The White Death By Justin Hocking

Justin Hocking will join us Summer 2018 for The Normal School's Summer Nonfiction Workshop and Publishing Institute, July 16-29, on the campus of Fresno State University, where he will lead workshops, participate in panel discussions, and meet one-on-one with students. Apply now. Scholarships and course credit available. 


In the posthumous afterword to the poet Charles Olson’s book Call Me Ishmael, the writer Merton Sealts describes visiting Olson in his tiny Greenwich Village office, where Olson was holed up, surrounded by old, heavily annotated copies of Moby-Dick, while finishing his doctoral dissertation on Melville. Sealts offered him a draft of one of his own essays on Melville. Olson—a great bear of a man—sat reading it, smoking his pipe, nodding in approval.

“Well,” Olson said, “I see … that … THE WHITE DEATH … has descended … upon YOU … too.”

THE WHITE DEATH. Noun—1. Simo Hayha, a Finnish sniper in the Winter War, nicknamed “White Death” by the Soviet Army. 2. A slang term used to describe incurable diseases such as Tuberculosis or AIDS. 3. Great White Shark (vernacular) 4. An all-consuming obsession with the novel Moby-Dick and the life of Herman Melville.

I contracted my own White Death back in graduate school, when I was first assigned Moby-Dick, and had to wake up at five or six a.m. to swim its immense dark waters.

In a typically droll essay, David Sedaris details how he had to force himself to get through Moby-Dick by not taking a bath until he finished. I loved Moby-Dick from the beginning, but I can sympathize with Sedaris. Melville’s language is often brilliant, pulse quickening, Shakespearean—the deeper midnight of the insatiable maw. His intensity and worldly wisdom are apparent, but so is his insecurity about his own lack of secondary education, a fact of his upbringing that he often tries to cloak with vainglorious prose or the overuse of alliteration: mingling their mumblings with his own mastications. You sometimes feel embarrassed for him, the way you do for historical interpreters or people in costume at a Renaissance fair. Or, like many Moby-Dick readers, you simply give up on him about halfway through, exasperated by long-winded tangents about the minutiae of whaling.

Not one to easily give up, though, I made it through Moby-Dick.

It’s a book about constant movement—about the relentless pursuit of passions—all things to which I can seriously relate.

I became obsessed with a book about obsession.

Searching for critical work on Melville, a couple of grad school friends and I ventured down to the fiction and literary criticism sections in the basement of the Colorado State University library. The library was flooded during a torrential rainstorm the previous year, copies of my favorites like The Odyssey and To The Lighthouse and The Shipping News tossed around and taking on muddy water, little paper vessels foundering in a storm. Though all the drowned books had been restored via irradiation, the basement still had a faint, mineral smell of floodwater.

After browsing a few stodgy critical anthologies, I discovered a title called Melville’s Moby-Dick: An American Nekyia by a Jungian analyst named Edward F. Edinger. I’ve always been fascinated by Carl Jung’s theories—with the fact that he accepted and honored spiritual experience whereas Freud denied it. In An American Nekyia, Edinger proposes the very Jungian interpretation that all the characters in Moby- Dick comprise one unified entity, that each individual crewmember is actually a different splintered archetype within the psyche of the main character—a spiritual seeker named Ishmael.

As proof, Edinger quotes from passages like the following:

They were one man, not thirty. For as the one ship that held them all; though it was put together of contrasting things—oak, and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp—yet all these ran into each other in one concrete hull, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed by the long central keel; even so, all the individualities of the crew, this man’s valor, that man’s fear; guilt and guiltiness, all varieties were welded into oneness…

The word Nekyia derives from the title of the eleventh book of The Odyssey, wherein Odysseus descends into the underworld to commune with the dead. According to Edinger, Moby-Dick is the quintessential American Nekyia—a metaphorical “night sea journey” through despair and meaninglessness, symbolizing the dark passages that we all embark on during our development as individuals and as a society. In Jungian theory, most spiritual journeys begin with a kind of universal descent into the underworld, where we come face-to-face with our own darkness, weaknesses, and fears—our shadow. Moby-Dick can be read as Ishmael’s confrontation with his own dark side, in the form of Ahab, just as most of us wrestle daily with our own dark moods and impulses, and our country reckons with its imperialistic shadow side. The clash turns bloody and violent, and Ahab’s resentful pursuit of the white whale brings down the entire ship. Only Ishmael is reborn through the wreckage; having assimilated his own shadow after this deep psychic battle, he floats upward through a spiraling whirlpool. In Jungian terms, this circular current is a mandala, an ancient symbol of wholeness and individuation.

