In the light of day, and with a fair prospect of breakfast before him, Ishmael gets a better look at his fellow lodgers at the Spouter Inn, some of whom he saw arriving the night previous. In the text of MD Ishmael registers several precise physical characteristics of these specimen “whalemen” in his description – “a brown and brawny company, with bosky beards; an unshorn, shaggy set, all wearing monkey jackets for morning gowns.” These attributes are ellided out of MK’s isolated line from “Breakfast” which serves the title of his illustration, whose matter instead is a list of the whalemen’s ranks on the hierarchy of the whaleship or what form of labor they bring to the fishery: “They were nearly all whalemen; chief mates, and second mates, and third mates, and sea carpenters, and sea coopers, and sea blacksmiths, and harpooneers, and ship keepers.”
Notably absent from MK’s illustration of this company of whalemen upon the landscape-oriented canvas is the cylindrical peglike figure of the landlubber. Workers in whaling are differently drawn, imbued with either the elemental mediums native to their labor (primarily water, fire, and air) or the tools of their various trades. One of figures on this canvas is recognizable, the broadest of the 5 standing to the far right of the frame. It’s Bulkington (from 14); notable among the minor differences in his reappearance on this canvas: his brickwork cofferdam of a chest beneath his unbuttoned pea-green monkey jacket is painted over in pale blue and yellow stripes, his fluid-blue visor-eye has been replaced with a green-grey balene-band. The figure standing on the far left of the canvas is clearly the “chief mate” (aka first mate), as there’s a large black 1 painted on his red/blue silough-shaped body; even its head is drawn in the shape of a large blocked number one, colored white: three hashmarks about a mouth, a slouch of red for a cap, with a furl of ink black eddying from the top of it. Whereas the coffer-dam chest of Bulkington walls up water within (as previously shown in the depths of the visor-eye featured in his individual portrait), the silough-bodied chief mate keeps the air in or rather keeps it out, the excess of what it can’t contain – whether absence or presence of a certain air – excreting in the form of black cloud that briefly forms the shape of a whale before breaking apart and rejoining the sky.
The tallest figure, standing center canvas and occupying its full height is one of the other mates, second or third: I’m inclined to think third. Standing next to this figure, which is colored mostly brown, is a black silhouetted lance, its line spiraling around its shaft and disappearing behind the figure’s back. The figure’s proximity to the lance might represent a recent promotion since the implement whose use was reserved for those aboard the whaleboats deserving the honor and glory of the kill (if not the dart that secured it) – the lance – is not the shape of the tool emblazoned in blue on its body and protruding like a finial out of the top of its tubular head – that’s a harpoon. I read a story in the beady eyes of this tall illustrated whaleman where a long-darter of whales finally ships out a mate. Like the newly minted mate the squat blacksmith to its one side is imbued with the icons of its trade: a squared off slag red body is cut across by a yellow lightning bolt, flecked black. Upon the flat terracotta head featuring a double row of white block teeth and a black visor-eye is a chalice-shaped vessel with a row of white bubbles rising from its middle, like a quench. The figure standing to the other side of the third mate stands taller than the blacksmith but shorter than the rest; it’s draped in a powder blue coat with golden, fringed epaulets, pinned large about its middle is an emblem: a circle of golden cordage frames a black anchor against a field of seafoam green. The rounded head of this figure is colored white but a pattern of lines and circles gives it the appearance of riveted metal plates cut across by a red visor-eye; atop its head is a golden fin or frond resembling the horn of a gramophone or an ear trumpet. This would be the ship-keeper, who bore the responsibility for the ship’s movements and communications between the crew when the captain was away. The anchor emblem on the figure’s chest is nearly identical to the one spouted before the face of that right whale of a captain who Ishmael foresees ordering him “GET!” when he ships (in 4); it signals the singularity in the hierarchy of the whaleship’s power structure whereby it must distribute itself incrementally down the ladder of command, with the captain on top, whose “complete dominion” can transfer and indeed does frequently transfer to another, even one upon its lowest rung.
