The whale, the albatross and the desire to surpass sublimity

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Allan Reyes

WR 150 “The Whale”

Prof. Degener

April 2nd, 2010

The Whale, the Albatross and the desire to surpass sublimity

Throughout history, some men have always tried to become more than they are. They have always had the unquenchable desire of transcending history. In wars, invasions and revolutions the expression of this desire is clear: men have been in a constant quest tooverpower other men as a way of showing their supremacy in this world. However, people have seen that this need of supremacy has not only been expressed in contests of man vs. man, but it goes beyond. Men do not only desire to surpass humans, they long for something bigger: sublimity. As it is common in the world of men, this human behavior or human tendency has been expressed in different works ofart. One of these is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, the story of the chase of the “White Whale”. The other is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, a poem that tells the story of a mariner and his perils. In both, the reader witnesses the ‘battle’ of men to approach sublimity (represented by the two major rivals in men’s history: Nature and God); even though, the outcome in eachwork is completely different.

In Melville’s Moby-Dick sublimity is clearly portrayed by the “White Whale”. Edmund Burke in his book A Philosophical Enquiry defines sublimity as “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger…whatever is any sort terrible or operates in a manner analogous to terror” (Burke 36). This idea of the terrible is taken to the extreme withthis whale in three aspects: size, color and behavior. In “Cetology”, Ishmael presents an extensive and descriptive classification of all the types of whales that exist, and he classifies the sperm whale as the biggest of the whales. But not only that, he describes the whale as being “the most formidable of all whales to encounter [and] the most majestic in aspect” (Melville 118). Simply by thisdescription, the sperm whale is placed in the highest rank of all sea creatures. And as Burke argues in his book that “greatness of dimension is a powerful cause of the sublime” (Burke 66), then the enormous size of the whale confirms its sublimity.

The other aspect that makes Moby-Dick the ultimate representation of sublimity is its color. In the “Whiteness of the whale” Ishmael presentsthe reader with an analysis of why the color is important; however, I would say that the color white in the whale serves two purposes: expanding and contrasting. If the whale is seen during the day the color white will create an illusion of expansion in the body size of the whale because it will blend with the daylight. In other words, the whiteness of the whale will cause the viewer tomiscalculate the real proportions of the whale thus transforming the whale into something even bigger, more sublime. On the other hand, if the whale is seen at night the color white will create a contrast between the darkness of the sea and the whale which will create the illusion as if the whale had suddenly appeared carrying its own luminosity.

Finally, the behavior of Moby-Dick is alsoimportant. Of all the whales described in the novel, this is the only one that seems to portray an unimaginably destructive power; a whale of “uncommon magnitude and malignity [and] great ferocity” (Melville 152) This unstoppable rage is witnessed in the atrocities that it had caused: completely destroying whaling ships, killing humans or even dismembering them, as what happened with Captain Ahab. Thesethree aspects add up to create an animal that portrays the sublimity of all Nature.

Focusing now on Coleridge’s The Rime, one would think that the Albatross is not sublime at all because it contradicts what Burke describes in his book. First of all, it is not big in size, even more, it is rather small. The smallness of the animal creates an effect of tenderness and as Burke defines it...
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