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CHAPTER 42: The Whiteness of The Whale
What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times,
he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.
Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick,
which could not but occasionally awaken in any man's soul some alarm,
there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror
concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered
all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it,
that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form.
It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.
But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim,
random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters
might be naught.
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.
This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness,
when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled
with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror
to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles,
and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth,
flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are?
That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness,
even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of their aspect.
So that not the fierce-fanged tiger in his heraldic coat can
so stagger courage as the white-shrouded bear or shark.*
*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 rises 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 funeral 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.
Bethink thee of the albatross, whence come those clouds of spiritual
wonderment and pale dread, in which that white phantom sails
in all imaginations? Not Coleridge first threw that spell;
but God's great, unflattering laureate, 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! 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!
Most famous in our Western annals and Indian traditions is that of
the White Steed of the Prairies; a magnificent milk-white charger,
large-eyed, small-headed, bluff-chested, and with the dignity
of a thousand monarchs in his lofty, overscorning carriage.
He was the elected Xerxes of vast herds of wild horses,
whose pastures in those days were only fenced by the Rocky Mountains
and the Alleghanies. At their flaming head he westward
trooped it like that chosen star which every evening leads
on the hosts of light. The flashing cascade of his mane,
the curving comet of his tail, invested him with housings more
resplendent than gold and silver-beaters could have furnished him.
A most imperial and archangelical apparition of that unfallen,
western world, which to the eyes of the old trappers and hunters
revived the glories of those primeval times when Adam walked
majestic as a god, bluff-bowed and fearless as this mighty steed.
Whether marching amid his aides and marshals in the van of
countless cohorts that endlessly streamed it over the plains,
like an Ohio; or whether with his circumambient subjects browsing
all around at the horizon, the White Steed gallopingly reviewed
them with warm nostrils reddening through his cool milkiness;
in whatever aspect he presented himself, always to the bravest
Indians he was the object of trembling reverence and awe.
Nor can it be questioned from what stands on legendary record
of this noble horse, that it was his spiritual whiteness chiefly,
which so clothed him with divineness; and that this divineness
had that in it which, though commanding worship, at the same
time enforced a certain nameless terror.
But there are other instances where this whiteness loses
all that accessory and strange glory which invests it in
the White Steed and Albatross.
What is it that in the Albino man so peculiarly repels and often shocks
the eye, as that sometimes he is loathed by his own kith and kin!
It is that whiteness which invests him, a thing expressed
by the name he bears. The Albino is as well made as other men--
has no substantive deformity--and yet this mere aspect of all-pervading
whiteness makes him more strangely hideous than the ugliest abortion.
Why should this be so?
Nor, in quite other aspects, does Nature in her least
palpable but not the less malicious agencies, fail to enlist
among her forces this crowning attribute of the terrible.
From its snowy aspect, the gauntleted ghost of the Southern Seas has
been denominated the White Squall. Nor, in some historic instances,
has the art of human malice omitted so potent an auxiliary.
How wildly it heightens the effect of that passage in Froissart,
when, masked in the snowy symbol of their faction, the desperate
White Hoods of Ghent murder their bailiff in the market-place!
Nor, in some things, does the common, hereditary experience of all
mankind fail to bear witness to the supernaturalism of this hue.
It cannot well be doubted, that the one visible quality in the aspect
of the dead which most appals the gazer, is the marble pallor
lingering there; as if indeed that pallor were as much like the badge
of consternation in the other world, as of mortal trepidation here.
And from that pallor of the dead, we borrow the expressive hue
of the shroud in which we wrap them. Nor even in our superstitions
do we fail to throw the same snowy mantle round our phantoms;
all ghosts rising in a milk-white fog--Yea, while these terrors
seize us, let us add, that even the king of terrors, when personified
by the evangelist, rides on his pallid horse.
Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or gracious
thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest
idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.
But though without dissent this point be fixed, how is mortal
man to account for it? To analyse it, would seem impossible.
Can we, then, by the citation of some of those instances
wherein this thing of whiteness--though for the time either
wholly or in great part stripped of all direct associations
calculated to impart to it aught fearful, but nevertheless,
is found to exert over us the same sorcery, however modified;--
can we thus hope to light upon some chance clue to conduct us
to the hidden cause we seek?
Let us try. But in a matter like this, subtlety appeals to subtlety,
and without imagination no man can follow another into these halls.
And though, doubtless, some at least of the imaginative impressions
about to be presented may have been shared by most men, yet few
perhaps were entirely conscious of them at the time, and therefore
may not be able to recall them now.
Why to the man of untutored ideality, who happens to be but
loosely acquainted with the peculiar character of the day,
does the bare mention of Whitsuntide marshal in the fancy
such long, dreary, speechless processions of slow-pacing pilgrims,
down-cast and hooded with new-fallen snow? Or to the unread,
unsophisticated Protestant of the Middle American States,
why does the passing mention of a White Friar or a White Nun,
evoke such an eyeless statue in the soul?
