The Inquisitional Enclosures of Poe and Melville
The closely imagined relationship between popery and captivity initially established in the Indian captivity narrative developed, in nineteenth-century convent exposes, a crucial thematics of artifice. As we have seen in the narratives of Rebecca Reed and Maria Monk, convent terrors strategically deployed sham fears of Rome to voice the pressures of an emergent middle-class Protestant domesticity. As productions of a deviant female and popular voice, convent narratives imagined perverse domesticities in which an errant female voice, ambiguously positioned between working-class melodrama and middle-class sentiment, gained entry to Protestant parlors by cleansing itself of the impure attraction to Rome. The artifice at the heart of convent narratives—of persecuting figures dispatched from Rome—firmly situated the Protestant language of Romanism in the precariously privatized domain of family romance as well as the public terrain of political contestation. Rome was not only imaged polemically as the ethnic interloper in nativist conspiracy tracts but also figured sentimentally as a haunting memory, itself characterized by uncanny metaphor and fragmented, even implausible, narration, marks of fictional contrivance that point to submerged authenticities.
Antebellum Protestants experienced and contributed to this "dream logic" of Rome in varied ways. But critical to our understanding of Romanism as a shaping force in the antebellum literary marketplace are the collective aspirations of this cultural logic that infiltrated from popular into elite fictions. In the "ascent" into higher canonical regions, this dream of Rome—nightmarish, comical, and baffling—found powerful vocalizations in writers of the American Renaissance, themselves imaginatively preoccupied with the terrors and representational challenges of alienation. In particular, Edgar Allan Poe's "Pit and the Pendulum," and
Herman Melville's Benito Cereno translate the "womanly" dream logic of convent captivity into a "manly" logic of inquisitional or shipboard imprisonment. Both texts displace overtly female preoccupations with the familial perversion of convents with images of the masculine psyche closed within Catholic powers or ambiguously excluded by them. Voices of maidenhood and prostitution are supplanted by the voice of an ambiguously celibate masculinity whose largely unspoken patriarchal dominion in the familial enclosure of middle-class domesticity enables its exploration of extrafamilial spaces. Such expeditions finally deposit these celibate explorers in Romanized interiors that speak, not a dispossessed female language of hyperbolic conflict and sexualized violence, but an elite language of densely symbolic ambiguity. Thus Poe and Melville draw upon the language of Protestant captivity, Poe to dramatize the enigmatic pains of consciousness and Melville to construct the "knot" of slavery and racism embedded in the New England conscience.
Like convent captivity narratives, "The Pit and the Pendulum" and Benito Cereno picture the sufferings of an exaggeratedly privatized subjectivity, one rendered critically alone by virtue of its fascinated dread of Catholic power. If Puritan Indian captivity narratives figured the afflictions of papal bondage as genuine instances of the clash of imperial powers (both temporal and supernatural), these antebellum captivity narratives enjoy no such clarified relation between private and public. In these eminently self-conscious fictions, Roman Catholicism is no longer a rival imperial power but, to the contrary, a conspicuous anachronism, peripheral to the narratives' contemporary urgencies. Positioned off center, the Romanism of these captivity tales, particularly in its elusive religious malignity and the uncertainty of either capture or escape, distracts protagonists and readers alike from the true meanings of their victimization. Amasa Delano's "dreamy inquietude" aboard the San Dominick and Poe's narration of sickly fear inside the dungeon of the Spanish Inquisition are registered in the accents of a Protestant paranoia subjected to an ironic metanarrative gaze. If entrapment by Catholic powers exploits the nativist passions of Poe's and Melville's readers, Poe's narrator and Melville's Amasa Delano quickly transcend such crude simplicities of audience manipulation. Both tales consistently undermine the anti-Catholicism they invoke—not only to mock the nativist susceptibilities of the reading public but, in so doing, to question the very pretensions of narrative.
The unsettling combination of suffering and parody, of imprisonment as a sly, if not a playful, event, owes its peculiar tenor to the artificiality, even theatricality, of nativist captivity literature, with its characteristic
blend of opportunism and genuine dread, of safe distance and dire involvement. The virtuosity of both narratives stems from their sustained and ambiguous mingling of sham and terror, their translation of nativism's exploitative melodramas into the aggressions of art. If the fraudulence of much nativist fiction reflected not only commercial opportunism but underlying doubts about the Catholic menace, Poe and Melville forged new authenticities, born of narrative elusiveness, from the inauthenticities of nativism.
In their religious manifestation, captivity narratives exerted a fascination born of the drama of suspended forgiveness. While the surface action of a narrative like Isaac Jogues's unfolded structures of merciful affliction, of the Lord forgiving and drawing his creature to him again, the interior drama threatened the reverse. Any number of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century narratives implicitly portrayed the suffering creature's forgiveness of God, the transition from anger to love, from insufferable fury to the prized condition of gratitude. As the popularity of the genre testifies, it was an absorbing dynamic, this adamant revision of resentment into bliss. With their developing capacity to reduce suffering, nineteenth-century Americans located in domesticity the pleasure of converting resentment and found it ever more difficult to perform an authentic submission. Increasingly, where suffering was concerned, the only bliss available was its cessation or, more realistically, its sentimental regulation.
