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Billy Budd
by Herman Melville
Synopsis:
Called the "Handsome Sailor" by the other sailors aboard the warship, Bellipotent, Billy Budd is admired by all men but Master-at-Arms Claggart, an envious man who plots to frame Billy for treason.
 

DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD	11/21/1998 11:42:26 AM	56	0	"The
December Classics Corner selection is Herman Melville's novella BILLY BUDD.
Every attempt will be made to start the discussion on time. - G - 

This is a short selection and you should be able to finish it in an evening or two. Melville's "parable of innocence", in which a natural man is defeated by an evil intellect has had enduring power. It has been the source for both a film and an opera. It should pose some interesting questions for discussion.

" DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 11/22/1998 9:39:27 PM 52 0 "Ann
I have just finished Billy Budd, and am looking looking forward to the discussion. While it is a short story, Melville's style is somewhat difficult, proceeding by indirection suggestion and allusion; despite this, it is an interesting allegory and in my opinion, still worth serious consideration.
Katy Higgins
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 11/28/1998 4:40:44 AM 52 0 "I've been interested in Billy Budd since I ran the film adaptation of the story at Berkeley's Northside Theater in the early '60s. Between watching snippets through the projection room porthole and plunking myself down inside the theater, I must have seen that film ten times. It exercised a mysterious hold on me which I've never understood. It wasn't any latent religious feelings I may have had, and I don't think it was sexual. (Terence Stamp's portrayal of Budd has strong homoerotic undertones, but I'm about as straight as one can be in a world in which I doubt that anyone is completely one thing or the other.)

I think my interest in the story may have sprung from some kind of deep-seated wish to be completely good. As I said, I wasn't then (and am not now) religious. However, I was raised to be "good" and to be honest (which is certainly not to say that I've turned out okay--but that's another story). Anyway, if this theory is correct, I may have been drawn to Budd because the character represents pure goodness. Budd is a complete innocent in a world filled with evil, and the effect he has on those around him in the film is something fine to behold.

I haven't seen that film in years, but vivid images from it are burned in my memory: Budd sent aloft by the captain of a merchant ship who's trying to hide him from a naval press crew; Budd watching a sailor being flogged in bewilderment; Budd waving from aloft to the naval captain (Peter Ustinov), who doesn't know what to make of something so innocent and harmless. But most of, the final scene: After Budd cries out, "God bless Captain Vere!" there can't be a dry eye in the house.

Why is that? Has that film had the same effect on anyone else?

Now to the bad news ... Despite my enthusiasm for Billy Budd so long ago, it took me until a few years ago to read the actual book. And I'm sorry to report that I found it a tedious drag. (By contrast, I found Moby Dick to be just the opposite, despite my expectations to the contrary.) I fear that I could never work up any enthusiasm for reading Billy Budd again. However, I'll greatly welcome any contrary opinions on that subject. If there's something wonderful in that book that I missed, I'd like to know about it.
________________

I have the complete text of the book on my computer. It's in WordPerfect 5.1 (DOS), but it can easily be converted to other formats. If anyone is interested in having a copy, send me a note and I'll email the book to you. It's not very big (c. 200 kilobytes) as electronic texts of books go, so it won't take you long to download it. Let me know in what form you want the text. Here are the choices:

1. WP5.1 in individual chapters
2. WP5.1 in one big file
3. DOS (ASCII) text in one big file

If you want the book in individual chapters, I must insist on sending it to you as a compressed file (uploading/downloading 31 separate files would be tedious). If you're comfortable with unzipping compressed files, I'll send the book to you that way, regardless of what form you want it in.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 11/28/1998 4:59:02 AM 57 0 "Just for the heck of it, I've copied the credits of Billy Budd from the Internet Movie Database to here. they seem to have come through okay.

________________________



Full Cast and Crew for Billy Budd (1962)
Directed by Peter Ustinov  
 
Writing credits: DeWitt Bodeen, Robert H. Chapman, Louis O. Coxe, Herman Melville(novel), Peter Ustinov
 
Cast (in credits order)

Robert Ryan .... Master-at-Arms John Claggart
Peter Ustinov .... Captain Edward Fairfax Vere
Paul Rogers .... Lieutenant Philip Ratcliffe
John Neville .... Lieutenant Ratcliffe
David McCallum (I) .... Lieutenant Wyatt
Ronald Lewis .... Jenkins
Lee Montague .... Squeak
Thomas Heathcote .... Payne
Ray McAnally .... O'Daniel
Robert Brown (I) .... Talbot
John Meillon .... Kincaid
Cyril Luckham .... Hallam
Niall MacGinnis .... Captain Graveling
Melvyn Douglas .... The Dansker
Victor Brooks .... Amos Leonard
Barry Keegan .... Charles Mathews

rest of cast listed alphabetically
Terence Stamp .... Billy Budd
 
Produced by Peter Ustinov  
Original music by Anthony Hopkins (II)  
Cinematography by Robert Krasker  
Production Design by Donald M. Ashton  
Film Editing by Jack Harris (I)  
 
Other crew
Fred Heather .... special effects
Garth Inns .... special effects
Curly Nelhams .... special effects
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 11/30/1998 4:36:07 PM 50 0 "Hi Kent,
It is interesting to me how we develop similar feelings toward this book. What struck me last night while I read it was how Moby Dick makes for much easier and smoother reading. When I first looked at this book I was negatively impressed by the convoluted way of Melville's writing. He seemed to be off on another tangent in almost every paragraph. But, when Melville quoted people talking he is straight forward and to the point. Also there are repeated hints about what the conflict will be about after the story develops. I become a bit apprehensive about it. So I see the book as going back and forth Between a very clear presentation and getting off on a tangent.
What impressed me a good deal is Melville's understanding of the good and bad in human nature. Yes, he rendered fine descriptions and Explanations of the good and evil in man. Some of it strikes me as very subtle and sophisticated.
As on previous occasions I became interested in the author and read a few short pieces on his life in various source books. Ernie
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 11/30/1998 7:29:27 PM 50 0 "I finished BILLY BUDD yesterday. I must admit that Melville’s tortured syntax at times made this slow reading. I had to slow down and read some of it more than once just to get the meaning. This story was published posthumously. Some of the more obscure passages would probably have been cleaned up by a good editor. Yet, in spite of these shortcomings (if such they be), this is a very dramatic story, which made a big impression on me. It is a story of ideas, and it raises important moral questions—qualities that are usually lacking in more contemporary literature.

