Men in Coats - Nixon

The contrapuntal lay between melvilles indulp gence

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Unformatted text preview: s it clear as the tale progresses that Delano's "singularlyundistrustful"natureis, like Billy Budd's, markedby a remarkably"ordinary" tendencyto readrhetoricalfigures"singularly"-to read metaphor,duality, innuendo, intrigue, or any other semiotically multivocal linguistic register as if it were straight denotation, as if it were only a cloaking of an unequivocaltruth. The contrapuntal lay between Melville's indulp gence in metaphoricoverkill and his simultaneous l gesture to Delano's interpretative imitations-between the narrative's endencytowardfiguralaccret tion and Delano's propensityto read singularly-is filteredthroughthe very tropethatEmersoninvokes preemptively to stave off objections to Carlyle's prose: language is the dress of thought.For Emerson, that prose, be it "quite superficial"or mere "foreign dress," serves only to cover Carlyle's "wisdom"and "genuine Saxon heart."And while scarcely an advocate of the plain style praised by his Puritanforefathersor the plain-dealerfolksiness popularized by Andrew Jackson and by Cooper's Leatherstocking novels, Emerson anticipates the offense of an audiencethat is predisposedto reject wisdom clothed in a "gay costume"and not deliveredplainly.He insists thatthe rhetorical ress veils d an implicitnakedtruth.His own perambulatory nd a weirdly ornate prose style in his essays notwithstanding, Emerson seems to hark back to an Augustan sensibility that, as Claude Rawson points out, exhibited an "unusually insistent rhetorical w preoccupation ith images of nakednessand dress: naked reason, naked shivering nature, the decent draperyof life, the coat of prejudice,and,of course, the sans-culottes" (154). Emerson takes only the simplestform of a tropethathad undergonedistinct mutations throughout the eighteenth century: by century'send, nakednesscould, for example,represent both truthand barbarity,and dress could represent both dissimulating hypocrisy and decorous civility. Yet he is writing specifically in responseto SartorResartus,which is a critiqueof the Regency o dandy,a figurewho, with the enshrinement f Beau Brummellas the "arbiterelegantiarum"at the turn of the century (Moers 18), helped precipitate the dissolution of such contradictions.Nakedness fell out of the equation altogether, and dress became tropically splinteredalong class lines, functioning 362 ThePoliticsof theDandiacalBodyin Melville's Benito ereno" " C as the patricianbadge of exquisite exclusivity and refinement, the bourgeois insignia of a particular form of sporty manliness, and, still more problematic, the sign, for the dandy's detractors,of a quintessentialaristocratic mptiness. e If, in all the interestof encouragingreadersnot to be put off by Carlyle's "repulsive style," Emerson ends up apologizing a la Alexander Pope for the disadvantageddress of Carlyle's pure thought, he does so by reducingthe historicalcomplexities that SartorResartusenunciates.2 ut as Melville's 1849 B anecdote about McCurdyand Taylor suggests, the donning of a cloak-be it borrowed, feminine, or otherwise-was not necessarily a neutral act socially, nor, as "Benito Cereno" suggests, was it a neutral articulationpolitically or semantically. In his tale Melville altersthe date of eventsin Delano's Narrativefrom 1805 to 1799,therebysituatingthem at a moment when the Augustan connotations of nakednessas plain truth-as a primitive,natural,or impoverished state, as lawlessness, as the revolutionary spirit, or as savagery-were becoming underdetermined,ubmergedby a flood of connotas tive vagaries involving dress alone. In staging the encounterbetween Delano and a dandy,between as singulara readeras Emersoncould have wished for and a figurewho representsa complex nexus of signification,Melville allows himself the marginto accomplish severalthings. He mobilizes the dandyas the vehicle through which to explore the North's venerationof genteel refinementand ongoing consolidation of class distinction, despite its protestations otherwise to a South publicly maligned for preservingsocial inequalities.He engages in a narrative excess of verbal ornament that mirrorsthe dandy's sartorialexcess. And he points to an ideologically chargedocclusion of the body. If, as Foucault contends, the body is "directly involved in a political field"(25), nowhereis thatfield more contentiousthanin an antebellumAmericaon the brink of civil war and when the body in question is poor, naked,andblack. Given Delano's preoccupation ith dress-a prew occupation that Melville yokes with the captain's critical or interpretivelimitation-it is not surprising that Melville has to step in, in the final moments of "Benito Cereno,"to "elucidate"an "item or two" about the slave rebellion aboard the San Dominick.One such item is the eventualfate of the rebel leader Babo, who is summarilytried and decapitated.The other glances back to the beginning of the tale to reappraiseBenito Cereno's clothes: &quo...
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This essay was uploaded on 03/01/2014 for the course ENGLISH 220 taught by Professor Linda during the Spring '11 term at CUNY Hunter.

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