Deep South v.1 n.3 (Spring, 1995)
When in Chapter 111 of Moby Dick the Pequod emerges from the Bashee Isles into the Pacific, Ishmael is drawn to worship the great ocean which he has finally seen after "the long supplication of [his] youth." For Ishmael, the Pacific, in its serene, endless, undulating blue, speaks of inclusiveness, of multitudes. It touches with its shores the newest Californian towns and the oldest Asiatic cities, and in between "float milky-ways of coral isles, and low-lying, endless, unknown archipelagoes, and impenetrable Japans." The Pacific encompasses the new, the ancient and the mysterious: "Thus this mysterious, divine Pacific zones the world's whole bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it; seems the tide-beating heart of earth." The Pacific in this way stimulates Ishmael's imagination, broadening his vision beyond the limits of the horizon, to the bounds of knowable geography and history. For Ishmael sees under the surface of the vast ocean the lives, souls, somnambulisms and dreams of those who have been drowned in it.
Ishmael is struck into awe by the might of nature and the insignificance of mankind in its face. In short, then, the sight of the Pacific challenges in a liberating way Ishmael's conceptions about the relationship between civilisation and nature. On the other hand, Ahab's field of vision narrows when he sees the Pacific. His obsession with the white whale grows within him. He shuts all out of his mind except the smell of the salty sea where his foe swims. His dreams now are of the hunt, and his facial features stiffen with the new intensity of his narrow passion.
Whereas for Ahab the Pacific represents finality, resolution, death and the end of the quest, for Ishmael it represents inclusiveness and the eternal. The arms of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, encircle the globe. The Pacific itself contains even the unknowable and infinite: "endless, unknown archipelagoes and impenetrable Japans." And the "ever-rolling," unceasing ebb and flow of the Pacific covers the never-ending dream-time of "millions of mixed shades and shadows."
In Moby Dick the Pacific is also represented in the person of Queequeg who has a similar eye-opening effect on Ishmael. Although heathen, savage, strange and alien, Queequeg comes to represent for Ishmael an inclusive, rejuvenating alternative to the divisiveness of Ahab and the Puritans. In the early chapters of Moby Dick, Ishmael draws a representation of himself as a romantically misanthropic, angst-ridden young adventurer, taking to the sea to control his spleen (Chap. 1). However, in several places in the text, Ishmael's melancholy self-portrait runs up against a reality that he cannot or chooses not to disguise. For example, the young whaling candidate warns himself in "The Carpet-Bag" not to "be too particular." But in the following few chapters, his particularity is quite clearly revealed to us:
With halting steps I paced the streets, and passed the sign of "The Crossed Harpoons" -- but it looked too expensive and jolly there. Further on, from the bright red windows of the "Sword-Fish Inn," there came such fervent rays, that it seemed to have melted the packed snow and ice from before the house. . . . Too expensive and jolly, again thought I, pausing one moment to watch the broad glare in the street, and hear the sounds of tinkling glasses within. (Chap. 2)
Ishmael gives two reasons for refusing these hotels: expense (even though he has not enquired the tariff of the host) and jollity. Although the jollity of the patrons is clearly attractive to him and entices him to spend a few moments listening to the revelry on the other side of the door, Ishmael rejects it. So at the same time as he is attracted by human camaraderie and jollity, he is repelled by it because he envisions himself as an outsider "grim about the mouth" (Chap. 1). The inn Ishmael selects for himself bears an atmosphere of misery about it:
As the light looked so dim, and the place, for the time, looked quiet enough, and the dilapidated little wooden house itself looked as if it might have been carted here from the ruins of some burnt out district, and as the swinging sign had a poverty-stricken sort of creak to it, I thought that here was the very spot for cheap lodgings, and the best sort of pea coffee. It was a queer sort of place -- a gable-ended old house, one side palsied as it were, and leaning over sadly.
The Spouter Inn looks more than cheap, it looks quiet, sick, decaying, palsied, and ruinous, reflecting the qualities that Ishmael would like to imagine he himself projects. The inn is a type of objective correlative to Ishmael's romantic self-ideal: a dingy, run-down place where he can avoid the jollity that he shuns, and where he can wallow in the self-pitying misanthropy that has driven him to take to the sea.
