What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was t_e, as yet remains unsaid.
Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which coul_ot but occasionally awaken in any man’s soul some alarm, there was anothe_hought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times b_ts intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical an_ell nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in _omprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all thing_ppalled 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 i_mparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, an_earls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain roya_reeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placin_he title “Lord of the White Elephants” above all their other magniloquen_scriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-
white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the on_igure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, hei_o overlording Rome, having for the imperial color the same imperial hue; an_hough this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving th_hite man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides, al_his, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among th_omans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other morta_ympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of man_ouching, noble things— the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; thoug_mong the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was th_eepest pledge of honor; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majest_f Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state o_ings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the highe_ysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of th_ivine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the whit_orked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Gree_ythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; an_hough to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Do_as by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithfu_reature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit wit_he annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Lati_ord for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of thei_acred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though amon_he holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in th_elebration 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 stan_lothed in white before the great-white throne, and the Holy One that sittet_here white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, wit_hatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusiv_omething in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic t_he soul than that redness which affrights in blood.
This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, whe_ivorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terribl_n itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the whit_ear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth,
flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are? That ghastl_hiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsom_han 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-shroude_ear or shark.[](footnotes.xml#footnote_4)
Bethink thee of the albatross, whence come those clouds of spiritua_onderment and pale dread, in which that white phantom sails in al_maginations? Not Coleridge first threw that spell; but God’s great,
I assert, then, that in the wondrous bodily whiteness of the bird chiefl_urks the secret of the spell; a truth the more evinced in this, that by _olecism of terms there are birds called grey albatrosses; and these I hav_requently seen, but never with such emotions as when I beheld the Antarcti_owl.
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 th_aptain 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 whit_owl flew to join the wing-folding, the invoking, and adoring cherubim!
Most famous in our Western annals and Indian traditions is that of the Whit_teed of the Prairies; a magnificent milk-white charger, large-eyed, small-
headed, bluff-chested, and with the dignity of a thousand monarchs in hi_ofty, overscorning carriage. He was the elected Xerxes of vast herds of wil_orses, whose pastures in those days were only fenced by the Rocky Mountain_nd the Alleghanies. At their flaming head he westward trooped it like tha_hosen star which every evening leads on the hosts of light. The flashin_ascade of his mane, the curving comet of his tail, invested him with housing_ore resplendent than gold and silver-beaters could have furnished him. A mos_mperial and archangelical apparition of that unfallen, western world, whic_o the eyes of the old trappers and hunters revived the glories of thos_rimeval times when Adam walked majestic as a god, bluff-bowed and fearless a_his mighty steed. Whether marching amid his aides and marshals in the van o_ountless cohorts that endlessly streamed it over the plains, like an Ohio; o_hether with his circumambient subjects browsing all around at the horizon,
the White Steed gallopingly reviewed them with warm nostrils reddening throug_is cool milkiness; in whatever aspect he presented himself, always to th_ravest Indians he was the object of trembling reverence and awe. Nor can i_e questioned from what stands on legendary record of this noble horse, tha_t was his spiritual whiteness chiefly, which so clothed him with divineness;
and that this divineness had that in it which, though commanding worship, a_he same time enforced a certain nameless terror.
But there are other instances where this whiteness loses all that accessor_nd strange glory which invests it in the White Steed and Albatross.
What is it that in the Albino man so peculiarly repels and often shocks th_ye, as that sometimes he is loathed by his own kith and kin! It is tha_hiteness which invests him, a thing expressed by the name he bears. Th_lbino is as well made as other men— has no substantive deformity—and yet thi_ere aspect of all-pervading whiteness makes him more strangely hideous tha_he ugliest abortion. Why should this be so?
Nor, in quite other aspects, does Nature in her least palpable but not th_ess malicious agencies, fail to enlist among her forces this crownin_ttribute of the terrible. From its snowy aspect, the gauntleted ghost of th_outhern Seas has been denominated the White Squall. Nor, in some histori_nstances, has the art of human malice omitted so potent an auxiliary. Ho_ildly it heightens the effect of that passage in Froissart, when, masked i_he snowy symbol of their faction, the desperate White Hoods of Ghent murde_heir bailiff in the market-place!
Nor, in some things, does the common, hereditary experience of all mankin_ail to bear witness to the supernaturalism of this hue. It cannot well b_oubted, that the one visible quality in the aspect of the dead which mos_ppals the gazer, is the marble pallor lingering there; as if indeed tha_allor were as much like the badge of consternation in the other world, as o_ortal trepidation here. And from that pallor of the dead, we borrow th_xpressive hue of the shroud in which we wrap them. Nor even in ou_uperstitions 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, le_s 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 h_ill by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealize_ignificance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.
But though without dissent this point be fixed, how is mortal man to accoun_or it? To analyse it, would seem impossible. Can we, then, by the citation o_ome of those instances wherein this thing of whiteness—though for the tim_ither wholly or in great part stripped of all direct associations calculate_o impart to it aught fearful, but nevertheless, is found to exert over us th_ame sorcery, however modified;— can we thus hope to light upon some chanc_lue to conduct us to the hidden cause we seek?
Let us try. But in a matter like this, subtlety appeals to subtlety, an_ithout imagination no man can follow another into these halls. And though,
doubtless, some at least of the imaginative impressions about to be presente_ay have been shared by most men, yet few perhaps were entirely conscious o_hem 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 acquainte_ith the peculiar character of the day, does the bare mention of Whitsuntid_arshal in the fancy such long, dreary, speechless processions of slow-pacin_ilgrims, down-cast and hooded with new-fallen snow? Or to the unread,
unsophisticated Protestant of the Middle American States, why does the passin_ention of a White Friar or a White Nun, evoke such an eyeless statue in th_oul?
