Why Arendt might not have read Benito Cereno (if she did indeed not read Benito Cereno)

For a change of pace…

In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt makes the argument that one of the reasons the French Revolution took such a violent and authoritarian turn was that it allowed the social question—simplistically put, issues of poverty and the poor—to enter and then dominate public discussion. Unlike the American Revolution, which was more properly concerned with truly political questions like the organization of public power, constitutions, and civic action. Once issues of economic need are put on the table, Arendt suggests, tyranny cannot be far off. So pressing and overwhelming are the physical needs of the body, so much do they cry out for our response, that they almost introduce, by their very nature, an element of compulsion into public life. That compulsion mirrors the compulsion of biology. Such needs are best left in the shadows.

Arendt also claims that an additional driving force toward tyranny in the French Revolution lay in the revolutionaries’ horror of hypocrisy, their desire to take off the public masks we all present once we enter the world of our peers. Inspired by Rousseau, Robespierre and the Jacobins sought to strip the person of her inevitably public persona, to make inner self coincide with outer presentation. (Trilling makes a similar argument in Sincerity and Authenticity, though he refracts the point through a discussion of Jane Austen, as I recall.)

I’m not sure if Arendt explicitly says this or not (it’s been about five years since I taught On Revolution), but there’s also a suggestion in the text that the drive against hypocrisy and desire for sincerity, with its manic hunt for any signs of deception or doubt in the inner self, is related to the rise of the social question, the entrance onto the public stage of those orders of society that had been previously hidden behind the walls of the household. Following in the footsteps of Nietzsche, Arendt suggests that when the laboring orders of society barge into public life, they inevitably will take down all the barriers that previously separated the hidden recesses of society from the stage of politics.

Now this is a vastly simplified—and, to be honest, vulgar—version of Arendt’s much more complicated and interesting argument. (I’ve just read an amazing article, forthcoming in the American Political Science Review, by Steven Klein, who’s a grad student at the University of Chicago, that’s going to totally change how we think about Arendt’s understanding of the social question in the modern age.) But I’m simplifying and vulgarizing for a reason.

Because it occurred to me, while I was sitting in a discussion this afternoon of one of my graduate students’ dissertation chapters (on Thoreau’s conception of the self, and how it relates to both Arendt’s and Rousseau’s conceptions of the self), that I would love to know what Arendt would have made of Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Though Arendt has a fascinating discussion of Billy Budd in On Revolution, I don’t recall her ever talking about Benito Cereno. I could be wrong, of course, but I don’t think she ever wrote about—or perhaps even read—Benito Cereno.

If I’m right about Arendt’s non-engagement with Benito Cereno (I’m awaiting confirmation from various friends who are Arendt experts and know far more than I do), there might be an interesting reason for that. For Benito Cereno turns upside some of the basic theoretical architecture of On Revolution. It’s a story about a slave revolt on a ship. Babo, a black slave, and his fellow slaves seize control of a ship, captained by Benito Cereno, and kill a good portion of the crew and the slaves’ master. After drifting somewhere in the ocean for a matter of days or months (can’t remember now), the ship encounters another ship captained by Amaso Delano, a Yankee whaler or something like that. Babo organizes a massive deception: he and his comrades pretend that the white Spaniard Benito Cereno is still in control of the ship and that they, black Africans, are still slaves. They force Benito Cereno to play a role he has long since vacated, and they do the same. It is an ingenious plan, thought through (on the spot) to the last detail. They almost pull it off.

In Arendtian terms, there’s something slightly fantastic, if not impossible, about such a story. (And as Greg Grandin has taught usBenito Cereno was in fact based on a true story, which was almost wilder than the fiction Melville constructed.) The moment the social question is put onto the public agenda, the moment the laborer with his body is pressed into the public square, the hunt for lies, the inquisition of private life, begins. All forms of representation and mediation become suspect; transparency and directness is all. (In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke made an even more incisive and terrifying version of the argument, seeing the poor Parisians’ capture of the royal family, and invasion of the Queen’s bedchambers, at Versailles, as the emblematic moment of the Revolution’s assault on all private space and its launch into violent tyranny.)