Ishmael has turned away from the jolly worlds of The Crossed Harpoons and The Sword-Fish, maintaining himself outside the sphere of open human companionship, and has chosen instead The Spouter Inn, a quiet place where he can be apart from human intimacy, where the light is dim, and the tariff is low. In other words, Ishmael has chosen propriety, isolation, social distance and restraint over community, revelry and companionship.
Ishmael's language also sets him apart from others. His highly standard register signals social distance in the same way that Ahab will use pure, stylised, aloof Shakespearean language to maintain himself apart from the other characters. Although Ishmael's language is not as anti-social as Ahab's, it still displays Ishmael's reluctance to enter into dialogue with the other characters, and therefore he finds it difficult to achieve successful communication. Ishmael's conversation with Peter Coffin illustrates the tension between a determinedly standard register and the subverting, irregular tongues that it must contend with if it refuses to adapt:
Upon entering the place I found a number of young seamen gathered about a table, examining by a dim light divers specimens of skrimshander. I sought the landlord, and telling him I desired to be accommodated with a room, received for answer that his house was full -- not a bed unoccupied. "But avast," he added, tapping his forehead, "you hain't got no objections to sharing a harpooneer's blanket, have ye? I s'pose you are goin' a-whalin', so you'd better get used to that sort of thing." (Chap. 3)
The language of Ishmael here reads more like the transcript of a legal deposition than the voice of a sailor. Ishmael's syntax is methodical; he uses complex, subordinating sentence construction, and for emphasis resorts to the most delicate of emphatics, a double-negative: "not a bed unoccupied". His locution is rarified and circuitous: "I desired to be accommodated with a room." Here we hear Ishmael's speaking voice adopt, with requisite propriety, the stand-offish manner of a reserved, distant, New England Puritan speaking to a stranger.
In response the landlord suggests, in language that is highly deflating of Ishmael's, that he share a bed with an harpooneer; a suggestion which is designed to test the extent of Ishmael's pretensions and his ability to adapt and accommodate. Ishmael cannot see that he is the object of ridicule because he refuses to communicate in the language of Coffin and others. This is a necessary consequence of linguistic (and social) purity. As Bakhtin noted, "The nature of the sacred (authoritarian) word . . . (its inertness, its withdrawal from dialogue, its extremely limited ability to combine in general and especially with profane -- not sacred -- words, and so forth)." Ishmael's word is not sacred in the sense that it is holy, but that it is sanctioned by authority: Ishmael speaks the official, grammatically-regulated tongue that is also used by lawyers, bishops, governors and senators and all those who seek to demonstrate their authority, sobriety and rationality in their clothing, language, or other outward trappings. Ishmael's values, then can be determined as Christian, sober and intellectual.
Queequeg is at first the "abominable savage" who disturbs Ishmael's values. This is true even before the two have met: "what could I think of a harpooneer who stayed out of a Saturday night clean into the holy Sabbath, engaged in such a cannibal business as selling the heads of dead idolators?" (Chap. 3). When Ishmael looks into a mirror wearing Queequeg's poncho, he gives himself a considerable fright. What Ishmael sees in the mirror is not described. But we can guess that for an instant Ishmael sees himself as a savage, something too profane for the sacred word to describe, and is mightily horrified. When Queequeg enters the bedroom, he is revealed to Ishmael only gradually, and each step of revelation causes a shock to Ishmael as his attempts to him pin down are undermined. For Ishmael, "Ignorance is the parent of fear," and he tries to overcome his fears and apprehensions about Queequeg by fixing the savage somewhere in his world-view. Ishmael's language during this episode includes a series of assumptions: "Yes, it's just as I thought . . ."; "I concluded that . . ."; ". . . he must be . . ."; ". . . convinced me that . . ." But Queequeg remains elusive and Ishmael does not reach a "satisfactory answer concerning what seemed inexplicable in him." In fact, Ishmael's interpretation of Queequeg is constantly undermined and must be continuously adjusted. For example, when he first sees the tattoos, Ishmael explains them away: "And what is it, thought I, after all! It's only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin." But when Queequeg removes his hat and shirt, and he sees the entire body covered in tattoos, Ishmael cannot resist drawing a different conclusion: "It was now quite plain that he must be some abominable savage or other."
