(HOST) Recently, commentator David Moats decided to revisit a classic of western literature. And this time, he approached it not as great art – but as great entertainment
(MOATS) I read Moby-Dick in high school, or at least part of it; then I read it again years later, struggling through what seemed to be an endless story, continually sidetracked by long digressions. It was one of those books I always felt I had failed at getting. Somehow I was missing something. Then I heard someone on the radio say that an important thing to remember about Moby-Dick was it was funny.
Funny? What about that heavy load of existential gloom, and what about Melville’s bizarre catalogue of whales and other long-winded excursions? I didn’t know it was funny.
So I took it up again and began by reading it aloud. And it was funny. From the very first paragraph, Ishmael, one of the most famous narrators in literature, is making fun of himself. You can’t read it aloud and not get this.
The heavy existential themes are there, explored by someone who, when he gets bummed out by life, instead of knocking people’s hats off their heads or falling upon his sword, quietly takes to the ship. That Moby-Dick is funny was the key to me. We know how the story ends, of course, but it’s a long journey getting there – like life. And there are many ironic and interesting digressions along the way – as in life.
Poet Carl Dennis has a poem in which he describes people "…who define/Their project in life in terms so ample/Nothing they ever do is a digression./Each episode contributes its own rare gift/As a chapter in Moby-Dick on squid or hardtack/Is just as important to Ishmael as a fight with a whale."
So I got to thinking about funniness, what it is, what it does.
Some years ago I was traveling in California with my kids, and we were visiting a number of my old friends. When we were done, my son said to me, "You know, Dad, all your friends are really funny."
It’s true I have always gravitated toward story-tellers and people who like to laugh. Two friends, in particular, always esteemed as one of the highest virtues a healthy sense of the absurd.
Absurd not in the sense of meaningless – but absurd in the sense that there is meaning in the most surprising, out-of-the-way places. Ishmael is thrown together at the Spouter Inn with a fearsome harpooneer he describes as a cannibal. Their night together in the same bed turns out to be hilarious, and when Ishmael overcomes his fears and gets to know the tattooed savage, it’s an exercise in humanity worthy of Huck Finn.
"You cannot hide the soul," Ishmael says. "Through all his unearthly tattooing, I thought I saw the traces of a simple honest heart." He sees a certain nobility in his companion whose strong head and features remind him of George Washington.
"Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed," he says.
You know, that’s funny.