Published: March 1, 2003 By

[1]   Providing the meaning to Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor, has become an initiation rite in theory and criticism culture. The meaning of Billy Budd usually comes in the form of the position which the critic takes on the novella’s presumably central moral question: the Case either For or Against Captain Vere of the shipBellipotent. It is Vere who sentences Billy Budd to death by hanging after Billy strikes the master-at-arms, Claggart–who has falsely accused Billy of mutiny–dead. Did Captain Vere make the right choice? Was it in his power to “rescue” Billy? Is Billy Budd a final acquiescence to the forces of legality, jurisprudence, social control, orderliness, rationalism–in other words, a conservative testament of acceptance and affirmation? Or is it a harrowing indictment of the dehumanization of man in a “civilized” era, a work of the bitterest irony–in other words, a testament of resistance?

[2]   But an answer to a seemingly Sphinxlike question–is Vere right to insist that Billy Budd should be hanged or not?–does not provide meaning to the story, only a resolution, a classification, that the story resists, even as it resists the critical project of meaning-making. As Barbara Johnson has written: “Since the acceptance/irony dichotomy is already contained within the story, since it is obviously one of the things the story is about, it is not enough to decide which of the readings is correct. What the reader of Billy Budd must do is to analyze what is at stake in the very opposition between literality and irony” (238). My interest in the meaning of the story lies not in the Vere question–which renders this novella a piece of socially conscious legal fiction, turns it into the To Kill a Mockingbird of the 1890s–but in an aspect of the story that is rarely, if ever, examined: the uses and the significance of the figure of Billy Budd.

[3]   The critical history of Billy Budd is far too complex and vast to synthesize with any coherence in this essay, but the most salient point to be made is the strain that runs throughout it: a fetishistic regard for Christlike Billy Budd as a figure of divine good who is the battleground for the forces of good and evil, or rationality and chaos. And the Case for or Against Vere has displaced the titular figure of Billy Budd, whose qualities are of a seeming obviousness that does not inspire critical reflection.

[4]   It is surprising that Billy Budd has so rarely been placed within the scheme of Melville’s ongoing project–which is, to my mind, to illuminate the drives that engineer a homosocial utopia, and, just as urgently, to critique both those drives and the counterfeit same-sex society (as Melville viewed it) they construct. Most astonishingly, the treatments of Billy Budd have tended to see the novel as a healing affirmation of Melville’s belief in Billy’s goodness. Even caustically insightful Lewis Mumford, in his biography of Melville, offered this exemplary verdict: “Rascality may be punished; but beauty and innocence will suffer in that process far more… As Melville’s own end approached, he cried out with Billy Budd: God bless Captain Vere! In this final affirmation Herman Melville died” (38-39).

[5]   The flip side of the bachelor’s paradise of the Templars in Melville’s archetypal short story “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” is the grim, gray, joyless, nearly all-female Tartarus of maids (a secluded paper mill where zombie women toil and tend vats of noxious chemicals in the service of mysterious, largely unseen men). As Robyn Wiegman points out, “The two halves of Melville’s diptych thus exist as gendered evocations of the same economy; what initially appear as separate male and female worlds are in fact the product of a homogenizing masculine point of view, one that constructs democracy and equality only in the privileged space of a masculine paradise” (10). To my mind, Melville’s work both critiques the utopian underpinnings of privileged same-sex space while actively exploring the compulsory nature of immersion into the homosocial sphere for the individual subject. The radical figure of engagement with the pressures of homosocial kinship devised by Melville is an idiosyncratic literary invention: the inviolate, isolate male, who, in his balked, clenched nature, both cannot and refuses to participate in either heterosexual or homosexual relations, remaining determinedly sexually unavailable to members of either sex.