Yet here we have black slaves, in revolt, putting the social question of black bonded labor onto the public stage, in a very literal sense. They are performing slavery for an audience. (Performance is a big category for Arendt; it is the hallmark of a truly political form of action, one that is not concerned with social questions but rather with the glory of words and deeds.) They are engaged in deception and duplicity, crafting and presenting public personae that are diametrically opposed to their actual selves. Much like the Greeks did. That public presentation of self, for Arendt, is in part what it means to be political, and it’s precisely what’s not supposed to happen, not supposed to be able to happen, once the social question enters the public scene.

It seems to me that Benito Cereno presents a mother lode of raw material for Arendtian theory, waiting to be extracted. Or perhaps someone has already mined that vein?




  1. partisan September 12, 2014 at 5:23 pm | #

    Actually about Arendt, there’s a new book on Eichmann out by Bettina Stangneth which apparently argues that Arendt’s picture of him was totally wrong. There’s a review here by Richard Wolin: http://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/1106/the-banality-of-evil-the-demise-of-a-legend/. Any comments?

  2. Kathleen B. Jones September 12, 2014 at 7:39 pm | #

    Actually, Corey, I don’t see the slave revolt in Melville’s telling as “putting the social question onto the public stage.” The revolt represents something Arendt defined as political par excellence: spontaneous, unprecedented action; a demand to be “seen” and “heard.” It’s not about poverty per se, or economic questions in a narrower sense, but an attempt to reconfigure the very fabric of the “ship of state.”

    • Corey Robin September 12, 2014 at 8:21 pm | #

      That’s true, Kathleen. But reading her through the lens of The Human Condition, where she says that the political emancipation of labor, qua labor, reflects, comes on the heels of, the rise of the social, I take the slave revolt to be a reflection of the rise of the social. It’s true that Melville doesn’t narrate it that way, but that’s my point: in Arendtian terms, I’m not sure it’s really possible for such a narration to exist.

      • Kathleen B. Jones October 4, 2014 at 3:15 pm | #

        True, Corey, Arendt writes in HC that (as you say) “the political emancipation of labor, qua labor…comes on the heels of the rise of the social” but I don’t see the slave revolt as indicative of “the emancipation of labor as labor.” It is not a demand to be seen as “free labor” (as proletariat) but free persons, i.e., actors in a public arena. Whether Arendt is right that the social question cannot admit of (what she means by) a political solution without reverting to violence is another question altogether. By the way, I am finding your long commentaries on the current dialogue about Arendt via Benhabib and Wolin very informative and elucidating. Thanks!

  3. Roquentin September 12, 2014 at 8:02 pm | #

    While I have read Eichmann in Jerusalem, I have not read On Revolution, but just from reading your description I tend to take an approach which amounts to the polar opposite of that. The “things best left in the dark” are were the real politics happen and what typically gets called proper political questions are just a thin veneer painted on what largely amounts to a gang fight. The physical needs of the body, the Id and the unconscious as Freud would call it, are far more influential than any sort of ideals. There’s definitely a Marxist flavor to that line of thought (the old base/superstructure dichotomy), but I was probably more influenced by Delueze and Guattari.

    On the subject of the French Revolution, I’ve thought a lot about the idea that revolutionary groups, who often hate the police, typically replace them with a far more violent and ruthless police force (the Checka or the NKVD for example) which puts the worst abuses of the old regime to shame. I tend towards two answers:

    1) These institutions exist because there is a need for them. The question of who gets locked up, who gets shot and who doesn’t, is about as basic as it gets and there has always been and will always be a mechanism for doing this. Refusal to address this question will not make it go away. As Max Weber eloquently said, the state is the monopolization of legitimate violence.

    2) The more extreme the reforms you have in mind the more coercion it will require to make people adhere towards your grand plan, no matter how good or bad it is. Another extremely basic question: What to do if people don’t approve of your plan? Either you discard the plan our you start using violence to make sure they do. Robspierre chose the latter.

