Bill Budd is a beautiful man. Not just good looking, but exquisitely good natured, something that costs him no effort and has required no instruction. And yet it is ultimately his beautiful soul and good nature that get Billy killed. Wes & Erin analyze Herman Melville’s final and unfinished work of fiction, and whether a good heart and good intentions are more important than obedience to authority and adherence to civilized norms.
Thanks to Nick Ketter for the audio editing on this episode.
Wes: So, Erin, someone asked me if we were doing a Halloween themed episode, and I said unfortunately, we hadn’t planned on that. But now it’s the day after Halloween, and… well, listeners won’t hear this for another three weeks, but for us it’s the day after Halloween, and I was thinking: “well, maybe Billy Budd is our Halloween episode because it is a bit spooky.” Or at the very least, Melville kind of walks up right up to the line of spookiness. I mean, spooky isn’t probably the right adjective, but, you know, it’s not a ghost story; it’s not a slasher pic. There’s nothing explicitly paranormal, but I would say that, you know, if there’s anything close to paranormal, it’s the character of Billy Budd himself. He’s an unusual guy.
Erin: Huh. That’s interesting. I would think that Claggart makes it a Halloween story, if anything, but certainly Billy Budd is…
Wes: Well, he’s the monster, I guess.
Erin: Yeah, and Billy Budd is Jamie Lee Curtis So…
Wes: [laughter] Wait a minute. How was Billy Budd Jamie Lee Curtis?
Erin: I don’t know… the young, innocent, who almost get.. Well, okay, he’s not. He’s like the girl in her underwear who gets killed in like the first act of the movie.
Wes: Yes, exactly. That’s true. Except that he’s not getting killed for being sexual… [laughter] So wait. You were thinking of Jamie Lee Curtis. And what… what were you thinking of her in?
Erin: In Halloween, right? I know that, but I’ve never seen it.
Wes: If I have seen it, it was so long ago, I don’t remember. I know she’s in the new one because my residents here started watching the latest Halloween last night and she’s older and she’s in it. So I guess that means she was in the original’s roles. Is that what that means?
Erin: Yeah, I think they were doing these kinds of reboots or something of that…
Erin: Well not rebooting but continuing to tell the story.
Wes: Yeah, well, you know, the character of Billy Budd I call paranormal because it’s…. he’s such an unusual person, although all the way Melville begins the story, he describes him as if he were a kind of generic type, the handsome sailor who’s really good looking and dresses in a certain attractive way, even though he’s not technically a dandy or something like that. You know, in the first chapter, he describes him as having a (quote-unquote) “barbaric” good humor, and in the second chapter we’ll find out, you know, he’s called a rustic beauty, he has a reposeful good nature, you know, a kind of uncultivated intelligence and a nobility of expression, Innocence, he’s called the upright barbarian. So he’s kind of described in several different ways as a noble savage.
Wes: This is the best description of him, and this is in chapter two: “His simple nature remained unsophisticated by those moral obliquities, which are not in every case incompatible with that manufacturable thing known as respectability.”
Erin: I love the idea of the… “He’s the rustic beauty.” He’s also referred to as having a, I think, a novice magnanimity at some point, and I wanted to find this… this part with… this is from the… towards the end with the chaplain, where he describes Billy as being like “one of the British captives, the living trophies made to march in the Roman triumph of Germanicus”, “the pope of that time, admiring the strangeness of their personal beauty.” This is describing the Pope, looking at these British captives of the late Roman Empire, “admiring the strangeness of their personal beauty, so unlike the Italian stamp, their clear ruddy complexion and curled flaxen locks, exclaimed: ‘Angles!’ (meaning English, the modern derivative) ‘Angles do you call them? And it is because they look so like angels. Had it been later in time, one would think that the Pope had in mind Fra Angelico’s seraphs, some of whom plucking apples in gardens of the Hesperides had the faint rose-bud complexion of the more beautiful English girls.” So he looks… he looks like an angel. He’s so often described in feminine terms that I think there’s…
Erin: …maybe something going on there. I’m not sure. But yeah, it’s strange. I don’t quite believe Billy as a character. I mean, he seems to me to be purely symbolic. Would you agree with that?
Wes: Yeah, I think you’re right, because in some of the reading for this, I saw it referred to as a tragedy, and it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around that, even though formally perhaps it’s a tragedy. Part of the reason it’s not a tragedy is because he doesn’t really have a flaw. So he does have a flaw, obviously, right, which is the stutter, which is a larger flaw than just having a stutter, right, because it’s when he’s under pressure he begins to stutter and he can’t communicate. So there’s a sense in which his purity is incommunicable. He’s all nature, right? He’s so all natural that there’s no words in a way to express him. And he can’t put himself into words. So there is that sort of flaw, but it’s still kind of innocent flaw. It’s not the sort of monomania or ambition or whatever you wanna call it that you associate with tragedy. Or at least I associate with tragedy. I know that’s other forms in a way. But I have trouble seeing this as a tragedy because he’s too much of a cipher, he’s too much of a symbol, to really fully identify with him and to fully empathize with him. I don’t find myself in a state of empathy for him or sad when he dies at the end. Although there is a way in which it’s horrifying, and that’s part of what, you know, I think -well I thought– of this as a Halloween story, but I don’t feel so connected to him as a character. And despite the fact that he’s so well-liked on this ship, that’s perhaps what actually gets him into trouble in the story as well, there’s something inhuman about him.
Erin: Yeah, I like what you say about a stutter, and I was thinking, too, with that flaw, much is made of the fact that he’s not (quote-unquote) “civilized” or he’s not part of the realm of civilization in some way. And language, I think, is a mark of civilization, like the ability to converse with people on a fundamental level unites people, I guess, in a community. And so his inability to express himself… I was thinking this morning about just how many characters in this story are passive. There’s so many passive characters. And I think that… I wonder if Billy’s flaw, as expressed by that stutter, is ultimately like a kind of passivity or a disengagement from society, which is actually a bad thing. Billy from the very start, like even when he’s impressed on The Indomitable, he doesn’t really fight. There’s no fight to be had over it, as Melville explains. Even if he were to protest, it wouldn’t matter. He’s going to be impressed anyway. But the men watching him go from Rights-of-Man feel, I think, a little bit betrayed that Billy’s not at least trying to put up a fight and show a little bit of loyalty to them, so he’s passive in that way. I think the incident of maybe spilling his soup is a kind of… expresses a kind of passivity, and the fact that he doesn’t report that strange… Oh, that’s also a good Halloween moment, when he has that shadowy encounter with that guy who’s maybe interested in starting a mutiny. He doesn’t report it.
Erin: And lots of other characters, I think, are passive, too, which is interesting. But I think maybe this speaks to that novice magnanimity of Billy’s that maybe because he’s such a natural man, he’s kind of like out… he’s outside of morality and therefore can’t make quite the best decision because I think like good decision making takes a kind of… an act of nature rather than a passive one.
Wes: So his problems with self expression, I think, are… they’re confined to a certain area, right? So he can express his goodwill, he can express his magnanimity and his sense of ease with himself and his comfort in his own skin, and the sorts of things that will become objects of envy for Claggart. What he can express is his aggression, right? He can express it so he can be violent. We know that from what he does to Claggart, and I think he… there was a story about him getting in a physical fight earlier on. There’s nothing in between those two extremes, it seems, of physical violence and pure passivity. He can’t stand up for himself, and at the point where he has to stand up for himself, his speech is going to fail him, and I like the way you put it. I think that is related to being outside of morality. There’s a sense in which he’s outside of civilization, and that’s, of course, emphasized over and over again in the story, that he’s a kind of noble savage. And when Melville says he’s unsophisticated by those moral obliquities that are not incompatible with respectability, he’s saying that often the the kinds of virtues that go along with being civilized, these sorts of appearances and forms and ritualized behaviors that we en engage in, including, say, politeness or other forms like that, they’re often just a cover for our irrationality and are as they are in Claggart, but also our viciousness, that sorts of vices that we keep hidden. And the suggestion that he’s unsophisticated by those things, the suggestion is that it’s because of his natural moral purity that he’s not capable of keeping up appearances, of putting up all the trappings that we associate with civilization. So here’s the way he put it: “And here be it submitted that apparently going to corroborate the doctrine of man’s fall, a doctrine now popularly ignored, it is observable that where certain virtues pristine and unadulterate peculiarly characterize anybody in the external uniform of civilization, they will upon scrutiny, seem not to be derived from custom or convention, but rather to be out of keeping with these, as if indeed exceptionally transmitted from a period prior to Cain’s city and citified man. The character marked by such qualities has to an unvitiated taste and untampered-with flavor like that of berries, while the man thoroughly civilized, even in a fair specimen of the breed, has to the same moral palate, a questionable smack of a compounded wine.” This is a long way of saying that he’s not just virtuous, but that he’s pure and that his virtue isn’t manifested in the way virtues typically are as a product of civilization and what he calls “the external uniforms of civilization.” But it’s prelaps Aryan right? It’s the sort of noble, savage type of virtue that has nothing to do with civilization. And that’s what’s manifested by Billy and it, you know, later on, the suggestion is that typically we associate virtue with habituation, right, you have to have a certain kind of upbringing: your parents have to say no a lot, and correct your behavior, and you internalize that, and ultimately that reflects certain cultural norms that we internalize. We’re made to follow certain rules and that’s how we become virtuous. But with Billy, we have the spectacle of someone who is virtuous by nature, which seems on the account that I’ve just given almost a contradiction, right? If virtue is something habituated and intimately related to civilization, how could it possibly be something natural?