Queequeg is too profane for Ishmael's sacred language and the New Englander remains tongue-tied, silently staring at the Polynesian, fascinated by that which horrifies him. Queequeg's "strange antics [and] still stranger guttural noises" are beyond Ishmael's comprehension: a different language of an alien nature. The sight of such an abominable creature, beyond comprehension, language and nature, leaves Ishmael bereft of a language of his own, unable to speak until Queequeg leaps into the bed, when suddenly, unable to help himself, he sings out. Ishmael has lost control of his own tongue: "stammering out something, I knew not what. . . ." The first conversation between the two characters is a linguistic failure: a shriek, a grunt of astonishment, an incoherent stammer, guttural responses. Until finally Queequeg makes himself understood to Ishmael: "Who-e debel you?" Queequeg's initial question is important for two reasons. Firstly, he has inverted Ishmael's order of judgement. No longer is Queequeg the heathen and the alien; now Ishmael is. He is addressed as the "debel" and is a stranger in Queequeg's bed. Secondly, Ishmael suddenly finds himself being interrogated in a debased form of his own language by an "abominable savage." Ishmael's control over language has been usurped and he is challenged by someone who stands completely outside his socio-linguistic order and is demanding that Ishmael communicate with him: "Speak-e! tell-ee me who-ee be, or dam-me, I kill-e!" Here, Queequeg determines the rules of the linguistic exchange, and they are not the standard, sacred rules of Ishmael's language.
Ishmael refuses to communicate in Queequeg's register, and speaks through an interpreter, Peter Coffin. But this attempt to maintain social distance fails because of Queequeg's "kind and charitable" manners which present Ishmael with a paradox: here is a heathen savage who has an uncivilised appearance and who speaks in grunts and monosyllables, but who behaves as if he were endowed with the greatest dignity and civility. The savage displays the gentle manners that Ishmael had assumed were the prerogative of good-living christian folk, and thus forces the New Englander to re-examine the nature of appearances and civilisation.
Ishmael is forced to compare himself to Queequeg and for the first time in the novel becomes aware of himself through others' eyes: "What's all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself -- the man's a human being just as much as I am: he has as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian." The following morning, Ishmael's self-regard intensifies as he measures himself against Queequeg and finds he comes up short in the civilisation stakes: "he treated me with so much civility and consideration, while I was guilty of great rudeness; staring at him from the bed, and watching all his toilet motions; for the time my curiosity getting the better of my breeding" (Chap. 4). Ishmael is now re-examining and reconstituting his own character in a dialogue with Queequeg's, seeing himself in light of Queequeg and through Queequeg's eyes, instead of refusing to engage in any sort of dialogue or communication which is not in the sterile medium of formal language.
Ishmael has difficulty comprehending Queequeg and difficulty understanding Coffin because up to this point in the novel, Ishmael has been inflexible and unable to compromise his socio-linguistic values in a negotiated commmunication. He has been what Bakhtin would call a passive communicator, one who does not enter into a full dialogue, but only exchanges utterances at a pre-determined, pre-defined, standard level of meaning: "A passive understanding of linguistic meaning is no understanding at all, it is only the abstract aspect of meaning." However, there is an immediate change in Ishmael following his meeting with Queequeg. As already noted, he acknowledges his own rudeness. When he descends from the bedroom and speaks to the landlord, he is aware that he has been the brunt of a joke: now he can see himself from other perspectives. He is even prepared to be laughed at:
However, a good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather scarce a good thing; the more's the pity. So, if any one man, in his own proper person, afford stuff for a good joke to anybody, let him not be backward, but let him cheerfully allow himself to spend and be spent in that way. (Chap. 5)
This is a clear development from the misanthropic young man who rejected the two cheery inns because they looked too jolly and expensive -- now Ishmael accepts revelry and liberality; he is willing now to spend and be spent.
