My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Benito Cereno is one of the post-Pierre short works of the 1850s by which Melville hoped to right the ship of his literary career. A novella of slavery, based on a true story, it is both an effective work of suspense and mystery and a remarkably intricate literary and political structure. Melville’s protest—and protest it is—against slavery is written in code, a figure in the carpet. This technique was perhaps necessitated not only by proto-modernist artistic ambition but also by the crasser consideration that Melville’s father-in-law, on whose largesse his family partially depended, was Lemuel Shaw, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court and enforcer of the Fugitive Slave Law (despite his own hostility to slavery). Even so, the novella, like “Bartleby” before it, is so thorough a critique of the politics of sentimentality, benevolence, Christian charity, Transcendentalist idealism, and the general smugness of the New England elite’s liberalism, that I doubt Melville would have wanted to write an outright protest fiction on the Stowe model even had he felt freer to do so. Later generations of critics have in any case approved his choice to demur from explicit advocacy: the space for politics Melville leaves open in his elliptical narrative can be filled, as I will explain, not by the white philanthropist but only by the black insurgent.
The novella’s plot, simply stated, follows New Englander Captain Amasa Delano aboard a stranded Spanish slave ship off the coast of Chile. The scene on the ship is unsettling, even after captain and crew explain that they have suffered storm and fever. The titular character is the debilitated-seeming captain, Don Benito Cereno, literally upheld by his apparently faithful enslaved body-servant, the diminutive Babo. Cereno’s nervousness and reticence, along with the peculiar disposition of the ship’s inhabitants—which includes a corps of black men sharpening hatchets amid a generally restive white crew—arouses Delano’s suspicion. In fact, most of the novella, narrated in third-person perspective with a rigorously maintained focalization through Delano’s consciousness, is an oscillation between the New England captain’s fears and his self-reassurances, an emotional wave motion miming that of the sea.
Eventually, the truth is revealed: there was a mutiny of the enslaved on Cereno’s ship, and Delano has been witnessing a carefully-staged pantomime masterminded by the chief of the rebels, Babo, whose constant attendance upon Cereno had been a technique to ensure the deposed captain’s compliance. The story ends with Cereno’s escape, the slaves’ capture, and a legal deposition explaining the whole affair. The story, then, must be read twice, since its first three quarters or so make little sense without knowledge of the conclusion. Understanding is always retrospective, subsequent to the event.
Or is it? Perhaps it depends on who beholds the event. The novella’s power comes in part from its viewpoint character’s limitations of perspective. A remarkable opening visual description sets the story’s tone:
The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and calm; everything gray. The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter’s mold. The sky seemed a gray surtout. Flights of troubled gray fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.
Yet Captain Delano, we are told in the very next paragraph, is intellectually ill-equipped to dwell in a world of ambiguity (gray, as against black and white), of shadow (which must be distinguished from substance), or of suffering (the passion evoked by “rood,” a synonym for “crucifix” as a well as a unit of measurement). Delano is, locally, a caricature of the Transcendentalist with his privative definition of evil and his complacent idealism, but is also, more expansively, a satire on the self-satisfied meliorism of the liberal sensibility at large:
Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories, at that day, associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated excitement, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man. Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.
Delano is unable to see the reality in front of him because he looks out through a haze of erroneous expectation. To him, black people are naturally docile, and so Babo’s exaggerated performance of servility seems scarcely remarkable:
As master and man stood before him, the black upholding the white, Captain Delano could not but bethink him of the beauty of that relationship which could present such a spectacle of fidelity on the one hand and confidence on the other.
Not to mention this:
When at ease with respect to exterior things, Captain Delano’s nature was not only benign, but familiarly and humorously so. At home, he had often taken rare satisfaction in sitting in his door, watching some free man of color at his work or play. If on a voyage he chanced to have a black sailor, invariably he was on chatty, and half-gamesome terms with him. In fact, like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to Negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.
Similarly, Delano sees only the decadent exhaustion of arbitrary authority in Latin Catholicism, an Old World relic, which serves for him to explain Cereno’s apparent swings between command and collapse:
Upon gaining a less remote view, the ship, when made signally visible on the verge of the leaden-hued swells, with the shreds of fog here and there raggedly furring her, appeared like a whitewashed monastery after a thunder-storm, seen perched upon some dun cliff among the Pyrenees. But it was no purely fanciful resemblance which now, for a moment, almost led Captain Delano to think that nothing less than a ship-load of monks was before him. Peering over the bulwarks were what really seemed, in the hazy distance, throngs of dark cowls; while, fitfully revealed through the open port-holes, other dark moving figures were dimly descried, as of Black Friars pacing the cloisters.