I would like to ask the following questions. I am still debating the answers in my own mind.

Billy Budd is supposed to represent the "natural man" before man was corrupted by civilization. Do you think such a man would ever actually exist in nature, or is he just a literary construct, a kind of heroic prototype? Does civilization, in fact, corrupt us?

Why is Billy’s physical perfection so constantly emphasized?

Is Claggart just the devil incarnate, or is there anything in the story to explain his hatred of Billy? (And, don’t you just love this line: "But Claggart’s conscience being but the lawyer to his will, made ogres of trifles.."

Captain Vere was convinced that he had no choice but to condemn Billy. Did Melville think that he acted morally? Do you?

DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/01/1998 1:27:09 AM 54 0 "Ann, I expect that Melville's "natural man" theme owes a lot to British philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, as well as the French philosopher Rousseau, who had a lot to say on what it might mean to live in the hypothetical "state of nature." Billy Budd is such an innocent that he appears to belong more properly to that state. Moreover, as an innocent, he resembles the "noble savage"--a physically perfect man who lives in a state of nature.

I'm no student of philosophy (or of literature for that matter), but I suspect that these connections may account for Melville's emphasis on Budd's physical appearance. Moreover, his (Budd's, not Melville's) mind seems to be undeveloped, so Melville may be compensating for that deficiency by developing his body.

Another question that I've had about the story for many years is why Melville set it in the British navy? Could it have had something to do with the influence of the British philosophers he must have read? He could, after all, have set virtually the same story in the American navy--which was known to hang mutineers from the yardarm as late as the mid-19th century.
__________________

(And why isn't the name Melville in the spell-check dictionary of a literary discussion group like this?)
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/01/1998 12:14:39 PM 52 0 "One reason to set Billy Budd in the Royal Navy was that the British naval mutinies of the Napoleonic Wars were far more well known, and dramatic, than were their isolated, individual American counterparts.

Another reason, I think, is that one level of the story Melville is telling involves a look at individual freedom and goodness as opposed to organizational freedom and goodness. Budd was a fine and innocent individual; Captain Vere was an equally fine and innocent person, in the context in which he existed, which was of course, the organizational structure of the Royal Navy. The two sets of values intersect and conflict, and ultimately results in the agonizing resolution of the conflict. This grand theme needs a grand theater in which to play -- and I think the Royal Navy, in its wars with Napolean, was an appropriately broad stage. Moreover, the organizational imperative to execute Budd is much clearer in the context of the RN of the time than it would have been on the miniscule American fleet of the early 19th century, because of the mutinies that had Occurred and because of the desperate nature of the struggle with France.

Something I've never quite understood is this business of Budd's corpse not twitching. Anyone read anything about what this might signify? All I can think of is that it's some sort of sign that God came down and plucked Billy off to heaven before the noose could get him, thus indicating Budd really was in tight with the Big Guy. Of course, I don't recall Claggart twitching, either, so go figure.

Dick
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/01/1998 12:53:32 PM 53 0 "In the matter of Budd's not twitching when he died, I'm inclined to suspect that his death scene has parallels with Christ's crucifixion (perhaps the ship's yardarm subs for the cross). The Gospels of the Bible don't describe Christ's death in anything like the clinical detail that Melville discusses Budd's death. However, they give the impression that Christ's moment of death came quickly and was followed by complete calm.

As for Claggart's death, I'm sure that one has to study the details of Judas's hanging to find a parallel.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/01/1998 4:13:59 PM 55 0 "Its been years since I read any commentary on Billy Budd but my recollection is that the analysis was fairly evenly split between the homosexual school and the Christ-figure school, with some overlap. I always wanted to write the fusion essay: "Billy Budd: Deity or Drag-Queen?"

Dick

P.S. Considering what a twisted little sod he was, Claggart got off pretty easy. One whack and lights out. If Clint Eastwood had been writing this, we'd have a more satisfying conclusion to this particular scene.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/01/1998 4:32:24 PM 58 0 "Dick, I don't see this as a vehicle for Eastwood. I see it more as a martial arts kind of thing--perhaps with Chuck Norris playing Budd. It would be tempting to cast an Asian as Claggart, but that probably wouln't fly because of the historical context. The important thing, of course, would be to have a Claggart who fights back. Instead of dying instantly and losing his audience, Claggart would put up a fight for a good 10 minutes, wrecking Captain Vere's cabin in the process. Then, after having beaten the bejeezus out of Claggart, Budd (Norris) would finish him off with one mighty blow, turn to the captain, and stammer, "Don't know what got into me ..."

In the court-martial scene, the officers would debate the wisdom of hanging Budd when the prospects for a sequel appeared to be so bright. They would nevertheless convict him; however, just as the noose is tightening around Budd's neck, he would break the rope with a single karate chop, apologize to captain again--for being uncooperative--and spring into action against the French ship that is attacking them.

After single-handedly saving the ship, Budd would be pardoned, in the name of King and country, and the closing credits would invite the audience back for the sequel: Billy Budd II: Death to the French.

DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 2:16:25 AM 54 0 "ANN

It's been a while since I read BILLY BUDD, but I remember it as a retelling of the Christ story. At the end aren't the sailors saving splinters from the yardarm? Just as splinters from the "True Cross filled the European continent. Mark Twain might even had some remark on this subject.

As for corpse "twitching". Does this imply that rigormortis was not present. Death and dead bodies were more in evidence in those days than now, when we tend to keep everything with professionals who specialize in death, and the presentation of death in a less personal aspect.

Not worded well, but the family used to take care of the body. And the carpenter made the box. In between; no middle man.

EDD
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 5:34:55 PM 52 0 "I was wondering how many CCs' editions of BILLY BUDD have a cover illustration of the subject. Mine does...it's a Signet paperback from 1961 when paperbacks were a whopping 75 cents.(See attached .jpg)

To me, Billy looks part saint-like and part emperor-like here. Thought it might be interesting to see the varying artists' conceptions from other folks' covers of BB.

>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 5:39:57 PM 52 0 "I was wondering how many CCs' editions of BILLY BUDD have a cover illustration of the subject. Mine does...it's a Signet paperback from 1961 when paperbacks were a whopping 75 cents.(See attached .jpg)

To me, Billy looks part saint-like and part emperor-like here. Thought it might be interesting to see the varying artists' conceptions from other folks' covers of BB.

>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 5:48:33 PM 55 0 "Well, darn. I'll try attaching the Billy Budd .JPG one more time...

>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 7:24:10 PM 53 0 "Kent,
I agree that it is easier to understand Billy Budd as the perfect "natural" man when you consider this story in the context of philosophical ideas about the noble savage. For myself, I sincerely doubt that primitive man was any better than we are today. He may have been more naïve; I don’t know that he was more "innocent." Melville’s stay among South Sea Islanders apparently convinced him otherwise (although these folks were reputedly cannibals, so I’m not sure how he worked this out in his own mind).

Yet, I also have to say that I sincerely liked Billy in this story. Perfect as he was, I did not find him cloyingly sweet. I was even willing to accept his perfect physical beauty, although in my own limited personal experience I have rarely found external and internal beauty to be closely correlated.

Edd, there are certainly a lot of religious overtones to this story and I can understand why many see Billy as a Christ figure. When he yelled out, "God Bless Captain Vere", I immediately thought of Jesus’s words in the Gospel: "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." There is also that apparent "fleece of the Lamb of God" seen in the sky after Billy died. As for the lack of twitching, the text refers to possible "euthanasia." Apparently, it is okay if God is responsible for it.

This story has also been interpreted to mean that civilization corrupts man, who is naturally good. In this Melville was clearly out of touch with his 19th century compatriots who saw man marching forth into a future of unlimited progress. I have reservations about man being naturally good, but I think the conflict between natural law (which may even be God’s law) and man’s law is what makes this story so powerful. Billy is clearly innocent, as Captain Vere immediately recognizes. When he sees that Billy has accidentally killed Claggart, he exclaims: "Struck dead by the angel of God!" This is directly followed by, "Yet the angel must hang!" Man’s rules require that Billy be executed to maintain military discipline. Melville makes a pretty good case for Captain Vere. I think he sees him as a moral man. Do agree?

At the same time, even if is necessary that "Baby "(how innocent can you get?) Billy die, it is not right. War, and politics in general, often lead people to do wrong in the name of the higher good. This is a great story because it makes us question that.

Dale, I have a paperback edition from the Washington Square Press. Billy Budd is wearing a kind of see through T shirt that shows every sinew of his body and makes him look like either a body builder or a Greek god. Thanks for sharing your picture. I think both the cover on your book and the one on mine make him look too old. I see him more as a boy.

Ann
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 7:35:33 PM 53 0 "Ann & All: I'm far enough into BILLY BUDD to know that, merits of the story aside, the author can make syntax cry "uncle" like nobody I've read in a while.

The preface to my edition says that this is one of the last things Melville wrote before he died, and that it wasn't published until 32 years after his death. I remember his earlier stuff, though of course not lightweight, to be considerably more readable than this.

Seems almost counter-intuitive to me; don't writers generally start out contorted and gradually mellow in style?

Comments, please...

>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 9:55:05 PM 57 0 "I'm enjoying the comments on BB here, although, in deference to my first reading experience with it several years ago, I've chosen not to read it again.

I don't remember enough about it to add much to the discussion, but I do remember that Billy began to give me a pain. He was just too good and sweet.

Dale, that scan came in at life-size. It was weird to see Billy appear--first the wiry golden hair, then the saintly blue eyes, lifted to the skies...

BTW, if you want your scans to pop up fast and fit on the screen, see if you can reduce them to about 300 x 500 pixels.

Ruth
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 10:41:57 PM 60 0 "One thing that strikes me as I near the end of BB is how Melville's style, so cerebral and circuitous throughout, suddenly turns so beautifully visual when describing Billy in irons before his execution.

The paragraph beginning, "On the starboard side of the Indomitable's upper gun deck, behold Billy Budd under sentry..." was such a vivid picture it took my breath away.

Even down to the figure of speech that the chaplain's sermon was to Billy "like a gift placed in the palm of an outreached hand upon which the fingers do not close."

>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 11:24:49 PM 62 0 "Dale, My copy of Billy Budd is a 75¢ Signet edition, like yours, but its cover ain't quite the same. I agree that the picture of Budd on the cover of your edition has the look of an emperor (a Greek emperor, I should think); however, the picture on the cover of my edition looks more like a Greek god.

Talk about perfection!

