"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, April 6, 2012

Can Good and Evil Exist Together? Melville’s Billy Budd

The Gibson Inn in Apalachicola, Florida, is an old Victorian hotel on the Florida Panhandle’s Forgotten Coast, as the Tourism Department calls it – forgotten because although close to the more developed towns of Panama City, Mexico Beach, and others, it is undeveloped. Whatever the reason - distance from major cities, geographical isolation, lack of promotion - Apalachicola has remained undeveloped and unspoiled for years.   It is a small working port,out of which oyster and shrimp boats operate.  It has no condos, no miniature golf, three or four family restaurants, a number of oyster bars, and a small town feel. The hotel is simple, ungussied, and as pleasant as the town.  Miles of unspoiled beach are maintained in a State Park just over the causeway on St. George’s Island, and the oysters are some of the best I have ever had – sweet, slightly briny succulent, and big.  Oyster harvesting is done the artisanal way by tonging.  Using a contraption that looks like a post digger – two long poles attached to a scoop – the oystermen haul up oysters in small batches, sort them on their small flatboats, and bring them directly to the restaurants on Water Street.  I eat at least two dozen for lunch and two dozen for dinner. 

Apalachicola Bay is perfect for oyster farming – it is at the mouth of the Apalachicola River, and is shallow and protected.  Oysters were a staple food of the Apalachee and Apalachicola Indians, then by the European and later American settlers to the Florida coast.  The tonging, which is highly labor intensive and inefficient, continues because of tradition, but also for the protection of the oyster beds which would be destroyed by any more aggressive harvesting.

In any case, as I was sitting in the lobby of the hotel reading a theatrical adaptation of Billy Budd, Melville’s short story, a guest walked by and said, “How’s Captain Vere?” Now, few people have read the short story, let alone the play, and if they remember anything of Melville, it is Moby Dick.  Not only did this guest know the play, but knew it well enough to remember a central character in it.  When the guest returned I asked him how he knew the play since it was little known.  He said he had always liked Melville and especially Billy Budd and its theme of good and evil.  “Melville chose the name Vere from the Roman veritas, or truth; and Billy Budd is a Christ figure who, climbing the mast to the gallows shouts the last line of the play, ‘God bless Captain Vere’, an echo of Christ’s ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’”.

When I got over the surprise of the coincidence of meeting one of the few people anywhere who would know this relatively little-known work, adapted in 1951, I began to think about what he said which on the surface made sense.  Billy Budd is an innocent who cannot conceive of evil.  His goodness, his charity, and his love – let alone his beauty – enchant the crew and transform them.  They become better men because of him. 

Claggart, the Master at Arms is the embodiment of evil, a man who is cruel for cruelty’s sake.  His brutality has nothing to do with discipline, rank, or promotion.  When the Dansker, a ship’s mate, is asked why Claggart should pick on the innocent Billy of all people, he replies that not to do so would threaten his view of the world which he sees as evil, base, and primitive; without good or redemption.  Claggart must torment, torture, and kill Billy for his vision to survive just as Billy must always see only goodness in the world.

In the end, good and evil cannot survive together.  Billy, who stutters badly, kills Claggart in a frustrated, spontaneous blow when confronted by Claggart’s evil lies; and Billy who according to English maritime law, is executed for it. 

On one level, my hotel guest was right.  Billy could certainly be considered a Christ figure because of his pure goodness and charity, for his evangelizing mission among the crew, for his temptation by the devil, and for his forgiveness; and the play could be about the importance of Christian love in a fallen world; but I read it differently. It is about the nature of evil.

I was fascinated by Claggart, not Billy.  Claggart, like Shakespeare’s anti-heroes Richard III, Aaron the Moor, Iago, Edmund, Macbeth, Goneril, Regan, and Tamora, pursues his own vision without hesitation and with a singularity of purpose.  However, while the Shakespearean characters all have something to gain and therefore a motive for their actions – accession to or extension of power, protection of position, status, wealth, or revenge – Claggart has none.  His cruel mastery over the crew of the ship and his attempted destruction of Billy have nothing to do with these understandable human motives.  He acts only out of pure malice.

Claggart is very unlike the Machiavellian characters of Shakespeare – characters who are ‘Beyond Good and Evil’, who exist in an amoral universe, and who like Nietzsche’s supermen are compelled only by the power and force of individual will.  He is not beyond good and evil, he is evil.  Whereas Christians believe that that good has existed in the world only twice – in the Garden of Eden and in Jesus Christ – Melville believes that good can and does exist, but so does evil, and the two will ultimately destroy each other.  Billy may have uttered Christ-like words of forgiveness, but so will others like him in this classic and eternal struggle.  There will be other Christ-like figures of pure good, and they will all inevitably destroy evil and be consumed by it.

