The gaze of history in Benito Cereno

The gaze of history in “Benito Cereno”
Pahl, Dennis . Studies in Short Fiction ; Newberry Vol. 32, Iss. 2, (Spring 1995): 171.
ProQuest document link
Pahl discusses Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno.” Melville’s text becomes a kind of meditation on the meaning of
history and on history’s ultimate desire to fashion moral, political and epistemological truth.
There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. (256)
–Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”
Historiography is as much a product of the passion of forgetting as it is the product of the passion of
remembering. (214)
–Shoshana Felman, Testimony
Throughout the first segment of Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” we are as mystified about what is taking place aboard
the Spanish cargo ship the San Dominick as is the American captain Amasa Delano, whose dominant perspective
we are forced to follow. It is only later, in the legal deposition that constitutes the second segment of the narrative,
that we finally discover the “true history of the San Dominick’s voyage” (103). Here we learn in detail about the
hidden facts of the slave rebellion and the elaborate masquerade of “normalcy” that was, all along, taking place
before Delano’s (and our own) eyes. The deposition, in recounting such details, thus would appear to resolve all of
the mysteries to which we have so far been witness. As the narrator comments at the beginning of the brief
epilogue to the tale,
If the Deposition have served as the key to fit into the lock of the complications which precede it, then, as a vault
whose door has been flung back, the San Dominick’s hull lies open to-day. (114)
If the “complications” just mentioned are supposed to refer to the previously concealed facts of the events–that is,
to what actually took place aboard the San Dominick during Delano’s visit there–there can be little doubt that they
are meant, likewise, to refer to the exact moral implications of those events. After all, is it not the purpose of this
deposition, this “legal” narrative, to clear up those questions of innocence and guilt, of good and evil, that have so
much troubled both Delano and the reader throughout the course of the narrative? Indeed, what else is Babo’s
“legal identity” (as established by the deposition [116]) but a clear testimony to his essential evil? And by the same
token, is not Cereno, who was earlier suspected by Delano of possible wrongdoing or even of potential evil, now
completely redeemed by this deposition? Does not this legal history, delivered by Cereno himself at the Lima court,
serve just as effectively to demonstrate his own essential goodness?
It should perhaps not be surprising that what passes, in the form of the deposition, as the “true history” of the San
Dominick affair includes not merely the hard facts of the case but also a certain moralization of those facts: for it
may well be in the nature of all history, or historical narrative, to function exactly in this fashion. As Hayden White
has argued, “The demand for closure in history is a demand…for moral meaning, a demand that sequences of real
events be assessed as to their significance as elements of a moral drama. Has any historical narrative ever been
written that was not informed not only by moral awareness but specifically by the moral authority of the narrator?”
White goes on to claim that not only historical narrative but in fact any attempt to narrate reality adequately–such
as might be discerned in some fictional discourses–must necessarily involve the representation of the moral under
the aspect of the aesthetic. “Could we,” White finally asks, “ever narrativize without moralizing?” (22, 25).
Inasmuch as White is correct in assuming that narrativity as such necessitates a certain degree of moralizing, we
might then conclude that the entire narrative of “Benito Cereno”–and not just the legal deposition alone–carries
within it a specific moral dimension. Perhaps nothing so much supports this view as the way Melville’s narrative
has, during its long critical history, tended consistently to inspire lively debate as to its precise moral significance.
As far back as his monumental study of the American Renaissance, for instance, F. O. Matthiessen strongly hinted
at Melville’s moral irresponsibility in depicting the San Dominick’s blacks as evil and “savagely vindictive”; thus
Matthiessen charged Melville with “a failure to reckon with [the] fact” that “the Negroes were slaves and that evil
had originally been done to them” (508).(1) More recent analyses (see Carlisle, Dryden, Karcher, Kavanagh), trying
to justify Melville’s aims and so keep them consistent with what is often perceived as a typical Melvillean radical
politics, emphasize rather the text’s deeply ironic stance toward Captain Delano who, along with Cereno, becomes
the embodiment of white oppression. Thus, in these analyses, it is the white-controlled institution of slavery–and
not the black mutineers–that becomes the real emblem of evil and barbarism within Melville’s tale.
