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A Question of Innocence

One of the best studies of good and evil by an American writer is Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd.” I highly recommend the novella, as well as an excellent 1962 film by the same title, which stars, and was directed and produced by, Peter Ustinov.

Billy Budd harman melville 1The central characters are masterfully rendered. They’re played by Ustinov as Captain Vere; by Robert Ryan as the cynically evil master-at-arms John Claggart; and by Terrence Stamp as the tragically innocent Billy Budd.

Melville symbolically drops Budd into hell, when he’s impressed onto a late-18th century British warship from a merchant ship ironically named the “Rights-of-Man” on the high seas. But Billy quickly wins the respect and hearts of the crew, as well as the captain, and is promoted in rank.

Events unfold with tragic inevitability as the envious and sinister John Claggart singles out Billy Budd for mistreatment and slanderous treason. In the climactic scene, Claggart absurdly accuses Budd of masterminding a mutiny.

Captain Vere confronts Budd with the charge in front of his accuser. Billy is like a child who loses his power of speech with strong emotion, and he’s unable to answer with words. He strikes Claggart with both of his fists with such fury and force that he falls and hits his head on the corner of a beam, killing him.

An evil smile creases Claggart’s lips as he fades into unconsciousness. He knows that Budd will be hanged for striking a superior officer.

The flaw in the captain, as the arbiter of authority, is that he puts duty before justice, head before heart. After a tortuous court martial presided over by the captain and three officers of the ship, Billy Budd is hanged. To the end he bears no grudge, and his last words are: “God Bless Captain Vere!”

Melville’s story is more ambiguous than the movie’s plot, which has an unnecessary twist at the end, which I’ll leave for readers who wish to watch the film. But the last words of the film hold up well: “Justice will live as long as the human soul; the law as the human mind.”

Billy Budd was completed the year Melville died, 1891. Rife with Christian symbolism of the Fall of Adam and the crucifixion of Christ, Billy Budd is nonetheless a subtle philosophical treatise on the nature and operation of good and evil in man.

Though the text is not clear (undoubtedly deliberately so), the movie comes down on the side of the human heart, as flawed and foolish as it is. Claggart reeks with evil, but Ryan portrays him exceptionally and astutely as an almost sympathetic figure.

Claggart’s view of man is one that many, if not most people in the West now share—unregenerate, self-serving and incorrigibly base. In this view, human nature is directly derived from the predator/prey archetype in nature. Melville, and Ryan in his rendering, make the point that such a worldview doesn’t just lend itself to evil, but is a wellspring of it.

The unanswered, indeed unaddressed question is the relationship between good and evil. Are they two sides of the same coin, as depicted in the novella and film, or are they completely distinct and unrelated Billy Budd harman melvillephenomena?

My own view is that they are completely distinct. Evil does not flow from or exist in nature, as the Claggart character and others of his ilk believe. Nor is evil a supernatural phenomenon, but rather a byproduct of the wrongful use of ‘higher thought,’ which produces endless division, conflict and fragmentation by deeply mistaking the ability to separate with separation as the nature of things. It is the core mistake of most scientists as well. 

If Claggart signifies Satan, what does Captain Vere represent? Vere obviously stands in for societal order, but not in a heavy-handed or simplistic way. He’s a decent, intellectual man, and his argument for the necessity of Budd’s execution is one that he admits goes against his own sentiments.

The Billy Budd character is simplicity and innocence itself, in the way young children are guileless and without artifice. One hears a bit of irony in Melville’s depiction of him, a stab (and perhaps pang) at Jesus’ injunction: “Truly I tell you, unless you return and become like children, you can’t enter the kingdom of God.”

In Melville’s novella, evil continues to prevail. “Where’s Claggart?” asks a crewman as the crew is assembled to watch Billy Budd hang (the crew was only informed of Claggart’s death as the charge was read with the noose around Budd’s neck).

“He’s here,” drily responds a wise old sail maker (played by Melvyn Douglas), the only crewman who intuited what happened before the execution.

Claggart’s view of the human prospect is self-fulfilling. ‘Man is hopeless,’ many say and many more secretly believe, without realizing that in believing such a separative statement (which never includes the speaker) they are man, and make themselves hopeless.

Darkness, deadness and evil are the quitters’ domain, the stinking and shrinking space of the world where all the Claggarts who desperately need their vicious-circle worldviews are confirmed.

However long it takes, another world is not only possible, but inevitable as long as humanity inwardly survives through the awakening and growth of insight, understanding and love within the individual. 

Martin LeFevre


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