Tautology, Terror, and Billy Budd

Billy-BuddNote: some of the ideas in this post are published elsewhere (and more eloquently, I hope) in my article “Melville’s Motley Crew: History and Constituent Power in Billy Budd.” Check it out.

On April 15, 2013, two brothers committed a horrific act of terrorism at the end of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring scores of others. A week later, RCMP announced that they had arrested two men in connection with an alleged plot against a Via train.The attacks have left many people searching for answers. Yesterday, Canadian Parliamentary Secretary Pierre Poilievre provided one possibility. “The root cause of terrorism,” he declared, “is terrorists.” I suppose the natural reaction to a statement like this is a shake of the head. It’s not exactly the most eloquent explanation, is it? But I, for one, offer my thanks to Mr. Poilievre, for giving me cause to say something about Herman Melville’s Billy Budd.

The link here is tautology. In Billy Budd, the eponymous young sailor—a handsome sailor, as Melville emphasizes to us!—is condemned to death for killing the duplicitous master-of-arms, Claggart. There’s no question that Billy kills Claggart in the story; the real question hangs around his intentions in committing the act. Billy, by reputation and in deed is naive and innocent, completely incapable of guile. The blow he struck against Claggart was not premeditated, nor was it committed out of anger. It was reflex. It was for all intents and purposes inexplicable.

It is up to Captain Vere to determine Billy’s fate. But he has much more on his mind than just Billy’s strike against Claggart. The context of the event is crucial. Set against the backdrop of the “Great Mutiny,” an aftershock of the American and French Revolutions, Billy Budd describes a nineteenth century set into motion by the conflict between democratic uprisings on various fronts and established regimes of power that are fearful that such fervors would spread. The Nore Mutiny was, the narrator says, “[t]o the British Empire . . . what a strike in the fire brigade would be to London threatened by general arson.” The British Navy was the best line of defense against the “irrational combustion” that was feared would be ignited “as by live cinders blown across the Channel from France.” The novel is set fresh on the heels of these moments moments of resistance, and historicizes the events on board the ship in light of moments of resistance and insurgency that in their moment had the potential to shape the nineteenth century.

Sailors played a crucial role in all of this. As Melville’s narrator makes quite clear, sailors are crucial to the smooth operation of transnational capital in the period. Naval vessels ensured the safe navigability of the seas against pirates, privateers, and other threats, and working sailors themselves were, of course, the agents by which goods moved across the Atlantic. But there’s a lot of anxiety here not only because mutinous sailors might be a point of vulnerability but because there’s a long radical tradition associated with the sea. In their fantastic book The Many-Headed Hydra, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker analyze how the “hydra” metaphor was used in transatlantic Euroamerican discourse to describe the amorphous, multitudinous forces of labour that powered the shipping industry. Derived from Greek and Roman mythology, the hydra was a dragon-like creature with seven heads. When one of these heads was cut off, two more grew back in its place. As Linebaugh and Rediker explain, the hydra offered a potent metaphor for the conflict between capital and global labor: colonial rulers

various designated dispossessed commoners, transported felons, indentured servants, religious radicals, pirates, urban laborers, sailors, and African slaves as the numerous, ever-changing heads of the monster. But the heads, though originally brought into productive combination by their Herculean rulers, soon developed among themselves new forms of cooperation against those rulers, from mutinies and strikes to riots and insurrections and revolutions.

In other words, the hydra suggests a non-national, extraterritorial union of persons who had little in common with one another save for their marginalization. The metaphor evokes the uncontainable nature of an multitudinous consciousness that cuts across divisions of race and culture–and nation-states–and threatens the structure of Euroamerican imperial power by defying the rigid hierarchies and spatial organizations upon which transatlantic power depended.

The formal considerations here are very important to Billy Budd. The multitude–the potential for a multitudinous consciousness–defies the formal logic. It is inexplicable under general rules of decorum and order, and from the perspective of someone who relies on rigid forms and order, inexplicable–just like Billy’s strike against Claggart.

These issues are at the front of Captain Vere’s mind as he tries Billy. With Vere, “forms, measured forms are everything.” He has been unmoved by the “invading waters of novel opinion social, political, and otherwise, which carried away as in a torrent no few minds in those days, minds by nature not inferior to his own” but because, he says, “they seemed to him insusceptible of embodiment in lasting institutions . . . [and] at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.” That is, Vere likes stability rather than disruption, order rather than chaos.

This is why Billy’s act troubles him so. Melville describes Billy’s act “quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at night,” the simile connecting Billy’s action, perhaps, to the “irrational combustion” of the French Revolution. Vere’s worry is precisely that if the general mass of sailors hear about Billy’s deed, they will rally around him. His first goal is to “guard as much as possible against publicity” and to exert full control over the narrative of what happened:

The people,” (meaning the ship’s company) “have native sense; most of them are familiar with our naval usage and tradition; and how would they take it? Even could you explain to them–which our official position forbids–they, long molded by arbitrary discipline, have not that kind of intelligent responsiveness that might qualify them to comprehend and discriminate.

Vere’s position is a bit hard to swallow, and in the novel it seems that everyone knows it. But Vere worries that clemency of any kind would be seen as an act of weakness and inspire the other sailors to question his supreme authority. Acting as the case’s only witness as well as Billy’s prosecutor, he contains the narrative to the act alone, reducing it, as Nancy Ruttenburg explains to tautology. (Ah, I got back here eventually.) He directs the courtroom to ignore “any conceivable motive” or “provocation” and “confine its attention to the blow’s consequence, which consequence justly is to be deemed not otherwise than as the striker’s deed.”

Vere contains Billy’s action to its consequence, effectively stripping the act of any possible justification it might have had. Billy himself is effectively silenced. When offered an opportunity to speak in his own defense, Billy defers to his captain/prosecutor: “the young sailor turned another quick glance toward Captain Vere; then, as taking a hint from that aspect, a hint confirming his own instinct that silence now was best, replied to the lieutenant, ‘I have said all, sir,'” though he has said nothing at all.

Ultimately, when Billy’s story is reported in “News from the Mediterranean,” it’s very different from the one Melville’s narrator tells. Claggart becomes a hero for sniffing out a potential uprising on board the ship, but was “vindictively stabbed to the heart” by the nefarious William Budd.

Now, the point of all this is not to suggest that the terrorists who commit terrorism are much like Billy Budd. Not at all. Obviously Billy’s blow against Claggart bears little resemblance to a craven bomb attack directed against innocent civilians. The point of this is, though, to show how regimes of power rely heavily on techniques like tautology precisely because they eliminate what Melville calls the “ragged edges” of the story. By reducing an act of terrorism to the act itself, the state removes those ugly elements of the narrative of terror that do not conform with the “measured forms” of the national story. It renders the act inexplicable without calling into question the circumstances that might lead young men to perform an unthinkable and horrific act. It turns aside the kind of probing questions and inquiry that such an act really should raise and instead becomes authorization for the further consolidation of power so that the measured forms of narrative are not violated yet again by the inexplicable act of violence. This is one way in which violence against the nation can be folded back into an argument for stronger state authority–through a reduction of narrative to tautology.