Melville and American Power: A Conversation with Greg Grandin, Chris Hedges, and Christian Parenti

Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World explores the extraordinary 1805 slave ship uprising that inspired Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. In last ...

Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World explores the extraordinary 1805 slave ship uprising that inspired Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. In last month’s panel discussion, moderated by Christian Parenti, Grandin and Chris Hedges peel back the event’s dramatic layers to examine the paradoxes of freedom and slavery.

Christian Parenti (CP): Chris, you’ve been using Melville as a point of departure, not just in this most recent essay and lecture but in a number of essays you’ve been writing over the last year. And Greg, Melville forms the pivot of your book. What makes Melville so current in our culture? Let’s start with the story at the center of your book, Greg.


Greg Grandin (GG): My book, The Empire of Necessity, opens with a historical event that became the inspiration for a fascinating short novella that Herman Melville wrote 50 years later in 1855, a few years before the coming of the Civil War, called Benito Cereno. Melville’s fiction follows the facts very closely. In early 1805, Amasa Delano, the New England captain of a ship called the Perseverance, which was in the South Pacific hunting seals, crossed paths with a Spanish American cargo ship called the Tryal, which was carrying a group of enslaved West Africans on its way to Lima. Its sails were battered. It was listing. It was obviously in distress.

Amasa Delano boarded the ship and after sending his men to a nearby island to fill up water casks and fetch food, spent the day observing what he thought was a troubled but normally functioning slave ship.  There were about 70 West Africans on board. Delano was particularly fascinated by the relationship between the man who called himself the ship’s captain, Benito Cerreño, and the West African who had been introduced as his body servant, his personal slave, Mori. Mori seemed to be very loyal and humble. Cerreño, the captain, looked vacant and shattered. He told Amasa Delano that his ship was in trouble, that it had run into a storm, been hit by fevers, and then caught in doldrums, having lost most of its Spanish crew.

What Delano couldn’t see was that the that the West Africans were choreographing events. They were in charge. Having risen up a couple of months earlier, they had seized the ship, killed most of the Spaniards including the slaver that was taking them to Lima, and demanded to be returned to West Africa, to Senegal. It was after that point, about 50 or so days, that they crossed paths with Delano’s Perseverance. They could have fled, or they could have fought. But instead, they came up with this remarkable plan. They effectively performed a nine-hour pantomime of the master/slave relation. And they did it in enormously stressful circumstances. They were starving. They were thirsty. Two women had died of dehydration. Two children had died of dehydration. One would imagine they would have done anything in order to survive in order to get water and get food. But instead, they managed to summon up remarkable inner strength and perform their deception. The West Africans shed the trappings of freedom, which in any case were slipping away with each day they were adrift in the South Pacific and stage a slavery burlesque. And it’s just this remarkable story that Herman Melville picks up and turns into a novella. And that’s the takeoff point of my book.


Chris Hedges (CH): You use the idea of the primal deceit of slavery—that slavery hinges on a deception—which this rebellion illuminates and problematizes. The people who have overthrown the ship’s crew are trying to sail back to Africa, and at night, the captain is trying to sail west. There’s a struggle over the ship itself.


GG: Melville left no records of what it was that compelled him to write this story. But the historical events, as recounted in the real Amasa Delano’s memoir (which is where Melville learned of Delano’s experience on board the Tryal), capture the primal deception, the foundational deceit, upon which the whole ideological edifice of slavery rested: the idea that slaves had no inner lives, that they had no inner selves, and that if they did have an interior life, that too was subject to the jurisdiction of their masters. These West African rebels-turned-actors used the things that they were said not to have—cunning, reason and discipline—to give the lie to the things that they were said to be: faithful, artless, and humble. In a way, they staged an intepretation of Homer’s Odyssey. They were able to use cunning in order to manipulate public appearance, driving a wedge between the surface reality of things and their appearance—just as Odysseus did to gull the Cyclops. In this particular case, the Cyclops was Amasa Delano, whom Herman Melville, in his rendition of events, portrayed as representing blinding American innocence and virtue, completely oblivious to the social world around him.


CP: Chris, in your most recent piece, you use Ahab and his relationship to the crew of the Pequod as a way of exploring our current environmental predicament. This is a big part of Benito Cereno, as well, the incredible violence against the seals it depicts, which is mirrored in the violence of whaling described in Moby-Dick, and clearly resonant with the violence against the environment that is the basis of our society. At times in your essay, Ahab is the tyrant who is driving the ship. And at times, the crew—the rest of us—are totally complicit in this project. Can you parse out those tensions?


