Men in Coats - Nixon

Instead he gives us a glimpse of babos body for the

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Unformatted text preview: ness for temporarysolace, contemplatingthe 370 ThePoliticsof theDandiacalBodyin Melville's Benito ereno" C " "naturalights"of half-naked egresseswith "starks N naked"babies who have "blacklittle bod[ies]" (73), only to become absorbedagain with Cereno's and the other Spaniards'clothes. A tale structuredovertly aroundrepresentative tableaux, "Benito Cereno" concludes emblematically with an iconographic set piece that drives home the relation among the laboring Yankee, the elite dandy, and the slave. Moments after Cereno and Babo have jumped into Delano's "household a boat," Melville stops at a narrative"juncture," rthe players at an illustrativestill point: Deranging a lano, supportingthe "half-reclining" nd delicately Don Benito with one hand, grinds his swooning boot into the body of "theprostrate egro"andplies n his oar with his free hand, encouraginghis men to make haste away from the San Dominick (98-99). In this scene Delano participateswholesale in a literal and iconic suppression of the slave, who although unclothed is not quite naked: Babo pulls a concealed dagger out of his hair, his "wool"-a cloth hithertounremarked. ere, Melville suggests H figurally,is a plain-talking YankeeNorth compromised in its democraticprinciplesby its veneration of a despotic but empty social form, undermined by its unacknowledged sustaining of a Europeana ized, effete aristocracy, nd consequentlycomplicit in the practice of slaveholding, from which it smugly and publicly distanceditself. When Melville comes to "elucidate" hatrelation t in the conclusion of the text, he does not recapitulate the medallion-like tableau of Delano, Cereno, and Babo-a tableau that echoes the "intricately carved"stern piece of the San Dominick (49). Instead, he gives us a glimpse of Babo's body for the first time and establishes that body in direct proximity to a supplemental inflection of Cereno's clothes. Babo's "slightframe"can barely house his superiorand incisive brain(116), whereasCereno's ornamentalscabbardhouses only air. In returning to dress as an empty symbol, Melville seems to invoke Carlyle, Thackeray,and the Fraser's Magazine writers generally, because they retooled the Regency dandy, constructing him as a fancy coat and not a man, as a costume, artificiallystiffenedby liberal amounts of starch,whalebone, or firmly packed sawdust-to give the appearanceof housing a man, as a straightdecorativesurfacethatwas, Carlyle observes, not born but manufacturedby a tailor.For all that this constellationof signifiers attending the dandiacal body might gesture to a peculiar absence of the body, that formation is ideological, for Fraser's ridiculed the patrician dandy in order to elevate the natural man: the "rough,unassuming,old-fashioned, sturdy,manly Englishman[...] untaintedby foreign affectations or native effeminacies" (Moers 176). This was the kind of man Carlyle imagined as the anonymous Speaker who delivers the egregious "Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question," which appeared in Fraser's in December 1849, when Melville was still in London, securing an agreement with Bentley's to publishWhite-Jacket. If Delano is that "rough, unassuming, [...] sturdy, manly" bigot, who congratulates himself on his egalitarianism as he minces up pumpkins for the San Dominick's slaves-and Carlyle's Speaker's refraininvolves a reference to the feckless and lazy emancipated slaves "up to the ears in pumpkins, imbibing sweet pulps and juices" (463)-he is nevertheless an American whose respect for gentility and refinement,either European or importedinto the North by the sons of its elite, can barely prompt him to question Cereno, much less ridicule him. By making Cereno into a dandy, Melville highlights the degree to which the North, even if it appearedto concern itself with the issue of slavery,was really consumedwith its own social distinctions;and the dandy merely representedthe extremeform of an upper-caste,Europeanized, nd a civilized refinement-one that was appealing to middle-class northerners ecause it was made, not b born. Yet the end of "Benito Cereno,"with its return to Cereno's empty clothes and its account of Babo's physical punishment-he is put in irons and "draggedto the gibbet at the tail of a mule"; his body is "burnedto ashes" and his head "fixed on a pole in the Plaza"for many days (116)-questions surface appearance,drawing attentionto the obfuscatory rhetoric of "apparentsymbol[s]" that has preoccupied Delano and characterizedthe entire narrative. It is tempting to see the fate of Babo's body in Foucauldianterms, as affected by power relations that "investit, markit, trainit, tortureit, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit 371 Nicola Nixon signs." In the context of the antebellum North the black slave body certainlyappearedto be "directly involved in a political field"...
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