Free Billy Budd Essays: A Deconstructive Reading

Free Billy Budd Essays: A Deconstructive Reading

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A Deconstructive Reading of Billy Budd


Billy, who cannot understand ambiguity, who takes pleasant words at face value and then obliterates Claggart for suggesting that one could do otherwise, whose sudden blow is a violent denial of any discrepancy between his being and his doing, ends up radically illustrating the very discrepancy he denies.

- Barbara Johnson, p. 86


With Barbara Johnson's splendid Critical Difference we are willy-nilly plunged into deconstruction. At the moment I shall not attempt to explain this radical and highly subversive critical mode, except to say that what you are about to see is an example of it. At the moment you may well ask (being, as you undoubtedly are, still very impressed by Dryden's splendidly anti-naïve reading), "you mean it is possible to be even more intelligent about Melville's story?" I remember asking myself the same thing when I first noticed the chapter in Barbara Johnson's book on Billy Budd. But I began to read it anyway and I soon found myself in the throes of a critically different excitement! The first thing that truly grabbed my attention was a remark Johnson makes apropos of the following quotation from Melville's story: "innocence and guilt personified by Claggart and Budd in effect changed places" (62). The narrator says this apropos of Billy having killed Claggart. This is what Barbara Johnson says apropos of the passage in question: "Interestingly enough, Melville both invites an allegorical reading and subverts the very terms of its consistency when he writes of the murder: 'Innocence and guilt . . .'" (83). Now that's deconstruction, folks! "Both invites . . . and subverts"? Wow!


Needless to say, ALL CLAIMS JOHNSON MAKES FOR HER READING ARE SUPPORTED BY MELVILLE'S TEXT. What does Johnson, then, claim? I shall try to be as brief as possible about this splendidly anti-naïve reading. Johnson's first item on the agenda is to put into question Billy's innocence. (Melville himself tells us that "innocence was [Billy's] blinder" 49.) She asks us to consider Billy a kind of "reader" (Johnson calls him a "literal reader" 85). Billy is a "literal reader" in that he seems to take things at face value. He seems to believe, in fact, that things are what they seem to be. If Claggart appears to be nice to Billy (and he does) then Claggart must be nice to Billy (he isn't, of course).

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Implied in Johnson's argument at this point is the notion that the innocence we all seem to value in Billy is perhaps less than valuable. First of all, though he appears almost prelapsarian, Billy is really postlapsarian all the same. Here is how Melville himself puts the case:


Though our Handsome Sailor had as much of masculine beauty as one can expect anywhere to see, nevertheless, like the beautiful woman in one of Hawthorne's minor tales ["The Birthmark"], there was just one thing amiss in him. No visible blemish indeed, as with the lady; no, but an occasional liability to a vocal defect. Though in the hour of elemental uproar or peril he was everything that a sailor should be, yet under sudden provocation of strong heart-feeling his voice, otherwise singularly musical, as if expressive of the harmony within, was apt to develop an organic hesitancy, in fact more or less of a stutter or even worse. In this particular Billy was a striking instance that the arch interferer, the envious marplot of Eden, still has more or less to do with every human consignment to this planet earth. (17; italics mine)


Johnson is quick to make much of that apparently innocent word "striking" in the quotation above. For that's exactly what Billy does when his "vocal defect" is most evidently operative in the story - that is, when Claggart repeats the false accusation to his face. At this point, to do as much justice to Johnson's argument as possible, we must turn to Claggart himself for a moment. You see, what Johnson claims Claggart questions in Billy is precisely the potential discrepancy between seeming and being. In other words, is Billy what he appears to be - that is, "innocent"? Interestingly enough when Billy apparently accidentally and innocently spills soup in Claggart's path at one point in the story, Claggart says "Handsomely done my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it too!" (34). Johnson is quick to point out that this invocation of the famous proverb is not an affirmation but a denial of its significance in this case. In other words, Claggart suspects that Billy is not what he seems to be. Claggart, of course, proves himself right (dead right, if you will) concerning Billy. But the matter is not as simple as it appears. Nevertheless, as Johnson points out, Claggart's view of Billy is perfectly reasonable. When Billy is impressed into the man-of-war, when he is taken from a merchant marine named "The Rights of Man," he says goodbye to the last-named ship. Melville claims that Billy didn't mean anything by this, but how can Claggart know for sure? Then there is the soup-spilling episode - apparently innocent and accidental, but how can Claggart know for sure? Then, when Claggart sends one of his cronies to invite Billy to join a fictitious mutiny, Billy doesn't report the incident (it would have been his duty to do so) even though he refuses to join the apparent conspirators. No wonder, then, that Claggart wants to make sure that there is no "man trap" "under" the "daisies" (54; the metaphor is Claggart's).


Johnson's point is that Melville's presentation of the character of Billy is itself not exactly what it appears to be. Even though Billy is a "literal reader," he doesn't (as Johnson argues) seem to be incapable of editing out whatever doesn't agree with his naïve view of the world. In contrast to Billy, Claggart is an "ironic reader" (85). This implies that he always questions the discrepancy between seeming and being. But (as Johnson cleverly shows us) this is not always the case. When one of his cronies makes up lies about what Billy did and said, Melville tells us that Claggart "never suspected the veracity of these reports" (41). In other words, Claggart can be naïve, too, when it comes to believing whatever fits well into the economy of his prior prejudices. Both readers, then, suppress or edit out (that is, fail to read) whatever does not mesh with their world views. Their innocence and guilt appear as the two sides of the same coin. And this coin flip-flops at the most crucial moment. As Johnson points out, "Billy is sweet, innocent, and harmless, yet he kills. Claggart is evil, perverted, mendacious, yet he dies a victim" (82). In the final analysis, then, "the fatal blow, far from being an unmotivated accident, is the gigantic return of the power of negation that Billy has been repressing all his life" (90).


There is, of course, more to Johnson's reading than I have indicated here, but I need to move on to some final considerations now. How does Captain Vere fare in Johnson's deconstructive text? Perhaps slightly better than in Dryden's. For Johnson, it is judgment itself that Melville is asking us to judge. A few quick quotes should bring this (exciting) discussion to an end: "once Vere has defined his context, he has also in fact reached his verdict" (103). The trouble is, of course, that Vere defines his context way before the trial. He defines it, in fact, as soon as he witnesses the fatal blow, for it is then and there that he exclaims: "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!" Being a learned man, Vere kills not by means of a blow, but by means of words, language. Billy kills because he cannot speak. Vere kills because he can. What's our judgment of judgment, then? "It would seem," says Barbara Johnson, "that the function of judgment is to convert an ambiguous situation into a decidable one" (105), or "law is the forcible transformation of ambiguity into decidability" (107). This notion is as profound as it is subversive. Yet what it claims in no more than "judge not lest ye be judged." Wow! Is Christianity, then, perhaps the "original" deconstruction? In my own Pious Impostures and Unproven Words I do, in fact, make some such claim, but that's neither here nor there right now. What is here (as well as there, of course) is the virtue of anti-naïveté.



[F]or a decision to be just and responsible, it must . . . be both regulated and without regulation: it must conserve the law and also destroy it or suspend it enough to have to reinvent it in each case, rejustify it, at least reinvent it in the reaffirmation and the new and free confirmation of its principle. Each case is other, each decision is different and requires an absolutely unique interpretation, which no existing, coded rule can or ought to guarantee absolutely.

- Derrida, "The Force of Law: The 'Mystical Foundation of Authority,'" in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice

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