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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


In illustrating the theme of "archetypes vs. archetypes" promised at the end of the previous essay in this series, I could go straight to Superman, since I addressed his status as both stereotypical and archetypal in different aspects.  But I'll get to that later.

In that same essay I also addressed the use of racial and/or ethnic stereotypes. The term is often used to speak of stereotypes that misrepresent or marginalize persons of particular ethnicities. From my discussion of functionality here, though, it should be clear that a stereotype cannot be defined simply as something offensive. The minstrel-show "darky" and the "black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks" are equally stereotypical devices, no matter how pleasing an image John Shaft may present in contrast to Ebony White.

As it happens, in my recent essay VIRTUAL VIRTUES PT. 2 I provided some contrasting examples of racial myths. My purpose in so doing was to focus on narratives dealing with race, in order to draw some conclusions about the ways in which black characters were used, respectively, to incarnate different forms of transcendence in line with Huxley's thoughts on the subject. But the same examples can be used to interpret ways in which archetypes may contend with archetypes.

I stated that Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND depicted black people in the Old South in such a way as to reinforce a status quo; that is, that they were essentially childlike except when given inappropriate ideas by corrupt white people. Since this is entirely a stereotypical depiction, it has no place in this discussion.

The character of Babo from Melville's BENITO CERENO, is considerably more complex, for all that he incarnates an image of "the savage African" that would not be acceptable in some quarters. For one thing, Melville is aware of Africa's own history of slavery, which places a greater complexity on the leader of the slave-revolt. Here is Babo, playing the part of the respectful servant to the ignorant narrator:

"...poor Babo here, in his own land, was only a poor slave; a black man's slave was Babo, who now is the white's."

And here's Babo pretending to shave his "master"/captive Benito, whose life he is implicitly threatening with the razor, all before the unseeing eyes of the dull-witted narrator Captain Delano:

Here an involuntary expression came over the Spaniard, similar to that just before on the deck, and whether it was the start he gave, or a sudden gawky roll of the hull in the calm, or a momentary unsteadiness of the servant's hand, however it was, just then the razor drew blood, spots of which stained the creamy lather under the throat: immediately the black barber drew back his steel, and, remaining in his professional attitude, back to Captain Delano, and face to Don Benito, held up the trickling razor, saying, with a sort of half humorous sorrow, "See, master—you shook so—here's Babo's first blood."
By story's end Delano finally tumbles to the truth, the rebellious slaves are defeated, and Babo is tried and executed. Yet even when Babo is dead, Benito Cereno remains haunted by him. Delano asks what has cast such a shadow upon the Spaniard's heart, and Benito speaks but two words.
"The negro." 
This may be American literature's first black character who sustains the archetype of the "demonic rebel"-- and regardless of what Melville himself thought about slavery, his story certainly plays to that archetype, granting the canny Babo a sort of limited victory, even in death. This archetype did continue to appear in later works, notably in the works of Thomas Dixon, so it may be argued that this archetype was never entirely defeated. Yet any pride of place Babo might possess is certainly usurped by the figure of Uncle Tom.

Again, I am not arguing that any of these characters are pleasing in terms of realistic depiction, though I do think that both Babo and Uncle Tom are given more verisimilitude than any of Margaret Mitchell's black characters. The name of Uncle Tom, obviously, became a stereotypical name for a subservient black, which was a willful misreading of Harriet Beecher Stowe's theme.  She does not suggest, as Mitchell does, that all black characters should be subservient, but rather that Uncle Tom is a special case: a man with such Christ-like ability to forgive even his tormentors that he becomes more of an imitatio dei than a human being.

One need not agree with Stowe's evangelical sentiments to appreciate the pathos of Tom's execution, and the symbolic significance it lends to the sufferings of black slaves by comparing them to the suffering of Christ:

At this moment, the sudden flush of strength which the joy of meeting his young master had infused into the dying man gave way. A sudden sinking fell upon him; he closed his eyes; and that mysterious and sublime change passed over his face, that told the approach of other worlds.
He began to draw his breath with long, deep inspirations; and his broad chest rose and fell, heavily. The expression of his face was that of a conqueror.
"Who,—who,—who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" he said, in a voice that contended with mortal weakness; and, with a smile, he fell asleep.
George sat fixed with solemn awe. It seemed to him that the place was holy; and, as he closed the lifeless eyes, and rose up from the dead, only one thought possessed him,—that expressed by his simple old friend,—"What a thing it is to be a Christian!"

 I think it arguable that this archetype, that of the redeemed slave, while articulated by many creators who may have had little or no acquaintance with Stowe, has triumphed over that of the demonic rebel, at least in terms of the archetypal depiction of black characters.

More in part 4.

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