Erin: I suppose the flip side of that is to see Melville’s sort of theories here, or the narrator’s theories, about the difference between a sailor’s vices and a city man’s vices, because I think there’s that kind of the natural virtue versus the “acquired” [laughter] virtue, let’s call it, seems to seems to have a parallel for him to the natural vices of the sailors on shore leave versus the urbane, as he frequently calls Claggart. urbane, I think, or evil is being urbane, the citified vices of people who are supposed to know better or something as if sailors are… I mean, he kind of repeatedly infantilizes sailors: that they’re sort of these unthinking, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants kind of people, who just can be whipped up into a frenzy at a moments’ notice, they could be quelled by a strong hand, you know, he calls them children a lot. And so their vices, he argues, are not as malicious or evil as a landlubber’s vices.
Wes: Yeah, it’s in Chapter 16. I was surprised by that chapter. In a way, because he’s been emphasizing Billy’s innocence in a way that seemed to contrast with other sailors, right? Other sailors are more wise to the world, more cynical. And here’s this innocent kid, who’s very unlike everyone else on the ship. And then we get to Chapter 16, and all of a sudden we get an account of the innocent quality of sailors in general.
Erin: “The sailor is frankness. The landsman is finesse”. [laughter] Could read this whole chapter it’s so…
Wes: Yeah, I think, starting with “the sailor is frankness, the landsman is finesse…” you could read from there on.
Erin: “The sailor is frankness, the landsman is finesse. Life is not a game with the sailor, demanding the long head; no intricate game of chess where few moves are made in straightforwardness, and ends are attained by indirection; an oblique, tedious, barren game hardly worth that poor candle burnt out in playing it. Yes, as a class, sailors are in character a juvenile race. Even their deviations are marked by juvenility. And this more especially holding true with the sailors of Billy’s time. Then, too, certain things which apply to all sailors, do more pointedly operate, here and there, upon the junior one. Every sailor, too, is accustomed to obey orders without debating them; his life afloat is externally ruled for him; he is not brought into that promiscuous commerce with mankind where unobstructed free agency on equal terms -equal superficially, at least- soon teaches one that unless upon occasion he exercise a distrust keen in proportion to the fairness of the appearance, some foul turn may be served him. A ruled undemonstrative distrustfulness is so habitual, not with business-men so much, as with men who know their kind in less shallow relations than business, namely, certain men-of-the-world, that they come at last to employ it all but unconsciously; and some of them would very likely feel real surprise at being charged with it as one of their general characteristics”
Wes: I just want to say, for listeners, this novel is written in English. [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] The more times I read it, the more I like: “how come I was confused by this the first time” But now, like reading it aloud and hearing me read it aloud, I’m like: “What is happening?”
Wes: Well, you quickly adapt. I think after reading it once and deciphering it, then you can listen to it, and now you speak the language. But for many sections in this novel, I was confused and [laughter] had to do something deciphering. Although that’s… earlier on it’s harder and the language actually loosens up as the novel goes on it. It’s not as syntactically complex as the novel progresses, but there are a lot of very syntactically complex sentences with multiple negatives, so you have to figure out how the equation balances out. You do a little math and okay [laughter] “is he asserting it or denying it?” The effect, I think, is beautiful. I like this complicated use of language, but… So this chapter, he starts talking about Billy Budd as a child-man, you know, he said. But in Billy Budd intelligence, such as it was, had advanced while yet his simple mindedness remained, for the most part, unaffected experience as a teacher, but he had none of that intuitive knowledge of the bad, which in nature’s not good or incompletely also-run’s experience. And what could Billy Budd know of man except of man as a mere sailor? The sailor is frankness… so this is what’s confusing to me. You know, he’s a man-child, he is unique among the sailors, and then all of a sudden we get him as sort of fitting into the typology of the sailor. So maybe what we have to conclude from this is he is the limiting case of… for a sailor. He is a sailor in his purest possible form so we could learn something about Billy Budd by saying what a sailor is and that has something to do with their, you know, they are confined to a ship, they’re not on land. They are part of this prescribed community in which everything is governed by rules and by a certain kind of obedience to superiors and a strict hierarchy -everything that goes along with being in the military. So it’s markedly different from what happens on land, which is to say, what happens in everyday society. It lacks a lot of the sophistication and therefore a lot of the pretense of that, a lot of the clash between what’s going on at the level of appearance and what’s going on underneath that, the subtext of that. So in a way, it’s that in regular society there are the forms, right, there are social forms and norms, and you behave in certain ways out of politeness. For instance, there are lots of ways in which our behaviors are governed by the requirements of civilization. And it’s not that that’s absent on a ship that’s actually in a way heightened, right? The lives of the sailors are governed more strictly by such rules than are ours: they engage in all sorts of rituals, they’re, you know, every part of their day is marked by being called to this or that ceremony. But the difference is that there’s no tension between that and some other thing that’s going on beneath that. So we landlubbers are hypocrites, in a sense. We observe a lot of these things, but there’s… we have ulterior motives and we, you know, if we’re… we may show up to a business meeting being all niceness and formality, but really we’re trying to obtain an advantage. So that’s the kind of attention, for instance, that’s implied. But that sort of thing doesn’t exist on this ship. It’s all just… you follow the rules, and those rules serve a certain objective. And the tension vanishes.
Erin: Far be it from me to disagree with Melville about life on a ship. [laughter] I mean, he obviously speaks from experience. I suppose I agree with him to a point. So if this idea of Billy as being like the sort of the Uber-sailor who’s so childlike, whose intelligence has advanced to a certain point but his simple-mindedness has remained. That’s supposed to stay back in childhood, but the simple-mindedness has also come with him. And that sailors in general are these innocent, unsophisticated people and that landlubbers are distrustful. I mean, I just… I teach at an all-boys school, so I see this probably…
Wes: [laughter] You are on a ship.
Erin: Right! And of course, rules and regulations and things like that are going to preserve that. I mean, this is part of the nature of the school, is that this kind of instruction and law and order are necessary for this age group, and perhaps that does create a kind of a stunted quality in adult men. But I just see so much of what he’s describing landlubbers to be like among these boys. I mean, okay, so I do see what he’s saying, to a certain extent. But I wonder how much of that is just a function of the adolescence of the boys that I teach. And not anything particularly true about the nature of a ship is preserving that adolescence.
Wes: Well, you seem to be noting the natural orneriness of the boys, right?
Erin: I don’t mean to say that I think that teenage boys are particularly devious. I’m saying that I think that any kind of place is going to have certain odd characteristics to a certain extent. I think it also is just going to represent a microcosm of the rest of the world by the same token…
Erin: …so you’re going to have devious people, distrustful people. You’re going to have someone like Claggart on your ship.
Wes: Right. Exactly.
Erin: Because Claggart himself breaks that rule. And the idea of the impressment of the sailors also breaks that rule, right? Because…
Wes: Right. And the worry about mutiny. So this is, you know…
Wes: …all of this occurs against the backdrop of… this is set in 1797, I think, right?
Wes: There recently have been two mutinies: the Nore and the..
Wes: …Spithead mutinies. And the Nore was the more prolonged mutiny and ended up with some executions. And these mutinies are sort of, you know, England is at war with post revolutionary France and the mutinies are seen as sort of in line with a revolutionary ethos. And as a threat to England’s system of government being the one old world power that’s still conservative, in a sense, it hasn’t succumbed to what’s going on in France. So, yeah, there’s an atmosphere of fear about the possibility of mutiny and the possibility that there are sailors who are ready to pounce at any time and take out the officers and take over the ship. And so there’s that, and there’s lots of other things in the novel to suggest that we shouldn’t really think of sailors as an innocent breed, as being… and Billy as being one of their type or the best representative of their type. And that’s why I thought this chapter was really odd. This is an unfinished novella, and I wonder what Melville would have done with this. In the end, he probably would have seen the tension between this and the rest of the text and maybe worked out a compromise, and I think, as you said, we can see the truth of this and I tried to explain some of that in terms of the way the norms of behavior work on this ship as opposed to the way they work on land, where there’s less opportunity for autonomy and sailors and so there’s less opportunity for subtext, for trying to use those forms as means to an end, as opposed to just obeying the orders that they’re getting from on high. But, yeah, it’s an unusual chapter.
Erin: And for those of you who are drinking at home, that’s now two mentions of subtext in this episode, so… [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] we´ve got a plug. It’s really about subliminal advertising in the end.
