The Clash of Perspectives in Billy Budd

A sensible place to begin trying to understand how we should take the story, Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative), is to begin at its very beginning, which is its title. For the title of Melville's narrative, or more exactly its subtitle, tells quite literally what sort of story it is. It is an "inside" narrative. Of course, this immediately raises the question of what an inside narrative is. Inside what? Are we supposed to contrast it with an outside narrative? And what sort of story would that be?

In Melville's writings, questions like these are often genuine ones, and ones without clear or simple answers. In this case, mercifully, he does not leave us entirely in the dark. There is another story with which Melville's narrative is contrasted so sharply that it might well be described as its opposite, in the sense that it is an inverted version of his tale. In an "authorized weekly publication" quoted at some length in Chapter 29, the events of Melville's tale are briefly recounted. In this version of the story, the only official one given us, Billy Budd is depicted as the ringleader of a genuine mutiny, who "vindictively stabbed" Claggart for exposing him. Claggart is motivated only by a "strong patriotic impulse" and Billy Budd by "extreme depravity."

As if to prepare us for the shock of this account, Melville tells us that it was written "for the most part" sincerely enough, "though the medium, partly rumor, through which the facts must have reached the writer served to deflect and in part falsify them." This version could be called an "outside" narrative in virtue of the fact that its author was not there and consequently not in a position to know what actually happened. Perhaps to most obvious way to give literal meaning to the "inside" status of Melville's counter-narrative is to simply to observe that it gives a view for inside the ship, from inside the Bellipotent. It represents things that were known by people who were there, and precisely because they were there.

To some extent, this is simply what is immediately obvious. It means that Melville is presenting his story as having the interest and value that scandal has. That, after all, is what a book title would mean today if it announced that its contents give the "inside" story. He underscores this aspect of his tale when he concludes Chapter 29 with the dry comment that the official version "is all that hitherto has stood in human record to attest what manner of men respectively were John Claggart and Billy Budd." He is telling a surprising tale that is both the antipode and the antidote of the official version.

What is perhaps not so obvious is the high status Melville gives to this aspect of his tale by both beginning and ending his story with it. In fact, in the very earliest drafts of Billy Budd, its importance was even more pronounced. Initially, it told the story of the struggle between just two major characters - Billy and Claggart - and ended with the official version, which more or less inverted the facts as the reader knew them. Finally, the very last sentence stated the point with Aesopian simplicity: "Here ends a story not unwarranted by what sometimes happens in this [word undeciphered] world of ours - Innocence and infamy, spiritual depravity and fair repute."(1)

There is another aspect of the subtitle and of Melville's characterization of the official story that is less than entirely obvious. It lies in the fact that in both instances Melville is describing conscious perceptions in terms of the location of the perceiver, in a way that suggests that this location conditions the content in some crucial way. It is because one is an "inside" narrative, while the other represents things as perceived from a great distance, that they are as they are. This phenomenon - in which the content of a mode of awareness is at least partly determined by the location of the subject - is the familiar fact of perspective. Visual perception is a form of consciousness that is obviously perspectival in this sense, while others, such as mathematical understanding, apparently are not. I will argue that the treatment of consciousness as perspectival, as consisting of a multiplicity of clashing perspectives, pervades Billy Budd and lies at its heart. It is crucial to understanding the problem of the status of Vere, sheds light on the "testament of acceptance" problem, and even gives a reason for bringing back the "non-preface" from oblivion.

Perhaps I should say instantly, to forestall misunderstandings, that I will not be attributing to Melville the sort of relativistic "perspectivism" sometimes attributed to Nietzsche, in which no perspective can true or false. There is never any question of treating his inside narrative and the official story as equals in terms of truth or falsity. In fact, there is a tendency in his writings, familiar to readers of Moby Dick and The Confidence Man, which underscores this. This is his tendency to use an individual ship as an emblem of the whole world, a tendency which arguably also shows itself in Billy Budd.(2) In this context, talk of an inside story as one that comes from inside a ship carries a suggestion, faint but not easy to shake, of a point of view that is absolutely privileged because it present the world as it appears, in some sense, from the inside.

