April 29, 2016
The Art of the Novella challenge 40: Benito Cereno
by Jonathan Gibbs
Title: Benito Cereno
Author: Herman Melville
First published: 1855
Page count: 132
First line: In the year 1799, Captain Amasa Delano, of Duxbury, in Massachusetts, commanding a large sealer and general trader, lay at anchor, with a valuable cargo, in the harbour of St. Maria—a small, desert, uninhabited island towards the southern extremity of the long coast of Chili.
A tricky one this. Partly because it was the first of the Melville House novellas that I have read digitally, on my iPhone (not one of the big ones), and I’m no fan of digital reading. And partly because of the racism.
Ah, but is it racist, though?
We’re immediately deep into the twin problems of context and intentionality. On first reading, the story, of a failed mutiny on board a Spanish slave ship sailing from Buenos Aires to Lima in 1799, seemed to me straightforwardly, uncomplicatedly, horribly racist. The narrator describes the Africans on board the San Dominick in bluntly prejudiced terms, and clearly considers them an inferior species – at best useful and amusing helpmeets, at worst vicious animals. But is that how Herman Melville intended us to read the book? Or was it, published in the years leading up to the Civil War, actually a critical picture of racism in action?
Well, my naïve (British) reader’s instinct – relying on the text, on what I have in front of me, on my phone screen – tells me one thing. The critical response – when this British reader starts to cast around for it, wondering, quite frankly, what Melville House is doing publishing such a blatantly racist book in its excellent series – tells another. Perhaps I was foolish to be confused. This is an author, after all, who titled a book Pierre, or the Ambiguities.
The usual way of answering this problem is to look at critical apparatus or furniture accompanying a book, both on its first emergence and in its posterity as a classic. The digital version of Benito Cereno comes with no frame or accompaniment – no paratext, as the critical term has it: not even the paragraph or two of jacket flap copy that the print edition would have had.
(By the by, the celebrated Italian publisher Roberto Calasso writes a lovely little essay, ‘Letters to a Stranger’ on the art of composing blurbs, what he calls this “cramped rhetorical space” in his book The Art of the Publisher – and he should know; he’s written, he says in it, over a thousand of them for his Adelphi Edizioni. He even published some of them in a book – surely a first. There’s a useful piece about them here. Calasso doesn’t really help me here, however, as he’s more concerned with the etiquette of salesmanship with regards to the text than with its historical or political context.)
In my family we recently listened to the audiobook of Huckleberry Finn on a long car journey, and I had to turn around and give my children a mini-lecture on Twain’s use of the word ‘nigger’ in the book as we went. They shrugged, unimpressed. They were reading Of Mice and Men in English at school, and the context was very much foregrounded in those lessons. But compare Huck Finn’s first-person narration to the third-person narration of Melville’s book, and you’ll see they’re a chasm apart. Huck’s growing sense of humanity, thanks to his relationship with Jim, gives clear guidance to the reader. With Melville, the reader is all at sea. Delano, the American captain who comes to the rescue of Benito Cereno, the hostage-captain of the mutinous slave ship, is unthinkingly, unswervingly deprecatory of the African slaves, even before he realises they’re murderous mutineers. More than this, though, it’s not even his view we get in the narrative, but the words of an unnamed, faceless and omniscient narrator, who unthinkingly casts Delano as a good, just man.
Take a look at this:
“There is something in the Negro which, in a particular 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 castanets, and flourishing them apparently with almost equal satisfaction.”
Or, more dramatically, this:
“Their red tongues lolled, wolf-like, from their black mouths.”
There’s plenty more.
To be clear, there is nothing subtly Jamesian about this; there is no suggestion that the narrator is being coloured in his or her language by an association with Delano, isn’t colluding or collaborating – Delano isn’t even present at the boarding of a slave ship when his crew members get close enough to see those tongues lolling. If I’m to ‘successfully’ read these prima facie examples of racism as, actually, critiques of a particular historical mindset, I need more evidence than simply our contemporary mores, as fully established in today’s classrooms. The mores of their own time of publication, by god, would have been anything but self-evident.
As it was, I read the book in a state of perturbation and confusion, lacking the editorial guidance that a well-crafted, Calasso-style paragraph on the flap would have given me that. But what does that say about me, personally, and about books in general, and then again about Melville’s novella, that I felt that need?
Even as I was reading, I wondered if I wouldn’t have read the book ‘better’, more ‘successfully’ or ‘correctly’ in print. Did my eye skim more glancingly down the words on screen, and with less penetration and insight, than they would have done down a physical paper page? On the settings I was using, my iPhone screen gave me 24 lines of on average five words apiece – about 100 words of reading till I needed to swipe left, whereas a printed version would have given me 30 lines of about 10 or 11 words each; and with two pages open before me that puts about six times as many words on view at any given moment. Surely there is an alteration here to the quality of reading, of establishing a context as you go, allowing your peripheral vision to sketch a scaffolding for your understanding? (Clive Thompson writes wonderfully about reading War and Peace on his phone and he seems happy enough with the “few hundred” words per screen, pointing out that it corresponds roughly to how many printed books would have looked at the time, and though I found much to agree with in his essay, I part with him on this.)
