Herman Melville: The Palsied Universe


Ishmael’s meditation on the great Albino whale, Moby Dick, conveys that influx of Shakespearean power and will – both mythic and rhetorical of which this sea beast of Melville’s became symbol and icon; a glimpse into Ahab’s tragic destiny, as well as a piercing of the dark veil that separates us from the Real.

Coming upon the passage below from Ishmael’s meditation, “invisible spheres were formed in fright,” I’m always reminded of William Blake’s The Tyger:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Another passage that has always haunted me is from that dark and somber evangelizer of the Christian faith, Saint Paul wherein he mentions the inscrutability of God’s darkness and evil in the universe, where “the mystery of iniquity doth already work” (2 Thessalonians 2:7). Raised a Christian, yet choosing a militant and atheistic materialism I admit this heritage’s mark on me and its dark shadow against which I’ve labored most of my life. The notion that there is a wall of darkness against which one cannot penetrate with  one’s Mind, an inscrutability of things which even now haunts philosophers under the guise of the Gap and the Real, and a number of other metaphors, similes, and synecdoche’s still troubles me.

Materialists in our time seeking to know why we exist, why we have consciousness, why our minds cannot comprehend their own existence, why we seem to be bounded in a great ignorance surrounded and blinded to the truth around us of the world and ourselves seek through words what can never be spoken or written with words. We seem to be left with poetry, symbol, iconology – the force of rhetoric and mystery. Our concepts which try to tie thought and being into some strange form of Order forever fall short of their goal. We stand before this impenetrable darkness without rhyme or reason, dumbfounded by our ignorance even after two-thousand years of philosophical bric-a-brac. The sciences, too, with all their investigative techniques seem far from comprehending the details of the Universe or Ourselves. Between a materialism that reduces everything to a monistic One-All (Naturalisms) and those that seeks a Two – a transcendent subjectivation that is in excess of our theories and our rhetoric to know or ontologize (Badiou, Zizek, Johnson) we wander in circles between a stark realism (Meillassoux) and a dark materialism (Deleuze, De Landa). The battle between the sciences and philosophy goes on…

But without adieu I give you Melville’s meditation on the merciless force of our impersonal and heartless universe, where God is both non-existent and extinct, and the only inevitable force is the unbounded energy and will of the universe itself in all its destructive splendor. A universe that is neither a big Other to be worshipped nor a great and singular master of Evil or Demiurge, but rather an inexplicable oscillation in a Void where thought and being struggle against each other, endlessly under the auspices of our modern scientific cosmos:

…..Though neither knows where lie the nameless things of which the mystic sign gives forth such hints; yet with me, as with the colt, somewhere those things must exist. Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.
……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 color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows— a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues— every stately or lovely emblazoning— the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge— pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

In the above the trope of the intransigent blank Harold Bloom tells us it is an ultimate image of our  Selfhood, one that survives from two prime English prototypes, Shakespearean and Miltonic. In Shakespeare, the blank is the center of a target, perhaps evoking the mark forever missed, the hamartia of Athenian tragedy, as when Kent cries out: “See better, Lear, and let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye.” Milton, invoking the Holy Light at the commencement of Paradise Lost, Book III, laments: “Presented with a universal blank / Of Nature’s works to me expunged and rased, / And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.”1

The notion in both sequences is that there is a blindness in the Mind or Eye that cannot penetrate the darkness of the natural universe, that we are forever chasing shadows in a realm where humans shaped to an environment of light and survival will always be forced to inhabit a less than adequate, even kludge-rigged knowledge of the world. Like Ahab on the ‘fiery hunt’ we plunder the universe with our technologies seeking to master and control the unknown forces that deign to destroy us, and like the men of the Pequod we follow our tragic course to our doom-eager ends.


  1. Bloom, Harold (2015-05-12). The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime

3 thoughts on “Herman Melville: The Palsied Universe

  1. But without adieu I give you Melville’s meditation on the merciless force of our impersonal and heartless universe, where God is both non-existent and extinct, and the only inevitable force is the unbounded energy and will of the universe itself in all its destructive splendor

    This reminds me of the interpretation of the Book of Job suggested by Stephen Mitchell. Worth looking at.


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