Whiteness in Melville and London

April 8, 2007 at 4:01 pm Leave a comment

Herman Melville
Sometimes I’m questioned by the kind of people who ask questions about such things, why a dissertation on American literary naturalism should begin with Melville‘s Moby Dick.

The above picture is not from an edition of Moby Dick, but the metal band Mastodon‘s “Leviathan” album. I’m indebted to Raccoon for the introduction to these guys’ work. Perhaps there is a connection between metal and naturalism. There is a connection between Moby Dick and naturalism.

I’d like to look at two passages. The first is from the famous chapter of Moby Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale”:

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 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? (Norton Critical MD 165)

This passage is notable not simply because Ralph Ellison here gets his line for Invisible Man (whiteness is not so much a color…), but also because the all-color of atheism, the heartless voids and immensities clearly invokes what would become the naturalist problematic. Lines like “the palsied universe lies before us a leper” (165) would put Melville in good stead with writers like Jack London and Theodore Dreiser.
Jack London

Compare the above passage from Moby Dick with the following passage from London’s short story “The White Silence”:

Nature has many tricks wherewith she convinces man of his finity,–the ceaseless flow of the tides, the fury of the storm, the shock of the earthquake, the long roll of heaven’s artillery,–but the most tremendous, the most stupefying of all, is the passive phase of the White Silence. All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice. Sole speck of life journeying across the ghostly wastes of a dead world, he trembles at his audacity, realizes that his is a maggot’s life, nothing more. (American Library 301)

The “White Silence” is akin to the whiteness of the whale. London seems to conflate God with nature and indifference here with his “brass heavens.” See the sounding brass somewhere in Corinthians “If I have not love, I am as the sounding brass, I am nothing” (pardon the crude paraphrase from memory). Both Moby Dick and “The White Silence” present us with the possibility of a malevolent universe sometimes called God, and both seek to assert the primacy of human struggle as, at least to those struggling, meaningful. The god of naturalism is most present in the chaos or silence of his absence from the scene. This absence, for Ahab is maddening–its intellectual repugnance fuels his need to see behind the “pasteboard mask” that is the whiteness of the whale.
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Entry filed under: American Literary Naturalism, books, Jack London, Klondike Stories, Melville, metal, Moby Dick, The White Silence.

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