BILLY BUDD

Billy Budd is sort of a gay Christian allegory. The Christian part is fairly obvious – Budd is falsely accused of mutiny and accidentally kills his accuser, a superior officer. Even though that officer was the only man on ship who wasn’t openly in love with Billy Budd, the captain has to kill him to maintain law and order.

And yes, it’s quite gay.

When Claggart’s unobserved glance happened to light on belted Billy rolling along the upper gun deck in the leisure of the second dog watch, exchanging passing broadsides of fun with other young promenaders in the crowd, that glance would follow the cheerful sea-Hyperion with a settled 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.

This short novel wasn’t published in Melville’s lifetime, and it was written toward the end of his life, forty years after Moby-Dick. The big whale book has some clearly homosexual passages, and here Melville just drags it into the fore. The only “ban” against Claggart loving Billy is society’s ban against homosexual behavior, and in single-sex environments like a warship that ban is a little relaxed. After all, there’s an older Dansker who calls Billy “Baby,” and Melville just says that it’s for “some recondite reason.” Even casting my imagination back to 1891, when the story was written, or to 1797, when the story is set, trying to reason that there’s a nonsexual yet secret reason to call a grown man Baby is kind of complex.

Baby Budd is a great Christ figure, and after the book was first published in 1924 there was a rash of Christ figures in American literature. The classic elements are derived from him – blond, innocent, acting spontaneously from his own good nature. Billy is beautiful and charismatic, despite his naivete and tendency to stutter. Everyone loves him, and the one who lets that love get twisted is the only one who works against him. It’s a tragedy in that an innocent man has to die, but it’s also a tragedy that Claggart has to distort his entire character for some imaginary social code that no one else cares about and that he dies for it.

I am not certain whether to know the world and to know human nature be not two distinct branches of knowledge, which, while they may coexist in the same heart, yet either may exist with little or nothing of the other.

I think the world is beautiful and fascinating, and with the amount of traveling I’ve done, I could be considered to know something of it. But while I do all right understanding people in books, in real life I’m a little less skilled. Real people have all kinds of secret motivations and do underhand things, like spying on a significant other online or selling shoddy merchandise or plagiarizing an essay. I’ve been feeling a little taken-advantage-of lately; while that may just be the effect of reading about a Christ figure or two (remember The Old Man and the Sea), it may also have some merit. For a long time I’ve been worried about my mental stability, but I’m not going crazy. I’m struggling not to overreact, because I know I do that, but at the same time I know that I can trust my feelings. If I feel this way, there’s a problem, not with my brain function, but with the way I’m being treated. I wish I knew how to fix it.

THE PIAZZA TALES

The Piazza Tales is a short story collection that Melville published in 1856. Except the first, these were all written for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. He was simultaneously publishing other stories in Harper’s, and those were collected after his death and published as The Apple-Tree Table and Other Stories. That later collection is now a little harder to find, but it contains the frequently anthologized “Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids” and “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” Piazza has the stories that people generally think of, if they think of Melville short stories at all, “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno.”

The Piazza

Just to be clear, Melville loved Nathaniel Hawthorne. I mean, so much that after they met Hawthorne started avoiding him because there was something a little excessive in his fan-boy-ish-ness. NH sometimes used the first piece in a story collection to establish a sense of place, as in “The Old Manse” (Mosses from an Old Manse) or “The Custom-House” (The Scarlet Letter, which was originally conceived as the beginning of a short story collection). Melville gives this strategy a try here. He’s settling into a house in the mountains, and decides that it’s a real crime to have a spectacular view and nowhere to sit outside and enjoy it from, so he builds himself a deck facing his favorite view. He becomes interested in a spot on the mountain opposite, investing it with all sorts of fairy qualities from Shakespeare and Spenser, and one day he goes to see it. It turns out, there’s an isolated girl in a cottage there, and she spends her time looking over at his house and imagining how happy and magical his life must be.

There are a few ways to read that. People often say that it just means that our fantasies are all just illusions, and that if we get to the heart of what we really want there is only equal or greater unhappiness. But I’m feeling optimistic this morning, so I’d rather say, even in the least happy life there is magic, if we have eyes to see it. Glory and beauty are all around us; we just have to learn to look for them. We need to value what we have instead of letting familiarity breed contempt. And perhaps the good things are easiest seen at a little distance.

Bartleby

In many ways, I think this story is a response to Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government.” We’re familiar with the idea of civil disobedience that has shaped protests in the West, particularly with the American Civil Rights movement, and so we typically see this as a good thing, a way to get stuff done. Melville imagines a passive resister in ordinary life. Bartleby isn’t making a political point or taking a stand on an issue; he just quietly says that he “would prefer not to” do anything he is asked. In other ways, this is a response to Dickens’s Bleak House, which began serial publication the year before “Bartleby” was published. The characterization here, with the quirky extreme personalities, is very similar to Dickens, and both stories tell about law-copyists. Before the Xerox machine, the courts still needed several copies of legal documents, so someone had to copy all those papers by hand. Scrivener is a dull, mechanical profession, and both Dickens and Melville try to humanize these machine-like people. Enter Bartleby, the copier who won’t do what he doesn’t like.

