The experience of waking under Queequeg’s arm provokes a memory from Ishmael, one of the only straightforwardly autobiographical stories about his past before going a-whaling in the whole of MD, and it’s a “mystery”: he confesses himself unsure whether it’s the memory of a dream or of a reality. MK’s choice of found page to create this canvas is motivated to help capture an overwhelming, half-wakeful event, now doubly so, since the memory of an experience Ishmael had as a child between a state of sleeping and wakefulness is reactivated by a similar state he’s in when roused from the best sleep of his life at the Spouter Inn with “Queequeg’s pagan arm thrown round [him].” The whole of the found page is occupied by an oddly-cropped, closeup black-and-white photograph of six narrow tree trunks, whose sparse leafless limbs are just beginning crookedly to fan out near the upper margin. It’s the type of shot you’d see in a film to show the perspective of someone lost in the woods – no forest, just trees – but there is no movement to this illustration. Here the vantage of the lost one is perfect stillness.
In Ishmael’s report of his memory, he briefly describes a circumstance which occasioned him being sent to bed by his “stepmother… [his] mother” on the longest day of the year: he thinks he’d been trying to climb up the chimney like he saw a ‘sweep do, or some other “caper.” After taking as much time as possible to undress, he spends hours tossing around in bed dreading the long passage of time before his liberation from this latest torment of a (step-)mother who’s recalled as “all the time whipping [him], or sending [him] to bed supperless.” Eventually he wakes from a fitful sleep, “half steeped in dreams,” and his room is shrouded in the dark of night. At this point, his report of the memory becomes unaccountably weird. Firstly, he describes a sensation…
a “shock” – it “runs through all [his] frame.” Like sleep paralysis, a sensation having no sensation – “nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard…” – but perhaps touch? “…but, a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bedside.” Ishmael’s lost command of his hand, and not just grammatically; he describes laying there as a child for what seemed like “ages piled on ages… frozen with the most awful fears,” not being able to move his hand but convinced all the while that doing so would break “the horrid spell.”
The most reductive and dismissive interpretation of Ishmael’s report of this experience – like that of a fedup (step-)mother with far more important matters to see to – is that he awoke with the circulation cut off to his hand, draped as it was over the cover, and it went numb, and he merely imagined the “silent form or phantom” at his beside, as a projection from his dream state, while the wait to regaining sensation and control of his extremity passed longer than he understandably would have wished in his understandably frightened state. By the way, the intensity of his dreaming, to have returned to wakefulness with him in that way, just goes to show how deeply asleep he must have been and how much, after all, he needed a good, long rest after all that capering, in spite of the difficulty he had settling himself down.
Of course, there are other interpretations. MK sets himself the challenge of illustrating the silent, formless phantom that visited Ishmael during his childhood confinement, the thing felt without sight, sound, or notion. He accomplishes this with a stunningly simple method. I think it went something like this: 1) he spray painted an arching ombre of silvery grey about the middle of the found page showing the six trees; 2) he placed stencils over the canvas: two rounds for eyes, placed just below the centerpoint of the canvas so to align with two of the narrow trunks, and below them a cutout of a rudimentary right hand; 3) he then spray painted a shade of white into the cutout holes for eyes and of the hand shape below; 4) then, I believe, he covered the eye-hole and hand shapes he just spray painted white with the pieces he cut out to form the stencils and then spray painted black over them, concentrating the color where it abuts the silver grey ombre and lightening toward the bottom of the canvas so you can still make out the narrow tree trunks behind. That is the best effort I can make, like a bad (step-)mother, to explain away the greatest mystery of the piece to my eyes: that string of errant black paint in the bottom of the figure’s right eye that you can’t see the tree trunk through.
That is to avoid speaking to the haunting illustration of the formless body in the dark, its silhouetted white hand so placed – as only its own hand could be, when it’s my hand it’s dispossessed and disarmed – to keep some secret. No amount of probing the canvas should fail to recognize that the illustration is designed to honor what remains non-disclosed about Ishmael’s recorded memory of his past experience as much as it is to animate any details disclosed by it. Ishmael admits that upon waking up and “seeing Queequeg’s pagan arm thrown round [him]” he felt as strange as he did waking as child in the night and clasping the “supernatural hand” of a “nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom,” but without the awful fear. (Indeed, accordingly, as if fear’s been purged, from here on out, Ishmael only refers to Queequeg or anyone else as a “cannibal” when animating the thoughts of others to himself.) Not disclosed is why the sight of Queequeg’s armed draped over the counterpane reactivates a memory of his own arm draped over the counterpane, or to which counterpane the chapter’s title refers.