There is, however, another guide to reading the novella, and one that I perhaps should have been less blind to. The de facto captain of the mutinous San Dominick, the Spaniard Benito Cereno, is the heart of the tale – he gives it its title, after all, and what is a book’s title but the most powerful paratext at an author’s disposal! When the officious, American Delano boards the San Dominick, offering help, Cereno is, unbeknownst to Delano and to us, a hostage on his own ship; he is accompanied at every turn by his ‘loyal servant’ Babo, who is, we later learn, the leader of the mutiny, and has told Cereno that he and the remaining Europeans will die if he gives the game away. The petrified, passive, impotent figure of Cereno is the key to the book. His mute appeals to Delano are also mute appeals to the reader: please understand what’s going on here.
That mute appeal is, I could be persuaded, double in its meaning: not only should you, Captain Delano, see through the charade that I am in command of this ship, when in reality I am powerless, and in danger of death at every moment (and the reader, pretty obviously, sees this, even if Delano doesn’t), but you, the reader, should see through the bald racism of the story’s teller to the deeper organic truths of humanity that lie beneath it, to which you and I surely subscribe.
To be clear: I didn’t get this, the first time I read the novella. Perhaps I should have. Perhaps the novella isn’t telling me that at all.
Certainly, there are clues in the way the novella proceeds and ends – in its narration, in fact. As it enters its last fifth, it relinquishes the third-person narrator who has so skewed our vision of events. Once Delano has, almost by accident, saved Cereno, and then captured the San Dominick, he sails for port. Once safely on dry land, we get Cereno’s deposition regarding the original munity, i.e. the events that occurred prior to the opening of the novella. Although these are presented to us as extracts from documents, in the standard metafictional gambit, they do not come in Cereno’s own words, but reported, in the third person. But, again, to be clear: this is not that same, thoughtlessly bigoted omniscient narrator as before. We get a new, more muted and mature take on events.
During this narrative of the mutiny, Cereno describes the slaves without rancour or prejudice, notwithstanding their murderous actions – including throwing people bound hand and foot overboard to drown, and killing the boat’s original captain and stripping his body to a skeleton to use as a figurehead. When they demand he sails the ship to an independent, free, black island where they could be free, he argues the journey is impossible in the ship’s current state, but you get the sense that he would help them if he could.
And then another twist – the famous line used by Ralph Ellison as one of his epigraphs to The Invisible Man.
Here is Delano to Cereno, on the quiet voyage to safety after the end of their ordeal, when Cereno refuses to cheer up, to be the happy, lucky white man:
“You are saved, Don Benito,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; “you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you”
And the reply – omitted by Ellison (who, I read in an essay in A New Literary History of America, rated Melville, along with Emerson, Thoreau, Whiteman and Twain, as progressive, non-racist writers and thinkers):
That goes unexplained. Does he mean he hates black people? Could be yes. Could be no; just that they – and their situation – have cast a shadow upon him, and people like him. The curt, swift, upbraiding end to the novella moves beyond the supposedly objective documents to narrate, as epilogue, the fates of Benito and Bobo, the mutiny leader: both mute, the one retiring to a monastery to die, the other led to the gibbet and hanged, and his head put on a spike facing out towards that monastery. Benito and Babo understand one another. They both know what’s coming – the Civil War, the Reconstruction, the long, still unfinished battle for racial equality and integration. Or is that a naïve, white, liberal take on it?
What’s strange, what’s unsettling about the book is that it leaves it so very late to give this twist to the ambiguity that governs the rest of it. Nowhere does Melville come out and say the slaves were right to revolt. For ninety-five per cent of his narrative he hands over the telling of his tale to someone nameless, faceless, bodiless (I don’t mean Delano; he is a dupe, a dope, a stuffed-shirt and a fall-guy) who thinks the slaves who so violently fight for their freedom are base, animalistic, brutes. How subtle, how dangerous, how brave is that? Or how stupid?
I find that I’ve written myself into a greater admiration for this book than I set out with. Partly that is to do with the few books littering the desk that shore up my estimation of it – that offer the critical apparatus missing from the digital edition. I want to read it again, but not on a phone. I certainly think that the clever architecture of the book – moving from idiot narrator to ‘objective’ documentary evidence to quiet, resigned, sympathetic summary – would have been more evident if I had had the book in my hands, a concrete rendering of the journey made, and its proportions.
But more than this, it seems I need my hand held, still, as a reader. The intentional fallacy says we should not ask what a writer intended with their work – and yet the theorists who argue this are bulked around with critical armour. Rarely does anyone come to a book – or a ‘text’ – defenceless. I squirm, and glance accusingly at my phone. If I’d read it in a book, on paper, I whimper, I’d have understood it, I’d have got it. Isn’t that right, Herman? Herman, isn’t that right?