123 The Indirect and Direct Transformation of White Characters
Before I even read Benito Cereno by Melville, I already knew what was happening (spoilers, man–The Worst); I definitely feel like my perception of this novella is so different from readers who read it without knowing what’s happening. While reading it, I spent the whole time paying such explicit attention to moments of irony and really just delighting in the reverse of power dynamics. I didn’t have the experience of thinking the black characters were suspicious or ominous or weird, etc., etc.; I didn’t even have the experience of wondering if Benito Cereno was suspicious or threatening; and I especially didn’t experience the feeling of shock, nor the feeling of some sort of confirmed bias about the “evilness” of black characters. We’ve been talking a lot about how Melville’s story works to emphasize the evilness of black characters, but I feel like I lack the full experience of the impact of finally finding out what’s going on–which I think must surely increase a feeling of? “betrayal”? or give an air of duplicity which only enhances the perception of “evilness.”
I mostly spent the whole time thinking about (surprise) PERCEPTION; and also power, and the part that perception plays in power dynamics. For me there was such satisfaction in witnessing the reversal of power that comes from Delano’s unawareness; such satisfaction in the way that he seems so sure of himself and his observations about not only what he’s witnessing, but his general observations/ conclusions about the nature of the world and the people in it. Really, I delight in any narrative which shows “common sense” ideology (esp essentialist ideology) to be so ridiculous, so horribly precarious and absurd. To me, Benito Cereno has so much to say about perception and knowledge and hubris–how interesting it is that someone who thinks themselves intelligent and knowledgable, who indeed goes around giving their opinions on this thing and that, can be so unknowing. But it especially does so well in showing how even though Benito Cereno d o e s pick up on dissonant cues, he dismisses them or attributes them to something else because they don’t align with his already very well established ideological conceptions of power, race, etc. So entrenched in his conception of white supremacy and black servility, he’s unable to even concieve of a reality in which white people no longer have control.
But even beyond this, I especially love the way that perhaps ALL dynamics of power are examined in this novella–how the general conception of power is itself undermined and questioned; how power is exchanged, distributed, communicated through such small interactions–esp symbolic communication and the power of it. How symbols construct ideology and how ideology itself both gives oppressors their power, but how it can also be their undoing. I quite frankly delighted in the way that oppressors believe the ideology of their own surpremacy and inherent domination to the point of it causing them to lose some of that power. The fragility (but also the endurance) of power structures is so interesting in this novella.
Perhaps Benito Cereno‘s indirectness creates an ambiguity that allows white readers (especially ones of that time, and ones that, unlike me, did not know the twist until it happened) to reinforce their racist conceptions, to renew and justify their hatred of black peoples, and to leave their sense of dominance unquestioned. I legitimately don’t know, but when I read Benito Cereno, I thought so much of the general atmosphere of Jordan Peele’s movie Get Out, or perhaps this sort of genre of “racial horror”–specifically those which uncannily haunt white people by exposing the fragility of their supremacy and dominance. Even as we talk about and discuss these narratives and acknowledge how they expose the fragility of our white power, we still never really sit with it or think of the implications of that–never take the fear literally. I think a lot about that–how I delight in the irony, laugh at it instead of take it seriously.
Reading the posts of my peers it looks like most people talk about how it’s a bad thing that Melville has his black slave characters appear dangerous and threatening; how Douglass gives them honor and a non-threatening nature. I wonder about this because, in a sense, I think maybe white people s h o u l d be scared of the power of the people they oppress? Of course, contributing to the perception of black people as evil creatures isn’t the best thing, but, in general, I think Benito Cereno is more accurate in how it exposes the vulnerability of oppressors.
Though, by having the white characters escape their demise, Melville’s novella does, I suppose, complicate this idea of vulnerability. I feel like I could write a whole paper on the last few pages of Benito Cereno. While I do so very much delight in the reversal of power between Delano and Babo/ Artufal/ all the black slaves on the ship, I don’t particularly delight in the reversal of power between Babo/ Benito. I do have discomfort with the particular violation that is such physical and psychological control and powerlessness. Particularly, I’m interested in the way that Benito is so directly terrorized and forced to do and say things he doesn’t want to do or doesn’t feel/ believe. I wonder about that effect of such constant, direct, psychological and physical force and the cognitive dissonance. Benito has several instances of distress so severe as to appear ill, and seems to almost be in a state of dissociation that someone who is violated might also feel. Not that I think Babo is evil for any of this though–he didn’t p l a n to do that originally, it was “necessary” to escape and continue their plan to freedom, and regardless, I doubt Babo thought super intently about how much he would want to psychologically harm Benito–only that he wanted him to be scared enough to comply.
