What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.
from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could
not but occasionally awaken in any man's soul some alarm, there was
another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which
at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet
so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of
putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale
that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself
here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all
these chapters might be naught.
Though in many natural objects,
whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special
virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though
various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence
in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the
title "Lord of the White Elephants" above all their other magniloquent
ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same
snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag
bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian
Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial
color the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies
to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over
every dusky tribe; and though, besides, all this, whiteness has been
even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone
marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and
symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble
things- the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the
Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the
deepest pledge of honor; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the
majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the
daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even
in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made
the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire
worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar;
and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate
in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter
sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of
their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest
envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of
their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white,
all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred
vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among
the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the
celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the Vision of St.
John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty
elders stand clothed in white before the great-white throne, and the
Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these
accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and
sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of
this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness
which affrights in blood.
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.*
*With reference to the Polar bear,
it may possibly be urged by him who would fain go still deeper into this
matter, that it is not the whiteness, separately regarded, which
heightens the intolerable hideousness of that brute; for, analysed, that
heightened hideousness, it might be said, only rises from the
circumstance, that the irresponsible ferociousness of the creature
stands invested in the fleece of celestial innocence and love; and
hence, by bringing together two such opposite emotions in our minds, the
Polar bear frightens us with so unnatural a contrast. But even assuming
all this to be true; yet, were it not for the whiteness, you would not
have that intensified terror.
As for the white shark, the white
gliding ghostliness of repose in that creature, when beheld in his
ordinary moods, strangely tallies with the same quality in the Polar
quadruped. This peculiarity is most vividly hit by the French in the
name they bestow upon that fish. The Romish mass for the dead begins
with "Requiem eternam" (eternal rest), whence Requiem denominating the
mass itself, and any other funeral music. Now, in allusion to the white,
silent stillness of death in this shark, and the mild deadliness of his
habits, the French call him Requin.
So we come to one of the most famous chapters of Moby-Dick: the chapter titled "The Whiteness of the Whale." It is a several-pages-long meditation on the color white. A good friend recently confessed to me his love of this book. He loves it for all of its postmodern messiness--its digressions, mediocre narrative, and aggravating refusal to be just one thing. It's not just a book about Ahab and his vengeance or Ishmael's introduction to whaling. It's also about race and science and oceans and religion. And, now, it's about the color white.
I appreciate the book's stubbornness to be categorized, sort of like the color white. As Ishmael/Melville points out, white is the color associated with purity and holiness and beauty and refinement and royalty. Pearls, white elephants, priestly albs--all of these things conjure up images of Meghan Markle marching down the aisle to marry Prince Harry or Pope Francis blessing a boy with cerebral palsy in Saint Peter's Square. White is the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus Christ at the Jordan River.
However, that's not all that white is, as Melville notes. It's also demonic Sperm Whales, ferocious polar bears, and hungry-for-blood sharks. If you look closely at white, you can see Dante's entrance to the Inferno, with the warning "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here" cast into it's white, wrought-iron gates. White is simple.
I've been writing Bigfoot poetry a lot these last couple years. It's gotten to the point where I occasionally worry that I may only be known only as the Bigfoot poet. When I give poetry readings, the poems that are received with the most excitement are the ones about my hairy friend. That's not a bad thing. That means that there's a market for what I'm writing. I love the freedom that Bigfoot gives me to write just about anything weird and maybe a little taboo.
However, Bigfoot just isn't Bigfoot, just like white is not just vanilla ice cream. Ever since I started my little project, I've found that Bigfoot is a great vehicle that allows me to talk about a whole lot of very big, very difficult topics. My sister, who died three years ago, has her big footprints in a couple of the poems. My dad showed up a little while ago. And my brother, who died of complications from a stroke over four years ago, has taken a stroll down the street with Bigfoot, as well.
In a lot of ways, I think that Bigfoot is a lot smarter than me. He's more primal and, therefore, follows his instincts more in the poems. If there's something that hurts him, he simply kills and eats it. If his heart gets broken, he goes to Mount Rushmore and howls from the top of Lincoln's nose. Bigfoot teaches me how to wrestle with Loch Ness Monster-sized emotions and problems.
I know that I'm sounding a little crazy right now. That's okay. I think that I have to be a little crazy to do the things I do in my life--teach, poetize, husbnadize, parentize, and Bigfootize. All of these things are a part of me. I'm not just pearl or white elephant. I'm also great white shark and Yeti. I'm every shade of Bigfoot that you can think of.
Saint Marty is thankful tonight for all the hairy messes of his life.