Chapter 11: Nightgown

“Nightgown” follows Ishmael and Queequeg on their second night of sharing a bed at the Spouter Inn. After retiring to bed early after supper, and sleeping on and off, the pair sit up in the cold room, keeping their warm blankets tightly around them. Ishmael notices that “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.” And indeed, throughout “Nightgown,” we see a world defined by contrast.

Reading back one paragraph, for example, when Ishmael recalls “Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back,” I can’t help but think that Ishmael notices race as existing only by contrast. When Ishmael discusses Queequeg’s smoking in bed in terms of the landlord’s insurance policy, I can’t help but think that culture exists only in contrast as well. And when Ishmael ruminates over how “no man can ever feel his own identity aright except his eyes be closed,” it makes me think how people often define the self in contrast to the other.

Defining existence in terms of the other may seem alienating and bleak, but I think Ishmael makes the opposite point in “Nightgown.” Even in negative moments of contrast — for example, the fairly innocuous struggle between Ishmael and Queequeg over smoking in bed — contrast can only exist when people are close to each other, recognizing each other; and the individual self can only exist in the presence of society and even perhaps friendship. And so we watch as two very different people come to terms with each other, and in the process realize not only each other, but themselves as well.

Chapter 11: Nightgown

The world is far away, oh!, far away
And my friend’s near.
Underneath a blanket, oh!, with a friend
That I hold dear.

But our warmth would not exist without the cold,
As our loneliness, without someone to hold!
I’m glad I’ve got my friend!

Intertwine our legs, oh!, and our race
Is oh so clear,
But what is in our race, oh!, but a contrast
When two are near?

Well, at least we’re here together, heart to heart!
Many others choose to live apart!
I’m glad I’ve got my friend!

Oh, our warmth would not exist without the cold,
As our loneliness, without someone to hold!
I’m glad I’ve got my friend!

The world is far away, oh!, far away
And my friend’s near.

(c) and (p) 2009 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 10, 2009
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea August 7, 2010

Published in: on August 29, 2010 at 10:35 am  Leave a Comment  
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