Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 28

9/23/21, 1:52pm


MK’s “M.D. Aphorism #2 is an outgrowth of his “M.D. Aphorism #1”; it maps Ishmael a bit farther on the other side of his initially fearful and prejudicial reaction to recognizing (finally) who/what Queequeg is – namely, to use Ishmael’s word, a “cannibal” – where the previous aphorism isolated him just on the other side of that experience, not quite yet making perfect sense out of it. 

The shift in perspective between these pages of MD might concern Ishmael’s relationship to Peter Coffin more directly than his relationship to Queequeg. Ishmael’s curious regard for his appointed bedfellow is well remembered, but some of his ire was directed at the landlord of the Spouter Inn – their matchmaker – upon entering the room, candle in hand, with assurances of Queequeg’s harmlessness after Ishmael shouted for Coffin (and the angels) to come save him when Queequeg finally scares him out of hiding in the bed: “‘Stop your grinning,’ shouted I, ‘and why didn’t you tell me that that infernal harpooneer was a cannibal?’” Ishmael’s attitude about all Coffin’s “grinning” seems to have improved by the time he and Queeueg make their way to the bar-room of the Spouter Inn for breakfast in the light of day: “I cherished no malice towards him, though he had been skylarking with me not a little in the matter of my bedfellow. However, a good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing…” (Mr. Ready-to-walk-the-streets-knocking-people’s-hats-off-their-heads, accosts Coffin “pleasantly.”)

The shard array graphic upon which the last sentence of that quotation is written in small black capital letters in MK’s hand – a shard per word, isolating it as Aphorism #2 – has shifted from near-center canvas to the lower left quadrant, presumably to frame on the found page a black-and-white photograph in which a solitary individual with receding and ruffled black hair, dressed in a tweed jacket, buttoned white shirt, and dark tie is releasing a half-reluctant, toothed smile.* The centerpiece of the graphic of Aphorism #1 was a small dark sphere, jaggedly inked in black toward the center, its interior shaded grey; the shard array of Aphorism #2 has an identically colored but larger and differently shaped centerpiece: it’s a triangle, the greater area of which allows for greater detail in the black ink-work forming its perimeter. Here the uneven edging has a more consistent, distinctly rounded aspect, like stalactites dripping down into the grey zone of the trigon’s middle. 

The shards of the graphic for Aphorism #2 are near in number to the ones for Aphorism #1 (26 and 24, respectively), but here the shards are broader and shorter, and there are smaller shards overlaying the larger ones in the array. The most notable difference between the two graphics, however, is the coloring of the shards themselves: whereas in the graphic for Aphorism #1 there was one lone red shard extending toward the upper right corner of the canvas, in the array for Aphorism #2 there is one predominant red shard extending at roughly the same angle from the triangle’s perimeter, but there are also five other red shards surrounding the triangular centerpiece, and six other shards colored a shade of magenta that bolsters the red and blends it into the array. Apart from the red-magenta shards which visually dominate its scheme, 8 shards of yellow, 5 shards of green, and 4 more subtle shards of brown, complete the array. 


The cooler, blue-green blends of the shard array of Aphorism #1 give way to a prodimently warm array of reds and yellows combined with earthy tones of brown and green for the graphic in Aphorism #2. It’s the dawn of a new day in New Bedford, and Ishmael’s been altered. His attitude toward the “skylarking” of Coffin has softened; he’s more genial, able not only to recognize the teasing for what it is but laugh it off as well. His perception of Queequeg’s physical appearance goes from shocked and awed in the halflight of the private room at night to almost proud in the bar-room after break of day: “But who could show a cheek like Queequeg?” 

The emotional energy over-invested in the fearful response to Queequeg’s physical difference as to become separated from Ishmael’s own experiential recognition of his first encounter with Queequeg – indexed in the word “cannibal” in the text of MD, and color-coded red on the MK’s illustration of Aphorism #1 – bleeds into both major components of the illustration of Aphorism #2. In the shard array it manifests as a visual predominance of red and magenta, set off by earth tones: yellow, green, brown, in MD as Ishmael’s good natured love and kinship with his fellows: not just Queequeg, but Coffin too, and all the shy sailors gathered in the bar-room. He remarks on the men’s various sun-tans, reading the seasons and ports of call written in the various legend-bands of their skins. In MD Ishmael performs a verbal social contract with his fellow man to “spend and be spent” if it means for a “good joke,” opportunities to laugh being so evidently rare in his experience. But it’s that generic love, a common recognition of shared humanity, that seems the more pitifully rare experience for Ishmael. On the canvas it’s afforded a place in Ishmael’s identification with his own experience in those diagonal bars of red and magenta, like badges, amongst bars of yellow and brown in the legend-band inked above black-and-white photograph of the shyly smiling man. Triangular forms of matching shades stand atop the band, monuments to the alteration. 

Ishmael’s suddenly altered attitude toward Queequeg the night before, upon the greater light cast by Coffin in the room, extends to every body in the place in the greater light of day. MK’s aphorisms are a means of capturing Ishmael in an instar, illustrating him in a particular relationship to himself and his environment at a moment in the text of MD. Each illustrated aphorism is a map of a particular moment in the flow of Ishmael’s emo-intellectual disclosures; as a series they generate a map of his dynamism as a character in his own story and as the narrator of it, which is predicated on a series of nondisclosures. Between Aphorism #1 and Aphorism #2 a conceptual realignment has occurred – the wound of Aphorism #1 has morphed into a still gaping but load bearing structure in Aphorism #2, the building block of some future instar. The record of fact has been realigned to accommodate a redistribution in the record of feeling, but all that the text discloses is an unsmiling man finding a rare opportunity to laugh at himself.

*“And the man that has anything bountifully laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for.” – To confirm his identity I did a Google image search for Enrico Fermi, the man pictured smiling in the black-and-white photograph on the found page, framed between the legend-band and shard array, and while in many of the scrolling images the corners of his mouth are lifted, rarely are his teeth showing as they are in the photograph of him here, expect in photographs taken of him in his later years, this developer of the atomic bomb.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 028

Title: However, a good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing…
(7 inches by 9.5 inches; ink on found paper; September 3, 2009)

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)