By Charles Matthews

Saturday, December 11, 2010

8. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 186-216

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics)Chapter XLII: The Whiteness of the Whale; Chapter XLIII: Hark!; Chapter XLIV: The Chart; Chapter XLV: The Affidavit; Chapter XLVI: Surmises; Chapter XLVII: The Mat-Maker
In "The Whiteness of the Whale," Ishmael examines the uncanny effect that Moby Dick's whiteness has upon him, after first noting that white is traditionally regarded favorably: It "refiningly enhances beauty" and is granted "a certain royal pre-eminence." Moreover, "this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe."

That harsh and chilling bit of classic racism has been so much commented-on that it doesn't need more comment from me, other than to point out that it comes in the voice of Ishmael, who is not necessarily to be identified as speaking for Melville, that it was the dominant view in the Europe and America of Melville's day, and that Ishmael hardly has "ideal mastership" over the "dusky" Queequeg, who is in many ways the most admirable character in the novel. It might also be pointed out that the white men who rule the small kingdom of the Pequod have recently been characterized as a madman, a moral coward, a guy who laughs off everything, and a mediocrity. Some master race. Melville is an ironist, and the point of the "whiteness" chapter is to undercut the notion of white as "the emblem of many touching, noble things -- the innocence of brides, the benignity of age."

Instead, "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." White is the color of death: "the one visible quality in the aspect of the dead which most appals the gaze, is the marble pallor lingering there." White is an apocalyptic color: "even the king of terrors, when personified by the evangelist, rides on his pallid horse." As so Ishmael proceeds through a catalog of white things that terrify, from human albinos to mountain ranges, to conclude that there is something in the human psyche that is frightened by whiteness. A domesticated colt, raised with no contact with things of the wild, will show terror when a buffalo pelt is shaken in its presence, he says, suggesting "the instinct of the knowledge of the demonism in the world.
Thus, then, the muffled rollings of a milky ea; 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!... Is it that by its indefiniteness [whiteness] 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?
For Ishmael, the paradox lies in the fact that white suggests an absence of color when in fact it is "the concrete of all colors." It suggests to him the absence of God, that is, of meaning in the universe: "a colorless, all-color of atheism." The colors of nature "are but subtle 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 to gaze on this truth risks blindness:
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?

Meanwhile, the crew of the Pequod is hearing things: "There it is again -- under the hatches -- don't you hear it -- a cough -- it sounded like a cough." The speaker, called Archy, is sure that "there is somebody down in the after-hold that has not yet been seen on deck."

Ahab is studying the sea charts, on the theory that "were the logs for one voyage of the entire whale fleet carefully collated, then the migrations of the sperm whale would be found to correspond in invariability to those of the herring-shoals or the flights of swallows" -- which Melville observes in a footnote was demonstrated to be true in 1851, the year of the novel's publication. Otherwise, finding a particular whale in the vastness of the world's oceans would be a needle-in-haystack pursuit.

Ahab wagers he will find Moby Dick on the equator, during "the Season-on-the-Line. For there and then, for several consecutive years, Moby Dick had been periodically descried, lingering in those waters for awhile, as the sun, in its annual round, loiters for a predicted interval." It was also the place where he had lost his leg to the whale. But the Pequod has left Nantucket at Christmas, "at the very beginning of the Season-on-the-Line," so it's too late for her to reach the equatorial Pacific for this year's Season-on-the-Line. Ahab's impatience has caused him to set sail anyway, hoping to come upon Moby Dick by accident before next year's whale season on the equator. In the meantime, "He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms." Not that he sleeps much: "with glaring eyes Ahab would burst from his state room, as though escaping from a bed that was on fire."

Ahab is in the grip of something that sounds to modern readers like a form of schizophrenia:
as the mind does not exist unless leagued with the soul, therefore it must have been that, in Ahab's case, yielding up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose; that purpose, by its own sheer inveteracy of will, forced itself against gods and devils into a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own.... Therefore, the tormented spirit that glared out of bodily eyes, when what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was for the time but a vacated thing, formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to color, and therefore a blankness in itself.

Ishmael attempts an apologia for his story, beginning with a fake-modest reference to "what there may be of a narrative in this book," reminiscent of Twain's "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted" warning in Huckleberry Finn. He calls it an "affidavit" in which he vows that he has "personally known three instances" of a whale being struck twice by the same harpooner with an interval of several years between the attack and that there are several instances of a particular whale that has been sighted in several different "distant times and places." Some of them became so famous that they were spared as a mark of respect: "there hung a terrible prestige of perilousness about such a whale as there did about Rinaldo Rinaldini" -- the Robin Hood-like Corsican bandit who was the hero of a popular novel published in 1798 by the German writer Christian August Vulpius. Like Moby Dick, they had names: Timor Tom, New Zealand Jack, Morquan (King of Japan), Don Miguel. Ishmael insists on telling us this because landlubbers are so ignorant of whaling lore that "they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory." He obviously knew what literary critics were capable of.

Furthermore, Ishmael insists, people are ignorant of the dangers of whaling, and the number of fatalities involved in it. "For God's sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! not a gallon you burn, but at least one drop of man's blood was spilled for it." Nor do they know of the destructive force of which a whale is capable: "The Sperm Whale is in some cases sufficiently powerful, knowing, and judiciously malicious, as with direct aforethought to stave in, utterly destroy, and sink a large ship; and what is more, the Sperm Whale has done it. His case in point, the destruction of the Essex in 1820, now much better known to modern readers through Nathaniel Philbrick's bestseller In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. He cites several other similar cases of ships destroyed by whales, going back to Procopius's account of a "sea-monster" wreaking havoc during the time of the Emperor Justinian.

Faced with a long journey to the next Season-on-the-Line, Ahab is willing to let the Pequod's resources be used to kill other whales than Moby Dick. "It would be refining too much, perhaps, even considering his monomania, to hint that his vindictiveness towards the White Whale might have possibly extended itself in some degree to all sperm whales." But he knows he needs to keep the crew in shape for the one target he has in mind: "To accomplish his object Ahab must use tools; and of all tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order." And one of them capable of getting out of order is Starbuck:
Starbuck's body and Starbuck's coerced will were Ahab's, so long as Ahab kept his magnet at Starbuck's brain; still he knew that for all this the chief mate, in his soul, abhorred his captain's quest, and could he, would joyfully disintegrate himself from it, or even frustrate it.
The longer the voyage, the more likely that Starbuck's rebellion might grow. The same is true of the crew: "it is above all things requisite that temporary interests and employments should intervene and hold them healthily suspended for the final dash." Besides, they signed up for the voyage expecting to earn money from it. So Ahab's "voice was now often heard hailing the three mast-heads and admonishing them to keep a bright look-out, and not omit reporting even a porpoise. This vigilance was not long without reward."

Ishmael and Queequeg are weaving a mat, which Ishmael characteristically turns into an allegory of "chance, free will, and necessity" until (perhaps to the reader's relief) Tashtego cries out "There she blows!" The crew leaps to ready the boats while watching for the sighted whale to resurface.
But at this critical instant a sudden exclamation was heard that took every eye from the whale. With a start all glared at dark Ahab, who was surrounded by five dusky phantoms that seem fresh formed out of air.
Archy wasn't just imagining that he heard things after all.

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