Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville (1819-1891)
So long as ignorance and misery remain on Earth,
books like this cannot be useless.
–Victor Hugo referring to his own Les Miserables
Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor was published posthumously in 1924. Using the traditional thematic approach employed by literary criticism is limited by P-B so we will look for more profound interpretations in the context of P-A. Great literature illuminates the human condition and helps readers see deeply into the meaning of our own lives. Critics have trouble understanding what Melville’s intent was from the perspective of P-B and, of course, Melville’s own understanding was similarly limited writing in that context.
As we will note our critics see the story as replete with ambiguity which from the context of P-A is easily resolved. Our critics fail to arrive at the clarity they are seeking because they stand on the deck of the wrong ship, a fog-enshrouded ghost ship. Let us board the true, the real Bellipotent and see reality for what it was. From present moment awareness, what Buddha called “right understanding”—we can feel the very deck of the 18th century British warship heave under our feet, and as on a bright sun-filled day—lift us up to an insight into the farthest horizon of the human soul.
Let us begin with a synopsis of the story which is set in the last decade of the eighteenth century. Billy Budd is a well-liked young sailor aboard the British naval warship H.M.S. Bellipotent. Billy is bullied by Claggart, the master-at-arms, for no apparent reason and Billy seeks out an older sailor, the Dansker for an explanation. He is told by the Dansker that Claggart is out to get him, Billy finds this hard to believe, but the abusive treatment continues.
Claggart approaches Captain Vere, the commanding officer and falsely accuses Billy of being the ringleader of a planned mutiny. Vere summons Billy to his cabin and in the presence of Claggart, repeats the accusation. Billy who stutters and has trouble speaking cannot answer the charges, loses his temper and strikes Claggart on the forehead with his fist killing him.
Vere calls a “drumhead court” consisting of three senior officials of the ship. Vere as the main witness testifies to what happened and Billy is able to deny that he intended to kill Claggart or that he was involved in any plans for mutiny. After Billy is dismissed to his quarters, Vere hovers over the jury who are having trouble coming to a decision as to Billy’s fate. Vere lets them know that he expects them to acquit or condemn in strict accordance with the military law regardless of the mitigating circumstances or compassion for Billy. This leaves them no choice but to condemn Billy to death by hanging the following morning. Just before Billy dies his last words are “God bless Captain Vere.” Newspapers depict Billy as the villain and Claggart as the innocent but among the sailors Billy becomes a legend over time as the innocent victim.
From the perspective of P-A, Billy is a “stranger in a strange land” and cannot “grok” the P-B worldview, i.e. he is an “innocent” who becomes a victim of false-self driven egos. There is no substantive reality to “evil” but rather people each constructing and acting out their own survival strategies striving for security, sensation and power while all the while driven by the fundamental energy of the old worldview—fear. In a more conscious “voyage” our sailors would be able to choose compassion over fear, but no such choice is available for them as they act out the darkest aspects of their human nature. Since each person is unconscious, that is, unaware of their motivations and operating in the illusion of a world that they do not understand—we have an unfolding and inevitable tragedy.
“The narrator can point to no rational reason for Claggart’s aversion. He was not corrupted by wicked books or evil influences—he was just born bad. His madness cleverly hides itself deep within him.” In the next chapter the explanation of Claggart’s behavior is revealed. “The narrator explains that Claggart’s dislike of Billy is rooted in envy [and that] he has to play the evil role ordained for him.” Claggart is in fact trapped, in a worldview with an identity that seals his fate. Being unconscious, he is unaware of the fact that he has free will to avoid “the evil role ordained for him” and the option to choose not to react to his afflictive emotions. Claggart’s false-self energy center, namely power and control, is where his envy comes from. He is at the mercy of very normal, if self-destructive, behavioral energies. Claggart is not evil, he is an all too normal human. He is a prototype of humanity caught up in the old worldview.
“Billy’s demise is brought about by a combination of his own weaknesses and evil influences that are outside of him and beyond his comprehension.” This traditional analysis is wrong in every respect except the part where Billy’s not comprehending what is happening. Billy is not “weak” he is “guileless” which appears as weakness to uncomprehending analysts. His innocence concerning the nature of the reality surrounding him makes him powerless. He has failed to construct his own effective survival strategy and is left without security, power or the ability to manipulate others to get his needs met. He is vulnerable in the extreme and his “strengths” such as being trusting, honest, cooperative and hard-working are only strengths in a healthy community. No such community existed in the world then (certainly not on board the Bellipotent) nor does it today.
