The New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby-Dick Marathon is an annual non-stop reading of Herman Melville's literary masterpiece. The multi-day program of entertaining activities and events is presented every January. Admission to the Marathon is free.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

"Mentally ill"

Searching the online catalog of my local library for a PlayAway (something like a pre-loaded MP3 player) to accompany my geezer-walks, a listing for Moby-Dick jumped out. Scanning the entry, I was struck by the phrase "mentally ill" as one of ten keywords (keyphrases?) for our beloved text.

My metaphorical knickers began to twist themselves...

I can't blame the esteemed staff of the Minuteman Library System—clicking a link at the bottom of the webpage, it appears that these online entries are generated by Syndetic Solutions, a division of R.R. Bowker, LLC. This "service"... libraries more than 40 million unique, descriptive data elements relating to books, audio books, videos, CDs, and DVDs, which deliver richer, more informative results and create a significantly better catalog search experience.
A wise man once told me, "Everything that does something for you, does something to you." Syndetics spares libraries the task of summarizing M-D by distilling it for them to: an "epic saga," a "heroic conflict between man and his fate," that deals with the psychology of a whaling ship captain who is mentally ill.

You call that a "better catalog search experience"? Feh!

Was Ahab mentally ill, or merely "obsessed"? Was he manic-depressive (bipolar), as David Dowling outlines in Chasing the White Whale (p;146)? How about Starbuck, who comes close to murder? Or Ishmael, who ships out to avert suicide?

Wendy Stallard Flory writes (as quoted by Dowling), "No romance writer has dramatized the experience of manic-depressive mood swings more comprehensively than Melville in Moby-Dick." Flory sees the other characters in M-D embodying ways of dealing with manic-depression: Starbuck through conscious will, Stubb and Flask through "substance abuse," over-indulgence, and willful ignorance. The anti-Ahab, the "integrated personality," is Queequeg.

So, sure—M-D about mental illness. It's also about the tension between capital and labor, ambergris, and whale anatomy; but would you expect to see "Marxism," "perfume," or "cetology" among the top ten keyphrases?

A review of M-D on Amazon is emblazoned on my memory. Under the headline, Do NOT Read This Book, an aggrieved student's prĂ©cis was: "Boringest book ever!"  Now there's a keyphrase for Syndetics, though none of us M-D devotees would concur.

Years ago, I fell into a discussion with a colleague about one of the Jasper Johns "target" paintings. At one point he looked at his watch and said, "We've just spent 45 minutes talking about it. We could do that because it's Art." I'd bet that most Marathon attendees share the feeling that the more you look into M-D, the more there is to discover. You think you have a good grasp on it until you hear someone like Wyn Kelley field audience questions during "Stump the Scholars."

To reduce a work as substantial and multifaceted as M-D to a list of search terms is not an easy matter. But "mentally ill" would not be in my top ten.

Would it be in yours?

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