But Ishmael is still to some extent concerned with propriety -- he insists that Queequeg hurry up with his morning toilet lest someone see him partly dressed through the curtainless window. Obviously the change was not miraculous and complete and Ishmael has not entirely given up his sense of social propriety. Nevertheless, there is a significant shift in his world-view which now includes socio-linguistic orders other than his own. His world-view has not been destroyed or displaced, but is now in dialogue with others. For example, in the matter of Queequeg's table manners, he realises that self-possession and coolness are as important as breeding (Chap. 5). This is the crucial breach with the self-contained, standard register, and puritanical social form that Ishmael has tried to sustain up until now. Now he is prepared to acknowledge a set of values other than given -- a source of dignity from outside the established social authority, in fact from the abominable, cannibalistic South Pacific. Now Ishmael throws off his misanthropy. For the first time in the novel, he identifies with others: he uses the inclusive terms "we" (Chap. 5) and "us whalemen" (Chap. 6). He becomes conscious of diversity, and strolling about the streets of New Bedford notices the "Feegeeans, Tongatabooarrs, Erromanggoans, Pannangians, and Brighggians" (Chap. 6).
Ishmael is only able to understand fully his position in the world by acknowledging the position of others. That is, the diversity he now recognises provides for him a context in which he can negotiate his own position. Previously, he had been hampered by his adherence to a socio-linguistic system that gave the illusion of self-containment, that denied any reference to standards outside its own. This gave Ishmael some sense of self within the system, but denied him any ability to develop and to recognise the selves of those people who did not abide within the same set of social and linguistic rules. Bakhtin has described the process by which a linguistic utterance or world-view is interpreted in negotiation or dialogue with other utterances:
The linguistic significance of a given utterance is understood against the background of language, while its actual meaning is understood against the background of other concrete utterances on the same theme, a background made up of contradictory opinions, points of view and value judgments -- that is, precisely that background that, as we see, complicates the path of any word towards its object.
The important point here is that the utterance can never be fully comprehended: interpretation is never finalised and the subject is never completed because the background against which it is constructed is itself contradictory and unstable. In Moby Dick the Pacific Ocean and Queequeg provide two "background utterances" (that is, existences) which loom so large that Ishmael has no choice but to reinterpret his own "utterance" against them. He is forced by the physical closeness, physical threat and civilised manner of Queequeg, and the sheer magnitude of the Pacific Ocean, to re-examine his own understanding of civilisation and human existence. In an attempt to understand the role of the Pacific Ocean in the novels of Conrad and Melville, Subramani noted that:
. . . the [Pacific] embraces many lands and many cultures, and it unites the focals of opposing worlds in their essential primeval reality. Melville's and his protagonists' voyage into this ocean is the arrival at the centre of the universe which is also the centre of their existence.
It is interesting to see how Subramani's description of the Pacific Ocean (which clearly owes something to Melville's description of the Pacific in chapter 111 of Moby Dick) is so close to Bakhtin's description of dialogue. In both cases, a background of diversity provides the stuff out of which an interpretation of existence is fashioned.
So far we have seen how Queequeg challenges Ishmael's world-view at the socio-linguistic level. But there is another level at which he upsets Ishmael's understanding of life and sends him on his journey to "the centre of [his] existence." In a number of ways, Queequeg represents the grotesque, which in Bakhtin's sense is that which:
. . . seeks to grasp in its imagery the very act of becoming and growth, the eternal, incomplete, unfinished nature of being. Its images represent simultaneously the two poles of becoming: that which is receding and dying and that which is being born.
The eternal, cyclical nature of the grotesque and profane mocks, degrades and unsettles the settled, authoritative and finite:
Actually, the grotesque . . . discloses the potentiality of an entirely different world, of another order, another way of life. It leads men out of the confines of the apparent (false) unity, of the indisputable and stable. . . . The existing world suddenly becomes alien . . . precisely because there is the potentiality of a friendly world, of the golden age, of carnival truth.
If Ishmael is the completed, isolated, individual, living in a rule-governed world, distant from his fellow creatures and his place in nature, Queequeg and the objects associated with him represent a grotesque, earthy world of decaying and rejuvenating bodies, of death and birth. Queequeg is "contrary to the classic images of the finished, completed man, cleansed, as it were, of all the scoriae of birth and development," which in this case is Ishmael.
