The UK, more perversely, celebrates World Book Night on this date.
Wherever you are may you take the opportunity to give your loved one — as the Catalans do in celebration of both Cervantes and George, their patron saint — a book and/or a red rose.
If self-isolation allows, of course.