Whiteness and Wackspurts

After scouring Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and a Google books edition of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick for profound and pithy lines, I tried to wrangle the clutter in my head (I blame wackspurts!) into clear, coherent, and concise sentences that cogently translate leaping about and gesticulating like an orangutan into proper academic English. I failed. I have broken most rules of proprietous prose. I have no thesis (for that alone, my boss should fire me). I have not adhered to the infallible five paragraph model. I have neglected to cite texts properly. I have, in short, invalidated myself as an English major in this valiant attempt to put “AGGGGH” into the language of Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible (as Professor Higgins would say).

 Why have I thus shamed myself?

 Because of the whiteness of the whale! And the white ivory that is the heart of darkness!

 —insert running around in tiny circles here—

 Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is, on a logistical level, about an Englishman named Marlow who travels into the Belgian Congo in the 1800s to rescue a man named Kurtz who is the region’s adored—and quite mad—ivory king. From page one, Conrad tinkers with a black and white paradigm. As a child, Marlow thought of Africa as “a blank space of delightful mystery—a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over.”[1] Within two decades, European imperialists had transformed Africa into “a place of darkness.”[2] At the beginning of Marlow’s tale, white appears symbolically neutral—the emptiness it signifies is not evil or malicious, but inviting and exciting—and black wicked. But the simple dichotomy doesn’t last. White and black are blurred, not into grey, but into ivory.

Ivory is the heart of darkness. Ivory is the imperialists’ pagan religion—“something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.”[3] Ivory holds the Europeans “captive by a spell”[4] and pulls Kurtz into insanity.[5] Kurtz tries to conquer Ivory; but by the time Marlow finds Kurtz, Ivory has “taken him [Kurtz], loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation.”[6] Dying, Kurtz’ “ivory face” transfixes in a “supreme moment” of self-knowledge as he whispers, “The horror! The horror!”[7] Kurtz ventured into the Dark Continent to get Ivory; in doing so, he pierced the “impenetrable darkness”[8] of his heart and found the horror of human evil.

Let’s throw in Melville’s Moby Dick. You know this story. Crazy Ahab can’t rest until he kills the White Whale who bit off his leg (Watch the Gregory Peck film if you want a rollicking swashbuckler that predates the contemporary pirate obsession!). Moby Dick, like Africa on the map during Marlow’s childhood and like Kurtz’s ivory, is white. Moby Dick’s whiteness is both mysterious and horrible, both a “white patch” and a “place of darkness.[9] Moby Dick’s whiteness, like Queequeg’s tattoos that contain the unknown meaning of the universe, is a “devilish tantalization of the gods.”[10] Ahab and his crew can do nothing more than scrawl a question mark on “white patch”[11] that is the elusive White Whale. A godlike creature that man cannot conquer, the White Whale is the unknown sea made corporeally manifest.

But the White Whale evokes not only curiosity and obsession, but also a horror reminiscent of Kurtz’s. Ishmael thinks of Moby Dick with a “vague, nameless horror.”[12] White, Ishmael explains, represents nothingness—white is not so much “a color as the visible absence of color… a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink.[13] If, as ancient philosophers and theologians tell us, nothingness is evil, then Moby Dick is evil incarnate. He is both unknown meaning and nothingness.

And now we get back to the incoherent gesticulations. I’ve told you what I see in the texts. But I don’t know what it means.

Here’s a question, though: if “ignorance is the parent of fear” as Ishmael posits, [14] do we fear evil only because it is unknown? Ahab and his crew feared Moby Dick, the unknown evil; but Kurtz discovered his own depravity with terror. And…I have nothing but gibberish. I blame the wackspurts.


[1] Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness. 43.

[2] Ibid., 43.

[3] Ibid., 41.

[4] Ibid., 75.

[5] Ibid., 91.

[6] Ibid., 90.

[7] Ibid., 115.

[8] Ibid., 115.

[9] Ibid., 43.

[10] Melville, Herman, Moby Dick. No edition in particular. Chapter 109.

[11] Conrad 43.

[12] Melville, chapter 41.

[13] Ibid., chapter 41.

[14] Ibid., chapter 3.

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Filed under Being a Bookworm, Torrey Honors Institute

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