Notwithstanding their release, such captives as Isaac Jogues or Mary Rowlandson sought to prolong their captivity, to dwell permanently inside the region of affliction. In the concluding lines to her captivity narrative, for example, Rowlandson jealously guards her battered consciousness from the soothing effects of the settlements and confesses to a new condition of sustained vigilance: "When others are sleeping, mine eyes are weeping!" Ironically, her greatest hope and necessity is to extend her captivity indefinitely, to maximize the moment of redemption by avoiding the closure of her experience. Thus she concludes in the atemporal, transcendental posture of the contemplative, bidding her readers, as Moses did the fleeing Israelites, to "stand still and see the salvation of the Lord." In stark contrast to Rowlandson's newfound vigilance, Poe's narrator inches his way through an obsessively wakeful discourse in pursuit of the swoon, angling not for immortality but for oblivion. All he achieves is the horror of exposure, enduring the ceaseless recognition not of God but of his own consciousness: the eyes of punishment have replaced the gaze of faith: "Demon eyes, of a wild and ghastly vivacity, glared upon me in a thousand directions, where none had been visible
before, and gleamed with the lurid lustre of a fire that I could not force my imagination to regard as unreal" (695).
I pondered upon all this frivolity until my teeth were on edge .
"The Pit and the Pendulum "
Having tripped and landed with his chin on the edge of the pit, the agonized hero of "The Pit and the Pendulum" congratulates himself for the second in a series of accidental deliverances. His lips suspended over the clammy vacancy of the pit, he enjoys to the full, like Maria Monk before him, the pleasures of the threshold; as another observer of popery's evil interiors, the narrator scrutinizes its gloomy recesses, eager simultaneously to pursue and escape its secrets. Grateful that live burial, the "most hideous of fates" (685), does not await him, he ventures into the perils of undifferentiated space, his curiosity enticed by the "blackness and vacancy" (685) through which he gropes. As prisoner of the Inquisition, Poe's narrator is lodged at the foundation of the edifice of Romanism—a visually duplicitous location where mechanical ingenuity endows his presumptively Napoleonic Age inquisitors with the technological powers of an industrializing America. The technical precision with which these inquisitors dominate the interior of the prison, invisibly engineering the movement of walls, floors, and swinging pendulum, registers envious antebellum suspicions of Rome's efficient technologies of the spirit. One contemporary observer of Catholicism commented on "the resources of that marvellous ecclesiastical system"—that is "so ingeniously contrived, so adroitly defended, so cunningly accommodated to human pride and weakness both." Demoniac Catholic techniques to control both spirit and body marginalize Protestantism to an ever dwindling space of evasion. Progressively displaying its insidious creativity, the narrator's dungeon seemingly manipulates its own interior, from pit to pendulum to mechanized inferno, treating its victim to a series of spectacular disclosures whose unspeakability is cited in an ever more loquacious prose.
Unlike Maria Monk, who must be hit before she falls to the floor, Poe's narrator performs his own prostration, swooning before his own religious terrors. Enthralled by the pleasures of infantilization before the monkish power, this self-identified "recusant" (690) gazes up at the gleaming pendulum "as a child at some rare bauble" (691). Like other Protestant explorers of convents, catacombs, and confessionals, the narrator struggles for mastery by acting the detective, out to deduce not only
the extent of Catholic iniquity but the intentions behind it. If Rebecca Reed and Maria Monk partially negotiate the challenges of this detective imperative by at least escaping, though in a state of continued bafflement, Poe's narrator frankly, luxuriously fails. His rationalist investigation cannot compete against the technical ingenuity of his captors, and in the face of their spectacular and disciplined violence he trails off into "vain, unconnected conjecture" (695). His attempts to decipher his plight are entirely secondary to the ardent predatory power of the wrathful church, which in pendulum form descends to the bound and childlike narrator, who can look up , but not at his persecutors.
The tale's pleasuring in the Inquisition recalls that of the New York showman who in 1842 exhibited a building of the Inquisition replete with common instruments of torture. By the time of Poe's tale, the Inquisition and its ingenious tortures had become a form of popular entertainment. If the confessional offered the attractions of illicit intercourse, the Inquisition offered its own erotic intimacies. Bound in his oily bandage, Poe's narrator submits to the embrace of dungeon rats: "They pressed—they swarmed upon me in ever accumulating heaps. They writhed upon my throat; their cold lips sought my own" (694). The feminized posture of his plight disguises an aggressive, distinctly masculine desire to enter the persecutorial intimacies of Romanism. Juan Antonio Llorente's History of the Inquisition of Spain (London, 1826) describes how, on the opening of the Madrid Inquisition in 1820, a prisoner was discovered who was to die the following day by the pendulum method. Whereas Llorente reports with objective restraint on the Inquisition as a thing of the past (albeit recent past), Poe invests his source material with the radical intimacy of his anonymous and confessional "I." This voice of suffering resurrects and appropriates the Inquisition as immediate antebellum context and symbol of its own indeterminate anguish.
The private taxonomy of captivity that forms the gruesome and comic focus of Poe's narrative neatly organizes the range of Protestant confinements in the ideological enclosure of Romanism; the spatial removes into Indian country of Puritan and Jesuit narrative become vertiginous descent into unconsciousness. Of the many horrors that surround us, which is the worst? Poe, given to insistent scrutiny of the possible incarcerations available in this life, asks, in this tale above all, which captivity is the worst? Live entombment or the loathesome abyss? The pit or the pendulum, the indifference of the void or the exquisite intimacy of the blade? Enamored of classification, the narrator must repeatedly submit to the Inquisition's sublime dismissal of his categories. The hero's
hierarchy of punishments is subject to constant revision, as one torment leads into another, issuing finally into a competition of sufferings that renders distinction futile. "To the victims of its tyranny," explains this student of the Inquisition, "there was the choice of death with its direst physical agonies, or death with its most hideous moral horrors" (687). As his clinically precise discourse proceeds in its effort to survey the features of inquisitional captivity, the confinement becomes more boundless and uniform, the narrator's proliferating physiological detail finally pushing his captivity narrative to the edge of the ludicrous, where it is left to hover.