[6]   Melville likens Billy to “one of the beautiful women in one of Hawthorne’s minor tales,” suggesting he had Hawthorne on the brain (53). Hawthorne’s effect on Melville, as has been expansively documented, was deeply profound. It is useful to see in the relationship between Melville and Hawthorne “the projective mutual accusation of two mirror-image men” (Sedgwick 100). When Melville learned that Hawthorne had unexpectedly died, he read a Hawthorne story, “Monsieur du Miroir,” and wrote some notes in its pages. One of them was this cryptic note: “He will pass to the dark realm of Nothingness, but will not find me there.” Next to this note lies another: “This trenches upon the uncertain and the terrible” (Robertson-Lorant 475). We might say that Billy Budd is the Blond Realm of Nothingness. Like Hawthorne’s Fanshawe, Parson Hooper, and Dimmesdale, inviolate vessels of manhood who trigger sexual attention they refuse to satisfy, the character of Billy Budd trenches on “the uncertain and the terrible”–in that our culture regards as freakish those with insufficiently demonstrated interest in procuring sexual fulfillment. The goal of this essay will be to reorient the discussion of Billy Budd to include Melville’s use of the figure of the inviolate male realized in Billy Budd–to reinsert the character of Billy Budd into a text which has produced readings that–to my mind–decisively displace him and the crucial importance of his characterization. (I should point out that my treatment will, alas, be forced to do some displacing of its own. I will have to leave larger discussions of Claggart, Vere, and the gruelingly odd climactic sequence of the novel, in which Billy is hanged in a process many critics have likened to the Passion of the New Testament Christ, to other pieces.)

[7]   Melville’s thesis in Billy Budd (and works like “The Paradise of Bachelors,” “Bartleby,” Moby Dick, andPierre, as well) is that all-male worlds are always already doomed. In my view, Billy Budd is the culmination of Melville’s ongoing critique of the homosocial–his bitterest and most unflinching assault on the compulsory fraternity of American life. For some, this will be a disquieting thesis–but I think that without a nuanced understanding of Melville’s ongoing project, we cannot understand Melville’s oeuvre. Because Billy Budd, determinedly constructed as a sexually inviolate and unavailable male, incites male utopia, we must consider the source–the source of his power, and his power as a source, for male utopia.

[8]   In Billy Budd, the fraternal community is the order of the naval society onboard the ship Vere commands, the Bellipotent (named, in earlier drafts, the Indomitable). Like other such orders in Melville–for instance, the lawyers in “Bartleby, the Scrivener”–the all-male community of the Bellipotent attempt to realize a utopian existence, one both facilitated and endangered by the new Handsome Sailor, Billy Budd. In Melville’s treatment, the Handsome Sailor incites utopian impulses and serves as the overpowering manifestation of them. The Handsome Sailor is a recurring figure, embodied by different men in different times on different ships. Billy Budd happens to be the manifestation of the Handsome Sailor we get in thisstory. It is important to consider, in our treatment of Billy Budd, that Billy Budd plays a type, manifests a recurring symbolic character, in the worlds of fraternal orders like those on Melvillean ships.

[9]   It is important to underscore “like” in the previous sentence. I want to be clear that, in my treatment ofBilly Budd, I am not locating Melville’s critique of the homosocial within his overarching concern with creating sea fiction. In this regard, my views differ from Cesare Casarino’s work on Melville’s construction of sea life as a Foucauldian “heterotopia.”

[10]   As Casarino puts it, “one can think of Foucault’s heterotopia as a mode of representation, as a particular kind of space from and through which one can see and make new and different sense of all other spaces” (2). A fascination with the heterotopic social potentialities suggested by the narrative centrality of the figure of the ship in nineteenth century literature defines Casarino’s work: “The point is that the space of the ship is definitionally constituted by the very fact that so many different modes of representation, so many irreconcilable spaces, and all their attendant political-historical contingencies and conjectures, coexist within it…” (10). The Melvillean ship becomes, for Casarino, a Foucauldian heterotopia par excellence.

