Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 11

9/2/21, 12:49pm

11

After his contemplation of the beguiling painting that hangs to one side of the entryway to the Spouter Inn, Ishmael turns to regard some “storied” retired tools of the trade the landlord Coffin has on display on the opposite wall. One of these implements is a lance reputedly wielded by one Nathan Swain to “kill fifteen whales between a sunrise and sunset” some fifty years prior (it’s said) to Ishmael’s visit to the Inn. 

MK illustrates this lance – oriented vertically, just left of center canvas – with a marked realism: the head of the lance is spade-shaped and set atop a thinly tapered rod, which at a length about six times that of the height of the lancehead is bored into a thick rounded handle, complete with a handgrip and a stray span of whale-line corded haphazardly about the tool and dropped dangling out the bottom of the frame. The lance is painted in silhouette, all black, and cut off by the bottom edge of the canvas at about half the length of what the handle would measure in life. Apropos Ishmael’s description of this lance as “wildly elbowed,” the rod to which the lancehead is affixed is angled stiffly to the right at about a 40 degree angle relative to the vertical axis of the canvas, putting the diverted lancehead center-canvas in the upper third of the found page.

Most of the circuitry schematic that would be visible on the left hand side of this sheet is obscured by a crudely painted, dark ruddy backdrop to the lance, unevenly rounded off at the top and broader at its base; the blunted shape and coloring of this feature lends a stillness and deadness to the appearance of the lance that it might otherwise lack. The bent implement appears closeted in the redbrown cavity or rather embossed black on the face of a muddied, titled tombstone. 

Movement and dynamism is brought to the canvas not by the bend in the retired lance but by the hot candy-red lightning-bolt entering the foreground of the illustration from the middle-right and extending to its lower-left extremity. The initials “N.S.” appear prominently on the broadest span of the red lightning-bolt on the far right side of the canvas, slightly askew. The effect is that of a flashing tag or pennant announcing that it’s the supposed “honor and glory” of Nat Swain that quickens Ishmael’s (and, in turn, MK’s) attention to this relic, more than the lance itself.

It would be very like Ishmael to say that this “‘once […] bravest boat-header out of all Nantucket’” inked his name to the beadroll of the immortal fishery in the blood of his monstrous foe (that is, before he “‘joined the meeting’” and got worried about his “‘plaguy soul,’” as Capt. Peleg later recalls Swain’s conversion to Quakerism and pacifism). MK is more sensitive and (perhaps like Swain) more attuned to the living legacy of all this bloodshed than the number of dead whales in one day that it happened to dart from. In his illustration, the initials N.S. aren’t written in the hot red flash but carved out of it as it were, nothing in themselves: an emptiness made legible by what surrounds it.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 011

Title: With this once long lance, now wildly elbowed, fifty years ago did Nathan Swain kill fifteen whales between a sunrise and a sunset.
(7.75 inches by 11 inches; acrylic paint and ink on found paper; August 13, 2009)

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