Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 15

15

9/6/21, 2:12pm

Ishmael is memorably, insufferably reluctant about the prospect of sharing a bed when he finds no private room available at the Spouter Inn. The landlord Coffin suggests he share a bed with a harpooneer, adding that Ishmael ought to be okay with that sort of thing if he’s going a-whaling, and our narrator warily assents to the plan, on condition that there’s nothing “objectionable” about the harpooneer. A bit later, after Coffin teases that the harpooneer is a “‘dark complexioned chap’” who only eats rare steaks, Ishmael’s misgivings grow. Just before reporting his first impression of Bulkington, he seems content to share a bed with the harpooneer on condition that the latter undress and get under the covers first (… ?), but then after the Bulkington business he reveals that he’d hatched another plan already, that is, after the landlord’s “diabolical” innuendos reported prior: to sleep on the hard, knobby bench in the inn’s communal space. Coffin comically accommodates this request for a bit before Ishmael tests the bench, deems it unsuitable, and then starts hatching still other plans for sleeping comfortably at the Spouter Inn. He first entertains a notion of beating the harpooneer to his own reserved room and locking him out of it for the night and only dismisses it owing to the threat of the harpooneer’s presumed vengeance; only then does he consider the possibility that he’s being a bit prejudiced and should meet the man before judging his fitness for a bedfellow.

Another meticulously reported line of pained reasoning occurs during Ishmael’s flip-flopping, just before he tells Coffin that he’d prefer the bench for a bed, which he ends up rejecting. It runs thus:

  1. Point: No one really likes sleeping two to a bed; sub-point: even if the bedfellow is a family member the prospect is undesirable, to say nothing of a complete stranger in an unfamiliar place;
  2. Point: Sailors don’t have to be used to that sort of thing as a rule; sub-point: certain they must share a sleeping quarters, but every man expects to have his own bed (or hammock) and blanket.

MK’s choice of line to illustrate from this page, occupied almost entirely by Ishmael’s self-sophistry about having to share a bed – which concludes by likening sleeping between sheets with another person to sharing a skin – occurs between point and subpoint 1. The canvas is created on another found page from the sewing instruction guide, this one about how to properly cut out pattern pieces. In the lower-left quadrant a partial view of a rectangular bed is outlined in black ink and colored white, except for the blanket which is painted red with orange tubing. The rounded head of a familiar peglike figure is visible sticking out from under the blanket – colored grey with a double-bowed black line stretching across its top for closed eyes, its bisected triangle of a nose half covered by the blanket.

The most striking element of the canvas is the beam of prismed color drawn entering the canvas from the lower third of the far left margin, running directly across it, abutt the head of the peglike figure, and recommencing on the other side of it until this rainbow road meets the edge of the bed, where the individual bands of color – from bottom to top: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, red again – peel off and blossom into a bouquet of shaded natural textures and shapes. The orange and green bands curl downward to form spirals, between which the yellow band expands like a tunnel of light and exits the right margin of the canvas. Hung center canvas is a globular frond suspended like a pendant from the blue band that has shot up on a slight wavy course and bent back. The violet band reaches out toward the edge of the canvas, twisting like a vine. The uppermost red band swells into a compacted wave, and the lowermost red band looks like an outline of this wave spilt upon the sand. Disconnected from the beam of prismed color itself, as if grown out of their blooming on the right side of the canvas, furthest from the sleeping peglike figure in the bed, is a blue shaded gord-shape with a hole in its side out of which grows pair of green tendrils winding their way toward the bottom of the canvas, one of which has produced a palmate leaf.

The illustration evokes serenity and captures the experience of (serenely) dreaming, especially when the sleeping peglike figure is regarded as a sort of everyperson, befitting the generalization Ishmael makes in the line that gives this canvas its title: “people like to be private when they sleep.” Here, perhaps, is the beau ideal of restfulness driving Ishmael’s inexplicable fussiness and indecision about the sleeping accommodations available to him at an inn where he has little to no money to spend. To achieve it, Ishmael thinks, one has to be alone. 

Indeed, this canvas is equally if not more interesting to view as a portrait or self-portrait of Ishmael himself than as an anonymous sleeping everyperson. The beam of prismed light that enters the peghead all neatly composed only to explode into a burst of forms and shapes on the other side, after all, recalls the rainbow road bearing Ishmael’s name that cuts through the jaundiced clouds overhanging the baghead on canvas 1. In spite of all his seeming self possession and self awareness, in Loomings Ishmael gives a slew of sometimes incompatible reasons for going a-whaling: to cure myself, to (not) kill myself, because I have no money, because I have no ties that interest me ashore, because it was fated, and that fate was enforced. His logic is similarly tortured when it comes to sharing a bed.

9:16pm

Ishmael’s train of discourse is less like a rainbow road than a rainbow rail, running simultaneously along not one or even two but a spectrum of lines of thought, each having its own idiomatic hue and flowering into shapes and forms unto themselves. It’s a private sleep indeed – a consummation devoutly to be wished – that can bring all these flowerings into one illustrative composition. Pattern-making helps.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 015

Title: I don’t know how it is, but people like to be private when they are sleeping.
(8.5 inches by 10.5 inches; acrylic paint, colored pencil and ink on found paper; August 19, 2009)