To become an American is essentially to divest oneself of a past identity, to make a radical break with the past. – Herman Melville
…the world’s fairest hope linked with man’s foulest crime. – Herman Melville
What is this standard of “whiteness” by which Europeans and Americans have defined themselves for so long? My book argues that American whiteness is actually a perceived “not-redness” and “not-blackness.” In other words, countless White people believe that they know who they are because they lack the characteristics of the Other: primitive, lazy, irrational, impulsive, violent, untrustworthy or promiscuous.
And let’s be crystal clear about this. These are all psychological projections through which White Europeans have perceived people of color throughout the Third World in order to justify the terrible crimes of colonialism and convince themselves of their own innocence. And for a thousand years they have sent their young men to rape, slaughter and die for God’s will to triumph, often perpetrating the most hideous atrocities upon the truly innocent “for their own good.”
Taking this moral disorder to its pathological extreme, Captain Ahab believes that the white whale that men call Moby Dick is the embodiment of pure evil. And let’s be clear about this as well: why does Ahab hate the whale with such malicious intensity? Because on a previous voyage, the whale had taken his leg in self-defense while Ahab was hunting him. In his personal (and national) madness, Ahab, lifelong butcher of whales, has convinced himself that Moby Dick had victimized him, and has taken on the role of the Old Testament god of vengeance.
But why a white whale?
Chapter 42 (The Whiteness of The Whale) has been described as “…the heart of the entire work.” Melville begins it with the common ideas of whiteness symbolizing beauty, innocence and goodness. But then he addresses the mystery of identity that propels our hateful obsessions about the Other:
…there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood…which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles …that the irresponsible ferociousness of the creature stands invested in the fleece of celestial innocence and love; and hence, by bringing together two such opposite emotions in our minds, the Polar bear frightens us with so unnatural a contrast.
…even the king of terrors, when personified by the evangelist, rides on his pallid horse…it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity; and yet…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?…is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?…pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper…And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
Perhaps Melville was also acknowledging the chasm of meaningless that lies just below the surface of American identity and its assumptions about race and innocence. Interested readers should read Richard Slotkin’s great Regeneration Through Violence trilogy.
Gabrielle Bellot writes that just below the narrative of Moby Dick is the theme of race:
…it is a template for Melville’s, and our, America: a world populated as much with gestures towards racial equality as with casual racist assumptions…chasing Moby Dick, that avatar of whiteness, means fighting against the meaninglessness of the world, hoping that, through some bloody violence, life-purpose will bloom into existence. Ahab pursues the whale out of a manufactured anger, in a quest to give his life some vague value…
Six years after the publication of Moby Dick and three years before the Civil War, Melville completed his thinking about the white / red / black triad of American innocence, writing (in The Confidence-Man) of “Indian hating.” It was a unique dimension in which religious zeal, barbaric cruelty, capitalist land-grabbing and sacrificial ritual merged to create genocide. What Ahab had attempted to do to the white whale, his nation had been doing to its original inhabitants for 250 years. It was so ingrained in the national character that by Melville’s time, hatred of Indians had become a “metaphysic.”
Nearly a hundred and seventy years after Moby Dick, millions – perhaps tens of millions – of Americans continue to wrestle, knowingly or not, with the question of identity. Who the Hell are we? Are we nothing more than “not the Other”? Does our “manufactured anger” – or more accurately, displaced anger – give our lives “some vague value”? Is there still a positive definition of “American” that we can speak out loud without laughing or weeping? The good news is that countless good-hearted liberals have been offered the opportunity to awaken from their life-long trance of innocence and privilege. The bad news…well, you know the bad news. For more on the issue of white privilege, see my essays “Privilege” and “Affirmative Action For Whites.”
…this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime. – James Baldwin