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Melville – What the Whale Teaches Us



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?

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or the Whale, ch. 42 (“The Whiteness of the Whale”)(1851).

On April 17, an explosion of an offshore drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico operated by BP cost 11 lives, injured 17 others and triggered an oil spill now widely expected to become the worst ever to hit U.S. coastal waters. The leak presents an enormous threat to the fishing industry and it may make coastal beaches and resorts unusable for months. But for some forms of marine life, the threat may be much more imminent. The New York Times tells us: “Two whale species may be in the area of the spill, Bryde’s whales and endangered sperm whales, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The greatest threat is if whales get oil in the filtering structure in their mouths, which could lead to starvation and death.”

In the world’s menagerie, the whale has a special place. In Genesis, God created the whale on the fifth day, and he made numerous appearances in other books, playing an essential role as a vehicle of God’s will in the tale of Jonah, for instance. But the whale’s most prominent literary incarnation surely is in the greatest American novel of the nineteenth century, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, in which the focal character is not human, but in fact an albino whale. In one sense the other (human) characters of the novel define themselves through their understanding of Moby Dick. Captain Ahab, for instance, sees the whale as the embodiment of “pure evil.” He is obsessed with the whale’s destruction as an act of retribution. On the other hand, in the chapter entitled the “Whiteness of the Whale,” we see Ishmael’s understanding, which starts with a parsing of the significance of the color white. Ishmael gives us a compendium, an exhaustive listing of how a white whale could be viewed as a metaphor. White, he reminds us, is associated with something good or superior, something pure, he mentions pearls, nineteenth century race theory, and the white vestments of a priest. This notion of white is reassuring and peaceful. But Ishmael balances this by noting how often white is associated with fear. There is the great white shark, he notes, or a polar bear. He apparently suffers from a fear of both.
Ishmael then talks about the American aboriginal legend of a divine White Steed, associated with awe and terror. Then he mentions albino humans, who apparently evoke fear in others. After this follows an excursion in Flemish medieval history and a ghost story. The wealth of experience and thought is impressive. It reflects wide cross-cultural experience and reading, the thinking of a traveler and scholar rather than a simple seaman. But Ishmael is an enigmatic figure, a self-described former school teacher, though seemingly an autodidact (whaling was “his Yale, his Harvard.”) He sounds remarkably like Melville himself.

What is Melville up to with this chapter? It seems to contribute nothing to the development of the plot. It can be viewed as an excursion into the obscure. But in fact it is the heart of the entire work. At one level Melville is giving us a lesson in how to read a work of literature and how to appreciate the symbols. There are many possible interpretations, many doors of perception to the world and its treasures. Who is to call one of these valid and others invalid? But he also tells us that how a person interprets the world says much about that person—is he scientific, rational, inductive, or, like the revenge-seeking Ahab emotional, reactive, intuitive? Clearly Melville does not consider these approaches to be equally valid. Ishmael is the compelling character, the voice of narration, the survivor. Ahab is a religious zealot, a mad man racing towards his death and imperiling the lives of his entire crew in the process. Yet curiously, he is the leader; the ship’s captain. Is this a bit of social commentary?

But the “Whiteness of the Whale” is a map to the entire novel; it is essential to teasing out Melville’s deeper meaning and his philosophical approach. Melville uses the image of the whale to describe man’s relationship with nature in terms drawn from the aesthetic philosophy of the eighteenth century. The image of great creatures of nature as something that produces wonder and awe, but also fear in their beholder was first developed in the second part of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757):

There are many animals, who though far from being large, are yet capable of raising ideas of the sublime, because they are considered as objects of terror. As serpents and poisonous animals of almost all kinds. And to things of great dimensions, if we annex an adventitious idea of terror, they become without comparison greater. A level plain of a vast extent on land, is certainly no mean idea; the prospect of such a plain may be as extensive as a prospect of the ocean: but can it ever fill the mind with anything so great as the ocean itself? This is owing to several causes; but it is owing to none more than this, that the ocean is an object of no small terror.

