Ishmael’s introduction to Queequeg, and the introduction of the latter into MD, consists in some 1,200 words worth of observations concerning the appearance and actions of a person who’s just walked into his own rented room at the Spouter Inn, where, unbeknownst to him, courtesy of landlord Coffin, another man is in his bed, observing him undress and prepare for sleep.
The light by which Queequeg is observed is held in one of his hands, the rumored embalmed head in the other; he sets his candle down in the corner and begins untying the cords closing his bag of personal possessions. This is the extent of action described before Ishmael spends 200 words reporting on the appearance of the skin on the Queequeg’s face, which the former “was all eagerness” to see while the latter was turned from him, working at the bag. Apart from the initial confusion pertaining to the “large blackish looking squares” – Queequeg’s tattoos, which Ishmael initially mistakes for surgical “sticking-plasters” – the tone of the skin around these “stains” particularly disturbs him: it’s an “unearthly complexion,” he reports, “of a dark purplish, yellow color.” Ishmael’s overfull head at least contains some vague precedent for regarding tattoos as something under the sun, but for Queequeg’s skin tone he has no preconception: “I never heard of a hot sun’s tanning a white man into a purplish yellow one.” Of course, the presumption he’s made – Ishmael’s prejudice – is that Queequeg is “a white man,” that Coffin wouldn’t have paired him with a non-white man for a bedfellow (despite the landlord having specified that he’s a “dark complexioned chap”).
The only figurative language registered in the whole of this lengthy literal report on Queequeg’s appearance and behavior upon entering his room is one simile meant to convey the speed with which all these considerations and wonderments passed through Ishmael’s mind: “like lightning.” The next time a simile is registered occurs after Queequeg has extracted his “sort of tomahawk” out of his bag, stowed his unsold head in it, removed his hat, and turned again so Ishmael can see the “scalp-knot” upon his forehead, all he has for hair: “His bald purplish head looked now looked for all the world like a mildewed skull.”
The event of language that MK chooses to illustrate from this page of MD is a disturbing one whereby Ishmael figuratively flays the offending skin off the face he’s just spent an intricate paragraph trying to account for. The death’s head collaged onto the body of the black yarn of the nightmarish harpooneer in 18 is here hand drawn in indigo ink with osteological exactness. The skull is sketched large, occupying the majority of the found page (now, again, a schematic from a radio manual: this one for an RCA Victor amp chassis); if face it had, it would be facing the left margin of the page. Daubs of greyish black ink are concentrated along the back of the skull and spread outward from its outline into the upper and lower left corners of the canvas. Only two features of the canvas render the skull identifiable as Queequeg. MK includes a thick, neatly bound “scalp-knot” of hair atop the skull – an uncanny sign of vitality and health on this otherwise lifeless thing – and, in the lower left corner, the Queequeg signature: a boldly inked capital Q above an infinity band, in red.
Previously, after my attempt to account for the nightmarish vision of the black yarn of a harpooneer in 19, which Ishmael carries with him to bed courtesy of landlord Coffin, when publishing that writing on my blog, I decided not to tag the post with the name “Queequeg.” I didn’t want the archival function of the tag to index that monstrous vision beneath that name. With this illustration, I have a similar reluctance, but the presence of the Queequeg signature upon this canvas seems to decide for me that this illustration and my writing about it will be so tagged. I don’t want it to be. This, too, I believe, is a conspiratorial vision of Queequeg: not an illustration of him so much as how he is seen to be literally skinned alive by the naive, prejudiced, dangerous gaze of the seemingly harmless person hiding terrified in the bed where the pair will spend the next few days cozying up and becoming best friends.