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.
Ishmael’s surprised to find the company of whalemen lodging at the Spouter Inn such quiet and evidently shy company over breakfast. He, a great spouter himself, was expecting stories. MK illustrates the line wherein Ishmael contrasts the “sheepish,” “bashful,” and “timid” manners of the whalemen at the “social breakfast table” with their unabashed bravery upon the high seas, where they have “duelled [great whales] dead without winking.” The canvas inspired by this line becomes the first of MK’s many illustrations of whales for his enterprise (excluding that “portentous, black mass” that occupies the dingy canvas in the entryway to the Inn), but this is only a partial view. Just the top of a leviathanic head breaches the bottom margin of the canvas and extends halfway up its length before tilting outward to the right; the curvature of its brow is just within frame near the middle of the right margin. The body of the whale is composed mostly of overlapping, variously sized lateral shapes like razor clam shells, outlined in black and shaded black-grey along their upper edges. The body of the whale is colorless, apart from this shading, so the printed text of the found page is visible behind it: fragments of histories of artillery fire and maneuvers asail read through. Just above curvature of the whale’s brow a black-and-white engraving of galleon warship is printed on the upper third of the found page, partially obscured by graphic clouds of grey and white over pink that originate spoutwise from the foremost point of the whale’s head where emanates a sloped column of grey and white bands with one pink band shot through it.
Standing astride the whale’s back, braced against its rise, is the broad figure of Bulkington, his green monkey-jacket buttoned up tight and a bulky silhouetted lance tilted to his side. Just below the tip of the lancehead is an overlarge lidless anthropomorphic eye drawn to one side of the great whale, its striated blue iris and watery black pupil rolled upward in its socket toward Bulkington. Upon the ponderous body of the whale the enlarged human eye looks oddly, its passive, dewy form juxtaposing the graphic spout emanating sharply from the whale’s head, that band of pink shot through the grey and white expelling the whale’s lifespot. But the eye isn’t so much the whale’s as it’s Ishmael’s, turned up into his own head and imagining the “war stories” he expected to be regaled with over breakfast. The wave formations atop the wedge of seascape painted behind Bulkington in the background of the illustration evoke the horizon-line of Ishmael’s own water-bag head. It’s funny that Ishmael, a greenhand to whaling at this point in his own story, jokes that you would have thought these “timid warrior whalemen” a fold of sheep upon the Green Mountains, sheepish as they were. Veteran soldiers, however, are often less embarrassed about remembering their past battles than about remembering how to be sociable animals once more.
Another found page is painted over almost entirely by a rectangular field of deep azure, saturating the canvas. Only on the left and right margins (about a fingernail’s width on each side) does any of the circuit board schematic show through, and there only a series of partial small circles containing alphanumeric labels for the resistors being identified on the schematic buried in the blue. At the bottom of the canvas two fin-shaped protuberances, angled down, reveal the big blue block to be the form of “the great whale” swimming up the page.
A narrow inverted V painted white dominates the middle third of the canvas. Regarded two dimensionally this inverted V – tapered toward the lowermost points and of greater breadth at the fulcrum – appears to have some symbolic investiture, like a great white phallic hieroglyph on the great blue whale’s back, which befits the line from MD that inspired this illustration, where “the overwhelming idea of the great whale…” is gendered (generically) male: “…himself.” It calls to mind a primitive blade, archetype of the harpoons and lances by which legions of real whales were slain in the fishery.
Now refocus your gaze three dimensionally. You’re not looking down on this “overwhelming idea of the great whale” from above. This very form of whale, the “chief motive” of Ishmael going a-whaling, you’re seeing from below. That empty inverted V is a yawn, her opening maw.