Throughout Moby Dick Queequeg is obviously associated with life and death, particularly when he rescues others from the jaws of death. In chapter 13 Queequeg is ridiculed by a "young sapling" who is subsequently swept overboard. Queequeg rescues the young chap and stands by calmly as if saying to himself, "It's a mutual joint-stock world, in all meridians. We cannibals must help these Christians." Here, Queequeg is inverting the jingoism of Christians towards cannibals, and he is doing so in actions which deflate the mockery that is directed at him. Those who had considered themselves authoritative or superior over him now find themselves begging his pardon or indebted to him for saving their lives. But most significantly, the actions that Queequeg performs bring life out of death. He saves the boat and the young greenhorn whereas the other passengers and crew are struck helpless: "Nothing was done, and nothing seemed capable of being done." When the stable world is suddenly overturned and circumstances are in disorder, those who are isolated and fixed in their world-views are unable to act, and it takes the adaptable, fluid character of Queequeg, an unusual, extraordinary character, to rescue the day and to bring about the possibility of regeneration, of a new start.
The grotesque imagery is more explicit in the rescue scene in chapter 78 where Tashtego is drowning inside the head of a sinking whale corpse. Here, several images of death are overlaid: the drowning Indian, the dead whale, the oil-filled tun, the sinking, carved-up corpse. The passage is replete with suggestions of dying flesh, of the body as a mortal organic object. However, the grotesque involves regeneration, in this case, Tashtego's rescue at the hands of Queequeg, which is represented as a strange underwater birth. Queequeg the obstetrician delivers Tashtego from a lifeless womb. The delivery metaphor is quite explicit; it is even a breech birth:
He averred that upon first thrusting in for him, a leg was presented; but well knowing that that was not as it ought to be and might occasion great trouble, he had thrust back the leg and by a dexterous heave and toss, had wrought a somerset upon the Indian; so that with the next trial, he came forth in the good old way -- headforemost. As for the great head itself, that was doing as well as could be expected. (Chap. 78)
Life is delivered out of death.
Queequeg does not show much regard for his own safety in this passage or in any other in the novel. Rather than suggesting that he is a peculiarly brave man, which he may well be, I would suggest that he is demonstrating his acceptance of the idea of mortality; he is not affrighted by the prospect of death or the decay of the flesh. When Queequeg catches a fever that takes him close to death, he accepts his fate with grace, dying "game" as Pip puts it (Chap. 110). As he lies dying, however, his eyes take on a strangely vital lustre:
. . . his eyes, nevertheless, seemed growing fuller and fuller; they became of a strange softness of lustre; and mildly but deeply looked out at you there from his sickness, a wondrous testimony to that immortal health in him, which could not die or be weakened. (Chap. 110)
The prospect of death brings Queequeg closer to his "endless end". He is closer to fulfilling his part in the eternal ebb and flow of nature. Subramani noticed some parallels between Queequeg's acceptance of death and the Polynesians' closeness to nature: "Queequeg prepares for death just as the primitives prepare for the seasons. For him, life and death are part of the natural process." Elsewhere in the Pacific, Ishmael is struck by the inextricable proximity of life and death when he sees a whale skeleton hung with the luxuriant growth of the tropical bush:
Now, amid the green life-restless loom of that Arsacidean wood, the great white, worshipped skeleton lay lounging -- a gigantic idler! . . . himself all woven over with the vines; every month assuming greener, fresher verdure; but himself a skeleton. Life folded Death; Death trellised Life; the grim god wived with youthful Life, and begat him curly-headed glories. (Chap. 102)
In fact, Queequeg's very body is a constant reminder of death in life. his tattoos attract attention to the materiality of his flesh: ". . . and these mysteries were therefore destined to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were described, and remain unsolved to the last" (Chap. 110). The mysteries spoken of here are the secrets of Queequeg's hieroglyphic tattoos, a cosmology engraved on living flesh by a Polynesian seer who "by those hieroglyphic marks had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth" (Chap. 110). But this religious tract, this sacred utterance, is to rot away with Queequeg's decaying flesh. He gives life to his religion, and it will decay with his body. While he lives, though, he sees the world in his tattoos and his tattoos in the world:
. . . here comes Queequeg -- all tattooing -- looks like the signs of the Zodiac himself. What says the Cannibal? As I live he's comparing notes; looking at his thighbone; thinks the sun is in the thigh, or in the calf, or in the bowels, I suppose, as the old women talk Surgeon's Astronomy in the backcountry. And by Jove, he's found something there in the vicinity of his thigh -- I guess it's Sagittarius, or the Archer. No: he don't know what to make of the doubloon; he takes it for an old button off some king's trowsers. (Chap. 99)
The coin means nothing to Queequeg as money, but the zodiac engraved upon it links him and his tattoos to the stars, to the orbit of the heavens and to mutable nature.
