M, W, & F 9:30-10:45
October 24, 2014
Benito Cereno Herman Melville’s assessment, of the trans-atlantic slave trade in his novel, Benito Cereno; postures an enlightened tone written in response to the temperament in support of slavery that was perpetuated during that era. In this novel he invokes a tone of sentimental sympathy towards the racial injustice of slaves, explicitly through the character of Benito Cereno. The statial binaries that existed during the trans-atlantic slave trade allowed for the slave bodies to be “out-grouped”. According to Gordon Alport, who believes that, “The ultimate attribution of error arises as a way to explain an out-group’s negative behavior as flaws in their personality”, which allows us to believe that the theory of out-grouping permits the negative connotation attached to certain social groups by other social groups to flourish in the status quo. However, if we examine Foucault’s philosophy in Discipline and Punish, (in conjunction to Alport’s theory), he states that the “examination of the object leads to the play of question, and through marking of classes we are able to examine power in relation to intelligence”. This quotation is key to explaining the racial binary that existed while Melville wrote this novel. I believe that this novel was written to critique the normalcy of slavery. The tone he uses while writing in this novel, express his critical colloquialism that he uses to criticize the intellectual race dichotomy presented during this time period. Melville’s aim in this novel is to capture how the slave bodies are stripped of all their autonomy by the white bodies, because they are perceived as not being purposeful intellectual beings. In my essay I will offer four lenses of observation used by the white body to dominate the slave body, represented in Benito Cereno.
The first lens of observation elucidates intelligence; in this novel Melville introduces a character named Babo, who is the leader of the slaves in Benito Cereno. Babo led the other slaves in a revolt against the sailors, which allowed for them to take over the San Dominick. Once they are in control of the ship Babo masquerades as Cereno's servant in front of Amasa Deleno. However, he is actually there to keep an eye on Cereno and to make sure that Cereno doesn't betray Babo and the slaves to Captain Delano. Babo is small, but he is guileful and intelligent. Due to Delano’ tunnel vision Babo's takes advantage of his obliviousness to thrive as a leader on the ship while still being perceived as a follower by Delano. There is no doubt that, of the characters in Benito Cereno, Babo exhibits more than anyone else, the qualities of a true leader. He is resourceful, and he plans a series of masquerades on board the San Dominick, even after Delano had spotted most of them. He is devious and bold; he has a creative, performative flair, and yet the moment Babo is revealed as a leader, his power could have vanished; except his intellect manages to stay in tact. Babo is a dark director, with Cereno writhing beneath him, and when we see them, both of these players are exquisitely masked. Babo plays the part of an officious servant splendidly, manipulating Delano's racist opinion of African servants. Delano thinks of Africans as childish, bright-color-loving, happy savages who love nothing more than to serve white people; Babo, with his jolly attire and his constant bowing and smiling, shows Delano what Delano wants to see, thus blinding him to the truth. Cereno, too, puts on a performance, though a coerced one forced by Babo.
The second lens of observation expounds on slavery, as an institution, and a paradigm. Ironically enough, Melville proposes a significant statement of his own personal take on slavery, by presenting it in the form of Captain Delano, when Delano says, "Ah, this slavery breeds ugly passions in man!" And of course he is right. The brutality of slavery