Thus the perceptual bondage suffered by Poe's bewildered "I" is both tortured and funny, a combination that forces the reader to dwell in a space as narrow as the narrator's—an uncomfortably shifting surrender to the tale's mimetic power where trust continually incites suspicion. Captivity as authorial joke is also authorial menace. Objective tortures are endowed with a technological excess that incites reader engagement only to mock it, just as the original authenticities of the Protestant captivity tradition are rendered artificial to convey the emergent authenticities of a surrealist art in which the text's frank confession of its artifice testifies to its author's engagement with the finally unspecifiable urgencies of his idiosyncratic consciousness. Or in the authorial tones of Poe's captive to the Inquisition: "I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. They appeared to me white—whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words—and thin even to grotesqueness" (681).
A virtuoso of studied authenticity, of a deflected sincerity like that of his artfully descending pendulum, Poe mimics the ambivalent blending of farce and dread that characterized conspiracy-minded nativists, for whom the foreign religion was sufficiently present yet unknown to make their accusations plausible. As the ultimate stylist of Protestant captivity, Poe uncovers the self-preoccupation at the heart of a tradition of practiced tremblings before the specter of the Inquisition.
As the primary vehicle of his religious burlesque, Poe's relentlessly physiological language supplants the "recusant" soul with a Protestant body as primary target of Catholic captivity, intrigue, and torture. While the narrator invokes the classical captivity narrative tradition by citing Scripture, confessing, like Hezekiah, to being "sick unto death" (Isaiah 38:1), his objective is hardly the education of the soul's ascetic powers by incarceration within the torments of the fallen world. His enclosed self immediately abandons the consolatory achronicity of biblical citation for a narrative of obsessive temporal precision, his rationalist language focusing on the flesh, a gaze that converts the pleasures of exegesis
into those of "nausea" and "thrill." Intercessional wisdom fades into impotent spectral images as the "angel forms" of candle flames shift into "meaningless spectres" (682). This dissolution of scriptural context discloses a region of bodily obsession in which even the political menaces of Romanism, its proverbial systematized ingenuities, revert to a meaningless mechanization; thus the "inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum" that simply suggests circularity, not revolt, the mere "idea of revolution —perhaps from its association in fancy with the burr of a mill-wheel" (681). In this sensationalized, and hence depoliticized, incarceration, religious captivity metaphorizes the impingements of consciousness, whose pressures urge one not toward God but toward the "sweet rest" (682) of the grave. Catholic persecutors become identified with the masochist energies of the modern subject—an "I" whose nationality, religion, and individual history are suppressed beneath a newly sensational language of disorientation and dispossession.
This deposit of the Inquisition at the heart of the narrator's dehistoricized subjectivity participates in the logic of convent captivity narrative, where maiden subjectivity can experience its purity only through identifying the mother superior as fallen mother. So Poe's narrative pictures the abjectly filial autobiographical subject as one pursuing contact with, and knowledge of, his inquisitional fathers. That he awakens already confined in a space that proceeds to dwindle makes of his every evasion an inevitable drawing closer. Poe's narrative, then, affords us a choreography of antebellum Protestant movement upon the shifting stage of Romanism. A benevolent version of this mobility appears in Hawthorne's admiring efforts to describe an Italian church: "Perhaps the best way to form some dim conception of it, is to imagine a little casket, all inlaid, in its inside, with precious stones, so that there shall not a hair's breadth be left un-precious-stoned; and then imagine this little bit of a casket increased to the magnitude of a great church, without losing anything of the intense glory that was compressed into its original small compass." While Hawthorne can imaginatively shrink and then magnify the cathedral interior that so dazzled him, Poe's narrator is the hapless victim of such aesthetic play as his colorful dungeon looms large or shrinks at another's will.
Hope whispers falsely to the bound narrator, writhing before the pendulum's descent; so too his narrative, in its garrulous unspeakabilities, degrades the incarcerated logic at the heart of Jesuit or Puritan capture—a logic in which the bound body, imitating Christ's sacrificial immobility, gains access to a fluid, mobile subjectivity, one that not only can move
into but also can move meanings. Here the body's fixity registers an exegetical fixity: the "heart's unnatural stillness" registers the "sudden motionlessness throughout all things" (683). Nor can the hero measure the site of his captivity, its beginnings and ends rendered identical by the "perfectly uniform" (685) wall. The hero's inability to decipher the meaning or measurements of a captivity transpiring within the "shadows of memory" (683) gains its cultural authenticity by reference to the "thousand vague rumors of the horrors of Toledo" (685)—imagined by antebellum Protestants as countless, incapable of final measurement.
Taunting the very religious fears he elicits, the narrator describes with studied artifice his fumbling along the slimy wall: "I followed it up; stepping with all the careful distrust with which certain antique narratives had inspired me" (685). Coyly alluding to the contemporary context of "no-popery" literature, Poe's captive urges his readers to understand his experience as authenticating their unease; glimpsing the pit, he assures us that the "death just avoided was of that very character which I had regarded as fabulous and frivolous in the tales respecting the Inquisition" (687). His horrors of consciousness are consistently subject to the satirical effect of this intertextuality. "Of the dungeons there had been strange things narrated—fables I had always deemed them—but yet strange, and too ghastly to repeat, save in a whisper" (685). With a teasing regularity that mimics the methodical enumeration of his sensations and gestures the narrator hints at the conventionality of his predicament, finally suggesting that his (and the reader's) real captivity is to no-popery literature. Thus his first trembling retreat from the pit's edge occurs within a sly reference to his past career as a reader of anti-Catholic fiction: "Neither could I forget what I had read of these pits—that the sudden extinction of life formed no part of their most horrible plan" (687).
