The paradox of slave mutiny in Herman Melville, Charles Johnson, and Frederick Douglass.
Those of us who teach American literature in all its varied hues often encounter problems of ideology when teaching nineteenth-century texts by white authors: one has to deal with the fact that a racist like Poe nevertheless has admirable narrative skills, for example, a combination that students can find troubling. Often, however, the problem stems from the fact that a number of authors of this period felt--usually correctly--that they were addressing a readership that was philosophically less broad-minded or far-seeing than they themselves, not least on racial issues, and thus they adopted covert means to, as Herman Melville put it, "preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood" (1967, 50). The instance of Melville's own "Benito Cereno" is a classic example: the initial resistance experienced by many students of color, in particular, toward the story often arises from the subtlety of the rhetorical practices that serve to mask the power of the subtext. (1) The task for teachers is therefore to foster sensitivity to that subtext, because in this story, as in many such others, the Truth that is being preached--be it philosophical, political, or sociological--is hidden, but, like Poe's purloined letter, in plain view. The trick is to be able to see it, because beneath the surface may be a truth that students can embrace.
With this in mind, then, this essay will study "Benito Cereno" alongside two narratives of shipboard slave rebellions by African American authors--Charles Johnson's Middle Passage and Frederick Douglass's The Heroic Slave, both novels frequently taught in college literature courses. Its purpose is to reveal firstly that Melville is in fact making the same point as these African American authors about such rebellions, through the subtle use of paradox as the key rhetorical strategy, and more generally that this trope is broadly characteristic of the slave-mutiny narrative genre as a whole, providing a useful approach for studying all such texts. My own approach here is not so much theoretical (although a Bakhtinian analysis might well be elaborated) as textually analytical in ways that may help to facilitate classroom interaction with the texts, and focus discussion by foregrounding both terms of the paradox: as each of these narratives tells us, everything here both is and is not what it seems.
It is clear from all three texts under discussion not only that such shipboard slave rebellions are inherently paradoxical, but that so is the status quo that they seemingly invert. The sea has long been figured as a symbol of freedom, limitlessness, the absence of differentiation; an idea memorably expressed through Melville's Bulkingon, in Moby-Dick, and his "intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore" (1967, 97). Yet the world of the sailors who inhabited the oceans, "crossing borders in modem machines that were themselves micro-systems of linguistic and political hybridity" (Gilroy 1993, 12), was one of rigid hierarchy in which all were mutually complicit, the ranks defining each other and mutually dependent, and ruled by a captain of god-like status ("a general social condition," Melville said in White-Jacket,"the precise reverse of what any Christian could desire" [1970, 375]). Thus not only were these sailors in a paradoxical situation with regard to the element they traversed, but there is also an element of paradox in the concept of their engaging in mutiny, given the inversion of mutually recognized natural hierarchy, based on class and capital. Far more is this the case, however, in a slave mutiny: not only are the superior/inferior, rulers/ruled binaries disrupted, but also the more fundamental human/nonhuman distinction: the cargo, in effect, becomes captain and crew, and the world is turned upside down.
Hence the trope of paradox that informs the narratives of slave mutinies mentioned above, and indeed also contemporaneous nonfiction accounts of slave mutinies. In her study The Slumbering Volcano:American Slave Ship Revolts and the Production of Rebellious Masculinity, for example, Maggie Montesinos Sale describes how both apologists for and opponents of those involved in the Amistad and Creole mutinies invoked the imagery of the Founding Fathers and of revolutionary struggle,"deploy[ing] the discourse of national identity toward differing and typically opposing ends" (1997, 119). Such mutinies are inherently destabilizing, since they reveal the supposed fixed poles not to be what they seem--or rather where they seem. But the deeper point is that their reversal leaves us not with chaos, but (such is the nature of paradox) with a mirror-image of what went before. Nothing changes and everything changes. And this is also the deeper point of"Benito Cereno" expressed with all Melville's characteristic and appropriate indirection, double negatives, and subtle wordplay: that ultimately mutineers and officers, slave and free, are two sides of the same coin--they are each other.
