Moby Dick in Needlepoint (on humor and theme)

June 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

Last time I discussed humor and subtext, I focused on the way authors can use subtext to involve a reader in the story, drawing him or her deeper into the experience of meaning—but authors can use subtext for additional reasons, as well, while still accomplishing this goal.  For example, in times and places of severe censorship, subtext is often used to address forbidden subjects, and the bond created by the subtext takes on the air of a clandestine handshake between secret conspirators.

But even in free-ish societies like ours, there are some things authors feel they can’t just come out and say.  Anything we could say directly on the subject would sound trite because what we want to say is too complicated and nuanced for words.  I’m talking about the big questions literature grapples with: the true nature of truth, beauty, or what have you—all the meaty issues we generally discuss as theme.

These are the issues that inspire a work of literature, the questions that the story is attempting to answer.  So it is never enough for me when we say, “the theme of Moby Dick is obsession” (or God, or the limits of knowledge, or class-strictures in colonial America)—but it is much worse when we get specific, with high-school three-part essay conclusions, “Moby Dick shows the destructive aspects of obsession.”

I should say here that I love the high-school theme paper, and that through it, my favorite teachers first instilled in me a sense of literature’s power, an idea that has become a driving force in my life.  That said, I feel it is really just a stepping stone to further understanding and that many readers’ desire for “theme” to come in the form of a clear, easy answer, is not just a failure to fully understand the nature of literature, but of language and the human experience at large.

I’m not saying that Moby Dick doesn’t “show the destructive aspects of obsession,” but through subtext, it does so much more that any such simple statement seems almost insulting; if Herman Melville thought a sternly parental, “Don’t succumb to obsession,” would do anyone any good, he could have saved himself a lot of time and sewed a saying onto a wall-hanging instead of writing a novel.  I, for one, am glad he realized most good advice goes ignored, and instead chose to explore the subject (and so many others, tying them all together) in a complicated and nuanced way, to say something about obsession that couldn’t be said in less than the 211,000 words he used.  We don’t get a nice take-away for an inspirational poster, but what we do get is a indelible but inexpressible sense of, “yes, Herman, that’s exactly how it is, isn’t it.”

Theme, then, isn’t a parental lesson or a sermon from on high, but an understanding shared between friends.  As I discussed last time, humor creates understanding in a similarly cooperative way.  The most profound jokes work like theme by communicating a concrete yet inexpressible sense of the truth of our experiences.  When we laugh together at the great ironies of life, commiserating over the cosmic joke of it all, we affirm a shared reality that can be expressed no more concisely than with laugher, but which we are willing to take as concrete because we agree on how abstract it.

I’ll flesh out this comparison with examples next week, but in the mean time, thanks for reading!

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