A minimalist collage is the first of many examples of MK’s deliberate effort to illustrate the relatively sparse references to women and femininity in MD. There are very few females assigned as characters in the book – only one with a speaking role – a few more women appear as minor shapers of the plot in their absence (wives back home, Ahab’s “‘crazy widowed mother,’” etc.), but the text’s figurative language abounds in passing references to women and female bodies. MK consistently highlights these features of the text in his choice of line to illustrate and often in the form of realistic collage elements. The aggregate effect of this stratagem is to amplify a dimension of femininity and womanism of the book that might easily go overlooked, as it is seemingly not a deliberate priority of Melville’s (or Ishmael’s).
The current page of MD offers a longer-than-average mention of women, and its placement at the very end of the chapter – given the flourish with which chapters generally expire in MD – should imply that it’s not so much a digression or diversion as a destination. After a passage where we are brought out of the perspective of the Ishmael who’s a newcomer to New Bedford, seeing its wild peopled streets for the first time, into that of an Ishmael who’s visited New Bedford in every season, tasted its sweet summer and smelled is budding fall, the blossoms terracing the exposed ancient rocks upon which the shoreline city is built provoke this parting thought from Ishmael:
And the women of New Bedford, they bloom like their own red roses. But roses only bloom in summer; whereas the fine carnation of their cheeks is perennial as sunlight in the seventh heavens. Elsewhere match that bloom of theirs, ye cannot, save in Salem, where they tell me the young girls breathe such musk, their sailor sweethearts smell them miles off shore, as though they were drawing nigh the odorous Moluccas instead of the Puritanic sands.
The final paragraph of a chapter dedicated to “the street” of New Bedford is not just a nod to the women of the renowned whaling port and their better than “perennial” beauty but also a diminishing comparison between them and the women of Salem. Evidence that the latter “match” the former’s “bloom” is bandied about by Ishmael as sailors’ gossip: “they tell me.” Perhaps during his few tours in the merchant service Ishmael caught scent of “the odorous Moluccas” firsthand, but in all likelihood it’s Ishmael the veteran whaleman more than the greenhand making a knowing reference to the licentiousness of proto-colonial probes into the archipelagos of Southeast Asia.
MK’s illustration of the first line of this concluding paragraph of “The Street” consists of three main collage elements: a black-and-white photograph of a whaleship at full sail in the lower right corner, prow pointed center canvas, is cutoff at its mast-heads to expose an overlain black-and-white photograph (older method, daguerrotype maybe) of a body in long sleeved, white collared black dress, holding an open book, and sat sideways on a wooden slat back chair, oriented the same direction as the ship. This photograph occupies the majority of the canvas. A graphic rose is painted over the head of the seated figure: a circle outlined in black, with cross sections of thin black painted lines concentrically spiralizing toward the circle’s center, the resultant petals are blood red. Organic elements and textures are incorporated into the canvas but confined. A small segment of photographed shock green elegance coral is visible in the lower left corner of the canvas, cutoff at the top by the photograph of the seated reading person with a painted graphic rose for a head and then overlain by the modern-age photograph of a whaleship speeding asail, which is torn at the far left edge as if revealing the magnified coral beneath.
The figurative language of MD binds the beauty of the women of New Bedford to the natural world; their “bloom” – the “fine carnation of their cheeks” – is “perennial,” unlike the red roses they tend in summer. It endures like “sunlight in the seventh heaven.” That sounds nice. On the other hand, Ishmael implies that the commerce of the whaling port – control of which was hoarded by men – has nurtured blossoms in a place that would otherwise be an outcropping of “barren refuse rocks thrown aside at creation’s final day.” In MK’s collaged illustration the modern photograph of the speeding, tilted bowsprit of a whaleship overlays the more stationary photo of what I assume to be a woman reading, but the photograph made from a more archaic, time-consuming process dominates the canvas both in its size and owing especially to the painted feature that obscures the face of the reading person. Eclipsing the photographed woman’s head with a graphic, painted token of the transient beauty of a New Bedford summer rose, MK renders transient the supposed better-than-perennial beauty captured in the photo-realistic medium with a painted token of that beauty, made by women, which is said annually to fade. The zoomed-in, digital era photograph of green elegant coral confined to a small, uneven portion of the canvas’s far left corner is a minimized but striking reminder about how distant from nature these competing vantages of the canvas are.
As previously, when Ishmael was observing the lodgers at the Spouter Inn (before meeting Queeuqeg), MK’s found page comes from the sewing manual for public scenes. For this canvas, set as the book is now in the bustling streets of New Bedford, he had many more intriguing subjects to choose from to make his illustration, but the emphasis is once again on the clothes as much as it is on the subject wearing them. The one is in the other.
On this found page a pictorial guideline for “forming a seam” runs down the ride hand side of the inverted page and one for “keeping seams straight” on the left. Painted over this page is a dandy of a figure, done up mostly in blue, whose body takes almost precisely the form of the wide inverted U-shape that is repeatedly printed to the left side of the page with minor variations to show proper seam straightening technique. MK’s bodies take the shapes of pattern pieces. The dandy’s seams are several and all of them very neat. Forming the most prominent one is a thin band of red piping running parallel to a dashed line stitch; it runs at a diagonal forming the broad royal blue lapel flapped over most of the dandy’s chest. The figure’s sky-blue shirted shoulder is revealed behind the lapel, sporting an inverted Y-shaped black stitch pattern formed of a widely spaced dotted line and a narrow dashed line running parallel to the downward slope of the figure’s body. The lower portion of the figure bells out below the belt; the navy blue tailcoat (the text of MD refers to it as a “swallow-tailed coat”) has a pocket to its left and a vent seam in its front running perpendicular to the middle of the bottom margin of the found page.
