Friday, August 28, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: The comedy routine

When I last read Moby Dick, I was a much more earnest reader than I am today. I was in grad school, and, in a related phenomenon, suffering from clinical depression. Therefore, I seem to have missed most of the comedy in the novel, particularly in the pre-Pequod scenes. This time through, I'm struck by how charmingly Melville depicts the new friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg. The charm has a lot to do with comic misunderstandings which lead not to rage and violence, but curiosity and acceptance of difference.

This is not to say that the comedy allows us to take the friendship lightly. On the contrary, the relationship is highly nuanced, and grows more so. The friendship is founded on delight, and that is what makes the nuance possible. Delight leads to curiosity; curiosity leads to further information; information leads to more layers of complexity in the characters, who in turn become even more curious about each other. A friendship that develops this way is the opposite of a flighty one. It's as firm as they get.

Melville sets it up the delight from the very beginning. Here, Ishmael is trying to find out from the innkeeper about the stranger with whom he'll be forced to share a bed later that night:

"Landlord! said I, "what sort of a chap is he--does he always keep such late hours?" It was now hard upon twelve o'clock.

The landlord chuckled again with his lean chuckle, and seemed to be mightily tickled at something beyond my comprehension. "No," he answered, "generally he's an early bird--airley to bed and airley to rise--yea, he's the bird what catches the worm. But to-night he went out a peddling, you see, and I don't see what on airth keeps him so late, unless, may be, he can't sell his head."

"Can't sell his head?--What sort of a bamboozingly story is this you are telling me?" getting into a towering rage. "Do you pretend to say, landlord, that this harpooneer is actually engaged this blessed Saturday night, or rather Sunday morning, in peddling his head around this town?"

"That's precisely it," said the landlord, "and I told him he couldn't sell it here, the market's overstocked."

"With what?" shouted I.

"With heads to be sure; ain't there too many heads in the world?"

"I tell you what it is, landlord," said I quite calmly, "you'd better stop spinning that yarn to me--I'm not green."

"May be not," taking out a stick and whittling a toothpick, "but I rayther guess you'll be done brown if that ere harpooneer hears you a slanderin' his head."

"I'll break it for him," said I, now flying into a passion again at this unaccountable farrago of the landlord's.

"It's broke a'ready," said he.

"Broke," said I--"broke, do you mean?"

"Sartain, and that's the very reason he can't sell it, I guess."

"Landlord," said I, going up to him as cool as Mt. Hecla in a snowstorm--"landlord, stop whittling. You and I must understand one another, and that too without delay. I come to your house and want a bed; you tell me you can only give me half a one; that the other half belongs to a certain harpooneer. And about this harpooneer, whom I have not yet seen, you persist in telling me the most mystifying and exasperating stories tending to beget in me an uncomfortable feeling towards the man whom you design for my bedfellow--a sort of connexion, landlord, which is an intimate and confidential one in the highest degree. I now demand of you to speak out and tell me who and what this harpooneer is, and whether I shall be in all respects safe to spend the night with him. And in the first place, you will be so good as to unsay that story about selling his head, which if true I take to be good evidence that this harpooneer is stark mad, and I've no idea of sleeping with a madman; and you, sir, you I mean, landlord, you, sir, by trying to induce me to do so knowingly would thereby render yourself liable to a criminal prosecution."

"Wall," said the landlord, fetching a long breath, "that's a purty long sarmon for a chap that rips a little now and then. But be easy, be easy, this here harpooneer I have been tellin' you of has just arrived from the south seas, where he bought up a lot of 'balmed New Zealand heads (great curios, you know), and he's sold all on 'em but one, and that one he's trying to sell to-night, cause to-morrow's Sunday, and it would not do to be sellin' human heads about the streets when folks is goin' to churches. He wanted to last Sunday, but I stopped him just as he was goin' out of the door with four heads strung on a string, for all the airth like a string of inions."

Now, I'm too lazy to research this adequately (again: grad school => clinical depression). However, I'm guessing the fact that this sounds like a precursor of an Abbott and Costello routine is no accident. I'm guessing it echoes routines from the precursors of vaudeville, which were variety and minstrel shows. The word "bamboozlingly" suggests the latter. My cursory search on the Internet (and in my dusty old OED) says the word "bamboozle" is of unknown origin, but the fact that Spike Lee used "Bamboozled" as the title of a movie about a modern-day minstrel show--an extremely good, underrated movie, btw--is a strong hint. (If anyone knows anything about this for real, feel free to comment!) Mind, this is not to say that in this day and age we would find minstrel shows themselves delightful. But there is a great deal of pure humor to be found in MD. The humor is theatrical, almost like a set piece. (We will get actual theater later on, in several chapters that are presented as plays, stage directions included.) Ishmael clearly enjoys humor for its own sake, even when the joke is on him. Of course, since he doesn't know Queequeg's language, and Queequeg only knows a little English, much of their relationship is non-verbal. But it is still, in these opening chapters, both comic and sweet.

But shouldn't Melville just get to the point, get us on the damn ship already and give us a glimpse of Ahab and the title whale? What does all this banter and charm do for us, and the novel? It seems to me that the comedy is a powerful method of characterization. In the passage above, it's important that Ishmael presents himself as the butt of the joke. He pretends to be enraged by the innkeeper's obstinate insistence on an impossible prospect--that Queequeg is out selling his head--but really he's amused at his own reaction. The story is too delightful to keep to himself, even though he looks like a fool. He makes a fool of himself again, when he first gets a load of Queequeg in the flesh and screams for the innkeeper to save him--only to have Queequeg politely reassure him, making Ishmael look like the crazy one. Again, Ishmael doesn't mind looking stupid, and Queequeg's decency wins his almost immediate devotion. Over and over, we're shown that for all their differences, Ishmael and Queequeg have an important quality in common: they both like to laugh at themselves.

So next time you're wondering how to get readers to really love your characters, have them tell stories with themselves as the butt of the joke. Then have them laugh along with us. It's a great way for characters to build strong relationships with each other, too.

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