A New Historical Reading of Billy Budd

A New Historical Reading of Billy Budd

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New Historicism is heavily indebted to deconstruction. One of the most brilliant readings of Billy Budd along these lines is Brook Thomas's reading in Cross Examination of Law and Literature. As its name implies, New Historicism combines an analysis of literary works with whatever historical backdrop is deemed relevant or important to our understanding. The "new" in this historicism has to do, among other things, with the recognition that history (or reality) is itself a kind of construct (or fiction, if you will, in the sense of something made rather than merely stumbled upon by humanity). What Brook Thomas does, then, is analyze Melville's story in the context of certain legal questions in Melville's lifetime, paying particular attention to Melville's father-in-law as well, Lemuel Shaw, who may have been the model for Captain Vere. Like Vere, Shaw sacrificed his conscience rather than "violate" an unjust law (he felt that slavery was wrong, yet he upheld the law requiring the return of escaped slaves to their "rightful" owners).

 

In what follows I shall resort to a shortcut. Instead of reporting on Brook Thomas's interpretation as a whole, I shall cite some of the most strikingly important and interesting passages. Given the foregoing (and your possible prior knowledge of Melville's story), these quotations should speak for themselves.

 

"I do not mean to either excuse Vere's technical errors or to argue that technicalities are unimportant. . . . [But] to base criticism of the legal order on procedural errors is to risk explaining injustice as the acts of corrupt, or even just well-intentioned but confused individuals in positions of authority. It avoids questioning the order to which the legal system is intricately related.

 

"One lesson that we might draw from our historical cases and from Billy Budd is that Vere, Shaw, and Parson are corrupt and hypocritical men, employing a rhetoric of strict adherence to the law in order to disguise their conscious manipulation of the law. Or, more generously, we might conclude that they are sincere men who are so concerned with fulfilling their duty that they unconsciously violate the very principles they claim to uphold. A more fruitful line of inquiry is to try to understand what it is about the logic of the legal order they have sworn to defend that causes three well-intentioned men seemingly to contradict their own most sacred principles.

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(p. 212)

 

"If Vere uses his rhetoric to manipulate opinion, . . . . he sincerely believes that it is based on an authority outside of himself, an authority that he submits to . . . Emanating from a set of impersonal laws outside the self, rather than from a single, powerful individual, ideology so pervades each person's consciousness that no one seems capable of escaping its constraints.

 

" . . . a recent legal critic . . . argues that the rule of law has become an effective political weapon because it is able to offer reassurance while it contributes to repression. It reassures by appearing to demonstrate that seemingly unjust actions are actually just because human society follows a legal, rational system of laws. It is repressive because its demonstration depends on the assumption that the legal, rational system of laws governing society is just. This reification of the law keeps people from asking whether seemingly unjust actions may be caused by the very system that the logic of the law justifies." (p. 218)

 

As I said before, these quotations will speak for themselves, in the context of this whole handout, of course. The lesson in all of this? Melville's brilliant work combined with the splendid work of some of his critics helps us see that although laws are necessary, they can be manipulated in such ways that justice is not always the result, even though the intention of laws is, among other things, to administer justice. The idea is as old as the Bible, which tells us not to judge, lest we be judged, and which also tells us that the letter of the law kills while its spirit gives life. The legal system should make us think and think hard. Understanding all this should also make us better "judges," for the biblical injunction against judging is not a prohibition, but a warning that we shall be judged according to how we ourselves have judged. If we have been just, we have nothing to fear.

 

[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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