The dandyism of the figure would be much less evident without three distinct accessories: 1) the basket-weave textured belt made of blocks of blues, black, red, and white – a blue ringed white badge for a buckle featuring a thin black anchor; 2) a bi-triangular blood red sword, at belt’s end to the figure’s left, with a thin gold hilt and woven textured handle butted in black circles; 3) the “beaver hat” atop the figure’s head, a blend of brown-black dabs from a rounded brush, painted low, just above its blue-green baleen band.
The figure’s only feature besides its clothes, sword, baleen band, and two rows of whiteblock gritted teeth is its blackness. Several pages of Every Page of Moby-Dick ago now, when I encountered MK’s black Angel of Doom, I proposed that the peglike figures that stand in for people in MK’s illustrations are racialized, since the first one painted black occurred on that page in MD when Ishmael stumbles rudely into a “negro church.” Since that page, three other figures have been painted black: the “young fellow” spotted gulping down dumplings in the Spouter Inn, Bulkington (in all three canvas where he and his peagreen monkey-jacket appear), and this dandy, who Ishmael loudly points out to the reader among the throng on the streets of New Bedford by day: “Look there! that chap strutting round the corner.” I’ll never be able to read or see that black Angel Doom other than as a Black Angel of Doom, and there are compelling arguments that Bulkington is Black; being painted black, the hungry “young fellow” and this well dressed chap share a connection with these canvases. If the blackness of all these figures is interpreted as Blackness, one effect of that connection is a diversification (on MK’s part) of the people of the crowd singled out in the early chapters of MD that one wouldn’t expect of most cinematic versions of the book.
There’s another interpretation: another feature that most of the peglike figures colored white have in common is that they’re naked compared to the lovingly adorned black chaps; the water-gazers only have simply-patterned wraps about their peglike bodies and then beaky noses and protuberant eyes to show which way they’re pointing. The peglike bodies painted black sport vibrantly painted jackets based on realistic pattern shapes and stitch patterns; they wear dramatic accessories. The Black Angel of Doom has no jacket or collar but two fantastic wings. Black bodies in MK are adorned to reveal beauty and white bodies are stripped down to reveal emotion.
Ishmael’s surprised to find the company of whalemen lodging at the Spouter Inn such quiet and evidently shy company over breakfast. He, a great spouter himself, was expecting stories. MK illustrates the line wherein Ishmael contrasts the “sheepish,” “bashful,” and “timid” manners of the whalemen at the “social breakfast table” with their unabashed bravery upon the high seas, where they have “duelled [great whales] dead without winking.” The canvas inspired by this line becomes the first of MK’s many illustrations of whales for his enterprise (excluding that “portentous, black mass” that occupies the dingy canvas in the entryway to the Inn), but this is only a partial view. Just the top of a leviathanic head breaches the bottom margin of the canvas and extends halfway up its length before tilting outward to the right; the curvature of its brow is just within frame near the middle of the right margin. The body of the whale is composed mostly of overlapping, variously sized lateral shapes like razor clam shells, outlined in black and shaded black-grey along their upper edges. The body of the whale is colorless, apart from this shading, so the printed text of the found page is visible behind it: fragments of histories of artillery fire and maneuvers asail read through. Just above curvature of the whale’s brow a black-and-white engraving of galleon warship is printed on the upper third of the found page, partially obscured by graphic clouds of grey and white over pink that originate spoutwise from the foremost point of the whale’s head where emanates a sloped column of grey and white bands with one pink band shot through it.
Standing astride the whale’s back, braced against its rise, is the broad figure of Bulkington, his green monkey-jacket buttoned up tight and a bulky silhouetted lance tilted to his side. Just below the tip of the lancehead is an overlarge lidless anthropomorphic eye drawn to one side of the great whale, its striated blue iris and watery black pupil rolled upward in its socket toward Bulkington. Upon the ponderous body of the whale the enlarged human eye looks oddly, its passive, dewy form juxtaposing the graphic spout emanating sharply from the whale’s head, that band of pink shot through the grey and white expelling the whale’s lifespot. But the eye isn’t so much the whale’s as it’s Ishmael’s, turned up into his own head and imagining the “war stories” he expected to be regaled with over breakfast. The wave formations atop the wedge of seascape painted behind Bulkington in the background of the illustration evoke the horizon-line of Ishmael’s own water-bag head. It’s funny that Ishmael, a greenhand to whaling at this point in his own story, jokes that you would have thought these “timid warrior whalemen” a fold of sheep upon the Green Mountains, sheepish as they were. Veteran soldiers, however, are often less embarrassed about remembering their past battles than about remembering how to be sociable animals once more.
In the light of day, and with a fair prospect of breakfast before him, Ishmael gets a better look at his fellow lodgers at the Spouter Inn, some of whom he saw arriving the night previous. In the text of MD Ishmael registers several precise physical characteristics of these specimen “whalemen” in his description – “a brown and brawny company, with bosky beards; an unshorn, shaggy set, all wearing monkey jackets for morning gowns.” These attributes are ellided out of MK’s isolated line from “Breakfast” which serves the title of his illustration, whose matter instead is a list of the whalemen’s ranks on the hierarchy of the whaleship or what form of labor they bring to the fishery: “They were nearly all whalemen; chief mates, and second mates, and third mates, and sea carpenters, and sea coopers, and sea blacksmiths, and harpooneers, and ship keepers.”
