Sexual Fables

This article accompanies the fable
The Sorcerer's Apprentice

The Whiteness of the Whale


Chapter 42 of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is cited all the time these days in relation to the changing face of the United States, no longer a "white" nation. Yet white in Moby-Dick is also the color of life, a life that doesn't necessarily answer to humans. The"craven" Ishmael is horrified...

It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me... Sailing through a midnight sea of milky whiteness... 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.

Though neither knows where lie the nameless things of which the mystic sign gives forth such hints; yet with me... 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. 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 of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

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.

Melville is having some fun here with Ishmael, as am I in rearranging Melville's text. But he's also having fun with Edgar Allen Poe and the rhetoric of Gothic horror, notably Poe's 1838 work, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Whiteness isn't that horrible really - that's irony for you. What truly is horrible is the slaughter of the whales and that must have deeply affected Melville - and Ishmael if he could have known it. Whaling is a slaughter of life, just as it is today, and while the whaling industry was at the time America's largest industry, that doesn't obscure the fact that these men were forced to confront spiritual matters because they were slaughtering life.

At top is a book cover that makes plain a common problem with the novel: Moby-Dick: The Good Parts... For most readers it's just too long, too detailed and too archaic in its language. The photo of the weather vane on the main page is from Nantucket Historical Association Whaling Museum and copyrighted to Christopher Peterson.

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