Ishmael spends a fair amount of time contemplating the mourners in the Whaleman’s Chapel, their gazes fixed to the marble tablets inscribed with the names of whalemen lost to the chase. He rhapsodizes at length about why the living suffer the dead, especially the faithful, believing the departed in some otherworldly Paradise, “dwelling in unspeakable bliss,” “but the rumor of a knockinging in a tomb will terrify a whole city”? In the midst of this reflection – which could have inspired many dark and ponderous illustrations from MK, if he’d chosen another line* – Ishmael observes Queequeg sitting near him in the chapel, “a wondering gaze of incredulous curiosity in his countenance.” Queequeg’s awed expression seems addressed to environs of the chapel itself rather than its congregation, because he recognizes Ishmael among them: “This savage was the only person present who seemed to notice my entrance…” Noting Queequeg’s presence in the chapel – notably, the only person recognizing Ishmael – Ishmael’s language immediately registers Queequeg as out of place there – he’s “savage” here, not pagan – and he further isolates Queequeg on the basis of his supposed linguistic prowess by offering that it’s only because only Queequeg among those in the chapel cannot read (he assumes) and is therefore not reading the “frigid inscriptions” on the wall that he recognizes Ishmael. Ishmael recognizes Queequeg recognizes Ishmael while they both fail (according to Ishmael) to recognize the writing on the wall.
MK’s choice to illustrate this single instance of Queequeg being mentioned as a presence in “The Chapel” – or in the subsequent two chapters where “The Pulpit” is described at length and “The Sermon” of Father Mapple is recorded (After, it’ll be mentioned that he left sometime before the benediction.) – underscores the questionable necessity of Queequeg being inserted into this chapter at all, like a fish out of water. The “curiosity” of Queequeg’s gaze (as it’s given a noun by Ishmael) is consistent with an ethnographic posture toward Christendom that Ishmael will later impute to him.** MK’s interplay of illustration and found page highlights the wonder and incredulity of Queequeg’s countenance upon occupying the space of the chapel.
On the upper half of the found page there is a black-and-white reproduction of what looks like a medieval-era engraving showing scenes in five panels. The interior space is defined in the engraving by a series of vaulted arches, most of them angled sharply toward their zenith, except for what appears to be the center arch (despite the cropping of the photo on the found page), which is more rounded and ornate and is raised just a little bit higher than the rest. Beneath this arched sits a tall, slouched figure in a tri-tipped crown, long robe and cape, sitting atop a sculpted and draped dais between parted curtains tied to the tall columns framing him. To his right and left smaller, dark clad figures are kneeled in positions of supplication and servitude: the one shown to the right looks up into the face of the master of the house with a long scroll in his hand; to the master’s left a stooped, robed youth with an abbot’s cut holds a page of notes. In the far right panel of the engraving four tall robed figures consult around a page, one of them declaiming to the rest. This image is left almost entirely unobscured by MK’s illustration.
Below it, superimposed over the column of text printed on the found page, Queequeg’s face is drawn in its characteristic texture of concentrically lined scallop-shaped scales of aquamarine, his white almond-shaped eye sockets housing his hazy red, pointiliated eyes, which are turned up, as if gazing into the paneled scenes printed above from below. The red eyes are oriented not toward the master, however, but toward the margin. Most obvious when first regarding this canvas is the fact that Queequeg’s face is not rendered anatomically rounded or spherical, but rectangular and flat, like a blanket or a sheet. Or more likely a kite, since around the perimeter of this wavy edged rectangular shape, eleven silhouetted bird shapes lift off with eleven individual aquamarine strings that wind their ways in to the concentrically scalloped scales of Queequeg’s face.
The illustration isolates Queequeg in a “fish out of water” moment in “The Chapel,” but not in the stigmatizing fashion of Ishmael, who immediately resorts to cultural bias to account for Queequeg’s recognition of him in that space. While Queequeg has placed himself in the chapel by his own volition, MK’s illustration shows him captivated by the space, surrendered to its airy atmosphere: not in the passive way of a wet sheet on the line but in a willful, harmonious way, and in a way perhaps that carries him beyond it. Symbiotically, Queequeg’s bird friends fan him out to flap in the open sky of which so many vaulted ceilings are dim reminders. If they kept flying on their separate ways then the damp winding sheet of Queequeg’s tenure in the chapel would unravel him like a shawl. Good thing he leaves before the benediction.
The red Q stamp and infinity band signature appears in the upper left corner of the canvas, superimposed over a portion of the engraving preserved on the found page where the exterior facade of the structure frames the reveal of its interior scenes.
