Reply to David Foster

After hijacking Shannon’s thread, thought I’d answer Foster in a separate post:

“Discontent foreran the Two Mutinies, and more or less it lurkingly survived them. Hence it was not unreasonable to apprehend some return of trouble, sporadic or general.”

Melville emphasizes the potential for mutiny: Billy and many others have been impressed & are therefore less likely to feel allegiance; the early Chapters 3 & 5 give the context: 1797, the British are at war with the French. And any captain of a British military ship would be all too aware of the Nore mutiny and the incidents at Spithead, which happened but a few months before. These are discussed in these chapters and hinted at in others (most specifically as Claggart makes his charge against Billy, a reference that irritates Vere). Indeed, the captain dies shortly later in battle with the French warship, the Athee. Setting it in 1797 also hints at the beginning of the British romantic movement, the effects of the French Revolution, and Vere’s Burke-like antipathy for both.

Melville’s cousin (a Google reference implies it – you see the level of my scholarship – was his older brother, but I suspect my memory is correct since he had the surname of his mother’s family) was one of the judges in the Somers affair; it affected him (and therefore his family) deeply. That was about 50 years after the time when the book was set & 50 years before it was written. Mutiny is, however, a context which intensifies the equation: Billy was not guilty – Vere didn’t believe nor did he lead the judges to believe Billy was mutinous. That was accepted as a fiction of Claggart’s, whose motivations remained murky to them (less so to us). However, the murder of an officer on a military vessel in a war zone has implications, one in which fears of mutiny are heightened.

Of course, the ship’s surgeon is of David Foster’s opinion and Melville hints that Vere was philosophically rigid, believing rules applied in realms beyond their dominion. Vere clearly feels that institutions, such as the Navy, provide a structure that more often leads to human happiness than not – so an innocent like Billy who has broken the rules must be sacrificed. (Billy’s spiritual innocence does not mean he isn’t guilty of murder. His act was an unconscious response but Claggart is no less dead from Budd’s blow.) Vere’s argument would not convince a romantic – and most of us would hesitate. (My copy of Billy Budd, bought used in 1971 or so, has an earlier reader’s note after Vere’s long speech convincing the drumhead court to bring in a guilty verdict – “What a Prick!”) But Vere is no straw man nor is his reasoning mysterious or vindictive.

5 thoughts on “Reply to David Foster”

  1. Thanks for the response, Ginny. I think Capt Vere’s right action would have been dependent on his assessment of his own crew–were they basically loyal, or not?–which in turn would be a function of his own prior leadership.

    What surprised me is that your students tended to sympathize with Vere, where I would have expected a dominant sympathy for Billy based on the widespread inculcation of victim-worship.

  2. David,

    1)attitudes change from class to class; this semester was not representative – one class of twenty or so.
    2)junior college students are less ideological; some co-enrolled in (and 50% expecting to go to) a school proud of its military heritage is another factor.

    These students have been exposed to work conditions and many have been supervisors at some level. Most are open about homosexuality and often a majority favor gay marriage. This seems more experiential than ideological.

    They have, however, swallowed a ridiculous amount of “woman as victim” propaganda. It would seem fairly easy to read me, but most remain certain I will agree. Perhaps I’m successful at hiding my biases, but more likely they tune me out about that much as they tune me out about due dates, formatting, etc.

    A few semesters ago a student suggested Vere should have lied and said Billy acted in self-defense or it was an accident. Of course, Vere’s adamant integrity would make that impossible. (The suggestion was by one of my best students & a relative of my husband; she is now in grad school in English. She will be much more comfortable among the post-modernists than would most of her classmates.)

  3. One could view Billy Budd as representing the dichotomy between perfect, cosmic justice and imperfect, real world justice.

    Billy kills Claggart because the later falsely accuses him of mutiny but in doing so commits the very crime Claggart framed him for. In the court of cosmic justice, Billy actions might be justified. Claggart was after all trying to frame him for a capital crime, essentially trying to murder him by law. One might even argue that Billy protected the collective by killing a disruptive snake in the grass.

    Yet, as in all cases of arguments from cosmic justice, it assume an environment in which all observers possess perfect information about the event. Such a level of information never exist in the real world. What most observers, in this case the personnel in the British Navy, would know was that a sailor murdered a superior following the superiors accusation of mutiny. With such information, most observers would conclude that justice had been done and order maintained only if the murder was convicted and executed.

    Ginny’s more experienced students may simply have developed an intuition in the school of hard knocks about the reality of imperfect information. Arguments of cosmic justice appeal most to those with little experience with processing real world, real time, highly imperfect information. Unfortunately, such people populate academia. (Present company excluded of course).

  4. Yes, Shannon – put nicely. And much as we may trust the narrator’s and Vere’s sense that Billy Budd is a complete innocent, Adam before the fall, I’m not about to trust anyone in the real world’s attribution of such cosmic innocence to someone in our fallen world. Pinker does a pretty good job of decimating the arguments of the noble savage – but then, as Shannon observes, experience in the real world is likely to cure us of that illusion anyway.

  5. This discussion reminds me of two stories that might be of interest;

    1)A Royal Navy captain (Collingwood, IIRC) was confronted with the following situation: A young officer accused a seaman of acting insolently toward him, and demanded that the man be flogged. From his judgments of character, Collingwood felt sure that the insolence, if any, had been provoked by obnoxious behavior by the officer. He told the officer: “We are going to meet with the seaman, and he is going to apologize for his behavior. You are going to accept his apology, and that will be the end of the matter.”

    2)During the early stages of WWI, the British liason officer Edward Spears (later General Spears) witnessed a French soldier being led to execution for cowardice. The French general that Spears was accompanying was troubled at the sight: he stopped the execution procession and spoke to the soldier. He talked about the importance of maintaining morale and deterring others from failing to do their duty, and concluded: “So, your way of dying for France is also a contribution to victory.”

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