Fragments show their edges. Edges that intrude into the illusion of completion. Edges that cannot be ignored.
Fragments insist there is more we don’t see. Can’t see.
Fragments show us how we “piece things together.” Even the smallest, most torn fragment leads us to fill-out its story. This shows us our contribution to what we make of things. Shows us that we’re building a story not consuming some outside totality. Shows us. Insists that we not forget that what we build on it has shaky foundations.
I was fifteen when I first read Moby Dick in a 48 hour long marathon sick in bed with a bad cold in a hotel in the Northeast of Portugal, reading, sleeping, then reading some more. It deeply affected my world view. I’m still finding out what it means….
Queequeg’s Coffin is a thought experiment. It is an intriguing image around which we might connect a conceptual stance with a pragmatic call to action. It does not presuppose what that action might be. Queequeg’s Coffin is a container transcending the motivation behind its origins.
Queequeg was Ishmael‘s bunk-mate aboard Moby Dick. As the juggernaut of Ahab‘s obsession takes Pequod’s crew further and further into imbalance and dis-ease, Queequeg becomes convinced he is dying. He commissions the ship’s carpenter to build him a coffin. Chips protests at this waste of his specialized talents; but relents and builds the harpooner a wonder of a casket, watertight, and ship-shape in every regard. Preparing himself to meet his maker Queequeg carves its top and sides with signs and portents beyond the crew’s understanding.
Ahab drives the Pequod to its destruction. Ishmael is the only survivor. He finds himself floating upon the vastness of an inhospitable sea. Queequeg’s Coffin rockets to the surface. Its inherent buoyancy could not be thwarted. It breaks free of the vortex threatening to suck Ishmael down with the ship.
Ishmael hangs on and then climbs atop Queequeg’s Coffin. This odd thing, begrudgingly crafted to carry a savage to another world, saves our hero, our witness, and carries him to safety.
I find this story eerily prescient. It has so many points of contact with our present condition.
We have at hand, unwittingly so, bits and pieces that might come in handy when our Pequod founders. Queequeg’s Coffin shows us that we cannot predict what will be useful when circumstances pass their tipping point. What had been an odd frivolity upon the sturdy deck of a powerful vessel may very well become the serendipitous bit of flotsam that saves us when our vessel plunges for the bottom, threatening to take us down with it.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Queequeg’s Coffin is that it demands humility. It dramatizes the impossibility of knowing. Keeps us from over-committing in advance. Reminds us to be on the look-out. So that when the time comes we may discover a confluence — another of Melville’s constructions — of Necessity, Fate and Free-will. It is this confluence that puts Queequeg’s Coffin within our reach.
If we remain alert. Absorb our act of witness and maintain our buoyancy of spirit we may be able to take advantage of what falls to hand. Queequeg’s Coffin may see us through.
Last year we co-published three of these conversations which delved into some of the processes that underpin the sense of isolation and fragmentation we had both experienced (albeit in different ways) as well as the ways in which we were beginning to find community. As a way into approaching and practicing dialogue and proprioception my interactions with Tony have been, and continue to be, immensely helpful for finding new inspiration/insight and for clarifying my own thought process.
Recently, Tony has been distilling a lot of the insights he has come to in an encouraging series of blog posts which both deepen his conceptual vocabulary and anchors it firmly within a wider community. In A Space for Community, he opens up for ‘anchoring’ community within the wider movement of life. This connects directly with some thoughts I’d been having about community as relationship (see Lines of flight in a time of endings) and suggests to me a way to begin gauging whether thought and action align with a deeper sense of community. This feels like a major step forward.
I’m grateful for his close-reading and for the opportunities we’ve had to collaborate in the past. Looking forward to continuing and broadening our connections in the coming year.
“Dark Mountain Issue 2 is one of the most unique environmental books out there – part dystopian poetry along the lines of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; part post-apocalyptic River Cottage with the rest being a slice of philosophy that only ever becomes clear once the reader immerses themselves in the works within. The contributions are consistently of a high standard, no matter what the form. In fact, it’s worth reading for the sheer variety of literary reaction to the potential ending of our cultural systems as much as to see what the movement is about. As with many natural systems; the whole provides far more to think about than the sum of the individual elements.”