"Exceedingly sharp and as bright as a gentleman’s sword."
January 29, 2014 9:28 AM   Subscribe

A captain ready to drive himself and all around him to ruin in the hunt for a white whale. It’s a well-known story, and over the years, mad Ahab in Herman Melville’s most famous novel, Moby-Dick, has been used as an exemplar of unhinged American power, most recently of George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq. But what’s really frightening isn’t our Ahabs, the hawks who periodically want to bomb some poor country, be it Vietnam or Afghanistan, back to the Stone Age. The respectable types are the true “terror of our age,” as Noam Chomsky called them collectively nearly 50 years ago. The really scary characters are our soberest politicians, scholars, journalists, professionals and managers, men and women (though mostly men) who imagine themselves as morally serious...
An essay by Greg Grandin on Melville's novella Benito Cereno (based on the sailing memoirs of Amasa Delano Chapter XVIII) the differences in the political economy and whaling vs. sealing, and the origins of the American empire.
posted by ennui.bz (11 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Love Benito Cereno, political economy analysis, and indictments of the complicity of moderates. Thanks for this.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:41 AM on January 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Obama, Melville and Cereno - " That book was “Benito Cereno,” a largely forgotten masterpiece by Herman Melville. In today’s charged political environment, the message of Melville’s story bears rehearing."

I had never heard of this before reading the above link. Thanks for posting.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:43 AM on January 29, 2014

that sunday review article is good, guess I missed that:
Melville narrates the events from the perspective of the clueless Delano, who for most of the novella thinks Cereno is in charge. As the day progresses, Delano grows increasingly obsessed with Babo and the seeming affection with which the West African cares for the Spanish captain. The New Englander, liberal in his sentiments and opposed to slavery as a matter of course, fantasizes about being waited on by such a devoted and cheerful body servant.

Delano believes himself a free man, and he defines his freedom in opposition to the smiling, open-faced Babo, who he presumes has no interior life, no ideas or interests of his own. Delano sees what he wants to see. But when Delano ultimately discovers the truth — that Babo, in fact, is the one exercising masterly discipline over his inner thoughts, and that it is Delano who is enslaved to his illusions — he responds with savage violence.
would have been a better pull-quote
posted by ennui.bz at 9:48 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thank you for this—I'd seen the NYT article and it piqued my interest in Benito Cereno, this essay is also great.
“All bad consequences,” he wrote, describing the importance of protecting property rights, “may be avoided by one who has a knowledge of his duty, and is disposed faithfully to obey its dictates.”
I have known so many dangerous people like this.
posted by enn at 10:00 AM on January 29, 2014

Benito who?
posted by benito.strauss at 10:03 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I really liked H. Bruce Franklin's review of Grandin's book: "Herman Melville’s views of slavery and empire were actually closer to Greg Grandin’s than Grandin seems to think they were."
posted by RogerB at 10:36 AM on January 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

it's an amazing masterpiece until you hit Melville's heretofore totally unexpected racism (SPOILER he believes slaves have no right to rebel and should be punished for it) which sours it completely :(
posted by maiamaia at 12:07 PM on January 29, 2014

Melville's heretofore totally unexpected racism (SPOILER he believes slaves have no right to rebel and should be punished for it)

What? You might want to re-read the story with your irony detector switched on.
posted by RogerB at 12:15 PM on January 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

I read this, Benito Cereno last fall, curious about what exactly the what was. It is, on many levels a horror story on a par with Poe.
I'm not at all convinced Melville saw it that way.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:47 PM on January 29, 2014

Thanks for this. Moby-Dick is one of my favorite novels and I've somehow failed to read this, despite enjoying everything of Melville's I've ever read. This is going to be the next book I read.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 1:27 PM on January 30, 2014

The thesis that Babo's control, his inner self-mastery, is what enrages Delano, makes me think that this piece is linked:
12 Years a Slave and the Obama Era
It is bizarre to ascribe haughtiness and a lack of a capacity for embarrassment to a president whose most recent notable public appearance was a profusely and even flamboyantly contrite press conference spent repeatedly confessing to “fumbles” and “mistakes.” Why would Hillyer believe such a factually bizarre thing?

One answer is that, by the evidence of this column, Hillyer believes all sorts of factually bizarre things. But most African-Americans, and many liberal whites, would read Hillyer’s rant as the cultural heir to Northup’s overseer: a southern white reactionary enraged that a calm, dignified, educated black man has failed to prostrate himself.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:09 AM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

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