[11]   Casarino describes Billy Budd as “the paradigmatic text of the encounter of the crisis of the ship as heterotopia par excellence with the crisis in constructions of sexuality… such an account finds its conditions of possibility in a half-century of experimentation with the heterotopic energies manifested and maintained in and as the space of the ship” (13-14). In other words, the ship-bound negotiations with sexual desire and the social constructions they undergo in Melville and others’ work culminate in Billy Budd. It is precisely at this critical juncture that Casarino’s and my work both merge and wrench apart.

[12]   I am in agreement with Casarino’s finding that “the ship embodies that desire that produces heterotopias: the desire to transcend the social while simultaneously representing it, contesting it, inverting it, the desire to escape the social while simultaneously changing it” (12). But while I agree that in Billy Buddculminate the evolving, cohesive, yet also heterogeneous negotiations in Melville between desire and the social order, I do not locate Billy Budd‘s synthesization of these themes within its ship-setting or within its relationship to the ongoing development of the ship-as-social-space in Melville. For my purposes, Melville’s narrativization of his own sea experiences–however interesting–is a separate issue (hence the importance of Casarino’s work, which examines it discretely as such). In my view, the ship offers an especially dramatically stark, delimited zone for sexual/cultural negotiations–an effectively spare tidiness, if you will–but it is onlyone of such closed yet fecund spaces Melville chooses as the setting for homosocial dramas, through which he reveals the implications and effects of homosociality as he views it.

[13]   To put this another way, Melville is, throughout his career, interested in both fashioning and violently critiquing the homosocial spaces he depicts as, simultaneously, inevitable, irresistible, and deadly. I see the ship, then, as part of a revolving system of settings–like the Wall Street firm and world of “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” the realm of the Templars’ homosocial club in “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” the affectional zone of hopeful romantic male friendship (hopes pitilessly crushed, in the end) inPierre–that in Melville lend themselves to the staged representation of men’s relationships to the homosocial order and this order’s fraught, binding relationship to men. Billy Budd deploys the ship as aparticularly fascinating sphere of homosocial, homoerotic desire–one perhaps even more terrifyingly inescapable and worldlike than the firm or the club–yet the ship is also only one of many such spaces in which male groups wage wars of conflicting desires. I am also concerned that the theoretical aims of Casarino’s project–concerned as it is with the ship as a disrupter of time and space–however brilliantly conceptualized, remove the historical and cultural contingencies of Melville’s work. As I hope to show, fanciful and dreamlike though it is, Billy Buddgrapples with the social realities of its era–especially in terms of the separate gendered spheres of the nineteenth century–with a relevance that is frightening in its intensity. Casarino’s privileging of the “the space of the ship” as “the heterotopia of modernity” (12) does not necessarily overlap with the hierarchical location of the ship in Melville’s work and thought.

[14]   My work is much more linked to James Creech’s project both to restore a gay engagement with the literature of potentially queer authors like Melville and fashion a legitimate means whereby queer readings might make use–through a “camp epistemology”–of the coded and specific lexical devices whereby certain authors, like Melville, potentially communicate queer content. I find especially helpful Creech’s theory that, rather than explicitly communicating gay themes, Melville, and others, developed a “winking” rhetoric that awaits the responses of certain readers “in the know,” who can wink back at certain coded references. Having established the legitimacy of responding to such winks, however, Creech is careful to point out that

Melville poses difficult problems for a camp epistemology of the wink… he does not… resolve the epistemological problems that we must face… We do not yet know the extent to which Melville had at his disposition, consciously or unconsciously, a shared language upon which the homosexual wink depends if it is to achieve the camp recognition that it seeks from the right readers… Only willful denial can purge Melville’s novels of the yearning gazes and subtle glancings of homoerotic sexuality. Moreover, these are not at all limited to his often-cited references to the sins of Sodom [and, as Casarino makes apparent, of Gomorrah] or to buggery… Beyond Melville’s explicit references, then, and more pertinent to the problem at hand, are these homoerotic gazes in which his protagonists are themselves so often bathed… Understanding of such texts depends entirely on the wink (98-100).