Upon a still nigher approach, this appearance was modified, and the true character of the vessel was plain—a Spanish merchantman of the first class, carrying negro slaves, amongst other valuable freight, from one colonial port to another. A very large, and, in its time, a very fine vessel, such as in those days were at intervals encountered along that main; sometimes superseded Acapulco treasure-ships, or retired frigates of the Spanish king’s navy, which, like superannuated Italian palaces, still, under a decline of masters, preserved signs of former state.
Yet in the story’s Gothic atmosphere, its slave ship reminiscent of ruined abbeys and collapsing battlements, we may read a prophecy of America’s own eventual decline, just as “Bartleby” describes a Wall Street as “deserted as Petra.” When Cereno declares at the end of the story that “the negro” has cast a fatal shadow over him—in a passage that furnishes one of the epigraphs to Invisible Man—this sense of slavery as an ineradicable fault in the modern west, like the crack in the House of Usher, must be what he (or Melville) means to imply. Consider that the rebels have killed the slaveowner onboard the San Dominick and replaced a statue of Columbus as the ship’s figurehead with the slaver’s skeleton above the motto follow your leader. If the prophecy was opaque to Melville’s audience, it should be clear to us.
I conclude with Babo. For when Delano sees black people as animals—
His attention had been drawn to a slumbering Negress, partly disclosed through the lace-work of some rigging, lying, with youthful limbs carelessly disposed, under the lee of the bulwarks, like a doe in the shade of a woodland rock. Sprawling at her lapped breasts was her wide-awake fawn, stark naked, its black little body half lifted from the deck, crosswise with its dam’s; its hands, like two paws, clambering upon her; its mouth and nose ineffectually rooting to get at the mark; and meantime giving a vexatious half-grunt, blending with the composed snore of the Negress.
—it means that he cannot see them as political actors. But Babo, with his genius for staging public spectacle in the interests of his people, is what but a master of politics. The character scarcely speaks, and we gain no access to his consciousness. The story’s last paragraphs portrays his execution:
Some months after, dragged to the gibbet at the tail of a mule, the black met his voiceless end. The body was burned to ashes; but for many days, the head, that hive of subtlety, fixed on a pole in the Plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites…
The key phrase is the remarkable “hive of subtlety.” Granted that “hive” is dehumanizing, it also hints at capacity and activity, a many-voiced throng of consciousness. Its intimation of the insectoid prepares us for the next noun, which recalls the Lord of the Flies via Biblical and Miltonic allusion. Satan in his guise as serpent is the “subtlest beast of the field,” we read in Book IX of Paradise Lost, wherein Milton reprises Genesis 3:1. The Romantic rebel Melville would almost certainly have taken the devil’s part when he read Milton, whose Satan stood, thought Blake and Shelley, for the human considered as Promethean freedom fighter.
So too did Toussaint L’Ouverture, emblematic for the young, radical Wordsworth of “man’s unconquerable mind.” Editor Dan McCall notes the following in the Norton Critical Edition of Melville’s Short Novels: Captain Delano’s narrative was a real document, but in adapting it for fiction Melville moved its date back from 1805 to 1799, into the decade of the Haitian Revolution, and changed the name of Cereno’s ship to the San Dominick, calling to mind Saint-Domingue. C. L. R. James argues in an excerpt at the back of this Norton Critical Edition that “Babo is the most heroic character in Melville’s fiction.”
There is no inconsistency, then, in seeing Babo as both devil and hero, the story’s veritable protagonist, when you consider the Romantic writer’s transvaluation of values: “evil be thou my good,” a defensible if controversial interpretation of what it would actually mean for the last to be first, for black to stand in the place of white. Come forward a century and Robert Hayden, in his “Middle Passage,” provides the needed gloss on Melville’s cryptic tale, when he precedes a slaver’s bitter monologue on the Amistad rebellion with the following credo addressed to the whites whose gaze Babo might meet:
You cannot stare that hatred down
or chain the fear that stalks the watches
and breathes on you its fetid scorching breath;
cannot kill the deep immortal human wish,
the timeless will.