I Just Finished (2)…

…for the third time (not counting the Classic Comic), Moby Dick. The first time was at camp the summer the movie came out, and all I remember is thinking a lot of time was spent on blubber. (I already knew how the story came out, which, at the time, seemed the point of books, after all.) The second time was in the 1970s, and I have no idea what I thought then. This time I was struck — and surprised — by how funny it was. Walking down the street, at the Spouter Inn, bunking with Queequeg, enjoying Mrs. Hussey’s chowder, meeting the Captains Peleg and Bildad… It’sa lotta laffs.

He’s one interesting narrator, Ishmael, if that’s even his name, “Call me…” not exactly being the same as “I am…” (And by “interesting” I don’t even mean his ability to report conversations he could not have overheard or thoughts to which he could not have had access.) Since the Pequod was the first whaler he shipped on, his account of its voyage reflects knowledge gained from so many others, he could not be spinning this tale until some decades later. And in between trips, he must have spent a lot of time ashore in libraries and museums. He studs his narrative with references to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, and Cartheginians. He name drops Pythagorus, Euroclydan, Elephanta, and Mungo Park. He is well versed in the history of whaling, whale anatomy, the whale in literature and art, and the symbolic import of “whiteness.” And this is revealed by a brief skim of the first couple hundred pages.

But to me, the most noteworthy thing remains that humor. It is not unrelenting. As he nears his calamitous end, Ishmael’s tone and rhythms become suitably biblical and Shakespearean in their solemnity and power. Still, the presence of humor, while telling a story that he knows will end in the destruction of an entire company of men with whom he has been in service, including one who’s become his closest friend, seems instructive.

Maybe the lesson is that, after experiencing a multitude of decades and all that surviving them brings, the ability to reflect upon them without having been entirely stripped of good humor may be a valuable thing.

Anybody got a good biography of Melville to recommend?