Notably absent from MK’s illustration of this company of whalemen upon the landscape-oriented canvas is the cylindrical peglike figure of the landlubber. Workers in whaling are differently drawn, imbued with either the elemental mediums native to their labor (primarily water, fire, and air) or the tools of their various trades. One of figures on this canvas is recognizable, the broadest of the 5 standing to the far right of the frame. It’s Bulkington (from 14); notable among the minor differences in his reappearance on this canvas: his brickwork cofferdam of a chest beneath his unbuttoned pea-green monkey jacket is painted over in pale blue and yellow stripes, his fluid-blue visor-eye has been replaced with a green-grey balene-band. The figure standing on the far left of the canvas is clearly the “chief mate” (aka first mate), as there’s a large black 1 painted on his red/blue silough-shaped body; even its head is drawn in the shape of a large blocked number one, colored white: three hashmarks about a mouth, a slouch of red for a cap, with a furl of ink black eddying from the top of it. Whereas the coffer-dam chest of Bulkington walls up water within (as previously shown in the depths of the visor-eye featured in his individual portrait), the silough-bodied chief mate keeps the air in or rather keeps it out, the excess of what it can’t contain – whether absence or presence of a certain air – excreting in the form of black cloud that briefly forms the shape of a whale before breaking apart and rejoining the sky.
The tallest figure, standing center canvas and occupying its full height is one of the other mates, second or third: I’m inclined to think third. Standing next to this figure, which is colored mostly brown, is a black silhouetted lance, its line spiraling around its shaft and disappearing behind the figure’s back. The figure’s proximity to the lance might represent a recent promotion since the implement whose use was reserved for those aboard the whaleboats deserving the honor and glory of the kill (if not the dart that secured it) – the lance – is not the shape of the tool emblazoned in blue on its body and protruding like a finial out of the top of its tubular head – that’s a harpoon. I read a story in the beady eyes of this tall illustrated whaleman where a long-darter of whales finally ships out a mate. Like the newly minted mate the squat blacksmith to its one side is imbued with the icons of its trade: a squared off slag red body is cut across by a yellow lightning bolt, flecked black. Upon the flat terracotta head featuring a double row of white block teeth and a black visor-eye is a chalice-shaped vessel with a row of white bubbles rising from its middle, like a quench. The figure standing to the other side of the third mate stands taller than the blacksmith but shorter than the rest; it’s draped in a powder blue coat with golden, fringed epaulets, pinned large about its middle is an emblem: a circle of golden cordage frames a black anchor against a field of seafoam green. The rounded head of this figure is colored white but a pattern of lines and circles gives it the appearance of riveted metal plates cut across by a red visor-eye; atop its head is a golden fin or frond resembling the horn of a gramophone or an ear trumpet. This would be the ship-keeper, who bore the responsibility for the ship’s movements and communications between the crew when the captain was away. The anchor emblem on the figure’s chest is nearly identical to the one spouted before the face of that right whale of a captain who Ishmael foresees ordering him “GET!” when he ships (in 4); it signals the singularity in the hierarchy of the whaleship’s power structure whereby it must distribute itself incrementally down the ladder of command, with the captain on top, whose “complete dominion” can transfer and indeed does frequently transfer to another, even one upon its lowest rung.
Presumably, Ishmael would’ve discovered after a certain brief period of casual conversation and repeated meetings the respective positions and occupations of the various whaleman about the Spouter Inn and is not claiming to be able to distinguish at sight their positions in the whaleship’s hierarchy and its division of labor when he sees them before his first breakfast in New Bedford. MK is in the opposite position of having to make the duties and specialized labors of the whaleman visible. Of course, there is no real urgency of his doing so here; he might have illustrated any number of charming lines for this page. I would suggest he chose this moment as a sort of practice run along the rungs of the whaleship’s hierarchy for his portraits to come of the main cast of “knights and squires,” tradesmen, servants, and men-before-the-mast comprising the crew of the Pequod. Before we even know that ship to be hiring crew, MK is working out how to conjure them.
MK’s “M.D. Aphorism #2 is an outgrowth of his “M.D. Aphorism #1”; it maps Ishmael a bit farther on the other side of his initially fearful and prejudicial reaction to recognizing (finally) who/what Queequeg is – namely, to use Ishmael’s word, a “cannibal” – where the previous aphorism isolated him just on the other side of that experience, not quite yet making perfect sense out of it.
The shift in perspective between these pages of MD might concern Ishmael’s relationship to Peter Coffin more directly than his relationship to Queequeg. Ishmael’s curious regard for his appointed bedfellow is well remembered, but some of his ire was directed at the landlord of the Spouter Inn – their matchmaker – upon entering the room, candle in hand, with assurances of Queequeg’s harmlessness after Ishmael shouted for Coffin (and the angels) to come save him when Queequeg finally scares him out of hiding in the bed: “‘Stop your grinning,’ shouted I, ‘and why didn’t you tell me that that infernal harpooneer was a cannibal?’” Ishmael’s attitude about all Coffin’s “grinning” seems to have improved by the time he and Queeueg make their way to the bar-room of the Spouter Inn for breakfast in the light of day: “I cherished no malice towards him, though he had been skylarking with me not a little in the matter of my bedfellow. However, a good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing…” (Mr. Ready-to-walk-the-streets-knocking-people’s-hats-off-their-heads, accosts Coffin “pleasantly.”)
The shard array graphic upon which the last sentence of that quotation is written in small black capital letters in MK’s hand – a shard per word, isolating it as Aphorism #2 – has shifted from near-center canvas to the lower left quadrant, presumably to frame on the found page a black-and-white photograph in which a solitary individual with receding and ruffled black hair, dressed in a tweed jacket, buttoned white shirt, and dark tie is releasing a half-reluctant, toothed smile.* The centerpiece of the graphic of Aphorism #1 was a small dark sphere, jaggedly inked in black toward the center, its interior shaded grey; the shard array of Aphorism #2 has an identically colored but larger and differently shaped centerpiece: it’s a triangle, the greater area of which allows for greater detail in the black ink-work forming its perimeter. Here the uneven edging has a more consistent, distinctly rounded aspect, like stalactites dripping down into the grey zone of the trigon’s middle.
