Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 18

18

Even after Coffin clarifies matters for Ishmael about the late nighttime activities of his promised bedmate, Ishmael is determined to imagine the worst: “‘Depend upon it, landlord, that harpooneer is a dangerous man.’” This time he justifies his prejudice on religious grounds, in such a way that (really, as such a proudly learned person) he should’ve figured out by now what sort of person the harpooneer is: what sort of person, he wonders to himself (as if in real time), spends the earliest hours of a Sabbath day involved in such a heathanish business as selling embalmed heads?

9/10/21, 9:05pm

MK’s illustration of Ishmael’s nightmarish vision of the harpooneer features prominently another death head – not drawn but collaged into the middle of the upper third of the canvas. Surrounding the black-and-white cutout of a  mandibled skull, is a broad, vague nimbus of white paint (barely discernible over the found page) with intervaled starburst blocks of grey. The feature is subtle but draws the eye to the death’s head almost as readily as the macabre array of red ink dropped, splattered, spilled and daubed about the canvas, most conspicuously on the margins. Owing to these most striking features of the illustration the eye can easily pass over as mimetic the tangle of black brush strokes twisted and spiralized into the approximate silhouette of the torso and limbs of a person, broad coiled ropes of black paint for feet. Clasped in a small, hooked loop at the end of a tendril-like braid for a right arm, a long black harpoon is painted, standing taller than the figure itself, red ink dripped and running from behind its spade-shaped head. Uplifted in the other twisted vine of an arm is a small black oblong shape (the offending “‘balmed head”) with white Xs for eyes and a horizontal white spine for a mouth. The figure is the horrible embodiment of the yarn Coffin has been spinning Ishmael about the harpooner. 

The question is: why does Ishmael persist in this nightmarish fantasy of the harpooneer even after Coffin more plainly explains the reason he’s out so late; what danger does he still pose? MK’s illustration, like the one of the barman Jonah’s poison tumbler, suggests death is at the bottom of it; only here, as with “the black Angel of Doom,” a shaded nimbus serves for the crown. The color chosen to paint the tangled yarn body – besides complimenting the black-and-white scheme that makes the drops, drips, splatters, and spills of red ink on the canvas scream bloody murder – serves as a fair reminder of the only information Ishmael has actually been given about the harpooneer besides the head peddling business: he’s “‘dark complexioned.’” This illustration is one of a monstrous black Other, truly more of a danger to any person the fantasy would be projected on than to the one doing the bad dreaming. As far as Coffin is concerned, as he rejoins before setting off to tuck Ishmael in, the man is civilized enough by the standards of the Spouter Inn: “‘He pays reg’lar.’” More than Ishmael could promise.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 018

Title: “Depend upon it, landlord, that harpooneer is a dangerous man.”
(8.5 inches by 10.5 inches; acrylic paint, collage and ink on found paper; August 23, 2009)

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