Melville, Herman, Read-Along

Moby-Dick Read-Along: The Power of the Color White

f8f13084-5301-4dd4-afdb-dcc0d7e9bd4f_zpsce6462f4I am a bit behind in Moby-Dick, but I am really enjoying the book. Because this is a very dense work, I don’t want to race through it. There are so many beautiful and insightful passages. In a series of passages, Ishmael reflects on the color white. He wonders why the white whale incites so much fear in sailors. More generally, he wonders why the color white makes people feel so uncomfortable. Below is one such passage:

“Is it that by [white’s] indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of the 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.” 

Pinwheel Galaxy. Image: European Space Agency & NASA
Pinwheel Galaxy. NASA and Space Telescope Science Institute, 2006.

The best way to analyze this passage is to break it up. I am convinced that the major point Ishmael is making here is that the color white makes people feel uncomfortable because it represents the truth about the world and about themselves. Because it is the base of all color and also “the visible absence of color”, white represents divinity and infinity. Infinity, like the Milky Way galaxy, is at once awe-inspiring and terrifying. I know that when I see pictures of space from the Hubble Space Telescope, I feel uncomfortable. I realize how infinitely small I am. I realize that I am not at the center of the universe.

I don’t exactly understand what Melville means by the “colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink”. He is certainly juxtaposing opposites to make a point about the mysterious power of the color white. White is the essence of everything but it is also emptiness, annihilation. Color is just a facade. The “wretched infidel” experiences discomfort before a white landscape because it gives him a sense of uncertainty. Maybe the “wretched infidel” here refers more particularly to Captain Ahab who is hard-bent on killing Moby-Dick. His hatred of the white whale consumes him. The whale haunts him. I think Ishmael is suggesting that Ahab hates the whale because it reminds him of his mortality. By dismembering Ahab, Moby-Dick challenged Ahab’s feeling of superiority. Ahab must destroy the whale to win back his dignity.

I feel, though, that there is something missing in my interpretation. The harpoonists are all men of color. So, maybe Ishmael is making some sort of racial commentary here. This may be a bit far-fetched, but it is possible that Ishmael thinks that the reason for racial prejudices lies in the belief that people of color are in some way tainted.

What do you all think? If you are currently reading Moby-Dick, what is your interpretation of the passages on the color white?

3 thoughts on “Moby-Dick Read-Along: The Power of the Color White”

    1. I think that description was also in chapter 42 although I can’t locate it at the moment. The beautiful descriptions and Ishmael’s deep insights are what keep me going. I think if people approach Moby-Dick like a typical adventure novel they are bound to be disappointed.

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