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?
~Herman Melville, from Moby Dick
In a personal letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne upon completing Moby Dick, Melville said, “I have written an evil book.” What is it about the book that he considered evil? The answer has been debated by literary scholars since the book was published, and I agree with the view that sees the whale as God with vengeance fueled Ahab in pursuit. Given that so few people have actually read Moby Dick, it seems necessary to give a spoiler alert here: It doesn’t end well for Captain Ahab.
It’s hard to fight God.
C.S. Lewis, once an atheist himself, said he knew very few true atheists. He said it’s not that most people don’t believe in God but rather they are angry with God for not existing. Now there’s a starting point. Accepting the sovereignty of God does not require understanding Him. Really now, how small would God be if we could wrap our minds around Him? God wants us to bring Him our pain and questions, but not in the grip of a rebellious fist.
The beginning of understanding is worship.
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said,
2 “Who is this that darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?
3 “Now gird up your loins like a man,
And I will ask you, and you instruct Me!
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding,
5 Who set its measurements? Since you know.
Or who stretched the line on it?
6 “On what were its bases sunk?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
7 When the morning stars sang together
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
8 “Or who enclosed the sea with doors
When, bursting forth, it went out from the womb;
9 When I made a cloud its garment
And thick darkness its swaddling band,
10 And I placed boundaries on it
And set a bolt and doors,
11 And I said, ‘Thus far you shall come, but no farther;
And here shall your proud waves stop’?
12 “Have you ever in your life commanded the morning,
And caused the dawn to know its place,
13 That it might take hold of the ends of the earth,
And the wicked be shaken out of it?
14 “It is changed like clay under the seal;
And they stand forth like a garment.
15 “From the wicked their light is withheld,
And the uplifted arm is broken.
16 “Have you entered into the springs of the sea
Or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17 “Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
Or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
18 “Have you understood the expanse of the earth?
Tell Me, if you know all this.
19 “Where is the way to the dwelling of light?
And darkness, where is its place,
20 That you may take it to its territory
And that you may discern the paths to its home?
21 “You know, for you were born then,
And the number of your days is great!
22 “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
Or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
23 Which I have reserved for the time of distress,
For the day of war and battle?
24 “Where is the way that the light is divided,
Or the east wind scattered on the earth?
25 “Who has cleft a channel for the flood,
Or a way for the thunderbolt,
26 To bring rain on a land without people,
On a desert without a man in it,
27 To satisfy the waste and desolate land
And to make the seeds of grass to sprout?
28 “Has the rain a father?
Or who has begotten the drops of dew?
29 “From whose womb has come the ice?
And the frost of heaven, who has given it birth?
30 “Water becomes hard like stone,
And the surface of the deep is imprisoned.
31 “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,
Or loose the cords of Orion?
32 “Can you lead forth a constellation in its season,
And guide the Bear with her satellites?
33 “Do you know the ordinances of the heavens,
Or fix their rule over the earth?
34 “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
So that an abundance of water will cover you?
35 “Can you send forth lightnings that they may go
And say to you, ‘Here we are’?
36 “Who has put wisdom in the innermost being
Or given understanding to the mind?
37 “Who can count the clouds by wisdom,
Or tip the water jars of the heavens,
38 When the dust hardens into a mass
And the clods stick together?
39 “Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
Or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
40 When they crouch in their dens
And lie in wait in their lair?
41 “Who prepares for the raven its nourishment
When its young cry to God
And wander about without food?
Art: Shipwreck Off Nantucket by William Bradford 1861
On August 8, 1859, the whaling ship Nantucket ran aground during the night at Nashawena Island, Massachusetts, part of the Elizabeth Islands at the entrance to Vineyard Sound. The next day, Bradford left his studio in New Bedford to observe the scene in preparation for painting this large, epic depiction of the shipwreck. He had recently worked alongside Albert Van Beest, who had been trained in the tradition of Dutch marine painting, and the dramatic effect of heavy seas and tilting ship show the other artist’s influence. Bradford’s impressive knowledge of seagoing vessels, however, is seen in the careful delineation of the deck of the whaler and the small craft that surround it.
Literature: Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Moby Dick has often been called The Great American Novel and that’s true for every wrong reason. On the eve of its debut, Melville’s heart soared with confidence that the public would embrace his masterpiece. Of course, this was not to be. The version released in England had a botched ending and the reviewing critics were merciless. Though the book had been corrected before it’s US release, the reviews preceded it, and the die was cast.
The reception was horrific and Melville never recovered.
Today, decades later Moby Dick is recognized as an epic masterwork, but still, very few people have actually read it. Truthfully, that’s partly Melville’s fault. The book is a mule choker, both long and descriptively detailed in the technicalities of nineteenth century whaling. Yes, the story is textured and timeless but the reader is often burdened with unnecessary commentary. Sure, it proves he knew what he was talking about, but it takes a real toll on the story’s momentum. It’s a little like trying to read the Bible and getting bogged down in the Book of Numbers.
If America wasn’t ready for Moby Dick when it came out, America is less so now. Our attention spans are short and we want fast action in big screen high def color. Moby Dick exceeds all of that in the theater of the mind, but only yields its treasure to patient lovers of lore and language.
All that said, I’m glad I read every word.