Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Empire of Necessity: Slavery and Freedom

The Empire of Necessity: Slavery and Freedom
P. Schultz
August 7, 2014

            I found the following passage in a book entitled, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, by Greg Grandin. I found it to be one of best descriptions of the American [political] mind that I have read. It refers to a man named Amasa Delano who was a ship captain during the years of the slave trade and who was the man that confronted the ship the Tryal, which forms the basis of Herman Melville’s novella, Benito Cereno, about slaves who had taken control of the Tryal and fooled Amasa into thinking that they had not. At least, they fooled him for a while. To wit:

            “It is Amasa on his rock who is at an impasse, so trapped within himself that he can’t even enter into the dialectic of dependence and interdependence, he can’t even begin the process of seeing himself in another. In this particular case, he is insensate to the cries of his own, at least for a day, slave lying at his feet. But throughout his memoir he seems blind to the larger social world around him. Being from New England, he thinks he is ‘free,’ not only in a political sense, as compared with the enslavements of Africans and others, but in every other sense. Free from the past, from the passions that soaked human history in so much blood. Free from vices; reason is his master. And of course free from slavery itself, from relations of bondage and exploitation. After every one of his many moments of crisis or disappointment, including this one, he affirms his faith in the idea of self-mastery and self-creation. And his faith is repeatedly proven to be misplaced.” [p. 89]

            Take note: Amasa thought himself “Free from the past, from the passions that soaked human history in so much blood.” This is an accurate description of what some call “American Exceptionalism.” That is, we Americans are immune from those passions that have led others, even today, to commit horrors, to shed blood by the gallon. If and when we shed blood, we do so not because of our passions, but rather because of our reason: “Free from vice; reason is [our] master.” And we think that whatever we do, all’s well that ends well, even though we are disappointed time after time after time. And, yet, we do not relinquish our faith in “the idea of self-mastery and self-creation” even though this “faith is repeatedly proven to be misplaced.”

            One more passage deserves to be quoted at length:

            “Herman Melville spent nearly his whole writing career considering the problem of slavery and freedom. Yet he most often did so elliptically, intent, seemingly, on disentangling the experience from the particularities of skin color, economics, or geography. He rarely wrote about human bondage as an historical institution with victims and victimizers but rather as an existential or philosophical condition common to all. Benito Cereno is an exception. Even here, though, Melville, by forcing the reader to adopt the perspective of Amasa Delano, is concerned less with exposing specific social horrors than with revealing slavery’s foundational deception – not just the fantasy that some men were natural slaves but that others could be absolutely free. There is a sense reading Benito Cereno that Melville knew, or feared, that the fantasy wouldn’t end, that after abolition, if abolition ever came, it would adapt itself to new circumstances, becoming even more elusive, even more entrenched, in human affairs. It’s this awareness, this dread, that makes Benito Cereno so enduring a story – and Melville such an astute appraiser of slavery’s true power and lasting legacy.” [pp. 9-10]

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