Erin: [laughter] Oh, well. So in Chapter eight I think it is, Melville tells us that basically, we could never understand Claggart, which is good. We could stop this episode right now.
Wes: So we have more than one inexplicable character in this book. [laughter]
Erin: Yeah, yeah. No, but that’s actually kind of just what I want to briefly talk about for a second is how interesting the narration of this is throughout. It reminds me of this short story I teach alongside Bartleby actually to my students, called Wakefield, which is a lesser known Hawthorne short story where the whole pretense of the story is that Hawthorne is saying that he read this story in a newspaper, and he can’t really remember the particulars. But it was about this guy, and basically he does this sort of thought experiment where he imagines the guy from the newspaper like what made him do the crazy thing that he did. It’s a great story. I recommend it to everybody. But the whole pretext of the story is the fact that Hawthorne, like, did or did not actually read this newspaper article. So the whole thing is set up as like a kind of a fact that he’s just expanding upon. And Melville does that, too, like at the end of the story, he’s like: “Well, you know, forgive me if there are no… if there’s no easy way to tie up this story” because when a story is true, there’s no easy way to tie it up. And he has all these little asides and these, like he acts as though these people are real and therefore like, fundamentally inexplicable. But then he’s going to try and go ahead and explain. So just the nature of that narration I find so fascinating.
Wes: Yeah, it’s so strongly… so strongly allegorical. And yet he’s trying to tell us that otherwise, as if it’s some sort of news account.
Erin: It’s great. Like he says (and this is about Claggart): “His portrait I essay, but shall never hit it.” It’s like: “Okay”
Erin: Claggart is an interesting guy. So he’s the master-at-arms, so he’s like a… the police chief.
Wes: He’s kind of the head of the secret police. Master of arms used to train people in the use of arms and managed that. But that function ceased, as Melville puts it, and it became a sort of secret chief of police charged with preserving order.
Erin: Yeah, and he’s a good-looking guy. He’s like a Greek medallion, except for his sort of heavy chin, which is interesting. But the thing that makes him immediately out to be suspicious, perhaps, is the fact that he has this white skinned complexion, which contrasts with the red or the bronze faces of the sailors because Claggart is always below deck. Melville says that even the fact that he’s always below deck can’t really account for how pale he is, and that contrast with the other sailors is notable. So there’s something really sinister about that, I think, like you have the frankness of the men in the sun getting red, getting tanned. There’s a kind of… like an honesty about that. Whereas Claggart, lurking in the shadows, being pale like we could tell that he is not a good guy.
Wes: He’s a ghoulish type of figure…
Wes: …so he’s almost like a monster. [laughter] So “his complexion, tho’ it was not exactly displeasing, nevertheless seemed to hint of something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood. But his general aspect and manner was so suggestive of an education and career incongruous with his naval function that when not actively engaged in it, he looked like a man of high quality social moral who, for reasons of his own, was keeping incog.”
Erin: This is contrasted with Billy Budd, who, we learn, was left in a basket. [laughter] A-ha.
Wes: Oh, really?
Wes: I didn’t know, I didn’t realize that. So agnosis.
Erin: Yeah, exactly. The narrator says: “Yes, Billy Budd was a foundling, a presumable by-blow, and, evidently, no ignoble one. Noble descent was as evident in him as in a blood horse.” Yeah, so the suggestion of something greater and Claggart is going to turn out to be false, but the whole… you know, we never learned Billy’s parentage or anything, but he’s evidently noble.
Wes: So with Billy Budd and with Claggart and Vere, we get three characters who are kind of out of place in this environment, in their different ways. And what Claggart and Vere seem to have in common is this education that’s incongruous with their being in the Navy, so maybe a level of sophistication that doesn’t seem to match their career. And then that’s just basically where the similarities end. And with Claggart we get this… there’s talk of an accent, and maybe he’s not even English, he’s naturalized, he… there’s like a hint of an accent. And then the sort of rumors that go around the crew, you know, maybe he was impressed people, I don’t think we define that. Which is to say they… that Billy is impressed at the beginning, he’s taken by force off a merchant ship, and they told him “You have to be a Marine now, You have to serve the Royal Navy now”. In Claggart’s case there are rumors that he was impressed from prison, right?
Wes: So maybe out of debtor’s prison or something like that. But nothing about this is really known and I think Melville chalks this up to the lack of imagination on the part of the sailors where they detect something sinister in him and they have to associate that with criminality of the usual sort, of the ordinary and degraded sort. When Claggart is actually not that kind of criminal, he’s more of a maniacal master villain, let’s say, even though he’s… he doesn’t do such a great job of that.[laughter] He has taken out pretty easily and quickly, but…
Erin: Yeah, that’s true. That’s actually really funny [laughter]
Wes: Yeah, it is as if Dr. Evil were just knocked out cold in the very first scene. [laughter] We get a lot of characterization with him, you know, It’s in this chapter, and then in Chapter 11.
Erin: He’s kind of like the flip side of Billy, where Billy is the natural man, Claggart is natural depravity.
Wes: Exactly. I think that’s really important. So these are… both of these things we tend to associate with, again, with habituation or upbringing or education, something like that, where it’s virtuousness and viciousness, which are the result of acculturation to a large extent. But temperament does play a role, too. But I think we might not be used to thinking that people could be just born this way, that it could be completely natural that one could be either naturally virtuous and good or naturally evil, in the way it suggests that Claggart is.
Erin: I suppose I have a better time believing in natural depravity. But I think what he’s…
Wes: Why is that?
Erin: Ah, well! [laughter] I think anyone who knows a strong-willed two-year-old will have trouble [Wes laughs] believing that this sort of romantic ideal, that we’re all just born these innocent little cherubs and then society naturally corrupts us. And I think that virtue really doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Wes: You know, if we think about infants, they’re neither virtuous nor vicious, right? So they might seem cherubic at times and cute and purely innocent, and at other times they are just selfish little monsters who just have their desires and needs, and want those met, and don’t give a crap about anyone else. But they sort of transcend those distinctions there because they haven’t reached that point of maturity where we can start saying: “Oh, this person has a character,” where we can start blaming them for things and saying they… But I do think it has something to do with the point at which character starts to solidify and where we see certain habits develop in people, habits of mind and thinking and just as much as habits of behavior. It’s… somehow it’s easier to condemn people once they’ve been civilized, essentially.
Erin: What Claggart is… I think this is a description of a sociopath. Am I wrong? This is like pretty, pretty sociopathic.
Wes: Probably what we do know is that he is absolutely tortured by envy. Chapter 11 is where we get the idea that he’s vicious by nature, not because of habituation and that Claggart’s viciousness you can’t… it’s not really a matter of worldly experience. You have to have a certain spiritual insight into him because he’s not obviously an outwardly criminal and because he does have this reasonable mind and reasonable outward behavior. But then it serves these really irrational hard unsaying goals and it’s essentially, you know, it bears the mantle of respectability and it’s at home in civilization. And then it’s in Chapter 12 that we find out that Claggart is driven by envy of Billy Budd and in particular, envy of Billy Budd’s goodness and Billy Budd’s lack of malice. And there’s a great quote there about… So he envies the nature that “in its simplicity, never willed malice or experience the reactionary bite of that serpent.” And then we hear that Claggart is the only one “He’s the only one who adequately appreciated the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.” So there’s a strange sense in which Claggart is more aware of Billy Budd’s goodness and what it represents than anyone else, and that that is part of what tortures him because, you know, there’s a suggestion here that he might also might have loved, that they’re like star-crossed lovers or ill-fated lovers that, whether in the platonic or sexual sense, I think is meant to be ambiguous, but that he might have loved this person dearly if that had been possible. I think what we’re being told is that Claggart wants to be as good as Billy. He wants to have that goodness, but he can’t, so that he must act out his own evil part. He simply he’s stuck being himself. Billy is an entirely different sort of character. He’s his own sort of character as much as he aspires to be someone like Billy, which I think it’s clear he does. He can’t do that. And he can’t even have him as a friend, really, because his character is too incompatible. Therefore he must destroy it. So that’s essentially what envy is all about, right? You gotta…
Erin: Yeah. I…
Wes: …destroy it because you can’t have it. But sorry for that long speech. Go ahead.
Erin: No, when I read this, I immediately thought of one of my favorite hobbyhorse subjects, which is the contrast between Mozart and Salieri…
Erin: …or rather the, you know, the a-historical version of these two figures that we get in the plays and in the movie Amadeus, which I really want to cover at some point. It’s one of my favorite movies, but the parallels here, I think, are really strong, actually. So in this telling, Mozart is kind of presented as the romantic, you know, the natural man, right? Like… he’s flawed, though, so he’s like one of those sailors on shore-leave that Melville describes where his flaws are from this kind of like explosion of pent up emotion from being held captive on a ship for so long. So that’s why they go and they have… you know, they have sex with a lot of women and everything, and they engage in all these kind of vices when they’re on shore. So Mozart is that kind of person, I think. And Mozart, too like… is this kind of romantic figure, because he’s shown in the play and the movie as transcribing his compositions all the time. You know, like they’re these divine gifts, even though this has been kind of disproved, I think, like, I think Mozart actually revised and worked on a lot of stuff. He wasn’t just purely transcribing everything. So that’s kind of a romantic myth about him, maybe. And then Salieri as a Claggart, admittedly, a much better and more sympathetic Claggart. But the fact that the tension between these two figures is that Salieri can envy Mozart more than anyone else because he has the tools to understand Mozart’s genius better than anybody else can.