* e.g., “Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope
** “[I]n Queequeg’s ambitious soul, lurked a strong desire to see something more of Christendom than a specimen whaler or two.”
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.
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.
When Ishmael awakes for the first time in the Spouter Inn, he finds that Queequeg has broken his nonverbal promise of the night previous to keep to his side of the bed. Ishmael’s little spoon. All he can make out of Queequeg is the man’s arm wrapped about him, but to his waking eyes the tattooed and variously-tanned appendage is so indistinct from the patchwork bedspread that it’s only by “its sense of weight and pressure” – Ishmael’s sense of touch – that he recognizes Queequeg is hugging him. The scene is similar to Ishmael’s observations of the painting hanging in the entryway of the Inn and Queequeg’s poncho the night previous, where an event of observation is recorded as a partial failure to recognize the object being sensed; here the evidence of the “most loving and affectionate” embrace of Queequeg’s arm is felt before it is clearly seen. At the same time, Ishamel’s report of this experience is shot through with another narrative perspective which, as if looking down on the pair in bed from the ceiling, capitalizes on the humor of the scene.
Not unlike the reports Ishmael provides about his “series of systematic visits” to the painting to ascertain its meaning and the knee jerk effect of him seeing his reflection wearing Queequeg’s poncho, he infuses the first person limited narrative perspective with a more distanced, omniscient one that prompts the reader’s interpretation of his partial recognition. Moreover, there’s the faint hint of a progression between these three experiences. His “theory” about the subject of the painting (“partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons”) is finally given over in a more sober, ominous tone; he never says what exactly was so shocking about his appearance in the poncho that he strained his neck getting out of it; but in the case of waking beneath Queequeg’s arm, Ishmael’s able finally to make fun of himself in a more pointed manner: “You had almost thought I had been his wife.” Ishmael slowly and subtly develops a more distanced view of himself as the early chapters of MD pass.
The perspective of MK’s illustration of this moment in MD strikes a compromise between the point of view of the Ishmael wrapped up by Queequeg in bed and the one looking back on the experience, as if from above. Queequeg’s mostly blue arm enters the frame from the middle of the upper margin and extends most of the way down the canvas. It’s the left arm, elbowed right in a relaxed manner, showing the spousal embrace that checks the other’s still there rather than the one that keeps them there. MK opts for a more natural texture of arcs and swirls to create the effect of Queequeg’s arm camouflaged against the textures of the counterpane rather than the geometric pattern of blocks and triangles described in the text MD. The blue silhouette of Queequeg’s blue arm features ribbons and waves of kelp green whose line work coincides with that of the ribbons and waves comprising the surface of the counterpane, where they differ in color. The texture of the bedspread is colored in warm tones of red and yellow, contrasting sharply with the cool tones of Queequeg’s arm, and a visual blending of the two palettes is generated by foregrounded bands and waves of grey that traverse both the arm and its backdrop of the sunlit bedspread. Backdrop to all of this, still distinguishable beneath the paint is another inverted page from “The Ladder of Creation.”
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.
I recall fondly a stage of my (then 3yo) son’s linguistic development, when he spoke in the third person for a brief term and also at that time would interject the phoneme a- (“uh”) before his verbs to form sentences based around verbal tenses and grammatical conventions he had not yet assimilated; for example: “Mark a-goin to pway…” “Mark a-want a pawsicle…” “Mark a-wuv Mommy.” That speech pattern is not unlike the one Melville adopts to write Ishmael writing the dialect of Queequeg into the text of MD. Queequeg only rarely speaks in the third person, but a consistent linguistic idiosyncrasy of his is to insert the phoneme “ee” (like the one in his name), after many of his spoken words; for example: “Queequeg no kill-e so small-e fish-e; Queequeg kill-e big whale!” One effect of the dialect attributed to Queequeg is to infantilize him (as when Ishmael opines on his “transitional state”), but of course this babying is accompanied by so much evidence of Queequeg’s power and capability and humility that the effect is all but irresistibly endearing.
Caveat: I’m currently reading more about the New Zealand native cultures Melville appropriated information about (primarily via Wilkes) to curate the assembly of cultural attributes ascribed to Queequeg, and it does dampen the romance the more you consider the living peoples and traditions literally cannibalized to render this representation of one of the most widely beloved characters of MD, a cannibal.
