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Abstract

In this paper, I examine Melville's discussion in Moby Dick of the whiteness of the whale from the perspective of a Kantian account of the sublime. My aim, in the first instance, is to see if the comparison helps to shed light on Melville's puzzling discussion of the color white and why this color serves to heighten the feeling of being overwhelmed by terror when confronted with something extremely large or powerful. In turn, I intend to use Melville's discussion of whiteness to put pressure on some of the philosophical assumptions behind a Kantian analysis of the sublime. In particular, I hope to show that Melville's account of the war between Captain Ahab and the great white whale can serve as an aesthetic counterexample to the Kantian claim that both generals and war are sublime-but only if the general possesses civic virtue and the war is conducted in a just manner. I will attempt to use this counterexample to challenge the philosophical assumption that the power of reason is the basis of our nobility in the experience of the sublime, for this assumption is behind those contemporary accounts of the sublime that have been motivated by the Kantian analysis. As a result, the argument of this paper is an attempt to offer philosophical support to the efforts of those contemporary artists who, like Robert Motherwell, draw inspiration from Melville's discussion of the color white.

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