Erin: And so that reverses, interestingly, because Salieri also like destroys Mozart and then in the process, sort of destroys himself. And so even though Billy kills Claggart, the same kind of tension happens here that just… just the fact that Claggart has kind of set these wheels in motion has allowed Billy, even though he’s able to lash out and to kill Claggart, allows Billy’s own demise to kind of follow from that. So that idea that one would be the study of music, right? Like Salieri doesn’t have any kind of inherent genius but he has this super, super trained intellectual knowledge of music, which allows him to so appreciate what comes naturally to Mozart, which is just this natural gift from God. And I think that urbanity, that training… because I suppose in Claggart it’s like training how to best take advantage of people, is how he would have this understanding of this kind of unaffected… goodness is maybe the wrong word, but this sort of innocence. Claggart’s study of that innocence, I think, is maybe the parallel that I’m finding. I… It is not a perfect parallel, obviously, but music and the fact that there could be this dual nature to something that can either be naturally inborn or acquired with a lot of study.
Wes: Well, I think you’re getting at the peculiar nature of envy, which is that it is very attuned to the good. The capacity to be envious is intimately related to the desire for what’s good and even the desire to be good, strangely enough. So Melville, in his Chapter 12, actually gives a very sophisticated account of envy. You know, he starts off by saying “Now envy and antipathy, passions irreconcilable in reason, nevertheless in fact may spring conjoined like Chang and Eng in one birth. Is Envy then such a monster?” What he’s saying there is that there’s a difference between hating someone because they have slighted you, because they’ve done you wrong, and hating someone because they have something that you want. It’s kind of odd when you think about it. Billy Budd is so good, and I want to be good and, I wanna have that. Why do I need to destroy it? Why does wanting to be like Billy Budd, to have that quality that’s in him, why does that lead to the desire to destroy him? And this is a big… you know, envy is a pretty foundational concept, actually in psychoanalysis. So it’s a big subject, and it’s… I’ve always found it extremely difficult to understand, and there’s a lot of literature on this. But I think part of what’s going on is that there is a despair at the idea that what is good is outside of us. We wanna have it very simply and naturally inside of ourselves. So that goes even for, at a very early age, right, maternal administrations, including mother’s milk. There’re certain theorists who will say, and Melanie Klein is among them, that the envy is of a good thing itself, in the sense that you want to take it inside of you and have it simply inside of you. So you’re not dependent on the vagaries of something that’s outside of you. You know, is mother going to come back? Am I going to get fed again? Am I going to get fed on time? So the idea of destroying it is related to the idea of just consuming it and taking it into oneself finally, and not having to be tormented by the fact that it is a separate thing from you. So that’s a little sketch of some of the issues involved here. But what he… what Melville does is he goes on to say that, oddly enough, Claggart’s malice -let’s just read some of this- “Claggart’s envy struck deeper. If askance he eyed the good looks, cheery health and frank enjoyment of young life in Billy Budd, it was because these went along with a nature that, as Claggart magnetically felt, had in its simplicity never willed malice or experienced the reactionary bite of that serpent. To him, the spirit lodged within Billy, and looking out from his welkin eyes as from windows, that ineffability it was which made the dimple in his dyed cheek, suppled his joints, and dancing in his yellow curls made him preeminently the Handsome Sailor. One person excepted, the Master-at-arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.” Okay, so I stand corrected. Probably Vere is the other one, right?
Wes: “And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that of cynic disdain- disdain of innocence. To be nothing more than innocent! Yet in an aesthetic way he saw the charm of it, the courageous free-and-easy temper of it, and fain would have shared it, but he despaired of it. With no power to annul the elemental evil in him, tho’ readily enough he could hide it; apprehending the good, but powerless to be it; a nature like Claggart’s surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible, act out to the end the part allotted it.” So that is fantastic and really psychologically [laughter] spot on and settle. So we could have done a whole episode on this and just talked about the psychology of envy that Melville does so well in describing.
Erin: It’s my understanding and perhaps you touched on this, I’m sorry, that there’re really two kinds of envy then? There’s like a malicious form of envy, which involves the desire to destroy the other person who has the thing that you want or to begrudge them something, and then there’s a kind of an admiring form of envy? So, like a certain amount of envy is healthy, right? It tends towards a kind of self-improvement. You wanna make yourself better. You see something that someone else has and you say. “Okay, I’m going to improve myself in order to get that thing or to be that”?
Wes: Psychoanalysts might avoid calling one of those things envy. But I think you’re right. They’re related. Seeing something outside of oneself and identifying with it, and wanting to become like it, wanting to become it. Those are developmentally, of course, you know, normal and important, and they help us have and achieve ambitions. And the distinguishing feature here is the sense that Claggart has, that he’s… he despairs of it so he can’t have it, he can’t become it.
Erin: Yeah. And that’s the idea here is that there can be no positive element to his. I mean, if we take that as what I said for being somewhat true or whatever, that there are these two strains of envy, it could never be the positive form of envy for Claggart, or even for… in the the Mozart-Salieri analogy, for Salieri because the thing he’s envious of, innocence, is something he’s incapable of getting back. He’s incapable of emulating it because once lost, it’s lost forever. Then, you know, Salieri, too, like sees the pure gift of Mozart, which he’s incapable of ever attaining, so that no matter how hard you work, even if you achieve the same heights as Mozart or something you could never have the natural gift, like the working is what makes it unlike Mozart, the striving. And no matter how Claggart strives, he could never go back to the prelapsarian state that Billy represents.
Wes: Right. If we have a healthier adjustment then, when we’re motivated by having, say, you know, role models, for instance, which is part of what you’re talking about. We stay a bit agnostic about whether we have a… the natural talent to live up to that role model, and we just enjoy the fact that there’s something to aspire to, and the process of working towards that, and trying to live up to that, whatever our natural capacities may be. Part of what fuels envy is an intolerance for the uncertainty involved in that and a demand to actually live up to the ideal. So it’s one thing to have aspirations and it’s another to think that living up to them is absolutely necessary to one’s existence and one cannot live without it. So there’s an intolerance for longing, there’s an intolerance for this thing being outside of oneself. In a way it’s like having the feeling that I have to have this now and anything less than that is terrible. So it deprives people of the capacity even to work towards what they want. It’s too crippling. So part of what has crippled Claggart is that he is so strongly oriented towards the good, strangely enough, he’s so strongly oriented towards wanting to have it that he can’t let himself fall short of it and be in a tense relation of desire towards it. It’s got to be all or nothing. And so, if it can’t be all then his role is to try and destroy its existence outside of himself, so he doesn’t have to be tormented by the appearance of it, right, by the fact that it’s outside of him. So if an envious person could get rid of everything good in the world, so that they’d have nothing to envy, then at least they’d be free of that torment, even if they didn’t have anything positively good for themselves. Very good comparison to Salieri and Mozart. I think that’s very informative.
Erin: The whole Mozart-Salieri thing, I think about all the time.
Erin: I think that most people can be… they’ve got a lot of virtues. People are either a Mozart or a Salieri. [Wes laughs] Like some people just have a natural… I don’t know. I have a lot of theories about that, that people always envy those others who have virtues that were part of their nature, that we all envy the virtues that other people have.
Wes: Yeah, I think I think this is important because it’s part of what gets Billy Budd in trouble, is this… It doesn’t seem like he has to work for anything. It doesn’t seem like it. Any of his good qualities have cost him anything. He’s a naturally envy-producing sort of character, and it’s going to lead him to… there’s a kind of monomaniacal obsession that Claggart has with Billy Budd, and I think Vere will turn out to have it as well. Vere’s desire to… completely irrational and unhinged desire to destroy Billy, kill him as quickly as possible. It’s not motivated by envy, but we’ll have to talk about what motivates it. It’s motivated by the same sorts of things that have caused envy in Claggart. Do we have anything more to say about Claggart first, or should we get to Vere?
Erin: Yeah, just to what you were saying. I think this is kind of important in Chapter 14 or 15, when Claggart’s referred to his monomaniacal. To your point about Billy, it says… I think this is talking about how he just can’t understand why Claggart is down on him. The passive aggression, it completely goes over Billy’s head. And he says: “Had the Foretopman been conscious of having done or said anything to provoke the ill will of the official, it would have been different with him, and his sight might have been purged if not sharpened. As it was, innocence was his blinder” and then a little further down: “the general popularity that our Handsome Sailor’s manly forwardness bred upon occasion, and his irresistible good-nature, indicating no mental superiority tending to excite an invidious feeling, this good will on the part of most of his shipmates made him the less to concern himself about such mute aspects toward him as those whereto allusion has just been made.” So I think that what this is saying is his lack of mental superiority means that he’s never really excited envy in very many people. [laughter]
Wes: That’s a good point. I’m wrong about that.
