Serving the Word

It might have been but a deception of the vapours, but, the longer the stranger was watched, the more singular appeared her manoeuvres.
“Benito Cereno” by Herman Melville

In a recent scholarly biography of Louis Agassiz, Christoph Irmscher, in a chapter on Agassiz’s notorious “race science,” notes that Agassiz is in no way the lone institutional (or canonical) proponent of the racist views many Northern whites held toward people of color. (If you agree to league with me in calling the “Caucasion” a “person without color” we might begin to turn the lexical tide of negative conceits.)

Abolitionists who desperately wanted to end slavery were not necessarily believers in the equality of the races. Lincoln proclaimed that “Just because I am in favor of setting the black woman free doesn’t mean I want to marry her!”

Though the chapter, “A Pint of Ink,” clearly reveals Agassiz as a public proponent of the notion that White was Right and nearer to divine, it does try to leaven this lump a bit by pointing out that our “revered” literary lights were also, often at best, “soft” racists. Emerson is useful for this (Whitman, too).

The poet Walt Whitman, who had imagined himself, in “Song of Myself,” selflessly tending to the wounds of a fugitive slave, followed Agassiz in concluding that nature had “set an impossible seal” against racial amalgamation. Ralph Waldo Emerson too believed that while nature loves “crosses,” these relationships, among humans, should leave racial boundaries in tact: “Where two shadows cross, the darkness thickens: where two lights cross, the light glows.” Such glowing light manifested itself where “the Greek & Saxon geniuses” fused, as they did in John Milton and Francis Bacon. The “negro or lowest man” represented darkness, an undesirable reminder of the resemblance between the human and the nonhuman realms. No wonder, then, that Emerson felt that he had “quite other slaves to free than those negroes.” Taking care of his benighted white countrymen was his first order of business.

Well, now, that doesn’t sound too good. At the end of this post I’ll give Emerson a little more room to “speak” more fully than Irmscher does here, but first, here’s a bit of Louis Agassiz from the same chapter:

looking at the faces of black servants, “their thick lips, their grimacing teeth, the wool on their heads, their bent knees, their elongated hands, their large, crooked fingernails and, above all, the livid color of the palms of their hands,” he became so absorbed that, as he put it, he couldn’t even cry out and tell them not to come any closer.

And then we get a kind of apology:

Let us not forget, though, that Agassiz’s early experience did not extend far beyond the boundaries of his family’s canton in Switzerland. When Agassiz saw a black person in the flesh for the first time, some of that old parochial peasant mentality asserted itself under the thin veneer of cosmopolitanism he had acquired during his student days in Heidelberg and Munich and his subsequent stay in Paris. His mother would have understood.

This special pleading might speak for all of us…we are born into a worldview after all. It’s the ability to interrogate and often say “NO, in Thunder!” to that worldview that reveals our capacities for embracing “the other” as a reflection of our common self.


All profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence. What a silence is that with which the pale bride precedes the responsive _I will_, to the priest’s solemn question, _Wilt thou have this man for thy husband?_ In silence, too, the wedded hands are clasped. Yea, in silence the child Christ was born into the world. Silence is the general consecration of the universe. Silence is the invisible laying on of the Divine Pontiff’s hands upon the world. Silence is at once the most harmless and the most awful thing in all nature. It speaks of the Reserved Forces of Fate. Silence is the only Voice of our God.

Nor is this so august Silence confined to things simply touching or grand. Like the air, Silence permeates all things, and produces its magical power, as well during that peculiar mood which prevails at a solitary traveler’s first setting forth on a journey, as at the unimaginable time when before the world was, Silence brooded on the face of the waters.
Pierre, Book XIV, “The Journey and the Pamphlet,” by Herman Melville

I started really trying to confront this when I read “Benito Cereno” for WFHB’s Books Unbound.

What can Melville, a White Northern States author, be held accountable for in his fiction? For that matter, what can someone like Victor Sejour, a Creole and “free person of color,” born in New Orleans, author of the 1837 short story “The Mulatto,” be held accountable for in his work? Should his fiction always “fight” slavery and racism–should his life be given over to that aim? It’s easy to think we should say “yes” to this. But why imagine the oppressed is responsible for correcting the oppressor?

If Melville is racist (and again, this seems an “involuntary” action in a social setting–reflecting the world and attitudes around us–at least until one embraces, rationalizes, or refutes it outright), that racism differs to a large degree from the active racism of Louis Agassiz’s “race science” and his public and private responses to America’s black population–a “visceral disgust.”

But what has begun to bother me (or complicate some of this for me) crept up on me when I was thinking about Babo in Cereno, head on a pike, no words spoken “in defense” (not that he should need to defend his insurrection), and, in Maisha Wester’s term, “illegible.” [Interchange – Bloodier Than Tarantino: The Real Slave Narrative and Its Complexities] Melville’s story centers on this “illegibility” because the American Delano cannot read the scene through his preconceived notions of what the scene SHOULD look like–ie, how he has always seen the scene. He is deeply racist (if “affably” so–praising the Africans for the qualities that make them great slaves!) and full of “race science.”

Agassiz mixes much of this, as nearly everyone else did also, with his view of the world defined biblically. The White Northern European is apparently the pinnacle of humanity and all others are “lower” and less evolved toward divinity. Adam in the Garden is very, very, pale. Agassiz, as he worked on his theory of glaciation, tried to fit those facts with his assertion that races developed their unique qualities “in situ” and worked hard to disavow the idea that humanity evolved “out of Africa.”

