Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale

Something about the color white terrifies Ishmael, but he doesn’t know what. In “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Ishmael approaches his thought sensibly — methodically — and surveys all the whiteness he can think of in the world.

White presents a problem. On one hand, white is the sum total of all colors in the spectrum — white is every color at once. On the other hand, we most commonly think of white as the absence of color — white is no color at all. How terrifying to think, existentially speaking, of everything adding up to nothing. Annie Hall-esque neurosis ensues:

1) In death, a body turns white. Does an entire life sum to nothing? Worse, perhaps, is death, a body empty of spirit, the fullest state of being?

2) White is the color of empire. Such dread lies in the prospect that all cultures sum to a blank homogeneity.

3) In a polar bear, we see the purity of “celestial innocence and love” (everything) equal to the ferocious indifference of nature (nothing). Ishmael later refers to the latter as “demonism” in the world, which does makes sense as the opposite of God, but which in turn becomes a far more dreadful spiritual equivalency.

4) etc.

In his telling of the chapter, Ishmael provides us with a great example of this specter of whiteness. The more examples that Ishmael layers into the chapter, the more the chapter becomes a wash of information — the sheer volume of it negating any greater significance. By giving such a complete and inconclusive study of white, Ishmael makes a greater statement about perspective and storytelling and the human experience — we need to filter, we need to select the significant and disregard the rest — we need to color our world, or lose out in the quest to have it all.

Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale

A study in white
Surrounds every taker.
Imperial blight,
Terrifically pure.
Desolate glaciers found at great heights,
Cold and unloving in the next life.

With every color
Layered in turn,
The sum of creation
Is empty in full.
Pure in its essence, but a nothing.
Are we perspectives on a nothing?

In death, the body’s pallid —
As the spirit drains away
The vessel is overflowing.

A color to mask
Each kind of decay.
The specter of white
Implies every corruption.
Purity’s nothing but an absence.
Cleansed of the human, now an absence.

In death, the body’s pallid —
As the spirit drains away
The vessel is overflowing.

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea October 26, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea January 31, 2010

Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 9:06 am  Leave a Comment  
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