Friday, June 26, 2009

Herman Melville's "Billy Budd and Other Tales"

This Signet Classics edition collects together "Billy Budd," "The Piazza Tales," and "The Town Ho's Story" from Moby Dick. "Billy Budd" is based on the Harvard edition. There is a helpful "Afterword" by Willard Thorpe that explains Melville's turn to writing short stories for the magazines, after the commercial and critical failures of Moby Dick and Pierre. The "Afterword" (1961) also points to the critical controversies over the meanings of the more ambiguous stories, such as "Billy Budd" and "Benito Cereno."

I did not enjoy "Billy Budd" as much as I thought I would. The eponymous character is too much a symbol of Adamic innocence, and too little a human being. The interest in the first part of the story lies in the narrator's homo-erotic attraction to Billy, an attraction displaced on to Billy's admiring companions. But since Billy is as blandly exciting as a porn star, the displaced attraction lacks the kind of self-examination that might make for interest. Reading the first part of the story was a little like watching a porn producer getting off while watching his own product. The interest in the second part of the story lies in Captain Vere, the commander of the British warship, the Indomitable. He had to decide on Billy's fate after the latter accidentally killed his false accuser, the satanic Claggart. Captain Vere is too sure, however, of what he should do, and so he suffers no real anguish though the narrator assures us of the captain's better feelings.

"Benito Cereno," from "The Piazza Tales," is many things, one of which is a mystery story. Captain Amasa Delano tries to aid a distressed ship, the San Dominic, commanded by one Benito Cereno, who is strangely dependent on his black slave Babo for help. The story traces the confusion in Delano's mind as he tries to puzzle out what is actually happening on board the troubled ship. The shifting meanings of signs is a theme here; the difficulty of finding out the truth disturbs the other tales too. I did find my own mind wandering as Delano's mind wonders. The confusion goes on for too long, perhaps, or my patience is too short.

Melville writes like a post-Christian. He does not accept Christian dogma but cannot let go Christian symbols. More than symbols, he cannot let go a Christian view of the world, a dualistic view of innate good and intrinsic evil. Claggart in "Billy Budd," for instance, is described as naturally evil. Sometimes that view is complicated by his sense that the world comes to us in multiple, and often conflicting versions. So he ends "Billy Budd" by giving us an account of Vere's death ("Billy Budd, Billy Budd" on his dying lips),  a naval new report that depicts Billy as nothing more than a mutineer, and a poem written by the sailors that describes Billy as an experienced man-about-the-docks. While these different accounts problematize the authority of the narrator's own version, yet I don't get the sense that we are supposed to read the narrator's version as just one of many accounts. His version still holds sway, like the captain of the vessel. 

Among the piazza tales are plainly allegorical stories. In "The Lightning-Rod Man," the lightning-rod salesman thrives on the fear he claims to be able to assuage, and so is a neat satire of Calvinist ministers. "The Bell-Tower," with its allusions to the Tower of Babel, is a parable about man's hubris. The engineer Bannadonna invented the machine that killed him. Thorp comments, and I agree, that the pride targeted by Melville is the hubris of the newly prevailing scientific and materialistic theories of his time. The aptness of these allegories has a certain charm, but their aptness can also feel too pat. They are mysteries with a key, unlike the impenetrable mystery of the title character in "Bartleby." Bartleby the scrivener, with his stubborn "I prefer"s, represents the unexplainable will of man. It is not clear if Bartleby could explain Bartleby to himself.

The best story of this collection is not a story, more a collection of sketches. In the ten sketches of "The Encantadas, or the Enchanted Islands," Melville describes with great imaginative force and lyrical grace the geography, fauna and inhabitants of the cindery hell that is the Galapagos. Sketch First gives an overview of the islands. Sketch Second describes the two sides of a tortoise. Sketch Third looks at the stone tower Rock Rodondo, while Sketch Four looks out from it. Sketch Fifth tells the story of the U. S. frigate Essex's chase of a mysterious ship. Sketch Sixth describes Barrington Isle and the English Buccaneers who made that isle a safe hideout. Sketch Seventh narrates the tale of Charles's Isle and the Dog-King. Sketch Eighth, the story of Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow. Sketch Ninth dwells on Hood's Isle and the Hermit Oberlus, the spawn of Sycorax. Sketch Tenth concludes with runaways, castaways, solitaires, gravestones etc., in other words, with the scattered remnants of death. Each sketch begins with a mood-setting quotation from Spencer's "The Faerie Queen," but the work this story most reminds me of is Dante's Inferno. Melville's tale describes the little hell on earth. In this tale, he plies the full power of his descriptive style, and the formal intelligence of his religious imagination. 

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