Reading Melville’s “Billy Budd”

After my long march through The Nicomachean Ethics followed by an enthusiastic sprint through After Virtue, I took a vacation in fiction for a spell.

First, I read The Brothers Karamazov, which turned out to be a good pick. The analysis of the modern conundrum of incoherent and irreconcilable ethical philosophies that Alasdair MacIntyre gives in After Virtue is a good lens through which to view the characters and situations that Dostoyevsky depicts in Karamazov.

Next, I read a set of some of ’s shorter works, including Billy Budd and Bartleby, the Scrivener. I thought I might find in Bartleby something like an icon of conscientious objection, but no, not really; it seemed more of an absurd, Kafkaesque fable. Billy Budd, though, I thought was very interesting.

The story is about a young sailor, Billy Budd, who is impressed onto a British warship. He is good and innocent, to the point of caricature, and because of his goodness he is despised by the ship’s master-at-arms, John Claggart, who is his moral opposite (Melville devotes several chapters to describing Claggart’s “natural depravity,” a sort of unprovoked, innate evil).

The action takes place in , and Melville takes pains to put the politics that takes place on the ship in the context of the politics of Europe and of the British navy at that time — both of which are depicted as impatient and undisciplined mobs being held at bay by fragile and frightened traditional authorities. In the case of Europe, the background is the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the war between revolutionary France and the monarchies of Europe. In the case of the navy, the background is the Spithead and Nore mutinies.

The ship’s captain, Captain Vere, is an intellectual of practical bent, and a principled conservative:

His settled convictions were as a dyke against those invading waters of novel opinion, social, political and otherwise, which carried away as in a torrent no few minds in those days, minds by nature not inferior to his own. While other members of that aristocracy to which by birth he belonged were incensed at the innovators mainly because their theories were inimical to the privileged classes, not alone Captain Vere disinterestedly opposed them because they seemed to him incapable of embodiment in lasting institutions, but at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.

To Vere, a study of history and of current events in Europe proved the importance of preserving aristocratic institutions against the disorderly mob. And recent events in the British navy showed that revolutionary mobocracy was a threat even within the very bulwark defending Britain from Napoleon. Vere is depicted as an honest and honorable man with well-considered and well-founded opinions in which he deservedly has confidence.

When Claggart finally decides to strike his blow against the unsuspecting Billy Budd, he does so by denouncing Budd to the captain as a plotting mutineer. When the Captain, incredulous (he knows Budd’s character), calls Budd and Claggart to his cabin so that Budd can answer the charge, Budd, unable to speak clearly because of a stutter made worse by the stress of his situation, instead strikes Claggart, killing him (“I did not mean to kill him. Could I have used my tongue I would not have struck him. But he foully lied to my face and in presence of my Captain, and I had to say something, and I could only say it with a blow, God help me!”). The captain, though he was fairly certain Claggart was lying and Budd was innocent, is now faced with the case of a sailor striking and killing an officer.

Morally, perhaps, this is something akin to self defense, and therefore excusable, but given the political context and Vere’s philosophy, it would be unwise for him to countenance such an act. Faced with a moral dilemma of this sort, some people might be tempted to try to foist it off on someone else — perhaps hold Budd under arrest until they reach a port where he can be tried by another authority. Instead, the captain convenes a jury of officers and begins a capital case against Budd.

The officers too, knowing Budd’s character and hearing the story of how he came to strike Claggart, are reluctant to convict him. Then Vere, observing what he calls “the clash of military duty with moral scruple,” addresses them, and unapologetically makes explicit what implicitly lies at the core of his principled conservatism and of the loyalty his officers have sworn:

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. Come now: do they import something like this? If, mindless of palliating circumstances, we are bound to regard the death of the Master-at-arms as the prisoner’s deed, then does that deed constitute a capital crime whereof the penalty is a mortal one? But in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner’s overt act to be considered? How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow-creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so? — Does that state it aright? You sign sad assent. Well, I too feel that, the full force of that. It is Nature. But do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King. Though the ocean, which is inviolate Nature primeval, tho’ this be the element where we move and have our being as sailors, yet as the King’s officers lies our duty in a sphere correspondingly natural? So little is that true, that in receiving our commissions we in the most important regards ceased to be natural free-agents. When war is declared are we the commissioned fighters previously consulted? We fight at command. If our judgments approve the war, that is but coincidence. So in other particulars. So now. For suppose condemnation to follow these present proceedings. Would it be so much we ourselves that would condemn as it would be martial law operating through us? For that law and the rigour of it, we are not responsible. 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.

