• Gail Wilson Kenna

My Imagined Gift for Mitch

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.

22 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All