Posted by: Mish | July 28, 2010

Whiteness, Whales, and Weaving

Rarely have I come across a novel that permeates so much symbolism as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

In “the Whiteness of the Whale” chapter, Ishmael explains the mystical, nameless horror towards the White Whale. He describes associations with white: beauty, royalty, dominion, joy and gladness, innocence, honor, justice, purity, holiness, power, and its elusive quality that makes it more terrifying than blood’s redness. Ishmael believes terror is raised to the extreme when the hue’s elusiveness is separated from the “more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself”. He states the “smooth, flaky whiteness” of the polar bear and white shark make them “transcendent horrors”. Melville writes of the polar bear in a footnote:

“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 at fish. The Roman 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” (190).

On the other side of the coin, Melville points out that “even blackness has its brilliancy; behold yon lustrous ebony, panelled in king’s cabinets” (394).

Preaching about sinning, the ship’s cook says:

“Your woraciousness, fellow-critters, I don’t blame ye so much for; dat is natur, and can’t be helped; but to gobern dat wicked natur, dad is de pint. You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned” (288).

There are many lengthy stretches, but each has their purpose. In one of the chapters about whales, Ishmael says:

“You find him unbent from the vast corpulence of his dignity, and kitten-like, he plays on the ocean as if it were a hearth. But still you see his power in his play. The broad palms of his tail are flirted high into the air; then smiting the surface, the thunderous concussion resounds for miles…Out of the bottomless profundities the gigantic tail seems spasmodically snatching at the highest heaven. So in dreams, have I seen majestic Satan thrusting forth his tormented colossal claw from the flame Baltic of Hell. But in gazing at such scenes, it is all in all what mood you are in; if in the Dantean, the devils will occur to you; if in that of Isaiah, the archangels….I once saw a large herd of whales in the east, all heading towards the sun, and for a moment vibrating in concert with peaked flukes. As it seemed to me at the time, such a grand embodiment of adoration of the gods was never beheld” (362).

Following the supernatural line of thought, Ishmael ponders:

“The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it. At times there are gestures in it, which, though they would well grace the hand of man, remain wholly inexplicable. In an extensive herd, so remarkable, occasionally, are these mystic gestures, that I have heard hunters who have declared them akin to Free-Mason signs and symbols; that the whale, indeed, by these methods intelligently conversed with the world” (363).

Ishmael parallels weaving to life, saying:

“It seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own. This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. Meantime, Queequeg’s impulsive, indifferent sword, sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly, or strongly, or weakly, as the case might be; and by this difference in the concluding blow producing a corresponding contrast in the final aspect of the completed fabric; this savage’s sword, thought I, which thus finally shapes and fashions both warp and woof; this easy, indifferent sword must be chance- aye, chance, free will, and necessity- no wise incompatible- all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course- its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motion directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events” (214).

While thinking about whaling, for sperm whales in particular, Ishmael cries:

“Oh! my friends, but this is mankilling! Yet this is life. For hardly have we mortals by long toilings extracted from the world’s vast bulk its small but valuable sperm; and then, with weary patience, cleansed ourselves from its defilements, and learned to live here in clean tabernacles of the soul; hardly is this done, when- There she blows!– the ghost is spouted up, and away we sail to fight some other world, and go through young life’s old routine again” (408).

Melville describes some of the symbolism, but also leaves readers to read between the lines- like with the shipmates’ different reactions to the doubloon, a higher power the colour of gold.

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Responses

  1. I feel like there just aren’t writers like that anymore.
    Melville really does a great job of giving just enough to think for yourself without feeling like he left something out.
    And the writing is so beautiful!

  2. I agree on all counts. I’m looking forward to reading Billy Budd and a few others by Melville that are already in the queue.


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