Moby-Dick Big Read, Day 42

“The Whiteness of the Whale” serves as a sequel to the chapter that precedes it: having “hinted” at “what the white whale was to Ahab,” Ishmael now addresses the question of “what, at times, he was to me.” It’s an abstract chapter in which Ishmael tries to make us understand why “it was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.”

In the long paragraph that follows this admission, Ishmael appears to present a counter-argument, offering us a series of examples in which “whiteness refiningly enhances beauty.” Each example, however, is preceded by “though,” and the entire paragraph builds to this turn of thought: despite all of the examples I have provided, Ishmael asserts, “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 the blood.” He then goes on to provide even more examples, drawn both from nature and from culture, that suggest that there is something “terrible” about whiteness. Ultimately, it is a paradox that Ishmael cannot solve:

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 mankind.

Ishmael can only end the chapter with a series of questions, the last of which occurs after he has asserted that the “Albino whale was the symbol” of “all these things” that Ishmael has described for us. The final question is: “Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”

Although this chapter is regularly identified by non-aficionados as one of the superfluous chapters in the novel, it’s also a chapter that has drawn considerable commentary from Melville scholars. I will content myself, therefore, with a suggestion that follows from the suggestions that I made about the previous chapter: that, despite all the rhetorical window-dressing that Ishmael gives us, the question of race underlies the anxieties that he presents here. Ishmael mentions race seemingly in passing in the third paragraph, reminding us that the “pre-eminence of whiteness” and its seeming connection to some special “virtue” has been “applie[d] to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe.” Remember that Ishmael has befriended a member of the “dusky tribe” — Queequeg — and been subjected to strange looks and ridicule because of it before setting sail on the Pequod. Can it be that this chapter dramatizes what it means to be caught in an ideological contradiction, in which one set of values (those that have accreted around the idea of white superiority in the U.S.) comes into conflict with another set, what I’ve described as Ishmael’s “cosmopolitanism”?

Ishmael is straining against a symbolic pattern that is the implicit foundation for the United States of America in the middle of the nineteenth century. Wonder ye then at Ishmael’s fright?

“The Whiteness of the Whale” is read for us with a studied cadence (and great emphasis on the words “white” and “whiteness”) by the writer Will Self. The chapter includes two footnotes by Ishmael that are presented only at the end of the reading (after the phrase “fiery hunt”). The first should be placed after the phrase “white=shrouded bear or shark” and occurs at 5:17:

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 arises 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 funereal 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.

The second note should be placed at 5:35 after “Nature”:

I remember the first albatross I ever saw. It was during a prolonged gale, in waters hard upon the Antarctic seas. From my forenoon watch below, I ascended to the overclouded deck; and there, dashed upon the main hatches, I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime. At intervals, it arched forth its vast archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark. Wondrous flutterings and throbbings shook it. Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as some king’s ghost in supernatural distress. Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God. As Abraham before the angels, I bowed myself; the white thing was so white, its wings so wide, and in those for ever exiled waters, I had lost the miserable warping memories of traditions and of towns. Long I gazed at that prodigy of plumage. I cannot tell, can only hint, the things that darted through me then. But at last I awoke; and turning, asked a sailor what bird was this. A goney, he replied. Goney! I never had heard that name before; is it conceivable that this glorious thing is utterly unknown to men ashore! never! But some time after, I learned that goney was some seaman’s name for albatross. So that by no possibility could Coleridge’s wild Rhyme have had aught to do with those mystical impressions which were mine, when I saw that bird upon our deck. For neither had I then read the Rhyme, nor knew the bird to be an albatross. Yet, in saying this, I do but indirectly burnish a little brighter the noble merit of the poem and the poet. I assert, then, that in the wondrous bodily whiteness of the bird chiefly lurks the secret of the spell; a truth the more evinced in this, that by a solecism of terms there are birds called grey albatrosses; and these I have frequently seen, but never with such emotions as when I beheld the Antarctic fowl. But how had the mystic thing been caught? Whisper it not, and I will tell; with a treacherous hook and line, as the fowl floated on the sea. At last the Captain made a postman of it; tying a lettered, leathern tally round its neck, with the ship’s time and place; and then letting it escape. But I doubt not, that leathern tally, meant for man, was taken off in Heaven, when the white fowl flew to join the wing-folding, the invoking, and adoring cherubim!

The accompanying illustration is by contemporary British artist George Shaw and is entitled Scenes from The Passion: The Back of The Social Club (1998; Humbrol enamel on board, 43 x 53 cm). It is presented courtesy of the Wilkinson Gallery, London,  and is © 1998 George Shaw



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