Presumably, Ishmael would’ve discovered after a certain brief period of casual conversation and repeated meetings the respective positions and occupations of the various whaleman about the Spouter Inn and is not claiming to be able to distinguish at sight their positions in the whaleship’s hierarchy and its division of labor when he sees them before his first breakfast in New Bedford. MK is in the opposite position of having to make the duties and specialized labors of the whaleman visible. Of course, there is no real urgency of his doing so here; he might have illustrated any number of charming lines for this page. I would suggest he chose this moment as a sort of practice run along the rungs of the whaleship’s hierarchy for his portraits to come of the main cast of “knights and squires,” tradesmen, servants, and men-before-the-mast comprising the crew of the Pequod. Before we even know that ship to be hiring crew, MK is working out how to conjure them.
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.
If Queequeg were made into an action figure (the true Queequeg, I mean, not that Star Wars knock-off, which nonetheless made for a legendary toy), besides featuring certain distinguishing bodily traits, he’d be reasonably expected to come packaged with several accessories – an embalmed head or a poncho maybe, his harpoon and tomahawk-pipe almost certainly – but none of the items with which Queequeg is characterized by proxy in MD would be as justifiably sealed up with him forever in a collector’s cellophane sarcophagus as Yojo, the ebony idol he worships.
MK paints “Yojo” before painting the figure of the idol itself; the name occupies nearly the whole of the canvas: Y O appearing in the upper half, J O just below. The letters are outlined in a brushed band of rich, gum pink, with a band of blood red tracing the outer edge of these formations, and another layer of pink beyond that, then another layer of red… the pattern repeating until the bands of color are just peaks and arcs barely showing the contour of the letters they’re shaped by as they ripple out to the margins of the canvas. In the hollow left by all these concentric bands of pink and red, the Y O / J O reveals another labeled circuitry schematic beneath the paint, save for in the middle of each O where are rounds of the gum pink. This is only the second time MK’s canvas identifies a character by a name (excluding Queequeg’s signature), and the first is the first illustration of the whole project, identifying Ishmael. There are many different ways, however, that MK registers the influence of individual words and fragments of speech in the illustrations occasioned by them. In this case, Queequeg’s idol is not named at this point in the text of MD (“Yojo” is not said until 13 chapters later), so the moniker swimming in the background of this canvas is another anachronism designed by MK, whose interest seems drawn in part by the pictorial symmetry of the name, given its arrangement on the canvas.
The figure of Yojo is formed by a rudimentary black outline in the foreground of the canvas. Its back is rounded and its apparent front quite flat, the body terminating in a short stump for a base. The head is shaped like a slightly squashed letter b, featuring two ribbed conical formations with black ovals at the tapered ends, seemingly serving for eyes. A rectangular patch with rounded edges is painted on his chest with sparsely brushed s-shaped vertical lines running along its length, like a rough-hewn wood grain raised from the boundless waters pushing out against the little body invested with the power of their god.
Maybe it’s just me, but if you cock your head to the right when viewing this canvas the two large Os in the name Yojo lose their appearance as letters and look instead like a pair of glaring red eyes, the Y and the J similar but not exactly matching underlying markings.
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.
MK’s first illustration of Queequeg is a portrait of the character as he (a veteran reader) sees the beloved harpooneer first entering the door to his room in the Spouter Inn, not as Ishmael reports seeing him. In this respect it’s a rather radical departure from any of the illustrations that have come before it or those that immediately follow it.