[15]   Billy Budd suggests that looking is a ritualistic group activity that cyclically incites and sustains (male) community. Each time The Handsome Sailor appears, a group of sailors, arrested by his visual splendor, converge upon and surround him. Looking becomes an act of tribal male cannibalism (cannibalism being an early Melville trope in the sea fiction)–the sailors ingest the Handsome Sailor with their eyes. The sailors’ group gaze metonymically functions as the narrative’s multivalent current of desire. But if the sailors devour the Handsome Sailor with their eyes (which are agents of penetration/ connoisseurs of the surface), he is a meal that can’t be kept down. Psychically and scopophilically digested throughout the narrative, Billy Budd is evacuated from it at the end.The homoerotic gaze Creech describes powerfully informs Billy Budd. Billy Budd immerses both the scopophilic subject and the gazer in a bottomlessly deep project of desiring looking.

[16]   If Billy Budd winks at us–i.e., communicates homoerotic desire–it is the wink, so familiar to us from genre films, of the seemingly dormant sea monster at its unsuspecting prey. Which is to say, we eventually drown in the homoerotic desire in which the story and we are bathed. The homoeroticism is the voice of the siren who drags us to our deaths. In desperate countermeasure, Melville impairs the siren with a stutter.

As I hope to show, the intense readability of homoerotic desires in the story serves the purpose of a larger point–Melville’s thetic exposure of the soullessness of all-male worlds. Though I do not locate the homoeroticism as the destination of the story, it is important–hugely so–as the vehicle for both the literary and the political journey of the story to the logic of homosociality itself.

[17]   It is for this reason that I find myself at odds with Nancy Ruttenberg’s work on Billy Budd, however brilliant it is. Ruttenberg is one of the few critics to offer an account of Billy Budd that is less than celebratory: “Billy’s innocence cannot be considered a positive phenomenon; it is neither heroism nor righteousness… The innocence’s violence functions as a black hole of purity, a central, if half-hid, warp through which narrative, in its transit from first paragraph to last, must pass” (368). Given the hegemonic critical affirmation of Billy Budd as Christlike hero, this finding is positively heroic. Yet Ruttenberg’s essay becomes a powerful meditation on the Melvillean pyrotechnics of narrative that is ultimately purgative of homoerotic and homosexual content. (Creech makes a similar point about Johnson’s essay “Melville’s Fist” [Creech 3-18]).

[18]   Ruttenberg casts Billy Budd as a Tempestlike valedictory statement from Shakespearean Melville: one that acknowledges the defeat of his tale because it “offers a ‘truth whereof I do not vouch,’ and a manifesto proclaiming the creation of a new genre, defiantly asymmetrical, flaunting its ‘ragged edges’ in the name of ‘the truth uncompromisingly told'” (378). For Ruttenberg, Billy Buddis harrowing evidence of “what happens when the hypothesized national poet…is actually made to perform in the fictitious life”: hence the paralytic bind of the author, who must create a new truth out of the inability to tell a national lie. Ruttenberg finds that: “Melville’s final novel thus textually enacts the paradox of inarticulate innocence as that which both legitimated and promised to redress the nation’s enduring silence about itself… I propose that the novel offers Melville’s retrospective account of his own professional failure” (348).

[19]   These findings would be much more highly charged in their relevance if Ruttenberg systematically linked them to the novel’s dizzying homoerotic sensibility. What Ruttenberg–and in this regard she joins the Irony versus Acceptance critics of Billy Buddin the 1950s–offers, instead, is an account of Melville’s political radicalism effectively cleansed of all that distracting, disorienting, homoerotic energy–a picture of radical politics in which the white noise of homoeroticism has been cleaned up. She thereby leaves her sharpest insights blunted: “Billy’s innocence is exposed as republican virtue gone decadent, or as the honesty of Nietzsche’s beast which cannot ‘dissimulate’ and ‘conceals nothing’…Melville shared Nietzsche’s insight and demonstrated it repeatedly: for them, piety so conceived revealed a special ability to ‘blendingly enter’ the space of nihilism” (378).