I'm attaching a scan I just made. Anyone else have this edition? Perhaps not.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/03/1998 12:03:14 AM 64 0 "Wow, Kent. That's the handsomest Billy yet.

Ruth
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/03/1998 8:41:36 AM 63 0 "Kent: You rascal. Amazing! Now, THAT's a book cover.

Although, if this were the true Billy, methinks they would have done him in even sooner...(G)

>>Dale, your Budd in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/03/1998 10:24:45 AM 62 0 "Just a couple of observations/questions upon finishing BILLY BUDD...

At one point, Melville tries to make the case that the captain is mentally unstable, and that this somehow affects the outcome of the incident, but for me that's problematic. Nothing he does seems irrational to me--wrong-headed perhaps, but very rational. It's one of history's oldest saws, "I don't make the rules, I just etc." and it's done every day from battlefields to jails to corporate boardrooms. Did anybody else have a problem with this?

(On a side note...William Bradford Huie wrote a nonfiction book called THE EXECUTION OF PRIVATE SLOVIK, about the only American soldier to be killed for dereliction of duty during peacetime. It was made into a powerful TV movie, 20 years or so ago, with Martin Sheen in the title role.)

Also, some scholars say that Claggart's actions were equal parts evil and intellect. Evil, maybe, but I don't see intellect coming into play here. To me, his motivation seemed twofold: personal antipathy, rooted in plain old-fashioned envy; and what the 20th Century would call "ambivalent sexual feelings" for Billy. Or am I reading too much modern psychology into that part?

And, in the ballad at the story's end, "darbies" are mentioned twice in connection with Billy's death. What the heck are darbies? My dictionary hasn't a clue.

And, at one point a character mentions a punishment that's grimly nicknamed "kissing the gunner's daughter," which I first encountered in a Ruth Rendell mystery of the same name. I know it involves a gun, but the descriptions are so vague I don't know exactly what the punishment consists of. Can anybody help?

Thanks,

>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/03/1998 12:39:05 PM 60 0 "Dale, I'm glad you like the Billy Budd cover. I don't know about doing the character in sooner because of his appearance, but I'd certainly give some thought to making him shave.
_____________________

"Kissing the gunner's daughter" refers to flogging. If I'm not mistaken it alludes specifically to being stretched over a gun carriage and being whipped on the back. However, I believe it may have also have been used figuratively for any flogging.

Yr obedt. servant,

Uncle Dynamite

(Who was never flogged in the Coast Guard, even though he was observed, on occasion, to mutter mutinously and have an odd glint in his eye.)
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/03/1998 5:03:37 PM 57 0 "Dale,
Darbies --"manacles or irons". My paper back has a "Visual Glossary." If I had a scanner I would send you a picture. Basically, they look like leg or arm irons with a chain attached.

I think that the surgeon questions if the Captain has lost it, but I think that Melville's point is that he is acting according to the rules, and therefore "rationally" according to society. Military or political "duty" is frequently used as an excuse for behavior which we might otherwise consider immoral.I was thinking about this the other night when I heard an NPR story about the 4 church women (3 nuns and a lay missionary) who were murdered by the Salvadoran military about 18 years ago. As long as Carter was in office, the U S government vigorously investigated the murders. When Reagan took over, the government tried to shove the whole incident under the rug because the Salvadoran military was their ally against the boogie man of Communism. Secretary of State Haig even suggested that maybe it was the nun's own fault that they were murdered. It's almost enough to make you think that governments, particularly when they have military objectives, are innately corrupt, isn't it? (G)

In the past we have discussed the presence of outright evil in the world, Dale, and I thought you might see Claggart as a good example of this. I think envy was definitely a factor. Claggart is also very good looking, until you get to his chin, and suddenly his whole appearance is flawed.
Also, there is more than a hint that he is sexually attracted to Billy. Chapter XVIII:
"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." If he were writing today, he might have developed this theme a lot more. As it is, much is left to our imagination. I don't know if Claggart acted so much "rationally" as "deliberately."

You mentioned the writing style.
Melville achieved his early success in the 1850's. Thereafter he didn't publish much, and was considered a failure when he died in 1891. BILLY BUDD was written shortly before his death. Maybe he had lost the writer's touch in between MOBY DICK (which, to be honest, I really struggled through in high school) or maybe he just didn't have time to polish some of the writing. I do think that the end of the story (starting with Claggart's accusation) is very powerfully written.

Kent -- great picture of "Billy Budd." He so closely resembles a writer friend of mine. I guess that hair is platinum, huh? (G)

Ann DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/04/1998 2:46:09 AM 52 0 "Dale

Regarding Private Slovak (Slovik?). I'm sure he was executed during war time. He "got religion" after he was a soldier, and refused to enter combat. His wife supported him and probably instigated his actions.

I think General Eisenhower says (somewhere) that he was just waiting for an appeal on religious grounds, but Slovak never used that avenue of escape. Some people have a martry complex. Slovak may have been one of them. I think he was executed (firing squad; 12 guns; 11 bullets) about the time of the Battle of the Bulge. It also served as an object lesson to the timid of heart. Or that is what the military mind thought.

General George Washington had problems with desertions. His solution was the most cruel I have ever read about. He took three deserters and put them together. In an hour two of the men had to decide which one of them should die. The two survivors then went back to their companies. When word got around, desertions decreased.

EDD remembering the military


DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/04/1998 4:34:17 AM 57 0 "I wrote a squib on Edward Slovik for an article titled "10 People Made Famous by Their Deaths" (in The Book of Lists 2). According to what I wrote some years ago, of nearly 3,000 Americans court-martialed for desertion during World War II, 49 were sentenced to death, but Slovik was the only one of actually shot. His distinction is magnified by the fact that he was also the first American executed for desertion since the Civil War.