Erin: It’s strange. So even though he’s… he seems like this really enviable guy, I think Belleville is saying that he’s never really encountered someone who was so able to understand him before as Claggart and therefore has never had to deal with…
Erin: …envy or someone who’s down on him.
Wes: To truly envy him you have to comprehend the moral phenomenon that he is.
Erin: Right. I don’t mean to belabor this point, but I think this just speaks to the incredible psychological complexity that Melville is dealing in here. That Billy and Claggart have to be, well, so well suited [laughter] to each other to bring out all of these… And as he says: “As to Claggart, the monomania in the man…” -and that’s monomania, you know, of course- puts me in mind of Captain Ahab immediately “…–if that indeed it were–as involuntarily disclosed by starts in the manifestations detailed, yet in general covered over by his self-contained and rational demeanour; this, like a subterranean fire was eating its way deeper and deeper in him. Something decisive must come of it.” I mean, this just seems so true to me that the descriptions of Claggart’s like little petty… building petty things up and talking about making his conscience a tutor to his will… or no, a lawyer for his will. This is just so, so true that in the clash of these two people that it would bring out this incredible contrast that then we just know that something, even though, you know, Melville is telling us this, and we know because the story is going somewhere, that something decisive must come of it, like we just know that in the clash between these two people, it’s almost like there’s been a breach in nature, and one of them, or both of them are going to have to end up dead. And the inevitability of that just because of the stakes that Melville sets up with this complex clash. Yeah, it’s really remarkable.
Wes: That’s why I think this book could have been called Kill Billy [laughter]
Erin: Yes. [laughter]
Wes: …because the… you know, he can’t possibly survive. [laughter]
Erin: Right, right.
Wes: Yeah, once it’s set up in the beginning, yeah, he’s got to go. There’s a tremendous pressure and driving force, I think, towards Billy’s destruction.
Erin: That’s a great way to put it. That’s what I was trying to say. Yeah, that the psychological contrast between these two is so great that it sets up this engine towards both their deaths.
Wes: But I think also what you’re saying, which is very important, is that, yeah, I had thought of Billie as someone who might excite envy more broadly, and that, of course, is not the case. That’s why he’s so well-liked on this ship. And it takes a Claggart to be subject to that because of Claggart’s unique, you know, orientation towards the good and towards the moral phenomenon that Billy is. And we get a big hint, you know, that Vere is the only other person who appreciates that as well. And of course, Veer ends up being someone who seems equally intent on [laughter] “killing Billy”. So Chapter 17: this is where we get some of this sense that Claggart is in love with Billy. He would catch a glance of Billy having fun with other sailors and then he would get a meditative and melancholy expression, “his eyes strangely suffused with incipient feverish tears. Then would Claggart look like the man of sorrows. Yes, 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.” It’s a kind of love where he wants to… He loves the moral phenomenon that Billy is and in a way desires to be him but can’t have those relations.
Erin: Yeah, it just strikes me how many times he references people’s eyes like he talks about the clearness of Billy’s eyes, like windows. And then the fact that his innocence, though, is a blinder and then Claggart, looking at him and having his eyes cloud…
Wes: But we get a flash of red, right?
Erin: Oh, yeah, that’s a great moment.
Wes: Yeah, that’s… very devilish.
Erin: And isn’t Vere described as having gray eyes? Or did I just attribute those to him…
Wes: I don’t know.
Erin: …out of a sense of necessity [laughter] for famous gray eyes as being like a fina? So should we go to the description of Vere, then?
Wes: Yeah, let’s do that.
Erin: Should we perhaps say the contrast that Melville sets up prior to this talking a little bit about Nelson and…?
Wes: Yeah, let’s do that.
Erin: So he describes Nelson as being, as Tennison calls him, the best sailor who ever lived, or something like that. That Nelson is this kind of flashy guy and when he’s killed in the Battle of Trafalgar, I guess the conventional wisdom was that because he was wearing all of his military adornments on his coat that it made him a target. So he was shot and killed at Trafalgar, even though the battle was won, and that there was something about this that was maybe unmilitary about that, that he’s too flashy, that he’s too vain. And yet there’s something that Melville says that we really have to admire about him. And he describes him as being like a priest wearing these jeweled robes, ready to sacrifice himself. That Nelson was this because of his showiness, he was like a trumpet to the blood, I think. That’s what he’s called because of his larger-than-life persona and his flashiness. He’s incapable of inspiring this tremendous loyalty for men, which is really important at this time when so many people are mutinying. So we have the Nelson description, and then closely following it is this description of Vere, who is maybe, like the anti-Nelson.
Wes: So in this chapter, I guess it’s Chapter 4, right, one of the interesting up shots of that chapter is essentially the thesis that a sense of obligation and the ability to get things done actually sometimes requires a love of glory and even a kind of pretentiousness. He compares this to like purple prose in writing.
Erin: Yeah, it’s like a poet putting an epic in diverse or something.
Wes: Yeah, so sometimes those things are more important to getting things done or to fulfilling one’s obligations than dispassionate prudence, which is just elaborating on the point you just made about Nelson inspiring loyalty. There’s this more general idea there that somehow fulfilling our obligations is somehow connected to this love of glory as well. We’ll have to figure out how that relates to Vere because it’s obviously there for a reason, and it’s but it’s not obvious how it’s connected to Vere to me.
Erin: You know, the appearance, I think, accounts for a lot in this book. So the first description of Veer that we get, so Melville tells us: “Ashore in the garb of a civilian, scarce anyone would have taken him for a sailor, more especially that he never garnished unprofessional talk with nautical terms, and grave in his bearing, evinced little appreciation of mere humor.” So the contrast to set up right away that the outward appearance of Nelson, his flashiness, the idea that he wears all of his military adornments on his person and therefore kind of declares himself in battle, in a way, it’s like he deliberately set himself up as a target or something because he was willing to put himself on the line in a strange way. But the contrast with Vere is that if you saw him, you know he’s so unpretentious that it looks like he’s just a civilian on board, and that also kind of contributes to this humorlessness, his gravity, his… as we’ll soon see, his kind of inability to make small talk with people or relate to people in any kind of way that isn’t this purely philosophical, dry, amusing that he seems to do, or he [laughter- indistinct] in conversation with the sailors who are uneducated. He’ll make all of these references to, like, ancient Roman philosophy, and [laughter] they have no idea what he’s talking about so that they have no personal relationship with this guy. Whereas Nelson is all about this personal relationship.
Wes: I was going to read a little more of some of this description that you started reading: “But in fact this unobtrusiveness of demeanour may have proceeded from a certain unaffected modesty of manhood sometimes accompanying a resolute nature, a modesty evinced at all times not calling for pronounced action, and which shown in any rank of life suggests a virtue aristocratic in kind.” Then it goes on to say “betrays a certain dreaminess of mood” and there are times when he would be absently gazing off at the blank sea, which is a description will see repeated later on during the trial of Billy Budd. He’d be somewhat irascible if you interrupted his thoughts, although he would quickly hide that and suppress that. And then, in Chapter 7, we learn that, you know, he has a marked leaning towards everything intellectual. And he reads a lot, but that his reading is… he prefers non fiction to fiction, and that his reading has led him to certain (quote-unquote) “settled convictions”, which are… turned out to be conservative convictions, convictions which run against the revolutionary ethos associated with what happened in France and with the mutinies. And that’s because we learn that he sees this more conservative approach as a means to peace and to the welfare of mankind and because it leads to more stable institutions. Billy has been impressed from a ship called The Rights of Men, right? It’s full of symbolic significance. It’s part of… that sort of slogan is part of the rationale for the French Revolution and for revolutions more generally and what we have in Vere and The Bellipotent, Is that how you pronounce it? The Bellipotent, the name of the ship. It might be called The Indomitable in your version.
Erin: Oh! Does it have another name?
Wes: Yeah, it does, because there are different versions of this, and because this novella was unfinished and had to be kind of put together by people after the fact. I think it was put together in the 1920s. And then there was another version put together in 1960s by scholars and the name changed from The Indomitable to The Bellipotent.
Erin: Oh, shoot. So I’ve been reading from some earlier version, cause I noticed that even some of the passages you were reading seemed a little bit more cleaned up than mine. Now that now that you say that… [laughter]
Wes: What’s your version?
Erin: This is Enriched Classics Edition, published June 1972 and it’s from an edition copyright in 1948.
Wes: Yeah. I think it was the 60s when they redid that. So they made a kind of definitive edition based on laborious scholarship and made some of these decisions. But I don’t think it’s a huge deal.
Erin: So what’s the name of the ship?
Wes: The Bellipotent. B-E-L-L-I-P-O-T-E-N-T.