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity, then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.

The narrator, the lawyer who employs Bartleby, is an older, active gentleman who takes a paternal interest in his employee, but he cannot figure out all of this preferring not to do things. This type of polite disobedience leads to Bartleby doing some inappropriate things, like living in the workplace outside of working hours, eavesdropping on important meetings, and being insubordinate to his employer, to law enforcement, and indeed to everyone else. He clings to the secret dictate of his heart, just like Robinson Crusoe or Ralph Waldo Emerson, but “doing his thing” is doing nothing. Narrator can’t figure out what to do with him, so eventually he moves to a different office. The new lawyer who takes the office eventually has Bartleby arrested for vagrancy, and he dies in jail after refusing his meals.

I’ve been taking the lens of Transcendentalism, but you could also read this story as a warning against depression-induced inanition. Bartleby used to work in the dead letter office, burning all the letters that could not be delivered. If every letter represents a desire, a wish to connect with another human, the dead letters are the failures. After who-knows-how-long destroying all these wasted desires, Bartleby lost any desire of his own. There’s no implication that he’s looking to the future; he seems like a remarkably clear example of what clinical depression looks like. No active sadness, but no hope either. Just doing nothing, wanting to do nothing, until death. I admire Bartleby’s adherence to himself, but the result makes me sad.

Benito Cereno

Oh my god, the racism, the racism. I suppose you could argue that this is free indirect discourse, or a narrated monologue, so these terribly offensive opinions are Captain Delano’s and not Melville’s, but even so. The racism.

“Benito Cereno” is the most like Billy Budd, it being a naval story featuring The Handsome Sailor set in the 1790s. Captain Delano seems like what Billy Budd could have been, had he lived and advanced.

Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories at that day associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man.

This is also a classic Gothic tale – Captain Delano gets into a mysterious and vaguely threatening situation, until about two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through, when the real threat is revealed and he defeats it.

The threat comes from the extreme racism – think Heart of Darkness. Don Benito Cereno is captain of a merchant vessel carrying slaves along the coast of South America. They’re in distress and put in for water on the same island that Captain Delano has stopped at to restock his water supply. He goes on board to render assistance, and the Nordic-looking white boy (I always picture him as whiter than white, sort of glowing) is surrounded by Africans. His inner monologue is full of comments on the ethnic differences between himself and the Africans – he thinks of them as the perfect servants because of their (he thinks) natural stupidity and servility. He thinks of them as animals, little different than deer or monkeys. Even the few Spanish he sees are marked in the text as different, not quite as white as he is. He can tell that something fishy is going on, maybe Don Benito is plotting to murder him, but he quickly dismisses the thought because he’s such a nice guy (as some of my acquaintance would say, “It’s awful white of him”). Of course, the truth is that the slaves have taken over the ship and are much more intelligent than he had taken them for, but the intelligence is bent toward evil so the white captain is still better than they are.

This story is based on the real events that happened on board the Amistad, which were memorialized in the film of the same name with Matthew McConaughey and Anthony Hopkins. Africans who had been illegally kidnapped and sold into slavery took over the ship and forced the Spanish to sail them back to Africa, but the Spaniard turned the ship north and it was taken off Long Island. The film focuses on the trial and how the brave white lawyers overcame their own racism to rescue the poor black victims, so I think it’s still a little white-centric, but it’s better than Melville. “Benito Cereno” moves the story back into the time when slavery was legal in South America (The United States was about forty years behind the times when it came to abolition) and makes the Africans evil murderers and thieves, the worst of mutineers, slaughtering the beloved slaver Alexandro Aranda. Don Alexandro is Don Benito’s childhood friend – some people read the relationship as gay because they think Don Benito is effeminate, but the evidence is not as strong as it often is in Melville. They want to overtake Captain Delano’s ship too, but of course they are sufficiently white to conquer the former slaves quite easily, incidentally killing most of the remaining Hispanics in the process.

“Benito Cereno” is just as long as Billy Budd, but without chapter breaks, which helps build suspense and all but makes it harder to find a good place to stop. The sentences are also simpler, and it’s less allegorical, which will appeal to a lot of readers who aren’t put off by the racism, which is so intense I would feel bad quoting any of it.

The Lightning-Rod Man

A short piece about a man who makes his living by scaring people to death, and Melville’s “The Piazza” narrator is having none of it.

The Encantadas; or Enchanted Islands

A series of ten sketches describing the Galapagos Islands. They’re mostly volcanic rock, and while I’ve seen some really beautiful specimens of black glass from volcanoes, Melville sees them as ugly misshapen hellrocks. They’re called enchanted because sailors had some major problems with their navigation; people thought they moved around because they’d find them a hundred miles away from where they were expected. There are a few narratives, but this is mostly description – I would go so far as to say that it’s of limited interest. The descriptions are only partially original; he’s writing years after he came back to shore, so he did some borrowing from previously published accounts.

