Sunday, April 13, 2008

Billy Budd III: John Claggart

John Claggart, a psychopath, will frame Billy Budd for mutiny simply because he hates him. Melville applies the label "mystery" to the intelligent psychopath's "antipathy spontaneous and profound," offering only the pseudo-explanation that Claggart has a "natural depravity." Lacking ordinary concern for others' welfare, the psychopath employs reason and a respectable demeanor in order to accomplish evil ends that the rest of us, who do not lack such concern, find uncanny. As Hume might have said, the psychopath prefers the destruction of others to a slight scratch on his finger.

Two further observations suggest themselves. One is that Claggart and Billy likely come from good stock: fine genes. Melville says so. They naturally have the potential for excellence. Claggart's potential has gone to naught, while Billy is a happy and excellent young man.

The form of Billy Budd was heroic; and if his face was without the intellectual look of the pallid Claggart's, not the less was it lit, like his, from within, though from a different source.

Billy is admired, Claggart despised. Claggart resents Billy's happiness; he is utterly consumed by hatred and resentment. He even hates himself for resenting Billy, as his private facial expression becomes distorted with anger when it is publicly proclaimed that he is "down on Billy." Claggart resents his ruined life and present station, he resents Billy, and he resents his resentments. He is not just a psychopath; he has been driven to distraction by resentment.

As I've suggested, unless the novel is just the story of an unusual case of crime and punishment on a boat, Claggart represents war. War is, after all, in part senseless death and mad violence. Much of what occurs in the trenches and in "boarding her in the smoke" is similar to the rage and violence in Claggart's soul. He represents the enemy's ability to deliver this brutality and evil in war. Billy must die when he slays this enemy. If we spare his life, then we end up defenseless against more of the same enemy.

Not only does Billy Budd portray a country's need to sacrifice its fine young men in its own defense; it also shows that the war to which they are sacrificed is a monster who will add a senselessness and indecency to their deaths. What makes sense and is good may be recouped from the senseless and the evil by men of Vere and Budd's caliber. Yet even then, some of them will be psychologically wounded by having to do so, as in Vere's case. We see why; the sensible sacrifice has a senselessness in it. In war, what is good partakes deeply in what is senseless and indecent.