In a certain way, the critical-moral controversy as just described may be understood quite simply as a conflict
between two alternative methods of interpretation, namely the opposition between a literal reading (where, to
schematize the issue, “black” becomes the traditional symbol of evil and “white” stands for innocence) and an
ironic reading (where those traditional valuations become reversed).(2) But while such readings obviously stand in
sharp contrast to each other, we may wonder if they do not ultimately serve the same purpose, in the sense that
they do nothing more than preserve intact those binary opposites of good and evil that Melville’s works seem
always at pains to put into question. Must the moral truth of Melville’s text be painted in such black-and-white
terms, or is the problem more complicated than this? Can Melville even be said to be taking a moral position in this
narrative, or is he really making of any such position a problem–one that he is allowing the complications of his
text to ponder?
To be sure, we should consider the possibility that “Benito Cereno” is less interested in propounding a certain
moral message than in exploring, very self-consciously, the precise ways in which narrative, and especially
historical narrative, goes about constructing the illusion of moral truth. How indeed, we might ask, does Melville’s
text become a kind of meditation on the meaning of history, and on history’s ultimate desire to fashion moral,
political, and epistemological truth?(3) Without at all denying what White sees as the inevitable moralizing effects
of history, we should at the same time recognize that the “will” or “desire” within historical narrative to create moral
truth cannot help but contain (as becomes evident in Melville) the very violences that would paradoxically call that
truth into question. History, in this sense, thus reveals itself as radically conflicted in nature, characterized not by
wholeness or organic unity but rather by ruptures, gaps, displacements. In “Benito Cereno” Melville illustrates a
notion of history in fact very much similar to the sort of discontinuous and irruptive history that Michel Foucault
discusses at length in his essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” Here history (guided by what Foucault calls, after
Nietzsche, “genealogy”) aims not to discover a continuous past or “a forgotten identity, eager to be reborn, but a
complex system of distinct and multiple elements, unable to be mastered by the powers of synthesis”; moreover,
historical consciousness, far from being neutral and devoid of passions, rather finds within itself “the will to
knowledge: instinct, passion, the inquisitor’s devotion, cruel subtlety, and malice. It discovers the violence of a
position that sides against those who are happy in their ignorance, against the effective illusions by which
humanity protects itself…” (161-62). Such terms for understanding history become instructive for a reading of
Melville’s story as exemplary of the epistemic violence that incorporates itself within any historical narrative: for it
will be precisely this violence that incorporates itself within those characters in the story who come to represent
historical consciousness, or the gaze of history.
Perhaps no one provides a better access to Melville’s complicated view of historical consciousness than does the
character of Captain Amasa Delano, through whose mind most of the narrative action is filtered. Delano’s difficulty
in reading the scenes he encounters may, as some critics claim, betray his “marked stupidity and foolishness” (see
Carlisle 350); yet on another level one might understand this “blindness” more in terms of Delano’s desire not see,
that is, to repress anything that might undermine the stability of the historical world with which he is most familiar
(see Justman): the world that privileges his identity as “American,” “captain,” “white,” and “civilized.” For the captain
of the Bachelor’s Delight, the entrance of the San Dominick into the harbor off the coast of Chile poses a
substantial threat to his otherwise safe, familiar world–not because the ship may at any moment launch a brutal
attack, but rather because the ship remains strange and undefined. Seen as “a shadowy tableau just emerged from
the deep” (50), and carrying on its stern-piece an ambiguous symbol of physical combat (“a dark satyr in a mask,
holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked” [49]), the ship becomes an everdisturbing
fact in Delano’s general view of the world. Insisting on a black-and-white view of reality, Delano does not
wait long to arrive–via a mixture of Emersonian optimism and Yankee pragmatism–at a moral determination of
what he is witnessing. His ability to rationalize away his fears and to remain continuously hopeful proves
indispensable to him as a way of maintaining his authority throughout the entire San Dominick ordeal; and yet, as
we discover, it is just this manner of maintaining his authority that also reveals the sort of violences of which he,
as an historical consciousness, is capable. Indeed, it is only through exerting a certain will to power that Delano
will be able to assimilate the mysterious signs he sees, forcing them to become an integral part of his own system
of truth, of his own “natural” view of the world, his own ideology.