Slovik was executed near Ste. Marie, France, on Jan. 31, 1945--about 6 weeks after the Battle of the Bulge began, but only a few days before Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met at Yalta. The TV movie about Slovik starring Martin Sheen aired in in 1974.
__________________

I don't suppose anyone picked up on my reference, but I appended a phrase to an earlier note in this thread about not having been flogged for mutiny when I was in the Coast Guard. (That's true, I was never flogged for mutiny--though I often lusted after mutiny in my heart.) The other part of my note I stole from an incident in U.S. naval history.

When I was in college I bought an illustrated history of ships off a remainder table at the Univ. of Calif. bookstore (first remaindered book I can remember buying). It has a picture in it that has always haunted me: A navy ship with two men swinging from a yard-arm. This caption accompanies the picture:
_________________

A famous incident in American naval history: Midshipman Spencer was hanged from the yard-arm of the U.S. brig Somers because he "muttered mutinously and had an odd glint in his eye." Captain Mackenzie was tried for his murder in 1842 but acquitted.
_________________

That phrase, "muttered mutinously and had an odd glint in his eye," has stuck with me all these years, and I've muttered it myself scores of times (especially when I've been at work.)

That picture has also often come to my mind when I've thought about Billy Budd. Spencer's hanging is doubtless one of the reasons I've wondered why Melville didn't set his story in the U.S. Navy.

I'm attaching a scan of the picture. (The caption I quoted contains all the information I have about the incident; I have no idea why it shows two people hanging from the yard-arm. I do, however, seem to recall reading elsewhere--but I've no idea where--that Spencer was the last American sailor hanged at sea.)

DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/04/1998 9:36:06 AM 50 0 "Edd & Kent: Thanks for setting the record straight on Pvt. Slovik. I do seem to remember, now, the martyrdom aspect but I wouldn't be surprised if it was downplayed in a screen treatment. Still, it's one of a very few TV movies that linger in my mind. Another was also on a military theme, this time Vietnam: "Friendly Fire," starring Carol Burnett. I thought her performance was absolutely stunning.

BTW, I notice in the lithograph that the two naval hang-ees are directly underneath Old Glory. Not an accident, I would presume?

Mutinous muttering and odd eye-glinting have also been ascribed to me, over the years. Once I took part in a "Writers in the Schools" program, and after my presentation the fifth-grade teacher asked the class to write me thank-you notes. One boy's said, "I enjoyed Mr. Short's presentation very much. Does he have a glass eye?"

>>Dale in Ala.

DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/04/1998 9:52:17 AM 50 0 "Ann: Thanks for the clarification on "darbies." They sure had happy-sounding names for grim stuff back then, didn't they? Kissing the gunner's daughter, indeed.

Good to know, too, I wasn't imagining the sexual undertones in this thing. I know that we sometimes make the mistake of imputing contemporary sexual politics to eras when the social landscape was completely different--i.e., "platonic" friendships of Victorian women that sound by modern standards like explicit love letters--but I don't think this is one of those cases.

And yes, I do think Claggart qualifies as one of what Scott Peck would call "the people of the lie." He makes the point again and again (in his book by that title) that the people he classifies as evil are generally not snarling monsters, but rather ordinary individuals who are for all practical purposes conscienceless, and never seem to grasp the full impact of their actions on others. He also refers often to Hannah Arendt's book about the Nazi war-crime tribunals, where she reports that the infamous men brought to trial seemed more in person like "timid, bumbling bureaucrats" than the murderers of millions.

>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/07/1998 6:19:23 PM 40 0 "This morning I finished BILLY BUDD and read the thread. I loved this story and cried at the end. I know, I know, you think I love everything I read and cry at the end of every book but its NOT true. Just almost true lately. Now it is inevitable that I will have to read MOBY DICK and, therefore, will not have time to do anything else in my life, but that is just too bad. Such is the power of literature.
Excellent thread, too. Dick’s assessment of the individual good versus the organizational good struck me as getting to the heart of the matter. The story is exploring the divergence of morality and the law. The social statement seems to be: just because someone has committed a crime doesn’t necessarily mean s(he) has done anything wrong. In fact, the official record often gets it wrong, as did the only printed report of the incident which paints Billy Budd as the heinous villain and Claggart as the heroic patriot. Even the facts of the killing are incorrectly reported, underscoring that what appears to be true according to the letter of the law or the record thereof, is deserving of further scrutiny.
Like the recent film, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, I was drawn into the contradictions that war brings about without any easy answers. It was clear to me that Captain Vere’s choice to hang Billy Budd was the “correct” one and yet how could something so right be so wrong? In 1891, when BB was written, the social milieu was such that a record of crime meant social ruin. The story seeks to drive a wedge between conviction and culpability. Also, I think it ironic that when this story was written Herman Melville was generally regarded as a failure; certainly a prevailing social judgment worthy of reexamination. BILLY BUDD pleads: look beyond the official explanation-- the far more interesting
story, indeed the truth of the matter may be something altogether different.
As to Billy Budd’s perfection: I got the impression that Billy was the occasional fellow of great exception. He was on the magnificent pole of the human spectrum. A beauty inside and out. His very presence bespoke of the potential of all who knew him. And we have all met and known exceptional people. Billy had it all, and in that sense, as Ann suggests, he could represent a prototype of human greatness. And as the story makes clear, such a person still comes with their vulnerabilities, perhaps all the more so.
As to the sexuality of the book: I’m sure you are all stunned to hear that I concur that there is a homoerotic undercurrent to this voyage. Claggart’s animosity was motivated as much from his thwarted desire to have Billy as his desire to be like Billy. As to the feelings of the rest of the crew toward Billy, it seems that on a warship of the day it was appropriate for the men to express affection one for another, even a kiss on the cheek, without the assumption of sexual overture. (Just as a side note: I have not seen the film, but I can tell you that Peter Ustinov who played Captain Vere, produced the film and co-wrote the screenplay and Terence Stamp who played Billy Budd are both gay.)
For me, Melville wrote powerfully from the Captain’s decision until Billy’s execution. Billy’s clarion last words were never lost on the men who witnessed it. Billy’s strength was from that moment forward the personal measurement of each man there.

