Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Minding the Body: Benito Cereno and Melville's Embodied Reading Practice

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Minding the Body: Benito Cereno and Melville's Embodied Reading Practice

Article excerpt

Almost every aspect of Herman Melville's 1855 Benito Cereno contributes to the menacing atmosphere aboard the ghostly San Dominick: Atufal's theatrical scene of contrition, the slave's attack on a Spanish sailor, the tossing of a knot to Delano, and, perhaps most famously, Babo's shaving of Benito Cereno in the cuddy. Crafted with such sinister effect, these events do two things simultaneously. First they reveal that there is another narrative, an "inside narrative," to borrow a phrase from Melville's Billy Budd, on board the San Dominick that flickers at the edge of Delano's clouded vision. Second they offer the savvy reader distinct opportunities to unravel the gnarled lines of the narrative. As most critical studies of the story have suggested, however, our failure to unknot the narrative-to separate the inside narrative from the outside one-merely clarifies the way our reading practices, like Delano's, are implicated in the narratives of power. (1)

This essay focuses on another one of these deeply meaningful moments from the narrative. Near the beginning of Benito Cereno, when Delano is invited to accompany Cereno on the upper deck, Melville relates:

   As during the telling of the story, Captain Delano had once or
   twice started at the occasional cymballing of the
   hatchet-polishers, wondering why such an interruption should be
   allowed, especially in that part of the ship, and in the ears of an
   invalid; and moreover, as the hatchets had anything but an
   attractive look, and the handlers of them still less so, it was,
   therefore, to tell the truth, not without some lurking reluctance,
   or even shrinking, it may be, that Captain Delano, with apparent
   complaisance, acquiesced in his host's invitation. The more so,
   since with an untimely caprice of punctilio, rendered distressing
   by his cadaverous aspect, Don Benito, with Castilian bows, solemnly
   insisted upon his guest's preceding him up the ladder leading to
   the elevation; where, one on each side of the last step, sat for
   armorial supporters and sentries two of the ominous file. Gingerly
   enough stepped good Captain Delano between them, and in the instant
   of leaving them behind, like on running the gauntlet, he felt an
   apprehensive twitch in the calves of his legs. (58-9)

This moment has not been given the critical attention the others have, one imagines, because nothing really happens here, certainly nothing so theatrical as the scenes mentioned earlier: there is no barely contained violence, no exotic ritual, no melodramatic charade. Yet this scene's rather innocuous set of events effectively communicates a crucial aspect of Melville's writing, even as it throws a new, revealing light on Melville's antebellum American culture.

This moment is emblematic of Delano's espousal of rational discourse throughout the narrative to solve the mystery onboard the ship even as it reveals that the tale's "inside narrative" and its critique of our reading practices are actually one and the same. We can witness the failure of this rational discourse in the moment I have singled out from Melville's text in two ways--in its confusing rhetoric and, ironically, in its strange silences. Consider the following: "[M]oreover, as the hatchets had anything but an attractive look, and the handlers of them still less so, it was, therefore, to tell the truth, not without some lurking reluctance, or even shrinking, it may be, that Captain Delano, with apparent complaisance, acquiesced in his host's invitation" (58-9). Deployed by Melville to underscore Delano's confusing narration, the structure of this sentence is tangled and confused; the subordinate phrases obscure the main point of the clause; the commas act not as speed bumps but rather as bumpers that send the language ricocheting off along numerous tangents; and the double negative ("not without") and qualifications ("to tell the truth" and "it may be") blur a rather simple description of Delano's lurking fear. …

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