I. Much has been made of Ishmael’s first night with Queequeg, and I don’t aim to add to it in any estimable way. Ch. 4 of Moby-Dick—what I take to be a key chapter, although there are probably too many supposed keys to this great big book—Ch. 4 of Moby-Dick, “The Counterpane,” begins: “Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner.”
II. (Later Ish refers to Queeg’s “bridegroom clasp”; in the previous chapter, he tells us that he “never slept better in [his] life” — this after initially finding it impossible to fall asleep in Peter Coffin’s old bed, its mattress possibly “stuffed with corn-cobs or broken crockery.”)
III. Like I said, much has been made of Ish & Queeg, and I don’t know what else I can say. I just love it. I love Ishmael’s initial horror, his yelling for landlord Coffin, his quick realization that his prejudices might be undone via first-hand/eye experience. “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian,” he tells us, even if he’s wary of Queeg smoking his tomahawk pipe in bed: “It’s dangerous. Besides, I ain’t insured.”
IV. (M-D might be like the main American text in homosocial studies, I guess.)
V. Let’s come back to that key chapter “The Counterpane” in a moment—how about chapters 2 and 3, “The Carpet-Bag” and “The Spouter-Inn”? I guess here is a good place to be clear,
I don’t know who these riffs are for. I mean, I hope if you’ve never read Moby-Dick they make you want to read it and if you’ve read it before maybe it’ll spark you to read again. I don’t want this to just be me summarizing the book. Let me release my anxiety by leaving the italics and maybe opening a new numeral—
VI. “The Carpet-Bag”:
Ish leaves “Manhatto” and arrives in New Bedford, although he’s too late to make it to Nantucket to join the crew of a whaler and fulfill his mission of Not Being Suicidal. The chapter ends with this remarkable paragraph:
Now, that Lazarus should lie stranded there on the curbstone before the door of Dives, this is more wonderful than that an iceberg should be moored to one of the Moluccas. Yet Dives himself, he too lives like a Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sighs, and being a president of a temperance society, he only drinks the tepid tears of orphans.
The Lazarus theme twists all through M-D, right through its cataclysmic ending. It’s clearly there from the opening paragraphs—Ish’s wishes to revive himself—but this is the first overt reference.
VII. The resurrection motif is enriched in “The Counterpane.”
VIII. (Quote above—I really just love the imagery of rich boy Dives who “only drinks the tepid tears of orphans”! And the knock on his being in a temperance society!)
IX. “The Spouter-Inn”: A nice bit of worldbuilding, as the kids might say (M-D is surely a phantasy).
Proprietor Peter Coffin (“Coffin?—Spouter?—Rather ominous in that particular connexion”)—Peter Coffin is far funnier than I remembered. He fucks with Ish, setting him up for a night with Queeg, who’s been out selling a shrunken head. (In a marvelous little episode, he begins to sand down a dining bench for Ish to sleep on.)
Coffin (a carpenter of sorts) prefigures much of the death/rebirth theme to come in M-D. He also tiptoes the novel’s comic-tragic-something-else axis; his initial japes and jabs at Ish in this chapter give way to a heartfelt moment of near-tragedy, as he explains the origin of the bed Ish will share with Queeg:
—it’s a nice bed; Sal and me slept in that ere bed the night we were spliced. There’s plenty of room for two to kick about in that bed; it’s an almighty big bed that. Why, afore we give it up, Sal used to put our Sam and little Johnny in the foot of it. But I got a dreaming and sprawling about one night, and somehow, Sam got pitched on the floor, and came near breaking his arm. Arter that, Sal said it wouldn’t do.
The marriage bed is spliced to infanticidal violence, to the violent exclusion of children.
X. So let’s get to Ch. 4, to “The Counterpane,” Ishmael’s first night with Queequeg in ole Coffin’s marriage bed.
XI. I wrote “first night” above, but that’s wrong—it’s first morning I mean—the first morning after the first night. The day after.
XII. And yesterday, I wrote, in a riff on rereading M-D, that we get to know little of Ishmael’s past. I think that that statement’s true, but Ish does give us crucial information about the worst moment of his life, a kind of founding trauma that the rest of the novel’s quest might be set against.
XIII. Forgive the long quote:
My sensations were strange. Let me try to explain them. When I was a child, I well remember a somewhat similar circumstance that befell me; whether it was a reality or a dream, I never could entirely settle. The circumstance was this. I had been cutting up some caper or other—I think it was trying to crawl up the chimney, as I had seen a little sweep do a few days previous; and my stepmother who, somehow or other, was all the time whipping me, or sending me to bed supperless,
—Okay I have to pause here and ask—Why chimney?
XIV. Continue, Ish:
Wait — “my mother”? Not “stepmother”?
…my mother dragged me by the legs out of the chimney and packed me off to bed, though it was only two o’clock in the afternoon of the 21st June, the longest day in the year in our hemisphere. I felt dreadfully. But there was no help for it, so up stairs I went to my little room in the third floor, undressed myself as slowly as possible so as to kill time, and with a bitter sigh got between the sheets.
Our boy Ish is punished, sent to relinquish his consciousness (and any and all adventuring) on the summer solstice.
XVI. He continues (again, emphasis mine):
I lay there dismally calculating that sixteen entire hours must elapse before I could hope for a resurrection. Sixteen hours in bed! the small of my back ached to think of it. And it was so light too; the sun shining in at the window, and a great rattling of coaches in the streets, and the sound of gay voices all over the house.
Ish is without hope here. No Lazarus thing, no resurrection dealie. And all in the whitest brightest light. This in the satanic dark black white novel Moby-Dick.
XVII. Lil’ Ish’s trauma intensifies, and he begs reprieve from the wicked step-mom, but “she was the best and most conscientious of stepmothers, and back I had to go to my room.”
XVIII. He continues; the bold-face emphasis is mine:
For several hours I lay there broad awake, feeling a great deal worse than I have ever done since, even from the greatest subsequent misfortunes.
And then Ishmael has this wild nightmare-not-epiphany:
At last I must have fallen into a troubled nightmare of a doze; and slowly waking from it—half steeped in dreams—I opened my eyes, and the before sun-lit room was now wrapped in outer darkness. Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine.
XIX. (Melville hits on the terror of a metaphysical encounter here, a phantom moment encoded into a childhood consciousness that cannot name what is happening to it.)
XX: And then Lil’ Ish’s counterpane of days past entangles with the current counterpane of “The Counterpane” in an
My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bed-side. For what seemed ages piled on ages, I lay there, frozen with the most awful fears, not daring to drag away my hand; yet ever thinking that if I could but stir it one single inch, the horrid spell would be broken. I knew not how this consciousness at last glided away from me; but waking in the morning, I shudderingly remembered it all, and for days and weeks and months afterwards I lost myself in confounding attempts to explain the mystery. Nay, to this very hour, I often puzzle myself with it.
XXI. (That “nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom” — prefiguration of Moby-Dick? of Ahab? of the cruel wet cold world? or just a child’s small big fears?)
XXII. (In any case, this seems to be Ishmael’s epiphanic founding trauma.)
XXIII. And to bring it back to where I started,
Much has been made of Ishmael’s first night with Queequeg.
Let’s end on the morning after—a kind of healing epiphany, coded in otherness, exploration, and strange love:
Now, take away the awful fear, and my sensations at feeling the supernatural hand in mine were very similar, in their strangeness, to those which I experienced on waking up and seeing Queequeg’s pagan arm thrown round me.