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‘That Above All Things Appalled Me’
Under a Troubled Master-Eye 16: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Chapter 42
The Whiteness of the Whale.
“What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.”
Ishmael’s horror at “the whiteness of the whale” hinted at his awe at its sacred and metaphysic being, that he was among the huntsmen of something eternal that was to be profanely pierced. This deep hauntedness of the minor individual he describes as being beyond in ken and intensity the natural fear that any man would experience when pursuing such a deadly beast, the beats that had already maimed his master, Ahab. This bloody pursuit of a fierce leviathan purity round the globe in a ship of sail is perhaps the aspect of Moby Dick which holds the most purchase on the mind of Modern and even Postmodern Man.
Melville, in the voice of Ishmael, reels off a litany of sacral uses of the term white among various ages and races, including the white elephant of the tropics and the white dog of the Iroquois. The white stage of Europe is not named, but white vestments and symbols are rife I his account. He beats the point well enough and goes on to a deeper sort of specific:
“This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are? That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of their aspect. So that not the fierce-fanged tiger in his heraldic coat can so stagger courage as the white-shrouded bear or shark.”
Extreme coloration, coupled with dread presence is a ghastly point of horror, which is also accented in the darkest beings, such as the panther feared more than the Puma, Jaguar or leopard of which family of cat it is simply a part. Mankind has made much of the duality between darkness and light since antiquity and of black and white in the age that dawned at about 1700 and of which Melville was among its first fully realized generations. The postmodern reader should realize that most men of Melville’s time, of his culture would still speak of themselves as Christians, or according to an ethnic identity and not according to the term white as their first identifier.
Veering away from specific terrible beasts and into the magical nature of the albatross [which the captain of the whaler that the Melville actually sailed on sought to kill for sport]the author generalizes at the point calibrated to expand his thought into the reader’s mind’s eye:
“Bethink thee of the albatross, whence come those clouds of spiritual wonderment and pale dread, in which that white phantom sails in all imaginations? Not Coleridge first threw that spell; but God’s great, unflattering laureate, Nature.”
After a long muse on the nature of the white and grey albatross and the cruelty of man with his tethers, which he thinks not are duplicated in Heaven for men’s necks, he spends along thought on the White Buffalo of Amerindian legend, describing as its pen the Rockies on one hand and the Appalachians on the other, for men of his father’s day would have known those who hunted buffalo in the late 1700s in the shadow of the Appalachian mountains.
Melville then goes on to address the only real race of white people as exiles from their own normal kind:
“What is it that in the Albino man so peculiarly repels and often shocks the eye, as that sometimes he is loathed by his own kith and kin!”
He then continues on a genius note:
“Nor even in our superstitions do we fail to throw the same snowy mantle round our phantoms; all ghosts rising in a milk-white fog—Yea, while these terrors seize us, let us add, that even the king of terrors, when personified by the evangelist, rides on his pallid horse.
“Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.”
Ishmael then wonders on in his mind so much so that he becomes so obviously the author’s avatar, equating the fear of the albino with the white tower of power and it with the ever-white peaks of snow crowned mountains so holding the imagination of puny men always in thrall and yet also in wonder. The hunt is now clearly justified by the presence of terror and wonder in one being, in one singular expression of power.
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