The shards of the graphic for Aphorism #2 are near in number to the ones for Aphorism #1 (26 and 24, respectively), but here the shards are broader and shorter, and there are smaller shards overlaying the larger ones in the array. The most notable difference between the two graphics, however, is the coloring of the shards themselves: whereas in the graphic for Aphorism #1 there was one lone red shard extending toward the upper right corner of the canvas, in the array for Aphorism #2 there is one predominant red shard extending at roughly the same angle from the triangle’s perimeter, but there are also five other red shards surrounding the triangular centerpiece, and six other shards colored a shade of magenta that bolsters the red and blends it into the array. Apart from the red-magenta shards which visually dominate its scheme, 8 shards of yellow, 5 shards of green, and 4 more subtle shards of brown, complete the array.
The cooler, blue-green blends of the shard array of Aphorism #1 give way to a prodimently warm array of reds and yellows combined with earthy tones of brown and green for the graphic in Aphorism #2. It’s the dawn of a new day in New Bedford, and Ishmael’s been altered. His attitude toward the “skylarking” of Coffin has softened; he’s more genial, able not only to recognize the teasing for what it is but laugh it off as well. His perception of Queequeg’s physical appearance goes from shocked and awed in the halflight of the private room at night to almost proud in the bar-room after break of day: “But who could show a cheek like Queequeg?”
The emotional energy over-invested in the fearful response to Queequeg’s physical difference as to become separated from Ishmael’s own experiential recognition of his first encounter with Queequeg – indexed in the word “cannibal” in the text of MD, and color-coded red on the MK’s illustration of Aphorism #1 – bleeds into both major components of the illustration of Aphorism #2. In the shard array it manifests as a visual predominance of red and magenta, set off by earth tones: yellow, green, brown, in MD as Ishmael’s good natured love and kinship with his fellows: not just Queequeg, but Coffin too, and all the shy sailors gathered in the bar-room. He remarks on the men’s various sun-tans, reading the seasons and ports of call written in the various legend-bands of their skins. In MD Ishmael performs a verbal social contract with his fellow man to “spend and be spent” if it means for a “good joke,” opportunities to laugh being so evidently rare in his experience. But it’s that generic love, a common recognition of shared humanity, that seems the more pitifully rare experience for Ishmael. On the canvas it’s afforded a place in Ishmael’s identification with his own experience in those diagonal bars of red and magenta, like badges, amongst bars of yellow and brown in the legend-band inked above black-and-white photograph of the shyly smiling man. Triangular forms of matching shades stand atop the band, monuments to the alteration.
Ishmael’s suddenly altered attitude toward Queequeg the night before, upon the greater light cast by Coffin in the room, extends to every body in the place in the greater light of day. MK’s aphorisms are a means of capturing Ishmael in an instar, illustrating him in a particular relationship to himself and his environment at a moment in the text of MD. Each illustrated aphorism is a map of a particular moment in the flow of Ishmael’s emo-intellectual disclosures; as a series they generate a map of his dynamism as a character in his own story and as the narrator of it, which is predicated on a series of nondisclosures. Between Aphorism #1 and Aphorism #2 a conceptual realignment has occurred – the wound of Aphorism #1 has morphed into a still gaping but load bearing structure in Aphorism #2, the building block of some future instar. The record of fact has been realigned to accommodate a redistribution in the record of feeling, but all that the text discloses is an unsmiling man finding a rare opportunity to laugh at himself.
*“And the man that has anything bountifully laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for.” – To confirm his identity I did a Google image search for Enrico Fermi, the man pictured smiling in the black-and-white photograph on the found page, framed between the legend-band and shard array, and while in many of the scrolling images the corners of his mouth are lifted, rarely are his teeth showing as they are in the photograph of him here, expect in photographs taken of him in his later years, this developer of the atomic bomb.
After waking up to the sleeping Queequeg’s spousal embrace, Ishmael only uses the word “cannibal” one more time to refer to his bedfellow, unless paraphrasing the words of another.* It’s before he’s roused Queequeg and in the mode and tone of a supererogatory superego, the Ishmael who sees himself being (potentially) seen by others: “A pretty pickle, truly, thought I; abed here in a strange house in the broad day, with a cannibal and a tomahawk!” He calls Queequeg a “savage” three times after that, within a litany of observations about the man’s strange behavior and manners that follow upon him being shouted awake. Also used three times in the course of these few paragraphs is the word being opposed to “savage” in order to characterize Queequeg: “civilized.” In one other case Ishmael compliments Queequeg’s “civility and consideration” in proposing – by “certain signs and sounds,” like an ape – that he wash and dress first and leave Ishmael to his privacy in the room to wash and dress after. It’s as if Queequeg’s every behavior, to Ishmael’s gaze, is a hybridized symptom of the indelible marks of savagery and civilization both irreconcilable in him – e.g., he shaves in the morning, but with the head of his harpoon; he washes himself, but not his face; etc. – each time the “but” being the mark of the still-savage in him not yet “graduated” to full civilized status. Ishmael’s got a couple of metaphors about it; one is: “He was an undergraduate.” (It never occurs to the matriculated Ishmael that maybe Queequeg’s “toilette” has been hastened a bit by his unexpected presence in the room.) The other is the line from this page MK illustrates: “But Queequeg, do you see, was a creature in the transition state — neither caterpillar nor butterfly.”
