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)

Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 26

9/20/21, 6:10am


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.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 026

Title: …and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bedside.
(9 inches by 11 inches; spray paint on found paper; August 31, 2009)