Still, though this caveat is necessary, it would be easy to make too much of it. The point of view of the main narrative is that of an omniscient narrator,(3) and although its constant presence makes manifest to the reader the possibility in principle of, it is not itself a point of view that is available to actual human beings. Melville presents us with one genuine alternative to the sort consciousness we see in the official story by devoting the next, and final, chapter to an account of Billy's posthumous reputation among the common sailors of the British navy. Though "ignorant ... of the secret facts of the tragedy" and unable to doubt that his death was "unavoidably inflicted," they were also "instinctively" unable to believe he was guilty of mutiny. For years they followed the fate of the spar from which he was hung and eventually came to venerate "a chip of it ... as a piece of the Cross."(4) Here the thinking is fundamentally intuitive and mythic.

The fact the sailors could take this point of view, simply on the basis of the personal acquaintance some of them once had with the executed man, indicates that people need not be completely taken in by the lies and delusions of officialdom, but Melville's tale also makes clear enough that there are other available alternatives to being taken in, besides the mythic thinking of the simple-minded if fundamentally good-hearted commoners.

There are actually a number of other points of view more or less explicitly treated in Melville's text. They are typically presented in terms of pairs of incompatibly opposed perspectives, as if to emphasize their availability as objects of choice. One instance appears in the passage in which he explains the inability of the chaplain to help the condemned Billy Budd, despite the fact that Billy's moral innocence is obvious. Melville's explanation is that, though the chaplain is a "minister of the Prince of Peace," he is actually serving in the "host of the God of War - Mars," which represents "practically" the "abrogation of everything but brute Force."(5) Another instance of clashing perspectives is the Socratic dialogue in Chapter 26, immediately after the execution, in which the supernaturalist purser and the skeptical surgeon debate whether the absence of post-mortem spasms in the victim was due to some immaterial cause, such as "will-power" or divine intervention, or to some mechanical cause at present unknown. The most important instance, however, can be found in what might be regarded as the philosophical core of Billy Budd, the passage that at all events is the richest in explicit ideas.

I have in mind the drum-head court scene, and in particular Vere's principal speech to the officers who in effect constitute the jury. He begins this speech by explaining why the officers are hesitant to hang Billy despite the fact that, as he obviously has decided prior to the trial-like proceedings now in progress, he must hang. It comes, he tells them, "from the clash of military duty with moral scruple."(6) This very broad characterization then serves as the basis for a more detailed account of the issues at stake in the trial, which he proceeds to give. He goes on to express the doubts of the officers with the rhetorical question: "But in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner's overt act to be considered?" Evidently, he thinks of this as another way of expressing the doubts he just ascribed to "moral scruple," and this impression is reenforced by the concession he immediately makes: "Well, I too feel that, the full force of that. It is Nature." What drives the doubts and, evidently, what drives moral scruple itself, is nature, a causal power that is present in all of us, regardless of the position we choose to take on the matter of Billy's execution.

Obviously, there is a theory at work here, and it is somewhat more elaborate than I have so far indicated. The moral scruple, he says, is "vitalized by compassion," which he also calls "the heart." At one point, he compares the heart to "tender kinswoman" of an accused man who approaches his judge and tries "to touch him with her tearful plea." This spontaneous tendency to enter into the feelings of others is what we have learned from Smith and Nussbaum to call sympathy. As Smith pointed out long ago, it seems to be deeply natural tendency, and some such idea may well be the reason Vere speaks of moral scruple, which is here "vitalized" by this tendency, as representing nature.(7)

Vere is dealing with two distinct and sharply opposed perspectives: military duty on the one hand, and moral scruple vitalized by compassion on the other. The conflict between them brings with it an even deeper division, one of the most fundamental in the history of philosophy. When Vere claims that the blow of Billy's fist was, "according to the Articles of War, a capital crime," one of the men raises an objection. "`Aye, sir,' emotionally broke in the officer of the marines, `in one sense it was. But surely Budd proposed neither mutiny nor homicide'." Billy cannot really be seen as responsible for a serious offense. Vere's response cuts deep. He points out that both they, the English, and their enemies, the French, are killing sailors without regard for whether their participation in the war is voluntary or the result of impressment and, consequently, without regard for whether they are responsible for their status as combatants. "War looks to the frontage, the appearance. And the Mutiny Act, War's child, takes after the father. Budd's intent or non-intent is nothing to the purpose." Moral scruple and compassion try to penetrate superficial actions to the realities that underlie them, while the perspective represented in the military rules does not. The military point of view is contented with the surface itself, with appearances.