When Ishmael first sees Queequeg he’s still got that nightmare of a tangled black yarn of a bloodthirsty deadheader on the brain, and Queequeg “himself” – one of the most fully developed and memorable characters of the early portions of MD – only becomes known in bits and pieces. Like the painting in the entryway to the Spouter Inn, he’s only accessories, parts, and individual features – decontextualized fragments seen, heard, and felt – before becoming a fully-fledged personage to Ishmael, or to the reader. Indeed, Ishmael introduces Queequeg into the book almost precisely as he does the harpooneer’s poncho: as something he can’t quite recognize but nonetheless brazenly examines and meticulously describes. In this first portrait of the “infernal head-peddler” Queequeg is seen wearing the poncho so laboriously and lovingly drawn by MK in the illustration previous (reproduced here in all its wonderful detail), and since we know that poncho to have been left in the room while he was out on his errand, this should be the first clue that MK is deliberately stepping out of the seductive, overwhelmed reporting of Ishmael and making his own vision of Queequeg known, in its own time.
At the same time, some of the striking first impressions that overwhelm Ishmael’s faculty to recognize Queequeg seem to influence MK’s more developed and contextualized vision of the character: especially, Queequeg’s tattooing. The first sight of Queequeg’s face Ishmael gets in MD is conspicuously registered as one of those moments where the narrator’s confusion and, in this case, alarmed wonderment is passed on to the reader: “good heavens! what a sight! Such a face! It was of a dark purplish, yellow color, here and there stuck over with large, blackish looking squares.” Ishmael concocts a theory that the dark squares are “sticking-patches,” that the harpooneer has been in a dreadful fight and has had to see a surgeon, before realizing they’re tattoos. MK’s first rendering of this face not only differs in terms of the colors chosen to echo the markings – in MK’s illustration they’re resolutely blue – nor in their shape – here they’re drawn as a collection of overlapping scales, each comprised of concentric scallop-shaped lines rather than as squares – but, more importantly, the mood the figure of Queequeg strikes on MK’s canvas is serene and gentle, not threatening. The figure is stooped, the ovular head hung forward atop the steeply sloped body.
Queequeg’s tall harpoon stands prominently to the left of the figure occupying the whole left margin of the canvas, black at the handle and awash in red, which is also flecked across the top left quadrant of the canvas: another anachronism from this page of MD, since the harpoon was left in the room along with the poncho. There are two other distinguishing features of this canvas, however, that should indicate that this is a more deliberate, contextualized portrait of Queequeg than Ishmael provides at this point in the book.
The choice of found page on which the illustration is made features a legible map of Pacific isles, situating the character in more of a concrete geographic and cultural locale than he ever is in MD;
In the upper right hand corner of the canvas there’s inked an uppercase thickly lettered Q, in red, just above a thinly drawn infinity symbol. This pair of marks becomes a signature of sorts, as we’ll see inspired by Queequeg’s own, which is featured on many of the canvases depicting the harpooneer.
In comparison to the abject terror the appearance of Queequeg first instills in Ishmael, the only vaguely ominous feature of the figure MK illustrates is its lidless eyes, their red pupils pointilated about the edges, giving them a glaring, strained, and hazy look.
I’ve ventured before the surmise that red eyes in MK’s illustrations of MD indicate a character in extremity, and the only theory that will answer for what extremity Queequeg might be said to be in – this character who never cringed and never knew a creditor – suggests that those blue markings shown all over as his face do not represent Queequeg’s artificial bodily markings as much as his natural bodily medium that it will be the arc of MK’s illustrations to render (back) unto infinity.
After landlord Coffin has deposited Ishmael in the harpooneer’s room with assurances of the spaciousness of the retired conjugal bed and orders to make himself at home, Ishmael scrutinizes the space and notes the harpooneer’s few personal effects deposited there: a large seaman’s bag, a tall harpoon, and a heavy shaggy textile that Ishmael can only liken to a “door mat,” which lays upon the “crazy old sea chest” conspicuously furnishing the room. Ishmael holds the article to the light and smells it, noticing some ornamental “tags” around its perimeter and a hole or slit in its middle that reveals it to be a garment, some kind of poncho. Ishmael pulls the garment over his head to examine his appearance in a piece of mirror and only registers its dampness before his reflection sends him tearing out of the poncho so fast he strains his neck.
