By Charles Matthews

Friday, November 5, 2010

14. Great Short Works of Herman Melville, pp. 466-505

Great Short Works of Herman Melville (Perennial Classics)Billy Budd, Sailor, 16-30
Billy the naïf: "he had none of that intuitive knowledge of the bad which in natures not good or incompletely so foreruns experience, and therefore may pertain, as in some instances it too clearly does pertain, even to youth." And besides, "as a class, sailors are in character a juvenile race." This is the Adamic Billy again, one that we are urged to keep in mind throughout the story. Not that "Billy Budd" is a parable of the Fall any more than it is an analogue to the story of Christ (i.e., Billy = Christ; Claggart = Judas; Vere = Pontius Pilate). But it's also impossible to force those mythic paradigms out of any imaginative literate reading of the story.

Meanwhile, Claggart is moving into position to strike, though not without misgivings. He watches Billy "with a setled meditative and melancholy expression, his eyes strangely suffsed with incipient feverish tears. Then would Claggart look like the man of sorrows."  Yes, of course, the biblical "man of sorrows" is Jesus, which is why no attempt to force any biblical paradigm onto Melville's story works -- as a writer, he's far too deeply entrenched an ironist to get away with something so limiting. And "sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban."

"But for fate and ban." What fate precludes Claggart from loving Billy? What bans him from doing so? The latter question is easier to resolve than the first: the ban on sodomy. And I suppose we could say that the fate that precludes him from acting on his desire for Billy is that neither of them was born to the opposite sex. This is one of the few places in the story where the sexual attraction of Billy for Claggart is almost fully unveiled. It's a daring moment on Melville's part, and one that an attentive reader should not miss. And yet, as with the parallels to the legend of the Fall and the passion of Christ, queering the story of Billy Budd, however necessary it is to an understanding of it, also limits the full imaginative impact of the story.

Billy is not unaware of Claggart's attentions to him: "He thought the master-at-arms acted in a manner rather queer at times." (It's possible that "queer = homosexual" was known to Melville, as the meaning seems to have emerged in the late nineteenth century, but I suspect he intends a more traditional meaning.) But he is undisturbed by Claggart's manner. Claggart's "occasional frank air and plasanat word went for what they purported to be, the young sailor never having heard as yet of the 'too fair-spoken man.'" (The quotation is from James Thomson's 1748 poem "The Castle of Indolence":  "The wise distrust the too fair-spoken man.") He also notices from some of Claggart's messmates "that peculiar glance which evidences that the man from whom it comes has been some way tampered with, and to the prejudice of him upon the glance lights." The implication is that Claggart has been sharing his mistrust of Billy with them, "tampering with" their opinion of Billy. In the end, Melville characterizes Claggart's attitude toward Billy as "monomania," "a subterranean fire [that] was eating its way deeper and deeper in him."

The only military engagement in the story now takes place: The Bellipotent encounters a French frigate which, being lighter and swifter than the warship, eludes her. And Claggart uses the aftermath to suggest that Billy's loyalty during the engagement may not have been so whole-hearted as it might have been. He goes to see Captain Vere, waiting until the captain notices him. We learn now that Vere is only distantly acquainted with Claggart, who joined the crew during its last visit home, and that "something in [Claggart's] aspect  ... now for the first provokes a vaguely repellent distaste." Claggart's manner in speaking also provokes Vere's impatience. Claggart doesn't name Billy outright, but meanders around to his point, referring to Billy as one who "had entered His Majesty's service under another form than enlistment." Vere gets the message, though: "Be direct, man; say impressed men." This gives Claggart the opportunity to hint at mutiny, which has the desired effect on the captain, though Vere continues to be irritated by Claggart's "supersensible and strained" and "somewhat ostentatious manner." He is reminded, moreover, of "a perjurous witness in a captal case before a courtmartial ashore." But when Claggart comes out with the name William Budd, Vere is thunderstruck.