Or what is there apart from the traditions of dungeoned warriors and kings
(which will not wholly account for it) that makes the White Tower
of London tell so much more strongly on the imagination of an
untravelled American, than those other storied structures, its neighbors--
the Byward Tower, or even the Bloody? And those sublimer towers,
the White Mountains of New Hampshire, whence, in peculiar moods,
comes that gigantic ghostliness over the soul at the bare mention
of that name, while the thought of Virginia's Blue Ridge is full
of a soft, dewy, distant dreaminess? Or why, irrespective of all
latitudes and longitudes, does the name of the White Sea exert
such a spectralness over the fancy, while that of the Yellow Sea
lulls us with mortal thoughts of long lacquered mild afternoons on
the waves, followed by the gaudiest and yet sleepiest of sunsets?
Or, to choose a wholly unsubstantial instance, purely addressed
to the fancy, why, in reading the old fairy tales of Central Europe,
does "the tall pale man" of the Hartz forests, whose changeless
pallor unrestingly glides through the green of the groves--
why is this phantom more terrible than all the whooping imps
of the Blocksburg?
Nor is it, altogether, the remembrance of her cathedral-toppling
earthquakes; nor the stampedoes of her frantic seas; nor the tearlessness
of arid skies that never rain; nor the sight of her wide field
of leaning spires, wrenched cope-stones, and crosses all adroop
(like canted yards of anchored fleets); and her suburban avenues
of house-walls lying over upon each other, as a tossed pack of cards;--
it is not these things alone which make tearless Lima, the strangest,
saddest city thou can'st see. For Lima has taken the white veil;
and there is a higher horror in this whiteness of her woe.
Old as Pizarro, this whiteness keeps her ruins for ever new;
admits not the cheerful greenness of complete decay; spreads over
her broken ramparts the rigid pallor of an apoplexy that fixes
its own distortions.
I know that, to the common apprehension, this phenomenon of whiteness
is not confessed to be the prime agent in exaggerating the terror
of objects otherwise terrible; nor to the unimaginative mind is there
aught of terror in those appearances whose awfulness to another mind
almost solely consists in this one phenomenon, especially when exhibited
under any form at all approaching to muteness or universality.
What I mean by these two statements may perhaps be respectively
elucidated by the following examples.
First: The mariner, when drawing nigh the coasts of foreign lands,
if by night he hear the roar of breakers, starts to vigilance, and feels
just enough of trepidation to sharpen all his faculties; but under
precisely similar circumstances, let him be called from his hammock
to view his ship sailing through a midnight sea of milky whiteness--
as if from encircling headlands shoals of combed white bears were swimming
round him, then he feels a silent, superstitious dread; the shrouded
phantom of the whitened waters is horrible to him as a real ghost;
in vain the lead assures him he is still off soundings; heart and helm
they both go down; he never rests till blue water is under him again.
Yet where is the mariner who will tell thee, "Sir, it was not so much
the fear of striking hidden rocks, as the fear of that hideous whiteness
that so stirred me?"
Second: To the native Indian of Peru, the continual sight of
the snowhowdahed Andes conveys naught of dread, except, perhaps,
in the mere fancying of the eternal frosted desolateness reigning
at such vast altitudes, and the natural conceit of what a fearfulness
it would be to lose oneself in such inhuman solitudes. Much the same
is it with the backwoodsman of the West, who with comparative
indifference views an unbounded prairie sheeted with driven snow,
no shadow of tree or twig to break the fixed trance of whiteness.
Not so the sailor, beholding the scenery of the Antarctic seas;
where at times, by some infernal trick of legerdemain in the powers
of frost and air, he, shivering and half shipwrecked, instead of
rainbows speaking hope and solace to his misery, views what seems
a boundless churchyard grinning upon him with its lean ice monuments
and splintered crosses.
But thou sayest, methinks this white-lead chapter about
whiteness is but a white flag hung out from a craven soul;
thou surrenderest to a hypo, Ishmael.
Tell me, why this strong young colt, foaled in some peaceful
valley of Vermont, far removed from all beasts of prey--
why is it that upon the sunniest day, if you but shake a fresh
buffalo robe behind him, so that he cannot even see it, but only
smells its wild animal muskiness--why will he start, snort,
and with bursting eyes paw the ground in phrensies of affright?
There is no remembrance in him of any gorings of wild creatures
in his green northern home, so that the strange muskiness he smells
cannot recall to him anything associated with the experience
of former perils; for what knows he, this New England colt,
of the black bisons of distant Oregon?
No; but here thou beholdest even in a dumb brute,
the instinct of the knowledge of the demonism in the world.
Though thousands of miles from Oregon, still when he smells
that savage musk, the rending, goring bison herds are as present
as to the deserted wild foal of the prairies, which this instant
they may be trampling into dust.
Thus, then, the muffled rollings of a milky sea;
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!
Though neither knows where lie the nameless things of
which the mystic sign gives forth such hints; yet with me,
as with the colt, 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.
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.
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? ..