Desperado philosophy

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?

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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.

14 thoughts on “Desperado philosophy

    1. I’d got the impression it was was a ‘difficult’ novel (meaning deadly serious) and though I knew, despite the title, it wasn’t “about the whale” — yet another joke, of course — I can’t help but imagine Melville smiling to himself as he writes another over-the-top passage, as he considers how he can spin out another paragraph from a chance image.

      And I suppose the whole thing is one giant metaphor written for readers like me: chasing a whale whose presence is felt but not glimpsed till way into the novel, the fictional autobiography a leaky vessel in which we sail hither and yon with Melville the plotting pilot laughing up his sleeve.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It took me so long to read this novel for many of the reasons you describe. And when I finished it just a few months ago after thoroughly enjoying the religion, philosophy, the culture and history and alllll that whaling lore and the funny scenes and humorous word play, I was stunned at my prejudices against it. They had no merit!

        And imo, the actual whale turned out to be beside the point, because yes…metaphor!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Clearly MB is a book of lots of layers: to change the metaphor Melville is pushing the boundaries all over the place – and that’s before we add our C21st reading to it!

    This is a clever and insightful review and makes me want to read it again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Nick, I’ll see what my opinion is of this enterprise when I get to journey’s end — who knows whether the joke will have worn thin or whether I’d still be splitting my sides! 🙂

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  2. Nice post, Chris. I wish I’d thought to look for humour when I tried to read it, I might have got further than half-way. Maybe I’ll consider giving it another go, now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Cath, I have to say it’s not guffaw-a-minute stuff but certainly the odd wry smile every page or so. I’d get through the story a lot more quickly though if there wasn’t so much else equally diverting with their siren songs!

      Liked by 1 person

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