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?
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.
Another collage: a found page showing an aerial view of a circuitry schematic plays host to a brow-shaped, blurry-edged mass painted black in the middle of the vertical rectangular diagram. Below this mass are three vertical, roughly formed strokes of deep blue paint. A cut-out of an ovular black frame with white matting strip has been glued on the page to surround this scene. Below the frame, occupying the bottomost edge of the canvas, a series of 3 images show a white silhouetted hand against a black background with its index finger extended, touching a ribboned band of white, which becomes more visibly pronounced – more pronouncedly white that is – with each successive image, as if emanating from the point where the finger makes contact.
MD features a bizarre admixture of narrative styles and voices that tells us to call it by one name. One of the many eccentricities of this queer legion is its tendency to describe scenes without the benefit of context but in the surprised, confused, disordered, even frightening way in which many experiences are first witnessed. This is the case for the painting Ishmael notices hanging on the wall when he first enters the Spouter Inn. At first he can’t make out the subject: whether owing to the smoky, oily environs of the inn itself and its cumulative effect on the canvas or the quality of the painting itself is difficult to tell. MK’s choice of line to illustrate from this page reveals his interest and investment in not the contextualized, objective revelation of what the painting represents but Ishmael’s attempt to describe it for the reader before this moment of recognition has occurred. The series of collaged images illustrating a fingertip’s touch seems to me an attempt to capture this process of capturing the image, or rather to preserve its not being captured, since neither the title of the piece (the line from MD) nor the collage itself permits knowledge of the painting’s ‘true’ subject (the one Ishmael eventually ‘theorizes’ based on the aggregated wisdom of many learned men he consults on the subject).
A detail of this canvas which is only barely visible in MK’s original scan of this illustration and does not register in the image that appears in Moby-Dick in Pictures: are four lightly-painted patches of pinkish tan which extend from the edges of the collaged frame roughly at the intercardinal points of the canvas’s perpendicular axes – the “nameless yeast,” perhaps, rendered only to be sometimes lost to view.
First collage of the book, by virtue of yellowish green, rectangular cartoon affixed to the bottom of the found page (finally figured out from the printing on this page that the book being repurposed for these canvases is a systems manual for a Philco Chassis radio). The cartoon shows a man with his hand glued to a cabinet or window with another person (maybe a woman) behind, grasping his shoulders, trying to help him pry it off, the glue stretching between the man’s palm and the object’s surface: he appears panicked and pained, both appear strained. The cartoon forms a kind of band across the wrist of a rudimentary hand outlined with a medium-thick black pencil line, shaded grey, which occupies the majority of the canvas. Three irregular splotches of silver spray paint are added to the center of the canvas, representing the “few silver pieces” Ishmael retrieves from his pocket as he considers lodging options upon first arriving to wintry, tempestuous New Bedford.
Without the cartoon, the painting would register as a rather literal rendering of this page of MD compared to the canvases that have come before. The comical image of the man in a sticky situation belies the seriousness of Ishmael’s predicament – arriving to an unfamiliar place after nightfall with “little to no money in [his] purse” and facing a icy, restless night on the city street unless he finds shelter soon – but this is precisely the aptness of the collage. For all his vulnerability upon arriving to New Bedford, Ishmael casually, jokingly, even mockingly surveys his prospects before finally finding hospitality in the Spouter Inn.
MK’s illustrations are keenly attentive to the humor of MD; his choice of line often reveals his attraction to it. The line from the book that inspired this illustration is not the most overly funny line in the book up to this point, but this is one of the first overtly comical illustrations owing mainly to the element of collage.