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Sunday, 5 June 2016

"Benito Cereno"

In "The Topicality of Depravity in "Benito Cereno"" (included in the Norton Critical Edition of Melville's Short Novels), Allan Moore Emery remarks that commentators of the story fall into 2 camps:
"(1) those who read the tale as a powerful portrait of human depravity, with a sadistic Babo as the prime embodiment of evil, an obtuse Delano as Melville's figure of naive optimism, and a doomed Cereno as his contrasting symbol of moral awareness, and (2) those who view the tale as a stern indictment of American slavery, complete with an amply prejudiced Delano, a guilt-ridden Cereno, and a sympathetic (or even heroic) Babo, driven to violence by an insufferable bondage."

I belong to the 3rd, or the middle camp- both interpretations are right. The colour grey on the 1st page of "Benito Cereno" isn't only a foreshadowing device for the gloom to come, but also a reminder that things are not black and white, between them are 254 shades of grey.  
A more important theme is perception. Whether Babo is seen as heroic, because he does everything for freedom, or evil, because he kills most officers, controls Cereno and plans to take over another ship, the focus is still the fact that Amasa Delano misunderstands and misinterprets everything, and he does because of his racism. Delano's perception is distorted partly because he has a sunny outlook on life, incapable of recognising evil, but more because he thinks in stereotypes and attaches certain attributes to certain groups of people and doesn't think blacks are capable of cunning. He fails to see people as individuals. In "Benito Cereno", the actions of different characters show that evil can be found in everyone, white or black, male or female, and Babo is neither purely this nor purely that- to put a definite label on him would be reductive. 
"Benito Cereno", I think, is ultimately about perception and racism.

9 comments:

  1. Di,

    I'm with you in that third category. The two options are surprisingly simplistic--it's an either/or dichotomy which just doesn't work for the story.

    Yes, the story is about perception and the way racism distorts perception, and the political atmosphere in the US today is a terrifying demonstration that it hasn't gone away (and perhaps never will).

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  2. i agree; but also i think Babo is merely behaving like he sees others, who have the power, do; so under the surmise that guilt implies foreknowledge, Babo would be innocent. i like your analysis...

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  3. Fred,
    A bit unrelated, but lately I've been thinking that many people are too occupied with race (and gender)- racists, of course, and people who see everything in terms of race, prioritise diversity over everything else, and are always ready to accuse others of racism or cultural appropriation or whatever. I'm fed up with all that.

    Mudpuddle,
    Well, yes, Babo can be defended, even praised. As we all know of the horror, injustice and senselessness of slavery, all or most of his actions can be seen as justifiable. 1 thing I wonder about though, is why Babo tries to capture Delano's ship as well. Because it can make him reach Africa more quickly? Or does he have other purposes, which means that he's really evil?

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    1. Di,

      Perhaps he sees Delano and his crew as threats, if they should get suspicious. Babo and the others may control the ship now, but I don't think they'd be a match for Delano and his crew.

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    2. Di,

      There are times, when listening or reading the various obsessive monologues on racism or genderism or agism or whateverism, that Hamlet's observation comes to mind--"Methinks the lady doth protest too much."

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    3. differences in general make people nervous; since they are all pretty jangly anyhow it's pretty hard for them to see the forest instead of single trees...

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    4. That's possible, hmmm....

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  4. I read BC so-o-o-o long ago that I can remember only the title and nothing about the tale/story, so I have nothing at all sensible to add to the discussion except to say this: you've nearly hooked me into revisiting Melville. Yes, I know I made such a statement previously when you and I exchanged reading plans for MD, such a whale-of-a-tale, but I reneged on my commitment for which I apologize. Now, though, I will give serious consideration to fitting some of Melville's shorter works into my schedule. Postscript: sometimes reduction of a story/novel to a limited dichotomy is nothing more than a rhetorical strategy for getting one's mind around a story/novel that is far too expansive to write about except through such a limitation; it is a valid strategy for explication in that it is focused but not exclusive. Does that make sense as a general statement? Yeah, I couldn't resist commenting on the threaded conversation. Onward!

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    1. Hell yes, revisit Melville. I'd love to hear your thoughts.
      I know what you mean. I just find it a bit simplistic.

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