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.
Originally posted on Open Salon in January, 2010