To form this canvas, one found page overlays another: a 7 x 9.5 in. piece of white paper has pasted to its middle a more squared off page of avocado green showing six beautiful dead butterflies photographed upon it, their shadows cast to the left of their carcases. An inch-and-a-half or so of the white paper is left exposed on the upper and lower edges of the canvas so that the silhouetted forms that reach toward the center of the canvas are thus reaching into the canvas and into the found page upon it, making this illustration a more pointed commentary on the found page than any before it. Markered over the middle of these two superimposed pages – situated neatly between the two columns of three butterflies (largest specimens at the bottom and the smallest in the middle), is a pupa-shaped pod of aquamarine squiggles scribbled over with black marker. Reaching out toward the pupa from the lower margin of the canvas is a black silhouetted arm and hand; aiming toward it from the upper margin is the head and narrow, roped shaft of a harpoon. Painted over the pupa is a large, thinly-brushed red infinity band** with what I now recognize to be a stamp of a capital letter Q, also in red paint, forming Queequeg’s signature. Here it’s writ large, forming the foreground of a portrait of Queequeg, cocooned. Interpreted from the perspective of Ishmael’s gaze, it shows the pupa suspended between forces of savagery (which could be fairly emblematized by the harpoon or the hand) and civilization (which could be fairly emblematized by the harpoon or the hand).
But MK’s perspective on Queequeg’s “transitional state” does not necessarily align with Ishamel’s. I’m inclined to view MK’s interpretation of the polar forces with Queequeg’s cocoon situated vulnerably between them as, each of them, life-and-death. While the harpoon taking aim at the pupa from above is the sign of Queequeg’s livelihood, which he carries around with him proudly like a banner, it’s also the means of slaying creature after creature in MD, and it’s not a far cry from the invisible pins mounting the dead butterflies in place to be photographed on the avocado backdrop of the found page. The hand reaching out for the pupa from below could be that of Queequeg’s god, releasing it again into life, or it could be the hand reaching out to trap and cut-off the winding string of the butterfly’s life before its natural death. While Ishmael gazes upon Queequeg, and observes the awkward and delicate manifestations of his “transitional state” only a naive reader would regard this gaze as a purely positive one, encouraging and hastening its object to new life. Ishmael’s ethnographic gaze pins Queequeg to the page, the discourse of evolutionary science it’s steeped in kills the living it observes.
And Queequeg himself is no pure victim of these forces. As Ishmael observes, he’s internalized the gaze put on him from without. The heliconius (aka longwing) butterflies displayed on the found page are among one of the most famous and widespread genus of butterflies because of the importance they served in the history of evolutionary science. Within a decade of the publication of MD, Henry Walter Bates would publish the findings of his research into the pervasive and complex mimicry patterns of the Heliconiidae of the Amazon Valley, exciting and encouraging Darwin, Wallace, et al. with one the first systematic scientific rationalizations for the principle of natural selection in history. It was observed that other species of butterflies more commonly preyed upon in the Amazonian forests mimicked physical traits of the heliconians to survive, since the longwings fed on a food supply that rendered them toxic to predators. So they and their mimics flourished, but the mimics were always the more vulnerable the more they flourished since they didn’t evolve the eating habits to render them as veritably toxic as the butterflies whose appearance of (in)civility they put on.
*Ishmael does also use the word “cannibal” a couple more times in surveying the population of the New Bedford streets.
**The oblong pod is squiggled over again in black after the painting of the red infinity band to give the latter the appearance of being interwoven into the form at the center of the canvas, thus giving it long translucent wings rimmed in red, mimicking the dead butterflies photographed on the found page.
The experience of waking under Queequeg’s arm provokes a memory from Ishmael, one of the only straightforwardly autobiographical stories about his past before going a-whaling in the whole of MD, and it’s a “mystery”: he confesses himself unsure whether it’s the memory of a dream or of a reality. MK’s choice of found page to create this canvas is motivated to help capture an overwhelming, half-wakeful event, now doubly so, since the memory of an experience Ishmael had as a child between a state of sleeping and wakefulness is reactivated by a similar state he’s in when roused from the best sleep of his life at the Spouter Inn with “Queequeg’s pagan arm thrown round [him].” The whole of the found page is occupied by an oddly-cropped, closeup black-and-white photograph of six narrow tree trunks, whose sparse leafless limbs are just beginning crookedly to fan out near the upper margin. It’s the type of shot you’d see in a film to show the perspective of someone lost in the woods – no forest, just trees – but there is no movement to this illustration. Here the vantage of the lost one is perfect stillness.
In Ishmael’s report of his memory, he briefly describes a circumstance which occasioned him being sent to bed by his “stepmother… [his] mother” on the longest day of the year: he thinks he’d been trying to climb up the chimney like he saw a ‘sweep do, or some other “caper.” After taking as much time as possible to undress, he spends hours tossing around in bed dreading the long passage of time before his liberation from this latest torment of a (step-)mother who’s recalled as “all the time whipping [him], or sending [him] to bed supperless.” Eventually he wakes from a fitful sleep, “half steeped in dreams,” and his room is shrouded in the dark of night. At this point, his report of the memory becomes unaccountably weird. Firstly, he describes a sensation…
a “shock” – it “runs through all [his] frame.” Like sleep paralysis, a sensation having no sensation – “nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard…” – but perhaps touch? “…but, a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bedside.” Ishmael’s lost command of his hand, and not just grammatically; he describes laying there as a child for what seemed like “ages piled on ages… frozen with the most awful fears,” not being able to move his hand but convinced all the while that doing so would break “the horrid spell.”
The most reductive and dismissive interpretation of Ishmael’s report of this experience – like that of a fedup (step-)mother with far more important matters to see to – is that he awoke with the circulation cut off to his hand, draped as it was over the cover, and it went numb, and he merely imagined the “silent form or phantom” at his beside, as a projection from his dream state, while the wait to regaining sensation and control of his extremity passed longer than he understandably would have wished in his understandably frightened state. By the way, the intensity of his dreaming, to have returned to wakefulness with him in that way, just goes to show how deeply asleep he must have been and how much, after all, he needed a good, long rest after all that capering, in spite of the difficulty he had settling himself down.