Many of the objects associated with Queequeg are also objects suggestive of life and death. The tomahawk is also a pipe, it functions as a weapon of destruction and as an implement of nourishment (although we would now see both uses as destructive). The harpoon is used to kill whales and also to shave (Chap. 4), to drink from (Chap. 36), and to eat with (Chap. 5). In fact the profession of a harpooneer is to make a living by killing. Queequeg also supports himself by peddling embalmed human heads, and we are reminded throughout the novel that he is a cannibal; he has received nourishment from human flesh. Everywhere, Queequeg's life is associated with death, and in a way that uncrowns and degrades Ishmael's prudish discomfort about bodies: "No man prefers to sleep two in a bed" (Chap. 3). For Ishmael, any sense of completedness, of a self-enclosed, higher, intellectual existence is challenged by Queequeg's physical appearance: tattooed, carrying a shrivelled human head, speaking in guttural sounds, he draws attention to the materiality and fleshiness of the human body and reminds others of their place in nature as animal organisms. During Ishmael's close friendship with Queequeg, his symbolic marriage to him in the bed at the Spouter Inn (Chap. 4), and their attachment to each other by the umbilical monkey rope (Chap. 72), Ishmael comes to see that his existence as an intellectual being is secondary to his existence as a physical being within a community of constant decay and regeneration.
Ishmael the character fades from the novel as the "background" utterances take on greater importance. Ishmael is no longer constructing himself in opposition to or without regard to his background, but through it, in dialogue with it. Ishmael's voice does not vanish from the novel, it begins to encompass other voices and speaks through them. He is no longer a fixed presence in the tale, but a mediated presence, only made known to us through the foregrounded "background" of the other voices. Now he can only be known by what he encompasses and touches with his own utterances, just as the Pacific Ocean can only be known by what it surrounds and sweeps with its tides. Being unable to know those "endless, unknown archipelagoes and impenetrable Japans," we are unable to fully comprehend the Pacific. However, we have a much fuller vision of it than Ahab who has limited himself to a one-dimensional view of the Ocean. Thus, if we are unable to fix the voices of the Pequod's crew, in themselves and in their relations to each other and Ishmael, then we are unable completely to know Ishmael, although we have a greater sense of the infinite depth of his character, always reconstructing itself in dialogue with its background utterances.
When Ishmael chooses the Spouter Inn, he does so because it represents the decaying state of his own soul, not expecting that amid the dilapidated surroundings of the Inn he would begin a process of rebirth and rejuvenation through his friendship with Queequeg. Because of his strangeness, Queequeg does not fit within Ishmael's signifying system, so he does not reaffirm it. Rather, he undermines it with his grotesque appearance yet human manner. By straddling both worlds -- the grotesque and the civilised -- Queequeg "discloses the potentiality of an entirely different world, of another order, another way of life." The alternative that is revealed by Queequeg is one where the physical, mortal nature of the body is not rejected, but acknowledged and accepted as that which links Ishmael to the eternal, infinite ebb and flow of nature, and through nature, to the community of man.
The final act in Ishmael's development is of course the Epilogue. Ishmael the outsider watches the sinking Pequod from a distance and is then drawn towards the "closing vortex" of the whirlpool, "Till, gaining that vital centre," the coffin life-buoy shoots from the sea. Ishmael is drawn from the outside into the circle of death which is also the "vital centre," where he finds life in the form of a buoy. The coffin life-buoy, in which the drowned Queequeg still lives through its carved sides (Chap. 110), supports the orphaned Ishmael (offspring of dead parents) until he is picked up by the Rachel, a ship that has lost a sailor and now finds a sailor. The elaborately interconnected images of life and death in the Epilogue reveal Ishmael's new state of existence, where nothing is ever finalised, but is ever in flux, where life is in dialogue with death, and the outer is in dialogue with the inner state of being. The drifting Ishmael, attracted into the centre of the whirpool, has moved from misanthropy to community.