Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane

Billy Budd

I have a personal interest in Melville that is not academic or systematic. In my early years at university, as a history major angling to write about writers, I went bonkers over Typee, Mardi and Omoo. Moby Dick was (and is) a favorite novel, and I’ve read it regularly for years. I’ve read other tales and novels randomly here and there. I just like these stories of the sea, all of them twisted into metaphysical knots.

So I’m surprised I hadn’t read Billy Budd before because it’s short and comes up regularly in criticism. But I hadn’t, and when I was putting together my “gay canon” list, I decided to use Eve Sedgwick’s early work in queer theory, as an excuse to add it.

As I read, I saw where Sedgwick is coming from in her discussions of the tale. There are long descriptions of Billy’s beauty and of the place that the “beautiful sailor” held among a ship’s crew. The captain’s affection for Billy reminded me of Fassbender’s adaptation of Jean Genet’s Querelle. There is even a scene were a crewman offers to pay Billy for sexual services. Yet despite all of this, once I was past the opening chapter or two, I didn’t experience the book as particularly queer. I was just too distracted by the ship’s villainous master-at-arms.

According to the narrator, this character is the principle problem the narration attempts to address. He is diabolical, is driven by a malice that has no discernible source or rationale, and as a result, the depth of his cruelty is easily misunderstood. The narrator hopes to capture the motives and sensibilities of the character if he is able.

The story is short enough to read in a sitting, and I did, and as I did, I couldn’t tear my mind away from the descriptions of this character. Not even when my eyes were reading about other things. By the end, I was shaking.

Melville’s prose is tortured whenever this character appears and you can feel it trying to hit its mark, to avoid the poorly chosen word or the weak sentence that would allow the character to appear as a lesser or a less awful type. Melville makes no mistakes though. He succeeds. He captures the devil, and it’s terrible.

Worse, I put down the book convinced this type is still with us.

Posted February 14, 2016