Friday, May 27, 2011

Cartoon again--Should we rewrite the first paragraph of the book?

http://www.newyorkerstore.com/2010/you-called-me-ishmael/invt/135731/

Danny Shanahan New Yorker cartoon. Remember that New Yorker cartoons are usually of very high literate value--these cartoonists often allude to things that literate people should know.

The cartoon clearly works on its own, just calling somebody else's name in the throes of passion. However, the added element is that it is clearly peg-legged Ahab.

Now here's the crux of the real literary matter and one of the annoying things I find about the book--Ishmael.

Is it about Ishmael or Ahab? I know the story needed a narrator and particularly needed a narrator who survived. But did we, really? The way the book is presented, why couldn't it be an omniscient narrrator anyway?

Ishmael has the famous first line of the text. There's really no overly-famous quote that involves Ahab's name. Yet we all know it. If Melville had started with any other sentence, would "Call me Ishmael" be famous? If, for instance, he left this thesis statement as the last sentence of the opening paragraph instead of the first, would it be famous? The funny thing is that as an English teacher, we most often tell students to leave this to the last sentence of the first paragraph.

Let's look at that first paragraph again--if it were presented without that first famous line:


Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in
my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail
about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of
driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself
growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my
soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and
bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos
get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to
prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking
people's hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato
throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing
surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some
time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
Call me Ishmael.

It could go there as the last sentence. Clearly. Maybe add a bit--like: "Who am I? Call me Ishmael."

I look at this paragraph and think that a better opening would have some reference to the call of the sea. Maybe a siren allusion? Maybe a reference to a watery adventure?

The second paragraph starts on another tangent--tangents in Moby Dick are prevalent remember--about the island of the Manhattoes. This movement of the famous line might even tie in better to this second paragraph to make him closer to the Manhattoes, as one of them.

Wow, this New Yorker cartoon is deeper than I thought.

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