Striking Through the Mask: Part One (Benito Cereno)

by Ezekiel Fry

Flights of troubled gray fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors among which they mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come. (Melville 161)

Benito Cereno, from this opening hint onwards, deals in the murky realms of human perception. In this establishing moment it is noted that shadows are present, but there is no mention of these shadows being visible to the human eye. They exist, however what is real and what is seen are very often two quite different things. Benito Cereno is a narrative of layers and fleeting glimpses of that which may lie beneath. Through these filters, these unseen shadows, Captain Delano is forced time and again to reorient his vision, and to examine his focus and look through the shadows. The narrator offers clues that either speculate upon Delano’s own perception, or, as in the case of the above passage, create deeper layers for the reader to sift through. It may be that at the bottom of this complex maze of perception there lurks something—or someone—that will not appear as the layers are pulled aside. The center of the shadow may be as allusive to the reader as it is to Delano. At the center of this complex web of deception and perspective is the true being of the slave, Babo, and just as Delano, and through him the reader, appears to have gained access to this key to the mystery of the San Dominick the figure recedes deeper into shadow, deeper into speculation and the unknowable.
Stripping aside the falsity of the human eye begins instantly. We are introduced to the context of the story, and immediately Delano is brought on deck of his vessel to function as our eyes. The narrator works in a secondary role within this tale. It appears that we view the world through the all-seeing eyes of the narrator, but this is not the case. The narrator drops back behind Delano, becomes his subsidiary, and only pokes his head out to further entangle the reader in the web. Delano is the primary lens. In this way everything viewed is witnessed through the eyes of a fallible being, one who is interacting within the tale. This is first exemplified by the way in which the San Dominick changes as Delano draws ever closer. The descriptions which the narrator gives are the truths of a human eye, second by second, as something seems to become clearer, to gain focus. This belief in the reality of human perception is itself subtly examined by a narrative editorial prior to Delano setting foot on the San Dominick:

Always upon first boarding a large and populous ship at sea…the impression varies in a peculiar way from that produced by first entering a strange house in a strange land. Both house and ship…hoard from view their interiors till the last moment: but in the case of the ship there is this addition; that the living spectacle it contains, upon its sudden and complete disclosure, has, in contrast with the blank ocean which zones it, something of the effect of enchantment. The ship seems unreal; these strange costumes, gestures, and faces, but a shadowy tableau just emerged from the deep, which directly must receive back what it gave. (Melville 166)

What first appeared to be a “whitewashed monastery” populated by “Black Friars” has now become clearly “a Spanish merchantman,” but this editorial description of enchantment draws even this seeming truth, the truth of Delano’s perception, into question (Melville 163). What we are shown, even at the moment of contact as Delano steps on board, may well be something very different than what is actually transpiring. The eyes of humanity are covered in layers, and there is no definitive moment when it can be safely stated that all of these layers have been thrown aside and the Truth of the situation stands bare to scrutiny.
This theme of layered perception is not only applicable to visual focus, but may be extended, and this is where the really magnificent aspects of Benito Cereno become evident, to the role of identity, and the role of the mask—both figurative and literal. In putting together this study of Melville and Ellison, two passages from Melville’s work immediately came to mind, and it may be helpful to now, rather tangentially, introduce the first of these. Discussing the intricate designs on the San Dominick, Melville writes:

But the principle relic of faded grandeur was the ample oval of the shield-like stern-piece, intricately carved with the arms of Castile and Leon, medallioned about by groups of mythological or symbolical devices; uppermost and central of which was a dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked. (164)

This passage works in a similar fashion to the aforementioned passage concerning shadows and foreshadows. We see immediately the “dark satyr” and his victim, who seem to stand out against the other lesser shapes of the stern-piece, and they are “uppermost” and “central” to the design. They are perhaps the prime “symbolical devices” of the entire tale, but we, nor Captain Delano, know what their significance is, they are merely there, shadows—or masks as the case may be—foreshadowing further shadows. The figures both wear a mask, and in this the difficulties of perception rise to the surface once again. Delano, and through him the narrator, have spent the first several moments of the story establishing the inability, on this “peculiar” day to see anything as it is—to strip aside both layers of enchantment, and masks of identity. The symbol of the mask, one which will remain a constant throughout this study, is first displayed here. The significance of the faces beneath these masks feels important, and there is an intense desire, at least for this reader, to see beneath the mask, to examine the “dark satyr” and his victim. The truth of the matter may well be that, as Ahab says in Moby-Dick , “there’s naught beyond.”
As we finally arrive at a seeming resolution and Benito Cereno is restored and Babo is brought to justice, the scene of the story shifts. We no longer sit aboard the San Dominick with its mysteriously carved stern-piece and its grisly figure-head. Even so, these components are as present as Babo’s voice in his Iago-like silence and his sentient glare from the headsman’s pike. Benito Cereno is intrinsically linked with his captor, or was it his captive? Here is where the identities of the figures behind the mask begin to come into focus, and then quickly fade back into the shadow of their intrinsic coverings. Could it be Benito Cereno who lies prostrate on the ground, while Babo wields the whip above him? Or is it Benito Cereno, or his comrade Aranda, the slave-holders, who stand above the prone figure of Babo? There is no easy answer to this question. There is perhaps no answer, but the very fact that the question arises, which it most certainly does, throws an uneasy light upon the entire affair of the San Dominick. In a statement that will serve as the epigraph to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Delano discusses the end of the ordeal with Cereno. Melville writes:

‘You are saved,’ cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; ‘you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?’
‘The negro.’ (257)

This chilling moment, which may be viewed from many an angle, seen in context with the question of the identities of the masked figures, shows that perhaps Cereno sees the “dark satyr” as Babo, with his shadow cast down upon the Spaniard for eternity. This may very well be Cereno’s truth in this moment, but the conversation ends on that final statement, and in fact “The negro” is the final line of spoken dialogue within the tale itself. The “pall” that seems to hang around the two men as they allow those two words to sink in is felt throughout the conclusion of the story, and can be felt floating back over the entire incident of the San Dominick. These words, spoken at the penultimate moment of the tale, are now present throughout. Unlike the seemingly carefree Delano, Cereno, and the reader with him, cannot view the past without the presence of this shadow. Everything leading up to this moment has shifted. The layers of perception have been pulled back yet again, and the vision of the whole is no clearer than it was in the first moments of Delano’s ship sighting the San Dominick. If anything, the shadow of Babo—the shadow of the slave or the shadow of slavery itself—has further obscured the reality of the situation. All that is left is an empty mask and an incomplete—impossible—maze.
The figures behind the masks do not exist. There is nothing beneath. Neither Babo nor Cereno exist as these masked symbols. Much like the figure head of the leader, the skeletal remains of the slaveholder, the figures behind the masks are long dead. The machinations continue on, lead by a corpse into the depths of depravity. From moment to moment the occupants of the mask may shift, but the masks themselves are as much a component of the rotting system of slavery. The slave trade obscures humanity, and even a seemingly innocent observer like Delano (and he is far from innocent) occupies a role, or mask, in the machine of slavery. The entire ship, with its crumbling decadence, functions as a terrifying example of the course of slavery. A ship headed by the dead, floating beyond control in a dangerous direction, with no relief for slave holder, slave, or complicit by-stander alike. The thing behind the mask is hideous, for it is human, and the mask itself a creation of the entity which dons it, and the words, the shadow, linger in the pestilent air.

*The edition of Benito Cereno which all pagination is from is the Penguin Classics edition: Billy Budd and Other Stories