Nor is it, altogether, the remembrance of her cathedral-toppling earthquakes; nor the stampedoes of her frantic seas; nor the tearlessness of and skies that never rain; nor the sight of her wide field of leaning spires, wrenched cope-stones, and crosses all adroop (like canted yards of anchored fleets); and her suburban avenues of house-walls lying over upon each other, as a tossed pack of cards;- it is not these things alone which make tearless Lima, the strangest, saddest city thou can'st see. For Lima has taken the white veil; and there is a higher horror in this whiteness of her woe. Old as Pizarro, this whiteness keeps her ruins for ever new; admits not the cheerful greenness of complete decay; spreads over her broken ramparts the rigid pallor of an apoplexy that fixes its own distortions.
I know that,
to the common apprehension, this phenomenon of whiteness is not
confessed to be the prime agent in exaggerating the terror of objects
otherwise terrible; nor to the unimaginative mind is there aught of
terror in those appearances whose awfulness to another mind almost
solely consists in this one phenomenon, especially when exhibited under
any form at all approaching to muteness or universality. What I mean by
these two statements may perhaps be respectively elucidated by the
First: The mariner, when drawing nigh the
coasts of foreign lands, if by night he hear the roar of breakers,
starts to vigilance, and feels just enough of trepidation to sharpen all
his faculties; but under precisely similar circumstances, let him be
called from his hammock to view his ship sailing through a midnight sea
of milky whiteness- as if from encircling headlands shoals of combed
white bears were swimming round him, then he feels a silent,
superstitious dread; the shrouded phantom of the whitened waters is
horrible to him as a real ghost; in vain the lead assures him he is
still off soundings; heart and helm they both go down; he never rests
till blue water is under him again. Yet where is the mariner who will
tell thee, "Sir, it was not so much the fear of striking hidden rocks,
as the fear of that hideous whiteness that so stirred me?"
To the native Indian of Peru, the continual sight of the snowhowdahed
Andes conveys naught of dread, except, perhaps, in the mere fancying of
the eternal frosted desolateness reigning at such vast altitudes, and
the natural conceit of what a fearfulness it would be to lose oneself in
such inhuman solitude. Much the same is it with the backwoodsman of the
West, who with comparative indifference views an unbounded prairie
sheeted with driven snow, no shadow of tree or twig to break the fixed
trance of whiteness. Not so the sailor, beholding the scenery of the
Antarctic seas; where at times, by some infernal trick of legerdemain in
the powers of frost and air, he, shivering and half shipwrecked,
instead of rainbows speaking hope and solace to his misery, views what
seems a boundless churchyard grinning upon him with its lean ice
monuments and splintered crosses.
But thou sayest, methinks that
white-lead chapter about whiteness is but a white flag hung out from a
craven soul; thou surrenderest to a hypo, Ishmael.
Tell me, why
this strong young colt, foaled in some peaceful valley of Vermont, far
removed from all beasts of prey- why is it that upon the sunniest day,
if you but shake a fresh buffalo robe behind him, so that he cannot even
see it, but only smells its wild animal muskiness- why will he start,
snort, and with bursting eyes paw the ground in phrensies of affright?
There is no remembrance in him of any gorings of wild creatures in his
green northern home, so that the strange muskiness he smells cannot
recall to him anything associated with the experience of former perils;
for what knows he, this New England colt, of the black bisons of distant
No; but here thou beholdest even in a dumb brute, the
instinct of the knowledge of the demonism in the world. Though thousands
of miles from Oregon, still when he smells that savage musk, the
rending, goring bison herds are as present as to the deserted wild foal
of the prairies, which this instant they may be trampling into dust.
then, the muffled rollings of a milky sea; the bleak rustlings of the
festooned frosts of mountains; the desolate shiftings of the windrowed
snows of prairies; all these, to Ishmael, are as the shaking of that
buffalo robe to the frightened colt!
Though neither knows where
lie the nameless things of which the mystic sign gives forth such hints;
yet with me, as with the colt, somewhere those things must exist.
Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love,
the invisible spheres were formed in fright.
But not yet have we
solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals
with such power to the soul; and more strange and far more portentous-
why, as we have seen, it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual
things, nay, the very veil of the Christian's Deity; and yet should be
as it is, the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the
heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from
behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths
of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much
a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the
concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a
dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows- a
colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we
consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other
earthly hues- every stately or lovely emblazoning- the sweet tinges of
sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and
the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits,
not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so
that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose
allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we
proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces
every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains
white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon
matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own
blank tinge- pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a
leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored
and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes
himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect
around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol.
Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
So ends Ishmael's contemplation of the color white. The Albino whale has taken on all of the qualities discussed in this chapter, aptly titled "The Whiteness of the Whale." By these concluding paragraphs, Moby Dick represents all that is holy AND unholy in the universe. He's the wing of an angel and the thought of annihilation. Salvation and damnation. In the final paragraph, he becomes a "monumental white shroud" that blinds anyone who dares to look at him for too long. He is a a god.
I don't know how to follow this chapter with any kind of measured commentary. What Melville does in these lines is all ecstasy. He falls in love with the color white. Poet Maggie Nelson does the same thing over 125 years later with the color blue. She writes an entire book on her color of choice. She chases her blue Moby Dick all over the world, in rapture and horror of its different states.
I think that's what most writers do--they fall in love with subjects. They chase them through ocean and over mountaintop. Much like Melville, Ernest Hemingway did it with a really big fish. Emily Dickinson did it with Death. Charles Dickens with London. Right now, I'm reading Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Lee's passion is Korea and Korean people. Writer Franz Kafka advised, "Follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly." That's pretty much what I'm doing right now.
My obsessions at the moment are twin--Bigfoot and Christmas. I have a book of Christmas essays that I've been compiling for the last couple months, and I am so close to being done with it that I can taste the eggnog on my tongue. This summer, I am also following Bigfoot, wherever he leads me. I've been living with the big guy for almost two years now. It's time I make a commitment to him. Marry him, at least May through August.
I don't care what other people think about my obsessions. At the moment, I'm sitting in my office at the university, wearing a Bigfoot tee-shit and listening to Christmas music, If anyone chooses to knock on my door, they will be witness to the spectacle of me, in all my obsessive glory. I think I'm even wearing Bigfoot socks.
Poets and writers are allowed these eccentricities. They're expected. If I wasn't obsessing about my large furred hominid friend while whistling "White Christmas," I'd probably be doing something equally obsessive--like transcribing the entire manuscript of Moby-Dick into a blog and writing life reflections on it.
Saint Marty is thankful this afternoon for giant, white, hairy, tinseled obsessions.