Abruptly enabled by a "sulphurous lustre" (688) to see the true nature of his enclosure, the narrator confirms that the psychic void is reassuringly peopled with Catholic images, the walls everywhere "daubed in all the hideous and repulsive devices to which the charnel superstition of the monks has given rise" (689). These culturally self-reflexive motions of consciousness are doubly recontained by this invocation of monkish aesthetics, the skeletal forms displayed, as they were for American tourists in underground Rome, for his gruesome enjoyment. While the masochism of black vacancy yields to the sadism of monks who finally depict themselves as separate from the narrator so that the monologue of live entombment can at least become the dialogue of "inquisition," Poe's eccentric narrator is himself recontained as a character in no-popery
literature. Like any reader of familiar texts, he appreciates his tormentor's deviation from the pit to the pendulum as an admirable instance of authorial ingenuity, aimed at preserving readerly interest: "The plunge into this pit I had avoided by the merest of accidents, and I knew that surprise, or entrapment into torment, formed an important portion of all the grotesquerie of these dungeon deaths. Having failed to fall, it was no part of the demon plan to hurl me into the abyss" (690). The captive's anticipatory knowledge of course is inverted by his narrative to cast him as a figure whose private reasonings are fully anticipated by his invisible persecutors. They have carefully kept his bound body from the descending path of the pendulum, their deep monkish intimacy with his most spontaneous unvoiced speculations rendering his every revelation already known, as happened to Rebecca Reed and Maria Monk before him. As past reader, current captive, and future author of anti-Catholic fictions, the narrator finds that his most frantic work is to disguise his entire knowledge of his inquisitors as their entire knowledge of him.
As one who knows all there is to know, he finally turns his rhetoric of teasing disclosure toward his readers, enticing and thwarting their engagement, refusing, unlike Maria Monk, to divulge what he sees in the pit's "inmost recesses" (696). Inquisitorial dalliance with his agonies models his own flirtation with the reader, enough so that the ingenuities of Catholic torture come to articulate how a burlesque of authorship simultaneously conveys the perils of its reading. Enticing the victim to cooperate in his own extinction, the inquisitors delight in surprise and protraction to enforce his acknowledgment of their punning, intertextual imaginations. As heretic pushed toward a mechanized auto-da-fé, in doubled bondage within a dungeon that itself flattens into a red hot lozenge, the narrator confesses to his captors' ingenious identification of deliverance and perdition. Springing away from the pendulum, he merely leaps toward their next narrative episode on the edge of the pit. "Free!—and in the grasp of the Inquisition!" (695) he cries as the walls begin to move. His best efforts to decipher and elude the "doom prepared . . . by monkish ingenuity in torture" (690) have failed, for the pendulum has sliced him free precisely that the walls might shove him into the pit.
In drawing the parallel between his narrator's frantic efforts to decipher the intentions of his inquisitional captors, his equally perplexed attempts to construct a sequential narrative from his memory fragments, and finally the reader's struggle to believe and disbelieve the manifest artifice of the narrative, "The Pit and the Pendulum" translates the legendary unspeakable filth within the recesses of Romanism—its impostures and secrecies—into the recalcitrant processes of a psychological
realism struggling to represent a "memory which busies itself among forbidden things" (683). If captivity to Rome's agents in the New World formerly implicated Catholicism in the pleasures of regained spiritual vigilance and a revivified gratitude, it now belonged to the circuitous expeditions of the swoon into the unconscious and ambiguously beyond it. Captivity to Catholic mysteries has yielded to imprisonment in the menacing and maddeningly trivial confines of the writing psyche. The "seared and writhing body" (697) of Poe's narrator, a body whose "soul took a wild interest in trifles" (688), is the self-bound sequel to the heroic incandescence of Foxe's burning martyrs.
The Spaniard behind —his creature before: to rush from darkness to light was the involuntary choice .
In 1841, the nativist Joseph Berg uttered a revealing diatribe against the confessional:
We hear a great deal said about slavery in our day; and I abhor oppression in every shape; but I count the poor slave, who hoes his master's corn under the lash of a heartless overseer, a freeman, when compared with the man who breathes the atmosphere of liberty, and yet voluntarily fetters his soul, and surrenders himself, bound hand and foot, to the sovereign will and pleasure of a popish priest.
Berg was not alone is his astonishing opinion that the slave was better off than the Roman Catholic. His statement reveals a depressing capacity to rationalize chattel slavery as one (and not the worst) among a series of enslavements, a reasoning that suggests how images of bondage to papal captivity could minimalize objections to race slavery. The priest is more fearsome than the slaveholder because Berg, racially and regionally, cannot identify with African Americans beyond the abolitionist stereotype of "the poor slave." The priest, unlike the planter, also enjoys the voluntary surrender of his victims. Berg's focus on this voluntarism at the heart of Catholic bondage reveals the uneasy masculinity of the Protestant temperament, which had long struggled with the theological imperative to enact a willing surrender to Christ. If the seduction of females by priests registered the pressure of Protestant domesticity on the errant desires of women, the alleged psychological seduction of the male by priests violated cultural expectations of masculine autonomy—expectations that arose in order to legitimate the proliferating demands
of the developing capitalist economy. Male victims of masculine power risked effeminization. As the fugitive slave Frederick Douglass well knew, the oratorical display of his own victimization at the hands of his former white masters encroached dangerously on the virility he also proudly claimed.