Melville based his story of Captain Amasa Delano's discovery of the mutiny on the San Dominick on the real-life Delano's account of a slave revolt on the Spanish ship the Tryal. As Michael Paul Rogin says in Subversive Genealogy, "On that ship the slaves overthrew their masters only to reenact their own enslavement. Melville fictionalized a mutiny that the slaves had fictionalized before him.... [H]e thereby called attention to the fictitious character of allegedly organic human relations" (1979, 213). Unwittingly, on boarding the stricken San Dominick, the helpful Captain Delano,"a person of singularly undistrustful good nature" (Melville 1966, 142), has boarded a ship on which a successful slave mutiny has taken place, but he obtusely fails to recognize this until the very end, because the slaves are forcing the captain, Benito Cereno, and the remaining Spanish crew to behave as if they are still in charge. As Rogin puts it, "There is no action until the drama on the San Dominick is over, only acting" (1985, 210). Delano enters this world where all is not as it seems resolutely seeing what he expects and wants to see on board a slave ship, and forcing his occasional feelings of unease into conformity with that vision--misgivings that the less ingenuous reader is less likely to dismiss. But the reader, by which I mean especially Melville's original reader, is here manipulated as skillfully by Melville as Delano is by Babo and the other slaves: when Delano begins to suspect that the slaves and Benito Cereno may be jointly in league against him, for example, he wonders, "could then Don Benito be in any way in complicity with the blacks?," immediately concluding, "But they were too stupid" (1966, 175), a conclusion which many original readers would also have accepted (and one which the casual reader, because Delano's is the perspective from which the main body of the narrative is told, has often taken at this point to be the author's conclusion also, despite Delano's obvious lack of acuity). (2) Ultimately, of course, like everything else in the story, the opposite is shown to be true, and it is a truth that inverts Delano's world.
Perhaps the best metaphors for the true state of affairs on the San Dominick are, appropriately enough, its figurehead and stern piece. Much has been made by critics of the shrouded figurehead, concealing the skeleton of Aranda, the ship's (and the slaves') owner, with "follow your leader" chalked in Spanish below it, a constant reminder to the Spanish crew of what will happen if they fail to play their part in the drama. But less attention has been given to the stern piece, which is described as "intricately carved with the arms of Castile and Leon, medallioned about by groups of mythological or symbolical devices, uppermost and central of which was a dark satyr in a mask holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked" (Melville 1966, 144). Unlike the skeleton figurehead, this stern piece was not put in place by the rebelling slaves, but is an original part of the ship, a ship engaged in the slave trade. The San Dominick's reversal of fortunes is thus intrinsic in its very being, prefigured by the dark image holding sway above the arms of Castile and Leon, thus providing a mirror-image of the ship's original figurehead, which was Columbus (each end of the ship reverses the other, so to speak). And the masks worn by the figures on the stern piece also presage the imposture that will be carried out to maintain the reversal, while also suggesting something deeper: that there is nothing intrinsic to the roles performed on the San Dominick, before or after the mutiny--only the temporary and changeable assumption of masks.
The imposture itself takes the form, as previously noted, of a fictionalized reenactment. The slaves, led by Babo, having overthrown the Spanish crew, killing number of them (including the owner) in the process, then reenact their servitude for the benefit of Captain Delano, who fails to perceive the masks. He sees the body servant Babo never leaving his master's side for an instant but not that the mask of devotion hides the reality of the menace of an equally hidden knife. He sees the massive slave Atufal brought in chains at regular intervals for Don Benito to demand he ask pardon for earlier insubordination, but not that Atufal's chains are a mask that can be dropped at any time, nor that Benito's mask of judicial power conceals abject submission to Atufal's superior physical power. Even Benito's sword, we learn later, "apparent symbol of despotic command, was not, indeed, a sword, but the ghost of one. The scabbard, artificially stiffened, was empty" (Melville 1969, 222). And Delano sees a good deal more than Babo has staged, knowing precisely how Delano's preconception will lead him to misinterpret it-preconceptions that are ultimately responsible for very nearly getting both Delano and Benito Cereno killed. The story thus works precisely to illustrate the dangers of racial stereotyping, and, perhaps more importantly, to undermine those stereotypes by revealing the false distinctions on which they are constructed.
In fact the real point here is that there are no intrinsic distinctions, merely their illusion, which conceals a mutually defining paradox. Rogin notes that "John Quincy Adams [who was of course counsel for the Amistad mutineers] thought that revolutionary fathers like his own gave permission for slaves to be free. On the San Dominick [conversely] the master/father and the child/slave are locked irrevocably together," and he goes on to say, "the visible and deeper subject of Melville's tale is the inability of its characters to break free" (1985, 213). All its characters, in other words (the crew are at the mercy of the slaves, but the slaves are also dependent on the crew not to reveal the imposture). Both are simultaneously slave and flee, mirror images of each other, entirely mutually dependent for their lives. The visiting Captain Delano then doubles this doubling by placing his safety in the hands of Benito Cereno, who has been forced to place his in Babo, who is placing his in Don Benito's adherence to his enforced role. At times, indeed, Babo and Benito Cereno are described almost in terms of a single two-headed organism, such as when the narrator tells us, "As master and man stood before him, the black upholding the white, Captain Delano could not but bethink him of the beauty of that relationship which could present such a spectacle of fidelity on the one hand and confidence on the other" (Melville 1966, 154). Even the grammatical structure here reveals an ambiguity about who is master and who is "man," and it is only Delano's assumption, as a fellow captain, about the locus of authority, that leads him to draw a conclusion that is, as previously noted, both true and false.