[20]   I wholeheartedly welcome the linkages between Melville and Nietzsche here as practitioners of a (romantic) nihilism, but how much more powerful would Ruttenberg’s piece be if it managed to intensify these linkages through a sustained analysis of Billy Budd‘s intrinsic homoerotic themes. The homoeroticism here is self-reflexive, a way for men to mirror their own desires back to themselves. Billy Budd stares itself down, exerting its unflinching, leviathan-gaze at its own beastliness: the monstrous organism of homosociality, the logic of the decadent republic of men that, the novel shows, perpetually rises up, destroys, and reinvents itself. For Melville and Billy Budd, homosociality achieves coherence only once its plots its own decimation–one figured, in Billy’s pointedly meaningless, pseudo-sacrificial death, as a nihilistic parody of Christ’s crucifixion. The homoeroticism and the nihilism of the text are inextricably linked. The parodistic crucifixion is the figural culmination of Melville’s project, begun in Typee and synthesized in Billy Budd, to expose the religious, national, and sexual hypocrisies of his era, of which institutionalized homosociality is a prime example.

[21]   Ruttenberg, however, hygienically transmutes the homoerotic themes of the novel into meta-novelistic concerns. For emblematic example, the “homoerotic and tautological exchange” between Billy and Claggart represents a “self-referentiality reconstituted as violence, and a violence that singularly targets the possibility of literary art” (366). For Ruttenberg, then, the sexual violence of the novel serves as a metaphor for a literary-aesthetic one, a process the novel obsessively inverts, in its deployment of the fiercest rhetorical violence to expose the violence of sexual politics.

[22]   In order to mount my own argument for a consideration of Melville’s political agenda that foregrounds his homoerotic/homosexual themes, I will now offer an (old fashioned) close reading of Melville’s depiction of Billy Budd in an effort to restore the story’s interest in his very person to the general critical discussion of the text. Then I will discuss the implications of Melville’s characterization of Billy Budd as an inviolate male. I will also further explore Billy Budd‘s thesis about the male world and its cathected relationship to Billy Budd as homoerotic icon. Finally, the essay reexamines Billy Budd criticism in the hopes of counterbalancing it with a helpful new way of approaching the story’s conceptualization of gender.

The Realm of Nothingness/The Priesthood

[23]   Billy Budd‘s very first sentence plunges us into an all-male world. “In the time before steamships,” the narrator tells us, ” even a casual “stroller” on “any…seaport” might “have his attention arrested by a group of bronzed mariners, man-of-war’s men or merchant sailors in holiday attire, ashore on liberty” (43). The tone of fairy-tale enchantment–“in the time before steamships”–is crucial to this fantastic world ruled and riveted by men. The narrator further reports that these sailors would often “quite surround” a “superior figure of their own class,” this “signal object” being “the Handsome Sailor,” who “seemed to accept the spontaneous homage of his shipmates,” who may be taken as “Representatives of the Human Race” (43). The Handsome Sailor is not a person, but a looming and monolithic fantasy, a “signal object” around which the men–all the men in the world, since these men represent the human race–revolve like satellites. No other evidence of his superior nature is offered save his transfixing, signal beauty; it instigates mass-male worship. From the story’s start, the male world of Billy Budd hinges on the trope of male beauty, an attribute apotheosized into an ideal.

[24]   The Handsome Sailor, who mobilizes yet remains apart from the homosocial community, the apostles of his Beauty, is inherently a critique of this community, because he instigates it yet is never a member of it. It is the need to form the homosocial community, however inherently flawed or incomplete it may be, that Melville critiques in Billy Budd.