Speaking of the Dansker it is said that, “He may represent people who play roles in order to fit into society.” We all play roles and have conditioned “personae” that we have developed as part of our survival strategy starting in childhood. “The Dansker likes Billy and tries to help him, but he ultimately sacrifices Billy to the claustrophobic, paranoid world of the ship, in which men are disconnected from their own consciences.” They are in fact disconnected from their own essence, their True selves.
“Billy Budd is an unusual hero because he is so intellectually and emotionally limited. He does not have the knowledge, experience, or wisdom to be a moral role model even though he clearly has a good heart.” Billy is an excellent timeless symbol of all people caught in the illusion of P-B. Billy like people today, needed awareness, not more experience, emotional maturity, knowledge, intelligence or even wisdom—which will not stave off the ultimate and inevitable failure of humanity to avert its dark future.
Evil and the Shadow
“Claggart’s innate wickedness is causeless and seemingly limitless.” Fortunately, our critics are wrong on both counts here. If wickedness is without cause, humanity is without hope. Evil has a cause that we can understand and address, hence it is not limitless. Evil is present and “natural” in all people. It is repressed “shadow” material “collected” from childhood and continuously ever since in addition to the conditioning innate in our worldview and our identity.
In fact, Claggart in not aware of his deepest motives or the presence of his false-self survival strategy and is naturally hiding his repressed shadow as we all do. But we do this without being aware that we are doing it which is why it is inappropriately and self-destructively expressed so often. There is pressure from within each person to express this “shadow material” and efforts to prevent this can only delay its ultimate emergence. Few people, and Claggart is typical in this respect, have the skill to process or express this material in a socially acceptable or harmless manner. The skill to do so can be learned if we have the necessary awareness.
“Whereas Christ, in his death, intentionally takes all of the sins of the world upon himself to save humankind from evil, Billy dies because he cannot comprehend evil or defend himself adequately against it. In this sense, Billy is more human than Christ—what happens to Billy more closely resembles something that could happen to us, and we are perhaps able to pity him and empathize with him more deeply.” No one could be more human than Jesus since one of the central messages of his teaching was that “you can do what I have done and more.” In religious language our very “redemption” depends on our being exactly like Christ possessing “Christ consciousness”. If we cannot identify with Jesus, how can we emulate the awareness that he had.
“In Billy Budd, men who confront the law and men who confront evil suffer similar consequences, suggesting the dark view that evil and the law are closely connected.” Both the “law” and “evil” are illusions in P-B. Humanity is not aware of the true principles that govern the universe and because of this we do not have a true understanding of our identity.
“Claggart seems to destroy Billy for no reason other than the latter’s innocence. Evil exists to corrupt innocence, and even though Billy kills Claggart, in a sense Claggart achieves a double victory over Billy in his own death.” A typical and grievous error in P-B is to anthropomorphize evil, to give it a life of its own. The origin of Satan and the Devil were purely metaphorical. They were symbols in mythological stories that explained why bad things happened to good people, and were not meant to be taken literally. With the advent of psychology, we understand more about human behavior and no longer need the explanation of “the Devil made me do it.” We now need to accept responsibility for our own behaviors. Evil has no existence in the friendly universe of P-A, but in P-B the illusion of the shadow and the false self do seem to exist.
“The narrator introduces his view of the elusive quality of evil with the discussion of Billy’s intermittent speech impediment. The narrator interprets the stutter as an indication that nature did not, in fact, make Billy perfect. He compares this imperfection to a calling card left by the devil, suggesting that the devil is fond of leaving such reminders that he has a hand in everything created on Earth.” The truth is that Billy is perfect as is all Creation in a friendly universe of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent creative force. As unconscious humans we often “think too much” and use “mentation” itself to avoid reality. Too many constructs, theories, myths and self-deceptions obscure deeper truths about who we truly are. Words and thinking itself are impediments to present moment awareness.
