The Ladder and the Muse

Literatura estadounidense, S.XIX. Trabajo comparativo sobre Frederick Douglass y Herman Melville, basado en las obras The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, The Heroic Slave y Benito Cereno.

I argue that both Douglass’ and Melville’s works have a liberating power entrenched in the use of language. However, they differ in the nature of this power —the former is political while the later poetic. In the title of my paper, the ladder symbolizes the ascension from barbarism to civilization in Douglass; while the Muse refers to the poetic enchantment of Melville. I will try to validate this argument through two specific elements; the relationship between civilization and barbarism, and the conception of the sea. Eventually, I will tie these two apparently non-related components together in order to support my main thesis.

The dichotomy civilization-barbarism is a central theme in both Douglass and Melville. I do not refer to them as isolated monads —in Leibniz jargon— but as a gradual continuum. The way in which the writers focus on this duo reveals to us the limits within the struggle for freedom is taking place, and thus determines the kind of power required to transform either the political or linguistic system.

Frederick Douglass depicts the relationship between civilization and barbarism as a hierarchical structure, which brings an ideological content to both The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and The Heroic Slave. The former describes the long journey of an individual from barbarism, which is slavery, to civilization, which is freedom. Douglass forms his personality through experience and knowledge, and his story even has somewhat novelistic turning points one example being the fight with his master. Homer teaches us that personality is the collection of decisions in life. A parallel can be drawn between the Odyssey and the steps towards humanization in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

As Aristotle explains in Politics, “man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And whereas mere voice is but an indication of pleasure or pain … the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust.” Language is the tool which permits Douglass to become human and get away from slavery —it is, thus, a political and even biological tool as one can see in this metaphor: “This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me the more valuable bread of knowledge” (Douglass, 1984:51). In this quotation, language is the bread of the intellect.

The struggle for freedom is portrayed in an evolutionist fashion. Slaves are usually represented as a tribal, primitive society. “This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon” (Douglass, 1984:28). They are supposed to be inferiors because the institution of slavery has removed their humanity and the tools to achieve it: language, knowledge, and dignity. “Mr. Williams speaks of ‘ignorant negroes,’ and, as a general rule, they are ignorant” (Douglass on-line: Part IV). While one can see Douglass’ long struggle in The Narrative, in The Heroic Slave we find Madison Washington to be a character without psychological evolution. Since the beginning, Madison is not a slave: “His words were well chosen, and his pronunciation equal to that of any schoolmaster. It was a mystery to us where he got his knowledge of language; but as little was said to him, none of us knew” (Douglass on-line: Part IV). Also Washington’s words are a proof of the sphere to which he belongs. “If I am shot, I shall only lose a life which is a burden and a curse. If I get clear …, liberty, the inalienable birthright of every man, precious and priceless, will be mine. My resolution is fixed. I shall be free.” (Douglass on-line: Part I). This kind of logical chain is a part of the very foundations of Western civilization. While Eastern thought was born in the mountains and developed a contemplative philosophy, Western Civilization was born in the Mediterranean and owns the rationality of the mathematical movement of the waves which is x thus y. Madison Washington’s syllogism is a clear example —he is already on the top of the pyramid of civilization. Here I just try to describe Douglass’ Weltanschauung, but I do not necessarily agree with it.

In sum, I argue that language is a political tool in Douglass. And as the Spanish poet José Ángel Valente states, “politicized literature is reduced to its mere instrumentality —slave of the Intention and its themes, absorbed in the ideological superstructure” (Valente, 1971). This is not to underestimate the value of Douglass’ works, but to underline that his intention is mainly political and thus farer from the sphere of artistic creation. The purpose is another, clearly perceived by Wendell Philips in the letter which precedes The Narrative: “I am glad the time has come when the ‘lions write history’”. (Douglass, 1984:14). That is, it is time for the oppressed to write history. It is crystal clear that this is a political purpose.

Melville does not describe civilization and barbarism, but draws a landscape in which both clash and are mixed up. His aseptic language is not neutral, but poetic. His coldness is thus comparable to the cerebral poetry of Jorge Luis Borges or to some works of Samuel Beckett. His approach to reality plays with perspectives like the best painters do. He is a romantic —that’s why antithesis and irony are so common in his narrative. Reading him is intellectually stimulating: “Captain Delano, unwilling to appear uncivil even to incivity itself, made some trivial remark and moved off” (Melville, 1942:121). As Octavio Paz brightly writes, “irony is the great romantic invention —love for the contradiction we all constitute and consciousness of this contradiction” (Paz, 1990). Irony in Melville is bitter and its negative condition impregnates his whole work.

This is not to say that Herman Melville lacks political purposes —he does not. Benito Cereno is full of relations of power and political messages. But although we can clearly perceive the clash between barbarism and civilization, we are not sure of what to think. Who are the barbarians? Who are the civilized? And what is more important, who retains the “moral” superiority? My opinion is that Babo retains it. However, one can create a lot of arguments against this opinion. Why? Because Benito Cereno is mainly a poetic masterpiece, and it is open to different interpretations. I understand poetry in the broad sense of it being an all mysterious verbal mechanism capable of producing silence.

At the end of the story, Benito Cereno says something very similar to Douglass’ perspective on slavery. “‘Because they have no memory,’ he dejectedly replied; ‘because they are not human’” (Melville, 1942:183). In each line of Benito Cereno we can recognize the hand of the genius painting the wild thoughts of characters that more than individuals are archetypes. The paradox is that they are all a mistake, except for Babo, who does not talk at all except in his role of pretended servant. My interpretation is that silence is the negation of civilization and barbarism, of language and slavery. It is the absolute negation and romanticism was the last absolute negation.

Since I have been talking about abstractions as civilization or barbarism, I would like now to come up with a concrete example to show the different nature of Douglass’ and Melville’s language.

Both The Heroic Slave and Benito Cereno narrate a shipboard rebellion. But whereas Douglass’ ship is a platform for political freedom, in Melville it has poetic implications. This is due mainly to the circumstances. How can a slave focus on the beauty of the ships? “Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition.” (pp74). One can see that because of his condition of slave he is not able to enjoy of the spectacle of life. However, Melville makes a lot of digressions and is imprisoned by the beautiful jaws of the sea. “The living spectacle it [the ship] contains, upon its sudden and complete disclosure, has in contrast with the blank ocean which zones it, something of the effect of enchantment. The ship seems unreal (Melville, 1942:99).

We are facing different styles. We are facing two writers with different conceptions of life and art, mainly due to their personal experience. I whish I could ask them: what is a ship? Fernando Pessoa says that “a ship seems to be an object which goal is to sail; but its goal is not to sail, but to land in a port. We find ourselves sailing, without the idea of the port in which we should find refuge. […]: to sail is necessary, to live is not necessary” (Pessoa, 1986). Some ships do not think of sailing as its purpose but as a means to land. But some of them sail, and sail, and sail, and they are a beautiful picture. Landing is instrumental; sailing is artistic. Douglass’ goal is to land; Melville’s goal is to sail.

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