Queequeg’s Coffin is a thought experiment. An image around which we might connect an intriguing conceptual stance with a pragmatic call to action. What I find most valuable is that it does not presuppose what that action might be. It is a container transcending the motivation behind its origins.
Queequeg was Ishmael‘s bunk-mate in Moby Dick. As the juggernaut of Ahab‘s obsession takes all aboard the Pequod further and further into imbalance and dis-ease, Queequeg becomes convinced he is ill and will soon die. He commissions the ship’s carpenter to build him a coffin. Chips protests at this waste of his specialized talents; but relents and builds a wonder of a casket, watertight and ship-shape in every regard. As he prepares himself to meet his maker Queequeg carves it with signs and portents beyond the crew’s understanding.
In the end, Ahab has brought about the Pequod‘s destruction. Ishmael finds himself the only survivor, floating – for the moment – on the vastness of an inhospitable sea. Queequeg’s Coffin rockets to the surface. It’s inherent buoyancy could not be thwarted. It broke free of the sinking ship, even then threatening Ishmael with its vortex.
Ishmael finds succor, hanging onto and then climbing atop Queequeg’s Coffin. This thing; begrudgingly crafted to carry a savage through to the other world; is now the lifeboat that brings our hero, our witness, to the point of rescue.
This story has so many points of contact with our present condition, eerily prescient.
We have at hand, though for the most part unwittingly, bits and pieces that might come in handy when our Pequod founders. What Queequeg’s Coffin shows us is that we cannot predict what will be useful when circumstances pass their tipping point. A useless frivolity upon the sturdy decks of a powerful vessel may very well be the serendipitous bit of flotsam that allows us to survive when our vessel’s sturdiness deserts us, heading for the bottom, threatening to take us down with it.
Queequeg’s Coffin is a powerful image; but it also holds me at bay. This reticence is the aspect of this story I find most intriguing, carrying its most powerful message.
Queequeg’s Coffin demands humility of us. Keeps at the forefront our impossibility of knowing. Keeps us from over-committing in advance to what might be. It reminds us to be on the look-out. So that when the time comes we may achieve a confluence – another of Melville’s constructions – of Necessity, Fate and Free-will. A confluence that puts Queequeg’s Coffin within our reach.
If we are aware. If we keep our wits. Absorb our act of witness and maintain our own buoyancy of spirit long enough to take advantage of what’s at hand. Queequeg’s Coffin may see us through.