Aligning himself with what he believes to be the strict laws of nature, Delano will romanticize all human events as
conforming to a wholly “natural” order: hence signaling a desire to turn away from material history and, instead,
embrace a kind of Emersonian idealism.(4) He initially believes, for instance, that the miserable conditions aboard
the San Dominick, far from having any basis in social or political reality, could only have been caused by the sea’s
terrible storms and “obstinate” calms (69). For Delano misery is part of the universal law; as he believes: “In armies,
in cities, in families, in nature herself, nothing more relaxes good order than misery” (51-52; emphasis added). Such
naturalizing of events occurs as well in his repeated attempts to repress all potentially destabilizing aspects of the
ship by transforming what he sees into purely domestic images. Thus he witnesses the death-ship as a kind of
“summer-house” (74); and, in the deck cabin, site of an otherwise terrifying scene of Babo holding a blade to
Cereno’s neck, he imagines “the hall of some bachelor squire in the country” (82).
If Delano tries at every step to domesticate the San Dominick, even more so does he try to assimilate the
strangeness of Benito Cereno. Like the ship itself, Cereno appears ghostly, “cadaverous” (94), without much to
remark upon his status as an authority figure except his captain’s title and uniform. It is only through these latter
“signs”–the barest evidences of authority–that Delano can comprehend Cereno and thus locate him within a
familiar world. But such signs offer Delano only the most provisional sense of order, inasmuch as they are
constantly contradicted by the many enigmatic events around him, events whose main effect is to force Delano
always to reinterpret the precise nature and intentions of his unpredictable Spanish host. Ever searching for a
stable view of Cereno, Delano resembles the lawyer-narrator of “Bartleby the Scrivener,” who, in trying to
understand the inscrutable actions (or non-actions) of Bartleby, can do so only through the most rigorous methods
of rationalization and acts of repression. In the same way that the lawyer finds “reasons” (by turns psychological,
physical, and metaphysical) for Bartleby’s preferences “not to” work, or move, or respond with direct answers,
Delano similarly attempts to impose on Cereno’s behavior a set of values that allows him to make perfect sense–
“natural” sense–of the seemingly inscrutable Spaniard.
In Delano’s mind, it is at first the natural hardships endured at sea that make Cereno seem “half-lunatic” (52, 53).
After vacillating in his opinions, Delano tries to reduce the problem of deciphering Cereno to a simple moral
opposition: either Cereno represents “innocent lunacy, or wicked imposture” (64). But even here such reasoning
becomes but another way for Delano to domesticate the whole question of Cereno. For in his very formulation
regarding the Spaniard, Delano effectively obscures the more accurate understanding of the situation: that
Cereno’s behavior really points to a case of innocent imposture (forced as Cereno is to “play” his role of captain).
No doubt for one who is inclined to see the world in black-and-white terms–in terms of good and evil–such a
possibility would be too “unnatural” even to contemplate.
All this naturalization, or domestication, of the world around him serves Delano well as a way to construct a self
that would have complete dominion over all those he considers Other.(5) Consistent with Delano’s egocentric view
of the world is his belief that, as John Samson puts it, ever since Columbus’s voyage to the New World, “America
signals the End Times of human history” (6). Indeed, as “the American” with a providential view of history, Delano
feels that he represents the most enlightened form of humanity, far surpassing those cultures–African and
European–that come to signify for him the unenlightened past. (Africans he equates with “Newfoundland dogs”
(84) and “the very word Spaniard,” to his mind, “has a curious, conspirator, Guy-Fawkish twang to it” [79]). It is
perhaps not surprising that Delano’s most frequently mentioned characteristic is his “good nature.” For more than
simply pointing to his cheerfully optimistic personality, this designation also suggests Delano’s desire to view
himself as being good by nature, hence as being morally superior. In Delano’s mind there is little room for the belief
that “goodness” is, as Nietzsche would argue, mainly a convenient term used to justify the present political order
and thus to obscure the many violences upon which so-called “natural” or “divine” authority is always based.