Even if we ascribe Delano's assumption here to quite conscious racial preconceptions about Babo, we find that they are mirrored elsewhere in the story by less conscious prejudices toward the Spanish captain Benito Cereno. Dana D. NeLson has noted that at the times when the story was both set and written for Americans "'Spanish' was an unstable marker, semiotically balancing between light/fellow Westerner and dark/Other" (1993, 112), and she shows in detail how when Delano is feeling friendship and compassion toward Cereno he refers to him as "the pale invalid" For example, while when feeling suspicious "he is drawn to reflect on Benito Cereno's 'yellow hands' and 'dark' complexion and moral character" (112). The narrator notes at one point, for example, "There was a difference between the idea of Don Benito's darkly preordaining Captain Delano's fate and Captain Delano lightly arranging Don Benito's" (Melville 1961, 168). The same instability of signification also extends to the crew. As Nelson notes, "It is remarkable that, given the opposition established here between the 'white' sailors and the 'black' slaves, that Delano proceeds to identify the first 'white' sailor he observes with darkness" (1993, 113). Her point is that "'white' and 'black' are perceptually interchangeable as racial markers in certain instances" (113), thus effacing the possibility of essential distinctions, and that Delano's preconceptions are based more fundamentally on class than on race. But even the distinctions of the perceived natural class hierarchy are unstable here, as shown by Delano's wavering feelings toward Benito as Benito himself wavers between "courtesy and ill-breeding" (Melville 1966, 162). One moment Delano perceives him as a "low-born adventurer, masquerading as an oceanic grandee" (162), and the next moment as "a true offshoot of a true hidalgo Cereno" (163)--all of which is again both true and false, since Benito is actually an oceanic grandee masquerading as an oceanic grandee. Yet while Delano can find nothing essential in Don Benito that denotes class, or indeed in the similarly masquerading Spanish sailors, some of whom are in fact officers, he has no difficulty in identifying a "royal spirit" (160) in the chained slave Atufal (who indeed comes of African royalty) and in the mulatto steward Francesco, who, Delano says, "has features more regular than King George's of England" calling him "the king of kind hearts and polite fellows" (190). But of course this assessment of innate nobility proceeds from Delano's assumption that in reality they occupy the other end of the social scale, if they can be said to be on the scale at all. (Elsewhere he compares other slaves, quite approvingly, to animals.)
Given the extent to which it becomes apparent that the very nature of a slave mutiny both destabilizes and inverts a presumed "natural" order, erasing difference and revealing connection and doubling, it is not surprising that when Charles Johnson addresses the issue of such a mutiny in Middle Passage (discussed further below) he wakes characteristic use of the trope of inter-subjectivity in order to highlight the interchangeability of roles and masks. Although Melville uses different techniques, he and Johnson nevertheless are making the same point: both illustrate how when the master/slave, ruler/ruled roles are inverted, each side reveals characteristics of the other, for better and worse, until, as at the end of Orwell's Animal Farm, there is no discernible distinction. Slaves whose lives have been regulated by violence perpetuate that violence when in command--the San Dominick slaves, for example, made irritable when becalmed and lacking water, kill the Spanish mate (but "they afterwards were sorry, the mate being the only remaining navigator on board" [Melville 1966, 213] except Benito Cereno), and they essentially enslave their former captors. These captors, meanwhile, learn rapidly both the survival technique of assuming the mask of docility and the crushing psychic effects of oppression, which Benito Cereno does not survive. That they come to identify themselves as captives/victims is made clear in Benito Cereno's deposition to the Lima Court, in which it is stressed that "from the beginning to the end of the revolt it was impossible for the deponent and his men to act otherwise than they did" (218).
The text of this deposition, placed almost at the end of the story, itself acts as a mirror image of all that has gone before: Melville calls it "the key to fit into the lock of the complications which precede it" (1966, 220). This is the complementary version of the story as seen from behind Don Benito's mask, an "official" narrative of the events of the mutiny, seemingly revealing the reality behind the subsequent imposture. But as I have suggested, there is in fact no essential distinction here between role and reality: reality is the role played. Slave and slavemaster have exchanged roles and thus, in effect, become each other. Benito's experience of oppression at Babo's hands has destroyed his former self-perception and world-perception, leaving him passive and demoralized: "'You are saved,' cried Captain Delano ... 'what has cast such a shadow upon you?'" Benito replies simply,"'The Negro'" (222)--recalling the configuration of the images on the stern piece. Babo, on the other hand, has become indomitable, refusing to play his part in the charade of a trial (the verdict being preordained) that would compel him to play his former role: "he uttered no sound, and could not be forced to" (222). Having been denied a voice at all as a slave, he now has the power to deny his enemies the use of his voice against him and his fellows.
