Men in Coats - Nixon

With his implicit interrogationof northerndemagoguery

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Unformatted text preview: oing the "wrong" things (61-63). In effect, the "[w]elldressed, smoothly courteous"imposterwould have been an unlikely foreign count or baron. But for Delano, Cereno could well be an imposter, a disguised confidence man, a "pirate"(68), because Delano cannot trust himself to tell the difference between a bogus aristocratand a real one, despite his assertions that he is knowledgeable, well trav- Nicola Nixon eled, and worldly;he behaves as an inferior,certain that Cereno is authentic, and then doubts his own behavior, uncertain of Cereno's legitimacy. Melville thus works a clever double irony: Cereno is ultimately both a confidence man, because he is disguised by Babo, and an authentic dandy, because he is disguised as himself. But why would Melville establish a triangulated relation among the bluntly workmanlike Yankee, who merely commands a ship; the effete northern dandy, whose representationalaffiliations connect him to a rulingclass; and the slaves? And if Cereno is, as I have suggested, not simply a symbol of Old Worlddespotism, southernslaveholding, or a conflationof the two-if he is not, in otherwords, simply a satisfying opposite to a New World,northern Delano-what is at stake ideologically in his fictional appearance in 1855? We would do well, at this point, to recall that Melville's response to the increasinglybitter secession rhetoricenunciatedin the wake of the 1850 Compromise-a rhetoric characterizedby hyperbolicallypolarized articulations of what constituted North and South-was not to attack the South but to critique the North. With his implicit interrogationof northerndemagoguery in Moby-Dickand his explicit assault on a northernaristocraticfeudalism in White-Jacket nd a Pierre, Melville challenged the sleekly homogenous representations f the Northby statesmenlike o Daniel Webster,who endlessly celebratedthe educated and free "laboring eople of the North"(545). p As Melville implies-with Pierre,Glen Stanly,Sela vagee, McCurdy, ndCereno-the Northwas hardly full of laboring folk; their numbers were mixed with the feudal, landed gentry, the metropolitan money elite, and dandies. In "Benito Cereno" Melville orchestrates the clash between the laboring North and its wouldbe aristocrats,suggesting that the formeris merely a convenient but misleading synecdoche that obscures, and is subservient to, the latter's actual power. That elite authority is not only protected by the ineffability of its courtly codes, which remain mysteriousto Delano, but also enhancedby a master-servant ynamic,of which the middle-class d Delano is an uncomprehending spectator. From the start he flounders in his interpretation of the relation between Babo and Cereno, wondering 369 whetherBabo's offices for Cereno are "filialor fraternal,"whether Babo is "less a servantthan a devoted companion"(52); and he refers to Babo as a a "body servant,"a "friend," "servant," xclaiming e at one point, "[S]lave I cannot call him." Eager to cast the compact between Cereno and Babo as one between dandy and faithful valet-as the classinflectedpairing"masterand man"(57) ratherthan the race-inflected owner and nonhuman slaveDelano chooses to view Babo as, in ThorsteinVeblen's terms, enacting only a "performanceof [his master's]conspicuousleisure"(65). Because it is a leisure Delano does not share, he has at best a r spectatorialknowledge of master-servant elations. And Babo's deception is made all the more simple by Delano's ignorance. Having presumably learned at least the rudiments of servantlike behavior through the observation of, or through late-night "secret conversations" with, the "negro, Jose, [who is] eighteen years old, and [has been] in the personal service of Don Alexandro" for five years (111), Babo need only performthe "officeof officious servant with all the appearanceof submission"(110). He begins that performance modestly enough, standingsilently beside Cereno and offering him a stable shoulderto lean on, but as Delano's confused deferenceto Cerenoemerges, thatperformance eb comes more elaborateand more pointedly focused on Cereno'stoilette and clothes as the symbolic site of Delano's interpretative quandary. Cereno's dandyish appearanceitself immediately presumes and justifies the "appearanceof submission" by a servant or valet, who functions as a human extension of stylish accoutrements. And Babo's fussing-his regular adjusting of a loose shoebuckle, o whisking of lint from a velvet lapel, rearranging f a lace handkerchief, nd rubbingof a spot off a vela vet sleeve-keeps Delano's attention on Cereno's sartorial splendor, on the figure of artifice served ratherthanon the submissiveservitor.In only a pair of sailcloth trousers, the half-naked Babo offers a plain, artless counterpoint to Cereno that Delano both registers and ignores, because, as Bruce Robbins points out, "servants re mere signs of money" a (15), and Cereno's dress exhibits a much more sumptuoussign. Occasionally Delano turnsto that plain...
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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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