Wednesday, May 2, 2018

May 2: The Tall Pale Man, Count Orlok, Last Breaths

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! It is that whiteness which invests him, a thing expressed by the name he bears. The Albino is as well made as other men- has no substantive deformity- and yet this mere aspect of all-pervading whiteness makes him more strangely hideous than the ugliest abortion. Why should this be so?

Nor, in quite other aspects, does Nature in her least palpable but not the less malicious agencies, fail to enlist among her forces this crowning attribute of the terrible. From its snowy aspect, the gauntleted ghost of the Southern Seas has been denominated the White Squall. Nor, in some historic instances, has the art of human malice omitted so potent an auxiliary. How wildly it heightens the effect of that passage in Froissart, when, masked in the snowy symbol of their faction, the desperate White Hoods of Ghent murder their bailiff in the market-place!

Nor, in some things, does the common, hereditary experience of all mankind fail to bear witness to the supernaturalism of this hue. It cannot well be doubted, that the one visible quality in the aspect of the dead which most appals the gazer, is the marble pallor lingering there; as if indeed that pallor were as much like the badge of consternation in the other world, as of mortal trepidation here. And from that pallor of the dead, we borrow the expressive hue of the shroud in which we wrap them. 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.
But though without dissent this point be fixed, how is mortal man to account for it? To analyze it, would seem impossible. Can we, then, by the citation of some of those instances wherein this thing of whiteness- though for the time either wholly or in great part stripped of all direct associations calculated to import to it aught fearful, but nevertheless, is found to exert over us the same sorcery, however modified;- can we thus hope to light upon some chance clue to conduct us to the hidden cause we seek?

Let us try. But in a matter like this, subtlety appeals to subtlety, and without imagination no man can follow another into these halls. And though, doubtless, some at least of the imaginative impressions about to be presented may have been shared by most men, yet few perhaps were entirely conscious of them at the time, and therefore may not be able to recall them now.

Why to the man of untutored ideality, who happens to be but loosely acquainted with the peculiar character of the day, does the bare mention of Whitsuntide marshal in the fancy such long, dreary, speechless processions of slow-pacing pilgrims, down-cast and hooded with new-fallen snow? Or to the unread, unsophisticated Protestant of the Middle American States, why does the passing mention of a White Friar or a White Nun, evoke such an eyeless statue in the soul?

Or what is there apart from the traditions of dungeoned warriors and kings (which will not wholly account for it) that makes the White Tower of London tell so much more strongly on the imagination of an untravelled American, than those other storied structures, its neighbors- the Byward Tower, or even the Bloody? And those sublimer towers, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, whence, in peculiar moods, comes that gigantic ghostliness over the soul at the bare mention of that name, while the thought of Virginia's Blue Ridge is full of a soft, dewy, distant dreaminess? Or why, irrespective of all latitudes and longitudes, does the name of the White Sea exert such a spectralness over the fancy, while that of the Yellow Sea lulls us with mortal thoughts of long lacquered mild afternoons on the waves, followed by the gaudiest and yet sleepiest of sunsets? Or, to choose a wholly unsubstantial instance, purely addressed to the fancy, why, in reading the old fairy tales of Central Europe, does "the tall pale man" of the Hartz forests, whose changeless pallor unrustlingly glides through the green of the groves- why is this phantom more terrible than all the whooping imps of the Blocksburg?

I will say that I agree with Melville in these paragraphs.  White, for some reason, is terrifying.  It is the color of some of the most frightening figures in literature.  In fact, white is the hue of the most terrifying figures in movies and television, as well.  Bruce, the great white shark in Jaws.  Regan in The Exorcist.  Mike Pence's hair.  Last Friday, I watched a portion of F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu with my wife and sister.  Count Orlok, the central vampire of the film, is still one of the most frightening movie monsters of all time, in my opinion, due largely to the marbled tone of his face and hands.  Unlike Bela Lugosi's Dracula, Orlok really looks like he's just risen from the grave.

White is the color of death.  In my life, I've seen two people die--my sister and my father.  The last moments of their lives were difficult to witness.  They struggled for each watery breath they took.  Their chests heaved as if they were being struck inside by sledgehammers.  Eventually, their breaths got shallower.  Less frequent.  Thirty of 40 seconds would pass between each intake of oxygen.  And then, the last breath.  It was quiet, barely perceptible.  Afterward, silence.  A slow exhale.

At that exact moment, the faces of my sister and father changed greatly.  The pink color drained almost immediately from the skin.  Whiteness took over.  Not bone white or Count Orlok white, but certainly a white that wasn't alive.  It was as if all the oxygenated blood in their bodies realized that something was terribly wrong and rushed to their hearts to try to keep them throbbing and strong.

Maybe it's a defense mechanism of the body to try to sustain life any way possible.  The brain is triggered when the heart stops moving.  It sends out distress signals that call the blood cells to form a wagon circle around the heart, the way pioneers do in the old Westerns my father used to watch.  The blood is the Calvary, and it's fighting a losing battle with white.

You'll forgive this little meditation on death.  I've spent the last day or so arranging the cemetery service for my father.  It's happening this Saturday, so I find myself once again contemplating things like last breaths and blood and the heart.  It amazes me that the process of dying looks so difficult, but the moment of death seems so easy, like taking a breath and diving underwater forever.  No Hollywoodish thrashing.  No whispered "Rosebud."  Just a breath and then . . . a white nothing.

That is what Melville is sort of hinting at in the seven paragraphs above.  It's the marriage of whiteness and oblivion, which, I think, underlies everyone's fear of death.  Of course, being Christian, I hold on to the idea of something more, something better after that last bite of air.  It could be pearly gates and a pearly city.  An angel choir and all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet for eternity.  It could be a comforting white nap, like the ones you take on warm summer afternoons.

That's where my mind is this afternoon.  It's in the cemetery, praying over my father's cremains.  It's a little melancholy and tired.  Some people think of grief and sadness as something black--like night or dusk or a hole in the ground.  For me, it's white.  A last breath.  A last heartbeat.  A pale cheek.

Saint Marty is thankful this evening for the lack of white in his life.

No comments:

Post a Comment