  4. LFC September 12, 2014 at 10:27 pm | #

    Not to be disrespectful toward Arendt, whom I know has entered — for good reason, I don’t doubt — the canon of political theory and about whom there exists a whole scholarly industry, but I wonder how much she actually knew about the French Revolution. I’ve lately been reading a book that deals with the period, and the Revolutionary era was chock full of “performance.” I don’t know how long the practice lasted, but at one point (late 1799) members of the lower house of parliament were dressing in imitation Roman togas. You can’t get much more stagey than that. More important, the Revolution was not just about ‘the social question’ but about tons of passionate and windy oratory and speechifying, I think on all manner of subjects. A lot of the Revolutionaries were very enamored of classical Greek and Roman ‘stuff’: the citizen-soldier, etc. (This all sounds like something Arendt would have approved, the “glory of words and deeds” to quote Corey’s post.) I’m sure Robespierre talked about sincerity and the inner person and all that, but I sort of doubt that the “public self” of most of the main Revolutionary figures actually matched up with their “inner self” (or selves). There was probably plenty of ‘wearing of masks’. There was also a good deal of duplicity, intrigue, factionalism, backbiting in the politics of the Rev., prob. before, during, and after the Terror. (Well, that’s my two cents, fwiw, before shutting off the computer for the night.)

    • Roquentin September 13, 2014 at 7:56 am | #

      To back this statement up, when I was in Monreal they had a largecollection of clothing, art, and furniture from the Napoleonic era at the Musee Des Beaux-Arts Montreal. It confirms everything you’re saying about them imitating the classical Greek and Romans. I think Napoleon really dreamed of being a successor to the Roman Empire.

      Also, I know it refers to events far later on but Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte has that famous intro:

      “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. [….].

      Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”

  5. Aaron Gross September 13, 2014 at 12:01 am | #

    Well, Grandin himself quoted Arendt in that interview you linked to in your previous post on this. And I questioned his use of that quote (which I wasn’t familiar with) in a comment to that post, saying that his interpretation seemed inconsistent with On Revolution. Either way, maybe the quote used by Grandin would be a start?

    A little off-topic, but I’d be interested in reading about Benito Cereno and Carl Schmitt. Anybody know if that’s been explored? The first I ever heard of the novella was in Tracy Strong’s foreword to the English translation of Political Theology. Schmitt frequently referenced the novella in correspondence, at one time even signing a personal letter “Benito Cereno.” If anybody could point to more on Schmitt and Benito Cereno I’d appreciate it. Frankly, I think the novella is a lot more relevant, or more directly relevant, to Schmitt than to Arendt.

    • Corey Robin September 13, 2014 at 12:17 am | #

      Actually, that quote is from The Human Condition, where she is talking about how in the modern age, as automation and such frees us from necessity, we become less mindful of what a conquest freedom actually is (with the Greeks, she says, freedom really meant something b/c it was counterpoised to the necessity of the slave; no more, not b/c the slave is emancipated but b/c labor has become easier, she says). It’s not really relevant, I don’t think, to the situation with Benito Cereno or to the discussion in On Revolution.

      The Benito Cereno/Schmitt connection comes up a fair amount in the secondary literature.

      On Sat, Sep 13, 2014 at 12:01 AM, Corey Robin wrote:


      • Aaron Gross September 13, 2014 at 12:37 am | #

        Thanks! Agreed, I don’t think that quote from The Human Condition was relevant to Benito Cereno or On Revolution, but Grandin’s use of it was relevant because if his interpretation were correct, it would seem to contradict Arendt’s thought in On Revolution.

