by Herman Melville
Moby-Dick Man and the Natural World Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
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? (42.25-26)
Ishmael (or the third-person narrator) reminds us once again of the many different possible reactions to the natural world. Even something as simple as the color white can inspire every possible reaction in men, from awe to fear.
The natural aptitude of the French for seizing the picturesqueness of things seems to be peculiarly evinced in what paintings and engravings they have of their whaling scenes. With not one tenth of England’s experience in the fishery, and not the thousandth part of that of the Americans, they have nevertheless furnished both nations with the only finished sketches at all capable of conveying the real spirit of the whale hunt. For the most part, the English and American whale draughtsmen seem entirely content with presenting the mechanical outline of things, such as the vacant profile of the whale; which, so far as picturesqueness of effect is concerned, is about tantamount to sketching the profile of a pyramid. (56.7)
This passage might seem like an odd choice at first; after all, the chapters on different depictions of whales in various artistic media are basically just a brief aside in the enormous novel that is Moby-Dick.
But, if you think about it, the bias that Melville betrays in this passage tells us something about the entire novel. The narrator (possibly Ishmael) claims that the best pictures of whales are the ones that aren’t just of whales: they contain action and show the dynamic between human hunters on whaling ships and the whales themselves. In this novel, the most realistic depiction of Nature is one that shows the relationship between Nature and man.
It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own. (68.7)
Here the narrator envies the whale’s capacity to keep itself separate from its environment; its insides are, in a way, impenetrable, hardly affected by the outside world. This relates to some of the arguments made in the New Testament about what Christians should be: even though they are "in the world" they shouldn’t be "of the world" or "be conformed" to it. (We’d cite specific passages, but these phrases recur again and again in different books.) Even if you don’t interpret the whale as an allegory for the Christian believer, it’s clear that the novel depicts whales as both part of the world and intriguingly separate from it.