Put simply, male victims always had to contend with the implication of complicity, a specter indeed more threatening than that faced by the slave, who, if "poor," at least did not volunteer for his or her fate. Perversely applying traditional Christian distinctions between spirit and flesh to condemn Romanism's spiritual tyranny or the bodily tyranny of slavery, northern nativists voiced their dread of such potentially all-male confessional intimacies. Like the fearsome image of miscegenation that haunted both pro- and antislavery white Americans, the threat of spiritual miscegenation as figured in anti-Catholic writing argued that mingling inevitably led to mixture—and in such mixtures all claims to purity were dangerously forsaken.
Melville's Benito Cereno (1855) probes these sexual, racial, and religious comminglings at work in the Protestant masculine imagination and brilliantly extends the logic of embattled purity to the challenges of narrative itself. Does purity afford one its vaunted insight into the workings of the contaminated enemy, casting light on its darkness? Or is purity a self-blinding force, repressing America's all too evident disturbances beneath a surface rhetoric of bemusement that genially minimizes what little remains to be seen? In the perceptions of Amasa Delano as he boards the San Dominick , Melville images slavery in the New World as the secret text layered within the Protestant text of Rome. Delano's repeated deflection of a murderous racial reality into a fading world of ecclesiastical conflict was a familiar feature of nativist and abolitionist thought. Benito Cereno forcefully identifies the papal threat with the slaves and to that extent folds a southern voice of conspiratorial anxiety into Delano's northern ruminations that eventually lead him to conclude that Spaniard and African are piratically leagued against him. Delano was hardly unique in his misreading. Like Poe's "Pit and the Pendulum," Melville's Protestant captivity tale dramatizes the captive's plight as a protracted series of interpretive quandaries. But if Poe internalizes Catholicism to register the panic at the heart of his marginalized southern subjectivity, Melville insists on endowing it with the representational density and plausibility of conspiratorial narrative.
In 1853 the great diarist George Templeton Strong observed of a no-popery riot in New York: "If Roman Catholicism as transplanted here shall retain all its aggressive and exclusive features, in other words,
its identity, I don't see but that a great religious war is a probable event in the history of the next hundred years; notwithstanding all our national indifference to religious forms." Strong was right about the war but wrong about the issue; his false prediction only too clearly recalls Amasa Delano's notorious naïveté aboard the San Dominick —a naïveté ideologically and aesthetically enabled by the suggestive convergence of black habit and black skin. Delano, the polite racist from Nantucket, is, we might argue, a representative northeasterner in his identification of slave ships and monasteries and a representative southerner in his perplexed musings on the black masks everywhere around him.
When Benito Cereno was published in Putnam's in 1855, readers were well familiar with the ambiguous and ominous associations between Catholicism and slavery that Melville developed in his story, and with the narrative stance of confused and confusing perceptions of spiritual and bodily oppressions. In no-popery literature, the Catholic church itself moved treacherously across the boundary between profane and sacred—a division that powerfully informed domesticity's doctrine of "separate spheres," of prohibitions against interracial marriage, and of mounting northern hostilities to the South. Delano's voluntary captivity in what he initially views as a structure "like a white-washed monastery" (48), his alternately smug and frightened musings before its Old World secrets once aboard the San Dominick (nautical metonym of the Dominican-led Inquisition), reembody the hystericized interior of Poe's "Pit and the Pendulum" with the contemporary specifics of religious, racial, and regional conflict. If Poe's Seville dungeon is located at the geographic heart of the Spanish Inquisition, Melville's Benito Cereno sets that interior afloat; on the margins of European imperial power the self-described "little Jack of the Beach," Amasa Delano, meets up with the monasticized mysteries of the San Dominick "at the ends of the earth" (77). The San Dominick's travels down the South American coast and its eventual forced passage back to Lima under the escort of the New England Bachelor's Delight free that Catholic interior from both its Old World touristic context and its domestic American context of Indian or convent captivity.
Only, like any traveler, Delano carries those domestic captivity narratives within him; he steps between the hatchet polishers "like one running the gauntlet" (59), compares a sailor peering at him to "an Indian [peering] from behind a hemlock" (74), a collapse of African and native American finally voiced by the narrator outside Delano's consciousness, when Africans are described fighting "Indian-like" as they "hurtled their hatchets" (101). Delano speaks as well a language of
American travel abroad, transplanting the tourist rhetoric of European Catholicism onto the floating monastery. Like American tourists in Italy, baffled by their simultaneous exclusion from convents and confessionals and inclusion in the dazzling interiors of cathedrals and picture galleries, Delano is intrigued by the ship's visual self-presentation but mystified by the inhabitants. Indeed, just as the interest of antebellum tourist writings about Catholic Europe resides largely in the alternating collusion and confrontation between anti-Catholic ideology and the heterogeneous sights of Italy (in particular), so Melville fashions his narrative's intrigue from similar slippages among the conflicting forces of conventionalized anticipation, troubled perception, and disturbing memory. If those slip-pages occasionally enjoy the familiarity of the organic, his "old trepidations" recurring "like the ague" (78), they more frequently contradict one another forcefully enough to seem estranged, even uncanny. The circuitous inquiries and odd atmosphere of Delano's New World captivity, then, exhibit the suspended, rapt Protestant pace of exploration through convent, cathedral, and catacomb. As tourists pondered America in Rome (and convents back home), so Delano moves ideologically (and hence perceptually) through Europe to understand the Catholicism floating strangely before him. Whether readers shared in or disdained the nativist campaign against pope and immigrant, they would certainly recognize the narrative's peculiar tone of genial condescension flecked with abject dread, for it characterized discussions of the interlocking menaces of the 1850s: Romanism and slavery.