MK choses to illustrate not the first words spoken by Queeqeg in MD but his second utterance, where many of the same words are repeated – “Speak-e! tell-ee me who-ee be, or dam-me, I kill-e!” Only those words that are bolded appear on the canvas, the ones capturing his verbal signature, formed in sharply blocked, black letters oriented vertically on a found page stacked with horizontally orientated charts, the wavelength of Queequeg’s verbiage growing perpendicular to their grain in 2-3 in. long leaflike formations (outlined neatly in the black marker) containing the fragments of his speech like peapods. The word pods are shot from white vines emanating at intervals from a column of interlaced blue scales composed by concentric bands of blue – Queequeg’s skin texture and tone in many (not all) of MK’s illustrations of him. The column of aquamarine swirl is centered on the found page with two protuberances in its sides in the upper third of the canvas, hollows in fact in the painted pattern, where a pair of pointilated red orbs float and stare.
Consider the difference it would have made to the effect of the canvas if MK had painted another example of Queequeg’s verbal idiom from this page, for instance, what he speaks when someone finally explains what Ishmael is doing in his room: “Me sabbee plenty.” To my eyes, the leafed aquamarine tower on the found page would serve just as well for that moment of restored calm as it does for what he utters while he flourishes his tomahawk in the dark toward the grunting body he’s discovered between his bed sheets, but the mood of the canvas would be altered radically by the presence of words other than those that command and threaten. The point of MK choosing the words he does is to capture Ishmael’s fear in the distorted view of the face and the partial recognition of the speech of the man who’s about to immediately put him at his perfect ease and melt his cold, cold heart.
Queequeg’s signature – the bold, red Q over the red infinity band – is in the lower left corner of the canvas.
Ishmael’s introduction to Queequeg, and the introduction of the latter into MD, consists in some 1,200 words worth of observations concerning the appearance and actions of a person who’s just walked into his own rented room at the Spouter Inn, where, unbeknownst to him, courtesy of landlord Coffin, another man is in his bed, observing him undress and prepare for sleep.
The light by which Queequeg is observed is held in one of his hands, the rumored embalmed head in the other; he sets his candle down in the corner and begins untying the cords closing his bag of personal possessions. This is the extent of action described before Ishmael spends 200 words reporting on the appearance of the skin on the Queequeg’s face, which the former “was all eagerness” to see while the latter was turned from him, working at the bag. Apart from the initial confusion pertaining to the “large blackish looking squares” – Queequeg’s tattoos, which Ishmael initially mistakes for surgical “sticking-plasters” – the tone of the skin around these “stains” particularly disturbs him: it’s an “unearthly complexion,” he reports, “of a dark purplish, yellow color.” Ishmael’s overfull head at least contains some vague precedent for regarding tattoos as something under the sun, but for Queequeg’s skin tone he has no preconception: “I never heard of a hot sun’s tanning a white man into a purplish yellow one.” Of course, the presumption he’s made – Ishmael’s prejudice – is that Queequeg is “a white man,” that Coffin wouldn’t have paired him with a non-white man for a bedfellow (despite the landlord having specified that he’s a “dark complexioned chap”).
The only figurative language registered in the whole of this lengthy literal report on Queequeg’s appearance and behavior upon entering his room is one simile meant to convey the speed with which all these considerations and wonderments passed through Ishmael’s mind: “like lightning.” The next time a simile is registered occurs after Queequeg has extracted his “sort of tomahawk” out of his bag, stowed his unsold head in it, removed his hat, and turned again so Ishmael can see the “scalp-knot” upon his forehead, all he has for hair: “His bald purplish head looked now looked for all the world like a mildewed skull.”
The event of language that MK chooses to illustrate from this page of MD is a disturbing one whereby Ishmael figuratively flays the offending skin off the face he’s just spent an intricate paragraph trying to account for. The death’s head collaged onto the body of the black yarn of the nightmarish harpooneer in 18 is here hand drawn in indigo ink with osteological exactness. The skull is sketched large, occupying the majority of the found page (now, again, a schematic from a radio manual: this one for an RCA Victor amp chassis); if face it had, it would be facing the left margin of the page. Daubs of greyish black ink are concentrated along the back of the skull and spread outward from its outline into the upper and lower left corners of the canvas. Only two features of the canvas render the skull identifiable as Queequeg. MK includes a thick, neatly bound “scalp-knot” of hair atop the skull – an uncanny sign of vitality and health on this otherwise lifeless thing – and, in the lower left corner, the Queequeg signature: a boldly inked capital Q above an infinity band, in red.