Erin: That’s a little on the nose for me. I don’t know. [laughter] I like Indomitable better. That seems more indomitable. [laughter] Yeah, okay, interesting.
Wes: So anyway, I was just getting into the fact that Vere is a good representative of the more conservative tendency where rights are less important than the preservation of order. You know, in Chapter 7 we get… what we get is that he’s developed these opinions through reading and these are, you know, (quote-unquote) “settled convictions.” So he’s basically a dogmatist, he’s not really open to revision on these things. And…
Erin: Yeah, so he’s dry, he’s bookish, like you say. I think his preference for order over individuals is really what makes him the reverse of Nelson. Maybe an order is kind of this abstract concept, like… He’s a very abstract guy, I think. Even the fact that he just… he spent a lot of time just looking out at the ocean and pondering things and not.. you know. Whereas, as Nelson declares his person in battle and things are very personal to Nelson, Vere strikes me as impersonal, says that his fellow officers found him lacking in the companionable quality, a dry and bookish gentlemen, as they deemed. He’s not good company. “There’s the queer streak of the pedantic running through him.” The captain’s discourse never fell into the joculously familiar, but in illustrating of any point touching the stirring personages and events of the time, he would be as apt to cite some historic character or incident of antiquity as that he would cite from the moderns, and he had no idea of the effect that it’s had on people that nobody was really interested in his examples from antiquity that they had never heard of before. So there’s something just in this nickname of his, Starry Vere that he’s concerned with these abstractions with these larger issues and then can very easily apply them to real life circumstances without necessarily having like… I suppose, his conscience is bothered by this. He could take all these abstractions and apply them to these very real circumstances. In a way that’s sort of like, fundamentally dispassionate. And I think that dispassionateness, or that abstraction, is related to this vague thinking, which I haven’t fully worked out yet. This morning, all these characters as being in sort of… like a constellation (pardon the pun with Starry Vere) is sort of like constellation of passivity that in a strange way, that Vere, deciding that Billy must die, even though it’s, you know, a death by hanging, which is like a fundamentally active thing like you kill someone. It’s actually more passive than if he had taken a more active measure and tried to save Billy,
Wes: Right. So it’s passivity in relation to the order to which they are subjecting themselves. So which is, you know, the starry constellation thing gets at this subservience to a higher fixed order of things. The issues that’s being brought up is whether, in the face of the threat of mutiny, is it better to have someone like Nelson, who can win allegiance with his heroic personality? Or do you kind of terrorize the crew? Quote “the crew into base subjection” unquote. So where terrorizing them involves martial law, it involves the imposition of order without accounting for good intentions or extenuating circumstances, it’s just the blind imposition of rules without exception, as necessary to order, and doing that by producing fear and people or by habituating them or by getting them to kind of in a routine way, take certain steps. So later on, we’ll see when after Billy’s executed and there’s sort of a murmur going up among the sailors, they get called back to order, and they’re essentially suppressed by being given orders and by being reincorporated into their everyday routine. So the drums start up again and they have something to do. And so they go back to their stations or whatever. So part of it is inducing people with fear, and part of it is just relying on the fact that they are so used to certain routines. And then the Nelson approach is something different: it is about inspiration, it’s about eliciting. You know, as you were talking about the cousin of envy, which is the desire to identify and live up to some certain kind of ideal. And that’s the kind of thing that Vere doesn’t trust, right, and sends Claggart as a good case in point of what could go wrong if you do that. If you try and rule things based on glory, obviously there are lots of things that can go wrong, but you risk inducing not just idealization. You risk inducing envy. I think is the theory whether or not that’s true.
Erin: Yeah, so should we talk about Vere’s decision at the end? And I mean, have we gotten to that point?
Wes: Yeah, I think we have.
Erin: So do you think he did the right thing.
Wes: So it’s hard to… You know, I spent a lot of time trying to think about what this trial and the ending all mean exactly. I think it’s obviously wrong. I don’t think there’s a… Yeah, and maybe that’s just my prejudice coming to the fore.
Erin: I kind of disagree. I mean, it is obviously wrong, but it’s also… I think, it also had to happen.
Wes: So let’s just put it this way. There’s a lot of suggestion by Melville that Vere is unhinged. So in Chapter 20 we get a sense that once… so Billy responds to Claggart’s accusation first stuttering and can’t defend himself. And then Vere says “Defend yourself, man”, and then Billy punches Claggart and Claggart dies instantly. What happens is that kind of a light bulb goes off in Vere. Some transformation has been induced in him, so this is not just about his love of law and order. There’s something else that’s going on and that he’s in fact excited. “Was Captain Vere suddenly affected in his mind? Or was it but a transient excitement brought about by so strange and extraordinary a tragedy?” This is kind of from the surgeon’s point of view. Basically, what other personnel on this ship think should happen is that Billy should be confined and they should bring this before the admirable, the Navy, that they shouldn’t really just act rashly and try him and execute him, that there’s no real urgency to do this. But for Vere there there is this urgency. And so the surgeon is thinking: “Is Vere unhinged?” And that’s not the first time we’ll hear that multiple characters will basically have that impression of him, that basically Vere has lost his mind. And this brings up the idea in the surgeon -I think it is, yes, it’s all the surgeon- the possibility of mutiny, the possibility of saying: “Okay, you’re you’re crazy. You could no longer have command of the ship,” ironically. So despite the fact that there’s this worry about mutiny and that law and order must be swiftly imposed, it seems like it comes close to backfiring. Well, we’ll have to get over Chapter 21 which is the longest chapter, in the trial, and Vere’s big speech and all that.
Erin: Yeah, this is the irony of mutiny, right? And and the irony of the fact that he has to try Billy under the Mutiny Act. I was trying to think about this and the inevitability of Billy’s death, and just… I was trying to just think of “What is the law supposed to do?” I mean, obviously, that’s an incredibly difficult thing to define. But if we say that the law is going to be the administration of justice, then obviously justice has not been done in this case. Sometimes by following the literal letter of the law that justice is actually like, impeded in a way. But mutinies have, I think, and Melville highlights this at the beginning, they have a sort of a mixture, often, of just and unjust causes. Sometimes it’s right to mutiny, and then you have to deal with the consequences of that or be tried or whatever. But isn’t it the case? Am I getting this wrong, that if you found just cause to commandeer the ship, then you can actually be exonerated by trial, in England anyway?
Wes: I don’t know. That wouldn’t surprise me, and it’s of the Nore and Spithead mutinies. The Spithead was resolved relatively quickly, right, and the mutineers had pretty reasonable demands because they were being mistreated and their demands ultimately were met. So there was a positive outcome to that one.
Wes: The Nore went in a different direction. [laughter]
Erin: Yeah. I mean, I guess the tension of mutiny is like when do I have the right to break the law to serve a higher justice? And at the time that the Mutiny Act was put in place, so that no one would ever take it upon themselves to break the law in pursuit of that (quote-unquote) “higher justice”, because the tenuous circumstances of the time means that the whole, you know, English system could potentially crumble. Melville has these great descriptions of like the red embers from the French Revolution being blown across the channel, and England was worried about catching fire. So the tension, I think in this expression of the Mutiny Act is kind of the same. It’s like if Vere decided that justice couldn’t be served in this case by following the letter of the law, he would be, in a sense, like mutinying against the Mutiny Act. And that would be the ultimate hypocrisy. So I think that he had really no other choice, even though he is insane and even though the very expression of following the Mutiny Act to the letter induces this kind of desire for mutiny or this fear of Vere’s insanity in the surgeon. But I don’t know, I haven’t really thought enough about this, but it seems to me like it would be a hypocrisy not to follow through with the Mutiny Act.
Wes: Yeah, that’s really interesting. So he’ll say that in one place: “We proceed under the law of the Mutiny Act. In feature no child can resemble his father more than that Act resembles in spirit the thing from which it derives–War. In His Majesty’s service–in this ship indeed–there are Englishmen forced to fight for the King against their will. Against their conscience, for aught we know.” And then there are people on the other side doing that as well. People you know, basically you would agree with us, their conscripts, for instance: “War looks but 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.” So this is the speech he’s making to the jury, that… of three officers that he’s assembled and officers that he’s chosen because he thinks that they’re going to just do what he wants to do, [laughter] that they’re not going to make their own free decision about this because they all are attending. Of course, they wanna exonerate Billy or because, really, what’s going on under ordinary circumstances? This isn’t about law versus chaos or anarchy, because under… in a normal legal system… and, as Vere says, you know, if this were in a regular court at home, you would take into account Billy Budd’s intent, take into account the fact that he was defending himself against the false accuser and that he didn’t intend to kill Claggart and all that stuff. Ultimately, he might be convicted of manslaughter and get a… whatever punishment fits that sort of crime. So there’s a lot of really interesting stuff, he says here.