We are the devil and are loath to admit it. And if we don’t want to admit that we are the devil then of course we always have the other to blame, to project our own shadow (devil) on. “Claggart’s fundamentally depraved nature is a central component of the story. Claggart is simply evil beyond reasoning. The naturally depraved man, in complete possession of his faculties, may be civilized, thoroughly self-controlled, outwardly respectable, characterized by moderation, too proud to be petty, neither sensuous nor foul, and yet thoroughly evil, nonetheless. The naturally depraved man employs reason strictly in the service of irrational evil.” If we substitute “unconscious” for “evil” in the previous sentences we have a more profound explanation of human behavior. Human beings, even the Claggart’s whom we see as something “other” than human are not culpable—are innocent—are simply unconscious. Being unconscious is the only crime—the only evil—that we can accuse any human being of. Forget about evil—nobody qualifies.
“[Although] Claggart is certainly capable of recognizing and containing his complex animosity for Billy, he can hardly overcome it.” It is true for the unconscious person that the human shadow is often not containable. “Billy gets his first glimpse of the darker side of man in his night-time encounter with this man, but his innocence keeps him from gaining a clear grasp of the fact that the man is asking him to be disloyal.” It is not innocence that is Billy’s problem but his lack of awareness of the nature of reality. There is a single explanation for all human suffering and the paranoia that is an understandable reaction to being victimized by our own beliefs, attitudes and values without being aware of it. “Melville wishes to emphasize the impenetrable nature of the problems associated with evil and its perpetuation among men.” Impenetrable, that is, without a shift in worldview.
“The nature of evil is to destroy innocence, and, dimly perceiving Billy to be somehow above the world of subterfuge and cruelty that he himself inhabits, Claggart becomes consumed with the desire to corrupt and destroy Billy.” The crucial question here is how much responsibility does Claggart have for his actions? From a P-A perspective, none, since he is completely unconscious and unaware of the unconscious forces that drive his behavior. He is caught up in a tempest and swept along to his own self-destruction just as humanity as a whole is creating an unsustainable future for itself today. “Most villains appear evil either because of events that have corrupted them or because of deliberate, avoidable choices they have made—evil resulting from a painful background or from a conscious decision to betray good. Claggart’s evil has no such antecedent. Claggart embodies evil.”
“Melville makes this fact clear in this description when he writes that Claggart can understand goodness, but is ‘powerless’ to embrace it, just as he has no power to overcome the ‘elemental evil’ that lies inside him. Claggart has no option in life: to ‘act out to the end’ the part that he has been assigned, that of the devious villain. Yet if Claggart is a prisoner of his own evil, and has no choice but to act according to his evil nature, then the question arises as to whether he bears responsibility for his actions.” Indeed, how can any of us driven by our unconscious desire for plenty, pleasure and power choose compassionate response over self-destructive reactions?
Melville has raised some wonderfully challenging and rich questions here that can help move us toward a paradigm shift. Is there what we could call a false self that without our awareness causes us to engage in self-destructive behavior? Is our behavior as human beings pre-determined negating any true free-will? If we have no free will, are we morally responsible for our actions?
“Because Claggart carefully hides his own motives and intentions, he has a tendency to assume that other people are also motivated by hidden malice, and he overstates the actions of others in order to find the ill will concealed within them.” Oh my! Our critics have struck out this time. But being unconscious observers of the story—we can understand that they are blinded by the illusion of the old human narrative. Claggart cannot, any more than we can, “find the ill will concealed” within others. What we will “see” is our own “ill will” projected onto others and mirrored back to us. So here we have Claggart engaging in self-destructive behavior completely unaware that he is projecting an aspect of his shadow.
“The mistrust that the characters feel stems from the sense that evil is pervasive. Because it is impossible to know for sure whether people’s intentions [identity] are good or evil [True self or false self behavior], the evil men not only disguise [deny] their own insidious designs, they also impute evil motives to others. Claggart misinterprets [reacts to] Billy’s intention in the soup-spilling incident and subsequently plots his downfall.” While plotting Billy’s downfall, he unwittingly plots his own.
The individual and collective shadow is ubiquitous in the human community and is constantly being projected onto the other, e.g. Claggart onto Billy. The intentions of the characters in Billy Budd [their false-self survival strategies] are unknowable even to themselves. There is no good or evil only the regrettable consequences of unconscious behavior [reactions] and because of this even so-called “good” behavior has unintended consequences. The characters are caught up in an illusion and hence, all motivation is suspect and attempts to disguise behavior [with lies, denial and secrets] only exacerbates an inevitable negative outcome. The characters are naturally and unconsciously acting out the false-self conditioned behaviors. Misinterpretation [illusion] is unavoidable when the other is present since they are not seen for who they really are.