Robt
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/07/1998 7:05:04 PM 40 0 "Robt: I very much enjoyed your thoughtful and thought-provoking note. As to Billy's human goodness, I was reminded today of a colloquialism my grandparents used when I was growing up. They would say that somebody like Billy was "too good for his own good," which I think puts it well. So often, the best among us are too naive to protect themselves from the worst.

As for the truth differing from the historical record, I worked enough years in the newspaper business to know that the two are often light-years apart.

>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/07/1998 7:05:48 PM 41 0 "I've read some on 18th century naval life and my recollection is that a bit of recreational pederasty in the fo'castle was not at all uncommon, with ships being at sea for months and years at a time. It was also the common practice for the quarterdeck to turn a blind-eye to these practices, provided the miscreants kept it below decks. This, notwithstanding that such conduct was punishable by execution. There was an excellent subtheme/subplot on the subject, in one of Patrick O'Brian's novels (I take POB as gospel on affairs, or perhaps I should say, "matters", relating to the Royal Navy in the age of sail). Anyway, I suspect Melville was 'suggesting' a sexual theme which most sophisticated readers of the day would have well understood, even if it was presented in a subtle and tasteful manner which our modern eyes find nearly incomprehensible ("Spit it out, Herman. Was Claggart guilty of doin' the dirty deed, or not? I want ambiguity, I'll watch Ally McBeal fer crissakes.")

Dick


DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/07/1998 10:50:56 PM 41 0 "Excellent observations, Robt. Your note was a perfect example of why I enjoy discussing the classics here. Where else, but here and Constant Reader, could I find such love of books and insights that so enrich my appreciation of a work of literature?

Much as I may have quibbled about some awkward writing early in the story, I must agree with you that once we get to the Captain's decision, both the writing and the dramatic development of the plot are excellent. Fortunately (G), my horrible memory had completely erased the climax of this story, so it once again made a striking impression. This moral conflict between doing the "correct" thing and the "right" thing is the heart of the story.

One thing that we haven't mentioned yet which I thought was very interesting was the role of the chaplain in the story. I love this line: ..."since he felt that innocence was even a better thing than religion wherewith to go to judgment, he reluctantly withdrew." Quite a broadminded man for someone in his profession, don't you think?
Of course, Melville does get in a final dig about the religion of the meek (i.e. Christianity) sanctioning that (i.e. war) which "practically is the abrogation of everything but brute force. I guess one mustn't think too much about the hypocrisy and immorality of war or nobody would go to fight -- except the bad guys.

Ann
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/08/1998 9:04:29 AM 42 0 "Ann: The chaplain scene in BB got to me, too, as did Melville's line about war being "the abrogation of everything but brute force." It's no place for Boy Scouts, that's for sure.

Speaking of the sometimes broad difference between "the truth" and "the facts," I'm reminded of a novel that takes that distinction as practically its whole theme: IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS, by Tim O'Brien. No accident, I think, that this one is military-related also. It's about a Vietnam vet whose run for political office crashes and burns at the last minute when allegations surface about his actions during the war.

Seems I remember gail, and some other CRs, enjoying it too...if "enjoy" is the word for a book this unflinching.

This one should definitely have been on my Top 10 list. Three thumbs up, if I had 'em.

>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/09/1998 4:50:14 PM 37 0 "Dale,
I liked IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS, but the Tim O'Brien book that really blew me away was THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. Part of what got to me, I'm sure, was that I was actually wrapped up in a book about war. As a general rule, I can barely stand to read about anything too violent. O'Brien has a lot of talent, but I don't think his latest book got very good reviews. Have you read it?

Ann

p.s. I liked the 'extra-credit' suggestions for Fitzgerald.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/13/1998 2:36:29 PM 34 0 "In retrospect Billy Budd reminds me a bit of a Greek drama. There is no exit for the actors who are drawn into death by fate. The Greeks of course thought this due to the gods. I suspect that Melville's original plan for the book was responsible for casting doubt on the Captains mental state. As someone pointed out the Captain was a fine, sane person. I agree with someone who said that the book needed editing badly. I was also struck by the strange variation in writing style. At time the writing was poor and convoluted and all of a sudden it turned to being superb, clear and beautiful.
This book left a deep impression on me as it keeps coming back to my mind. Ernie
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/13/1998 3:36:26 PM 37 0 "Ernie,
I agree with your observation that BILLY BUDD resembles a Greek tragedy. Melville really boxes in his characters, to the point where there seems to be no escape from fate. I think it could be argued, however, that the captain could have chosen to postpone Billy's trial and let the higher authorities take care of him. I am somewhat surprised that no one has taken that position in our discussion. That option was definitely suggested in the text.

Ann
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/13/1998 9:00:14 PM 37 0 "Ann,
The only explanation I can come up with why the Captain did not delay was the fact that he wanted Billy Budd to die while still in the proximity and control of his own love or affection. Well Billy had to die, but he died in the presence of a truly caring person.
Ann, I have a hard time getting away from psychobiological explanations. The Master of Arms (can't find the book or remember his name) acted due to envy, jealousy, competitiveness. These are very human, but not very desireable hardwired impulses. Billy and the Captain had opposite types of impulses,generosity, love of fellow man, etc. Unquestionably these impulses are preferable to the opposite, but aspects of the human animal and the conflict can be deadly when acted out. The sexual aspects may be there as well but I tend to discount them somewhat.
The playing out of the competitiveness in the type of setting Melville has chosen creates the type of drama which touches us. Ernie
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/13/1998 11:01:33 PM 38 0 "Ernie,
That's a very interesting interpretation and not one I would have come to on my own.

