Herman Melville, “Billy Budd” (published 1924): Farewell Melville

The text of Billy Budd was found among Herman Melville’s personal papers after he died. It was not complete and would not published until 1924 and then only after editing. Thus we have both a “reading text,” which was prepared by editors by filling in various gaps, and a “literal text,” which was what Melville left us. The Library of America gives us only the “reading text.” It seems to me that this text, like so much of Melville’s work, is ultimately about power and the relationship between the individual and the organizations that they find themselves in. It is there in all the major works, beginning with Typee, when the narrator fled a whaling ship due to poor conditions. With Moby-Dick this theme reaches its climax with the authoritarian Ahab and the diverse Pequod. As Melville aged and began working on this work, returning to prose after years of only publishing poetry, he returned to this theme. He was no less cynical about the nature of power and its desire and ability to crush the individual.

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This is maybe Melville’s leanest work in terms of not have anything that can be seen as excessive to the point. There are none of the long sidelooks at the nuances of sailing that plagued so many readers of his earlier works. It is also as if Melville was in a race against time to tell this tale and could only write down the most relevant material. The story begins with the impressment of Billy Budd into the British navy not long after the Great Mutiny forced the British to use this particularly vile form of conscription, during their wars with France after the French Revolution. After a while Billy Budd is approached by other impressed seamen for recruitment into a conspiracy of mutiny but he refuses. Eventually, the master at arms, Claggert, accuses Billy Budd of conspiring to mutiny. His stutter makes it difficult for him to defend himself so he strikes his accuser, accidently killing him. The captain, Vere, is conflicted. He knows that Billy Budd was innocent of the accusation, but he cannot allow a murder to go unpunished in the post-mutiny climate. Billy Budd is sentenced to death and executed. The final chapters look at Vere’s fate, shows how the news reports differed from the reality, and gives a hint of how the truth remained alive in the culture of the seamen.

The first act of the novella is an act of violence against liberty, as Billy Budd is conscripted from the aptly named merchant ship The Rights of Man. He is transferred to the Bellipotent. The dueling names suggest much: individual liberty against imperial authority. This was a phenomenon across the British Atlantic during wartime. Despite the pleas from the merchant ship master who testified to Billy Budd’s calming effect on his crew, the young “Handsome” sailor was brought into the Royal Navy. The power of the sailors battled with the power of the British state on different levels. Impressment was in part a response to the Great Mutiny, an earlier act of rebellion against British military discipline. In a sense, Billy Budd enters a military order already engaged in a Civil War. His good humor, trustfulness, and affability perhaps make him ill-suited for that position.

Here is a BBC presentation of the Britten opera based on Billy Budd.

Melville takes pains to describe the major characters in good terms, especially Billy Budd and Captain Vere. He is not interested in a polemic against the naval captain here. He is largely interested in the institution. It is the institutions (the sailor’s solidarity, the Navy, the British state) that drive the actors, not personal malevolence. Billy Budd is described as without “visible blemish . . . as with a lady.” (1362) His stutter is his only defect. Vere is practical, educated, fair-minded, and loyal, as well as an ally oof “peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.” (1371)

What happened to Billy Budd was therefore the product of institutional forces. I was reminded while reading this of how much it thematically pairs with David Simon’s The Wire or Paths of Glory, which so influenced Simon. In all three of these works, good people make horrific decisions due to the logic of the institution rather than the logic of humanity. (Earlier in this blog I discussed some of these ideas.) Melville goes so far as to present the unlikely situation where Billy Budd is, if not happy with being impressed, affable enough to not face any difficulty in the transition to military life.

Billy Budd’s violence against Claggert, comes from his inability to speak, due to his stutter. It is important that after he kills Claggery, Billy Budd’s stutter goes away, suggesting that the institution has silenced Billy and that his act of resistance revived his voice, even if only in time for his execution. This is an important point, for this is the fate of most of the world’s working people, institutionally confined from speaking. In the workplace, we all have a stutter.

Vere was tormented by his decision, knowing that Claggery falsely accused Billy Budd of mutinous designs, but he was bound by the law and the new policies implemented in the Navy after the mutinies. His moral anxiety is authentic, but rather pointless since the logic of the institution will always win out. This is the dilemma of the middle-manager, who has to work closely with the people at the bottom but being responsible for the laws and regulations of the top. He could, of course, have opposed the law and suffered as a consequence but this would have been an unlikely heroism and is really only possible from someone like Captain Ahab or Jack London’s Wolf Larsen.

The news report on the execution is significant because here we see the media taking the position of the state, not of Billy Budd (of course), but also not of the Captain. Now this may be because Vere had to report to his superiors in a way that minimized the ambiguity of the case. However, it happened the public report has Budd killing Claggery with a knife, being a foreigner, and having a central role in a mutinous plot. It also mentions how all mutiny was suppressed on the ship. We do not believe this anymore than we should believe the rest of the report. To borrow again from David Simon, it is like a big drug bust or high profile arrest being sold to the people as a great victory in the War on Drugs, when in fact the street market for drugs remains unaffected.

“Dope on the table” scene from The Wire:

In the final section we see that however false the official memory of the event may be, the brotherhood of sailors maintained a different message.  And with this, the sailor’s eulogy to Billy Budd, this blog will say goodbye to Melville, the man who inspired it major themes.

“Everything is for a term venerated in navies. Any tangible object associated with some striking incident of the service is converted into a monument. The spar from which the foretopman was suspended was for some years kept trace of by the bluejackets. Their knowledge followed it from ship to dockyard and again from dockyard to ship, still pursuing it seven when at last reduced to a mere dockyard boom. To them a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross. Ignorant through they were of the secret facts of the tragedy, and no thinking, but that the penalty was somehow unavoidable inflicted from the naval point of view, for all that, the instinctively felt that Billy was a sort of man as incapable of mutiny as of willful murder. They recalled the fresh young image of the Handsome Sailor, that face never deformed by a sneer or subtler vile freak of the heart within. This impression of him was doubtless deepened by the fact that he was gone, and in as measure mysteriously gone.” (1433-1434)

It is this deep memory that those who sustain authoritarian systems should most fear, for it is where we will find solidarity when those with wealth and gold demand of us mutual indifference.

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