I liked this spin on Melville’s tale—especially because a more literal analysis of Moby-Dick tends toward the melodramatic and purely tragic. The Jungian interpretation allows for darkness and shadows and tragedy, but ultimately points toward the light.

This is where it began: my own White Death, a syndrome characterized by obsessive thoughts about Moby-Dick and Herman Melville, the collecting of old volumes of the novel and the schlepping around of one or more of these volumes at almost all times, and constant talk of Moby-Dick—its brilliance and relevance to contemporary life—to anyone who’ll listen.

These early symptoms are mild compared to what manifests as the disease progresses.

{The White Dead}

Philip Weiss, contributing writer for The New York Times and confirmed Melvillian, who, in his 1996 Times article, describes how after reading Melville’s exalted letters to Hawthorne, he found himself in a sort of Melvillian dream; who, in the same article, states I had lost my own mind to Melville.

Laurie Anderson, who claims Moby-Dick is the strangest book she ever read; who hails Melville as a master of the jump cut; who spent the 1990’s creating a two-hour performance-art opera entitled Songs and Stories from Moby Dick.

Elizabeth Schultz, who admits to being obsessed with the novel; who wrote the meticulously researched Unpainted to the Last: Moby Dick and Twentieth Century American Art, a work that documents the hundreds of American visual artists who’ve attempted to paint what Melville believed could not be painted.

Junot Diaz, who quotes liberally from Moby-Dick in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; whose own literary voice mixes an ecstatic, wild style vernacular with highbrow sensibilities that can be described as Melvillian; who, in a 2012 interview with Bill Moyers, said, I had grown up in a place called Lemon Terrace, New Jersey, where the guy down the street was Uruguayan, the woman across the street was Korean, the person around the corner was Egyptian. There were Dominicans. There were African-Americans. There were white folks. And I felt like we were growing up in a tiny little Pequod . . . and when I was reading Moby-Dick, I was like, “Man, this guy really has his finger on the pulse of the America that I came up in.

David Foster Wallace, whose father read him Moby-Dick as a bedtime story; who counted Moby-Dick as one of his favorite works; who, while struggling with his own mental illness in college, wrote three essays about The Castaway section.

Jocko Weyland, who spent years writing his memoir The Answer Is Never: A Skateboarder’s History of the World; who struggled with piecing together so many disparate personal memories, history, interviews, sketches; who was then directed to Moby-Dick, where he found the answer.

Jackson Pollock, who, according to Elizabeth Schultz, spent years in Jungian analysis, where its emphasis upon primitive archetype, myth, and symbol, prompted his interest in Moby-Dick; who executed several paintings based on the novel; who, according to Ellen Landau, may have been able to associate Ahab’s search for the great white whale with what Jung called the Nekyia, or night sea journey; who himself spoke of the American chiaroscuro which dominated Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe; who hoped to replicate this contrasting light and dark in his own work.

Sena Jeter Naslund, who grew fascinated with the book at age thirteen; who, decades later, spent more than five years researching, writing, and revising the stunning, 666 page novel Ahab’s Wife.

Damion Searls, who, after learning of Orion Press’s recent abridgement of Moby-Dick into a Compact Edition for the overly busy or impatient reader, decided to trace every item excised by Orion’s anonymous editor, down to the last semicolon, and publish this 400 page demi-book called ; or the Whale in a special edition of the Review of Contemporary Fiction; who did this to preserve and celebrate the original novel’s digression, texture, and weirdness.

Tony Kushner, who became obsessed with Moby-Dick in grad school; who claims the novel is the single most important influence on his work, including the second act of Angels in America; who is quoted in the New York Times as saying One falls in love with him, and I certainly have, completely, as most of the other Melville freaks have; who learned from Melville that it’s better to risk total catastrophe than to play it safe as an artist.

Frank Stella, who spent twelve years creating over 1,500 abstract sculptures, collages, murals, paintings, engravings, and prints, each titled after Moby-Dick chapters; who claims that this obsession nearly destroyed him; who felt abstraction was the most effective way of representing the novel, that it mirrors Melville’s drive to express the raw, ineffable powers of nature.

Salman Rushdie, who claims Melville as a literary parent in his polyglot family tree; whose novel The Enchantress of Florence features a seafaring main character and a maximalist narrative style reminiscent of Moby-Dick.

