Melville Revisited

Yesterday I shared my favorite piece of literature.  Today, I wanted to share the piece of literature that left me feeling the most unsettled.  Interestingly enough, it is also by Herman Melville.  The story is “Benito Cereno.”

If you haven’t read this story, I highly recommend that you do.  For those that don’t, Captain Amasa Delano sees a ship come into an isolated area.  Thinking it might be in distress, he boards his whale-boat and goes to the other ship, which turns out to be a Spanish ship carrying assorted merchandise and slaves.

“Benito Cereno” was originally published in 1856.  To put that into context, slavery wasn’t banned in the US until the Thirteenth Amendment was adopted in 1865.  The first thing that bothered me was the way Melville offhandedly tells us through Don Benito that the slaves originally numbered over 300, but due to a scurvy outbreak, there were closer to 150 slaves left.  There’s almost this feeling of, “Eh, what can you do?  These things happen.”  These attitudes have been the subject of academic research, of which this is but an example.  Whether Melville, himself, embraced or opposed these feelings is irrelevant.  The sad truth is that too many people across the globe felt this way, and I think it is a valuable exercise to experience the range of emotions from uneasiness to horror.  The most disturbing part of this story is the way I kept finding myself feeling sorry for the Spaniards during the slave revolt.  The prose is written in such a way that it evokes that sympathy from the reader, and it’s a shock to the system when you realize you’re sympathizing with the peddlers of human flesh.  Every time I realized where my sympathies were, I was horrified.  I can honestly say that I have never reacted to any piece of literature the way I reacted to “Benito Cereno.”


Herman Melville

I have a confession: I have never read Moby Dick.  This leads to my next confession: I don’t intend to.  Maybe this makes me a poor excuse for a scholar.  Maybe I’m ok with this.  His style isn’t one I particularly enjoy, so it is somewhat ironic that my favorite piece of literature is “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”  If you’ve never read it, click the link and read it.  I’ll wait.

My final confession: Bartleby is my hero.  This is not ironic.  I want to be Bartleby when I grow up, minus that whole dying in prison part.  He doesn’t feel like doing what he is employed to do, so his reply to pretty much everything in the story is, “I would prefer not do.”  And then he doesn’t do whatever it is he would prefer not to do.  That, in and of itself, is worthy of my adoration, but it gets even better.  Bartleby gets away with it.  Every. single. time.  That, my friends, is why Bartleby is my hero.  He gets paid for work he never does.  He gets fired, but he would prefer not to get fired, so he keeps showing up and his boss keeps paying him.  He moves into his bosses offices, but would prefer not to move out, so he doesn’t.  The fact that going to the authorities is the narrator’s last resort is nothing short of mindboggling.

Now, I should probably clarify why, exactly, Bartleby is my hero.  It’s not because he gets away with being lazy or by basically becoming a moocher.  It’s because he says something and then his actions back up what he says.  How many times have we “preferred not to,” and yet we did it anyway.  Perhaps we felt obligated.  Maybe we didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  Or, refusing could be a bad move politically, so we bite our tongues and do what we would prefer not to do.  Bartleby doesn’t do that.  He also never refuses outright any request.  He just says, “I would prefer not to,” and then he doesn’t do it.  Emulating Bartleby could become problematic if taken to the extreme, but I think we could all benefit from the occasional, “I would prefer not to.”