But if Delano, off the coast of Chile, must encounter the baffling metamorphoses of inquisitional power aboard the San Dominick , Melville carefully denies him the assurances of the Protestant captivity tradition. Its accoutrements are there and not there, vital yet absent, like the metaphors that enclose them. The ship appears "like" a monastery; its appearance "almost" leads Delano to imagine a "ship-load of monks" (48). That Delano first sees the Spanish slaver as crowded cloister registers the cultural error of nativism, in which racial blindness is enabled by religious illumination, a purifying light that mistakenly transforms slaves into monks. The ship, qua ship, enjoys a peculiarly intensified interiority by virtue of the sea's surrounding blankness; it is a particular kind of Catholic interior, for the malevolent fatherly power of Jesuit, of pope, and of the Dominican inquisitor in particular has been usurped—not conquered by Protestants but subversively appropriated by Africans. Many antebellum Protestants would agree with Delano's groping effort to situate 'Spaniards in the familiarites of Protestant English history by claiming that "the very word Spaniard has a curious, conspirator, Guy-
Fawkish twang to it" (79). The blurred grammatical focus and casual tone of Delano's musings genially recognize the familiarity of the anti-Catholic code and the gentility of his partial refusal to believe in timeworn conspiracy. If to be a Spaniard still resonates with a "Guy-Fawkish twang," Delano subdues his conspiratorial gullibility, for he and his Putnam's readership know just what a "Guy-Fawkish twang" is—a threat rendered sufficiently absurd by Protestant imperial power that it now sounds like a "twang."
While directing their suspicions toward immigrant Irish and (to a lesser extent) German Catholics, Protestant Americans accorded an aristocratic superiority to Spanish Catholicism. As home to the Jesuits and the Dominican Inquisition, Spanish Catholicism represented an ultimate (and in both senses of the word, a refined) fanaticism, one far superior in class terms to the impoverished and spiritually "docile," if politically threatening, Catholicism of the Irish. Indeed, the Catholic Cereno's symptoms are aristocratic ones, according to Delano's diagnosis: "Shut up in these oaken walls, chained to one dull round of command, whose unconditionality cloyed him, like some hypochondriac abbot he moved slowly about" (52). The Nantucket captain's sympathy with Cereno's burdens of command also suggests the shared commercial and class interests of northern "merchant princes" and southern "cotton kings"—alignments that only reluctantly succumbed to sectional animosity in the late 1850s. Indeed the "fraternal unreserve" (114) enjoyed between the two on the voyage back to Lima, while silent Babo lies imprisoned beneath, transiently recovers the solidarity of such alliances before the Negro's "shadow" (116) again interrupts the southerner's ability to communicate with his northern friend.
Melville's Catholic imagery invokes the Roman church's role in spurring the development of African slavery—a role that began, ironically, with the efforts of Las Casas to protect New World Indians from enslavement by suggesting the greater suitability of Africans. Slavery in its later manifestation in Melville's narrative (set in 1799) is resolutely an affair of New Spain, not New England. Delano's suspicions of the apparently neurasthentic and morbidly reserved Cereno are traced to the pathology of Cereno's national type, his behavior "not unlike that which might be supposed to have been his imperial countryman's, Charles V., just previous to the anchoritish retirement of that monarch from the throne" (53). Delano's sentimental and sociable racism, which allows him to imaginatively berate Cereno as a bitter master and hence to locate him in English Protestant legends of Spanish cruelty in the New World, also allows him to chastise Cereno for his excessive familiarity with Africans.
Reminding himself that "Spaniards in the main are as good folks as any in Duxbury, Massachusetts" (79), Delano minimizes national difference to ponder the internal mysteries of spirituality and temperament.
Thwarted by Don Benito's enigmatic reserve, Delano, in a series of unspoken ruminations, attempts to penetrate Don Benito's psychological interior. Indeed, until the long-delayed illumination of the racial meaning of the events surrounding him, Delano recurs to a religious, and at times medical, interpretation of the lassitude, disorder, and morbidity of life aboard the San Dominick . His Protestant exegesis of the "hypochondriac abbot" Don Benito, tended by Babo, his "friar" (57) on this "shipboard of monks," however, remains on the level of metaphor as Delano compares this baffling New World community to Old World Catholic morbidities. Anomalous and, as it turns out, finally unspeakable relations between Africans, English, and Spaniards in the New World gain a partial expressibility through their uncanny resemblance to the religious schism at the heart of Christianity. The cleansed and orderly procedures of Anglo-American subjectivity thus appraise with dismay the mingled items of Don Benito's cuddy, whose indiscriminate Catholic clutter contains both an actual and a metaphoric Catholicism. Delano notices a "thumbed missal" and a "meager crucifix" and then proceeds to metaphorize other items in the cuddy into his own ideological edifice of Romanism: thus the rigging lies "like a heap of poor friar's girdles"; the malacca cane settees are "uncomfortable to look at as inquisitors' racks" (82); and the barber chair "seemed some grotesque, middle-age engine of torment" and the sink "like a font" (83). This rush of remembered artifacts dismembers Catholicism into an assemblage of books, clothing, and furniture that chaotically invokes the Franciscan order, the Inquisition, the sacrament of baptism, the Catholic liturgy. Delano's construction of this popish interior develops its grotesquerie from this jumbled collection of reminiscences and Roman artifacts. "This seems a sort of dormitory, sitting-room, sail-loft, chapel, armory, and private closet all together" (83), he remarks, troubled by the mixture of functions. As this paraphernalia prophesies the collapse of an antiquated Spanish imperial power before a modern Anglo-American one (whose interiors are well organized in their domestic rather than ecclesiastical piety), so the genre of Catholic captivity slips into Delano's subconscious, inhabiting the subordinated regions of fleeting intuition, suspended revelation, and haunting resemblance. Part of the tale's ideological subtlety is its simultaneous use of Delano's anti-Catholicism to voice his provincial views of New World politics and race and the rise and subsidence of the narrative's truth.