[25]   Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes of the forces driving this text as homosexual ones: “every impulse of every person…that could at all be called desire could be called homosexual desire, being directed by men exclusively toward men” (92). If the story is accurately read in this way, Melville then treats male homosexuality as a fundamental social model in Billy Budd. He treats it the way one prominent gay theorist does: In his provocative study Gay Ideas, Richard Mohr proposes that

male homoerotic relations, if institutionalized in social ritual, provide the most distinctive symbol for democratic values and one of its most distinctive causes…[it] promotes the likelihood that equality as an ideal will be had by all…[in fact,] democracy will be firmly grounded only when male homosexuality is seen and treated in social ritual as a fundamental social model, when male homosexuality is, as it is some cultures, treated as a priesthood (140-1).

[26]   Yet Melville does want it both ways. Through the mesmerizing figure of Billy Budd, Melville catalyzes the just barely suppressed homoerotic yearnings of the crew and of the tale itself into increasing violence, a violence that gathers full force in Billy’s death. In other words, Billy is both the carrot on the stick with which the narrator lures out the homoeroticism and the stick itself, used as a bludgeoning instrument of castigation and death. For Melville, naval life is a kind of sacred, priestly order. As the novel describes it, it is an order comprised exclusively of male homoerotic relations, akin to Mohr’s. Yet Melville offers Mohr a nightmarish realization of his masculinist cravings. An institutionalized version of male homosocial/ -erotic relations, the male world of Billy Budd produces not democracy but tyranny, the subservience of men to the Hobbessian king, Captain Vere.Mohr proposes a halcyon order of hypermasculine men in no need of corrupting contact with those who are not. United by gay desire, Mohr’s male priesthood excludes women, primarily, and everyone else–even other gay men who fail to match those hypermasculine standards. Mohr’s woman-eschewing utopian view leads one back to Melville’s. Why does Melville write a text in which women are so consciously excluded–and I do mean consciously? When the story of the Fall is invoked, only Adam and the snake who “wriggled” into his company–the male body is constantly in danger of being penetrated in this tale–are mentioned (52). It’s an Eveless Genesis. The omission of women that undergirds Mohr’s social vision is thematically linked to the failure of the all-male utopia ofBilly Budd as well.

[27]   We know that Billy is a desirable figure because “plump upon first sight” of him, the Bellipotent’s lieutenant “pounces” on Billy. Billy is spontaneously elected foretopman, much to the chagrin of his old master on the Rights-of-Man. It’s a very good thing that Billy “makes no demur,” since any such rebuttal “would have been as idle” as that of a “goldfinch popped into a cage.” In this very first paragraph of Billy’s presence, three key elements of his persona are established: his immediate desirability, his conventionally feminine, “womanly” obsequiousness (no demur), and his (trapped) animal nature. Congruously, these elements cohere into a distinctively feminized, thus endangered and vulnerable (again, conventionally feminine), man. Yet the story also treats Billy as irreducibly male in that his masculine strength–his ability tokillwith one thrust of his murderous arm–is from the start emphasized. The idea that Billy is a male with both hypermasculine and conventionally female elements is the core of the work.

[28]   The master of the Rights plaintively cries to the Bellipotent‘s lieutenant, twice, “You’re going to take my best man from me, the jewel of ’em” (46-7). The situation on the Rights of Man before Billy’s impressment on it, describes the master, was “black.” “But Billy came…they took to him like hornets to treacle” (47). This is one of the most explicit indications in the text that Melville’s attitudes towards Billy and the crew are less than warmly fond: Billy is sticky-sweet, finally repulsive treacle, the men buzzing, voracious hornets. This, of course, nicely prefigures the ritual eating of the Host–Billy’s execution/transubstantiation–by the end.

