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Friday, March 11, 2005

Melville: Billy Budd, Sailor


Blogger SMJ said...

What message Melville intended to impart to us with Billy Budd, Sailor, a book never published in his lifetime, is not entirely clear. As his own literary fortunes fell, Melville's last novel languished as an unfinished work, whose pages were severely doctored by other people, including his wife and various editors, prior to its publication in 1924. Since then, newer editions of the work have attempted to recover from the manuscript a reading of its author's original purpose. Certainly, one interpretation is that the story of Billy Budd is a reenactment of man's fall from grace, and his confrontation with evil. Melville's handling of the story suggests that the fall of man was both catastrophic and unavoidable, and, at a deeper theological level, remains part of the fabric of human existence.

To underscore what has been lost in Billy's movement from innocence to experience, Melville constructs a moral universe in which nature and society are in opposition. He depicts the life of a sailor as being natural and unfettered with the moral ambiguity of landsmen..."Habitually living with the elements and knowing little more of the land than as a beach." Billy Budd, a foundling with no past, whose life is spent on ships at sea, has avoided the temptations of Babylon, growing up "with little or no sharpness of faculty or any trace of the wisdom of the serpent." In his childlike innocence, he resembles Alyosha from Brothers Karamazov. Before Father Zossima sends him forth, Alyosha, like Billy, is not prepared to deal with the depravity and corruption that lie beyond the monastic walls..."What could Billy know of man except of man as a mere sailor."

Billy Budd is a peacemaker, a man whose own virtue calms the savage beasts in other men, "sugaring the sour ones." He is forced to leave a merchant vessel (the Rights-of-Man) and serve on the H.M.S. Bellipotent (strong at war), though he makes no complaint. His physical beauty and demeanor give him a "natural regality" in the company of other sailors. Yet, "Billy, in many respects was little more than a sort of upright barbarian." His cheerful demeanor cannot save him from Claggart. Like Hobbes, Melville believes that innocence is no defense against wickedness. Although physically stronger than Claggart, Billy cannot avoid the trap which awaits him, ...for "innocence was his blinder." .It is a trap that only a depraved intelligence could bring against him. Thus, Claggart represents the corrupted nature of man who uses reason to destroy the things he cannot own. His pride and his rebellion echo the original sins of the human race—pride and envy, which lead to the first act of murder. Claggart is capable of "apprehending the good, but powerless to be it." His natural depravity is incompatible with goodness. So, given the confined space of a British warship, innocence and depravity are compelled to meet. And the result of that collision will be the destruction of both.

Like Billy, Claggart is a peacemaker, but he obtains his "peace" using altogether different methods. No virtue ever comes out of Claggart to soothe the weary hearts of men. Instead, the art of intimidation and the authority of a master-at-arms (a kind of naval policeman) bends other men to his will. Just seeing Billy is enough to set Claggart against him. It is as if the presence of beauty itself offends him. Melville offers no clear explanation, other than some words about the mystery of evil, along with an observation that "the Creator alone is responsible for the scorpion." This, actually, is a very deep truth about the creatures who inhabit this world. Things which are poisonous and harmful to men are equally parts of God's creation, suggesting that depravity (which is a corruption of nature) is not simply a punishment for our sins, but is part of the very design of creation. Here, Melville is reminding us both of our frailty and the role of suffering in human affairs.

But the true agent of Billy's demise turns out not to be Claggart, but Captain Vere, the commander of the Bellipotent. Captain Vere is described as a cautious man, a lover of books, a man of science, and a strict disciplinarian on his ship..."mindful of the welfare of his men, but never tolerating an infraction of discipline." In a word, he is a decent man, cultured, but leaning to the pedantic..."His settled convictions were as a dike against the invading waters of novel opinion social, political, and otherwise." His character is solid and undramatic, deserving of the respect, if not the devotion, of his crew. In this respect, Vere is typical of the British naval captains of his day-- solid, competent sailors, dependable in most situations, but lacking the imagination and exuberance of a Lord Nelson, with whom he is unfavorably compared by Melville. For the purposes of this story, Captain Vere is a witness for society, for the conventions of law and order, governed by an unwavering intelligence and faith in the powers of human reason. Vere will be the arbiter of Billy Budd's fate.

Claggart, who is the scorpion on the Bellipotent, lays a trap to ensnare Billy, but his own cleverness proves fatal. He believes he can persuade Captain Vere that Billy Budd is plotting mutiny. The British navy, still nervous over the Nore mutiny, will not tolerate the least outbreak of rebellion, so Claggart tells a few lies, and Vere calls for Billy to defend himself. Billy, however, has a tendency to stutter when agitated, and is unable to respond to Claggart's lies. He answers, in the only way possible, by striking out with his fist. The inability of Billy to speak reminds us of a young child's inability to verbalize what he is feeling. By using language to ensnare Billy, Claggart replicates what the serpent did to Eve; he persuades her to do what she knows she mustn't do. Unfortunately for Claggart, Billy's inability to speak causes him to strike Claggart with a fist, killing him with a single blow to the head. Captain Vere, witnessing the assault, soon renders the verdict of society..."struck dead by an angel of God. Yet the angel must hang."

In one sense, Billy's own ignorance goes hand in hand with his innocence. He lacks the insight (the "logos" or rational principle) to apprehend the dark side of human nature. Language, the power of human speech, is the key to both knowledge and social organization. Thus, Billy's lack of worldly experience renders him speechless when confronted by a depraved intelligence. His violence toward Claggart is as natural and unstoppable as a bolt of lightning. But the purity of Billy's nature must now contend with society's judgment. And Vere is the arbiter of that judgment. "Thoroughly civilized" as he is, Vere deals only with facts. And the facts speak against Billy. He has killed a superior officer on a British man–of-war. Reason, which enters the world by an act of deception, cannot tolerate disorder

With his Hobbesian fear of rebellion, Vere (a man "thoroughly versed in the science of his profession") chooses prudence over mercy. Billy's crime must be expunged. And so he is hanged for the murder of Claggart, "...the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd." Though Captain Vere admires Billy, it is Vere who convenes the drumhead court, a court that is ill equipped to pursue the requirements for justice. Vere, whose own orderly mind has become rattled, wants a guilty verdict and is determined to obtain one, even if he must use his personal authority to influence the decision. Billy's death is the price that society pays to restore order.

On one level, Melville's story says that beauty and innocence cannot long endure in human society; that war forces men to abandon their natural home (the realm of peace) and take up arms against depravity; that science and law are unable to accommodate virtue; and that evil, wearing the mask of intelligence, will always be with us, leading us astray, to the corruption of our better natures. Whether the death of innocence requires a movement from order (contentment) to disorder (tragedy) is arguable. It seems that man's original faith will always be corrupted by a force which opposes truth, and sows discord in the hearts of men. But, ultimately, this force cannot prevail. The society of men, however corruptible, prefers to sail in the wake of spiritual grace.

3/11/2005 10:31 AM  

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