Ann
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/14/1998 9:53:07 AM 41 0 "Ernie: Good to see you online again. Thanks for your thought-provoking comments on this thought-provoking book.

Ann, I'm not sure how much leeway the Captain had as to saving Billy's case for an on-land court. Melville goes on and on, beforehand, about the types of conscripts they were getting (from jails, etc.), notorious mutinies and their consequences, as if to suggest that these were tense times for the Navy in general.

Add to that a suggestion that the Captain might have been a little unstable, i.e. paranoid, and he might well have been afraid that once discipline started to slip, and sailors began taking sides on the issue, his command could well have been in danger. He seems to me like a sane and relatively good man saving his own skin.

On a more modern note, some sources say that in Vietnam combat, more field officers were killed by their own troops (the nickname, "fragging," apparently derived from fragmentary grenade) than by the Vietcong.

Just a thought.

>>Dale in Ala.
(PS: For a glimpse into the primordial mists of CR, check out the Salon subject "CR: The Olden Days")
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/14/1998 6:24:47 PM 38 0 "Good points, Dale. I guess when you rely on impressment (i.e. kidnapping) to fill the ranks and you are in the midst of a long war, it is critical to maintain discipline at all costs.

To be completely unfair about this, what do you think you would have done?

Ann DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/15/1998 10:14:34 AM 40 0 "Ann: What would I have done, in the Captain's place? Whew.

As much as I'd like to blow some smoke about respecting the sanctity of life, etc., etc., my time in the military (I was drafted in '69, went through Army basic training, kept ending up in the hospital, and eventually got a medical discharge because I'm essentially one-eyed and have asthma, facts the draft board had, pardon the expression, turned a blind eye upon) taught me more about myself than I wanted to know.

My most striking memory of those months is the image of myself in full battle gear and helmet, literally stepping on, and over, people ahead of me in formation who had fallen after passing out from exhaustion. It's hard to reconcile that with the person I like to think I am. Self-preservation makes people do some terrible things, and I don't think anybody can predict what they'd do if faced with the situation.

The way I see it, military training is a combination of fear and self- preservation, achieved through brainwashing, period. Sometimes, arguably, for a worthy purpose (see WW II), but still an awful thing for a person to have to go through. Somewhat the same goes for quasi-military organizations such as law enforcement.

As much as I condemn police abuse and crimes of war, I get upset when people seem shocked that this kind of thing occurs. We train people to kill, pay them dirt, put them in situations where their lives are threatened daily, and then act surprised when they don't always behave like good Boy Scouts.

Wow. You really got me on my soapbox, there... =G=

>>Dale, preserving himself in Ala.



DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/15/1998 5:07:59 PM 39 0 "Dale, thanks for your honesty. I could never see myself in combat at all, but the reason I liked Tim O'Brien's THE THINGS THEY CARRIED so much is that I could so identify with the fear and confusion of his soldiers.
The narrator goes to Vietnam in the first place because he feels he doesn't have the courage to buck social pressure and escape to Canada.

That brainwashing is really critical, isn't it? There are some who imagine themselves invincible and want to "prove" themselves, but most of us just try to survive. Once someone is actually firing at you or your buddies, the killing becomes a lot easier. Of course, as a middle-aged female I count myself fortunate that I never had to face these fears other than in my imagination.

Ann
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/16/1998 8:29:33 AM 41 0 "Ann: I think Tim O'Brien captures the fear and confusion of combat like nobody else. The story you mention ("On the Rainy River?") was one of the most moving, to me, in THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. Being in a war was unthinkable to me, but so was living in a foreign country without my family.

A wonderful (and disturbing) novel about the Vietnam War is PACO'S STORY, by Larry Heinemann. It was a dark-horse winner of the National Book Award 7 or 8 years ago. Pinned my ears back. Amazingly powerful stuff, and a distinctive voice with the momentum of a freight train. I should have included it on my All- Time Top 10 list. (How many books have I said that about, now?) [G]

>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/19/1998 1:21:30 PM 41 0 "Dale, Ann,
I spent close to 4 years in the service during WW II as an enlisted man and subsequently another 6 or more years as an officer in the army reserve. I was an army psychologist during Korea and resigned during Viet Nam. I was fascinated by the army routine, by their indoctrination, etc. One of the basic principles was to first break a person down in basic training and then built him up again by means of total identification with military routine. But the military ceremonies played an important role, such as Retreat, etc. The things I saw weren't always pleasant and the torture of a sick soldier got me very upset. The non-coms thought he was lazy, but he had a serious disease and I met him when i was hospitalized for rheumatic fever. I don't know if he survived.
Just the same, blame it on my pathology, I found the military fascinating. Don't forget I was a refugee from Austria and was accepted by the US and felt strongly that I should do my part and show my appreciation of this country. So I always was and still feel quite patriotic and am still an active member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary Team. ( I have a sail boat in the S.F. bay).
Ernie
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/19/1998 8:41:07 PM 43 0 "Ernie: It's wonderful to hear your insightful comments, as a medical professional, on this long and wide-ranging thread. Especially, your characterization of military training as having to "break them down" before you can "build them up." And even after that, the results are often triumphant but always both mixed and disturbing.

"Breaking down" a person, mentally or physically or both, seems a harsh and foreign--indeed, unimaginable--process to people who have never been in the military, been trained there, or were prisoners of whatever faction.

