Posts Tagged ‘Benito Cereno’

“Benito Cereno” by Herman Melville

*** SPOILER WARNING: Inevitably, the following gives away some details of the plot ***


As we sophisticated readers know, literature, and, indeed, the arts in general, have nothing to do with the propagation of moral values. Perhaps we should qualify that a bit: we wouldn’t want to exclude Aesop’s fables, after all. So let us say that literature does not necessarily have to propagate moral values. For, after all, given the bewildering complexity of human life, moral issues are rarely clear-cut, and any work attempting unambiguously to affirm certain codes of conduct, or to reject others, must either ignore the complexity of human affairs, or address only those affairs that are sufficiently straight-forward to allow for clarity. And, unless one is writing simple moral fables, neither of these options seems very promising.

All this we know. And yet, we continue to feel uneasy in the presence of works in which moral judgement seems required, but is withheld. This sense of unease is often deliberate. Lolita is a prime example: Nabokov does not, it is true, endorse his protagonist, who is a predatory paedophile, but in withholding explicit condemnation, and, indeed, daring the reader to empathise with his protagonist, he creates a literary experience that leaves even the most sophisticated of readers feeling uneasy. Lolita is among the finest of all novels, but it is unlikely, I think, to be anyone’s comfort read.

Melville’s short novel Benito Cereno leaves us similarly uneasy, and, I think, for similar reasons: the story Melville tells us seems to demand moral judgement, but he refuses to give us any. Worse than that: the story, though written in the third person, is filtered through the perceptions and the judgement of a Captain Delano, whose perceptions, and, as a consequence, moral judgement, are highly suspect. This is not because Captain Delano is an evil man, as such: he clearly isn’t. Indeed, within his own admittedly limited horizons, he is a good man. But his horizons are fatally limited. One may even describe him as “innocent” – in the sense that those unaware of the true nature of evil may be termed “innocent” – but to Melville, this innocence is itself the problem. As he says in his later novel Billy Budd, Sailor:

And yet a child’s utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes.

Captain Delano is innocent because he is unintelligent: his judgement is not to be trusted. He boards the slave ship San Dominick, and things seem to him a bit strange; but he does not enquire very deeply into the strangeness, and nor does he draw the obvious conclusion that even the first-time reader may quite easily draw – that the slaves on this ship have revolted, and are now in charge. In a sense, it is Captain Delano’s innocence that saves him: had he figured out what really should have been obvious, he would have been killed instantly. But he is incapable of perceiving either the evil of the rebellion (accompanied, as we later find out, by horrendous atrocities); and neither is he capable of perceiving the evil of what the rebel slaves are rebelling against. Slavery is something that is accepted in the society that Captain Delano inhabits, and he has neither the intelligence, nor the imagination, nor even the capacity for empathy required, to understand the nature of this monstrosity.

Melville places this utter innocent – an innocent whose innocence is far from admirable – in the midst of what can only be described as an explosion of evil. At the centre of this narrative is a long, meticulously described scene where the deposed captain of the slave ship, Don Benito Cereno, is being shaved by, seemingly, one of the slaves. Captain Cereno has to maintain the fiction that he is still in charge of the ship: any slip on his part, and both he and the hapless Captain Delano would be killed. Cereno, demoralised by the loss of his ship, and by the slaughter of so many of his crew, has a hard time maintaining the façade, but Delano is too obtuse to pick anything up. Delano is too obtuse to pick anything up.

Only on leaving the ship does Captain Delano realise what has been obvious to us, the readers, from almost the start. And then, as a good man who carries out his duty, he does what he has to do: he gives chase to the rebel ship, captures the rebels, and hands them over to “justice”. And justice is indeed carried out. With as much shocking brutality and violence as the atrocities being avenged.

All of this seems to cry out for some sort of moral guidance, but Melville refuses to provide any. Captain Delano’s perceptions, and his moral judgement, clearly do not provide any kind of moral framework that may help the reader negotiate these deep waters as these. So how is the reader to interpret this?  There seems to be a wide range of possible interpretations, each entirely justified by the text, but none, in itself, at all satisfactory. We may take the view that the rebel slaves are evil; that Captain Delano, though slow of thought, carried out his duty as an honourable man; and that the punishment meted out to the rebels, horrific though they are, are entirely justified. There is nothing in the text to invalidate such an interpretation. Or we could look below the surface, detect the various ironies, and conclude that it is the rebellion of the slaves that is morally justified; that the violence the slaves commit in the course of that rebellion, though horrific, is unavoidable; and that, further, the failure of this rebellion is the failure to defeat the greatest evil of all. The text could support such an interpretation also. But this does not seem satisfactory either. And neither does any balancing position between these two extremes. When there is so much evil on all sides, where can one turn for certainty?

Melville does not guide us. He leaves us floundering. All is so dark, so murky, we cannot even turn to innocence to shield us from it all, for in Melville’s world, innocence itself is morally weak, and is culpable. Perhaps no other author, not even Dostoyevsky or Kafka, presents us with quite so bleak and desolate a vision of our human state.