In documenting the passage of a Protestant mind from naive confidence to vague suspicion, then to revelation and hard-hearted revenge, and finally to denial and forgetfulness, Benito Cereno forces apart and temporally orders the entangled skeins of ideology. Delano must forgo the religious for the racial narrative, must realize that the ship is no floating monastery of Old World tyrannies and impurities but a slave ship in which the Spaniard is not the powerful agent of Catholic imperial power but a feeble white man swooning before the ingenious tyrannies of the African.
In imagining the enslaved African as New World monk, Delano implicitly compares the masculine autonomy enjoyed on his ship, the Bachelor's Delight , to the suspicious collectivism of the slave ship's Catholic celibates. If New England bachelors advertise (without participating in) an unthreatening familial version of middle-class marriage, Catholic monks menace by their very numbers and anonymity. "Peering over the bulwarks were what really seemed, in the hazy distance, throngs of dark cowls; while, fitfully revealed through the open port-holes, other dark moving figures were dimly descried, as of Black Friars pacing the cloisters" (48). As an intermittently revelatory Catholic enclosure that entices Protestant exploration in order to punish it, the San Dominick enjoys the cover of Delano's religious blindness. Unable to see into monasticism, he is doubly distant from the truths of race slavery it disguises. Indeed, because his religious narrative imagines a superstitious, sickly Catholicism, Delano can exaggerate the difference between himself and Cereno; contemplating the Spaniard's seeming fear of the deceased, Delano muses, "How unlike are we made!" (61). The New England captain recurrently imagines Cereno's captivity in a morbid Catholicism that radically excludes the very idea of race slavery. Thus Cereno is strangely attended by Babo, who is "something like a begging friar of St. Francis" (57); Babo indeed is more a metaphor than a character, for his self is only partially revealed in the later trial depositions as the former "captain" of the slaves. That Delano understands Cereno as a religious rather than a political captive preserves both the racial hierarchy and Babo's unknowability. To recognize that Babo is a subversive African rather than a "deprecatory" (57) friar is to forgo the supremacies of Protestantism for the crisis of race war.
Ironically enough, the safety of this Protestant Gothic vision that enables Delano to imagine an impenetrable "subterranean vault" (96) rather than, as Cereno later describes it, a fully intentional inhabited community whose "every inch of ground [was] mined into honey-combs under you" (115) also provides him the hint. In his famous misreading
of the shaving scene, Delano's focus on its inquisitional aspect truthfully communicates Babo's murderous power. The barber's seat does indeed work like "some grotesque, middle-age engine of torment"; musings on Babo's unwitting mimicry of the Inquisition do generate "the vagary, that in the black he saw a headsman, and in the white, a man at the block" (85). Babo's shaving of Don Benito, in its ceremonial, even ritual, precision, resonates with the legendary (and historical) calculations of a religiously motivated violence. At the same time, it possesses the vitality of historical anachronism; as countless Gothic narratives testify, psychic meaning accrues in proportion to a setting's historical displacement. Thus the Catholic imagery through which Delano haltingly approaches his enlightenment operates both sardonically and prophetically, simultaneously illuminating the limitations of his Massachusetts sensibility and pointing toward the presence of a novel malevolent power in the New World that jointly inhabits the story's exterior deceptions and its interior truth.
Like the blacks' staged reenactment of their former enslavement, Delano's interpretive recurrence to the enclosures of monastery and Inquisition (a recurrence in which the two are equated) appeals as well to anterior narratives of oppression. Each retrospection enables the other; Delano's monastic ruminations, in their focus on Cereno as the authoritarian "abbot" and Babo as faithful victim to the Spaniard's gloomy rule, make possible Babo's deception. Similarly, the slaves' staged reenactment of their former status—a collective theater that is always on the verge of disruption—fuels Delano's religious interpretation. The moments of near disruption—when Delano witnesses violence from black boy to white, when the knot is thrown to him, when he bids the "slaves" stand back—urge him to speculate on Cereno's improper use of authority as an instance of religious excess, one that resembles Charles V's "anchoritish retirement" from power. In constructing a New England subjectivity that persistently pathologizes the religious other in order to organize an otherwise baffling scenario, Melville satirizes its interpretive pretensions. Indeed, while Delano, precisely because he has categorized Cereno as the Catholic other, consigns himself to "again and again turning over in his mind the mysterious demeanor of Don Benito Cereno" (67), unable to decipher the catacomb environment, his own interior is seemingly transparent to the mutineers, who strike their hatchets "as in ominous comment on the white stranger's thoughts" (67).
Thus if Melville exploits antebellum preoccupations with the conventional monastic secrecies of Catholicism to introduce the radically unconventional duplicities of the African American, he endows the black
man with monkish powers of collective organization and devious spiritual insight. Delano's uncertainties about his Catholic double—is he an invalid, an incompetent youth, an imposter?—finally urge him to embrace his own bewilderment as he concludes that "to the Spaniard's black-letter text, it was best, for awhile, to leave open margin" (65). The moment is an important one, for it signals the supersession of his conspiratorial religious vision, in which the sentimental vagaries of his anti-Catholicism falsely schematized black and white as abbot and monk to obscure the murderous racial schism between them.
