This is perhaps my fourth time working with “Benito Cereno” – for some reason, I keep on having Melvillians as professors – and thus perhaps my third time confronting the issue of how to discuss “Benito Cereno” with a group. As with any work that involves mysteries and twists, it is risky to discuss elements of the plot less one accidentally exposes a reveal to a first time reader and thus ‘spoils’ the story (because, obviously, a story becomes unpalatable once its entire plot is known). In effect, one must create a bifurcated discussion: that which discusses the novella in progress and that which discusses the novella in total. Or, it may be better to remark that our consumption of the novella exposes us to multiple aspects of “the Text” (Barthes), those myriad avenues of interpretation and signification that are invoked by a work’s integration into the world of signs, that become revealed as our consumption reaches conclusion. Of course this begs the question: what was “the Text” up to the point of our completion? Can one see only a partial element of “the Text” obfuscated by ignorance (consider the parable of the three blind men and their encounter with an elephant) or is this encounter with “the Text” as legitimate as that for the one who rereads – an aspect of the “irreducible…plural” (Barthes)?
I ask these questions because, such as I perceive, “Benito Cereno” is among those works that can only be read upon rereading; the novella was written for those who had already read it and are aware of what has/does/will occur. We can not complete the first page before we are (re)introduced to “Captain Delano’s…singularly undistrustful good-nature…Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.” (Melville) Knowing that this “good-nature” will/has risk(ed) Delano’s life and plunge(d) him naively into a bloody rebellion, it is hard to read such a quip as less than jest. Where an initial reader may have seen particularly heavy-handed foreshadowing, the returning reader now understands that the narrative was/is accompanied by a game, one including only those who know the plot before it unfolds. We realize that that work itself and its foreshadowing was a “Gordian knot” much like that the “old knotter” offered to Delano. We were suppose to ‘untie’ the work. Yet, not knowing the significance of its ‘threads,’ (or even an understanding that would permit the knot’s dissolution) an initial reader must dismiss these moments as “odd tricks” and let the significance be “tossed…overboard.” Yet, for the returning reader that possesses the knowledge to “Undo it…”, they have paradoxically rendered the ‘knot’ useless, as they already know what it contains. All that remains is the “play” (Barthes) that comes from unraveling the knot – much like “the Text” that emerges from “the Work.”
The metaphor the narrative presents thus suggests that “the Text” is only available for those that return to the novella after a prior consumption. It is, essentially, a work written to be reread, not read. When we take this understanding and turn to face the “problems of annotation” (Bauer and Zirker), we realize that this element of the work creates substantial complications for an initial reader. Understanding Bauer and Zirker’s method of annotation as a means to elucidate “the Text” in tandem with consumption of “the Work”, we can conjecture that annotating “Benito Cereno” would essentially reveal a rereading of the novella to any initial reader as “the annotation of parts presupposes the understanding of the text as a whole while at the same time providing such an understanding.” (Bauer and Zirker) For instance, in annotating the incident with the “Gordian knot,” an annotator will be forced to consider whether they wish to elucidate the connection between the knot and the narrative. To do so will reveal several elements of the plot that would be hidden for an initial reader. Yet, to abstain from such an annotation, and thus avoid ‘spoiling’ the novel, would fail to do justice to “the Text.” That is, the pleasure of exploring “the Text” and the pleasure of consuming “the Work” will be in contention. Thus, I return to my original question: is a reading of AN obfuscated “Text” equivalent to a reading of “the Text.” If not, the annotator is duty bound to elucidate all aspects of “Benito Cereno.” If so, he is bound to abstain.