Erin: I think I have a good passage that might facilitate this. So, he says: “Our avowed responsibility is in this: That however pitilessly that law may operate, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it. ‘But the exceptional in the matter moves the hearts within you. Even so too is mine moved. But let not warm hearts betray heads that should be cool. Ashore in a criminal case will an upright judge allow himself off the bench to be waylaid by some tender kinswoman of the accused seeking to touch him with her tearful plea? Well the heart here denotes the feminine in man is as that piteous woman, and hard tho’ it be, she must here be ruled out.’” This gets to what you’re saying, the difference between the land and sea justice or something. He goes through the facts and he says… who actually has this great paragraph “‘To steady us a bit, let us recur to the facts.–In war-time at sea a man-of-war’s-man strikes his superior in grade, and the blow kills. Apart from its effect, the blow itself is, according to the Articles of War, a capital crime. Furthermore-’ ‘Ay, Sir,’ emotionally broke in the officer of marines, ‘in one sense it was. But surely Budd purposed neither mutiny nor homicide.’ ‘Surely not, my good man. And before a court less arbitrary and more merciful than a martial one, that plea would largely extenuate. At the Last Assizes it shall acquit. But how here? We proceed under the law of the Mutiny Act.’”
Wes: You know, the other part of what he’s saying here is that I can tell you’re hesitating because of a “clash of military duty with moral scruple– scruple vitalized by compassion. For the compassion, how can I otherwise than share it? But, mindful of paramount obligations I strive against scruples that may tend to enervate decision. Not, gentlemen, that I hide from myself that the case is an exceptional one. Speculatively regarded, it well might be referred to a jury of casuists. But for us here acting not as casuists or moralists, it is a case practical, and under martial law practically to be dealt with. But your scruples: do they move as in a dusk? Challenge them. Make them advance and declare themselves.” So just to sum it all up, there’s natural justice in which we consider motives and in which we can be motivated by scruple and by empathy and by private conscience. But none of those things where the issue in Martial Law, none of those things count. The intent of Billy Budd doesn’t count, our scruples and our conscience don’t count. All that counts is that we have to be decisive because, you know, we might get attacked any moment now, and we always have to be able to act quickly. We’re always in a state of emergency. We don’t have time for due process, we don’t have time to think about the rights of men. All we have time to do is to look to the frontage, as he puts it. All we have to do is to analyze particular acts at the surface level without delving deeper into them, without delving into the intent and consciousness of the people involved in them, and to make decisions based on that surface level analysis. So none of that really is all that convincing to the jurors. I think they would still hold out if it weren’t for the final argument that he makes, which is that, look, if you don’t convict and hang Billy Budd, the rest of the sailors are just not sophisticated enough to understand that. And you’re putting us in danger of a munity because they will think we’re fearful they will think we’ve lost our nerve. They will think that we didn’t have the spine to do the thing that we’re supposed to do. They’re not gonna understand the nuances of the case and whether Billy meant to do it. They just know that Billy was accused. You know, there’s a rumor that he’s accused of mutiny, and then he didn’t, although knows he didn’t get punished for it. So that’s a different but related sort of argument. And that’s the thing that the jury and the end finds convincing. But you know, all of this, I think, is oriented in the final analysis towards the preservation of order. There’s also something else that Vere will say later on, which I think is worth bringing up. This is after the multitude has been… you know, after the execution of Billy Budd, when people are… they’re beating to quarters and hour early and Vere says this is necessary for the mood of his men. So he’s kind of suppressing their dissatisfaction by getting them back to work. And he’ll say, with mankind, he would say, forms, measured forms are everything. And this is the import couched in the story of Orpheus, with his lyre spellbinding the wild denizens of the wood. So you don’t rely on people’s intentions, on their good natures, on the fact that they might be closer than not to being a Billy Budd or have the right untrained instincts. You get them to act according to these certain forms -which we could talk about what that means in a second- thoughtlessly, mindlessly, just because they’re told to do that, just because they’ve been conditioned to obey authority. And that is the conservative instinct, right? And that’s what’s supposed to preserve order, especially in times of emergency, where you don’t have time for due process and due process could open you up to the possibility of being overtaken by the enemy or by an insurrection from within, because you’re no longer respected for your hardness.
Erin: I think that the argument of that in the argument that Vere uses to convince his foe jury turns out to be true. And that’s why I think this is unavoidable. Vere understands how there’s talking here of men having to stand behind the officers, rather having to stand behind the men on these men of warships, loading the cannons with guns or with swords to make sure that none of them mutiny. So the direness of this situation, I think, is important to understand. But then, in toward the last chapter, second last chapter, there’s this report of the newspaper article about the occurrence on The Indomitable that Claggart had apprehended a ringleader, William Budd, and this false narrative that’s created from this, where Billy… let’s see: “Claggart, in the act of arraigning the man before the captain, was vindictively stabbed to the heart by the suddenly drawn sheath-knife of Budd.” You know, Budd is then accused of being not an Englishman, that he’s a depraved criminal. So basically, Claggart and Billy have, like, switched places in this account, in the newspaper. It continues that Claggart is this hero, that “he is one of those petty officers… upon whom His Majesty’s Navy so largely depends.” “The criminal paid the penalty of his crime. The promptitude of the punishment has proved salutary. Nothing amiss is now apprehended aboard the H.M.S. Indomitable.” So it seems to me that though this story gets everything wrong, this is exactly the kind of editorializing or fantastical reporting that could open the story up to scrutiny and potentially inside mutiny if Vere allowed it to go unpunished. Since Vere has swiftly killed Billy. He has put everyone’s fears to rest, and they say nothing is amiss now aboard The Indomitable. So this exact kind of false report seems to me to kind of prove Vere’s point.
Wes: Yeah, I think it depends on how much credence do we put in the assumption that the causes of mutiny are about a lack of law and order as opposed to there being about the mistreatment of the sailors, right?
Erin: That’s a good question.
Wes: Which is kind of a classic political question, right? Are we…? You know, we… if the whole to-fund- the-police-thing, for instance recently, is that, I think, the argument by some is that we don’t need as many police, or maybe we don’t need the police at all, which, I think, this is rather quixotic, but this is the form of the argument. We don’t need them at all if we simply treat people better. And if people have enough to eat and they aren’t suffering and they’re treated well and so there’s no need for crime. So that’s a kind of extreme, quixotic version of that argument. The other alternative, right, which we brought up at the beginning is you have a leader who inspires people and wins their allegiance, wins their loyalty, which is something that Vere cannot do and which Vere does not trust. That cult of personality, I think, you probably would rightly point out, is not a good foundation for any society, for any sort of political order, although it… even though it may work with… spectacularly in some limited situations. But I think the question here is, yeah, the extent to which we’re relying on the administration of social justice to produce order? Or did the extent would to which we’re relying on punitive measures and the habituation of people to follow rules and all of that stuff? So I don’t know. I think maybe I’m just getting sucked in by the views of the surgeon or my own. You know, I’m not doing enough to interrogate my own scruples, as Vere would put it. My strong feeling was that he’s unhinged. He’s kind of has a monomaniacal obsession with destroying Billy Budd that has nothing really to do with what’s required to establish order. And I think he has that because he, you know, it reflects a fundamental distrust of our own impulses. It reflects a subscription to a Hobbesian view of the state of nature, right, nasty, brutish and short. And we need the restrictions of civil society to take care of that. And likewise, we need social repression of such impulses in order to make us civilized. And the opposing point of view is the resilient view of human nature where civilization is the problem, right? Before civilization we’re a bunch of Billy Budds, we’re a bunch of noble savages. And the strongest instinct, according to Rousseau, is empathy and cooperativeness and altruism. And we get aggression not because it’s natural, not because violence and aggression are natural in the state of nature, but because civilization actually produces them. The account is more complex than that because it turns out that empathy actually helps produce violence as well. Because we, in empathizing with others, we come to the demand that they empathize with us. So empathy turns out to be the seed of civilization. And so it leads to all of these problems anyway. But yeah, I think that’s the… these are the two kind of conflicting views that we’re getting out here.
Erin: I’ll just say to that, arguing for Vere, that puts me in an uncomfortable position because I mean, I’m against the death penalty. And yet I’m, you know… [laughter]
Wes: What are you, a sociopath?
