Blackness and Madness in Moby-Dick

American Literary Traditions

Randy Bass: Racial Unconscious in Moby-Dick

    As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers' as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul. ("The Try-Works")

Of all the many key words and phrases in this paragraph,, perhaps the most important of them all is the word "seemed" in the last sentence. Here in this vivid chapter of "The Try-Works," Melville depicts the harpooners (all non-White and non-Western) drinking and laughing in front of the roaring flames, while the ship itself lurches through choppy seas. But this tableau of "savage" crewmen, shooting hellish flames only seems the material counterpart of Ahab's monomania. Although there is an intense gothic quality to Melville's portrayal of the scene, it is portrayed as much as a gothic aesthetic--both material counterpart and metaphor.

Regardless of whatever self-conscious quality Melville gives to the passage, it brings together all of the key terms that make up what I'm calling the "racial unconscious" of Moby-Dick, the chain of associations that bring together images of blackness, savageness, madness, and danger. Highly aestheticized or not, Melville's invocation of the "blackness of darkness" in association with the "monomaniac commander's soul" is a key association. Throughout Moby-Dick Melville engages the typical nineteenth-century associations of "blackness" with the "irrational," "madness," and in the case of Melville's usage of the term in relation to Nathaniel Hawthorne, a post-Calvinist legacy of guilt and original sin.

As Melville says in his essay, "Hawthorne and His Mosses,"

    Certain it is, however, that this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free. For, in certain moods, no man can weigh this world, without throwing in something, somehow like Original Sin, to strike the uneven balance. At all events, perhaps no writer has ever wielded this terrific thought with greater terror than this same harmless Hawthorne. Still more: this black conceit pervades him, through and through. You may be witched by his sunlight,--transported by the bright gildings in the skies he builds over you;--but there is the blackness of darkness beyond....

In associating the language of blackness with the idea of the irrational, depravity, and original sin, Melville reveals what Toni Morrison calls the "haunting" of the African American presence on writers in the nineteenth century. It is one of the important facets of the racial unconscious. However, the unconscious plays itself out in other ways as well: in the presence of black crew members as racial "others", and in the more generalized role of non-white men as the internationalized workforce of the Pequod.