Of course, there are other interpretations. MK sets himself the challenge of illustrating the silent, formless phantom that visited Ishmael during his childhood confinement, the thing felt without sight, sound, or notion. He accomplishes this with a stunningly simple method. I think it went something like this: 1) he spray painted an arching ombre of silvery grey about the middle of the found page showing the six trees; 2) he placed stencils over the canvas: two rounds for eyes, placed just below the centerpoint of the canvas so to align with two of the narrow trunks, and below them a cutout of a rudimentary right hand; 3) he then spray painted a shade of white into the cutout holes for eyes and of the hand shape below; 4) then, I believe, he covered the eye-hole and hand shapes he just spray painted white with the pieces he cut out to form the stencils and then spray painted black over them, concentrating the color where it abuts the silver grey ombre and lightening toward the bottom of the canvas so you can still make out the narrow tree trunks behind. That is the best effort I can make, like a bad (step-)mother, to explain away the greatest mystery of the piece to my eyes: that string of errant black paint in the bottom of the figure’s right eye that you can’t see the tree trunk through.
That is to avoid speaking to the haunting illustration of the formless body in the dark, its silhouetted white hand so placed – as only its own hand could be, when it’s my hand it’s dispossessed and disarmed – to keep some secret. No amount of probing the canvas should fail to recognize that the illustration is designed to honor what remains non-disclosed about Ishmael’s recorded memory of his past experience as much as it is to animate any details disclosed by it. Ishmael admits that upon waking up and “seeing Queequeg’s pagan arm thrown round [him]” he felt as strange as he did waking as child in the night and clasping the “supernatural hand” of a “nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom,” but without the awful fear. (Indeed, accordingly, as if fear’s been purged, from here on out, Ishmael only refers to Queequeg or anyone else as a “cannibal” when animating the thoughts of others to himself.) Not disclosed is why the sight of Queequeg’s armed draped over the counterpane reactivates a memory of his own arm draped over the counterpane, or to which counterpane the chapter’s title refers.
When Ishmael awakes for the first time in the Spouter Inn, he finds that Queequeg has broken his nonverbal promise of the night previous to keep to his side of the bed. Ishmael’s little spoon. All he can make out of Queequeg is the man’s arm wrapped about him, but to his waking eyes the tattooed and variously-tanned appendage is so indistinct from the patchwork bedspread that it’s only by “its sense of weight and pressure” – Ishmael’s sense of touch – that he recognizes Queequeg is hugging him. The scene is similar to Ishmael’s observations of the painting hanging in the entryway of the Inn and Queequeg’s poncho the night previous, where an event of observation is recorded as a partial failure to recognize the object being sensed; here the evidence of the “most loving and affectionate” embrace of Queequeg’s arm is felt before it is clearly seen. At the same time, Ishamel’s report of this experience is shot through with another narrative perspective which, as if looking down on the pair in bed from the ceiling, capitalizes on the humor of the scene.
Not unlike the reports Ishmael provides about his “series of systematic visits” to the painting to ascertain its meaning and the knee jerk effect of him seeing his reflection wearing Queequeg’s poncho, he infuses the first person limited narrative perspective with a more distanced, omniscient one that prompts the reader’s interpretation of his partial recognition. Moreover, there’s the faint hint of a progression between these three experiences. His “theory” about the subject of the painting (“partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons”) is finally given over in a more sober, ominous tone; he never says what exactly was so shocking about his appearance in the poncho that he strained his neck getting out of it; but in the case of waking beneath Queequeg’s arm, Ishmael’s able finally to make fun of himself in a more pointed manner: “You had almost thought I had been his wife.” Ishmael slowly and subtly develops a more distanced view of himself as the early chapters of MD pass.
The perspective of MK’s illustration of this moment in MD strikes a compromise between the point of view of the Ishmael wrapped up by Queequeg in bed and the one looking back on the experience, as if from above. Queequeg’s mostly blue arm enters the frame from the middle of the upper margin and extends most of the way down the canvas. It’s the left arm, elbowed right in a relaxed manner, showing the spousal embrace that checks the other’s still there rather than the one that keeps them there. MK opts for a more natural texture of arcs and swirls to create the effect of Queequeg’s arm camouflaged against the textures of the counterpane rather than the geometric pattern of blocks and triangles described in the text MD. The blue silhouette of Queequeg’s blue arm features ribbons and waves of kelp green whose line work coincides with that of the ribbons and waves comprising the surface of the counterpane, where they differ in color. The texture of the bedspread is colored in warm tones of red and yellow, contrasting sharply with the cool tones of Queequeg’s arm, and a visual blending of the two palettes is generated by foregrounded bands and waves of grey that traverse both the arm and its backdrop of the sunlit bedspread. Backdrop to all of this, still distinguishable beneath the paint is another inverted page from “The Ladder of Creation.”
The line from MD that inspires the next canvas becomes the first in a series of aphorisms isolated by MK and then rendered into an original, illustrative medium, which I liken to a data visualization. Only here there is no data per se to visualize but a parcel of language mapped upon the found page, in this case a page from a chapter in an academic volume about Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, two rails on a supposed “Ladder of Creation” runged by endless observations, the discourse of evolutionary science.