The line from MD that inspires the next canvas becomes the first in a series of aphorisms isolated by MK and then rendered into an original, illustrative medium, which I liken to a data visualization. Only here there is no data per se to visualize but a parcel of language mapped upon the found page, in this case a page from a chapter in an academic volume about Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, two rails on a supposed “Ladder of Creation” runged by endless observations, the discourse of evolutionary science.
The page is numbered 309 in its lower right corner, and the chapter title (“The Ladder of Creation”) is printed on the upper right margin opposite a poetic epigraph from one of Darwin’s cartoons; in the page’s lower left corner there’s a small black-and-white picture of a white bearded Alfred Wallace standing beside a blooming Eremurus robustus (aka a foxtail lily, or the candle of the desert), grown to nearly the full height of the jacketed man; Wallace is pictured wearing all black, so his round white head stands out prominently in the photograph, mimicking the pale tufted narrow head of the foxtail lily bloom oped atop a long-spiring stem barely distinguishable (given the low grade reproduction of the photo) from the grassy, wooded hillside in the background. All this you take in upside down because the page is turned on end. “The Ladder of Creation” reads rotated at 180 degrees, and Alfred Wallace dances on the ceiling with a blooming fox tail, where MK inks his illustration of “M.D. Aphorism #1”: “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”
The choice of found page here, given its inverted orientation, demonstrates MK’s recognition that the prejudice that initially biases Ishmael against his appointed bedfellow has a foot rooted in evolutionary science. The other foot, we’ll see, is rooted in a certain Christian spiritualism. Nurtured by Coffin’s teasing hints about the man’s identity, Ishmael’s bias grows into a towering angry fear by the time he’s figured out who Queequeg is – a “cannibal”* – when the man climbs into bed with him, tomahawk-pipe alight. The logic sustaining the distinction of savage and civilized is overturned or overwhelmed by two factors in the budding of Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship:
Ishmael’s temperance movement allegiances, bespoken most plainly in the text of MD when he observes the barman Jonah’s establishment upon entering the Spouter Inn; apparently the greater light brought into the room with Coffin after Ishmael screams for the landlord upon being gruffly demanded by Queequeg to say who he is and then threatened when the harpooneer is surprised to find him hiding awake in the bed, is enough to tell Ishmael that the cannibal is a sober one, “clean” at least;
empathy for Queequeg himself, the first token of which is uttered immediately preceding Aphorism #1: “the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him”; this suddenly amicable attitude of Ishmael’s seems prompted by the not only “civil” but “kind and charitable” way Queequeg invites him back into the bed after Coffin has quickly explained the sleeping arrangement.
Driving both of these considerations that overturn the valuation of civilized and savage in this moment in the text of MD is Ishmael’s magnetic attraction to Queequeg that there will be occasion to talk about more with illustrations to come. For now I’ll just point out that for all Queequeg’s “unearthly” appearances and behaviors registered by Ishmael as he hides in bed and observes the harpooneer undress, in the greater light brought into the room with Coffin Ishmael notes that he finds the man attractive: “comely.”
MK’s illustration of the event of language in this “aphorism,” the distillation and reduction of the philosophy of the whole of MD into a single sentence, is comprised of two distinct visual elements:
Just below the centerpoint of the topsy-turvy found page there’s inked a small dark sphere, having roughly the circumference of a fingertip; the perimeter of the circle is neatly defined on its outer edge and unevenly inked in black toward the center. (Where the black ink does not reach into the circle’s interior, it’s shaded grey.) Radiating outward from this center point of the diagram are 24 jagged shards of various lengths and breadths, variously colored (mostly) in shades of green, blue, purple, and yellow. The alteration in shards’ coloring doesn’t conform to a observable pattern; they’re all amix: 4 grass green, 4 sky blue, 4 turquoise, 4 ocean green, 4 yellow, 2 purple, one grey, and one shard (notably different from the rest) is red. Inked in black capital letters in 10 of the 24 shards are the individual words comprising the aphorism: “BETTER / SLEEP / WITH / A / SOBER / CANNIBAL” is arrayed on adjacent shards in the upper portion of the diagram; “THAN / A / DRUNKEN / CHRISTIAN” appears on shards on the lower half.
