Cognitive Poetics: Benito Cereno as Parable

A few months ago I posted about the Literature as Parable chapters in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice, chapters that brought together many of the ideas and techniques discussed previously in those books. Here I continue my response to Literature as Parable with some notes I made doing an exercise from one of those chapters. The assignment in Peter Stockwell’s textbook was to “investigate the main conceptual structure across a single long text” and to “sketch out the role this conceptual scaffolding plays in the global construction of the work as parable”. The long text I chose as subject for this exercise is the novella Benito Cereno by Herman Melville. In this post, I will consider how the peculiar structure of metaphors in the novella contribute to reading it as a parable.

Benito Cereno was published in 1855 when slavery was a major point of concern in the US. The Compromise of 1850 may have postponed open conflict between southern states and northern states, but neither side of the slavery issue was satisfied. And the Fugitive Slave Act further exacerbated the contention for many northern abolitionist. Harriet Beecher Stowe made the Fugitive Slave Act a central issue in her bestselling Uncle Tom’s Cabin, explicitly referencing the law in a scene depicting an Ohio senator and his wife debating it.

Slavery is also a central theme of Benito Cereno, which I read as a parable about the Fugitive Slave Act. Melville based the plot of Benito Cereno on an actual incident recounted by the real Captain Delano in his memoirs. The novella describes an American sea captain’s chance encounter with a Spanish frigate that has been taken over by rebelling slaves. The mutiny is not initially apparent, and Captain Delano, the focalizing character, only understands the situation at the point when he leaves the Spanish frigate to return to his own ship.

Irony is an important feature of Benito Cereno, and contemporary readers responded to the suspense and mystery evoked by Melville’s telling. Dramatic irony builds as the focalizing character makes curious observations aboard the Spanish frigate but repeatedly fails to conclude that the ship is not under the authority of Don Benito, the titular character. Melville sometimes tags the focalizing character’s perspective with quotes or phrases like “thought Captain Delano”, but at other times he employs the technique of free-indirect discourse. (Cambridge Introduction to Herman Melville) It is evident throughout that the narrative is filtered through the mind and perceptions of Captain Delano, who is not unobservant but is also unable to comprehend the actual situation aboard the ship. The peculiar structure of the metaphors used by Captain Delano allow Melville to include detailed observations but steer clear of conclusions that would diminish the sense of irony until the last possible moment. This peculiar structure can also be applied parabolicly to the reasoning of northern supporters of the Fugitive Slave Act.

Three different metaphorical structures contribute to this parabolic reading and to the sense of irony for readers: (1) cognitive metaphors that reverse the prototypical mapping, (2) image metaphors, and (3) cognitive blends with metaphors as input spaces. Each of these three structures circumvent the tendency toward abstraction and meaning construction by the focalizing character.

As might be expected of a sailor, Captain Delano frequently relies on WEATHER as a component of metaphors. But he structures these metaphors in a way that limits their functionality, limits the effectiveness of the metaphors to construct meaning. WEATHER related metaphors are commonly used in literature and in everyday language to describe problems in the mind. Izabela Zolnowska has studied such metaphors and concluded that the “directionality of metaphorical transfer is uniform and proceeds from concrete to abstract concepts.” In her paper, Weather as the source domain for metaphorical expressions, she outlines several conceptual metaphors that all have the absence of problems as the target domain and WEATHER CONDITIONS as the source domain. Zolnowska provides the following examples from the category of CLEAR SKIES IS LACK OF PROBLEMS :

  • “His kiss was pure joy, winging happiness as if her spirit was soaring into a clear sky.”
  • “It is truly said that he can go to bed at night with a clear sky as far as Home Affairs are concerned and wake up the next morning with a major crisis.”
  • “It’s gonna be clear skies from now on.”

The source domain in each of these examples is CLEAR SKIES and the target domain is a problem-free situation. Features of the source domain are mapped onto the target domain, and the mapping does not typically go the other way. In other words, being free of difficulty can be said to be like CLEAR SKIES, but clear, blue skies is not said to be like having no difficulties.

In contrast, Captain Delano offers Don Benito the following advice on coping with depression following the mutiny aboard his ship. Notice the reversal of source and target domain from Zolnowska’s examples:

“See, yon bright sun has forgotten it all, and the blue sea, and the blue sky; these have turned over new leaves.”

When Captain Delano claims that the sun, sea, and sky have “forgotten it all”, he is trying to map features of an abstract mental state onto the actual, concrete weather conditions. Essentially, he is telling Don Benito to make his mind like the fair weather that day. But reversing the direction of the metaphorical mapping ignores salient features of the human mind. And so goes Don Benito’s reply:

“Because they have no memory,” he dejectedly replied; “because they are not human.”

Captain Delano is undeterred by Don Benito’s argument. He anthropomorphizes the weather: “Warm friends, steadfast friends are the trades.” Reversing the usual direction of WEATHER metaphors makes some sense for a sailor. But outside the nautical world—for example in the political and social worlds—the reversed direction limits the capacity for Captain Delano to make sense of Don Benito’s condition despite his detailed and curious observations. And the term “trade” suggests the mercantile implications of Captain Delano’s congenial outlook. Throughout the novella, Captain Delano fails to understand Don Benito’s situation because of the metaphors he uses to make sense of his observations.