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 Londo_ell so much more strongly on the imagination of an untravelled American, tha_hose other storied structures, its neighbors— the Byward Tower, or even th_loody? And those sublimer towers, the White Mountains of New Hampshire,
whence, in peculiar moods, comes that gigantic ghostliness over the soul a_he bare mention of that name, while the thought of Virginia’s Blue Ridge i_ull of a soft, dewy, distant dreaminess? Or why, irrespective of al_atitudes and longitudes, does the name of the White Sea exert such _pectralness over the fancy, while that of the Yellow Sea lulls us with morta_houghts of long lacquered mild afternoons on the waves, followed by th_audiest and yet sleepiest of sunsets? Or, to choose a wholly unsubstantia_nstance, purely addressed to the fancy, why, in reading the old fairy tale_f Central Europe, does “the tall pale man” of the Hartz forests, whos_hangeless pallor unrestingly glides through the green of the groves— why i_his 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 skie_hat never rain; nor the sight of her wide field of leaning spires, wrenche_ope-stones, and crosses all adroop (like canted yards of anchored fleets);
and her suburban avenues of house-walls lying over upon each other, as _ossed 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 whit_eil; and there is a higher horror in this whiteness of her woe. Old a_izarro, this whiteness keeps her ruins for ever new; admits not the cheerfu_reenness of complete decay; spreads over her broken ramparts the rigid pallo_f an apoplexy that fixes its own distortions.
I know that, to the common apprehension, this phenomenon of whiteness is no_onfessed to be the prime agent in exaggerating the terror of object_therwise terrible; nor to the unimaginative mind is there aught of terror i_hose appearances whose awfulness to another mind almost solely consists i_his one phenomenon, especially when exhibited under any form at al_pproaching to muteness or universality. What I mean by these two statement_ay perhaps be respectively elucidated by the following examples.
First: The mariner, when drawing nigh the coasts of foreign lands, if by nigh_e hear the roar of breakers, starts to vigilance, and feels just enough o_repidation to sharpen all his faculties; but under precisely simila_ircumstances, let him be called from his hammock to view his ship sailin_hrough a midnight sea of milky whiteness— as if from encircling headland_hoals of combed white bears were swimming round him, then he feels a silent,
superstitious dread; the shrouded phantom of the whitened waters is horribl_o him as a real ghost; in vain the lead assures him he is still of_oundings; heart and helm they both go down; he never rests till blue water i_nder him again. Yet where is the mariner who will tell thee, “Sir, it was no_o much the fear of striking hidden rocks, as the fear of that hideou_hiteness that so stirred me?”
Second: To the native Indian of Peru, the continual sight of the snowhowdahe_ndes conveys naught of dread, except, perhaps, in the mere fancying of th_ternal frosted desolateness reigning at such vast altitudes, and the natura_onceit of what a fearfulness it would be to lose oneself in such inhuma_olitudes. Much the same is it with the backwoodsman of the West, who wit_omparative indifference views an unbounded prairie sheeted with driven snow,
no shadow of tree or twig to break the fixed trance of whiteness. Not so th_ailor, beholding the scenery of the Antarctic seas; where at times, by som_nfernal trick of legerdemain in the powers of frost and air, he, shiverin_nd half shipwrecked, instead of rainbows speaking hope and solace to hi_isery, views what seems a boundless churchyard grinning upon him with it_ean ice monuments and splintered crosses.
But thou sayest, methinks this white-lead chapter about whiteness is but _hite flag hung out from a craven soul; thou surrenderest to a hypo, Ishmael.
Tell me, why this strong young colt, foaled in some peaceful valley o_ermont, far removed from all beasts of prey— why is it that upon the sunnies_ay, if you but shake a fresh buffalo robe behind him, so that he cannot eve_ee 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 n_emembrance in him of any gorings of wild creatures in his green norther_ome, so that the strange muskiness he smells cannot recall to him anythin_ssociated with the experience of former perils; for what knows he, this Ne_ngland colt, of the black bisons of distant Oregon?
No; but here thou beholdest even in a dumb brute, the instinct of th_nowledge 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 a_resent as to the deserted wild foal of the prairies, which this instant the_ay be trampling into dust.
Thus, then, the muffled rollings of a milky sea; the bleak rustlings of th_estooned frosts of mountains; the desolate shiftings of the windrowed snow_f prairies; all these, to Ishmael, are as the shaking of that buffalo robe t_he frightened colt!
Though neither knows where lie the nameless things of which the mystic sig_ives forth such hints; yet with me, as with the colt, somewhere those thing_ust exist. Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed i_ove, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.
But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned wh_t appeals with such power to the soul; and more strange and far mor_ortentous—why, as we have seen, it is at once the most meaning symbol o_piritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity; and yet shoul_e 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 an_mmensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought o_nnihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, tha_s in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence o_olor; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for thes_easons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wid_andscape of snows—a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? An_hen we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all othe_arthly hues—every stately or lovely emblazoning— the sweet tinges of sunse_kies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfl_heeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actuall_nherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deifie_ature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing bu_he charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that th_ystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle o_ight, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating withou_edium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with it_wn blank tinge—pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us _eper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored an_oloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blin_t the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And o_ll these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fier_unt? ..