Inked above this diagram, about a quarter of the length of the found page from its uppermost edge (according to the orientation of the printing, its lowermost edge) and extending three quarters of the way across the page, is a horizontal band or strip, terminating at the ends in a similarly jagged fashion as the shards in the diagram below. The band is divided into 12 colored blocks of various sizes – some wider, rectangle-shaped, some very narrow, like lines. The coloring of the individual blocks corresponds to that of individual sunburst shards of the diagram below; here too there is no definable pattern to the alteration in the colors used: 3 blocks of the band toward the right of center are colored purple; 1 wide block near the left end of the band and the narrowest block on the right are colored yellow; there’s a square of the grass green on either side of the band; and the rest of the blocks comprising the band are turquoise or ocean green. Above the band, inked in the same black capital lettering as the words written in the sunburst shards of the diagram below, appearing like a label: “M.D. APHORISM #1:”
These two elements of the illustration are tied together by the presence of language on the canvas: MK’s own autography writing out the quote from MD on the multicolored shard array, and identifying it as an aphorism with the words inked above the multicolored band. The latter works as a sort of legend or key for interpreting the aphorism’s mapping upon the former. The band of colored blocks serves like a designer’s mood board, establishing the tones and palette that will be carried over in the spacialization of the aphorism upon the shard array. The colors chosen to establish this mood are predominately cool and soothing, shot through with a bright, illuminative highlight of yellow: evoking the literal light Coffin is supposed to have brought into the room and also the more sober and rationalist frame of mind of which Ishmael is suddenly possessed. The palette aptly captures the rapid calming of Ishmael’s elevated mood that results from the genteel manner in which Queequeg invites him back to bed after frightening him out if it and the clarity with which Ishmael’s registers it in the text as a sort of decision or resolution on his part to accept the invitation: “What’s all the fuss I have been making about…[?]”
Conspicuously, the only color featured in the shard array that is not reproduced in the legend-band above it is red; the sole red shard also happens to be the one upon which the word “CANNIBAL” is written. The associative meaning of the word, triggered by the color MK uses for its background on the canvas – red – does not match the established palette – cool, calm, and clear – but sets it off as an accent is said to “pop,” that is, only on condition it doesn’t pop the predominant mood of the defined space. The difference between the legend-band of “M.D. Aphorism #1” and the spacialization of the quotation on the shard array is a difference between Ishmael’s understanding of the import of his words and their unchecked meaning. If Ishmael were a Catholic, say, instead of a proud Presbyterian, he might discern a fault in the logic of the syllogism – “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” – if a Christian is understood to be a sort of cannibal. (“This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me…”) Unless “cannibal” and “Christian” are regarded as opposites in some regard, then the aphorism amounts to Ishmael making a passing subjective preference known (to himself): “I’d rather not bed down with a drunk person.” All well and good, but how is he certain Queequeg is not drunk anyway? The sobriety of his religious observances before sleep, perhaps? That’d be another stab at the supposed oppositional meaning. For now, Ishmael rests on the compromise that Queequeg not smoke in bed – “This being told to Queequeg, he at once complied, and again politely motioned me to get into bed.” – and he claims to have never slept better in his life.
Not every aspect of the experience distilled in the aphorism, which MK illustrates in the shard array, is internalized by the meanings assumed or authorized by the aphorism’s speaker, which MK makes a color swatch of in the legend-band. Questions remain about how Ishmael reconciles his relationship with Queequeg and his own spiritual worldview. This was only their first meeting, after all. The icebreaker, as it were. In fact, once the thought occurred to me I could never escape it again, that the shard array with which MK spacializes the aphorism he’s isolated at the terminus of his long residence in “The Spouter Inn” (he’s been living in these rooms more than three weeks, remember, by the time Ishmael’s stayed one night), resembles the visual effect a bullet or sharp, pointed object hurled at great force would produce on a pane of glass or rather of ice. Perchance its the frozen November in his soul Ishmael perceives melting in him when he takes Queequeg for his “bosom friend,” where notably the word “cannibal” has been replaced in its (il)logical opposition to the the word “Christian”: “I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.” Ishmael may be learning and changing, but his lessons never seem done.
*It should be noted that the word “cannibal” is first introduced by the Ishmael narrating not the Ishmael speaking to the other characters in the scene, though Ishmael does call Queequeg a “cannibal” aloud when addressing Coffin after the landlord enters the room. Moreover, the word has been used three times previous to this moment in “The Spouter Inn”: first instance, when Ishmael is observing some of the “hacking, horrifying implement[s]” in the entryway upon first entering Coffin’s establishment and wondering what “monstrous cannibal and savage” might have gone “death-harvesting” with them; 2) second instance, when Ishmael is paraphrasing his considerations to himself upon learning that Queequeg is out engaged in the “cannibal business [of] selling heads of dead idolators” and on a Sabbath’s (very early) day; 3) third instance, when persisting in assuming his roommate is a white man even though Coffin has told him otherwise, Ishmael recollects a case he heard of a man being taken captive by cannibals and tattooed by them as an explanation of the circumstances in which Queequeg was tattooed. Death, religion, and race: those are certainly the big three for Melville’s Ishmael at this point in MD.