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.