Striking Through the Mask: Part Four (Shadow and Act)

by Ezekiel Fry

As I continue to examine connections between Ellison and Melville it dawned on me that there may very well be a truly Ellisonian lens through which to view Melville’s Moby-Dick. Within Ellison’s collection of essays Shadow and Act, a great many references to Melville, and to Moby-Dick in particular, are intimated. While many of these are overarching remarks regarding Ellison’s personal literary heritage and American literary heritage as a whole, there is one remark that seems to hint towards this new reading of Moby-Dick specifically. Within his essay “Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity” Ellison, in a discussion of the great writers of the American 19th century references Melville and then states in a parenthetical aside, “([Melville] whose symbol of evil, incidentally, was white)” (32). This incidental statement, thrown into the milieu of a larger discussion, and trapped within the seemingly subsidiary parentheses is far from obscured to the seasoned initiate of Melville’s titanic leviathan. What the white whale represents to Ahab we have explored, what the white whale means to Ishmael has been hinted at, but what the white whale means to the American identity as a whole has yet to be determined. In this aside Ellison begins to construct a vision of Moby Dick that steps out of the metaphysical and into the humanistic—the cultural and everyday meaning of American existence and humanity. When we begin to use Melville’s incidental use of whiteness in characterizing evil we will see that there is very little that is incidental about it. Moby Dick is far more representative of a tangible feeling within the American character than we may truly wish to believe.
In Shadow and Act, within the essay “Brave Words for a Startling Occasion,” Ellison writes of his 19th century literary antecedents:

I came to believe that the writers of that period took a much greater responsibility for the condition of democracy and, indeed, their works were imaginative projections of the conflicts within the human heart which arose when the sacred principles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights clashed with the practical exigencies of human greed and fear, hate and love. (104)

This statement, which speaks also to the concept of a technically beautiful, but morally bankrupt fiction in the 20th century put forth in “Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” also encapsulates one of Invisible Man’s narrator’s final epiphanies. As the riddle of his grandfather is deciphered (for the time being at least), Ellison’s narrator begins to understand the truth of the American dilemma. It is a theme rooted not only in the history of our nation, but also in the role of the Theodicy motive in both modern literature and the Gnostic texts of early Christianity. Ellison writes:

Did he mean say “yes” because he knew that the principle was greater than the men, greater than the numbers and the vicious power and all the methods used to corrupt its name? Did he mean to affirm the principle, which they themselves had dreamed into being out of the chaos and darkness of the feudal past, and which they had violated and compromised to the point of absurdity even in their own corrupt minds? Or did he mean that we had to take the responsibility for all of it, for the men as well as the principle, because we were the heirs who must use the principle because no other fitted our needs? (574).

Here we find the hidden wisdom within the affirmative “yes” of the narrator’s grandfather’s threat. The whole absurd reality of the American experiment, as it has been played out by the actors themselves, is thrown into a new light. The principle, which Ellison speaks to in Shadow and Act, and the responsibility to the ideal remain, while the execution, the human element of the equation, is thrown asunder. The experiment has failed, but the parameters remain solid and true. This vision of America, and the shadow which lies upon our existences—be it black or white—gives hope that one day the shadow may be erased by the principal—by the ideal. This concept, as mentioned above, is a complex reworking of Leibnitz’s Theodicy, which strove to defend the world that God had created, to alleviate God from direct responsibility for the frailties of the human world. In essence, the Theodicy motive of pre-19th century literature looks very much like John Milton’s mission statement at the beginning of Paradise Lost : “I may assert Eternal Providence/ And justify the ways of God to men” (1.25-26). It is my contention that these motives—to justify God—shift in the latter half of the 19th century and culminate in the works of such writers as Ralph Ellison. The motive merely shifts. We no longer examine a means to justify God in a world of death and pain, but we instead look to justify the American Principle, as Ellison and his narrator help define, in the face of contrary human history and the absurd doings of those who espouse the “sacred principles.” It is a saying “yes” to the principle and a denial of the result. In this way, Ellison’s narrator’s summation of America begins to touch on the Gnostic interpretations of Genesis, which are fundamentally seeped in the age old Theodicy motive as well.
Within the Gnostic gospels (and particularly the teachings of Marcion) the creation of Genesis is seen as the work of a usurper, or demiurge. This demiurge takes the idea of creation from the alien or allusive God, and puts it into practice. Hence, the suffering and pain that is manifest in the world is the result not of the omnipotent God’s work, but instead is that of a devilish and malignant entity. From this origination the alien God sends his emissary, Jesus, to severe the bond between humanity and the demiurge’s world, granting freedom in the next world. This system strives to justify the works of God to men, but it also serves as a framework for an Ellisonian reading of Moby-Dick. In the same way that Gnostic theology praises the idea (the concept of creation in the consciousness of the alien God), Ellison’s narrator’s deciphering of his grandfather’s words praises the “principle.” Neither appraisal has very kind words for the execution of events, be they the world in totality or the realities of a single country, and lurking behind the difficulties of both systems is, as Melville writes in Moby-Dick, “one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air” (22).
With this in mind we now turn back to the interpretation of Ellison’s words concerning the color of Melville’s symbol. The “grand hooded phantom” of slavery and its incumbent contradictions to the American “principle” created the actualities of American existence out of the pure ideal. Its presence, much like that of Moby Dick, causes disharmony in an otherwise placid situation. Moby Dick is the demiurge of Gnostic theology, and it is also the very much alive specter of slavery that lurks beneath the doings and grand propositions of The Continental Congress. While this specter exists there can be no peace for Ahab and his crew, and while the inequities and terror of slavery and its consequences exist there can be no peace for America.
The shadow cast upon Don Benito’s existence in Melville’s Benito Cereno may now be given a hue—it is white; the whiteness of Moby Dick himself and the whiteness of the evils of slavery and an unjust execution of the American “principle.” The shadow cast by Babo is white. This shadow, which so haunts both Ahab and Ishmael, cannot be allowed to endure in the world. This is the quest of the Pequod. A motley array of men joined together for one purpose—to destroy the absurd reality that the existence of slavery has created within the United States. The whale is the symbol of this ubiquitous evil, and the Pequod is the national vessel—it is symbolic of a nation tossed before the flood—and its captain is the hopeful deliverer—perhaps the emissary of the alien God sent to rectify the wrongs of the nation, and to return the “principle” to the forefront rather than the background of the scene. Each member of the crew is an active member of the American experiment hell-bent upon reinvigorating a poisoned system, taking, as Ellison calls it “responsibility for the condition of democracy.” Whether or not this mission is successful is another matter entirely, but the very act of “strik[ing] through the mask,” as Ahab calls it, of the superficiality and contradictory nature of the “principle” in action is a victory in itself. With this in mind the words of Ishmael ring with new found fury, “Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?” (Melville 165).