Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 27

9/21/21, 8:26pm


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.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 027

Title: But Queequeg, do you see, was a creature in the transition state—neither caterpillar nor butterfly.
(7 inches by 9.5 inches; acrylic paint, ink, and marker on found paper; September 2, 2009)

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