By Charles Matthews

Sunday, October 31, 2010

9. Great Short Works of Herman Melville, pp. 276-315

Great Short Works of Herman Melville (Perennial Classics)Benito Cereno from "As the two capains stood together, observing the departing boat...." to end.
Delano asks Cereno to clear up something that puzzled him: the storms that so badly damaged his ship at Cape Horn. But Cereno claims not to have said anything that he recalls about Cape Horn. He is interrupted by Babo, who tells him that it's time for his shave, something, Babo says, the captain insists on taking place punctually at the same time every day. So Delano follows them to a cabin off the deck, where Babo shaves Cereno, using, to Delano's astonishment, the flag of Spain as a towel. Delano notices that Cereno flinches when Babo approaches him with the razor, and looks terrified when a nick from the razor draws blood. As Babo finishes up, Delano steps outside, but Babo shortly emerges, bleeding from a cut on his cheek and complaining that Cereno cut him in revenge for the nick Babo gave him. But he returns to the cabin and emerges with Cereno leaning on his shoulder as if nothing had happened. Delano concludes that it was "a sort of love-quarrel, after all."

Lunch is served by "a tall, rajah-looking mulatto" named Francesco, who wears a turban made of Madras handkerchiefs. Delano remarks on the fact that although the mulatto is dark, his features are that of a white man, and wonders why the scurvy and fever should have killed more of the whites than the blacks aboard the ship. The question seems to disturb Cereno, so Delano doesn't follow up on the matter.

Suddenly, Delano notices that the wind has picked up, just as he had expected, but "Don Benito seemed to have even less welcome for the breeze than the calm." Delano takes charge of getting the ship ready to take the wind. He is surprised to find the chained king, Atufal, standing outside the door of the cabin, but proceeds about his business. He puts in charge of the tiller one of the Spanish sailors whose eye he had caught earlier, saying that he must want to get into the harbor. "The man assented with an inward chuckle, grasping the tiller-head firmly.Upon this, unperceived by the American, the two blacks eyed the sailor intently." (This is one of those things a writer hopes the reader won't notice: Melville violates the established point of view, departing from what Delano witnesses happening around him.)

Everything in order, Delano returns to the cabin where Cereno is waiting, passing Atufal at the entrance. At the moment Delano enters, Babo also enters by another door -- irritating Delano, who has wanted to speak to Cereno alone. For a moment, he also feels "a slight twinge, from a sudden indefinite association in his mind of Babo with Atufal." He asks if Cereno had ordered Atufal to stand by the entrance, and Cereno is startled by the question.

The ship gets under way and soon the Bachelor's Delight is in sight. Delano invites Cereno to join him on board for a cup of coffee, which also causes Cereno to behave oddly before he says, "I cannot go," and he persists in his refusal despite Delano's urging. So they conclude their arrangements for the transfer of supplies as the two ships pull up side-by-side. Delano decides he'll be glad to be rid of the San Dominick as soon as possible, but he feels that he has done a good deed even if Cereno doesn't seem to appreciate it very much: "Ah, thought he after good actions one's conscience is never ungrateful, however much so the benefited party may be."

The boat from the Bachelor's Delight pulls up to transfer Delano from the San Dominick, and as he stands at the top of the ladder, Cereno suddenly comes toward him, followed quickly by Babo.
When the two captains met, the Spaniard again fervently took the hand of the American, at the same time casting an earnest glance into his eyes, but, as before, too much overcome to speak. I have done him wrong, self-reproachfully thought Captain Delano; his apparent  coldness has deceived me; in no instance has he meant to offend.
Cereno clings to Delano's hand and bids him an emotional farewell: "God guard you better than me, my best friend." Delano descends to the boat. But as soon as he has taken his seat and the boat shoves off, Cereno leaps into the boat, too. He calls out to the San Dominick, but no one on the boat understands his words. Delano thinks he knows what's happening and grabs Cereno by the throat, calling out, "this plotting pirate means murder!" Babo, holding a knife, is seen jumping from the ship, followed by what Melville's narrator unfortunately refers to as a "sooty avalanche."

Delano loosens his hold on Cereno, and starts to fight with Babo, who drops the knife and is forced by Delano into the bottom of the boat. Babo pulls another small knife, concealed in his hair, and aims for Cereno.
That moment, across the long-benighted mind of Captain Delano, a flash of revelation swept, illuminating, in unanticipated clearness, his host's whole mysterious demeanor, with every enigmatic event of the day, as well as the entire past voyage of the San Dominick. He smote Babo's hand down, but his own heart smote him harder. With infinite pity he withdrew his hold from Don Benito. Not Captain Delano, but Don Benito, the black, in leaping into the boat, had intended to stab.
Delano gets Babo under control and watches the tumult on the deck, where a few Spanish sailors had managed to break away from the blacks and climb to the top of the masts. Suddenly the canvas over the prow of the ship is torn away, revealing a human skeleton and the words "Follow your leader" (given early in the story in Spanish as "Seguid vuestro jefe"). Cereno cries out that this is Don Alexandro Aranda, the owner of the slaves, whom he had mourned earlier in the story because he was unable to preserve his body for burial. 