        • Corey Robin September 13, 2014 at 12:58 am | #

          Grandin’s interpretation of the quote is correct. And in the context of what he’s saying, it makes perfect sense. I was simply saying it had nothing to do with *my analysis* here of On Revolution or Benito Cereno. I was reacting to your suggestion that it might offer us a place to start understanding the relationship between On Revolution and Benito Cereno. I don’t think it does. As for your longer comment, you seem to assume that Arendt believes that for politics to be performed, the performers have to know that they are performing, as must the audience. I find no such claim on her part; indeed, she often seems to suggest just the opposite. So your critique — Delano doesn’t know he’s watching a performance till the very end — doesn’t make much sense to me.

          On Sat, Sep 13, 2014 at 12:37 AM, Corey Robin wrote:


      • Aaron Gross September 14, 2014 at 1:47 am | #

        Thanks for the correction! Actually, I was assuming something slightly different: that there can’t be a “public stage” if, as the performers intended, the “public” never knows that there is a stage or even that they are in public; and I thought you were identifying politics with that public stage. I’d misremembered, then; it’s been years since I’ve read Arendt or Benito Cereno, and obviously I’ve never studied this political stuff in school. Still, I don’t see how that error affects the other things I said. I don’t want to drag you into a long comment thread, but for the record:

        The uprising was not in any way a revolution; it was the kind of thing that Arendt contrasted with revolutions (again, unless I’m misremembering).

        The attempt to unmask the deceivers and show their true face commenced immediately from the start of the performance. Throughout the story, the crew – involuntary performers – tried unsuccessfully to reveal the deception to the clueless Captain Delano.

        What ultimately followed from the entrance of the “social question” in the story – chronologically, and maybe even inevitably – was the antithesis of politics and the closing off of any possibility of revolutionary politics on the ship. Finally the deceivers are unmasked, the theological question is literally brought above board, and what matters now is metaphysical good and evil – a Christian holy war. “Follow your leader” is given a whole new meaning. To me this seems seems practically the opposite of Arendtian politics.

        Of course I know I might be wrong about all the above, too. But if so, I don’t see how that’s related to my mistake about “public staging.”

        • Corey Robin September 14, 2014 at 2:26 am | #

          “The uprising was not in any way a revolution; it was the kind of thing that Arendt contrasted with revolutions (again, unless I’m misremembering).”

          Arendt contrasted a great many things that we call revolutions with revolutions. On some readings only the American Revolution, in her mind, was really a revolution. So I’m not much bothered by that point. I’m reading the slave revolt as a revolution, which I think there is ample evidence for.

          I also read the slaves’ very entrance onto the stage of action — seizing control of the ship, taking control of their own destiny — as the entrance of the social question onto the public stage. There is no point in the story where the social question is not already on the stage b/c by the time the story begins they have already revolted and acted. You seem to want to read the social question as arising after the actors are unmasked; that’s a peculiar reading to me.

          Likewise the question of unmasking. It’s unclear to me what you’re trying to get at with that point (both that it happened and that it happened right away). My point is that Arendt thinks the French Revolution was doomed in part by the desire of the revolutionaries to unmask politics. And that desire to unmask politics comes from the entrance onto the public stage of men and women who both embodied the social question — the urban poor, driven by the body — and introduced the social question. In other words, there is a direct connection between the identity of the revolutionaries and their desire to unmask politics. The counter of Benito Cereno is that here you have a similar sort of actors — slaves — entering the public stage and rather than seeking to unmask politics, are instead capable of masking and performing, indeed staging the scenes of domination that Arendt thinks have nothing to do with politics. That there are other actors — the counterrevolutonaries, as it were — who seek to unmask is an interesting side note, but has little to do with my point.

          That’s my argument. I’ll confess I have no idea what your argument is, but the points you make, at least the ones I can understand, seem either orthogonal to mine or not really correct.

          I’m afraid this will have to be my last comment. I generally try to follow a rule that if it takes me longer to figure out what a commenter is saying than it took me to write a post, I need to stop responding to a commenter. We’re fast approaching, if we haven’t already passed, that line.

