Sunday, October 20, 2013

White Week!!

With Halloween just around the corner and the fact that one of my favorite Goodreads groups, All About Books, began a read-along centered around Herman Melville's masterpiece, Moby Dick the weird, eeriness of the famous "white chapter" seemed appropriate for the topic of this week's blog. Check out some of these quotations from the white chapter and tell me if they aren't discussion-worthy in lieu of the approaching holiday. Maybe someone should costume his/herself as Herman Melville!!

Melville finds white to have an elusive quality. After citing connections to white in royal standards, the Romans' white stone representing joy, Native Americans white belt of wampum, the Persians fire worshipers treasuring a great white flame, milk-white steeds, sacrifice of the sacred White Dog, sacred vestures, Christian symbolism of the Great White Throne and the 24 Elders, white as wool; he states, ...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. Melville then cites the polar bear, white shark as containing 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. 

Polar bears frightened Melville
Melville proceeds to list the White Squall of the Southern Seas as Nature's crowning attribute of the terrible.

white squall

The White Squall precedes mention of the desperate White Hoods of Ghent murdering their bailiff in the market-place. Read more about this maliciousness here. One has to wonder if these bad boys influenced the choice of white hoods for the revolting Ku Klux Klan!

Whiteness continues to torture Melville as he goes on to say things like:

...from the pallor of the dead, we borrow the expressive hue of the shroud in which we wrap throw the same snowy mantle round our phantoms...

...all ghosts rising in a milk-white fog... man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul...

Now Melville begins to analyze. 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? He offers some imaginative impressions:

White Friar or White Nun
white Tower of London
White Tower of London
White Mountains of New Hampshire ...whence, in particular moods, comes that gigantic ghostliness over the soul at the bare mention of the name...
White Mountains
White Sea  ...exert such a spectralness over the fancy...
"the tall pale man" of the Hartz forests, whose changeless pallor unrustlingly glides through the green of the groves...
Lima is the strangest, saddest city thous can'st see for having taken the white veil; and there is higher horror in this whiteness of her woe. (Here is a laudable explanation.)

Are you shivering yet? Let me interject now, that while it is entertaining to laugh at Melville's depiction of white as being unsettling to him, I have the utmost respect for his ability to write well, to write descriptively. Moby Dick is one of, if not my favorite classic. As was mentioned in the All About Books discussion, I don't know of a book where one can finish it and feel like one has read a non-fiction book, novel and philosophical discussion all in one. It certainly deserves the title of American Masterpiece. That being said, back to the creepy fun...

The mariner, when drawing nigh the coasts of foreign lands, if by night he hear the roar of breakers,
Still giving Melville the willies!
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 around him,
(Nightmares about polar bears are never far away for Melville, are they?) 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?"

Thus after much mulling over whiteness, Melville becomes philosophical making statements such as Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright. He goes on to say that the incantation of this whiteness hasn't been solved. He questions whether the essence of 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?

If it weren't for Melville's penchant to philosophize, with a little effort, he could have given Edgar Allan Poe a run for his money with his eerie descriptiveness.

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