"Light and Baffling": Uncanny Punning in Melville's Benito Cereno

By Barrett, Laura | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

"Light and Baffling": Uncanny Punning in Melville's Benito Cereno


Barrett, Laura, Papers on Language & Literature


Benito Cereno is an uncanny novella, its ghosts less supernatural than linguistic and ideological, but even the uncanny's classic motifs--a confusion between animate and inanimate, between life and death; the fragmentation of bodies, particularly dismembered limbs; and, most famously, a penchant for repetition and doubling--permeate Melville's novella. The masquerade aboard the San Dominick renders humans little more than dolls, as epitomized by the replacement of the ship's original figurehead with the bust of Don Alexandro Aranda. The captains, Amasa Delano and Benito Cereno, while seeming to be so different, reflect the imperialistic and capitalistic impulses of their res Cereno, moreover, are doubled in Babo, who actually captains the San Dominick during the interval of the story. Benito Cereno's recognition of the doubling, his inability to move beyond the shadow cast by Babo, confirms Freud's observation that the uncanny double is a recognition of death. Anthony Vidler describes the double as a "replica of the self, all the more fearsome because apparently the same" (6), which in the context of Melville's novella suggests the prospect of having to confront the humanity of African slaves and, consequently, the inhumanity of European and American slaveholders. Characters, moreover, not only double each other; they double themselves. Aft Delano confesses that his fears have been misplaced: "Surely, Amasa Delano, you have been beside yourself this day." (216). The depiction of his self-haunting is made more meaningful when we realize that, during the masquerade, Babo only refers to himself in the third person.

Being beside oneself seems to describe the effect frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar" (220). That collision of familiarity and strangeness is at the heart of language, the attempt to represent the world that we see, feel, and hear, experiences that we have, those familiar sights and sounds become strange in the words used to describe them. The novella's linguistic uncanniness, then, is my focus in this essay. As Vidler and others have described it, in Derrida's reading, the uncanny lurks in the space between the signified and the signifier. That gap in meaning--absence masking itself as presence, conflicting connotations and multiple denotations--hovers spectrally behind the contextual meaning of the word, broadening its sense, challenging its insistence, exploding the myth of certainty. Critics have long been examining the ambiguity of language in Benito Cereno. James Kavanagh has famously called the story a "discourse about discourse" (131), and Jon Hauss notes that in a story marked by "elaborate costumes and props, as well as theatrical gestures and fixed poses,""the central form of masquerade examined by, and ultimately dominating, the text is linguistic" (5). Gavin Jones observes a "background of linguistic blurring," in which Melville obscures the languages spoken by various actors on the San Dominick (44), and he identifies the linguistic situation on the ship as "equivocation" (39; emphasis original). Zsolt Mohi identifies elements of poetic language--litotes, double negation, complementary contradictions, paradoxes, seeming tautologies, repetition--that "account for the compelling force" of the story, its "monotonous rhythm and [. . .] bewildering style" (42). Among the rhetorical strategies used by Melville are "conjectural expressions," a concept coined by John Seelye to denote phrases evoking doubt and tentativeness (Short 133). Such ambiguity has engendered widely divergent interpretations of the story, spanning early readings that saw evil embodied in mutinous slaves, particularly Babo, to current interpretations that consider Delano's "innocence" as less a virtue than an ideological perspective that renders his perspective flawed. That language is used as part of a masquerade in the story is undeniable--the Spaniards cannot speak onboard the ship, the slaves pretend to be less adept at language than they are--but even the language outside the masquerade is problematic, marked by a narrative voice whose relationship to and opinion of the protagonist remains ambiguous. …

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