Claggart parries Vere's incredulity by reminding the captain of Billy's breach of decorum, bidding farewell to his old ship when he came aboard the Bellipotent. "You have but noted his fair cheek. A mantrap may be under the ruddy-tipped daisies." For Vere has, indeed, noted Billy's "fair cheek." He congratulated Lieutenant Ratcliffe, who brought Billy on board, "upon his good fortune in lighting on such a fine specimen of the genus homo, who in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall." And so the mythic paradigm and the homosexual subtext join up in one image. To say that Vere has been smitten with Billy is putting it mildly. But unlike the equally smitten Claggart, who channeled his desire into malice, Vere has accepted his desires, even considering the "thought of recommending him to the executive officer for promotion to a place that would more frequently bring him under his own observation, namely, the captaincy of the mizzentop."  

Vere warns Claggart that "in a case like this, there is a yardarm-end for the false witness," but Claggart doesn't back down. So Vere orders Billy brought before him. It's a lamb-to-the-slaughter scene, Billy expecting nothing but good from two men that he thinks are his friends: "To an immature nature essentially honest and humane, forwarning intimations of subtler danger from one's kind come tardily if at all." And when Claggart "briefly recapitulated his accusation," Billy is slow to react: "He stood like one impaled and gagged." Somewhat more startling is Claggart's expression: "Meanwhile the accuser's eyes, removing not as yet from the blue dilated ones, underwent a phenomenal change, their wonted rich violet color blurring into a muddy purple. Those lights of human intelligence, losing human expression, were gelidly protruding the the alien eyes of certain uncatalogued creatures of the deep." Urged by Vere to defend himself, Billy's efforts to break through his stammer result "in an agony of ineffectual eagerness to obey the injunction to speak and defend himself, [giving] an expression to the face like that of a condemned vestal priestess in the moment of being buried alive, and in the first struggle against suffocation." It is Billy's moment of astonished lost innocence, of violated virginity.

But the moment on which the story turns is told simply and directly, almost buried in the depths of the paragraph in which it appears: "The next instant, quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at night, his right arm shot out, and Claggart dropped to the deck." Significantly, "the blow had taken effect full upon the forehead, so shapely and intellectual-looking a feature in the master-at-arms." The illiterate sailor has pinpointed his attack on the very symbol of his adversary's superiority: his scheming intelligence. For Vere, Billy's assault on Claggart has a biblical parallel: "It is the divine judgment on Ananias!" he tells the surgeon who pronounces Claggart dead. (Ananias was struck dead by God for lying to St. Peter.) But then the terrible realization comes to him: "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!"

Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity.
Setting aside the fact that violet and orange aren't exactly adjacent in the spectrum, this is a nice metaphor for what follows next: the unraveling of the ambiguities not only of Vere's state of mind in ordering a drumhead trial instead of proceeding to port to hand Billy over to higher authorities, but also of the others in coming to a decision between justice and mercy. There is also the context of the event -- closely following the larger matter of the Nore mutiny and the consequent need to maintain order and discipline, "demanding from every English sea captain two qualities not readily interfusable -- prudence and rigor." 

So the trial of Billy Budd takes place in secrecy, involving only the three officers chosen as judges, the witness (Vere), and the accused. Because he is afraid "to awaken any slumbering embers of the Nore among the crew, a sense of the urgency of the case overruled in Captain Vere any other consideration." For the officers, Billy was "the last man they would have suspected either of the mutinous design alleged by Claggart or the undeniable deed he himself had done." And after the testimony of Vere as to the facts of the incident, Billy, asked to comment, replies simply, "Captain Vere tells the truth. It is just as Captain Vere says, but it is not as the master-at-arms said. I have eaten the King's bread and I am true to the King."

Vere affirms his belief that Billy is telling the truth, and Billy follows by saying, "Could I have used my tongue I would not have struck him. But he foully lied to my face and in presence of my captain, and I had to say something, and I could only say it with a blow, God help me!" But he has no response to the officer's question, "Now why would he have so lied, so maliciously lied, since you declare there was no malice between you?" Vere points out that the only person who can answer that question is dead.

And then Vere introduces a distinction that carries the day. The officer observes that there is no one else "who might shed lateral light, if any is to be had, upon what remains mysterious in this matter." Here, the attentive reader might wonder about the truth of the statement: What about Claggart's messmates, the ones whose opinions of Billy seemed to have been "tampered with"? But Vere argues against further investigation: "Ay, there is a mystery; but, to use a scriptural phrase, it is a 'mystery of iniquity,' a matter for psychologic theologians to discuss. But what has a military court to do with it? ... The prisoner's deed -- with that alone we have to do."