Previously, after my attempt to account for the nightmarish vision of the black yarn of a harpooneer in 19, which Ishmael carries with him to bed courtesy of landlord Coffin, when publishing that writing on my blog, I decided not to tag the post with the name “Queequeg.” I didn’t want the archival function of the tag to index that monstrous vision beneath that name. With this illustration, I have a similar reluctance, but the presence of the Queequeg signature upon this canvas seems to decide for me that this illustration and my writing about it will be so tagged. I don’t want it to be. This, too, I believe, is a conspiratorial vision of Queequeg: not an illustration of him so much as how he is seen to be literally skinned alive by the naive, prejudiced, dangerous gaze of the seemingly harmless person hiding terrified in the bed where the pair will spend the next few days cozying up and becoming best friends.
Ishmael’s dialogue with Peter Coffin, landlord of the Spouter Inn, is his first sustained engagement with another character in MD. Given the earnest learnedness (or learned earnestness) with which Ishmael has represented himself up to this point, it’s a relief to read someone freely sporting with him.
Coffin has a great deal of fun teasing Ishmael, especially when it comes to pairing him with a pagan harpooneer for a bedmate. Given his proprietorship of a low-end lodging establishment in the then whaling capital of the world, New Bedford, teasing Ishmael can be chalked up to a form of hazing that one can imagine him not infrequently doling out to those customers who seem particularly out of their element in his Spouter Inn. “Spouter,” following the usage in Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, is synonymous with whalers and whalecraft; prior to this adoption, “spouter” was a common seaman’s moniker for a (south seas) whale. While Ishmael tries to rebuke Coffin’s gibes – assuring him: “‘I’m not green.’” – the landlord knows he’s never been shown a face like Queequeg’s. As the light of the next morning will reveal to Ishmael, however, he’s a less common breed in the streets of New Bedford than the “‘dark complexioned chap’” out in the bitter cold of a winter’s night trying to sell his last “‘‘balmed New Zealand head.’” Such “‘curios’” are not wholly uncommon sights in Coffin’s world, and he knows Ishmael doesn’t have the experience to fill in the gaps for himself about what might be meant by the harpooneer being unable to sell his head, so he doles out just enough discourse to keep Ishmael guessing and panicked – never lying precisely, but never giving the whole truth until he’s worked Ishmael into a “towering rage” and the latter has approached him coldly and wildly threatened “‘criminal prosecution.’” Coffin releases Ishmael from his yarn gently and puts him to bed.
MK’s illustrates a moment in this exchange prior to Coffin clearing up the matter of Queequeg being out late peddling the last of his curios (picked up on his last voyage to sell at port for profit before shipping out again). “…‘ain’t there too many heads in the world?’” Coffin wonders aloud when Ishmael seems affronted by the idea of selling one. On a found page featuring mostly text itemizing various sorts of hand needles, there are more than 80 different bodiless heads painted, inked, and sketched in a multitude of shapes, sizes, and colors. The heads’ eyes are their most prominent feature: some are anthropomorphic, some resemble the vizor-eye of Bulkington (in 14), some the balene-band of the young fellow (in 13), some are a series of dots or mere lines. Some of the heads are drawn rudimentarily – like the inverted yellow triangle with a line across its lower vertex for a mouth and two dashes below its uppermost, longest edge for eyes – and some feature abstract designs and markings. The only distinct feature of a red, tombstone-shaped head with two white dots for eyes is a golden cross with a four smaller lines extending from its center on the diagonals, like a Christmas star; the shape of this marking mimics the arrangement of the 80+ heads on the canvas as a whole. The heads are concentrated, converging and overlapping most along the X and Y-axes of the canvas, larger in size and greater in detail toward its center and smaller toward its margins, giving the illustration the vague look of a data visualization.
After Ishmael gets fed up with Coffin’s “‘mystifying and most exasperating stories’” regarding his prospective bedmate and threatens legal action on his host, given that the only logical conclusion he is able to come to with respect to the head-peddling harpooneer is that he’s mad and that Coffin would be therefore criminally liable if he forces Ishmael to share a room with him – after presenting this logic to the landlord in the span of two hundred words – Coffin replies (I’m paraphrasing): “that’s a whole lot of talk for a man who farts like everyone else.” He then provides Ishmael the context he requires to understand the dialogue he’s been having, and a subtext of his query about there being too many heads in the world comes into focus: “Here’s one head too many, or too much head for one head to hold. In all my years, never such a spouter in the Spouter!”