This theme is not new for Melville.  Captain Ahab is a distorted version of Billy Budd, for while Billy has no conception of evil, Ahab feels that he, and he alone, does see and understand it, and has an obsessive compulsion to eliminate the embodiment of pure evil, Moby Dick:

Ahab, the Pequod’s obsessed captain, represents both an ancient and a quintessentially modern type of hero. Like the heroes of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, Ahab suffers from a single fatal flaw, one he shares with such legendary characters as Oedipus and Faust. His tremendous overconfidence, or hubris, leads him to defy common sense and believe that, like a god, he can enact his will and remain immune to the forces of nature. He considers Moby Dick the embodiment of evil in the world, and he pursues the White Whale monomaniacally because he believes it his inescapable fate to destroy this evil (Sparknotes).

The philosopher/critic Peter Kivy has said:

We may destroy others for the sake of our own interest, or the interest of some third person, or to satisfy our particular passions and affections. What we cannot do is destroy or harm others without one of these motives. There is no motive, even on Butler’s liberal view, of pure destructiveness

Melville has ‘invited us to read it as a world in which physical objects
and human beings behave in accordance with the physical and psychological laws of our own’12. And as such, Kivy concludes, in developing a character such as Claggart, Melville intended to, and did, present in Claggart a psychology that could be instantiated in the actual world. Because of the very possible existence of Claggarts, the problem of evil, for Kivy, is pressing.

Our noses are being rubbed in the unintelligible aspect of human wickedness that no theory of human motivation can explain, short of making itself true by stipulation, in the face of recalcitrant experience, through the postulation of imaginary motives (Luc Small)

In other words, Kivy subscribes to the Machiavellian/Shakespearean theory that good and evil do not exist, but are expressions of self interest; but acknowledges that Melville thinks otherwise.  Since Melville offers no explanation for Claggart’s actions, his is the embodiment of pure evil which, therefore, must exist.

I prefer Shakespeare’s (and Machiavelli's and Nietzsche’s) view of life – there is no such thing as good or evil, but an aggressive, self-protecting and self-aggrandizing human nature which propels individual action and is the reason why history consistently and continuously repeats itself.  Both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people act according to the immutable laws of this nature. 

The epic battle between Ravana and Rama in the Mahabharata shares much with Moby Dick for in both there is a struggle between good and evil.  In Hinduism the sides are clear and well-matched suggesting that on one level good and evil do exist in the world and will always confront each other.  However:

On the higher level of Existence…there is no evil or good [in Hinduism], since these are dependent mainly on temporal circumstances. Hence a jnani, one who has realized his true nature, is beyond such dualistic notions (Wikipedia).

Shakespeare and Melville (Melville admits the influence of Shakespeare on his writing), therefore, agree that on a temporal level there is and will always be opposing forces of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ (Melville) or stronger and weaker forces (Shakespeare).  However, Shakespeare never concludes that there is never anything more to life than the perpetual struggle between these two mundane forces; but Melville does believe that Good and Evil exist on all planes.  The following criticism suggests that Billy Budd combines both – that is, the temporal and the existential:

In the second phase of composition Melville developed John Claggart as the moral and spiritual bête noire to Billy, attempting to explore nothing less
than the “mystery of iniquity”. The narrator concedes that Claggart’s “portrait I essay, but shall never hit”. As the opposing parallel to Billy, Claggart, like the handsome, innocent sailor, exhibits entirely unknown human origins, a suggestion that promotes the idea that both figures symbolically lie outside of time, or at least outside human and social history.

Since the eventual confrontation between them amounts to good versus evil, such out-of-time yet universal status may seem to us readers appropriate; indeed, the narrator also tries to explain the unexplainable Claggart by recourse to the Platonic—and later Christian—concept of “Natural Depravity: a depravity according to nature”. With such basis for character delineation, it is not surprising that both emerge
as far more type than character; and as types they can but eventually destroy each other—Claggart by Billy’s single “angelic” blow, Billy by naval law. (American History Through Literature)

Interestingly the Melville novella on which the play was based ends very differently, and suggests a slightly different interpretation.  While Billy still says, “God bless Captain Vere”:

The novella finishes with a song composed by one of the sailors from Billy's watch. Called "Billy in the Darbies" ("Billy in Irons"), it has Billy waiting for execution and imagining being a corpse dropped down into the sea. The final image of the book is the song's haunting final line. Billy, in chains and awaiting death, imagines himself at the bottom of the sea. He asks for his chains to be loosened, adding, "I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist." (Gradesaver)

These lines are definitely not Christ-like and suggest a pagan death.

In any case, I am a believer in fortuitous events, and the comment by my hotel guest made me even more curious about Melville and the themes of good and evil.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent comparison...keep up the blogs and have a dozen on me...


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