Ishmael empathizes at some length with the mournful tablet gazers he encounters upon entering the Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford. He knows no one in the place (save for Queequeg), but he deduces that among these tablet gazers are family – widows namely – of those people whose names are engraved upon the marble plaques. Two pieces of evidence lead him to this conclusion: 1) the look, if not the wardrobe, of “some unceasing grief” upon the tablet gazers; 2) Ishmael’s familiarity with the many “unrecorded accidents in the fishery.” As if on this very point the perspective of the Ishmael speaking silently shifts to that of the Ishmael on the other side of the catastrophe of the Pequod, not just glimpsing the interior of the Whaleman’s Chapel for the first time as the would-be whaleman. “Oh! Ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass…” This Ishmael knows firsthand the “desolation” of those who have lost loved ones in ways that admit of no visitation, no resurrection. The “frigid inscriptions” on the marble tablets are a testament to the “void” of not just the loss but the loss of the customary equipment to grieve. The repeatedly failed testing of reality for the lost one that carries on in the wake of absence – what they call learning to live with it – is often intimately tied to defined notions of place. Stabbing, healing daydreams and hallucinations – the torments of mourning – are called up by memories activated by familiar objects, sounds, vistas. How strange and unresolveable the grief, then, Ishmael opines, for lost whalemen. Perhaps a personalized tool, logbook, or other object makes the voyage home to tokenize the absence, but the person is hard lost that never returns as a body to bear witness to its own departed life.
This lost body of the life lost is the literal center of MK’s illustration of this page of MD: a mere silhouetted stick of a figure with a little rounded head, laid to its side on the plane of the horizontal orientation of the found page itself, an electrical schema. Surrounding the black stick figure is a blood-red oblong hole; surrounding that the be-lined form of a great whale. The thick outline is recognizably that of a sperm whale – from the shape of its fluke to the far right of the page to characteristic brow line nearly nosing the far left, and the pectoral fin placement and shape on the lower side of the form – but apart from the blood red oblong hole in its side where the black stick figure lay the whale is featureless; there’s no eye or mouth. It’s outline gives it a dormant, frozen appearance, while it’s surface features an intricate linework in black ink, branching out from the whale’s thick perimeter line and meandering their various inverted V- and Y-shaped ways toward its middle – as if traces of every former movement.
Ishmael characterizes the uniquely impossible mourning for lost whalemen as grief for the “placelessly perished.” MK couldn’t have chosen to illustrate this line in any way that would not have given this placelessness some place, if even just the margins of the found page itself. Rather than ink some abstraction to render the woeful thought of a bodiless grief, MK draws the missing body – simple like a petroglyph, featureless except for its anthropomorphic limbs – and places it within another recognizable body. The intricate linework of the whale’s body isn’t a labyrinth confining the stick figure; both bodies together are the picture of stillness: the one still body still in the other still body. The only feature of the canvas that animates this illustration of the radically departed is the blood-red oblong cavity in the whale’s side where the black stick figure is deposited as in a crypt. The wrinkling linework of the wheel’s body draws in and puckers around its edges like a wound. MK creates a monument to the unceasing grief for the body that never returns in the form of the unreturning body that the unreturned set out to make.