• Gail Wilson Kenna

in anyone who has tried to manage an unmanageable relationship with a parent, child, lover, spouse (employee). Andrew Delbanco, the author of Melville: His World and Work, makes this claim, adding: "Anyone who compels our better self to try and try again but pushes us toward cruelty and a final, Enough!"

One student last Thursday said she had not experienced this.

"Really?" I said, wondering if there was a saint among us.

"Not to the point of cruelty," she clarified.

Ah, language and abstractness. All depends on one's meaning of cruelty.

I later relied on my treasured OED for its use of the word: pitilessness, hard-heartedness; a delight in or show of indifference to another's pain.

I think in images and associations. And the other day in class when I said, "Really," I saw a classroom at Napa Valley's Vintage High School in the 1970s. Each department in the school had a separate building (designed to compartmentalize learning!). One multi-purpose room in the English Department's compound had an accordion-pleated divider to open or close, depending on the room's use. Naturally, the sound was heard on both sides. Real architectural genius! I mention this because I see cruelty as pleated like that moveable wall.

In my first teaching position, a junior high in L.A., corporal punishment was allowed. The dean could paddle recalcitrant boys. The Girl's dean was a viper and used tongue only. Parents then were "free" to inflict physical punishment, too. But cruelty in its worst form involves physical abuse and sadistic behavior. Verbal cruelty is more nuanced (popular word these days). The sliding verbal wall runs from loud requests, shouted threats, biting sarcasm, and other cruelty with words. There is the non-verbal realm: to stop seeing humans, to render them invisible. Melville writes: "So true it is, and so terrible, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery, enlists our best affections; but in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not."

To read Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," is to occupy the being of a morally vexed Wall Street lawyer in the 1850s in New York City. With him a reader moves through at least 40 emotional states and actions because his employee, Bartleby, prefers not to do what he is asked to do. This societal representative becomes "the motionless occupant of a naked room," before he is carried off to the Tombs (prison). "Bartleby the Scrivener" is a brilliant, timeless story, comic and deadly serious, as piercing and meaningful now as it was 170 years ago.

Next week: Billy Budd kept in a tin box for over 70 years until rediscovered.

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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Another memorable phrase from Herman Melville. This one is from "Bartleby the Scrivener," a short story that will not die, until reading literature is a "thing" of the past.

Today I would prefer not to write the Monday blog. Yet as promised, here are the three finalists for The New Yorker cartoon.

No doubt I have a bias. But I think these captions from several students rival if not beat two of the three finalists. 😊

What a fluke meeting here!

Leg of man chips have a crunchier bite.

What an odd place to catch dinner!

Are you stalking me?

Have you found the aisle with tuna fish? Where can I find sardines?

Can you reach the tinned blubber? (three students of like minds)

Just one more bite, Ahab.

Go ahead! Make my day.

I never finished the book!

Next week: Ah, humanity: Melville's timeless, brilliant, "Bartleby the Scrivener."

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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

In my Melville class last Thursday, I gave the students a photocopied cartoon from The New Yorker, which has in each issue its "Cartoon Caption Contest." A recent one had Ahab and Moby Dick. Although the students and I missed the contest's deadline, I asked them to bring their best caption to class this week. Cartoon captions are not easy to write. How to create relevance and humor in few words? Difficult for 'old school' me, who does not twitter, tweet, and text!

But before I saw this cartoon, I read about the following incident, whether true or not.

Herman Melville, born on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan, had a pivotal moment in his youth. A neighborhood store owner overcharged him by mistake. When the Jewish shopkeeper discovered the mistake, he said, "Call me a schlemiel." The sentence enchanted Herman. But unfamiliar with Yiddish, Melville did not quite get it right when years later he wrote the opening to Moby-Dick. Call me Ishmael.

With this anecdote in mind, I looked at the cartoon and thought, Ah, a Hasid from Brooklyn. Humor is often based on incongruity. Size for one. Place another. Here we see a man shopping, and I imagined a veritable pod (think whales) of progeny at his apartment. His Hasidic wife would have to hide her hair to go out. The market's aisle would be narrow.

Seeing the scene from Moby Dick's view, behind Ahab, I wrote:

Yah-a-way, Captain.

(Yahweh, the Hebrew God of creation. Yaw, meaning to deviate from a course at sea or in air).

Too esoteric? Not funny?

I next wrote, Bad disguise, Captain.

Then I remembered a novel of mayhem: Last Exit in Brooklyn.

Given our ubiquitous world of adverts, I saw a billboard with Save the WAIL, Ahab.

Time to switch POV (point of view), I thought.

Next, I imagined Ahab saying four words over his shoulder. Avast, a graspable phantom!

(Note: Melville read a lot of Shakespeare while writing Moby-Dick. He uses 'ungraspable phantom of life' in his epic).

Too much information?

AVAST! Stop, cease, a reader says.


ANON! This old word is pronounced as ' a nun' & means right now. And right now, I stand here at my desk, Monday morning, sky darkening, hands on keys, staring at the cartoon. Suddenly I see those plastic inflatable creatures that float at Christmas in front of houses here in the Northern Neck of Virginia (and elsewhere). These swaying creatures so often end up prone (human fate too) with Rudolph and Santa deflated, having lost their air. In my mind this image of inflated plastic beings merged with Willy the Shake, as I like to call him.

I 'keyed' (been told never to say 'typed') another caption.

Full of air, signifying nothing. (Okay, a cheap steal from Hamlet.)

But then, thanks to the conjunctive cosmos, Mitch McConnell floated to mind. Look again at the cartoon's White Whale. Wouldn't an inflatable Moby Dick be a great gift for Mitch? It could be placed outside his Senate chambers, as proof positive that he is a reborn, monomaniacal Ahab!

Next week: I hope to have the winning cartoon caption from The New Yorker, some captions from students, and words about megalomania, as defined in Melville's time.

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