          On Sun, Sep 14, 2014 at 1:47 AM, Corey Robin wrote:


  6. Aaron Gross September 13, 2014 at 12:08 am | #

    I don’t really see how the slaves are “putting the social question of black bonded labor onto the public stage.” Throughout most of the story the only ones aware that there is a “stage” at all are of course the slaves and the captain and crew held captive. If the “public” – in the story, that’s mostly Captain Delano – is completely deceived, having no idea that there is a stage at all, believing that he’s peeking in to a slice of private life (crew and slaves), then there is no public staging of the social question, let alone a political staging of it. Even if you say that allegorically the relation between the slaves and crew is political, that still holds, because Delano doesn’t even know that there is a “stage.” Of course you’re right that “[t]hat [duplicitous] public presentation of self, for Arendt, is in part what it means to be political,” but it doesn’t follow that any duplicitous presentation of self is political.

    All that’s until the end of the story. At the end, the deception – the “stage” itself – is revealed and all hell breaks loose. (Almost literally, considering the heavy metaphysical and theological symbolism.) But what results is not politics, it’s (for Arendt) the antithesis of politics: It’s a violent conflict between metaphysical good and evil.

    Finally, social justice is restored. Some people seem to be forgetting that in the story, social justice is the domination (private, despotic) of the slaves by their owners. That is the just relation of social classes. So after a violent uprising, social justice is restored through violent, non-political reaction.

    It might be tempting to say that this actually affirms Arendt’s position in On Revolution, about what happens when you bring private necessity onto the stage of politics. But the slave uprising on the ship is not in any way a revolution in Arendt’s sense of the word. So rather than say the story affirms Arendt’s point, I think it doesn’t relate to it one way or the other, because there never was any politics or even any attempt at politics in the story to begin with, even reading it allegorically. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a political story; it’s very political! But there was no attempt at Arendtian politics in the world of the story itself.

    As I said in this comment to your previous post, Grandin seems to base his analysis entirely on the historical story, viewed from a 21st century perspective, without engaging the story as actually told by Herman Melville. (That’s based on an article I read by Grandin; I haven’t read his book.) To the extent that Grandin’s interpretation relates to the text at all, I think he’s counter-reading the text, as I think you are, too. Which is fine in itself, but at least to me (I know I might be wrong!), it seems you’re discarding some pretty fundamental elements of the story.

  7. David September 13, 2014 at 10:50 am | #

    Have the slaves in Benito Cereno been slaves long enough to think of themselves as workers, as poor, or even as slaves?

    • Corey Robin September 13, 2014 at 11:28 am | #

      Long enough to have launched a slave revolt.

      • David September 13, 2014 at 2:18 pm | #

        I remember assuming that the slaves in the story were recent captives on their way from Africa, which would give them a different perspective towards their social position than French peasants who had belonged to a “laboring order of society” for generations.

        But that’s just based on a fading memory of my literally sophomoric interpretation of the story.

  8. Stuart Newman September 13, 2014 at 9:42 pm | #

    Arendt’s live-and-let live attitude toward public hypocricy, in contrast to her protective stance regarding the prerogatives of the private realm, is entirely consistent with her opposition to enforced school integration (e.g., in Little Rock, Arkansas) while espousing the repeal of anti-miscegenation laws. This is discussed in Young-Bruehl’s biography.

  9. Jeremy September 14, 2014 at 9:25 pm | #

    While I do not know whether Arendt read Benito Cereno, the fact that Arendt admits and then quickly forgets the existence of chattel slavery in pre-revolutionary America is a clue. In On Revolution Arendt notes that chattel slavery (which she acknowledges is slavery’s cruelest form) reveals that abject poverty and misery–i.e., the social question–did exist in the colonial period. But to admit this would have complicated significantly her already extremely ambivalent analysis of the social question in the American Revolution, although it would have complicated it for the better. Anne Norton’s piece in Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt addresses this issue a bit. And (shameless plug alert): I have a recently published piece in Review of Politics that deals with the social question in On Revolution more broadly: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9298011


    • Corey Robin September 14, 2014 at 9:28 pm | #

      We like shameless plugs around here. Usually means something worth reading!

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