Monday, April 9, 2007

"It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me."

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…

…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?

Thus is the experience of reading Moby-Dick by the ascendant Herman Melville, of whom it is said: "Moby-Dick is now considered to be one of the greatest novels in the English language, and has secured Melville's reputation in the first rank of American writers."

They do not exaggerate. The book is one of the most challenging books I've ever read—which ought to be evident by the archaisms of the prose quoted above. Most challenging, and most rewarding. My appreciation of the book lies in Meville's ability to accomplish at once two things: first, his vivid depiction of all the authentic details and experiences of a 19th-century whaling vessel, with all its accompanying boredoms and terrors. Here are written hundreds of passages which capture the yard-arms, the oakums, the spermaceti, the ship-calling trumpets, the smallest of the sail-maker's needles, all essential to the whaler's noisome task. To read Moby-Dick is to read a travelogue of the whaleman. And second, his ability to use such experiences (in all their minutiae) to explore the great frontiers of human experience. I mentioned a moment ago that the details and experiences are often realistic—the plot, the movements of the chief characters, the extended dialogue and soliloquys are not. But they serve Meville's purpose of thinking through the transcendant amidst the toils of the difficult task.

I could not have read this book with any enjoyment in high school. But now having read it, I know why it possesses the reputation it does. Anyone who loves the beauty of language and the outworking of philosophy embarks on a fortunate voyage when he steps aboard the ill-fated Pequod with Ahab and Ishmael. Fear not the 520 pages, press on, sailor, for the white whale calls!

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