CH: Ahab, for me, is a fascinating character because he’s not an agnostic; he’s a believer. But he believes in a malevolent god like Milton’s Satan. And he rises up against that malevolent god. Because he can’t harpoon God, he harpoons Moby Dick. Faulkner, in an interview about Moby-Dick, talks about the power structure embodied in Flask, Stubb, and Starbuck: he says Flask is unthinking, and Stubb thinks but he doesn’t care, and Starbuck thinks and cares. But even though Starbuck is completely conscious of the fact that this is a doomed voyage, he doesn’t summon up the moral courage to mutiny and to take control from Ahab. And I think that this resonates in a world where we now have passed the tipping point in terms of climate change, there is no question for sentient, rational human beings that the fossil fuel industry is quite literally killing us. Yet we don’t summon the moral courage to resist. I think that that is played out on the Pequod.


CP: Is the reason fear, or is it the seduction of the situation?


CH: There are many answers to that. Part of it is that there are a lot of people who just don’t want to see. Part of it is that there are a lot of people who have become seduced by that lust for profit, the commodification of the world. There’s a chapter in this book from West Virginia where you have West Virginians literally destroying their own land for wages. We’re talking about fetid water. We’re talking about epidemic cancer, where everybody had their gall bladders removed. You go into elementary schools, and you walk into the nurse’s office, and there are rows of little inhalers because the kids can’t breathe. We’re on the same journey. I think part of Melville’s genius is that certainly Starbuck, and I think even members of the crew, at a certain point knew that they were completely doomed. And yet that’s the difference between moral and physical courage. Melville uses Starbuck as an example of physical courage: facing the horrors of the natural world, whether it was whaling or anything, he had that courage to stand up. But moral courage, which is singular and individual, forces you to defy the enthusiasm of the crowd. Moral courage requires stepping outside that circle and defying camaraderie, which on a whaling ship or in a war zone is almost womb-like, is extremely rare. Amaso Delano is like the quiet American. He’s an idiot. And it’s his idiocy and his innocence really that makes him utterly unable to see what’s happening around him.


CP: Ishmael is also a troubling character. C. L. R. James took Ishmael to task for being a passive intellectual who knows better and stands apart, watching.


GG: If I recall correctly, James reads Ishmael as a vacillator and a narcissist, paralyzed by self-doubt and ennui, a forerunner of alienated, modern man. My focus is more on Amasa Delano, both the real and fictional versions. There’s a lot of overlap between the two, though the  historical Delano is a more tragic and compelling figure. Both Ahab and Amasa represent different—but related—faces of American power. Throughout the 20th century, Ahab has been held up as an icon, an avatar, of unhinged American empire. There’s a great line in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, where one the sergeants who massacres a Vietnamese village is described as “our Ahab.” Edward Said identified George W. Bush as yet another Ahab, obsessed with hunting down the white whale of Saddam Hussein. During the Cold War, Ahab was also taken as a prototype totalitarian, a peg-legged Hitler or Stalin. His ability to use his  emotional, charismatic power to conscript his men into his crazed mission. In this reading, Ahab represents the mobilized totalitarian state, be it fascist or Marxist, and his crew stands in for unmoored mass society. The character Amasa Delano, which Melville conceived of four or five years after he wrote Ahab is another side of modern power: the more everyday power of mobilizing labor. Delano was in the South Pacific because he was hunting seals. Sealing was the United States’ first experience with boom-and-bust resource extraction beyond its borders.

The section in Chris’s wonderful Days of Destruction on West Virginia shows how the devastation associated with resource extraction has come home. Amasa Delano was there at the beginning, taking hundreds of thousands of seal skins during sealing’s boom, and at the end, financially devastated by the bust, when there were no seals left to kill and no money to be made. His response to being deceived by the West Africans, once the deception unraveled, which included rallying his men to re-enslave the rebel-actors with gruesome ferocity, was driven by the pressures of supply and demand and ecological exhaustion.


CP: Still, some of Delano’s impetus, like Ahab’s hunt for the white whale, is money. He knows that they aren’t going to make any money sealing. He estimates how much the ship is worth and how much the slaves are worth. That is what fires his men. It comes back to the idol of gold.


GG: Yes.


CH: You argue that capitalism is really formed through slavery, that we can’t really understand modern capitalism without seemingly non-capitalist modes of exploitation and labor relations. How do you see the role of slavery in the formation of capitalism?


GG:  Starting with Eric Williams’s masterwork, Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, and continuing through to historians working today, such as Harvard’s Walter Johnson, scholars have demonstrated the centrality of the slave system in the creation of the modern world. But in The Empire of Necessity, I wanted to approach the relationship from a different angle. If we think of western capitalism not just as an economic system but a psychic one as well, a massive project of ego formation in which all the attributes that we associate with the formation of our modern selves are formed—notions of individual sovereignty, preference, interest, inherent rights, personal conscience—then the centrality of chattel slavery comes into sharper focus. It was slavery, both materially and emotionally, that made the ideal and experience of freedom, as it was associated with capitalism, possible. With the book, I tried to create a snapshot of this paradox, this paradox of slavery and freedom. It is built on two narrative arcs. One tracks the West Africans into Montevideo, across the South American continent, over the Andes, and into the Pacific—a trek that reveals the pervasiveness of New World slavery, the way it shaped every American institution and social relation. The other follows Amasa Delano and his efforts of self-creation.