But ultimately both Babo and Benito Cereno are trapped within the two terms of the paradox, whether that be read as the slave mutiny or as slavery itself. Both are destroyed by it, which suggests that the false binaries that have been imposed on them bear the responsibility for their destruction. Babo is executed, and his head, containing a mind once thought "too stupid" but now termed "that hive of subtlety" (Melville 1966, 223), is fixed on a pole where it "met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites" (223), and itself gazes toward the vault where Aranda is buried and the monastery to where Benito Cereno, finally lifeless in fact as well as in spirit, "borne on the bier, did, indeed, follow his leader" (223). Even in death they are intimately connected and their respective stature not unambiguous, if we contrast the "unabashed" gaze of the executed slave with the fact that, as Dana Nelson reminds us, not just Aranda but "Babo, has served, for a time, as Don Benito's leader--precisely the experience that enervates and finally finishes Cereno" (1993, 129). The story itself illustrates the dangers and destructiveness caused by failure to recognize the falsity of the binaries that posit difference but erase sameness and that are figured by the paradox that structures the narrative.
But Melville was too astute to offer easy solutions. The story subtly but clearly demonstrates how seemingly diametrically opposed figures mirror each other, are mutually dependent for self-definition, and behind the masks essentially are each other. But there is no-one within the story who is capable of recognizing this, except potentially Benito Cereno himself, whom it reduces to inarticulateness. Captain Delano, whose perspective ostensibly controls the story, even when apprized of the nature of the masquerade is baffled into silence by why "the Negro" has "cast such a shadow" on Cereno: "There was no more conversation that day" (1966, 222). From his perspective, the status quo has been restored ("You are saved" ), and he shows no awareness that its inversion, however brief, has changed everything. The actual third-person narrator of the story, more astute than Delano and in a position to comment editorially, draws no such conclusions from the circumstances of the mutiny, and Melville does not attempt to use this narrative stance to embody Babo's perspective, since this would be beyond the imaginative compass of a narrator who represents, as Dana Nelson puts it, "the imaginative economy of white male subjectivity" (1993, 129). In other words, the narrator's perspective is that of the typical white male reader of the time, to whom the increasingly impoverished Melville had to appeal in order to sell his story. It is important to make clear not only the status of the narrative voice (which is assuredly not Melville's) but also how the paradox and inversions that are fundamental to the story's vision undercut the observations of that voice and reveal its simplistic inadequacy. When Melville has his narrator say, for example, that "Most Negroes are natural valets and hairdressers" (1966, 184), he as author is quite aware that the Negro acting the part of barber at that point is actually doing so in order to intimidate Benito Cereno by wielding a razor near his throat. On a second reading the destabilizing of the narrator's authority becomes quite clear, and a reader's initial acceptance of it is shown to be an assumption that replicates Delano's continual assumptions--the difference being that the reader, unlike Delano, learns and understands the nature of its falsity. In fact a second reading becomes a mirror image of the first, and the doubling in the story extends to the reader's experience of it. It is in the story's subtext, apparently unrecognized and un-commented on by the narrative voice, that Melville makes his more radical point, openly available to readers prepared to take an imaginative leap into the narrative's, and Babo's, silence. And it is the same point made in the same way that informs the work of Frederick Douglass and Charles Johnson.
When, in Johnson's Middle Passage, the newly emancipated slave protagonist Rutherford Calhoun goes to sea to escape pressing problems on shore, he embarks with conventional associations of the shore with death,"each day landside [was] a kind of living death" (1990b, 4) and of the sea with life, "the analogue for life was water, the formless, omnific sea" (4). Before the Republic has even set sail, however, he comes to identify the shipboard world as death-in-life, rigid confinement in the midst of the boundless: "I'd boarded not a ship but a kind of fantastic, floating Black Maria, a wooden sepulcher" (21). Compounding the paradoxical environment in which he finds himself is the fact that this death-in-life is also life-in-death, as the ship is constantly evolving, falling apart and being rebuilt: "she was, from stem to stern, a process" (36). (In all this, the ship is reminiscent of Queequeg's life-saving floating coffin in Moby-Dick.) It is an environment that reflects Calhoun's own contradictory position, as a former slave who knowingly stows away aboard a ship engaged in the slave trade.
There are in fact two sets of mutineers aboard the Republic: the white crew, who plan mutiny against the autocratic Captain Falcon, and the slaves, the Allmuseri, who ultimately take control of the ship. Calhoun, whose loyalties have been successively recruited by captain, crew, and slaves, occupies the opposite position to Melville's Delano in terms of race and class and thus lacks Delano's assumptions but trusts his own intuition. He recognizes early on that "[c]learly, nothing on the Republic was as it should be" (Johnson 1990b, 66), and when the mutiny takes place he sees what Delano could not: "I sensed then that not Falcon's loyalists but the Africans had overcome the crew" (129). His fear about the coming insurrection(s) had been that the result would be "something unforeseen that no one willed or wanted. A change not in the roles on ship but a revolution in its very premises" (126)--a notion that Delano's imagination does not admit. When the cargo takes control of the ship this is clearly a fundamental redefinition of the very meaning and constitution of "roles" but its implications are indeed not willed or wanted, since the revolution in the Republic's premises merely describes a half circle and achieves only an inverted image of the status quo.