The page is numbered 309 in its lower right corner, and the chapter title (“The Ladder of Creation”) is printed on the upper right margin opposite a poetic epigraph from one of Darwin’s cartoons; in the page’s lower left corner there’s a small black-and-white picture of a white bearded Alfred Wallace standing beside a blooming Eremurus robustus (aka a foxtail lily, or the candle of the desert), grown to nearly the full height of the jacketed man; Wallace is pictured wearing all black, so his round white head stands out prominently in the photograph, mimicking the pale tufted narrow head of the foxtail lily bloom oped atop a long-spiring stem barely distinguishable (given the low grade reproduction of the photo) from the grassy, wooded hillside in the background. All this you take in upside down because the page is turned on end. “The Ladder of Creation” reads rotated at 180 degrees, and Alfred Wallace dances on the ceiling with a blooming fox tail, where MK inks his illustration of “M.D. Aphorism #1”: “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”
The choice of found page here, given its inverted orientation, demonstrates MK’s recognition that the prejudice that initially biases Ishmael against his appointed bedfellow has a foot rooted in evolutionary science. The other foot, we’ll see, is rooted in a certain Christian spiritualism. Nurtured by Coffin’s teasing hints about the man’s identity, Ishmael’s bias grows into a towering angry fear by the time he’s figured out who Queequeg is – a “cannibal”* – when the man climbs into bed with him, tomahawk-pipe alight. The logic sustaining the distinction of savage and civilized is overturned or overwhelmed by two factors in the budding of Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship:
Ishmael’s temperance movement allegiances, bespoken most plainly in the text of MD when he observes the barman Jonah’s establishment upon entering the Spouter Inn; apparently the greater light brought into the room with Coffin after Ishmael screams for the landlord upon being gruffly demanded by Queequeg to say who he is and then threatened when the harpooneer is surprised to find him hiding awake in the bed, is enough to tell Ishmael that the cannibal is a sober one, “clean” at least;
empathy for Queequeg himself, the first token of which is uttered immediately preceding Aphorism #1: “the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him”; this suddenly amicable attitude of Ishmael’s seems prompted by the not only “civil” but “kind and charitable” way Queequeg invites him back into the bed after Coffin has quickly explained the sleeping arrangement.
Driving both of these considerations that overturn the valuation of civilized and savage in this moment in the text of MD is Ishmael’s magnetic attraction to Queequeg that there will be occasion to talk about more with illustrations to come. For now I’ll just point out that for all Queequeg’s “unearthly” appearances and behaviors registered by Ishmael as he hides in bed and observes the harpooneer undress, in the greater light brought into the room with Coffin Ishmael notes that he finds the man attractive: “comely.”
MK’s illustration of the event of language in this “aphorism,” the distillation and reduction of the philosophy of the whole of MD into a single sentence, is comprised of two distinct visual elements:
Just below the centerpoint of the topsy-turvy found page there’s inked a small dark sphere, having roughly the circumference of a fingertip; the perimeter of the circle is neatly defined on its outer edge and unevenly inked in black toward the center. (Where the black ink does not reach into the circle’s interior, it’s shaded grey.) Radiating outward from this center point of the diagram are 24 jagged shards of various lengths and breadths, variously colored (mostly) in shades of green, blue, purple, and yellow. The alteration in shards’ coloring doesn’t conform to a observable pattern; they’re all amix: 4 grass green, 4 sky blue, 4 turquoise, 4 ocean green, 4 yellow, 2 purple, one grey, and one shard (notably different from the rest) is red. Inked in black capital letters in 10 of the 24 shards are the individual words comprising the aphorism: “BETTER / SLEEP / WITH / A / SOBER / CANNIBAL” is arrayed on adjacent shards in the upper portion of the diagram; “THAN / A / DRUNKEN / CHRISTIAN” appears on shards on the lower half.
Inked above this diagram, about a quarter of the length of the found page from its uppermost edge (according to the orientation of the printing, its lowermost edge) and extending three quarters of the way across the page, is a horizontal band or strip, terminating at the ends in a similarly jagged fashion as the shards in the diagram below. The band is divided into 12 colored blocks of various sizes – some wider, rectangle-shaped, some very narrow, like lines. The coloring of the individual blocks corresponds to that of individual sunburst shards of the diagram below; here too there is no definable pattern to the alteration in the colors used: 3 blocks of the band toward the right of center are colored purple; 1 wide block near the left end of the band and the narrowest block on the right are colored yellow; there’s a square of the grass green on either side of the band; and the rest of the blocks comprising the band are turquoise or ocean green. Above the band, inked in the same black capital lettering as the words written in the sunburst shards of the diagram below, appearing like a label: “M.D. APHORISM #1:”
These two elements of the illustration are tied together by the presence of language on the canvas: MK’s own autography writing out the quote from MD on the multicolored shard array, and identifying it as an aphorism with the words inked above the multicolored band. The latter works as a sort of legend or key for interpreting the aphorism’s mapping upon the former. The band of colored blocks serves like a designer’s mood board, establishing the tones and palette that will be carried over in the spacialization of the aphorism upon the shard array. The colors chosen to establish this mood are predominately cool and soothing, shot through with a bright, illuminative highlight of yellow: evoking the literal light Coffin is supposed to have brought into the room and also the more sober and rationalist frame of mind of which Ishmael is suddenly possessed. The palette aptly captures the rapid calming of Ishmael’s elevated mood that results from the genteel manner in which Queequeg invites him back to bed after frightening him out if it and the clarity with which Ishmael’s registers it in the text as a sort of decision or resolution on his part to accept the invitation: “What’s all the fuss I have been making about…[?]”