If neither Cereno nor Babo has access to Delano's Romanism, the narrative's concluding extracts from Cereno's deposition and the remarks upon that deposition invite the reader to marvel at Romanism's serendipitous contribution to Babo's conspiracy. Providing access to the interlocking processes of religious and racial conspiracy, Delano's language of mysterious interiors disguised by black cowls, black skins, and "black vapors" (69) is finally the language Melville uses to describe the elusive interior meanings of his fiction. If the deposition serves "as the key to fit into the lock of the complications which precede it, then, as a vault whose door has been flung back, the San Dominick's hull lies open to-day" (114). The force of this passage is not only to connect 1799 to the "today" of 1855 but also to register the ingenuity of authorial constructions over that of religious or racial conspiracy. The story finally wrenches Delano from his charitable musings on the twinned excesses of Catholics and slaveholders and violently repositions him within a vengeful vision of racial pollution. Delano's insidious transition is registered when "he smote Babo's hand down, but his own heart smote him harder. With infinite pity he withdrew his hold from Don Benito" (99). Delano's Gothic dread of Cereno is thus replaced by racial hatred, as the shadow of the Negro now covers that of the pope.
Cereno's leap toward Delano and the white man's conquest of the black rebel that ensues force the punitive logic of this polluted interiority onto the African. The blacks' bodies are open to white transgression while the sailors of the Bachelor's Delight are sealed off from penetration. The blacks' "red tongues lolled, wolf-like, from their black mouths. But the pale sailors' teeth were set" (102). Such racial thematics abruptly scissor Delano's musings and replace the recesses of papal iniquity with those of black bodies whose dark interiors are not uncanny so much as radically different—a difference that provokes the violent suppressions of the imperialist instead of the gingerly probings of the tourist.
Both the deposition extracts and the postdeposition narrative reintroduce the Catholicism that has been so abruptly jettisoned by the
revelation of racial conspiracy. As a mark of the new sympathy between Spaniard and New Englander, Cereno, "courteous even to the point of religion" (115), acknowledges Delano's fraternal religious status; both men agree that they are protected by the "Prince of Heaven" (115); and Cereno even forgives Delano's misjudgment of the "recesses" (115) of his character. But this (racially homogeneous) ecumenical spirit, by which narrative sequence and white supremacy are restored, lapses again into the uncanny fragmented world of monasticism and narrative uncertainty. Prostrated and largely silenced by the "shadow" of "the negro" (116), Cereno retires once more, this time not to his cuddy but to a monastery, "where both physician and priest were his nurses, and a member of the order volunteered to be his one special guardian and consoler, by night and by day" (103). Thus the silenced, soon-to-be decapitated Babo is replaced by the monk Infelez; the illicit proximity practiced by the subversive African Babo, whose plotted narrative had forced whites to become his characters and no longer his author, reorganizes back into the European proximity of monk and spiritual patient. In larger narrative terms, Melville finally extracts the reader from the metaphoric to the deictic, from Delano's interior musings on the San Dominick's resemblance to a monastery to an omniscient narrative that points, first, to the truths of slave conspiracy and, second, to those of monasticism. Cereno leaves Delano's "shipload of monks" for an omnisciently narrated pilgrimage to the monastery on Mount Agonia.
From these last exits of Babo and Benito Cereno, Delano is excluded. With his last words, which include his injunction to "forget it" (116), his world of New England Romanism vanishes from the text, replaced by the hidden monastic intimacies of Infelez and Cereno. That the text ejects Delano after he has urged us to forget what has happened does not signal the forgetting of the Protestant captivity tradition. On the contrary, the narrator supplants Delano and appropriates his mystified Romanizing gaze, enticed and thwarted by a foreign Catholic interiority. If the ship's hull has disclosed that antebellum America's secrets are those of race, not religion, those aboard retreat back into the mute Catholic interior. Babo's and Cereno's passage into voicelessness recontextualizes race within religion as the conspirator's decapitated head gazes toward (and into) St. Bartholomew's Church and toward (and onto) the monastery on Mount Agonia. In positioning these concluding narrative moments as all emanating from Babo's gaze, one directed on the Catholic "vaults" (117), Melville forcibly identifies his antebellum reader with Babo. We look at Babo's head, which, "fixed on a pole in the Plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites" (116), only to be suddenly looking
with that head toward the church and monastery that enclose the vanishing Catholic slaveholders, Aranda and Cereno.
Babo's gaze recuperates and extends that of antebellum Protestantism, for it promises that one can gain access to the Catholic interior; not only does Babo stare into the vault that holds Aranda's bones, but his gaze, in following Cereno's funeral procession toward the monastery, is also there, narratively speaking, to greet him, for Babo's authorial inscription beneath Aranda's skeleton, "seguid vuestro jefe," is repeated in the narrator's final description of Cereno's end: "Benito Cereno, borne on the bier, did, indeed, follow his leader" (117). If Babo is victim finally to the allied Catholic and Protestant slaveholding powers of New Spain and New England, his displayed head, a "hive of subtlety" (116), suggests that he reclaims the cellular organization and ingenuities of the monastery for his own. Emerging as the conclusive monastic interior—collectively empowered and ingenious—that brain lodges itself in New Spain's literal Catholic edifices and in New England's metaphoric ones. As a final icon of religious difference, the monkish Babo subversively imitates New Spain to mock New England, master of both their guilty interiors.