Sunday, April 20, 2008

Billy Budd IV: The Bully as Hypnotist

The innocent and good are not always prepared for the psychological subterfuge of the bully or psychopath. The proper preparation is an immobility of the emotions, a kind of stillness at a resting point or sweet spot of sorts, from which it is impossible to be driven to rage or inappropriate guilt. Billy Budd is not so prepared. He is stricken by John Claggart's attempt to frame him as a mutineer. Meeting his accuser face-to-face, he is unable to respond appropriately. A typical psychopath or bully, Claggart depends upon his hypnotic powers to subdue his prey.

[Billy] stood like one impaled and gagged.... [Claggart's] first mesmeric glance was one of serpent fascination; the last was as the hungry lurch of the torpedo-fish.

"Speak, man!" said Captain Vere to the transfixed one, struck by his aspect even more than by Claggart's, "Speak! defend yourself." Which appeal caused but a strange dumb gesturing and gurgling in Billy; amazement at such an accusation so suddenly sprung on inexperienced nonage; this, and, it may be, horror of the accuser, serving to bring out his lurking defect and in this instance for the time intensifying it into a convulsed tongue-tie; while the intent head and entire form straining forward in an agony of ineffectual eagerness to obey the injunction to speak and defend himself, gave an expression to the face like that of a condemned Vestal priestess in the moment of being buried alive, and in the first struggle against suffocation.

...Billy's aspect recalled to [Vere] that of a bright young schoolmate of his whom he had once seen struck by much the same startling impotence in the act of eagerly rising in the class to be foremost in response to a testing question put to it by the master. Going close up to the young sailor, and laying a soothing hand on his shoulder, he said, "There is no hurry, my boy. Take your time, take your time." Contrary to the effect intended, these words so fatherly in tone, doubtless touching Billy's heart to the quick, prompted yet more violent efforts at utterance--efforts soon ending for the time in confirming the paralysis, and bringing to his face an expression which was as a crucifixion to behold. The next instant, quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at night, his right arm shot out, and Claggart dropped to the deck.

The blow brings about exactly what Claggart desired: Billy's complete undoing.

The good and innocent need to be prepared to respond to bullies with calmness and decisiveness. The bully depends upon the crippling effect of rage, the shame associated with that effect, and the guilt one feels for feeling rage. No attempt to resist these emotions will work because they are eliminated only through a certain calm strength that cannot be created when attempts to resist them are underway. A better tactic is simply to observe these emotions detachedly and without antipathy to them. They pass and one discovers reserves of strength.

Bullies desire their victims to experience impotent rage and guilty self-loathing. What they dread is that the victims have reserves of calmness and impassivity necessary to defeat them.

This advice may bear some partial similarity to various pacifistic philosophies that counsel non-aggression or non-violence. But it is perfectly compatible with more forward-leaning points of view, according to which bullies and psychopaths are to be aggressively hunted down and subdued and, when it's necessary, crushed with preemptive violence. Indeed, I think pacifists mistakenly infer from the preferability of calmness and impassiveness to false conclusions about the preferability of passivity and non-violence.