Men in Coats - Nixon

While reiterating the thematic of the masquerade

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Unformatted text preview: t;The dress so precise and costly, worn by him on the day whose events have been narrated,had not willingly been put on. And that silver-mounted sword, apparentsymbol of despotic command,was not, indeed,a sword,but the ghost of one. The scabbard,artificiallystiffened,was empty."The disparity between the mysterious Babo-who "schemed and led the revolt,"remainedsilent throughouthis trial, and had his head ("thathive of subtlety")impaled publicly in the Plaza-and Don Benito's lavish attire is startling for its structuralcoincidence (116). While reiterating the thematic of the masquerade performed for Delano, emphasizing the racist assumptionsof black minstrelsy that delude him, and accentuating the potential symbolic importanceof Cereno as erstwhile imperialextension of CharlesV's "despoticcommand," he proximity t of Babo's punishmentand Cereno's enforced dandificationsuggests somethingmore. It suggests that Babo's criminal"subtlety"is constitutedin partby his recognition and deployment of the dandy as a figure at once glaringly obvious and problematically inscrutable to Delano. But it equally offers the possibility that Babo's punishmentis linked to a subtlety that shadows the narrative's own-an authorialsubtlety that constantly directs attention to the inflatory signification accreting aroundthe dandiacal body and, in turn, distracts attention from the seemingly transparentsurface of the unclothed black body. Most recentcritics have tendedto zero in on one of Melville's two elucidations, treating the overdressedCereno as only a cipherfor a declining imperial Spain or for an aristocratic South, in the interest of pursuingquestions of American expansionism andjustified slave rebellion. These critics are inclined to read Melville's political allegories fairly straightforwardly,espite his veiled narratord ial admonishmentsnot to fall into the Delano-like trapof reading singularlyor of readingfor a direct relation between surface and depth. As John Bryant points out, Melville was more likely to "retreat within unstablenarrative ronies because his nation i could not bear plain speaking"than he was to rep- Nicola Nixon resent his politics overtly (48). Nevertheless,Carolyn Karcherargues that Cereno is the stock figure of the sickly southerngentleman in plantationfiction (136-37), and H. Bruce Franklin views Cereno as representinga sickly CharlesV (140-42), whose late years were detailed extensively in "The Cloister-Life of the EmperorCharles V,"William Stirling's 1851 series of articlesfor Fraser's Magai zine, an Englishpublicationprominent n the United States. Sundquist synthesizes Karcherand Franklin, contendingthat Cereno is at once a "symbolof Americanparanoiaabout Spanish, Catholic, slaveholding despotism" and a "southern planter, [a] dissipated cavalier spiritually wasted by his own ( terrifyingenslavement" 148). This representation of Cereno as the European or southerngentlemantends, however,to recapitulate a familiarantebellumpolitical geography,casting Delano as the northerndemocrat who squares off againstthe aristocrat n the issue of slavery.Alo though Karcher,Franklin, Sundquist, and others arguethat Delano may well figurenorthernhypocrisy, careless expansionism,or mawkishliberalism, they are inclined to measure his lapses or failures against an assumed ideological consistency in the North-a consistency consolidated by its opposition to the South. But as Melville points out repeatedly, the North was scarcely a homogenous entity, forged aroundthe pros and cons of slaveholding, and he was disposed to challenge the North's selfcongratulatory olitical rhetoric,which characterisp tically pronounced first on the evils of slavery in order to champion its own supposed democratic classlessness against a deplored southern feudalism. In "BenitoCereno"Melville invertsthat order and thereby offers his own critique of slavery: he makes northernclaims to ideological homogeneity primary and allows slavery to occupy the contingent position, where it can be viewed only through the distortinglens of class. That lens is enunciated strenuously through Melville's relentless returnto Cereno'sappareland ultragentlemanly appearanceand is compounded by Delano's obsessive focus on Cereno and, by extension, on every Spanish sailor with a bit of fine silk or glitteringjewel peeping out from under his sailcloth rags. At one point Delano expresses his bemusement: "But how come sailors with jew- 363 els?-or with silk-trimmed undershirts either?" (67). Melville insists that Delano reads clothes as the equivalent of linguistic concealment and their absence as synonymous with plain talk or naked truth. But Delano's overinvestment in what Cereno's dandyishclothes signify-be it genuine finery or tricksterishmotley-must be situatedwithin a northernmiddle-class absorptionwith the dandy himself, particularlyas that absorptionwas mediated throughEnglish reappraisals,ike Carlyle's,of l " the aristocratic dandiacal ody"andthroughAmerb ican anxieties about a different masqueradingfigure altogether: he confidenceman. t The dandiacalbody was hardlya plain construct in antebellum America. It represented a troubled nexus of interpretationin the North particularly, where...
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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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