This group does have the second female character, Hunilla the Chola widow. She’s a mixture of Hispanic and Native American ancestry, which the Latins call Cholo (though anthropologists lean toward Mestizo). She was left on an island with her husband and brother, who both died. There’s some implication that passing ships would stop and the seamen would do unspeakable things to her, before Melville’s ship rescues her. Melville usually writes about male-only worlds, so he doesn’t do much with female characters, and this lack of practice is evident. He seems to understand that the lives of women are unnecessarily difficult because their dependence on men (and transportation by them) isolates them, but he seems incapable of realizing or understanding their characters. It’s like women are another species to him, as different as the Africans in “Benito Cereno.”

The Bell-Tower

This is another piece strongly influenced by Hawthorne. Think of the Promethean allegories, like “The Birth-Mark” or “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” A Renaissance architect builds a bell-tower. He goes way overboard, both with the height and the ornamentation, even making a mechanical man with arms like clubs to strike the bells. Like any good Frankenstein story, the attempt to create life leads to death, so it’s hardly cheerful, but then Hawthorne is seldom cheerful himself. In all his admiration for Mosses from an Old Manse, this is his closest approximation to one of those stories, which I suppose makes it a fitting bookend for “The Piazza.”

The Piazza Tales is a weird collection, indicative of the weirdness Melville got into after the failure of Moby-Dick. Pierre has a lot of that reaction, when Melville suddenly stops telling his story to complain about literary critics for several pages, but the insistence on writing what he likes to write instead of what paying customers might like to read is still evident, as is his problematization of ideals beloved by Emerson, Thoreau, and their attendant Transcendentalists, as well as his extreme admiration of Hawthorne. Very intertextual, sometimes engaging, interesting reading.

THE TOWN-HO’S STORY (CHAPTER 54 OF MOBY-DICK)

I guess whoever edited this collection for Signet Classics thought the project wouldn’t be complete without a little Moby-Dick, so here’s the obligatory excerpt. It works well as a stand-alone piece. It covers mutiny at sea, so it’s thematically linked to Billy Budd and “Benito Cereno,” but there’s a much stronger sense of destiny. This collection is arranged roughly backward, chronologically, so it seems that Melville’s interest in predestination waned over his lifetime, because here in Moby-Dick everything is predestinated or foreordained. The white whale is not just one face of God, as in Ahab’s “strike through the mask” speech, it’s the bringer of Fate. The whale decides men’s destinies at sea.

The Town-Ho is a leaky boat, which is apparently not unusual at the time. It’s a bit like my friends who have a fluid leak in their cars and just keep putting water in before they drive to town. You keep your men on the pumps and go where you need to go. Working the pumps can be exhausting work, so another type of The Handsome Sailor (but without the innocence of Capt Delano or Baby Budd) wears himself out and sits down for a rest. The ugly commanding officer tells him to get up and sweep the pig shit off the deck. Steelkilt replies that that job is for the little boys, who aren’t busy just now. Radney tells him to get off his ass and clean the deck. Now in one sense Steelkilt is right, cleaning the shit isn’t in his job description, but in another sense he doesn’t have the right to refuse a direct order. He refuses anyway, they get into a fight, and Steelkilt breaks Radney’s jaw. He starts up a mutiny, but the captain gets it under control. Radney gets to whip Steelkilt, who then starts plotting murder. Fortunately, the white whale comes along and removes temptation. Ahab may have lost a leg, but Radney got straight up eaten by Moby Dick. Steelkilt later gets everyone to defect and the captain never sees him again, but Ishmael swears that he has seen and spoken with him, I guess in a White Whale Survivors’ Club meeting.

Looking at the collection as a whole, it seems Melville had a real issue with authority – the artificial distinctions created by society keep us from acting toward each other as equals. Men are divided by arbitrary social roles, which leads to poisonous behavior. Maintaining a sense of freedom and innocence is a natural response, but when an underling does not conform there are unfortunate consequences. Similarly, when a leader abuses his power there are unfortunate consequences, because the abuse of power leads to rebellion. Love seems like a good answer, but it’s not always enough. We love and admire the extraordinary, but the world insists on conformity to usage, so it’s safer to be average. Don’t get noticed and you can lead a long, mediocre life. Be amazing and you die young. I don’t agree with this attitude, but it does seem to be what Melville is pushing. I get in the mood for Melville every so often, and Billy Budd is a much quicker fix than Moby-Dick, but this fatalism is not the direction I want to go in. I steer my course, and I’m guiding my ship to a happier port.

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Comments
  1. I will read these too books. Looking forward to returning to the review.

    • theoccasionalman says:

      They’re easily available online. The Piazza Tales is a free download for your kobo, and they have a nearly-complete works collection for 0.99. 🙂

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