Intuition and Thinking—Feeling and Emotion
“Vere demonstrates that he places greater faith in reason and rational philosophy than he does in the dictates of his own heart. Famous for his wide reading and his love of philosophy, Vere is in some ways too cerebral to be a leader of men, and in his rigorous adherence to the rule of law he fails in his moral responsibilities to Billy.” The distinction that Vere is unable to make would have prevented the tragedy central to the story of Billy Budd; it is the one between intuition and thinking, the heart and the head. He ignored the higher source of wisdom which would have told him that Billy was not guilty of murder—not even capable of it. Instead he adhered to the cold, heartless and fear-driven letter of the law.
“Vere’s duty is to oversee the application of the written law, and the law prescribes hanging as a punishment for murder, particularly when the murderous act could be attributed to a conspiratorial plot of mutiny. In choosing to obey law over conscience [intuitive wisdom], Vere commits himself to society at the expense of his own individuality.” Vere makes the mistake which he later regrets of putting emotion over feeling, false-self driven fear over the heart-felt dictates of his higher-self.
(lies, denial, secrets, the false-self and evil)
“The novel remains ambiguous about which is paramount, the good of society or the good of the individual; still, it does make clear that Vere is racked with guilt after putting the law ahead of his conscience.” Vere has also violated one of the most fundamental of universal laws and that is the “law of Oneness.” Because of the undeniable interconnectedness and interdependence of all of Creation, the “good of the individual” is the “good of society.” “When the warship Bellipotent extracts the unassuming Billy from his former ship, the Rights-of-Man, the symbolism is relatively explicit: society is all-powerful, it compels men into participation in war, and in doing so it can readily dispense with the rights of the individual. The names of the ships alone—Bellipotent means ‘power of war’—suggest as much.”
“[The] people on the ship are unable to trust one another. Paranoia abounds, everybody trusts the rules—not the honor or conscience of individuals—to maintain order.” As we know, all institutions in P-B, including the military, will engage in lies, denial and secrets because they are driven by fear (paranoia). Because of this, military justice becomes an oxymoron and Vere ignores his conscience [still, small voice within]. There can be no justice in P-B.
Vere and Budd both reacting unconsciously were swept away toward a tragic outcome dictated by the illusion of the old paradigm. The outcome is made all the more tragic by the helplessness of all the characters caught up in the avalanche of conditioned behavior of the false self.
“Melville suggests that we must come to recognize evil but also implies that those who have come to know it are often taught, or teach themselves, to shrink back from it. The narrator describes an ‘undemonstrative distrustfulness’ that pervades the deeper affairs between men who recognize the reality of natural depravity.” Who wouldn’t be terrified if they thought that evil was a natural part of human nature. Belief in the “appearance” of evil is only part of the illusion that defines the worldview of those on board the Bellipotent and tends to make the tragic outcome of Billy Budd inevitable.
Who bears the most responsibility for Billy’s death: Claggart, Vere, or Billy himself? Did Claggart drive Billy to commit murder? Did Billy by failing to control his anger bring about his own death? Or did Vere by placing principles above people when he could have saved Billy commit the gravest crime? “Melville shows that Vere operates under the negative influence of greater forces, social institutions, and laws motivated by a hunger for power and a drive to war. [Melville here unwittingly reveals the power energy center of the false-self survival strategy]. Melville draws attention to the idea that, in the modern world, people grow up in an inherently flawed and evil society [P-B] that causes them to harden to the needs of their fellow human beings. Therefore, this laundry list of guilty parties could go on and on, including men like the Dansker as well.” And in fact virtually all of humanity is involved in its own self-destruction as well as the destruction of much of the remainder of Creation. Justice and P-B are mutually exclusive just as P-B and a sustainable future for humanity are mutually exclusive. There are no culprits or evil people, only unconscious people.
Our critics reach one of his most profound insights in linking the events in Billy Budd to religion. “There is unquestionably a profound irony to all the parallels between the Bible and Billy’s fate, since, as Vere has already pointed out to us, Billy is not being sacrificed to God, but in direct opposition to the dictates of religion.” In the P-B world of the Bellipotent we do not have a profound “law” but military law driven by paranoia; we do not have the profound “God” but the capricious Old Testament God lacking in compassion; and we do not have a profound religion, hence Billy is sacrificed “as a ‘Lamb of God’ to the greater good. Religion does not transcend the state of war, but instead has to subordinate itself to ‘the discipline and purposes of war.’” The impotence of religion in the face of unconsciousness is revealed.
