Nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom | Riff 2 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (The Carpet-Bag/The Spouter-Inn/The Counterpane)

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.”

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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:

—my mother

Wait — “my mother”? Not “stepmother”?

XV. –sorry–

…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.

“I want it of the true death-temper” (Moby-Dick)

“Look ye, blacksmith, these are the gathered nail-stubbs of the steel shoes of racing horses.”

“Horse-shoe stubbs, sir? Why, Captain Ahab, thou hast here, then, the best and stubbornest stuff we blacksmiths ever work.”

“I know it, old man; these stubbs will weld together like glue from the melted bones of murderers. Quick! forge me the harpoon. And forge me first, twelve rods for its shank; then wind, and twist, and hammer these twelve together like the yarns and strands of a tow-line. Quick! I’ll blow the fire.”

When at last the twelve rods were made, Ahab tried them, one by one, by spiralling them, with his own hand, round a long, heavy iron bolt. “A flaw!” rejecting the last one. “Work that over again, Perth.”

This done, Perth was about to begin welding the twelve into one, when Ahab stayed his hand, and said he would weld his own iron. As, then, with regular, gasping hems, he hammered on the anvil, Perth passing to him the glowing rods, one after the other, and the hard pressed forge shooting up its intense straight flame, the Parsee passed silently, and bowing over his head towards the fire, seemed invoking some curse or some blessing on the toil. But, as Ahab looked up, he slid aside.

“What’s that bunch of lucifers dodging about there for?” muttered Stubb, looking on from the forecastle. “That Parsee smells fire like a fusee; and smells of it himself, like a hot musket’s powder-pan.”

At last the shank, in one complete rod, received its final heat; and as Perth, to temper it, plunged it all hissing into the cask of water near by, the scalding steam shot up into Ahab’s bent face.

“Would’st thou brand me, Perth?” wincing for a moment with the pain; “have I been but forging my own branding-iron, then?”

“Pray God, not that; yet I fear something, Captain Ahab. Is not this harpoon for the White Whale?”

“For the white fiend! But now for the barbs; thou must make them thyself, man. Here are my razors—the best of steel; here, and make the barbs sharp as the needle-sleet of the Icy Sea.”

For a moment, the old blacksmith eyed the razors as though he would fain not use them.

“Take them, man, I have no need for them; for I now neither shave, sup, nor pray till—but here—to work!”

Fashioned at last into an arrowy shape, and welded by Perth to the shank, the steel soon pointed the end of the iron; and as the blacksmith was about giving the barbs their final heat, prior to tempering them, he cried to Ahab to place the water-cask near.

“No, no—no water for that; I want it of the true death-temper. Ahoy, there! Tashtego, Queequeg, Daggoo! What say ye, pagans! Will ye give me as much blood as will cover this barb?” holding it high up. A cluster of dark nods replied, Yes. Three punctures were made in the heathen flesh, and the White Whale’s barbs were then tempered.

“Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!” deliriously howled Ahab, as the malignant iron scorchingly devoured the baptismal blood.

Now, mustering the spare poles from below, and selecting one of hickory, with the bark still investing it, Ahab fitted the end to the socket of the iron. A coil of new tow-line was then unwound, and some fathoms of it taken to the windlass, and stretched to a great tension. Pressing his foot upon it, till the rope hummed like a harp-string, then eagerly bending over it, and seeing no strandings, Ahab exclaimed, “Good! and now for the seizings.”

At one extremity the rope was unstranded, and the separate spread yarns were all braided and woven round the socket of the harpoon; the pole was then driven hard up into the socket; from the lower end the rope was traced half-way along the pole’s length, and firmly secured so, with intertwistings of twine. This done, pole, iron, and rope—like the Three Fates—remained inseparable, and Ahab moodily stalked away with the weapon; the sound of his ivory leg, and the sound of the hickory pole, both hollowly ringing along every plank. But ere he entered his cabin, light, unnatural, half-bantering, yet most piteous sound was heard. Oh, Pip! thy wretched laugh, thy idle but unresting eye; all thy strange mummeries not unmeaningly blended with the black tragedy of the melancholy ship, and mocked it!

From “The Forge,” Chapter 113 of Melville’s Moby-Dick.

 

“… this easy, indifferent sword must be chance…” (Moby-Dick)

I was the attendant or page of Queequeg, while busy at the mat. As I kept passing and repassing the filling or woof of marline between the long yarns of the warp, using my own hand for the shuttle, and as Queequeg, standing sideways, ever and anon slid his heavy oaken sword between the threads, and idly looking off upon the water, carelessly and unthinkingly drove home every yarn: I say so strange a dreaminess did there then reign all over the ship and all over the sea, only broken by the intermitting dull sound of the sword, that it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own. This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. Meantime, Queequeg’s impulsive, indifferent sword, sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly, or strongly, or weakly, as the case might be; and by this difference in the concluding blow producing a corresponding contrast in the final aspect of the completed fabric; this savage’s sword, thought I, which thus finally shapes and fashions both warp and woof; this easy, indifferent sword must be chance—aye, chance, free will, and necessity—nowise incompatible—all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course—its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events.

From “The Mat-Maker,” Chapter 47 of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

 

“Moby Dick ye have seen—Moby Dick—Moby Dick!” (Moby-Dick)

“It’s a white whale, I say,” resumed Ahab, as he threw down the topmaul: “a white whale. Skin your eyes for him, men; look sharp for white water; if ye see but a bubble, sing out.”

All this while Tashtego, Daggoo, and Queequeg had looked on with even more intense interest and surprise than the rest, and at the mention of the wrinkled brow and crooked jaw they had started as if each was separately touched by some specific recollection.

“Captain Ahab,” said Tashtego, “that white whale must be the same that some call Moby Dick.”

“Moby Dick?” shouted Ahab. “Do ye know the white whale then, Tash?”

“Does he fan-tail a little curious, sir, before he goes down?” said the Gay-Header deliberately.

“And has he a curious spout, too,” said Daggoo, “very bushy, even for a parmacetty, and mighty quick, Captain Ahab?”

“And he have one, two, three—oh! good many iron in him hide, too, Captain,” cried Queequeg disjointedly, “all twiske-tee be-twisk, like him—him—” faltering hard for a word, and screwing his hand round and round as though uncorking a bottle—”like him—him—”

“Corkscrew!” cried Ahab, “aye, Queequeg, the harpoons lie all twisted and wrenched in him; aye, Daggoo, his spout is a big one, like a whole shock of wheat, and white as a pile of our Nantucket wool after the great annual sheep-shearing; aye, Tashtego, and he fan-tails like a split jib in a squall. Death and devils! men, it is Moby Dick ye have seen—Moby Dick—Moby Dick!”

From Chapter 36 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

“Nothing exists in itself” (Moby-Dick)

Yes, we became very wakeful; so much so that our recumbent position began to grow wearisome, and by little and little we found ourselves sitting up; the clothes well tucked around us, leaning against the head-board with our four knees drawn up close together, and our two noses bending over them, as if our kneepans were warming-pans. We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.

From Chapter 11 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

 

Misunderstanding with Queequeg

(Via/more).