Ironically, it seemed that Falcon had broken them after all; by their very triumph he had defeated them. From the perspective of the Allmuseri the captain had made Ngonyama and his tribesmen as bloodthirsty as himself.... The problem was how to win without defeating the other person. And they had failed. (Johnson 1990b, 140)
The Allmuseri, a tribe whose life philosophy is premised on the unity of being, experience their triumph on the Republic as a fall, into "the world of multiplicity, of me versus thee" (140). More specifically, the fall is from a former African world perceived in terms of connection and unity into an American New World determined by opposing binaries. The Allmuseri's god, now confined in the Republic's hold, "is everything, so the very knowing situation we mortals rely on--a separation between knower and known--never rises in its experience" (101). For Falcon, however, ruling god of the Republic, "[s]ubject and object, perceiver and perceived, self and other--these ancient twins are built into mind like the stem-piece of a merchantman" indicating "a deep crack in consciousness" of which "slavery ... is the social correlate" (98). Survival in a new world built on these premises depends for the Allmuseri on the recognition and manipulation of these boundaries, between the two poles of which they find themselves reluctantly trapped.
As on the San Dominick, when those on board the Republic adopt different masks, they also assume the characteristics suggested by those masks. The slaves resort to the violence previously directed against them. Falcon as deposed captain reverses his hierarchical assumptions--"we underestimated the blacks? They're smarter than I thought?" (Johnson 1990b, 146), a revision never achieved by Delano. Calhoun comes to see Falcon, and by extension the crew and himself, as enslaved by the ship's owners, "no freer than the Africans" (147). In fact, what emerges from the slaves' rebellion is less redefinition of difference than "[a] cruel kind of connectedness" (144)--cruel because the unity revealed is that which had been unwillingly abrogated by the Allmuseri--as all factions confront the consequences of what the nature of the voyage itself has set in motion,"the terrible forces and transformations our voyage had set free" (125). Throughout the narrative, Johnson has stressed the mutual influence felt between those on board, as the Allmuseri are changed by contact with the Americans, and the crew come to see themselves in the Africans, including one pivotal scene where Calhoun finds himself psychically changing places with a dead slave, "as if his spirit had flown and mine was being sucked there in its place" (123). Roles and identities are presented as being inherently unstable. In Being and Race, Johnson remarks that "the actor and writer--and all of us really--believe in the interchangeability of standpoints" (1990a, 43), and it is precisely this interchangeability (earlier sensed, and finally inescapable) that the Allmuseri uprising throws into indelible relief. As the white mate Cringle points out, echoing Frederick Douglass in invoking America's revolutionary history, "to be a Yank is to be mutinous. The goddamn country was born out of rebellion" (Johnson 1990b, 89). They are all, literally, in the same boat, in which they take interchangeable positions. Interchangeability in the novel also extends into intertextuality, as Johnson parodies earlier sea narratives such as the Odyssey, Moby-Dick (the intangible white whale and the Allmuseri god have much in common), and "Benito Cereno" inverting the terms of the familiar and reassigning roles. Cringle remarks, just before allowing himself to be killed and eaten, "'tis scandalous how some writers such as Amasa Delano have slandered black rebels in their tales'" (173).
Yet, as in "Benito Cereno," the narrative remains confined within the terms of the paradox: neither crew nor Allmuseri find a way out, a way "to win without defeating the other person." It has been said that Johnson's "text is written and read in the space of contradiction, which is not negation, but a radical form of problematizing and destabilizing fixed manners of belief and being" (Scott 1995, 655). I would agree but not with the conclusion that this stance leads to "the expansion of meaning and possibility" (655). Rather, the novel offers no more solutions to these problematic issues than does Melville's tale. The Republic sinks drowning all except Calhoun, Squibb, and three Allmuseri children. Squibb and two of the children then fade from the narrative (possibly to embark for the South Seas). Calhoun has undergone the transformation of perspective that eluded Captain Delano--"the voyage had irreversibly changed my seeing, made of me a cultural mongrel, and transformed the world into a fleeting shadow play I felt no need to possess or dominate, only appreciate in the ever extended present" (Johnson 1990b, 187)--yet he plans to take this new vision, and his newly adopted Allmuseri daughter, back to Illinois: "solid ground for once" (204). The Republic (and the republic) cannot sustain such a revolution in its premises, and the protagonist abandons the stage, the life-giving sea having brought only death, in search of new life on the formerly death-dealing land. All that remains of the ship, and the sole legacy of the insurrection, is the ship's log, consigned by Falcon to Calhoun, and written by the latter largely in retrospect. Thus for Calhoun it represents a doubling of experience, and, like the deposition at the end of"Benito Cereno" it also functions as a mirror. Here Calhoun's inside narrative is the complementary version of the "official" account that Captain Falcon's original log implies. "I took his logbook from the ruins. But I promised myself that even though I'd tell the story ... it would be, first and foremost, as I saw it" (146). The story is not only of what he saw, but of his vision's reversal and redefinition: his recognition, from his liminal position between crew and cargo, of the interdependence and interchangeability of all on board. But this re-vision can only come at the expense of the destruction of Falcon's dualistic world, in which "[a]s long as each sees a situation differently there will be slaughter and slavery and the subordination of one to another 'cause two notions of things never exist side by side as equals" (97). The paradox is irresolvable.