“Upon close examination, [we are led] to the question whether religion advances war or war advances religion.” In P-B both institutions are interdependent and as many of us have realized, each accomplishes and justifies its goals by using the other. “Billy dies not as a Christian, but more vaguely as a spiritual man. Billy’s simplicity is a spiritual alternative to Christian theology, not an abrogation of spirituality itself.”
Melville strikes his most telling blow against religion when he illustrates at the end of the story how religion subverts truth and the teachings of its founders to its worldly purpose. “Over the succeeding days and months, Billy’s legend is transformed into an indisputable narrative, much in the fashion that Jesus’ legend slowly solidified among the apostles of what eventually became the early Christian church. In this way, a scriptural hodgepodge, rather than the true words and actions of Billy Budd, becomes the object of worship and veneration. Like John, Luke, Mark, Matthew, and, most of all, Paul, the anonymous foretopman acts as a secondhand chronicler, and the words of his poem become conflated with Billy’s actual fate, just as the Gospels and Epistles presume to speak for Jesus.”
In the end Melville, while approaching the frontier of the paradigm shift, retreats to the security of the old worldview, the comfortable illusion. “Melville retreats recognizing only what he can see: the pervasive nature of evil among mankind and the powerlessness of the so-called redemptive Christian tradition in the face of such evil.”
“Melville renders his message dark, impenetrable, and unsatisfactory to the rational mind. Billy lies not resurrected in heaven, but at the bottom of the ocean, reconnected with his primitive innocent, non-Christian nature.”
Themes: Billy, Jesus and Christianity
“Although the narrator rarely alludes to the Bible explicitly, Billy Budd contains many implicit allusions to the imagery, language, and stories of the Bible, creating a sustained parallel between Billy’s story and Christ’s Passion, the story of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. Like Christ, Billy sacrifices his life as the innocent victim of a hostile society. Vere’s role in the story parallels that of Pontius Pilate in the Gospels, as he is the official who permits the sacrifice by following the letter of the law instead of his own conscience.” Both Billy and Christ are Everyman in the story of humanity. They represent universal suffering in a world devoid of compassion because it lacks awareness. Neither Christ nor Billy know where they are—they lack insight into the nature of reality. They are not killed by evil human beings but find themselves playing the role of the other as the victims of the people who project their own fears onto them.
“Critics remain sharply divided over whether Billy Budd’s religious imagery represents Melville’s embrace of religion or harsh critique of it, which illustrates the ambiguity of the religious allegory in the story.” What is called for in the story, whether Melville was aware of it or not, is neither an acceptance nor rejection of religion but a transcending of religion which is a profoundly unconscious and dysfunctional institution.
“Christian society moves toward a disastrous fall from grace as it becomes more dependent on violence and military discipline.” There never has been a Christian society—only the illusion of one. “Billy is said to resemble a cornered dog or caged monkey. Melville combines this animal imagery with references to Billy as a ‘babe,’ a ‘savage,’ and an ‘upright barbarian,’ suggesting that Billy represents Melville’s exploration of what happens to the natural or primitive man when confronted with the law and Christianity.” Christianity, of course, has failed the innocent, the indigenous peoples of the world. The so-called civilizing influence of Christianity was just the opposite in that often sustainable and largely peaceful communities were enculturated into warlike and barbarous communities.
One of the themes in Billy Budd is mutiny. The ultimate mutiny in life would be to foreswear resistance itself or as Jesus said, “resist not.” It is resistance to what is natural in life that is the source of all human suffering.
“Broadly speaking the H.M.S. Bellipotent symbolizes society, with the actions of a few characters standing for the state of human society in general. It represents the forces of society and authority.” The Bellipotent symbolizes an unconscious and failed society unable to focus its power in the service of individual people. “Thus, Melville equates evil with experience in society.” We can hardly escape the narrative that all of us are born into nor the identity determined by that story. All of humanity is as innocent at Billy Budd and as vulnerable. Melville’s book foreshadows the universal human tragedy currently unfolding on our planet, the “spaceship” earth.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in books by Roy Charles Henry.