What I’m actually interested in is how Benito is after this experience. He does seem traumatized; but he doesn’t seem to express anger outright toward Babo or desire for revenge. He even just wants Delano to leave them alone, but Delano pursues them. Benito doesn’t look at Babo, doesn’t speak to him. He obsesses over morals, of the danger that other’s were put in. Arguably, this obsession over morals only increases white readers’ sense of evilness of the black characters–how horrible of them to cause this suffering, etc. But I read it as an examination of almost? communication? etiquette? friendship? of alliance and social cues and asking for help and cognitive dissonance and perception and, I don’t know, this certain experience of being forced to use your voice and body to communicate things you don’t mean, to communicate the opposite of what you want to communicate (alienating yourself from a potential alliance or survival), and also to be forced to use your voice and body to deceive someone to bring about the harm of that person. Benito legitimately quietly goes away to a monastery at the end of the novella. I find this ending so peculiar.
I want to say that there is room for more than one thing in the novella–room for issues of race, but also room for the examination of the fragility of power structures, powerlessness, vulnerability, violation, mental/ emotional reactions to powerlessness, alliance, friendship, cultural/ social cues, perception, knowledge, ideology, etc. I want to say this and emphasize that perhaps Benito’s experience of violation gave him a sense of what it felt like to be a black slave with no autonomy, no power, and that this story is about that. But, even if it is, why focus on the experience of oppressors? why leave room for more empathy with Benito than with Babo? why not explore the emotion distress and cognitive dissonance of a slave? And if the point is to emphasize that Benito is transformed by the experience of violation, why have him isolate himself in a monastery, and not immediately join the cause for abolition, like Douglass’ character?
When I ask myself these questions, I think of The Heroic Slave and I wonder how the directness of Douglass’ story works to solve some of these issues, but also how it falls into them too. The Heroic Slave does explore, not only the distress of a slave, but also specifically the cognitive dissonance, the fragmented consciousness of someone who is trying to navigate the tension between a life of oppression with less danger, or a life of freedom with risk–the fragmentation of working through dependence and powerlessness within a power structure and trying to break outside of it–both literally and mentally–with Washington’s “soliloquy” near the beginning. He laments this consciousness, this awareness of a life outside of slavery, which I find so so interesting and filled with a similar kind of philosophical/ psychological complexity that Benito Cereno has.
But even as it gives the perspective of a black character and tries to evoke sympathy, it is still a text that inhabits white perspectives of black characters. The Heroic Slave is concerned with what white people think of Washington and is dedicated to depicting the transformation of white characters, just like I suggest Melville’s novella does–these novellas both center around the way that oppressors’ perspectives change when they encounter an aspect of black experience–either directly, through a loss of their own power, or through witnessing the humanity of a slave.
Because Douglass is more direct, though, he leaves less room for the demonization of black characters. While perhaps Benito Cereno attempts to get white readers to, consciously, or unconsciously, f e e l the fragility of their own domination, it may just serve to make them more fearful of, angry at, and/ or dismissive of black people (especially slaves) and their experience of oppression/ their reactions to oppression. Douglass uses white characters internal thoughts and external communication to give voice to positive conceptions of black characters–in this way he legitimizes the opinions and seeks to evoke similar feelings of positivity in white readers.
(a note: I have no doubt that my own experience with oppression–and especially my own experience of years of material and emotional dependence on both families and partners who physically harmed me–affects my reading of this text. I also have no doubt that my own processing of those experiences (my tendency towards, perhaps even commitment to, “pacifism”; my commitment to both allowing myself to delight in the irony of oppressors overestimating their own power a n d having some sort of empathy for them; my tendency to enact violence towards myself before others–out of a lack of alternatives or otherwise, I don’t know–as well as a general lack of self preservation) s i g n i f i c a n t l y affects my reading of this text. And I especially have no doubt that even so, the fact that I am white will always affect how I read this text and that I have no right to pass judgement on the reactions of so many black persons who were subjected to intensely horrible lives of submission, dehumanizing labor, violence, entrenchment in dependence, as well as the mental effects of all this on their sense of the world and of themselves and the cognitive dissonance around the reality of their lives that still persists even after emancipation and that still seems active today in intergenerational trauma, etc.)