Sunday 5 June 2016

Write about "Benito Cereno" without discussing race and slavery

1/ Here is something I noticed- Melville's or the narrator's fondness for double negatives:
- "With no small interest, Captain Delano continued to watch her—a proceeding not much facilitated by the vapors partly mantling the hull, through which the far matin light from her cabin streamed equivocally enough; much like the sun—by this time hemisphered on the rim of the horizon, and, apparently, in company with the strange ship entering the harbor—which, wimpled by the same low, creeping clouds, showed not unlike a Lima intriguante's one sinister eye peering across the Plaza from the Indian loop-hole of her dusk saya-y-manta."
- "But as if not unwilling to let nature make known her own case among his suffering charge, or else in despair of restraining it for the time, the Spanish captain, a gentlemanly, reserved-looking, and rather young man to a stranger's eye, dressed with singular richness, but bearing plain traces of recent sleepless cares and disquietudes, stood passively by, leaning against the main-mast, at one moment casting a dreary, spiritless look upon his excited people, at the next an unhappy glance toward his visitor."
- "Still, Captain Delano was not without the idea, that had Benito Cereno been a man of greater energy, misrule would hardly have come to the present pass." 
- "His manner upon such occasions was, in its degree, not unlike that which might be supposed to have been his imperial countryman's, Charles V., just previous to the anchoritish retirement of that monarch from the throne."
- "That strange ceremoniousness, too, at other times evinced, seemed not uncharacteristic of one playing a part above his real level."
- "One, too, at that period, not unknown, in the surname, to super-cargoes and sea captains trading along the Spanish Main, as belonging to one of the most enterprising and extensive mercantile families in all those provinces; several members of it having titles; a sort of Castilian Rothschild, with a noble brother, or cousin, in every great trading town of South America."
- "Here Babo, changing his previous grin of mere animal humor into an intelligent smile, not ungratefully eyed his master."
- "And among the Malay pirates, it was no unusual thing to lure ships after them into their treacherous harbors, or entice boarders from a declared enemy at sea, by the spectacle of thinly manned or vacant decks, beneath which prowled a hundred spears with yellow arms ready to upthrust them through the mats."
- "Not unbewildered, again he gazed off for his boat."
- "Not unlikely, perhaps."
- "Captain Delano crossed over to him, and stood in silence surveying the knot; his mind, by a not uncongenial transition, passing from its own entanglements to those of the hemp."
- "Not uninfluenced by the peculiar good-humor at present prevailing, and for the time oblivious of any but benevolent thoughts, Captain Delano, who, from recent indications, counted upon a breeze within an hour or two at furthest, dispatched the boat back to the sealer, with orders for all the hands that could be spared immediately to set about rafting casks to the watering-place and filling them."
- "... said Captain Delano, not unpleased with this sociable plan..."
- "There is, too, a smooth tact about them in this employment, with a marvelous, noiseless, gliding briskness, not ungraceful in its way, singularly pleasing to behold, and still more so to be the manipulated subject of."
- "But to his great satisfaction, Don Benito, as if he began to feel the weight of that treatment with which his slighted guest had, not indecorously, retaliated upon him, now supported by his servant, rose to his feet, and grasping Captain Delano's hand, stood tremulous; too much agitated to speak." 
- "After a moment's pause, he assured his guest that the black's remaining with them could be of no disservice; because since losing his officers he had made Babo (whose original office, it now appeared, had been captain of the slaves) not only his constant attendant and companion, but in all things his confidant."
- "Not unaffected by the close sight of the gleaming steel, Don Benito nervously shuddered; his usual ghastliness was heightened by the lather, which lather, again, was intensified in its hue by the contrasting sootiness of the negro's body."
- "On their way thither, the two captains were preceded by the mulatto, who, turning round as he advanced, with continual smiles and bows, ushered them on, a display of elegance which quite completed the insignificance of the small bare-headed Babo, who, as if not unconscious of inferiority, eyed askance the graceful steward."
- "Not unaffected, Captain Delano would now have lingered; but catching the meekly admonitory eye of the servant, with a hasty farewell he descended into his boat, followed by the continual adieus of Don Benito, standing rooted in the gangway."
- "The tribunal inclined to the opinion that the deponent, not undisturbed in his mind by recent events, raved of some things which could never have happened."
And so on. 
(my emphasis)
Melville does use double negatives in other works too, but not as noticeably as in this short story (or novella).
If you pay attention, you can also see that there are lots of Nos and Nots.
What does it mean? That Delano, in his optimism and naivete, is in denial (of evil), which makes him incapable of seeing things as they are? Or does Melville want to focus on the complexity, the nuances of life, by constantly making us think of the subtle difference between a double negative and a positive? Or does the "no/not+ a negative word" structure point to the fact that Delano is never opposing, because he's always affirmative, in the sense that he holds all the stereotypes in his culture/ race of others, without questioning? Or there's no further meaning in it- Melville only aims for precision?

 2/ "Benito Cereno" isn't called a mystery story, but it has a mystery. All the details are there, laid out before us, but we're led onto the wrong track because we see them through the subjective eyes of a naive, unperceptive, prejudiced person, and this is achieved through the use of 3rd person limited/ subjective. Then we go back and can't understand how we could have missed it in the 1st reading.
Reminds me of another novel also from the 19th century that does the same thing: Jane Austen's Emma.


  1. Di,

    While I think on your questions at the end, I can say that the double negatives force me to slow down, while reading, in order to untangle them and determine just what Melville is saying at that point. I find myself going slowly and warily though the narrative, which may possibly be Melville's intention.

  2. interesting observations... i first noticed the use of them in the not uncomplicated literature of the victorian era. i found them not uninteresting...

  3. I may be overanalysing, but there were so many double negatives!
    I'm reading the real Delano's text right now and it's not like that.


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