- Walking among Palm Trees:Beauty, Culture, Geography
The Spouter-Inn, in Melville’s Moby-Dick, affects Ishmael with foreboding. There is the dark, be-smoked painting of what most beholders think is an exasperated whale “impaling himself upon the three mastheads” of a foundering ship. And, on the wall across from it, the “heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears” makes Ishmael wonder “what monstrous cannibal and savage” (21) could ever have used such implements. Then the Spouter-Inn’s landlord informs him that, if he wants to spend the night, he’ll have to have a harpooneer for a bedfellow, a “dark complexioned chap” who only eats steaks “and likes ’em rare” (24). Ishmael, who lets it be known several times in the chapter that he does not like to sleep two to a bed, and that even sailors at sea do not sleep two to a bed, gets more and more nervous at the thought of sleeping next to the harpooneer, his anxiety fed by the landlord’s stories of this harpooneer’s trade in embalmed New Zealand heads. Getting to bed first but not being able to sleep, Ishmael hears the harpooneer enter his room and, by the faint light of a candle, sees him undress—a horror of largeness, blackness, and tattoos. With Christian forbearance Ishmael tries to temper his fear for the heathen: “It’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin” (29), but every newly discarded piece of clothing reveals new abominations. “Still more, his very legs were marked [with tattoos], 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, and so landed in this Christian country” (29-30). After intervention of the landlord, however, Ishmael spends a quiet night lying next to the harpooneer, Queequeg, and in the morning he finds “Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been [End Page 32] his wife” (32).
That it is the trunks of palm trees that help convey the message of complete, unChristian foreignness is of a piece with much in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writing and imagination: palm trees are a motif of strangeness. The motif is seldom entirely unambiguous, though. Strangeness can lie close to fascination and for all of Queequeg’s shocking ugliness in Ishmael’s eyes, there is a note of caress—preparatory to the conjugal image to follow—in how Queequeg’s legs strike Ishmael as the trunks of young palms.
In their utter strangeness, palm trees can also express longing. Heinrich Heine writes in a famous poem of a pine tree (or spruce, or fir: the German tree is a Fichtenbaum) who, on its icy northern plane, dreams of a palm tree who grieves, aware of distance, on its faraway burning rock.1 This mutual longing for communion acknowledges the impassable distance between environments, between cultures too far outside each other’s remit. To be without awareness of such impassability is to be sentimental. Gustave Flaubert makes fun of Emma Bovary’s sentimentality on numerous occasions, never more cuttingly than when, in chapter 6 of book 1, he has Emma recall the keepsake books that the girls at her convent school gave each other with illustrations of landscapes with palms and pines in them. Emma now thinks fondly of her convent school days because those were days of daydreaming, of dreaming of escaping the convent. Daydreaming is the erasure of longing by imagined fulfillment and now, as a married woman, Emma makes that old daydreaming the object of new daydreaming, of dreaming of escaping her married life and erasing the years that led up to it.
The strangeness of palm trees in the Western imagination clearly is also a matter of colonialist and patriarchal biases, biases described in great and convincing detail in Felicity Nussbaum’s 1995 book Torrid Zones. Palm trees, it is true, do not actually occur in Nussbaum’s book: she is too occupied with...