Friday, April 15, 2011

It's a Midrash Type of Day

Ralph Ellison was to all of my knowledge, a fan of Herman Melville. In chapter three in Invisible Man I found a passage that I feel Ellison intentionally tries to connect to Melville. The short summary of the scene is that the main narrator, who is nameless, is trying to fulfill the wishes of Mr. Norton who simply wanted a drink to make him feel better. The narrator decides to stop at the Golden Day; a bar that seems to be out of control. The section that I am going to use has Mr. Norton passed out under the stairs of the bar and the narrator is describing how he looks.

“Then some of the milling men pushed me up against him and suddenly a mass of whiteness was looming two inches from my eyes; it was only his face but I felt a shudder of nameless horror. I had never been so close to a white person before. In a panic I struggled to get away. With his eyes closed he seemed more threatening than with them open. He was like a formless white death, suddenly appeared before me, a death which had been there all the time and which had now revealed itself in the madness of the Golden Day” (Ellison 86).

This passage could be considered a midrash of Melville and his ideas on the whiteness. Kermode defined midrash as a practice that takes an earlier text and interprets and almost rewrites it in a way that loses some of its original meaning. He used the example of the Gospels as possibly being midrashed. The new ending of the Gospels is a perfect moment for the example of midrashing. In Mark, the gospel ends suddenly and as history went on and on people or readers wanted answers. The development of the other gospels had endings that were more appealing to the readers, leaving them with more closer. Kermode brings up that these alternate endings could be different interpretations and some people like it and some don’t.

This all goes back to what I feel Ellison was trying to do with Melville. Although, we are not talking about the gospels now these are two very influential authors in American Literature. I feel that in the passage that I already quoted Ellison was trying to interpret what Melville was trying to say in his chapter in Moby-Dick, The Whiteness of The Whale. The whole chapter is about whiteness and Melville does not make it to interpret what he his saying whether you look at it carnally or spiritually. Ishmael says, “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me”. Melville goes on to give examples of how whiteness has been considered a color of power and importance like in court, Greek mythology, and Christian priests. After that he goes into the horror and terror it can represent. He says in Nature whiteness warns of terror and horror like the polar bear and white sharks of the sea. He said a mariner lost at sea said, “ Sir, it was not so much the fear of striking hidden rocks, as the fear of that hideous whiteness that stirred me”. Here more than the other example I think I can see the spiritual reading of Melville. For when he said that the mariner said he was afraid of the whiteness of the sea I feel that he was trying to say he was afraid of the future or the unknown. That is what the mariner felt; the fear of the unknown; if he was going to live, if he was going to ever see another human, or if he would die a lonely death at sea.

Connecting this back to Ellison, I feel that like I tried to do above by interpreting Melville’s work, Ellison has also tired. The problem lies in the fact that Melville crams so many ideas and symbols all into one chapter that any attempt at an interpretation would almost have to be considered midrash. The narrator says that he feels a nameless horror because the white face is so close to him. This is ironic since he himself is nameless throughout the novel, but that is just an aside. The connection between Melville and Ellison can be made because of the fact they both at a point associate whiteness with horror. This is very interesting to me and I feel could be considered a critique by both of the white society that is commonly referred to in America. The problem that I have with Ellison is that if this is an attempt at a connection with Melville, why so short and sudden? I know that Ellison is not one for using unnecessary words but I feel he could have gone deeper with his Melville moment. Maybe he didn’t want to and maybe he didn’t agree with all Melville ideas about the whiteness. I do like what I’m calling the icing on the cake, when in the last sentence of the passage I quoted. Ellison makes an almost useless reference to the Golden Day unless like I’m thinking is another clue to say that this is a Melville reference. It is widely known that Melville was considered one of the members of the Golden Days and I feel that in Ellison’s midrash some of his thoughts get lost due to interpretation.


  1. You picked a great passage, and your comment on it is perceptive; this is a great example of a probable (or near-certain, even) Midrash.

    But what is a midrash? A midrash, as Kermode explains it, doesn't generally just leave an existing text be; it transforms it, either to make it more suitable for its own time, or to get rid of something offensive or problematic.

    I think your instinct that this is a midrash is right. I also think that your claim that any reading of "The Whiteness of the Whale," because it is so complicated and contradictory, must inevitably be a mishrash. That's perceptive, but then you don't really do much to understand what Ellison is doing. He finds white to be horrible, like Melville. That's fine and correct - but does it actually constitute a midrash? It seems more like a repetition of one of Melville's more straightforward ideas.

    I actually think you're right that this is a midrash - you just don't really explain your understanding of it *as* midrash, rather than as repetition.

  2. I was immediately intrigued by this essay, because I took a Judaism class last semester where we learned about the phenomenon of midrash in Jewish religious texts.

    I'd love to see you work more with how readings of "The Whiteness of the Whale" are necessarily midrash; it is possible to read and transform every piece, but how is a reading of this piece necessarily midrash? Is there no way of reading the chapter and leaving it untouched? This is what intrigued me about this essay, and I'd love to see more of this.