Queer Imaginings in Melville’s Moby Dick
After reading Tinsley’s article, “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage,” I thought about Tinsley’s use of water as a metaphor for a space where discourses about race, nationality, sexuality, and gender come together. Tinsley’s study and concept of “crosscurrents” is another example of exploring the various connections between historical studies of sexuality and race. Utilizing Tinsley’s methodology, I wanted to analyze a text like Melville’s Moby Dick through “crosscurrents” of race, nationality, and sexuality. I will examine a few key passages from Tinsley in light of the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg at the beginning of Moby Dick.
The ocean and the slave ship of the 17th century as a place where blackness and queerness came together at a specific time in history with specific implications for identity politics during that time. Tinsley argues: “And water, ocean water is the first thing in the unstable confluence of race, nationality, sexuality, and gender I want to imagine here. This wateriness is metaphor, and history too. The brown-skinned, fluid-bodied experiences now called blackness and queerness surfaced in intercontinental, maritime contacts hundreds of years ago” (191). The ocean and water are metaphors for fluidity. The fluidity Tinsley discusses concerns race and sexuality as sailors and slaves questioned and sometimes changed who they were at home for hidden desires of other men and men of other races and social standings while they were at sea. In much the same way, Melville hints at a similar dynamic between the well-educated narrator of Moby Dick, Ishmael, and the South Pacific harpooner, Queequeg, who are forced to share a bed while waiting for their whaling ship to depart. Ishmael describes their unlikely union:
This man interested me at once; and since the sea-gods had ordained that he should soon become my shipmate (though but a sleeping-partner one, so far as this narrative is concerned), I will here venture upon a little description of him. He stood full six feet in height, with noble shoulders, and a chest like a coffer-dam. I have seldom seen such brawn in a man. His face was deeply brown and burnt, making his white teeth dazzling by the contrast; while in the deep shadows of his eyes floated some reminiscences that did not seem to give him much joy. (17)
This passage is interesting because it is the first time Ishmael sees the Islander who he has been afraid of as soon as he learned they were bunking together. He describes him as a powerful man and he seems to be fascinated by him through his fear. Through Ishmael’s white gaze, we see Queequeg as beautiful and interesting, yet strange, othered, and even queer at the same time.
We see this idea of “crosscurrents” as borderlands race, gender, class, and sexuality come together, influence one another, and individuals exist in a theoretical space where identity is fluid. Tinsley contends:
Conceptualizing the complex possibilities and power dynamics of the maritime, Fajardo posits the necessity of thinking through transoceanic crosscurrents. These are theoretical and ethnographic borderlands at sea, where elements or currents of historical, conceptual, and embodied maritime experience come together to transform racialized, gendered, classed, and sexualized selves. (192)
Tinsley borrows this “crosscurrents” concept from Fajardo to explain the complexity of identity and specifically the roles of race and sexuality in the lives of sailors and slaves in the Black Atlantic. Similarly, Melville addresses some of these same identity issues through Ishmael’s views of Queequeg:
Meanwhile, he continued the business of undressing, and at last showed his chest and arms. As I live, these covered parts of him were checkered with the same squares as his face; his back, too, was all over the same dark squares; he seemed to have been in a Thirty Years’ War, and just escaped from it with a sticking- plaster shirt. Still more, his very legs were marked, as if a parcel of dark green frogs were running up the trunks of young palms. It was now quite plain that he must be some abominable savage or other shipped aboard of a whaleman in the South Seas, (18)
This passage is another example of Ishmael viewing his bedmate for the first time. There is an intimacy as he watches him undress, and he also learns a great deal about Queequeg from looking at his dress, body, and bedtime customs. He keeps pointing out the blackness of the man. He also discusses the scars on his body that he assumes are from war. The fact that he points out that he seems to have been in war is a way for the presumably wealthy and educated Ishmael to determine that this islander is in a class lower than himself. This is another example of “othering” the harpooner as he describes him as strangely dark skinned, lower class, and as an “abominable savage.”
Relationships are identities in the Black Atlantic were often ambiguous and empowering as well. Relationships are even described as queer when they do not relate to sexuality at all. Tinsley claims:
This Atlantic and these erotic relationships are neither metaphors nor sources of disempowerment. Instead, they are one way that fluid black bodies refused to accept that the liquidation of their social selves — the colonization of oceanic and body waters — meant the liquidation of their sentient selves. Yet regardless of whether intimate sexual contact took place between enslaved Africans in the Atlantic or after landing, relationships between shipmates read as queer relation- ships. Queer not in the sense of a “gay” or same-sex loving identity waiting to be excavated from the ocean floor but as a praxis of resistance. Queer in the sense of marking disruption to the violence of normative order and powerfully so (199).
In the same way, our current understandings of the term “queer” change the way we read and analyze passages from other times in history. There are different connotations from important terms in queer theory in the discourses they develop in other times and places. Ishmael connects: “All these queer proceedings increased my uncomfortableness, and seeing him now exhibiting strong symptoms of concluding his business operations, and jumping into bed with me, I thought it was high time, now or never, before the light was put out, to break the spell into which I had so long been under” (51). “Queer” in this passage could refer to a homosexual union between these two men but it more clearly refers to the strange occurrences which are taking place in this room where Ishmael and Queequeg are unlikely companions and bedmates. It is also interested that he describes being under the native’s spell which evokes images of eroticism and also witchcraft, othering Queequeg and queerness by relating “queer” to magic.
In the final passage for this same part of the story, Ishmael does away with the possible hints and mentions of the union between Queequeg and himself, describing the relationship between himself and this islander he has just met as “man and wife” and “soulmates” of a sort. Ishmael describes: “How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg — a cosy, loving pair” (52). He even ends the passage by calling their night together their “hearts’ honeymoon,” as if he wants to make clear the fact that they are like an old married couple that has become comfortable with one another and appreciates the company of the other on a number of levels. This passage manifests the maritime relationships between sailors and slaves described in Tinsley in a very similar manner.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Routledge Publishers, 1989.
Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha. “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the
Middle Passage.” CLQ 14:2 (2008) 191-215.
The passages you highlight are indeed very queer, and focusing on the crosscurrents of maritime erotics might give us a different context for the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg than the more familiar analyses of homosocial desire.
I wonder about the racial specificities of Tinsley’s argument as you work with it this way, though. What difference does it make that she is analyzing the BLACK Atlantic and you are focusing on a white and indigenous pairing? What different cross currents come into play here, and can does the racial specificity of Tinsley’s argument, its focus on the Middle Passage, contribute anything to a reading of Moby Dick?