Yet while Delano may try to reassure himself about the stability of what he discerns as his historically and morally
advanced position, Melville’s ironic text is constantly putting into question the very basis of Delano’s authority, of
his sense of historical self-identity. For evident throughout is a certain otherness within himself that he refuses to
accept, let alone acknowledge. If Delano tries to separate himself as much as possible from the increasingly
bizarre world he encounters, Melville’s narrative nevertheless suggests ways in which Delano takes on the very
aspects of that which he considers Other. Just as, for instance, the San Dominick is designated in Delano’s mind
as “the stranger,” so too is Delano himself, not long after his arrival aboard the ship, referred to as a “stranger” (67,
94). Similarly, while Delano earlier locates Cereno’s otherness in the Spaniard’s primitive belief in superstitions, the
American captain is himself shown to be likewise subject to so-called primitive thinking: he is reported to feel a
“ghostly dread of Don Benito,” believing that amid the many “phantoms” (68) he witnesses, Cereno is “the central
hobgoblin of all” (69). And finally, if Cereno is, from Delano’s point of view, often characterized as mentally
unstable, we notice a similar kind of instability manifesting itself in the otherwise stable American: Delano is often
depicted as bewildered, haunted, and “Lost in…mazes” of thought (75)–to the extent that at one moment he
hallucinates that he is a “prisoner in some deserted chateau” (74).
No doubt an important cause of Delano’s instability is the sudden sense that he can no longer trust in the usual
signs that render his world both meaningful and orderly. As a literalist “incapable of satire or irony” (63), Delano
reads the world as a perfectly stable system of signs that refer naturally, that confer upon the things of the world a
purely natural identity. Thus the image of Cereno leaning on his slave–of a captain demonstrating his loss of
mastery, his dependency on an Other–serves only to shatter the world of “significant symbols” (63) to which
Delano is accustomed. It suggests instead a world of appearances, where all signs, while they are capable of being
manipulated by a will to power, are nevertheless empty in themselves–as empty as the “artificially stiffened”
scabbard that is supposed to hold Cereno’s silver-mounted sword, the “apparent symbol of despotic command”
(116). Without a world of naturally grounded signs to rely upon, Delano is in jeopardy of losing his bearings, that is,
of losing his sense of himself as a “center,” as a “master” of his world.
The questioning of Delano’s superior status, of his unique identity, is implied throughout by the narrator’s
inclination to use negatives to define the American captain. That Delano is, in turn, “singularly undistrustful” (47),
“Not unbewildered” (75), “Not uninfluenced” (80) and “not unpleased” (82) seems to point to a systematic attempt
on Melville’s part to ironically undo Delano’s sense of self-identity (the sense that he operates in a way totally
separate from those others over whom he reigns). Like Bartleby’s employer who would like to believe that his “safe”
position bears no relation whatever to the exploited underclass in his office, Delano tries to deny the facts to which
the images before him plainly attest: that the master’s identity is inextricably bound up with that of the slave’s, that
“self” can be understood only in terms of its essential otherness, its “not-self.” Thus the image of the incapacitated
Cereno leaning on the slave Babo mirrors exactly the status of Delano’s relationship to Others, a relationship of
interdependency that would make the identity of master and slave, of self and other, no more easily discernible
than that suggested by the ambiguous symbol carved on the ship’s stern-piece. Only through the violence of
repression–figured in the sailor’s words to Delano regarding the knot, “Undo it, cut it, quick” (76)–can Delano return
to his more comfortable belief in his “bachelor” autonomy and in his privileged position. In fact, it will be precisely
by way of cutting the ship’s cable (and finally having his crewmen attack the black slaves) that Delano will
eventually be able to release himself from the strong bonds that tie him, knot-like, to the San Dominick–the ship
that, in its ghostly appearance, is the very emblem of his otherness.(6)
Delano’s inability, or refusal, to recognize his own otherness is suggested most significantly by his failure to
account for the Other that most controls his view of the events–Babo. Unable to see Babo in any other way than as
a loyal and submissive slave–as part of the “Living freight” (54) on the ship–Delano thus has no idea of the extent
to which Babo constitutes (and in so doing radically splits) his own historical consciousness. Is it not, after all,
Babo who is responsible for constructing the very world that Delano observes? Unlike Delano who believes in the
naturalness of signs, Babo is only too aware of the artifice of language and of how power really lies with those who
control the social signs and who have the ability to make these signs appear absolutely natural. Disguising the
present circumstances as well as the traces of the past, Babo devises everything from the “fictitious story” (110)
that Cereno tells Delano (concerning the “natural” sufferings at sea) to the elaborate scheme to convert images of
past and potential violence into scenes of supposed normalcy. The much-discussed shaving scene is one of
Babo’s more ingenious devices; for with the razor held strategically at Cereno’s throat, the image of violence is kept
perfectly hidden beneath the most domestic of scenes: a slave performing his daily duty for his master.
