Monday, April 16, 2007

Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor

Claire Denis’ haunting Beau Travail, which was inspired by Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor was my impetus for reading Melville’s book. The central theme of Billy Budd, Sailor is “Natural Depravity”, where corruption and hate bloom so naturally in some men, their actions though outwardly appear conformant and dialectic, reeks of incomprehensible and detestable psychological character. It is this unavoidable and intrinsic hatred that causes the master-at-arms John Claggart aboard The Indomitable to label as a false mutineer the newly impressed and handsome young titular sailor Billy Budd, affectionately referred to as “Baby Budd” in view of his inexperience at sea. The forethought and genius of Melville is in implicating Billy’s temporal speech impediment as a cause for helplessness at a time when his vocals were in desperate need and as a catalyst to spur his fatal blow against Claggart, causing a judgement of death to be imposed on the cherubic Billy. Melville’s prose, self-conscious and complex in delivery and theme, is more reflective than descriptive. The soul of the book lies in this one impeccably constructed statement:

For what can more partake of the mysterious than an antipathy spontaneous and profound, such as is evoked in certain exceptional mortals by the mere aspect of some other mortal however harmless he may be, if not called forth by this very harmlessness itself?

A couple of passages from the book that delve into the complexity of the antagonist:

But the thing which in eminent instances signalizes so exceptional a nature is this: though the man’s even temper and discreet bearing would seem to intimate a mind peculiarly subject to the law of reason, not the less in his heart he would seem to riot in complete exhaustion from that law, having apparently little to do with reason further than to employ it as an ambidexter implement for effecting the irrational. That is to say: Toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of malignity would seem to partake of the insane, he will direct a cool judgement sagacious and sound.

These men are true madmen, and of the most dangerous sort, for their lunacy is not continuous but occasional, evoked by some special object; it is probably secretive which is as much to say as it is self-contained, so that when, moreover, most active, it is to the average mind not distinguishable from sanity, and for the reason above suggested, that, whatever its aims may be – and the aim is never declared – the method and the outward proceeding are always perfectly rational.

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