Saturday, March 05, 2016

`Mine Infirmity of Jocularity'

A reader asks how he should “prepare” for reading Moby-Dick, as though he were training to run a marathon. We can blame teachers for such thinking. A book is not a code to crack or a test to pass. Literature comes down to you and the text, a minimalist, low-tech pastime requiring no training or additional equipment. You bring to it all you know, all you have read, all you have experienced. You read, enjoy, get lost, get bored, get thrilled, find a path, and change a little. People have been reveling in Moby-Dick for 165 years, academics and common folk alike. It’s a gloriously accessible adventure story (once marketed to kids), a playfully philosophical essay, a field guide to cetology and, most important of all, a comedy with Ishmael as our fast-talking host. Robert Louis Stevenson called Melville “a howling cheese.” As a writer, Melville routinely reconciled opposites, including the primitive and esoteric, comedy and tragedy. In a Dec. 20, 1858 letter to George Duyckinck, Melville writes: “Bear with mine infirmity of jocularity.” In Chap. V of Moby-Dick, “Breakfast,” Ishmael says:

“. . . a good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing; the more’s the pity. So, if any one man, in his own proper person, afford stuff for a good joke to anybody, let him not be backward, but let him cheerfully allow himself to spend and to be spent in that way. And the man that has anything bountifully laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for.”

Another European admirer of Melville was the novelist Cesare Pavese, whose translation of Moby-Dick into Italian was published in 1932. Pavese sees the humor in the “Etymology” and “Extracts (Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian)” that precede “Call me Ishmael.” In “Herman Melville,” an essay he published the same year as his translation, (collected in American Literature: Essays and Opinions, ed. Edwin Fussell, 1970), Pavese tells Italian readers “this humorous style of the scholar promenading through the oceans is, as it were, the surface layer of an intellectual structure of extraordinary and comprehensive profundity.” Read Moby-Dick, he suggests, and “your lungs are expanded, your brain is expanded, and you feel more alive and manly.” 

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