In addition to reversing the direction of WEATHER metaphors, Captain Delano makes frequent use of image metaphors. Image metaphors, as Peter Crisp explains in Cognitive Cognitive Poetics in Practice, do not map features of a concrete domain to a more abstract domain but instead map from one experiential domain to another. Again, Melville is able to provide descriptive observations through the focalizing character while withholding full understanding of the situation aboard the Spanish frigate.

In the following three examples from the novella, image metaphors map concrete aspects of the Spanish frigate to aspects of another type of dwelling in ways that are thematically suggestive:

“…the ship…appeared like a white-washed monastery after a thunderstom.”

“Peering over the bulwarks…throngs of dark cowls…Black Friars pacing the cloisters.”

“…frigates…like superannuated Italian palaces, still under a decline of masters, preserved signs of former state.”

These image metaphors are suggestive, implying something amiss aboard the ship: The ship has been through an ordeal and washed of its “whiteness”. The people peering over the bulwark are devoted to an authority higher than the ship’s captain. And the master of the ship, Don Benito, no longer holds power. But these conclusions can only be arrived at after the facts of the narrative are known. Image metaphors themselves do not, as Peter Crisps states, “…play a direct role in constituting metaphorical resources for abstract reasoning.”

A focalizing character who is oblivious to his surroundings would make telling and reading the story difficult. But a focalizing character with acuity would spoil the suspense and mystery of the story. Captain Delano is fully aware and attentive, demonstrated by the rich abundance of metaphors used to describe the Spanish frigate and its crew. But he fails to construct meaning from his observations because the metaphors he uses do not enable abstract reasoning.

One metaphor in particular was exemplary of Captain Delano’s attentive but impotent awareness. He observes that Atufal, one of the slaves, moves like a mute. Such a comparison implies Captain Delano is very focused on Atufal, but little sense can be made of the observation. Even if one could conceive of attributes belonging to the movement of mutes, what would it mean that Atufal has those same attributes?

Some metaphors Captain Delano employs do seem to follow the prototypical pattern of mapping from a concrete domain onto a more abstract domain. He uses several bestial metaphors to describe slave women and their children aboard the Spanish frigate:

“…like a doe in the shade of a woodland rack”

“…her wide-eyed fawn.”

“…unsophisticated as leopardesses, loving as doves.”

Comparing the women and children to animals maintains Captain Delano’s impression of their subjugation, as does his comparison with Babo, the leader of the slave rebellion, to a “shepherd’s dog”. The text makes Captain Delano’s patronizing attitude explicit, suggesting he is self-aware:

“…like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.”

On their own, these bestial metaphors preserve Captain Delano’s racist attitude of white supremacy and his self-perception as a man with a “good, blithe heart”. But when Captain Delano compares the Spanish sailors to poachers, hunters, and animals of prey, these metaphors blend with the bestial metaphors to alter generalizations made by the reader. The target and source domains of both sets of metaphors can be mapped onto a generic space relating elements of territory and authority. The blend that comes from this mapping marks the Spanish sailors as trespassers and puts the slaves in a position of authority and dominion over the Spanish frigate. This blend is not done by Captain Delano, even though he provides the metaphors that act as input spaces. The sense of irony and suspense depend on the reader making use of the focalizing character’s observations in a way that that character does not.

The peculiar structure of Captain Delano’s metaphors do more than obfuscate meaning and prolong suspense. The metaphorical structure also enriches a parabolic reading of Benito Cereno as related to slavery. Allegorically, the Spanish frigate represents the Southern states where slavery is legal and the American ship represents the Northern states where slavery is illegal. The Spanish ship suffers the consequences of slavery—Don Benito is unable to recover from the ordeal and dies in a monastery within a few months. And Captain Delano, who is initially tolerant of the practice of slavery, becomes complicit in its enforcement, the position of the northern states under the Fugitive Slave Act. Although the tale does not suggest dire consequences for Captain Delano as a result of his actions, which would be expected of a morality tale, the impotence of his reasoning and observations eliminate him as the hero or as one to be emulated. The only character left to fill the role of hero, then is Babo—or no one.

In my previous post on Literature as Parable, I noted that Michael Burke self-consciously admitted he could have used different conceptual metaphors from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 2 to generate a very different reading than the one he wrote for Cognitive Poetics in Practice. Having done this exercise reading Benito Cereno, I more fully understand his statement. There is much more to Benito Cereno than I’ve considered in these notes, more richness to the writing techniques of Melville and more depth to the parabolic implications about slavery. But this exercise has been especially effective toward pursuing my goal in studying cognitive poetics which is to become a more capable writer. Narrowing in on Melville’s use of peculiar metaphorical structure for his focalizing character has provided me with a better understanding of one way to use a focalizing character to generate suspense and mystery.

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