Moby Dick seems drawn directly from this description, which suggests that he is a vehicle for the exploration of what Burke calls the “sublime.” A number of later writers developed Burke’s concept of the sublime further. Friedrich Schiller and Immanuel Kant may be the most consequential. Melville’s presentation also seems to be guided to some extent by Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790), which like Burke draws heavily on the notion of the ocean as something unfathomable, immeasurable, incomprehensible, and thus sublime. (Though it is actually a person’s perception of the ocean that could be called sublime, more properly than the ocean itself). But the same qualities that lead to the perception of the sublime also generate fear, which may offset or disrupt that perception. Kant also distinguishes between the mathematical and the dynamic sublime (das Dynamisch-Erhabene), the first would cover something of vast expanse, such as space or an ocean; the latter would be an object of magnificent power and greater immediacy (“die Natur, im ästhetischen Urteile als Macht, die über uns keine Gewalt hat, betrachtet” – “nature viewed in aesthetic judgment as a force which has no power over us.”) Clearly Moby Dick has been chosen as an example of the dynamic sublime, and in Ahab, Ishmael and others we see different human reactions to it. The modern man of power fears the whale, feels threatened by it, and is obsessed with its destruction. The modern man is driven by the desire to dominate his environment and chafes at those aspects of the world he cannot control. The vision of Melville’s narration, however, appreciates the beauty and majesty of the forces of nature even as he reckons with their power and unpredictability. He reconciles himself to their existence. “The sublime comforts, the sublimation of passions through principles is the very essence of the sublime,” as Kant writes.

The whale is a well-chosen image, a creature whose profundity is not measured by the ocean alone. In Melville’s day a great industry arose surrounding the whale, exploiting it for its oil, then used to light homes. Moby Dick is also a chronicle of this industry and its practices, exposed to the harshest light that Melville can muster. Having survived the whale oil industry, whales today are hunted as a source of food and are endangered by humankind’s tendency to treat their home, the oceans, as a cesspool. The fate of the whale still seems dependent on humankind and its attitudes towards a shared environment. Melville believed that the nature of humankind is reflected in its attitude towards the whale. This is no mere literary artifice; it describes us just as well today.


Listen to Alan Hovhaness, And God Created Great Whales, op. 229, no. 1 (1970) in a performance by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz.

What led Hovhaness to take up this unusual theme, to integrate recording of whales into it, and yet to present a world filled with menace? Consider this passage from an interview he gave to Ararat Magazine shortly after the work premiered:

I had been thinking of the recent scientific recordings of whale sounds and of the Whale Symphony you have written.

They are wonderful sounds, of course, and I would like to see the whales taken care of, so that we don’t destroy them. And so this was a project which I was very glad to be connected with.

How did it come about?

Well, actually, through the New York Philharmonic and [André] Kostelanetz. They introduced me to the man who had made these wonderful underwater recordings of whale sounds and this inspired me to do it. They asked if I’d write a piece, and I did, using these sounds. The record should come out very shortly now. Columbia recorded it. The Philharmonic, as well as several other orchestras, have already performed it.

It’s part of the ecology now.

Well, that’s very nice. It’s a very important thing anyway that we stop ruining the earth for ourselves, as well as for everything else in nature… We are in a very dangerous period. We are in danger of destroying ourselves, and I have a great fear about this. There is a great deal of rebellion among the young and I agree with them because I have known this same rebellion all my life. I sympathize with them very much. We have to do something constructive about it. It’s not enough to just fly off the handle. Violence won’t help. I believe we have to really find the answer by going within, not just being external about it. But it’s a very serious problem. The older generation is ruling ruthlessly. I feel that this is a terrible threat to our civilization. It’s the greed of huge companies and huge organizations which control life in a kind of a brutal way, and therefore all of my sympathies are with the young people. I hope something can be done about it. It’s gotten worse and worse, somehow, because physical science has given us more and more terrible deadly weapons, and the human spirit has been destroyed in so many cases, so what’s the use of having the most powerful country in the world if we have killed the soul. It’s of no use.

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