According to Vere, the issue of whether to hang Billy is one in which moral scruple, compassion, the promptings of nature, and guidance by sub-phenomenal reality on the one hand conflict with a military rules, the commands of non-natural authority, and a certain willingness to follow appearances on the other. Moreover, this is not at all a miscellaneous collection of haphazard notions: the ideas on each side seem to be logically related.

Put in this way, the issue of what is to be done with Billy is a deep and troubling one. The reason for this is brought out eloquently in a comment Melville makes directly after Claggart's lying accusation and Billy's accidental homicide.In the jugglery of circumstances preceding and attending the event on board the Bellipotent, and in the light of that martial code whereby it was formally to be judged, innocence and guilt personified in Claggart and Budd in effect changed places. In a legal view the apparent victim of the tragedy was he who had sought to victimize a man blameless; and the indisputable deed of the latter, navally regarded, constituted the most heinous of military crimes.(8)

The strange conclusions as to the heinousness of Billy's act do follow from the facts, but only if they are "navally regarded," only if seen "in light of the martial code." But this does not tell us why we should or should not regard them in this way and in this light. Of course, there is an alternative. As Vere himself says, "in natural justice" Billy is "a creature innocent before God."(9) Depending on which of Vere's two perspectives we climb into, the same facts look utterly and completely different. What good reason do we have to get into one rather than the other of them?

Vere insists that a certain one of these two collections of ideas is the one to follow. He says "Mindful of paramount obligations, I strive against scruples that may tend to enervate decision."(10) Yet it is not absolutely obvious why he regards one of these sets of obligations as paramount. The core of his argument seems, at least at first glance, to come when he suddenly stops explaining the doubts of the officers bluntly challenges those doubts: "It is Nature. But do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King. Though the ocean, which is inviolate Nature primeval, though this be the element where we move and have our being as sailors, yet as the King's officers lies our duty in a sphere correspondingly natural?"

He immediately gives what he seems to think is the only possible answer to this last question: "So little is that true, that in receiving our commissions we in the most important regards ceased to be natural free agents."(11)

What sort of reason is this? The act of pointing, which in effect is what he does when he indicates the buttons they all wear, is something we do in order to bring into the awareness of others facts that, because they are inescapable if only we attend to them, need no further evidence or argument. It is as if he is merely reminding the officers of the solution to their problem which they already possess. The idea seems to be this. The perspective of natural morality is appropriate to beings of a certain sort, while the military perspective is appropriate to beings of another sort. We, he is saying, are the latter sort of being: as you all know, we are officers in the navy. That solves your problem of itself. The solution is not pleasant, but it is inescapable: we must inflict capital punishment on a man who happens to be morally innocent.

Whatever its faults might be, this way of thinking does escape a problem raised by the comment of Melville's that I quoted a few paragraphs earlier. If, as Melville suggests, the circumstances only support certain conclusions if they are regarded from a certain perspective, we cannot simply offer those circumstances as the reason for those conclusions. Vere does not offer the circumstances of the case as a decisive reason for his solution to it. Instead, he turns about from the object of his preferred perspective to the subject of the perspective - to the individual who does the regarding. What we really are, he says, is officers.

There is, however, a serious problem with this way of thinking, one that becomes obvious if we remember what Thoreau said in circumstances strikingly similar to this one. In effect, he said that, though we can think of ourselves as corporals, privates, and powder-monkeys, what we really are is human beings. Of course, someone could respond that we also really do occupy such positions as corporal, private, and powder-monkey. That, however, does not affect the point that Thoreau succeeds in showing, at the very least, that the sort of thinking Vere seems to be engaged in at this point can be used against him, and with at least equal force. Vere himself points out that he and the others in the room are not only officers but sailors. His comment about this fact sounds curiously like an interrupted analogy: as sailors move and have their being in the ocean, which is nature primeval, so officers ... how should this thought be completed? A very natural way would be to say: as sailors move and have their being in the ocean, which is nature primeval, so officers move and have their being in the sphere of military regulations, which is convention primeval.

The same men can with equal plausibility be said to move in both realms. Given this, his act of indicating his buttons has the air of an arbitrary choice, simply grasping one and shoving aside the other without justification.

Lester H. Hunt