Sunday, January 4, 2009

"Unlettered Ishmael" Numbered At Last

You know, when I feel that the quality of local radio has sunk to abysmal depths, I turn to the trustworthy local print media.
Doubtless, you all have heard about the Thirteenth Annual Moby-Dick Marathon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, held over this past weekend. You haven't? Well, click this link to peruse the title that'll surely win the Pulitzer, "A novel idea."
After thirteen years, international recognition, renown and countless imitators all over the place, it's hard to claim that the Moby-Dick Marathon ("Twenty-Five Hours of Dick," to friends) is "novel." But, there you go. You see, Moby-Dick is a book -- a "novel," get it, so the marathon reading of it is "a novel idea."
It's a knee-slap-- I say AH SAY IT'S A KNEE-SLAPPER, BWAH!
Now, I know enough about print media to know that reporters don't write the headlines. That's done by the copy editor or sometimes by the layout editor. But in these times of cutbacks in publishing, I really have no idea. So I can't "blame" anyone for the feeble-minded pun and run.
I need, however, to mention a little problem with counting.
I know Ray Veary. We've worked together in theater. I had the pleasure of performing one of his thoughtful and funny pieces, a wordy duet about whether a bridge is open or closed when allowing boat traffic to pass.
Really, it's a laugh spectacle. I'm not kidding.
Ray is a precise wordsmith, and so was Herman Melville. Anyone who writes something like four billion pages about the whale fishery's most obsessive rogue amputee chasing an albino marine mammal has a special relationship with words.
I have been reading Moby-Dick for years, beginning with the year that everyone told me that nobody ever read it -- Seventh Grade. Oh, I skipped a few pages here and there that time around, but I really was ensnared by its rhythm and timing, its sly wit and smart comedy, its simple plot, simplistic philosophy, and its impossibly convoluted morality.
When I got back on land last century, the Moby-Dick Marathon came about, I volunteered to read. I ended up sputtering a few paragraphs of some double-digit chapter at three in the morning (I remember six bells were struck) when I was told -- quite unceremoniously -- that someone else had specifically requested that very chapter. I was put on the stand-by list and never got to read that year.
After two or three years of various successes with pages here and there, and since I worked there and was known (to my co-workers, at least) as a local stage phenom, I was dragooned into directing the "stageplay" chapter, Chapter 40: "Midnight, Forecastle," where these brave stalwarts enacted the whole damned thing on the New Bedford Whaling Museum's foc's'le replica that Leon built. Now there are seven men pictured above. The shorter one on the barrel I cast as Pip, and the distinguished one on the left read the stage directions and incidental business. That left us five guys to play the fifty-nine characters who speak in the scene, depicting Melville's "typical multi-ethnic" whaler crew, including Icelandic sailors, Azoreans, Hawaiians, Serbo-Croatians, Aleuts, Dutch, Mongols, those landlocked Swiss sailors, and two or three guys from Nantucket. (And I'm sure Melville was biting his tongue when excogitating their lines: "I am a man from Nantucket, and..." You get the idea.)
So, you can see how numbers can get a little, um, thrown around.
Now, the first few words of any ponderous tome might seem daunting at first. And the actual quantity of those words might be a subject for literary conjecture, certainly, since almost every other aspect of the book has been debated and dissected for the century and a half since the book first made it to the shelves of all those people who have never read it.
But that still doesn't explain this:

Wait for it... Did you catch that? Here's another look:
Three! NO, FIVE! Inflation hits the first sentence of Moby-Dick. "Call me Ishmael. NOW FOUR WORDS!"
Ray is an assistant District Attorney. I'd send a note on office stationery.


steve said...

Trivia time, PJ:
A certain Sister Mary Lou once had on her desk a story or collection. One started something like, "Call me Ishmael. But I will not answer, as my name is Melvin." Or something to that effect. Can you remember who wrote that? It sounds like Woody Allen, but I cannot find it on line.

ThirdMate said...

I do not know, since my Simcoe memories are buried deep under the vandalized remains of the Saint James Convent.

But "Melvin..." That puts me in mind of MAD magazine. Melvin of The Apes is what immediately I thought. I think there was a "Li'l Orphan Melvin." If I ever get that box open (the one with the Brand X Clerical Errors cassette), I'll bet that paperback is in there.

The NBWM had an exhibit of comic books that featured Moby-Dick, so maybe I could ask around there. Or ask some retrologist or other...

Oh, and Happy New Year, by the way.