As Ishmael’s observations upon first entering the Spouter Inn prompted MK’s illustrations of the dingy, indistinct painting and Nat Swain’s storied lance, Ishmael’s survey of his shared room prompts another still-life. The harpooneer’s poncho is drawn as if spread flat upon another page from the sewing instruction guide, this one featuring a list of the book’s contents pertaining to “Necklines & Collars.” Those words, printed in large gold lettering along the right margin of the rotated page are only partially obscured by the specimen of wonderfully intricate black inkwork. One corner of the poncho is shown on the canvas, formed by heavily drawn perimeter lines that extend from the upper third of the left margin and near the far right corner of the lower margin. 20+ tassels sprawl from the delicately scalloped edges, each holding a narrow, pointed toothlike shape with a black band about its middle. Within this defined area of the canvas MK draws a tightly compacted herringbone pattern consisting of 77 individual columns of tiny, slanted lines. (The columns are mostly oriented at roughly a 15 degree angle off the vertical axis of the canvas.) The pattern isn’t perfectly uniform, but broken up at intervals by columns that veer off at diagonal angles for some length before joining into others. Another variation in the pattern of penwork comprising the textile are groupings of white-outlined block shapes.
The veering columns of herringbone linework often converge around these patches of white blocks, creating the visual effect of scattered darns in the textile’s surface, indicating age or use. The slit at the center of the poncho is rendered as a narrow black rectangle in the lower left quadrant of the canvas, extending from its bottom edge toward its left margin, surrounded by a neat network of lines running perpendicular to the black rectangle’s sides and surrounded by a white rectangular band for a hem. Some of the printed lettering of the table of contents of “Necklines & Collars” is still visible in this white rectangular frame and some of the white-block darn spots as well.
Perhaps the only consideration that can deepen the striking visual impression of this still-life is the time and patience it took MK to create it. All the more impressive considering that the poncho is all but absent from the text of MD after this moment but becomes a regular feature of MK’s many illustrations of the harpooneer that follow, meaning that almost every time he drew Queequeg, there was a significant concentration of time and energy dedicated to the intricate herringbone textile he sports for outerwear. Perhaps impossible to capture from the perspective and style in which the textile is rendered here is its dampness. In the world of the book created by MK, what Ishmael takes to be moisture resulting from the poncho being worn “of a rainy day” is rather a residue of the body it contains.
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.
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!”
A found page showing a series of diagrams and minimal instructions about how to pattern and stitch a pencil is backdrop to a simple and funny bit of pop art heeding Ishmael’s anxiety about the harpooneer’s potential retaliation were he to go forward with his plan to lock the man out of his room for the night.
A jagged frame – resembling the starburst shape behind a comic POW! – is formed by a series of irregular peaks outlined in red extending from the margins of the canvas, painted white and pockmarked over with red dots. Within this frame, drawn large over the pencil craft instructions and shaded so they’re still visible beneath, is a frontal view of a large, block-like fist. The four fingers of this apparent right jab are formed by a rectangle tilted to one side, outlined in black, with three parallel and equally spaced lines extending from the lower edge of the rectangle three quarters of the way to its top; a smaller rectangle drawn abut the larger one on the far right side connotes the thumb, and a semicircle is drawn and centered on its top, evidently the only visible bit of the forearm or shoulder of the limb throwing the punch at the viewer’s face. The piece is a rather notable stylistic departure from any of the canvases that have come before it (though it resembles somewhat the wrecking cube fists of the invisible police officer of the fates in 5), and it is a good reminder that MK’s every illustration need not conform to or establish a pattern. A pattern can make a pencil, but the pencil need not reciprocate.
The whole point here is to show something you don’t see coming. At the same time, the illustration is ironic, since Ishmael does see it coming. MK’s penchant for MD’s humor motivates his choice of line from this page to draw, where Ishmael all but names the genre of illustration it inspires: “so soon as I popped out of the room…” Pop! Pow! Wow! A fist! A first. Surely not the last.