Moby-Dick is in some ways like a bunch of smaller books — Ishmael’s Moody Journey of Discovery, A Pocket Guide to the Whale Fishery, A Treatise on Whiteness, Ishmael and Queequeg Find a Friend — all crammed together into one super awesome book. Unlike Infinite Jest-esque post-modern behemoths, these stories are much more compartmentalized than interwoven threads around a theme. Without warning or necessity, the book drops characters, relationships, and stories with the turn of a single page — sometimes you get them back, and sometimes you don’t. One of the most endearing and lamentably dropped stories early on is the budding friendship of Queequeg and Ishmael. We have an intense period with the pair starting with Ishmael’s long and tense wait for his dark, pagan bedfellow-by-necessity in “The Spouter-Inn” (Chapter 3), and dropping off with the ship’s departure somewhere around “Merry Christmas” (Chapter 22). From there, both Ishmael and Queequeg all but disappear until the final chapters of the book.
Ishmael and Queequeg are brought together by a lack of available beds at The Spouter-Inn. Peter Coffin, rascal that he his, pairs the two up with hilarious and touching results. The two men have a lot of bridges to build — religion, race, personal space/boundaries, the disparate patterns of disparate cultural upbringings — and watching the push and pull of these negotiations of friendship is a slice of light and joy and (strangely) hope through an often dark and bleak book. Awesome as the rest of the book is, that was a little hard for me to let go of my first time through.
“The Counterpane” is also an excellent example of Melville’s regular practice of talking about one thing while really talking about another. There is certainly a counterpane (patchwork quilt) on the bed that umbrellas Ishmael and Queequeg as they sleep (and later, just hang around and smoke), but the real counterpane in this chapter is Queequeg himself. Queequeg’s tattooed body is a sort of patchwork quilt in appearance. We later find that his tattoos are a written narrative of the universe and “a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth,” though no one save the prophet who inscribed them can decipher their meaning, not even Queequeg. Queequeg’s skin is a text of heritage, history and culture layered over the text of his race.
“The Counterpane” begins the morning after Ishmael and Queequeg spend their first night together as bedfellows. Ishmael wakes to find Queequeg hugging him “in the most loving and affectionate manner.” Ishmael is immediately reminded of a moment from his childhood involving lots of references to light and dark. He is trying to climb into the dark, sooty chimney (ala William Blake) when he is caught by his evil stepmother. As punishment, he has to spend the remainder of the day in bed. Being the lightest day of the year, summer solstice, this is quite a stretch of time, but beg as he might, his stepmother insists. He eventually falls asleep and wakes, “and the before sun-lit room was now wrapped in outer darkness.” Worse still, Ishmael finds himself hand in hand with a dark phantom:
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.
But Ishmael doesn’t want the spell to be broken, either with the phantom limb or with Queequeg. He submits himself to the embrace of the Other and I think finds a synthesis in the resulting friendship. Ishmael and Queequeg are sewn into the larger community of the crew and into the larger narrative of the Pequod. Counterpanes nested within counterpanes.
Chapter 4: The Counterpane
Now he’s hugging me
Oh, so lovingly;
I woke up in Queequeg’s embrace!
Like a brother, pagan other
In my bed.
It reminds me of when I was but a child
I once fell asleep
And woke with a phantom’s limb
Hand in hand with me.
Though not literate —
Politeness must be innate!
Like a patchwork of decorum
And for all of my high civil breeding,
I have to admit
I stared on quite rudely
Through Queequeg’s strange toilet.
So he shaves his face
With a harpoon blade —
A savagely civilized art!
He’s a darkness, with a
(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea July 19, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea October 1, 2008