Sunday, January 22, 2012


We have talked of many different categories of chapters: the mystical chapters like "The Mast-Head", the comic chapters like "The Cabin Table", the encylopedic chapters like "Cetology", the dramatic chapters like "Enter Ahab; To Him, Stubb". There are two things about "The Whiteness of the Whale" that stand out for me.

First, this chapter fits into all of those categories but the dramatic; it is simultaneously mystical, comical, and encyclopedic. This sudden unity of strands in a single chapter is critical to the broader architecture of the book. Yes, there are elements that predominate: the mystical, here, it strikes me, dominates the tone of the language, even as comic and encyclopedic elements are worked in, and even as bit of dramatic language, Shakespearian in character if not dramatic in presentation, also bubbles to the top.

Secondly, the chapter comes to us right after we are told, in the prior chapter, "Moby-Dick", that the Whale is not actually or entirely white.
For, it was not so much his uncommon bulk that so much distinguished him from other Sperm Whales, but, as was elsewhere thrown out - a peculiar snow-white wrinkled forehead, and a high, pyramidical white hump. These were his prominent features; the tokens whereby, even in the limitless, uncharted seas, he revealed his identity, at a long distance, to those who knew him.

The rest of his body was so streaked, and spotted, and marbled with the same shrouded hue, that, in the end, he had gained his distinctive appellation of the White Whale; a name, indeed, literally justified by his vivid aspect, when seen gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings.
Whiteness is an apperance; the reality is mottled, streaked, marbled, only partly and not fully white.

In fitting with the only partial whiteness of the Whale, this chapter itself, describing what the Whale is to Ishmael, seems intensely vaccilating even while increasingly emotionally intense. The chapter begins with Ishmael's focus on how "It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me", but then immediately launches into many positive conceptions of white, from marbles and pearls to royal connotations to mythical ones. The appallingness of white is but an introduction; Melville now graces us with the beauty and splendor of Whiteness.

He then transitions into "elusive" qualities and indeterminicies, and, in a staggeringly original moment, graces us with a massive footnote on the Albatross, a footnote which at once engages in a direct literary conversation on Coleridge and his symbols, an encylopedic dicussion of birds, and a mythical exposition on angels and Abraham, all of which is resolved in the mechanics of a capture and release of the bird. It is a grand moment of foreshadowing, yet one that works neatly into the story.

It is only after we work through the long and positive discourse on whiteness that the dread-inducing aspects of it arise, and the fundamental ambiguity of the color is explored. Look carefully at the chapter: you will find in it references and anticipations of many prior and later chapters, discussions that will resound as we move through mist or as we meet a Goney of another type.

A beautiful, simple chapter, yet one that pulls strands from the whole work together, weaving them into a more complex and multi-fibered yarn.

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