CP: What do you see as Melville’s use to us or his message around the role of race as a politics and within our politics?


GG: This is a country that holds to the most fetishistic, absolute value of freedom or ideal of freedom. A good part of the populace, the politicized right and beyond, adhere to a cult of individual supremacy that is unheard of in any other country in the world. So what explains this? What explains the existence, as Chris documents so clearly in his writing, of widespread poverty, imprisonment, and bondage, on the one hand, and the blinding ideology of absolute freedom on the other? I trace it back to the intersection of slavery and capitalism that fused together starting in the 1770s, which the Spaniards, not mincing words, called “free trade in blacks.” The deregulation of the mercantile system that allowed for the explosion and expansion  took the primal deceit and deception that I talked about and acted as a force multiplier, insinuating the illusion into every aspect of society. The debate about whether groups like the Tea Party are racist or not misses, I think, the point. The categories it uses to describe politics—including the ideal of absolute freedom—is inescapably embedded in the history of chattel slavery. Today’s cult of individual supremacy is, at its ideological and emotional core, white supremacy.


CH: It’s not accidental that Ahab, Starbuck, Flask, and Stubb were all white men, and all of the dirty work—the gutting of the whale—is done by people of color. Melville was very conscious that the industrial wealth of the emergent United States and Europe was extracted from the lands of people of color who were then brutally abused in order to ignite the Industrial Revolution.


GG: Compare Benito Cereno to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was published a few years earlier and became an international bestseller. It sold millions of copies. Stowe’s book was one of the first international bestsellers by an American author, as far as I know. It made its case for abolition by portraying African Americans as transparent, as having no inner lives. What you saw on the outside is what there is on the inside. Benito Cereno is the exact opposite. It’s all told through the perspective of Amasa Delano and readers don’t know that the West Africans are choreographing events until Melville lets them know about two-thirds in.

But perhaps the character that best reveals the politics of race in Melville’s writing is Pip, the black cabin boy in Moby-Dick. It’s unclear what the terms of his service are. You don’t know if he’s a slave. You don’t know if he’s an indentured servant. At one point, he’s said to be from Connecticut. At another point, from Alabama. It could be argued that the moral and existential center of Moby-Dick is the moment when Pip, arguably the most insignificant person in Ahab’s crew, falls into the ocean during a whale hunt. He’s yanked out and told he’d better watch himself because the oil in the whale that was lost saving his life is worth more than he would fetch in an Alabama slave market. And of course, he soon falls back into the ocean. While he’s drifting in the water completely alone he has a vision—a vision of totality where he sees the beginnings of the Earth, a moment that existed before the onset of human, historical time. Melville, it turns out, got that vision from Charles Darwin. Darwin has a remarkable paragraph in his book recounting his voyage on HMS Beagle, which Melville read, which is structurally similar to the vision of the timeless cosmos that Melville assigns to Pip. Interestingly, Darwin is inspired to write this passage—one of the most exhilarating in the book, capturing his understanding of the immensity of geologic time—on the very same slave road that years earlier carried the West Africans that staged the revolt and deception on board the Tryal, a coincidence that I use in my book to highlight the omnipresence of slavery in the production of intellectual and cultural knowledge.

In any case, others on board the Pequod, including Ishmael, have visions of infinity. But Melville only allows Pip to truly grasp the meaning of the vision. Pip, after he is finally rescued a second time, goes a bit daft when he realizes the insignificance of humanity in the face of this godless, eternal universe, this godless cosmos. Pip never fully recovers his senses. But it is clear that Melville shares Pip’s existential crisis, that Pip’s madness is Melville’s.

Some Melville scholars argue that Melville wasn’t a social critic, that his concerns were more metaphysical and ethical. His disquiets were cosmic and psychic, concerned with the problems of finding meaning in a universe rendered meaningless by Darwin and other secular thinkers, of establishing higher moral authority in a world where the individual reigns supreme, of how to punch through the pasteboard mask of appearance and grasp the reality that lies beneath. I think, though, that describing these concerns as apolitical misses the ways in which the enslavement of millions and millions of people over the span of hundreds and hundreds of years generated the nineteenth century’s intellectual and philosophical crisis. For instance, as I’ve tried to show in my book, slavery was indispensable to the market revolution, which in turn drove a wedge between seeming and being, between interior life and public appearance, that is, Melville’s restless insistence that there existed a deeper substance behind the way things seemed on the surface. Likewise, slavery was the concrete manifestation of Melville’s existential terror, for it represented the same threat to real individuals as the possibility of a meaningless universe posed to the idea of the individual: obliteration. icon