The art that goes into the staging of scenes aboard the San Dominick suggests in the figure of Babo someone who
not only consciously controls Delano’s gaze but also–despite his status as a slave–strangely mirrors Delano’s own
position of authority. For Babo is, in the present circumstances, but another historical consciousness trying (if
more self-consciously) to organize the signs before him so as to allow for his eventual domination over others. Of
course, in one sense Babo must be sympathetically viewed as an oppressed slave attempting to overturn what his
white oppressors see as a “natural” social hierarchy; and in this respect, recent critics have defended Babo largely
on the basis of his link to certain valiant slave rebellions in the antebellum South as well as in the West Indies
around the time of Melville’s writing (Karcher 137-43; Kavanagh 377). Yet while Melville no doubt understood and
sympathized with the plight of the blacks under slavery (Karcher 11-19), it would be a mistake simply to reduce the
blacks depicted in the story to a collective body of individuals unmarked by important differences among
themselves. Indeed, the blacks here are anything but a faceless, homogeneous group; they are themselves broken
down into their own order of masters and slaves, with Babo at the helm administering (but not directly taking part
in) the violence perpetrated against the Spanish crew.(7) Commanding the other slaves with absolute rule, and
manipulating most of the events Delano witnesses, Babo is thus cast as no less a self-possessed authority figure
than is Delano. Cultured, cunning, and controlling, Babo, that “hive of subtlety” (116), is precisely the sort of central
intelligence that carries on its violent activity from afar. It is an intelligence that, like Delano’s, gives the
appearance of rationality when in fact that rationality is always already inscribed by a certain irrational violence. In
their own ways, both Babo and Delano represent the Law with regard to their own respective “others” over whom
they rule. And in the sense that they are two intelligences that in their own separate ways control each other’s
gaze, they come to constitute the Law for each other–that is, until one law prevails, violently, over the other.
In “Benito Cereno” the conflict of competing gazes, competing laws, attempts to resolve itself in the last two
segments of the text, the legal deposition and the brief epilogue–each of which may be said to try to “close the
book” on the strange case of the San Dominick. Written in the objective-sounding language of the law, and
sanctioned by both the church and state, the deposition represents the authoritative version of what occurred
aboard the ship–it is supposed to be the true history.(8) But as critics have pointed out, the deposition’s view of the
events–its historical gaze–is hardly as objective and factual as it seems (see Karcher 135, Weiner 18). Like other
histories, this one is skewed toward serving those in power, which is to say the Spanish-imperialist regime. For it is
this regime that has much to gain by overseeing the court testimony and so making clear, with reasoning “both
learned and natural” (103), that the Spanish masters are the primary victims in the case. Displaying the same kind
of racial and cultural bias that Delano clearly exhibits, Cereno’s deposition invariably characterizes the Africans as
heartless murderers and the Spanish slave-drivers as virtuous Christians (thus rendering a black-and-white version
of a more contradictory historical truth; see Hauss 17). If Babo, at the story’s end, remains “voiceless,” he is so not
only because he has resigned himself to being captured and thus feels there is no use in talking if he can no longer
“do deeds” (116), but because, more importantly, he has already been struck silent by another’s discourse–a
discourse that speaks for Babo and that, finally, imposes upon him a “legal identity.”
