So, now that our old pal Ishmael has gotten himself hitched, let us follow him into his marital bedchamber for a bit of intimate action. This is another short one, but contains one of my absolute favorite passages in the whole book!
SUMMARY: Ishmael and Queequeg go to bed. They stay up late chatting with each other about various things, shifting around in various positions. Eventually, they both realize they are no longer sleepy at all, and sit up in bed. Queequeg lights a lamp and starts smoking, sharing again with Ishmael. Ishmael asks Queequeg about his homeland, so he tells the story of how he came to be a harpooneer in the American whale fishery.
So, not exactly the kind of “intimate action” you may have been expecting. But hey, Moby Dick is known as a musty old Important Book, and even though I think it’s a lot funnier and easier to read than its reputation would indicate, that doesn’t mean it’s gonna have a secret gay sex chapter. At least, not yet.
Although, in the opening paragraph Ishmael does describe “Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back,” so it’s a bit open to interpretation. Nonetheless, the main action of this chapter is two good, good friends sharing a bed together, talking, and being extremely comfy. It’s good stuff.
Indeed, the main thrust of this chapter is a bit of a treatise on the nature of comfiness, and how best to achieve optimal comfort in even the most adverse circumstances. If you’ll recall, before Ishmael met Queequeg, when he first arrived at the Spouter-Inn, he had a hell of a time trying to find suitable sleeping arrangements. He tried putting two benches together, but it just didn’t work. He fretted about sleeping in another bed with someone else, and even when he got in the bed, he lamented that the mattress was stuffed with corn cobs and broken crockery.
And yet now, he is the most comfortable man in the whole wet world, in that very same bed. Ishmael puts forth his theory on comfort and snugness thusly:
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.
And I must say that I agree wholeheartedly with every single letter of that. Is it not a wonderful feeling to know that there is cold all around you, bitter and terrible cold, but to be nice and warm? Just as there is nothing better than sitting inside in a coffee shop or a living room with a view of a raging rainstorm outside. The contrast of your position with the knowledge of the extremity of the external elements enhances the feeling of safety and comfort.
This is why colder, or at least more temperate, regions are better for human habitation. It is the only place where this experience is really possible to attain.
But this quirk of comfort may have darker implications as well. If we can extend this love of contrast to other areas of human experience, it may be the cause, or at least perpetuator, of a great many evils in the world. Consider: is winning really worth if nobody is losing? If there are no natural losers, might you be tempted to punish some so that you may feel like you are winning more?
It drives the great class struggles of our time, I would posit. Everyone wants to be above someone. It is one of the factors in the perpetuation of slavery, in days gone by and today. Even the lowest man wants to feel like he is above somebody, and that drives racial hatred. Instead of helping each other and working towards a better future, we become obsessed with who is winning and who is losing, and how to be in the former category rather than the latter.
I wish that everyone could see that life is not only not a zero-sum game, but is not a game at all. There are no winners and losers, there are simply people trying to get by. Nobody is going to give you a score at the end of it all, there are no rankings or leaderboards. Every human has dignity, whether you treat them that way or not.
Anyway, back in the book, in Ishmael and Queequeg’s intimate night-time chat, we touch on another big theme for the book. While he was laying down, and even when he first sat up in bed, Ishmael kept his eyes firmly closed, believing that it is the only way for a man to “feel his identity aright”. He goes on to hypothesize that perhaps the natural state of man is to be in darkness.
This sort of flip-flopping of the traditional roles of light and darkness, one as evil and unnatural and the other as good and pure, is one of the big ongoing themes in this book. Here, we get the idea that perhaps being in darkness is a position of intimate comfort. The cozy snugness of being surrounded on all sides by gloom, the warm darkness of the womb. Not the fearful unknown, but the silent, comforting blackness of closing your eyes in order to get some rest.
Finally, we end the chapter on a nice little metatextual note. The following chapter will recount Queequeg’s origin story, but is not a note-for-note retelling of what Ishmael heard that very night, in that bed. Instead, this is what an older Ishmael managed to put together through many such conversations, and interrogations of other people who also knew his new husband. So, we get a more or less complete version, edited for clarity.
Whew, didn’t think I would end up delving quite so deeply into philosophy just from a fun little pillow talk chapter. But hey, that’s how these things go, sometimes. You never know when inspiration is going to strike, from the littlest things.
Next time, we get into Melville’s old wheelhouse: south seas adventures!
Until then, shipmates!
Crystal Cave (2011), by Arctic Photo.
Saint Jerome in His Study (1514), by Albrecht Durer.
The Nightmare (1781), by Henry Fuseli.