Conspicuously, the only color featured in the shard array that is not reproduced in the legend-band above it is red; the sole red shard also happens to be the one upon which the word “CANNIBAL” is written. The associative meaning of the word, triggered by the color MK uses for its background on the canvas – red – does not match the established palette – cool, calm, and clear – but sets it off as an accent is said to “pop,” that is, only on condition it doesn’t pop the predominant mood of the defined space. The difference between the legend-band of “M.D. Aphorism #1” and the spacialization of the quotation on the shard array is a difference between Ishmael’s understanding of the import of his words and their unchecked meaning. If Ishmael were a Catholic, say, instead of a proud Presbyterian, he might discern a fault in the logic of the syllogism – “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” – if a Christian is understood to be a sort of cannibal. (“This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me…”) Unless “cannibal” and “Christian” are regarded as opposites in some regard, then the aphorism amounts to Ishmael making a passing subjective preference known (to himself): “I’d rather not bed down with a drunk person.” All well and good, but how is he certain Queequeg is not drunk anyway? The sobriety of his religious observances before sleep, perhaps? That’d be another stab at the supposed oppositional meaning. For now, Ishmael rests on the compromise that Queequeg not smoke in bed – “This being told to Queequeg, he at once complied, and again politely motioned me to get into bed.” – and he claims to have never slept better in his life.
Not every aspect of the experience distilled in the aphorism, which MK illustrates in the shard array, is internalized by the meanings assumed or authorized by the aphorism’s speaker, which MK makes a color swatch of in the legend-band. Questions remain about how Ishmael reconciles his relationship with Queequeg and his own spiritual worldview. This was only their first meeting, after all. The icebreaker, as it were. In fact, once the thought occurred to me I could never escape it again, that the shard array with which MK spacializes the aphorism he’s isolated at the terminus of his long residence in “The Spouter Inn” (he’s been living in these rooms more than three weeks, remember, by the time Ishmael’s stayed one night), resembles the visual effect a bullet or sharp, pointed object hurled at great force would produce on a pane of glass or rather of ice. Perchance its the frozen November in his soul Ishmael perceives melting in him when he takes Queequeg for his “bosom friend,” where notably the word “cannibal” has been replaced in its (il)logical opposition to the the word “Christian”: “I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.” Ishmael may be learning and changing, but his lessons never seem done.
*It should be noted that the word “cannibal” is first introduced by the Ishmael narrating not the Ishmael speaking to the other characters in the scene, though Ishmael does call Queequeg a “cannibal” aloud when addressing Coffin after the landlord enters the room. Moreover, the word has been used three times previous to this moment in “The Spouter Inn”: first instance, when Ishmael is observing some of the “hacking, horrifying implement[s]” in the entryway upon first entering Coffin’s establishment and wondering what “monstrous cannibal and savage” might have gone “death-harvesting” with them; 2) second instance, when Ishmael is paraphrasing his considerations to himself upon learning that Queequeg is out engaged in the “cannibal business [of] selling heads of dead idolators” and on a Sabbath’s (very early) day; 3) third instance, when persisting in assuming his roommate is a white man even though Coffin has told him otherwise, Ishmael recollects a case he heard of a man being taken captive by cannibals and tattooed by them as an explanation of the circumstances in which Queequeg was tattooed. Death, religion, and race: those are certainly the big three for Melville’s Ishmael at this point in MD.
I recall fondly a stage of my (then 3yo) son’s linguistic development, when he spoke in the third person for a brief term and also at that time would interject the phoneme a- (“uh”) before his verbs to form sentences based around verbal tenses and grammatical conventions he had not yet assimilated; for example: “Mark a-goin to pway…” “Mark a-want a pawsicle…” “Mark a-wuv Mommy.” That speech pattern is not unlike the one Melville adopts to write Ishmael writing the dialect of Queequeg into the text of MD. Queequeg only rarely speaks in the third person, but a consistent linguistic idiosyncrasy of his is to insert the phoneme “ee” (like the one in his name), after many of his spoken words; for example: “Queequeg no kill-e so small-e fish-e; Queequeg kill-e big whale!” One effect of the dialect attributed to Queequeg is to infantilize him (as when Ishmael opines on his “transitional state”), but of course this babying is accompanied by so much evidence of Queequeg’s power and capability and humility that the effect is all but irresistibly endearing.
Caveat: I’m currently reading more about the New Zealand native cultures Melville appropriated information about (primarily via Wilkes) to curate the assembly of cultural attributes ascribed to Queequeg, and it does dampen the romance the more you consider the living peoples and traditions literally cannibalized to render this representation of one of the most widely beloved characters of MD, a cannibal.
MK choses to illustrate not the first words spoken by Queeqeg in MD but his second utterance, where many of the same words are repeated – “Speak-e! tell-ee me who-ee be, or dam-me, I kill-e!” Only those words that are bolded appear on the canvas, the ones capturing his verbal signature, formed in sharply blocked, black letters oriented vertically on a found page stacked with horizontally orientated charts, the wavelength of Queequeg’s verbiage growing perpendicular to their grain in 2-3 in. long leaflike formations (outlined neatly in the black marker) containing the fragments of his speech like peapods. The word pods are shot from white vines emanating at intervals from a column of interlaced blue scales composed by concentric bands of blue – Queequeg’s skin texture and tone in many (not all) of MK’s illustrations of him. The column of aquamarine swirl is centered on the found page with two protuberances in its sides in the upper third of the canvas, hollows in fact in the painted pattern, where a pair of pointilated red orbs float and stare.
Consider the difference it would have made to the effect of the canvas if MK had painted another example of Queequeg’s verbal idiom from this page, for instance, what he speaks when someone finally explains what Ishmael is doing in his room: “Me sabbee plenty.” To my eyes, the leafed aquamarine tower on the found page would serve just as well for that moment of restored calm as it does for what he utters while he flourishes his tomahawk in the dark toward the grunting body he’s discovered between his bed sheets, but the mood of the canvas would be altered radically by the presence of words other than those that command and threaten. The point of MK choosing the words he does is to capture Ishmael’s fear in the distorted view of the face and the partial recognition of the speech of the man who’s about to immediately put him at his perfect ease and melt his cold, cold heart.
Queequeg’s signature – the bold, red Q over the red infinity band – is in the lower left corner of the canvas.