While the deposition is supposed to offer closure by revealing the complete history of the San Dominick affair, the
ending of Melville’s text suggests quite otherwise. For what is the brief epilogue but an attempt to give an even
more complete history, to fill in the gaps left by the previous segments of the text And what of the epilogue itself?
Does it not fulfill its function of making the history complete? Of course the irony here is that in trying to fill in the
gaps of the history, the “retrospectively, or irregularly given” (114) epilogue serves only to undermine the
chronological order of the narrative and so to reduce an otherwise total, seamless history to fragments.
To some extent the epilogue (being primarily concerned with the events just prior to Delano and Cereno’s arrival at
the Lima court) epitomizes the entire history in the way it tries to totalize events while at the same time revealing
its own particular violences. Delano, as historical consciousness, illustrates the problem well. It is he who, at the
end, once again offers his rational(izing), official perspective, believing as he does that the world operates
according to natural laws and that these laws, temporarily upset, are now back in place: the “normal” order of the
world, where masters and slaves are well defined, can happily continue on its natural course. Typical of Delano’s
attitude is his advice to the profoundly traumatized Cereno, who is still haunted by the recent events. “[T]he past is
passed,” says Delano, “Why moralize upon it.(2) Forget it. See, yon bright sun has forgotten it all…” (116). What
Delano’s comment reveals is not simply a blind optimism but rather a massive repression of the past events, or
more specifically, an attempt to repress, or forget, the fact that the past is inextricably tied (knotted) to the present.
The play on “past” and “passed” may indeed indicate that for Delano the past is the past–that the past constitutes
an altogether separate identity, total unto itself: removed from his own present circumstances and from his own
self-presence. It is only through such active forgetfulness–through the violence of repression–that Delano can
continue to carry on his safe, privileged existence.
For Delano the past is, in a certain way, suggestive of the same kind of otherness that he attaches to Babo, whom
Delano will not recognize for his part in making up Delano’s own historical consciousness. And yet, if there is ever
a reminder of the past, it is the silent but powerful image at the end of the story of Babo’s severed head “fixed on a
pole in the Plaza [meeting], unabashed, the gaze of the whites…” (116). In one sense the image signals the
American’s triumph in he world over other cultures, or more broadly speaking, the triumph of the West over the socalled
primitive, less historically advanced societies. But in another sense, inasmuch as Babo’s head is said to
oversee both Aranda’s and Cereno’s respective grave sites, the image also powerfully suggests that the gaze of the
Other–the gaze of the past–cannot easily be denied. It is a disturbing image because, finally, it is indeterminate: at
once a warning to the Other to keep in his place, and yet also a warning to the supposedly more “advanced”
cultures that the enslaved Other cannot be completely repressed.(9) It is at once a reminder as well as a remainder
of the violence upon which privilege and authority in the world are always based. Indeed, it alerts us not to the end
of violence, the containment of violence within the confines of the law (and culture), but rather to the fact that the
law is itself, as Foucault says,
a calculated and relentless pleasure, the delight in the promised blood….Humanity does not gradually progress
from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare;
humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination.
Those who, by the end of the story, are in control of the rules–namely Delano and the Spanish court–are thus intent
on judging others strictly in accordance with what best enables them to maintain their own power.