But I submit, for your approval (As Rod Serling would phrase it, in the Twilight Zone...[G]) that this process occurs every hour of every day, in any number of professions, from law school to medical school (on-duty 48 hrs. at a time) to the police academy to teaching K-12, to being parliamentary chairman of a travesty in the House, and to any number of other professions. "Breaking down" is just not given the same name, or the same prominence, as "building up". It's only in a crisis, in any profession, that this build-up/break-down becomes a subject of debate.

Break down, build up. It's the technique of leaders through the millennia. We do what we can, and what we must.

I can, however, personally testify that Ernie and Pat are consummate hosts wonderful people, par excellence, and that I still regret not getting to be a passenger on Ernie's boat, a lack which I hope to repair as soon as possible.

Dale in Ala., wishing the best of holidays to Ernie and Pat, and looking forward to seeing you in Seattle!
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/20/1998 12:09:37 AM 49 0 "Dale, , sounds somewhat akin to what I went through in graduate school.

Ruth
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/20/1998 7:45:37 AM 43 0 "I think though that the techniques used for this breaking down and building up process in the military and in police academies are more intense than what the rest of us go through in professional training.

When my intelligent brother came back from basic training saying to me that "war builds men", I knew that some very disturbing thing had been going on with him. At the time, I felt like it was almost sinister (I was in my late teens). Now, I understand that he had been mildly brainwashed. He still doesn't remember saying that to me or even feeling like that. It does feel a bit like The Twilight Zone, Dale.

And, I have another friend (a woman) who went through the police academy twice and is now an excellent state police trooper. The first time, she went through some pretty awful experiences with a commander who didn't like women at state police posts and she was almost drowned in a water training activity. The second time (after some intervention with a law suit), she merely had very intense training. It didn't sound nearly as bad as my brother's basic training in the brainwashing area, but still had some of those elements.

I honestly can't remember being affected like this by anything that happened to me in undergraduate or graduate school or in my training at work.

Barb
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/20/1998 5:54:12 PM 45 0 "Barb & All: While the psychological process of "breaking down to build up"--with some element of brainwashing and/or peer pressure, occurs in a lot of professional spheres--I think that the military is really, and dramatically, a case apart.

When a person becomes a soldier-in-training, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, he/she in effect gives up nearly all rights of protection, under law, against flagrant physical and mental abuse. The military is the equivalent of an independent nation: it has its own rules, its own police force, even its own legal system, which civilian courts very rarely question.

In my experience, the military--despite all the good people who serve in it-- seems to attract unbalanced and sadistic individuals as "drill sergeants," folks who would be in jail if they had to live in the outside world. They have-- and use--the power to do anything short of killing you, in the name of "toughening," aka "building men."

The public only hears of this when a recruit they're torturing actually dies, and the public expresses its shock and disbelief. (Oh, please.)

In my own case, when I was trapped at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in re-doing the 12-week Basic Training as many times as it took me to quit getting sent to the hospital, an old Army veteran my mother worked with told her she had nothing to worry about. "A Boy Scout leader couldn't take any better care of those kids than their drill sergeants do," he said. "You can rest easy."

At the exact moment he said that, I later learned, I was hospitalized (the "hospital" being a barracks building from WW II which was long condemned) for the third time in three months with a bronchial infection and a fever of 105, and was hallucinating. There were dozens of us there, and all our treatments were the same: Bayer aspirin and unlimited Kool-Aid. Antibiotics were strictly forbidden, because they weakened our bodies' "natural resistance to disease." This was a toughening process, after all.

I was let out of the hospital early, with the understanding that "inactive duty" meant cleaning toilets. I had cleaned them all, and made the mistake of going to sleep after the final one. My officer in charge started beating me with a broom and cursing me for my laziness.

When at last I was given a chance to be discharged, the first people present were a base legal officer and a notary public. I was told that I had to sign a document saying I would never (a) seek judgment against the Army for wrongly drafting me, and (b) never apply for veterans' benefits. Lacking this, they said, my discharge could be held up for months or years. I signed. I went home.

In perspective, my experience (while already having a wife and a career) is a piece of cake compared to those who actually went to combat. But it has affected, and will affect me, until the day I die, and I haven't seen its equivalent in any other organization. And, yes, I have a built-in resentment toward young people who "can't quite decide" what to do with their lives, now that the draft is ancient history.

End of diatribe.

>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/20/1998 8:10:32 PM 43 0 "Knee deep in the Big Muddy.

Ruth
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/21/1998 9:59:22 PM 38 0 "Ruth,
I have no idea what the expression you used means. Trouble?
You mentioned experiences in grad school - did you? Well my problems in grad school were not Exactly minor. I would say I suffered more in grad school than in the army. I have not mentioned that my last three years in the service were rather comfortable. I had a clerical jobs, personnel and intelligence work, good friends, a nice boss, good hours and foremost lived in a wonderful part of the country, i.e. the Pacific Northwest. Also took University Classes, played a lot of chess during duty hours, you name it. There is another aspect to military life. It can be manipulated to the point of being rather "Soft" and there are many people who prefer to stay in since it is so comfortable for someone who likes routine and avoids challenges.
As an army psychologist I had lots of contacts with the Long Timers, frequently non ambitious types. Perhaps the best example was the guy who had the highest IQ in my hospital group (including MDS) a Cpl. student from Stanford who ended up shacking up with a trashy woman who had 6 kids. He was from an elitist family but found his own level and was never as happy as working with me as a psychology Assistant. I may add that many many of the long timers were alcoholics, unstable etc. However 90% of my work consisted in Examining newly inducted recruits who did not care for the service and were usually discharged in a hurry. All this took place during the Korean conflict. Ernie

 

 
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