Ishmael is memorably, insufferably reluctant about the prospect of sharing a bed when he finds no private room available at the Spouter Inn. The landlord Coffin suggests he share a bed with a harpooneer, adding that Ishmael ought to be okay with that sort of thing if he’s going a-whaling, and our narrator warily assents to the plan, on condition that there’s nothing “objectionable” about the harpooneer. A bit later, after Coffin teases that the harpooneer is a “‘dark complexioned chap’” who only eats rare steaks, Ishmael’s misgivings grow. Just before reporting his first impression of Bulkington, he seems content to share a bed with the harpooneer on condition that the latter undress and get under the covers first (… ?), but then after the Bulkington business he reveals that he’d hatched another plan already, that is, after the landlord’s “diabolical” innuendos reported prior: to sleep on the hard, knobby bench in the inn’s communal space. Coffin comically accommodates this request for a bit before Ishmael tests the bench, deems it unsuitable, and then starts hatching still other plans for sleeping comfortably at the Spouter Inn. He first entertains a notion of beating the harpooneer to his own reserved room and locking him out of it for the night and only dismisses it owing to the threat of the harpooneer’s presumed vengeance; only then does he consider the possibility that he’s being a bit prejudiced and should meet the man before judging his fitness for a bedfellow.
Another meticulously reported line of pained reasoning occurs during Ishmael’s flip-flopping, just before he tells Coffin that he’d prefer the bench for a bed, which he ends up rejecting. It runs thus:
Point: No one really likes sleeping two to a bed; sub-point: even if the bedfellow is a family member the prospect is undesirable, to say nothing of a complete stranger in an unfamiliar place;
Point: Sailors don’t have to be used to that sort of thing as a rule; sub-point: certain they must share a sleeping quarters, but every man expects to have his own bed (or hammock) and blanket.
MK’s choice of line to illustrate from this page, occupied almost entirely by Ishmael’s self-sophistry about having to share a bed – which concludes by likening sleeping between sheets with another person to sharing a skin – occurs between point and subpoint 1. The canvas is created on another found page from the sewing instruction guide, this one about how to properly cut out pattern pieces. In the lower-left quadrant a partial view of a rectangular bed is outlined in black ink and colored white, except for the blanket which is painted red with orange tubing. The rounded head of a familiar peglike figure is visible sticking out from under the blanket – colored grey with a double-bowed black line stretching across its top for closed eyes, its bisected triangle of a nose half covered by the blanket.
The most striking element of the canvas is the beam of prismed color drawn entering the canvas from the lower third of the far left margin, running directly across it, abutt the head of the peglike figure, and recommencing on the other side of it until this rainbow road meets the edge of the bed, where the individual bands of color – from bottom to top: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, red again – peel off and blossom into a bouquet of shaded natural textures and shapes. The orange and green bands curl downward to form spirals, between which the yellow band expands like a tunnel of light and exits the right margin of the canvas. Hung center canvas is a globular frond suspended like a pendant from the blue band that has shot up on a slight wavy course and bent back. The violet band reaches out toward the edge of the canvas, twisting like a vine. The uppermost red band swells into a compacted wave, and the lowermost red band looks like an outline of this wave spilt upon the sand. Disconnected from the beam of prismed color itself, as if grown out of their blooming on the right side of the canvas, furthest from the sleeping peglike figure in the bed, is a blue shaded gord-shape with a hole in its side out of which grows pair of green tendrils winding their way toward the bottom of the canvas, one of which has produced a palmate leaf.
The illustration evokes serenity and captures the experience of (serenely) dreaming, especially when the sleeping peglike figure is regarded as a sort of everyperson, befitting the generalization Ishmael makes in the line that gives this canvas its title: “people like to be private when they sleep.” Here, perhaps, is the beau ideal of restfulness driving Ishmael’s inexplicable fussiness and indecision about the sleeping accommodations available to him at an inn where he has little to no money to spend. To achieve it, Ishmael thinks, one has to be alone.
Indeed, this canvas is equally if not more interesting to view as a portrait or self-portrait of Ishmael himself than as an anonymous sleeping everyperson. The beam of prismed light that enters the peghead all neatly composed only to explode into a burst of forms and shapes on the other side, after all, recalls the rainbow road bearing Ishmael’s name that cuts through the jaundiced clouds overhanging the baghead on canvas 1. In spite of all his seeming self possession and self awareness, in Loomings Ishmael gives a slew of sometimes incompatible reasons for going a-whaling: to cure myself, to (not) kill myself, because I have no money, because I have no ties that interest me ashore, because it was fated, and that fate was enforced. His logic is similarly tortured when it comes to sharing a bed.
Ishmael’s train of discourse is less like a rainbow road than a rainbow rail, running simultaneously along not one or even two but a spectrum of lines of thought, each having its own idiomatic hue and flowering into shapes and forms unto themselves. It’s a private sleep indeed – a consummation devoutly to be wished – that can bring all these flowerings into one illustrative composition. Pattern-making helps.
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.