Erin: Yeah, exactly. It pains me to defend him, but the parallel that’s drawn here for us by Melville, which is kind of interesting, is the Abraham and Isaac parallel, though in this instance, of course, there is no reprieve from God, from the governor. It’s something that just has to be carried out because the forces are larger than Abraham and the forces are larger than Vere demand that it be carried out. That parallel is kind of ironically made, I think. And there’s also the chaplain who sees an exception in Billy. Just as Vere perhaps doesn’t see the exception in Billy. Like, he says that the chaplain comes to Billy trying to kind of bring him to Christ, and he realizes that this is a futile effort. Melville writes: “Billy listened..” to… this is to the chaplain’s kind of proselytizing speech, “but less out of awe or reverence perhaps than from a certain natural politeness; doubtless at bottom regarding all that in much the same way that most mariners of his class take any discourse abstract or out of the common tone of the work-a-day world. And this sailor-way of taking clerical discourse is not wholly unlike the way in which the pioneer of Christianity full of transcendent miracles was received long ago on tropic isles by any superior savage so called–a Tahitian say of Captain Cook’s time or shortly after that time.” So he’s compared to the noble savage here directly, which, and I think you’re saying this too, that like this idea that ascribing this kind of saintliness to native peoples or this innocence, I think, is like, kind of reductive. He says the chaplain comes to this idea that Billy’s innocence is actually a better thing than religion to go with him to judgment. So the chaplain is trying to bring him to Christ. But then he’s like: “Well, you know what? Okay, this is basically just like this noble savage who’s just innocent. So actually, I’m going to make an exception for this guy and not [laughter] and not worry so much about bringing him to Christ because there’s something already saved in this prelapsarian demeanor that he has” and yet the chaplain is also described as basically just being like a cannon. He’s there on this ship, for appearance’s sake only. So this is another kind of complication. So he’s supposed to be a minister of the Prince of Peace, but actually he’s serving on a man of worship, so he’s actually serving the God of War, Melville says. He’s lending the sanction of religion to this idea of a place which is fundamentally martial, right? It’s ruled by Martial Law, it is a war making machine, and that is going to put the chaplain at odds with us. So the chaplain has already made a kind of immoral compromise by serving as a chaplain on this ship. He has to dress up whatever the captain does under the guise of proper Christianity. Then he goes to Billy, tries to convert Billy to Christianity before his death, and finds ultimately that Billy is this exception, that he doesn’t really have to convert him to Christianity because his innocence makes him not necessarily bound by the (quote-unquote) “laws of religion”. That would say that you have to be a Christian to enter into eternal life. So the chaplain, though he is also kind of a minister of this martial law, recognizes the exception that Billy represents. At the same time, the comparison to Abraham and Isaac is showing that maybe even God of the Christian God is operating under this kind of, for lack of a better term, dogmatism that England is operating under, though ultimately it’s only carried to a point, right? God comes in and says, Okay, I don’t actually want you to kill Isaac.
Wes: He wants to know that Abraham’s obedience transcends to him as God transcends.
Erin: Right. Right.
Wes: Any ethical commitment, any commitment to a set of ethical rules, which is comparable to martial authority, and, you know, you obey the king, not your conscience and not not normal legal stuff,
Erin: Right? What I’m kind of arguing here is that even though Vere is in the service of war, which is, you know, the opposite of what Christ represents, the Prince of Peace represents, he’s actually maybe doing something more biblical than not. [laughter]
Wes: Well… so he’s been compared to Pilot right. Some writers have compared him to Pontius Pilot, who actually did not share the Pharisees sense of urgency about putting Christ death and did so somewhat reluctantly, right, and then washed his hands of it. But in this case, you get the sense that Vere’s sense of urgency about killing Billy Budd has something to do with the urgency to create a kind of sacrifice as a means to the achievement of some sort of salvation. So on the one hand, what I think is going on is that what’s threatening about Billy Budd is he represents the possibility of goodness that is anarchical, goodness that is not necessarily related to civilization, and to order, and to the types of things that we typically rely on, I think we have to rely on, to create order and goodness in society. And so it seems like a counterexample and an exception to the rule that could destroy the rules altogether. And so, in a way, Billy Budd, you know, you might think that there’s a possibility of him being a kind of anti-Nelson, inducing in people a kind of loyalty to purely instinctual good nature that would cause them to become essentially anarchists, to cause them to become mutineers, to cause them to think that we don’t need rules. We don’t need no education [laughter] right? We can all be noble savages. Where for Claggart, he envies Billy’s goodness and therefore must destroy it. Vere must destroy it because it doesn’t fit in with his concept of the good and what creates the good, this sort of civilisational forms that are necessary for the good but just extending that. I haven’t thought this through, but I wonder how the concept of sacrifice works here because, as we know, you know, he’s sort of a Christ figure, well, he’s very obviously he’s not really settling it all right. He becomes a Christ figure at the end, and he’s kind of worshiped by the other sailors. But the question is why this sacrifice is necessary? You know, sacrifice is not unrelated to envy, right? The envious person wants to destroy the pure and good thing. And what is the sacrificial impulse, and how is it related to envy? That’s what I haven’t really worked out yet. You know, why the strong urge to make a sacrificial example of Christ, for that matter, as much as a Billy Budd, right? They’re, human exemplars, they’re living embodiments of something that is normally abstract, something that is of a goodness that we don’t normally get in that form, that we think as a merchant, usually under some kind of social order. And you would think that we would see those things as something that we need to preserve, that we need to preserve the individual as a… like the best exemplar of that social order. And somehow, by virtue of being that best exemplar, they become inconsistent with the order itself and their sacrifice can represent a commitment to that order. That’s the really crazy thing.
Erin: Yeah, and that desire to bring the abstract into the physical realm is sort of, you know, we even have the spar on which he’s hung relicized in the last chapter where just a chip off the piece of the cross. I think something about the sacrifice and its relation to envy is maybe paralleled in that same, like the desire to have a have a relic of a sacrifice is may be related to that good kind of envy, or that not quite envy that we were talking about before the aspirational nature of making Billy out to be a folk hero and of having a piece of his sacrifice that you can carry with you. That creation of a relic is more Nelsonian than it is Vere..rian [laughter] …Verial….[laughter]
Wes: Yeah, that’s very well put. Do you want to read any of the last part of this as our way of saying goodbye to Billy as he’s interred in the ocean?
Erin: Sure, his buried-at-sea event and his body’s surrounded by these birds: “The details of this closing formality it needs not to give. But when the tilted plank let slide its freight into the sea, a second strange human murmur was heard, blended now with another inarticulate sound proceeding from certain larger sea-fowl, whose attention having been attracted by the peculiar commotion in the water resulting from the heavy sloped dive of the shotted hammock into the sea, flew screaming to the spot. So near the hull did they come, that the stridor or bony creak of their gaunt double-jointed pinions was audible. As the ship under light airs passed on, leaving the burial-spot astern, they still kept circling it low down with the moving shadow of their outstretched wings and the croaked requiem of their cries.”
Wes: Yeah, really great. And this is another one of the things that leads to… because of the superstition of the sailors, you know, they begin to… There’s a kind of commotion gradually rising in them, like what Melville in several places calls “the murmur.” That’s put down by the drumbeat of them being returned to their stations, their work. Did you want to read that one last bit? The talk about the hanging his body?
Erin: Yeah. So the Purser is talking about the fact that Billy, when he’s hung, his body doesn’t twitch and spasm the way that I guess most bodies do after they’re hung, after they’re dead. So the Purser is discussing with the surgeon how strange it was that Billy’s body just is moving with the ship. It says: “In the pinioned figure, arrived at the yard-end, to the wonder of all no motion was apparent, none save that created by the ship’s motion.” So he’s just swinging along with the motion of the ship. Again, this kind of like naturalness, like he’s one with the wind or the waves or something. And so the Purser says: “What testimony to the force lodged in willpower.” He’s wondering, like, is it possible that Billy could have willed his body to be still after death so that he didn’t spasm? And the surgeon replies: “Your pardon, Mr. Purser. In a hanging scientifically conducted–and under special orders I myself directed how Budd’s was to be effected–any movement following the completed suspension and originating in the body suspended, such movement indicates mechanical spasm in the muscular system. Hence the absence of that is no more attributable to will-power as you call it than to horse-power–begging your pardon.” The Purser says: “But this muscular spasm you speak of, is not that in a degree more or less invariable in these cases?” “Assuredly so, Mr. Purser.” “How then, my good sir, do you account for its absence in this instance?” “Mr. Purser, it is clear that your sense of the singularity in this matter equals not mine. You account for it by what you call will-power, a term not yet included in the lexicon of science. For me I do not, with my present knowledge, pretend to account for it at all. Even should we assume the hypothesis that at the first touch of the halyards the action of Budd’s heart, intensified by extraordinary emotion at its climax, abruptly stopt–much like a watch when in carelessly winding it up you strain at the finish, thus snapping the chain–even under that hypothesis, how account for the phenomenon that followed?” So they’re almost saying that it could be that he died right before the hanging or right before the moment of the hanging, because he was so overcome with emotion that his heart stopped and therefore he was not properly hung or rather, his was not a death by hanging. And so they then described this idea of euthanasia like he killed himself by his own willpower, so as not to spasm after his death. And the singularity of the easy nature of his death or the beauty of it is what makes it so peculiar to the person. And then the surgeon tries to account for it through science and says, Well, there’s no such thing as willpower in science, which maybe is another point that I have to work out for this whole passivity thing, that the idea that he could have willed himself to die so that he wouldn’t make any more movement than was necessary is not to be accounted for, according to the surgeon. It’s interesting, like he would have finally exerted his will, but only so is not to move.
Wes: Right. Interesting.
Wes: But another thing that lends itself to his kind of divine status in this story.
Wes: All right?
Wes: Are we done?
Erin: I think so.
Wes: With poor, poor Billy.
Erin: Poor Billy. What a mensch.
Wes: Well, thank you.
Erin: Thank you.