Billy is, in short, undeniably guilty of murder and insubordination, and hence, probably, mutiny. The nature of evil is not a matter for the court to consider, Vere proposes, and the officers reluctantly agree. But they still have to deal with, as Vere puts it, "the clash of military duty with moral scruple -- scruple vitalized by compassion." And here Vere argues that they have to decide between martial law, which sees only Billy's "overt act," and "natural justice," which would take into account "palliating circumstances."
But in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner's overt act to be considered? How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom we believe to be so?
Every reader presumably feels the tug toward clemency, but Vere argues otherwise: "do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King." By accepting their commissions in the navy, they "in the most important regards ceased to be natural free agents." They are, in short, not free to feel compassion in judging the case. Moreover, they are not responsible for the rigor of the law they must follow, and shouldn't listen to the voices within them that urge clemency, just as the judge in a trial mustn't allow his judgment to be compromised by the emotional pleas of "some tender kinswoman" of the accused: "Well, the heart here, sometimes the feminine in man, is as that piteous woman, and hard though it be, she must be ruled out."

Vere admits that in "a court less arbitrary and more merciful than a martial one," the question of Billy's intent -- the fact that he "purposed neither mutiny nor homicide" -- might be considered. "War looks to the frontage, the appearance. And the Mutiny Act, War's child, takes after the father. Budd's intent or non-intent is nothing to the purpose." And finally, Vere pleads the practical effect on the crew: "Your clement sentence they would account pusillanimous. They would think that we flinch, that we are afraid of them." Billy must, in short, be used as an example: "to the people the foretopman's deed, however it be worded in the announcement, will be plain homicide committed in a flagrant act of mutiny." It might be argued here that by admitting temporal concerns -- the recent mutiny -- and practical ones -- the effect on the crew -- Vere has just undermined the purity of his logic, that the law must be followed to the letter. It is an argument out of fear rather than logic.

It is also an argument that  produces a sentence born out of what we might call "the fog of war." Or at least that's how Melville puts it himself, citing "a writer whom few know" -- i.e., Herman Meville:
Forty years after a battle it is easy for a noncombatant to reason about how it ought to have been fought. It is another thing personally and under fire to have to direct the fighting while involved in the obscuring smoke of it. Much so with respect to other emergencies involving considerations both practical and moral, and when it its imperative promptly to act. The greater the fog the more it imperils the steamer, and speed is put on though at the hazard of running somebody down.
And so Billy Budd is run down. And so "the condemned one suffered less than he who mainly had effected the condemnation" -- i.e., Vere.

Claggart is "committed to the sea with every funeral honor properly belonging to his naval grade" -- coldly and formally dealt with. Billy faces death with a childlike innocence, "wholly without irrational fear of it, a fear more prevalent in highly civilized communities than those so-called barbarous ones which in all respects stand nearer to unadulterate Nature." Even the chaplain sent to counsel Billy recognizes and respects his innocence: "and since he felt that innocence was even a better thing than religion wherewith to go to Judgment, he reluctantly withdrew." (Melville is anti-clerical to the last.)

And so Billy goes to his hanging and shouts "God bless Captain Vere!" stirring the crew to an automatic echoing of the benediction. That he dies peacefully, without the muscular spasm that usually accompanies a hanging, intrigues the ship's pursuer who gets no satisfactory explanation from the surgeon. The crew view it as some kind of sign when the seabirds gather around the splash in the water when Billy's body is sent overboard, but Melville dryly observes that "to such mariners the action of the seafowl, though dictated by mere animal greed for prey, was big with no prosaic significance."
Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges; hence the conclusion of such a narration is apt to be less finished than an architectural finial.
In the ragged edges of "Billy Budd," Vere is mortally wounded in a battle between the Bellipotent and the French ship Athée (the Atheist), and his last known words are "Billy Budd, Billy Budd." An authorized naval chronicle published a few weeks after the execution reports that Claggart "was vindictively stabbed to the heart by the suddenly drawn sheath knife of Budd," who "was no Englishman but one of those aliences adopting English cognomens." But the spar from which Billy was hanged "was for some few years kept trace of by the bluejackets.... To them a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross."

The story ends with Melville's poem "Billy in the Darbies," here sung by Dwayne Croft in the Metropolitan Opera production of Benjamin Britten's opera:

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