For Delano and the court, the moral meaning of Babo’s final image (as well as of all the events that took place on
the San Dominick) could not be clearer. But for Melville, whose fictional re-creation of the real Delano’s history is
but a meditation on history itself, the final image of Babo points to a more complicated notion of history–one that
is neither black nor white, nor able to be reduced to a metaphysical statement about the ambiguous nature of
evil.(10) Concerned as Melville is with both the material facts of history as well as with the material consequences
of historical form, ‘Benito Cereno” gives ample testimony to Melville’s interest in keeping a vigilant eye not only on
the violences inherent in, and resulting from, the institution of slavery, but also on the epistemic violences inherent
within any narrative construction of that institution’s past. Precisely in his scrutiny of those forms and
formulations of history that would help maintain such barbaric cultural practices, Melville demonstrates a desire to
tell a different kind of history. It is one that, in revealing history’s imposing gaps, its eloquent silences, and its
counter-discourses, finally makes it possible for the Other (otherwise kept silent) to speak and for the otherness of
history finally to emerge from its shadowy depths.
1 For similar views, see Kaplan, Fiedler, and Widmer.
2 For an interpretation of the story’s black-white imagery as it pertains to the politics of race, see Nelson 109-30.
3 For a discussion of the way Melville’s romances engage history by seeking to “penetrate and symbolically rework
the social order,” see Rogin 22.
4 For a discussion of the role of nature in “Benito Cereno,” see Martin, who astutely points out that despite Delano’s
dependence on nature for reassurance and support, all natural signs in the story are “hopelessly equivocal” (166).
5 See Spivak, who argues: “No perspective critical of imperialism can turn the Other into a self, because the project
of imperialism has always already historically refracted what might have been the absolutely Other into a
domesticated Other that consolidates the imperialist self” (253). As we shall see, it is Delano’s attempted
domestication of Others that allows him to consolidate, and to ground, his imperialist self. That Melville’s text sets
out to undermine the stability of this self suggests one of the ways Melville tries to de-domesticate history.
6 Though Delano is cast mainly as an administrator, removed from the violent activity, occasionally his own brute
self reveals itself: for example, during the scene of Babo’s attack when Delano’s foot begins to “ground the
prostrate negro” (99). Later, the narrator refers to “the superior muscular strength” (116) of Delano, in contrast to
the small stature of Babo.
7 That a social hierarchy exists among the blacks is suggested by the fact that there are, within the group, the
Ashantee workers, who are commanded to do much of the killing; the old, venerable oakum-pickers; the ex-king
Atufal; and the literate “ruler” Babo. The black women, more ambiguously situated, are relegated to domestic roles-
-caring for the young and singing songs–yet they also actively participate in the rebellion (see Martin 165n2). See
Zagarell, who points out that “none of the characters, black or white, can genuinely resist the hierarchical social
system…” (129).
8 For a discussion of how Melville’s fictional forms both parallel and criticize the “legal formalism” that developed
in the 1850s, see Rogin 158-60. See also Thomas 93-112. Cereno’s legal narrative is of course ironized throughout
with gaps in the form of textual elisions. Delano, who, as a dominant narrative perspective, becomes “the law” in
the earlier segment, has his own authority undercut by other interpolated narrative voices. The third-person
narrator’s ironic voice and Cereno’s “brokenly delivered” (56) story about his crew’s sufferings at sea, which is
dictated to him by Babo, both serve to fragment and decenter Delano’s historical vision. As Weiner argues, the
“disruption of narrative order tends to reveal the illusion of legal order” (27n12).
9 Babo’s gaze bears a relationship to Bhabha’s understanding of the “evil eye” in the context of postcolonial
discourse: “The gaze of the evil eye alienates both the narratorial I of the slave and the surveillant eye of the
Master. It unsettles any simplistic polarities or binarisms in identifying the exercise of power…” (196). For views of
psychological and political repression in the story, see respectively Justman and Thomas, especially 112.
10 For a view of how Melville’s story reinterprets the actual Delano’s Narrative, see Weiner. Previous criticism,
whether historical or formal in approach, often repeats the sort of unselfconscious moralizing we observe in
Delano, thus resulting in a simplified, black-and-white reading of Melville’s more problematic view of “the
historical.” My intention throughout has been to see the story not as a moral allegory but as a critique of the
reductive moralizing that occurs within historical narrative. Melville’s meditation on historical form, far from
evading the concerns of material culture, shows that history as the site of interpretive conflict cannot help but
have serious implications For the material world.
Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New
York: Schocken, 1968. 253-64.