But something in your aspect seems to urge that it is not solely the heart that moves in you, but also the conscience, the private conscience. But tell me whether or not, occupying the position we do, private conscience should not yield to that imperial one formulated in the code under which alone we officially proceed?

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. Tho’ as their fellow-creatures some of us may appreciate their position, yet as navy officers, what reck we of it? Still less recks the enemy. Our impressed men he would fain cut down in the same swath with our volunteers. As regards the enemy’s naval conscripts, some of whom may even share our own abhorrence of the regicidal French Directory, it is the same on our side. 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.

But while, put to it by these anxieties in you which I can not but respect, I only repeat myself — while thus strangely we prolong proceedings that should be summary — the enemy may be sighted and an engagement result. We must do; and one of two things must we do — condemn or let go.

An officer on the jury asks if perhaps they might “convict and yet mitigate the penalty.” Vere responds:

Lieutenant, were that clearly lawful for us under the circumstances, consider the consequences of such clemency. The people [meaning the ship’s company] have native-sense; most of them are familiar with our naval usage and tradition; and how would they take it? Even could you explain to them — which our official position forbids — they, long moulded by arbitrary discipline have not that kind of intelligent responsiveness that might qualify them to comprehend and discriminate. No, to the people the Foretopman’s deed, however it be worded in the announcement, will be plain homicide committed in a flagrant act of mutiny. What penalty for that should follow, they know. But it does not follow. Why? they will ruminate. You know what sailors are. Will they not revert to the recent outbreak at the Nore? Ay. They know the well-founded alarm — the panic it struck throughout England. Your clement sentence they would account pusillanimous. They would think that we flinch, that we are afraid of them — afraid of practising a lawful rigour singularly demanded at this juncture lest it should provoke new troubles. What shame to us such a conjecture on their part, and how deadly to discipline. You see then, whither, prompted by duty and the law, I steadfastly drive. But I beseech you, my friends, do not take me amiss. I feel as you do for this unfortunate boy. But did he know our hearts, I take him to be of that generous nature that he would feel even for us on whom in this military necessity so heavy a compulsion is laid.

Ridiculous as that last sentiment may seem, that indeed is how Melville plays it. The jury convicts Budd and sentences him to death. Vere himself conveys the news to the condemned prisoner, in a scene Melville describes only in hypothetical terms — (“It would have been in consonance with the spirit of Captain Vere should” it have gone something like this…) — Melville didn’t seem to feel confident enough to narrate this scene directly.

Melville compares this to the biblical tale in which God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac; but, while an angel of the merciful God stays Abraham’s knife hand at the last minute, Vere has made the State his god and there will be no merciful angel in this case. The hanging takes place at dawn, and Budd’s last words are “God bless Captain Vere!” (Vere’s own last words, it’s noted in a postscript, were “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.”)

Melville doesn’t force a particular interpretation on the story. To me it seems a cautionary tale about the dangers of putting institutional loyalty above personal morality — whenever you do so, you are inviting a situation in which you may have to do something monstrous, like execute a man you know to be good and innocent. But you could also read it as merely a tragedy about an extreme case in which incommensurable moral demands come into conflict. It also works as a sort of retelling of the story of Jesus, and I’m sure the more I dig the more interpretations I’d find.

The concluding chapters show how the interpretations of the story diverge within the story itself. Chapter 30 reproduces an official newspaper account of the execution, which gets everything backwards: making Claggart out to be a respectable, patriotic officer, and Budd the ringleader of a mutinous plot that began with him stabbing the master-at-arms. Chapter 31 notes that Budd’s story has entered the folklore of sailors, who see the spar from which Budd was hanged much as Christians see the cross — but this story, too, is deviating from the facts and becoming a myth (and like the story of Jesus, it is preserved in written form not by eye-witnesses but by someone who hears the story second-hand).