Anyway, he was not alone.

But, what I have always struggled with intellectually is “the word” and how it conveys codes of bias, hate, prejudice, you name it. The vituperative is the human intellectual condition. Love and Charity are not Words that inhabit being–which is to say, words of love and caring seem to be sown in the shallowest soil. Jesus, in the imaginations that follow hard upon his Pauline resurrection, carries a sword instead of a balm.

Now, I don’t know cultures that are not “of the word.” The Word is Civilization. The Word travels

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. The Word invents. The Word amasses troop battalions (that most murderous of “generals” Genghis Khan was apparently a highly literate scholar). The Word abstracts and normalizes. The “Beyond” comes nearer and the “there” of exploration is no longer a mystery to the imaginative Word. There is here.

When one reads of the “power” in the act of reading and writing in Frederick Douglass–and one can also discover this desire to “master” the language of the “master” in the Native American attempts to educate future chiefs in the language of dominion–one cringes a bit. The tropes, the metaphors, the WORD, is the same. It convenes and choirs. And it serves monsters.

The Word is born of and the tool of Power. This is no revelation. The Word cannot set us Free. It can reveal Rousseau’s pronouncement that we are everywhere in chains. But it then hides the fact that words themselves are the the very iron in the links.

It seems that only the illegible holds the hope of freedom. Melville may not have been free of racism (but according to “project implicit” who ain’t?) but his fiction ALWAYS privileges the illegible–not so much silence, but the “unwritability” of truth: The whale is the truth–a “dumb brute” to its murderers, just as Babo represents the same to those who see a “baboon” and not a man. Bartleby participates in the legalistic machinery of blather (and the dead letter office) until he becomes unknowable and refuses to write. In Billy Budd–our handsome sailor a stutterer–the law provides institutional rationalization for slavery and murder and calls it “right.”

Slavery is wrong–it’s only rationale being social/cultural/economic–never just, but justified by dominance; Men are men and women are women (all “categorical” hierarchies being lies) and the differences seem ultimately to only be The Word.


Further words from Whitman and Emerson and Melville

Whitman is ferociously against Slavery, but he is deeply racist. And much as Agassiz conveys revulsion at the sight of African Americans, so does Whitman. Daniel Aaron, in his The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War (1973), writes of Whitman, “During his lifetime, [he] usually referred to the Negro in his correspondence as ‘nigger’ or ‘darky’ and never thought of including him in the restricted company of white America.” (60) Whitman, like Lincoln, believed that the black race might flourish somewhere other than America. “Besides, is not America for the Whites?” As awful as this sounds, can we really argue with it? In what way has America ever not been “for the Whites”?

Melville is often made into a “Southern sympathizer” in view of the “Supplement” to his 1866 book of poems Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War, as well as often portraying his black characters as kinds of racists types (he does do this); but he is also the author who created Dagoo and “Cook” in Moby Dick as well as offering the very human realities of a revolt of Africans on board a slave ship. Babo, to this reader, is a genius and is presented as such. Here is what many find objectionable from the “Supplement.”

In imagination let us place ourselves in the unprecedented position of the Southerners—their position as regards the millions of ignorant manumitted slaves in their midst, for whom some of us now claim the suffrage. Let us be Christians toward our fellow-whites, as well as philanthropists toward the blacks our fellow-men. In all things, and toward all, we are enjoined to do as we would be done by. Nor should we forget that benevolent desires, after passing a certain point, can not undertake their own fulfillment without incurring the risk of evils beyond those sought to be remedied. Something may well be left to the graduated care of future legislation, and to heaven. In one point of view the co-existence of the two races in the South—whether the negro be bond or free—seems (even as it did to Abraham Lincoln) a grave evil. Emancipation has ridded the country of the reproach, but not wholly of the calamity. Especially in the present transition period for both races in the South, more or less of trouble may not unreasonably be anticipated; but let us not hereafter be too swift to charge the blame exclusively in any one quarter. With certain evils men must be more or less patient. Our institutions have a potent digestion, and may in time convert and assimilate to good all elements thrown in, however originally alien.

Hawthorne said many similar things. This kind of text is a mirror for the reader. What do you see there?

Finally, for Emerson, let me just give another selection from his journals, and we should remember that these are “private” thoughts. There are many, many public passages in Emerson that are abolitionist. In fact we might argue he became horrifically hawkish in ways that were the opposite of the Melville quoted above.

Oh, yes, he may escape from shackles and dungeons, but how shall he get away from his temperament? — how from his hereditary sins and infusions ? — how from the yellow humors through which he must ever see the blue sky and the sun and stars ? Sixty centuries have squatted and stitched and hemmed to shape and finish for him that strait jacket which he must wear. Nature loves to cross her stocks. A pure blood, Brahmin on Brahmin, marrying in and in, soon becomes puny and wears out. Some strong Cain son, some black blood must renew and refresh the paler veins of Seth.

This is an endless task, sussing out the “truth” of our racist white authors. Let’s just call them all racist and be done with that. What do they matter? I’m not sure how to answer that question.

I’d argue that Harriet Beecher Stowe did more to hold back the equal consideration of people of color in America; but I wonder too what marketed slave narratives proved to the white (mostly female) reader? These were forced into the narrative conventions of the dominant culture.

Why do you suppose “Satan” is the “father of lies”? I think Nietzsche said something to the effect that a truth, once spoken, is already false. Or perhaps that was Emerson. Maybe Wittgenstein, or maybe it’s in the Gospel of Peter. I don’t know. There are lots of words out there and this a case in point.

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