Bhabha, Homi K. “Interrogating Identity: The Postcolonial Prerogative.” Anatomy of Race. Ed. David Theo Goldberg.
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990. 183-209.
Carlisle, E. F. “Captain Amasa Delano: Melville’s American Fool.” Criticism 7 (1965): 349-62.
Delano, Amasa. A Narrative of Voyages and Travels. Boston, 1817. Rpt. A ‘Benito Cereno’ Handbook. Ed. Seymour
L. Gross. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1965. 71-98.
Dryden, Edgar A. Melville’s Thematics of Form: The Great Art of Telling the Truth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP,
Felman, Shoshana. “The Return of the Voice: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.” Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in
Literature Psychoanalysis, and History by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub. London: Routledge, 1992.
Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Stein and Day, 1966.
Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and
Interviews. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977. 139-64.
Hauss, Jon. “Masquerades of Language in Melville’s Benito Cereno.” Arizona Quarterly 44 (1988): 5-21.
Justman, Stewart. “Repression and Self in ‘Benito Cereno.'” Studies in Short Fiction 15 (1978): 301-06.
Kaplan, Sidney. “Herman Melville and the American National Sin: The Meaning of Benito Cereno.” The Journal of
Negro History 41 (1956): 31-38.
Karcher, Carolyn L. Shadow Over the Promised Land: Slavery, Race, and Violence in Melville’s America. Baton
Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980.
Kavanagh, James H. “That Hive of Subtlety: ‘Benito Cereno’ and the Liberal Hero.” Ideology and Classic American
Literature. Ed. Sacvan Bercovitch and Myra Jehlan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 352-83.
Martin, Terry J. “The Idea of Nature in Benito Cereno.” Studies in Short Action 30 (1993): 161-68.
Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. New York:
Oxford UP, 1941.
Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno.” The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces 1839-1860. Ed. Harrison Hayford,
Hershel Parker, and Thomas Tanselle. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1987.
Nelson, Dana D. The Word in Black and White: Reading “Race” in American Literature, 1638-1867. New York: Oxford
UP, 1992.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random, 1974.
Rogin, Michael Paul. Subversive Genealogies: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville. New York: Knopf, 1983.
Samson, John. White Lies: Melville’s Narratives of Facts. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.
Spivak, Gayatri. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” Critical Inquiry 12 (1985): 243-61.
Thomas, Brook. Cross-examinations of Law and Literature: Cooper, Hawthorne, Stowe, and Melville. Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 1987.
Weiner, Susan. “‘Benito Cereno’ and the Failure of the Law.” Arizona Quarterly 47 (1991): 1-28.
White, Hayden. “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality.” The Content of the Form: Narrative
Discourse and the Representation of Reality. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. 1-25.
Widmer, Kingsley. The Ways of Nihilism: A Study of Herman Melville’s Short Novels. Los Angeles: Anderson,
Ritchie &Simon, 1970.
Zagarell, Sandra A. “Reenvisioning America: Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno.'” Critical Essays on Herman Melville’s ‘Benito
Cereno.’ Ed. Robert E. Burkholder. New York: Hall, 1992. 127-45.
Subject: Short stories; Morality; Literary criticism; History; Historical text analysis; Truth;
Politics; Eye movements
Literature indexing term: Author: Melville, Herman, 1819-1891
People: Melville, Herman (1819-1891)
Publication title: Studies in Short Fiction; Newberry
Volume: 32
Issue: 2
Pages: 171
Publication year: 1995
Publication date: Spring 1995
Publisher: Studies in Short Fiction, Inc.
Place of publication: Newberry
Country of publication: United States, Newberry
Publication subject: Literature
ISSN: 00393789
e-ISSN: 21689032
Database copyright Ó 2021 ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved.
Terms and Conditions Contact ProQuest
Source type: Scholarly Journals
Language of publication: English
Document type: Journal Article
Accession number: 02429065
ProQuest document ID: 195696733
Document URL:
Copyright: Copyright Newberry College Spring 1995
Last updated: 2019-11-22
Database: ProQuest Central

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