Laughing at the November in My Soul

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(Host)As November comes to a close, commentator Peter Gilbert reflects on strategies for getting through heavy weather.

(Gilbert) “Call me Ishmael.” It’s one of the most famous first sentences in our language.

In the rest of that first paragraph of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Ishmael talks about “the damp, drizzly November in my soul” — and here we are nearing the end of a damp, drizzly November.

We are often so intimidated by the greatness of a literary masterpiece such as Moby Dick that we fail to notice just how funny the beginning of that great book is. We are used to approaching such famous fat books with awe and earnestness.

Beginning to read that daunting tome — and indeed reading much great literature — we are often so intimidated, so expectant of finding what Woody Allen calls “total heaviosity,” so schooled to look for “DHM — Deep Hidden Meaning” — that we miss the fun.

Ishmael explains, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily passing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever…it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.” Ishmael goes to sea, he says, rather than grow so quarrelsome that he either challenges somebody to a duel or shoots himself.

There are times when all of us feel that “it is a damp, drizzly November” in our souls. We may feel that way in November — Stick Season, when leaves have fallen and our good cheer is challenged by dropping temperatures and shorter days.

Or we may feel that way around here in about March, with its dirty and crusted snow, but we all feel that way some time or another. It will be easier for us if – like Ishmael – we can keep in mind the humor of it all — even the humor of our own ill-temper.

Ishmael asserts that it is not surprising that, feeling so irascible, he goes to sea. He says almost all men, if they but knew it, some time or other, feel the same attraction. He may be right. This time of year many people around here head south for the winter, seeking not only warmth, but often the ocean — in the Carolinas, Florida, and elsewhere. And come Mud Season, lots of us dream of heading to a beach somewhere. It’s better than turning to “pistol and ball.”

Call me Peter Gilbert, in Montpelier.

(Host) Peter Gilbert is the Executive Director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke to us from Montpelier.

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