In the section of Frederick Douglass's The Heroic Slave that concerns the Creole muting the doubling of experience is that of the white mate, Tom Grant, who relates to a hostile white audience how the Creole was lost as a result of a successful slave mutiny led by the eponymous heroic slave, Madison Washington. Thus, the third-person narrator of the rest of the novella ironically cedes the authority for the slaves' and especially Washington's story to a white officer, whose chief characteristic is his conflicted response to the events of the mutiny and to the personality of Washington. Yet informing and directing this ambivalent narrative is, of course, Douglass himself, a heroic former slave. Grant's whole account, brief though it is, is shot through with contradictions and ambiguities of a kind that reveal his instructive awareness of the paradox inherent in the uprising. After having initially denied to his audience that "the negro is, naturally, a coward" especially at sea--"For the negro to act cowardly on shore, may be to act wisely" (2000, 46)--and having declared that "this whole slave-trading business is a disgrace and scandal to Old Virginia" (47), he is goaded into telling his tale by the accusation of being an abolitionist, at which he takes great umbrage. The irony, of course, lies in his lack of conscious recognition that the story he tells, and his struggles to interpret it, actually support such a position.
Central to Grant's explanation of the loss of the ship is what he regards as the imposture of Washington: "no one could suspect him of a murderous purpose. The only feeling with which we regarded him was, that he was a powerful, good-disposed negro" (Douglass 2000, 48). Washington spoke rarely and then only with "the utmost propriety" and "pronunciation equal to that of any schoolmaster," which Grant finds a "mystery" (48). In fact, he says, "none of us knew the extent of his intelligence and ability until it was too late" (48). But as this last remark, and later Washington's and the mate's own words, reveals, this mask that allays the crew's suspicions is actually the real Washington, which the crew interpret as a mask in the light of subsequent events. Yet it is the reality that fools them. Mysterious as their preconceptions suggest it to be, Washington actually is a man of few, well-spoken words, of great intelligence (the mate's word for it is "shrewd" , which still suggests a certain deviousness), and without murderous intent. (It should be noted that in The Heroic Slave's account, two men are killed during the uprising, the captain and the owner of the slaves. In the actual Creole mutiny of 1841 only the slaves' owner was killed.) Indeed, immediately after referring to him as a "rascal" the mate quotes Washington's own words, "'You call me a black murderer. I am not a murderer. God is my witness that LIBERTY not malice, is the motive for this night's work.... We have done that which you applaud your fathers for doing, and if we are murderers, so were they!"' (49).
The mate's conflicted response to Washington's identification of himself with the patriotic rebellion of the Founding Fathers is to pronounce Washington's speech "impudent" and himself simultaneously "disarmed" by it: "I forgot his blackness in the dignity of his manner, and the eloquence of his speech. It seemed as if the souls of both the great dead (whose names he bore) had entered him" (Douglass 2000, 49). It is as if the mate's perception of Washington is inverted; when he sees him infused with the souls of the great (white) dead, Washington's blackness, which for Grant is incommensurate with such greatness, disappears. Formerly seen as black and bloodthirsty, Washington now appears possessed by the greatness that belongs, by implication, to whiteness. Thus the reversal in Grant's thinking merely leaves us once again with a mirror image of the preconception and assumptions that preceded it.
Moreover, Grant continues to refer to the mutineers in general as "murderers," and exhorts the crew to resist them, even while he is contrasting the bravery of Washington in the ensuing storm (an event that precludes the kind of extended interaction between factions that revealed mutual influence in "Benito Cereno" and Middle Passage) to the behavior of the white members of the crew, whom, in an interesting reversal of contemporaneously conventional racial imagery, he describes as "so many frightened monkeys" (Douglass 2000, 50). In fact, he says of Washington,
I confess, gentlemen, I felt myself in the presence of a superior man; one who, had he been a white man, I would have followed willingly and gladly in any honorable enterprise .... It was not that his principles were wrong in the abstract; for they are the principles of 1776. But I could not bring myself to recognize their application to one whom I deemed my inferior. (Douglass 2000, 51)
The implicit argument is not that these principles did not apply to Washington, but simply that Grant could not acknowledge the fact, realizes this, and still cannot bring himself to voice the implication.