When they reach the Bachelor's Delight, Delano learns that the San Dominick has no usable firearms, and puts the chief mate of the Bachelor's Delight in charge of pursuing and capturing Cereno's ship. The mate calls to the Spanish sailors on top of the masts to cut the sails loose, effectively preventing the ship from making headway. Boarding the ship, they fight hand to hand, but with the advantage of guns over hatchets and knives. The ship is secured, with the death of a score of the slaves and several of the Spaniards, but none of Delano's crew is killed. Both ships then sail for Lima and an investigation into the incident.

Cereno's deposition explains what had really happened on the San Dominick. It had sailed from Valparaiso for Callao, in Peru, with one hundred sixty slaves belonging mostly to Don Alexandro Aranda. The slaves, led by Babo and Atufal, revolted seven days into the voyage, killing all but seven of the crew. Babo ordered Cereno to sail for Senegal, but he protested that it was impossible. When Babo persisted, Cereno explained that they would need water and that they should make a stop at the island of Santa Maria.

On the way, they killed Aranda and took his body below decks. Cereno persistently asked what had happened to Aranda's body and begged Babo to preserve it for burial. Four days later, Babo revealed Aranda's skeleton, which had replaced Christopher Columbus as the figurehead of the ship. He asked Cereno "whose skeleton that was, and whether, from its whiteness, he should not think it a white's" and threatened Cereno and the remaining Spaniards on board, "Keep faith with the blacks from here to Senegal, or you shall in spirit, as now in body, follow your leader." (Later, Cereno testifies that the skeleton was "prepared ... in a way ... which he, so long as reason is left him, can never divulge." The implication is that Aranda was eaten.) To protect the remaining crew, Cereno signed an agreement to take them to Senegal.

When they reached Santa Maria they spotted Delano's ship and concocted the story Cereno told Delano about the storms and the disease that they had experienced. To add to the illusion that Cereno was in charge of the ship, they put Atufal in chains which he could easily escape from if need be. The four elderly slaves were in charge of keeping order, and the hatchet-cleaners were preparing the weapons they would use if Cereno gave any hint to Delano of the truth. Cereno vows "that these statements are made to show the court that from the beginning to the end of the revolt, it was impossible for the deponent and his men to act otherwise than they did." He says "that he is twenty-nine years of age, and broken in body and spirit" and that he plans to retire to a monastery.

On the voyage to Lima, Cereno apologizes to Delano, who forgives him and urges him to forget what happened:
"See, yon bright sun has forgotten it all, and the blue sea, and the blue sky; these have turned over new leaves."

"Because they have no memory," he dejectedly replied, "because they are not human."
"You are saved," cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; "you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you."

"The negro." 
Babo is executed, and his "head, that hive of subtlety, fixed on a pole in the Piazza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites." Three months later, Cereno dies.

Unlike Moby-Dick and "Bartleby the Scrivener," "Benito Cereno" has an uncharacterized narrator, an anonymous voice that tells the story, sticking closely (but not invariably) to the point of view of Captain Delano. This narrator knows things that Delano doesn't, of course, which gives the narrative something of a divided consciousness and lends the whole story its ironic tone. The narrator seems to regard Delano as a kind of holy fool: a good man who is none too wise to the ways of a world that isn't good. By withholding the truth that Delano fails to glimpse the narrator creates the essential tension of the story, but also raises questions as to the story's moral vision.

For the contemporary reader -- and, to be fair, for some of Melville's contemporaries as well -- the central issue of the story is racial. What attitude does the story take toward slavery? Does it accept it as a fact of life, or does it condemn it? There is a key passage that to contemporary readers sounds disgustingly racist:
There is something in the negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one's person. Most negroes are natural valets and hair-dressers; taking to the comb and brush congenially as to the castanets, and flourishing them with almost equal satisfaction. There is ... a certain easy cheerfulness, harmonious in every glance and gesture; as though God had set the whole negro to some pleasant tune.

When to this is added the docility arising from the unaspiring contentment of a limited mind, and that susceptibility of blind attachment sometimes inhering in indisputable inferiors, one readily perceives why those hypochondriacs, Johnson and Bryon -- it may be, something like the hypochondriac Benito Cereno -- took to their hearts, almost to the exclusion of the entire white race, their serving men, the negroes.... 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.
It's an astonishing passage, in large part because it is so entirely wrong-headed, not only in its racist condescension, but also in its complete inconsistency with the facts of the case. Cereno is not being shaved by a faithful servant, but by a rebel who threatens his life with the razor he wields. And yet the passage is in the narrator's voice, seemingly from his point of view, until the very end when he brings it back to Delano. In one swift satiric stroke, Melville has lulled such of his readers who consider themselves broad-minded about race relations into a dangerous complacency.

Which is not to say that Melville is warning his readers that blacks are vicious killers. He's informing them that black people are human beings, not Newfoundland dogs. That they are just as capable of cruelty and duplicity, of hidden motives, as white people. That's the terrible truth that torments Benito Cereno: Nature may be beautiful, its skies and seas blue, but it isn't human. And to be human is to be capable of both good and evil, depending on the circumstances. And when the circumstances involve being transported aboard a slave ship, we should expect cruelty and duplicity. Today, we cheer the idea of the slave rebellion aboard the San Dominick, and are perhaps more inclined than Melville's contemporaries were to want the story told from the point of view of Babo and the other slaves. But to simplify human beings into heroes or villains is to miss what fiction like Melville's is all about.

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