It is definitely not a book to relax and enjoy, as we think of the word. He often waxes philosophical, and I’ve seen that there is a lot more to it than a whaling story. Or even a story of revenge and the hunt.
I just wanted to share with you a couple of quotes from the book I find interesting, thought-provoking, and flat-out philosophical.
“Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls….though in the Vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than the redness which afrights in blood.”
He has a whole chapter devoted to the two-sided characteristics of whiteness. How, on one hand it strikes in us awe, reverence, and a sense of purity; yet on the other hand, how there is often something about it that also strikes fear and repulsion. As he says in the above quote, it is an “elusive something” that brings the latter.
I read that and thought to myself – I know what that “something” is. It is righteousness. Who on this earth has not felt little in the presence of someone obviously more righteous than they are? And I mean really and sincerely righteous, by the grace of God, not simply someone who thinks they are righteous? How many times have I felt a reluctance to come into the presence of God, because he is righteous, and I am not? It does strike fear in my heart. Not repulsion though, because I love him.
It’s like in one of the Chronicles of Narnia (I forget which one), when it describes what it’s like to meet Aslan. What if you finally met Goodness face to face, and found that it was terrible?
That’s what I think that “elusive something” is. But, that’s just me, and Herman Melville doesn’t seem to answer the question himself. Just leaves it open to pondering.
Later on, in another chapter, Melville describes the “serpentine” way the whale-line is weaved through each whale boat, and how it comes in almost constant contact with each man in the boat, and how that fact is a constant danger for each of them. It seems that just as many fatal whaling accidents are caused by a man being caught in the line attached to the whale, and either dragged into the sea to drown, or otherwise lost. He describes how, before this ever happens, when they are rowing out to their prey, each man is jocular and serene, even though they subconsciously know of their constant danger. He says this:
“All men live enveloped in whale lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortal realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you are a philosopher, though seated in the whale boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, at your side.”
Is this not a wonderful description of sin in our lives? How unaware we are of the peril of Hell until that moment when we die, and our eyes are fully opened? We are all born with sin’s yoke about our necks, and it’s such a constant presence in our lives that we barely notice it. If it weren’t for the voice of the Holy Spirit whispering to each of us “This is wrong. Turn away,” we would die skipping and whistling all the way to Hell.
Thank God for the cross of Jesus Christ, which has awakened us to our peril, and called us back from the brink!
Who knew there could be theology in a novel?
I love the classics.