Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor

Melville's Short Novels: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, CriticismMelville’s Short Novels: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism by Herman Melville

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It seems odd that this novella should ever have been required reading in American high schools and introductory literature courses. Its unfinished text remains in an uncertain state; its prose is maddeningly involuted, its sentences clogged with historical, religious, and mythological allusion and blunted by circumlocution and periphrasis; its theme is desire between men and the perversions created by that love’s interdiction; its moral is either fascism—the necessity of order above all and at all costs—or revolution—the absolute primacy of man’s natural right against all prohibition. It is a riddling novella; to teach it in a literature course is to feel that one is posing a word problem.

The plot is simple enough. During the Napoleonic wars, a beautiful young sailor, a foundling of mysterious origin and indomitable innocence named Billy Budd, is impressed, forced from a ship called the Rights of Man to one called the Bellipotent. On the ship, he is beloved by all, except for the master-at-arms, one John Claggart. In the paranoid atmosphere of mutiny surrounding the French Revolution and its aftermath, Claggart schemes to get Budd accused of conspiring against order. When the aristocratic Captain Vere brings Budd before Claggart to answer the charge, the stammering Billy inadvertently kills Claggart with one blow. Vere hastily convenes a drumhead court, at which he is the only witness, and ensures that Billy is condemned. In short order, Billy is hanged; his dying words are, “God bless Captain Vere!”

Such a summary, though, does not account for the immense freight of allusion and suggestion with which Melville loads his novella. Billy Budd is compared to everyone from Christ to Apollo, Adam to Isaac, a rustic beauty to a vestal virgin, a Tahitian “barbarian” to an ancient Saxon. The upshot is that Billy represents unfallen nature, the best of humanity, albeit defective in those two postlapsarian arts of civilization: knowledge and language. As for Claggart, he desires pretty plainly to possess Billy Budd, as we learn in a passage of extraordinary eroticism:

The ship at noon, going large before the wind, was rolling on her course, and he, below at dinner and engaged in some sportful talk with the members of his mess, chanced in a sudden lurch to spill the entire contents of his soup-pan upon the new scrubbed deck. Claggart, the Master-at-arms, official rattan in hand, happened to be passing along the battery in a bay of which the mess was lodged, and the greasy liquid streamed just across his path. Stepping over it, he was proceeding on his way without comment, since the matter was nothing to take notice of under the circumstances, when he happened to observe who it was that had done the spilling. His countenance changed. Pausing, he was about to ejaculate something hasty at the sailor, but checked himself, and pointing down to the streaming soup, playfully tapped him from behind with his rattan, saying in a low musical voice peculiar to him at times, “Handsomely done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it too!” And with that passed on. Not noted by Billy, as not coming within his view, was the involuntary smile, or rather grimace, that accompanied Claggart’s equivocal words. Aridly it drew down the thin corners of his shapely mouth.

Melville’s narrator tries to explain “what was the matter with the master-at-arms,” and ends up referring us to the Biblical “mystery of iniquity.” I suspect many readers over the years (Cold-War-era high school teachers and students perhaps?) have taken the hint that Claggart’s queer desire is the thing amiss, but Melville’s language is precise, however difficult:

In a list of definitions included in the authentic translation of Plato, a list attributed to him, occurs this: “Natural Depravity: a depravity according to nature.” A definition which tho’ savoring of Calvinism, by no means involves Calvin’s dogmas as to total mankind. Evidently its intent makes it applicable but to individuals. Not many are the examples of this depravity which the gallows and jail supply. At any rate for notable instances, since these have no vulgar alloy of the brute in them, but invariably are dominated by intellectuality, one must go elsewhere. Civilization, especially if of the austerer sort, is auspicious to it. It folds itself in the mantle of respectability. It has its certain negative virtues serving as silent auxiliaries. It never allows wine to get within its guard. It is not going too far to say that it is without vices or small sins. There is a phenomenal pride in it that excludes them from anything mercenary or avaricious. In short the depravity here meant partakes nothing of the sordid or sensual. It is serious, but free from acerbity. Though no flatterer of mankind it never speaks ill of it.

The narrator, attempting a credible impersonation of a conservative philosopher, leaves just enough clues in his labyrinthine rhetoric to allow us to find our way to the revolutionary meaning actually intended. To be clear, Claggart’s desire to touch Billy, his sensual satisfaction in smacking the young man’s bottom, is the only part of him not depraved. Later we hear that he “could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.” What, then, is the matter with Claggart? Precisely that he is over-civilized, over-intellectual, over-refined: everything that Billy is not. If I am reading this correctly, Melville here makes a stunning reversal, not only of homophobic culture but even of the Platonic homoerotics of the fin de siècle, whose gay writers were producing heavily idealized fictions in which there is much looking and no touching (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Death in Venice). According to Melville in this anti-Platonic mode, queer desire of the most sensual variety is as fresh as unspoiled nature, pre-Christian tribes, Greek mythology, and the body of Christ, while its proscription or even sublimation is the unnatural work of war-mongering civilization.

Once we understand this, we are prepared to call into question the intellectual reactionary Captain Vere’s courtroom speeches about the necessity of overlooking nature and sentiment to preserve order. And, schooled by the novella in the reading of desire, we can perceive Vere’s own desire for Budd, perhaps the main secret concealed by his mystagogy of power. I came to this reading with the help of Caleb Crain’s treatment of the novella as a false palinode in his American Sympathy; for Crain, the narrator “sets out all the lies that love must take back.” A gravely ironic fiction, Billy Budd asks us to reverse its ostensible meanings until we see that what looked like tragic advocacy of the strictest realism is in fact a revolutionary romance, however foiled by the work of war and civilization.

But irony is like a mercenary force: it is not necessarily loyal to the one who has hired it, and blowback is therefore always possible. Where does the narrator’s unreliability end? The novella concludes with a ballad commemorating Budd’s last night before his hanging, and it presents a mature, sophisticated, punning, and heterosexual sailor, not at all the “Baby Budd” we have known. If this is the view of the common sailor, of “the people,” then how should we take the novel’s queer thematics, which the people reject? Can the people be trusted after all? Moreover, is the novel’s Rousseauism not rather at odds with its own manner? That is, how could a “natural man” have ever produced a text this cryptic, so cryptic as to be positively Decadent? Or are we to believe that we can find our way “back to the garden” through irony alone? That seems unlikely. Finally, it is not as if Budd does not commit violence, does not in fact substitute physical force for language. Is his unfallen person really a model for man as redeemed by revolution? A pun lurks in the ship’s name: Bellipotent means war’s power, but also suggests its beauty. Maybe this is a tragedy, after all; maybe revolutionary irony has slipped the leash and led us into a labyrinth from which there is no escape.

I doubt there is any coming to the end of Melville’s final fiction; it may not offer any liberation but the modernist freedom, equivocal indeed, of the reader in the maze of meaning. Needless to say, I am absolutely enamored of it.


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