In fact, thanks to Douglass's strategy of telling this part of Washington's story from the perspective of a white man conditioned to be hostile both to the revolt and to the slaves themselves, the tone of the narrative's concluding paragraph then dissolves into irreconcilable ambiguity. The ship having docked at Nassau, governed by British law, a company of black soldiers, "impudent rascals," is sent on board to protect the ship's property, and refuses to interfere in the matter of the slave rebellion, saying "they did not recognize persons as property" (Douglass 2000, 51). Grant notes that they "sheltered themselves adroitly under their instructions only to protect property," but also he characterizes them as "stupid blockheads" (51; my emphasis). He condescendingly mocks their attitude toward the slaves: "[they] showed their ivory, rolled up their white eyes in horror, as if the idea of putting men on a footing with other merchandise were revolting to their humanity." Grant himself had previously equated the slaves legalistically with the "barrels of flour in the hold" (51). Yet two sentences later he describes, without a trace of mockery but with a suggestion of awe, how that erstwhile merchandise "formed themselves into a procession ... [and] marched, amidst the deafening cheers of a multitude of sympathizing spectators, under the triumphant leadership of their heroic chief and deliverer, MADISONWASHINGTON" (51).
In this dramatic concluding sentence, Grant cannot help implicitly acknowledging the organized, reasoned, and transcendent humanity of the rebellious slaves. Yet his contempt does not disappear but is merely inverted, redirected from the black slaves who resisted the law of the New World (which divided humans dualistically into persons and property) onto the black soldiers who insisted on obeying the letter of Old World law (which united all persons as distinct from property). American law itself in this case, in fact, depended on fundamental principles of inversion: those who supported the Creole slaves' right to revolt argued that "[b]ecause only the slave states and not the federal government recognized the legality of slavery ... once outside a state's legal limits those enslaved were transformed from property to persons, from objects to subjects" (Sale 1997, 184). This is a paradoxical position in itself, since "those enslaved" were of course subjects even while legally objects, and it is this paradox that Grant perhaps intuits (or that Douglass realized that men like Grant would intuit) in The Heroic Slave's closing paragraph. Grant's attitude seems to be both that the slaves had a right to revolt (Washington is "heroic" a "deliverer," acting according to "the principles of 1776"), and that they should be denied the opportunity to do so. In this sense Grant's narrative combines the perspectives of Rutherford Calhoun and Captain Delano (unlike whom, however, Grant unwillingly surrenders to, or at least acknowledges, his intuition).
But here again there is no way out of the paradox. Grant has found himself reluctantly forced to re-envision the mutineers through the lens of the Founding Fathers and revolutionary struggle, but he draws no broader conclusions from this specific case. Far from undergoing a sea change, his racial assumptions are merely redirected. Even his resolution, "never to set my foot on the deck of a slave ship ... again" (Douglass 2000, 47) is immediately undercut by his outrage at being called an abolitionist:" That man does not live who shall offer me such an insult with impunity" (47). As Sale says, "Grant's paradoxical thinking illustrates precisely the difficulty writers like Douglass faced: how to claim the trope of revolutionary struggle in a way that convincingly disrupted racialist logics, and thereby 'made sense' to resisting readers" (1997, 193). Further, the reader's inescapable recognition of the paradoxical nature of Grant's thinking is the whole point of this section of The Heroic Slave. As author, Douglass's position with regard to slavery and slave insurrections was unequivocal and well-known; Grant is his vehicle to undermine the spurious logic of the opposition. But like Melville, Douglass offers no easy solutions. Even in Grant's decision to abandon the slave trade, his thinking remains mired in contradiction. He never reaches the point of recognition that as Americans driven to pursue liberty and self-determination, motivated by the principles of 1776, he and Washington are each other, and their fates are intertwined. Washington's ultimate triumph is simply the mirror-image of his namesake's.