Orson Welles, who played Father Mapple in John Huston’s black-and-white film version of Moby-Dick; who wrote and directed a play called Moby-Dick Rehearsed that was performed in London in 1955; who apparently made a film version of the play that is now lost; who later made another twenty-two minute film in which he enacts scenes from the production, playing all the parts himself—Ishmael and Ahab—while footage of rippling water projects on his face and the wall behind him.

Andrew Delbanco, who wrote the definitive biography Melville: His World and Work; who claims that Moby-Dick was not a book for a particular moment. It is a book for the ages; that Melville experienced the great city as every true New Yorker has always experienced it—with a combustible combination of love and hate; that Moby-Dick is the story of a young man’s rebirth.

Gilbert Wilson, who, during the mid-20th century created over three hundred paintings and drawings related to Moby-Dick; who became obsessed with the idea that the White Whale was a potent symbol for the destructive power of the nuclear bomb; who tried and failed to stage an opera called The White Whale, which he hoped would promote world peace.

Barry Lopez, who read the book three times before college, while living in New York City; who cites Moby-Dick as one of the main inspirations in his drive to render in writing both the light and dark aspects of the natural world.

Richard Serra, who grew up near the shipyards in San Francisco’s Ocean Beach neighborhood; whose monolithic steel sculptures are influenced by the process of shipbuilding; who made a famous piece entitled Call Me Ishmael; who said Moby-Dick has become America’s central epic poem. We are all influenced by it.

Dan Beachy-Quick, who created A Whaler’s Dictionary, a collection of essays about Moby-Dick, where he writes, What follows is the result of the mad task I found within myself after more than a decade spent reading the same novel. I meant not to exhaust Moby-Dick of meaning, but to exhaust myself of the meaning I found in it.

John Updike, who was a lifelong admirer of Melville’s novels and stories; who, in a 1982 New Yorker article, explained that despite Melville’s failure as a novelist and a life filled with personal tragedy, he never quit writing, not until his death.

Hershel Parker, who apparently wakes up in the middle of the night to pour over Melville’s personal letters; who wrote the seminal two-volume work Herman Melville: A Biography, each volume weighing in at 941 pages.

Elizabeth Renker, who cried as she read from Moby-Dick at her own wedding; who loves Melville’s work but not necessarily Melville the man; who writes openly of his alleged misogyny, alcoholism, and domestic abuse of his wife.

Adrian Villar Rojas, who created a nearly life-size, impaled white whale from unfired clay at a Moby Dick–themed art show at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco.

David Dowling, who documents his participation in a twenty-four-hour marathon Moby-Dick reading in his book Chasing the White Whale; who writes, If we are up to the challenge of endurance that the novel poses, especially as it is read in the marathon format, great rewards not only of survival but also of exultation are in order.

Nathaniel Philbrick, who in his book Why Read Moby-Dick? states that This redemptive mixture of skepticism and hope, this general stoicism in the face of such a short, ridiculous and irrational life, is why I read Moby-Dick; that it’s the one book that deserves to be called our American Bible.

David Shields, who in Reality Hunger writes The Novel is dead. Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps; who prizes Moby-Dick as a prototypical anti-novel; who, in How Literature Saved My Life, lists Moby-Dick as one of fifty works he swears by.

Matt Kish, who, on August 5, 2009, began making one drawing a day, every day, for all 552 pages of his version of Moby-Dick; whose work was later published in a book entitled Moby-Dick in Pictures.

Margaret Guroff, who created a copiously annotated, online version called Power Moby-Dick.

Nick Flynn, who loosely based the structure of his memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City on Moby-Dick; who writes in the final chapter, We know [Ahab] lost his leg, and that that loss became a story, and the story became the obsession that in the end defined, and ended his life. We have to be careful of the stories we tell about ourselves.

Hart Crane, who wrote the poem “At Melville’s Tomb;” who ended his poem with the line The Fabulous shadow only the sea keeps; who later drowned himself in the Gulf of Mexico.


This is an excerpt from his memoir The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld.

Justin Hocking’s memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, was published by Graywolf Press in early 2014 and was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Hocking is a recipient of the Willamette Writers' 2014 Humanitarian Award for his work in publishing, writing, and teaching. His nonfiction and fiction have appeared in The Rumpus, Orion Magazine, Portland Review, The Portland Noir Anthology, Poets and Writers Magazine, Swap/Concessions, Rattapallax, and elsewhere.

"The White Death" was originally published in The Normal School, Vol. 7, Issue One


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