Friday, January 30, 2015

"Or was the Spaniard less hardened than the Jew...?"

Slowly making my way through Melville's "Benito Cereno."  The character Capt. Delano is quite something, given among other things to interior monologues about the supposed characteristics of "the negro" (whom, we are told, he is drawn to in some ways despite regarding "the negro" as intellectually inferior to "the white man").  Then I reach this passage, where Delano is trying for the umpteenth time to figure out Don Benito's behavior:
Why was the Spaniard, so superfluously punctilious at times, now heedless of common propriety in not accompanying to the side his departing guest?  Did indisposition forbid?  Indisposition had not forbidden more irksome exertion that day.... [Benito's] last glance seemed to express a calamitous, yet acquiescent farewell to Captain Delano forever.  Why decline the invitation to visit the sealer [Delano's ship] that evening?  Or was the Spaniard less hardened than the Jew, who refrained not from supping at the board of him whom the same night he meant to betray?
An obvious reference to Judas and the Last Supper.  But what with "the negro," "the mulatto," "the Spaniard," and "the Jew," Delano's mind, externalized on the page, is a riot of unexamined stereotypes.  (I know that the story, written in the 1850s, is set in 1799.  But still.)

Added later: Finished "Benito Cereno"; credit to this post for prompting me to read it. 

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