Douglass begins the section that concerns the Creole mutiny by saying, "What a world of inconsistency, as well as of wickedness, is suggested by the smooth and gliding phrase, AMERICAN SLAVE TRADE" (2000, 45). The particular inconsistency he has in mind in this paragraph is the discrepancy in American attitudes toward African and domestic slave trafficking, but his choice of phrase to set the tone for an account of a slave mutiny is significant. It would seem that writers of very different racial and cultural backgrounds and periods have instinctively recognized the paradox inherent in the nature of shipboard rebellion, intensified when it is rebellion in the rigidly hierarchical microcosm of a slave ship, and have cast their narratives in its light. By foregrounding inconsistencies, the use of this trope serves to undermine and invert apparent fixed verities, and then reveals beneath them the organic interdependence of the mirror and its image, the fundamental truth that always lies beneath a paradox's surface contradictions. By the paradox's own internal logic, and as in all the narratives discussed here, all both is and isn't what it seems. But, as the texts show, those who have too much invested in the status quo often have difficulty seeing past the seeming. They bring to mind Melville's Narcissus, who saw in the water "the image of the ungraspable phantom of life" (Melville 1967, 14). They cannot grasp it because they do not recognize the inverted image as themselves.
If students are to avoid Narcissus's solipsistic fate, if only as literary critics, recognition of this image is crucial. Yet as I stated at the beginning, it is an image particularly well-disguised in Melville's problematic "Benito Cereno." Since the paradox and inversions that inform this text, and that undercut the authority of the narrative voice, become completely clear only on a second reading, one pedagogical strategy might therefore be to teach the story twice: once after the first reading (or toward its end, before all is revealed), which establishes one term of the paradox, and once after the second, which reveals the other term, and the relationship between them. This approach throws into especially sharp relief the extent to which the subtext works to undermine the textual assumptions of both narrator and reader. Although the work involved in digging out this subtext can be challenging for all concerned, the point that Melville is making, through paradox, about the bond with the inverted image sheds light not only on his own deepest response to slave mutinies and to slavery itself, but also on the narrative philosophy of an entire genre, including the work of Douglass and Johnson. As such, it is a point too important to remain masked.
(1) The resistance experienced by these students has been shared by many literary critics, such as Matthiessen (1941), Kaplan (1956, 1957), and Schiffman (1950). These critics view the story's stance as essentially, even if not necessarily consciously, racist. Those more recent critics who instead view the story as a subversive critique of slavery, as I do, include Karcher (1980), Beavers (1996, 205-29), and Rogin (1985). For a further overview of this ongoing controversy (Sale tends to side with the first faction, for instance), see Nelson (1993, 109).
(2) It becomes clear as the story unfolds that the narrative voice is in fact a persona, and that Melville himself shares neither the narrator's nor Delano's perspective. Even at the beginning, however, there is a hint of this distinction when Melville appears to look out from behind the mask of the narrator. Just after the description of Delano as"a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature" unlikely "to indulge in personal alarms any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man," we are told:"Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine" (1961, 142). Both the implied editorial comment on Delano's limitations and the ironic tone are absent from the rest of the narrator's account. Melville's own perspective is subsequently conveyed by other means, as discussed below.
Beavers, Herman. 1996. "The Blind Leading the Blind: The Racial Gaze as Plot Dilemma in 'Benito Cereno' and 'The Heroic Slave."' In Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies, ed. Henry B. Wonham. New Brunswick: Rutgers Univesity Press.
Douglass, Frederick. 2000. The Heroic Slave. 1853. Reprint. In Two Slave Rebellions at Sea, ed. George Hendrick and Willene Hendrick. NewYork: Brandywine.
Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Johnson, Charles. 1990a. Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970. 1988. Reprint. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
--. 1990b. Middle Passage. NewYork: Plume.
Kaplan, Sidney. 1956-57. "Herman Melville and the American National Sin: The Meaning of 'Benito Cereno'" Journal of Negro History 41: 311-38; 42: 11-37.
Karcher, Carolyn. 1980. Shadow Over the Promised Land: Slavery, Race, and Violence in Melville's America. Baton Rouge: Lousiana State University Press.
Matthiessen, F. O. 1941. American Renaissance:Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. NewYork: Oxord University Press.
Melville, Herman. 1970. White-Jacket. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. 1850. Reprint. NewYork: Norton.
--. 1967. Moby-Dick. Ed. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker. 1851. Reprint. New York: Norton.
--. 1961. "Benito Cereno." In Billy Budd and Other Tales. 1855. Reprint. New York: NAL.
Nelson, Dana D. 1993. The Word in Black and White: Reading "Race" in American Literature 1638-1867. NewYork: Oxford University Press.
Rogin, Michael Paul. 1985. Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville. 1979. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sale, Maggie Montesinos. 1997. The Slumbering Volcano:American Slave Ship Revolts and the Production of Rebellious Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press.
Schiffman, Joseph. 1950. "Critical Problems in Melville's 'Benito Cereno'." Modern Language Quarterly 11: 317-24.
Scott, Daniel M., III. 1995. "Interrogating Identity: Appropriation and Transformation in Middle Passage." African American Review 29.4: 645-55.
Helen Lock is Associate Professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. She is the author of A Case of Mis-Taken Identity: Detective Undercurrents in Recent African American Fiction (1994).
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|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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