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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 colour 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 honour; 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 honourable,
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

*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

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-browed 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

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

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 unrustlingly 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 that white-lead chapter about whiteness is but
a white flag hung out from a craven soul; thou surrenderest to a hypo,

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 colour as
the visible absence of colour; and at the same time the concrete of all
colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness,
full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows--a colourless, all-colour
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 colourless 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 coloured and colouring 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