On Uncertainty and Fear

When I took a survey of early English literature as an undergrad, I inevitably had to tackle a text that virtually every English major is bound to encounter during their studies: Beowulf. During our discussion of the text, my professor and friend, Dr. Nickolas Haydock, asked us why the text’s infamous creature (Grendel) instilled so much fear to other characters within the text, and presumably, to the reader. After much debate and speculation, Dr. Haydock looked at us with a stern face and said: “Grendel instills fear because so little is known about him.”

Prior to that moment, I never really approached fear as a lack of knowledge. However, something within that idea resonated within me, perhaps because it alludes to a simple and indisputable truth: we all fear the unknown, and when we are forced to confront it, inner chaos and turmoil ensue. When something can be explained or understood, it loses its capacity to frighten and to stir negative emotions.

I think horror movies are a good example of this notion. For instance, John Carpenter’s 1978 movie Halloween scared millions of viewers, not only because it included the obvious thrills and scares, but also because the movie’s villain–the one and only Michael Myers– remains a mystery. Why was he troubled? What was his motive to kill? We are never offered answers to these questions. Michael Myers could ostensibly be anyone. Fast-forward to 2007, a year in which Rob Zombie re-imagined the film and gave Michael Myers a back-story and the motive. The sense of enigma that electrified the fear in the original movie became nothing but an undetectable spark in the remake.

I invoked the notion of fear for a reason. Sure, Halloween is just around the corner and mischief is in the air, but I encountered fear distilled through an unexpected source: Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Sure, we encounter fear that is portrayed in a typical fashion–we are unaware of what is going on throughout the development of the plot, we are unable to explain the strange occurrences happening within the San Dominick, and we encounter a strange, seemingly symbiotic relationship between a white Spanish captain and a “meek” African slave. But the novella as a whole invoked another sense of fear: the fear of uncertainty.

This text was extremely slow, especially when considering that it is in essence a maritime narrative. However, towards the end, I expected a payoff for my efforts–I expected all the pieces to fit together. And  things definitely made more sense with the “grand reveal,” or should I say, with the “removal of the canvas.” But even though the pieces are put together, I am still left in the dark, and I am unable to envision the entire picture. Benito Cereno continues to be bizarre and nonsensical. It refuses to fit itself in a mold, and it refuses to provide direct and concrete answers.

What makes Benito Cereno so fearful is its ambiguity–its refusal to be explained, especially when approaching the issue of race. The more I think I come closer to determining the meaning and the root of the racial tensions in the novella, the less I become certain with my convictions. Race in American 19th Century literature is indeed a provoking ambiguity, especially when focusing on race as an empancipatory dialectic. I think this definitely became clear as I paid attention to a course discussion on Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Do we want to claim that the elimination of the interracial couple from the novel’s equation was an affirmation of Cooper’s racism, or do we want to view it as an emancipatory affirmation? Consider how this notion becomes polemical when we realize that Cooper puts so much effort into infusing exorbitant amounts of pathos into these two doomed characters.

I think a similar issue manifests within Benito Cereno, but the voltage of this issue is increased tenfold. We see a reversal of the white owner – black slave binary, and Melville depicts a “world” in which the white slave succumbs to the wishes of the black master. And indeed, I think it is easy for some readers to find the actions of the slaves questionable, manipulative and revolting. After all, they successfully managed to overthrow the Spanish colonists and turn the remaining survivors into puppets. I can only begin to imagine how one of Melville’s contemporary readers would’ve approached the topic: they either would’ve been shocked or completely disgusted. But is something worthwhile achieved by shocking the audience? Will it lead them to realize that the actions of these slaves are no different to the actions committed by white slave masters?

I think it’s easier for today’s readers to feel much more sympathy for the enslaved Africans (I certainly did). After all, they were taken against their will from their homeland in order to attend to the needs of someone from a different racial and cultural background. Talk about abuses of power! Modern readers would probably view the slaves’ actions as completely justifiable and Karmic.

But, to justify their actions is to justify murder, is it not? Perhaps both the white Spaniards and the slaves should be scrutinized critically, but then again, wasn’t it the Spaniards who ripped out the African natives from their homeland in the first place? What we are observing here is a struggle between power and blame, and it’s interesting to see how power circulates through the members of the San Dominick in an almost Foulcaudian fashion. I know that we now live in the time where the notion of the “death of the author” predominates, and that a once a text is circulated, it no longer belongs to its writer. However, I can’t help but speculate what Melville’s views towards race were, and what conceptions of race he was trying to project in the narrative. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to pin this down.

I think that this difficulty is due mostly to the metamorphosing depiction of both races throughout the progression of the novella. At first, Melville seems to depict both whites and blacks in a very egalitarian fashion:

While left alone with them, he was not long in observing some things tending to heighten his first impressions; but surprise was lost in pity, both for the Spaniards and blacks, alike evidently reduced from scarcity of water and provisions; while long-continued suffering seemed to have brought out the less good-natured qualities of the negroes, besides, at the same time, impairing the Spaniard’s authority over them. But under the circumstances, precisely this condition of things was to have been anticipated. In armies, navies, cities, or families, in nature herself, nothing more relaxes good order than misery. (170)

Notice that the lack of provisions and of material necessities such as food as put both blacks and whites on the same level: misery and suffering provides a bind that makes them equal. On that boat, they are all beings capable of suffering. Misery in this ship leads blacks to increase power while causing whites to lose it. But notice as well that Melville clearly depicts this leveling between the slaves and the Spaniards as a natural disorder–a parody of how things should “naturally” be. Is Melville trying to be satirical? Is he trying to be emancipatory? Is he critical? Or is he simply embracing the attitudes predominant during the time? It’s nearly impossible to tell… it seems to be deliberately ambiguous. This sense of uncertainty is simply frightening.

The ambiguity of race attitudes is manifested in other parts of the novella as well, particularly in the instance in which Captain Delano witnesses one of the oakum-pickers striking a Spanish boy with a knife simply because he did not like a word that this boy used. Once again, the act can indeed be interpreted as transgressive, but is this any different from the way slaves were typically treated by whites? Captain Delano is obviously appalled with this occurrence: “Had such a thing happened on board the Bachelor’s Delight, instant punishment would have followed” (180). However, we see that Benito Cereno approaches the event with a degree of nonchalance, stating that the action “was merely the sport of the lad” (180). Indeed, I thought at first that Melville was once again peppering the narrative with hints of egalitarianism: whites deserve to be treated equally to how the slaves are treated. But this sense of equality ultimately becomes moot when we figure out that Cereno was making no big deal of the situation because the slaves threatened him. What I first thought was liberation was actually the exertion of power disguised as goodwill.

I fear that there is no solution to how Melville approached the creation of Benito Cereno, and the purpose behind its crafting will forever be unknowable. That is the fallacy of speculation: it’s simply difficult to reach a solid conclusion. Not knowing is indeed uncomfortable… but it is precisely this invocation of fear that leads to critical thinking. What answers or insights are provided by the act of NOT knowing? Even more importantly, are knowing and not knowing binary constructs, or is there something in between these two concepts that we are unable to see? Isn’t that an ultimate manifestation of the fear of the unknown… that the knowledge we use to interpret the world prevents us from finding or even being able to perceive gray areas?

Perhaps Melville didn’t have an exact purpose when it came to race. Perhaps he simply wanted to confuse us. Perhaps he wanted us to struggle in a way that he struggled in his own life. I think it is safe to say that the unknown definitely frightened Melville, and in due course, it made him miserable. With that in mind, it is no wonder that this story relaxes “good order.”


Billy Budd, Sailor and Selected Tales by Herman Melville

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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