[29]   “All but the buffer of the gang” rhapsodic over Billy, the scenario nearly exactly and eerily foreshadows that imminently onboard the Bellipotent. The publicly disdainful buffer gives Billy a jab under the ribs, to which Billy responds, “quick as lightning” with a “fly” of “his arm.” Unlike Claggart, the buffer does not plummet to the ground in death. He survives, joining in happily with the mass adulation accorded Billy. He grows to “really love Billy.” Then again, the master gushes, “they all love him…it’s a happy family here.” The familial affection extends itself to Billy’s old trousers, ever-darned by the crew, one of whom, the carpenter, “is at odd times making a pretty little chest of drawers for him” (47). Billy incites familial feeling–it’s no surprise that he’s also called BabyBudd. His presence instigates and legitimizes the burly sailors’ feminine sides, which serve to feminize Billy, who is poked, prodded, like a sexually harassed office worker. But, like a virilized Heidi or Pollyanna, Billy Budd reforms the brusque, brute buffer into a canine worshipper of Billy–Billy Budd flattens out and equalizes tensions in the men, and the men themselves. TheRights is a kinder, gentler Bellipotent. It’s striking that the same situation, if not their outcomes, exist for Billy from ship to ship. What, I think, is being suggested here is that all male utopias operate by the same principles, and that Billy, as both the catalyst for and the flesh sacrifice to those principles, serves, as the Handsome Sailor, the samefunction on each ship. Melville creates an erotic palimpsest, on which the same, fraught scenes are painted over and over, with Billy a constant, vanishing glyph. And if, as many critics have understandably seen, Billyis a Christ figure, he perpetually instigates both apostlelike devotion andJudaslike deceit and betrayal.

[30]   “Lieutenant, you’re going to take my best man from me, the jewel of ’em.” Billy, as the master describes him, is something rarefied and precious, something desirable in terms conventionally feminine. “Sorry,” responds the lieutenant. “But where’s my Beauty?” he asks, searching for Billy (48). Already, Billy is Beauty, a trope rather than a person, an item–a jewel–possessed by his new superiors. When luggage-encumbered Billy staggers aboard the Bellipotent, he is again likened to a mythological figure, “Apollo with his portmanteau,” which underscores his beauty and his status as a figure of light, a figment of the male utopian imagination, albeit, one parodistically weighed down by a suitcase (48). The note of parody is important–Billy Budd is a hellish parody of godlike manhood.

[31]   When Billy utters his ominous line, “And goodbye to you…Rights-of-Man,” he inspires the disciplinarian side of the lieutenant, who gruffly orders “Down, sir!” Yet the outwardly curmudgeonly lieutenant is secretly charmed by Billy: though he “instantly” assumes all of the “rigor of his rank,” he yet has difficulty “repressing a smile” (49). That “Down, sir,’ and the half-riled, half-idolatrous way in which it’s said, therefore, makes rather plain Melville’s strategy for his depiction of nautical life here. This is, after all, the king’s navy, staunch, ferocious, necessarily severe. Yet, Billy present, it all becomes rather a game, a put-on: butch-drag. The surface severity is a ruse, as made clear by Billy’s ability to charm even the militant, gruff lieutenant. Through Billy, Melville punctures the veneer of martial sternness presumably necessary to a great warship’s efficiency, exposing an affectional camaraderie that is shown to be wholly pervasive.

[32]   Billy initially adapts quite swimmingly to the atmosphere aboard the Bellipotent. Throughout his depiction of Billy, the narrator enforces the power of Billy’s good looks to sway the sailors. Little else is offered to support his immense success with the crew, which remains, save some key figures, blank and anonymous, an idolatrous, sweaty mob. (Like Forrest Gump, Billy is a clueless catalyst.)

[33]   Yet, as shown by Chapter 2, something is different onboard the Bellipotent. Billy has transmogrified–to his utter ignorance–from “the cynosure he had previously been on the Rights” to “something analogous to that of a rustic beauty transplanted from the provinces and brought into competition with the highborn ladies of the court” (51). He assumes this womanly role as the Handsome Sailor, and we are offered a depiction of Billy which transcends his status as Handsome Sailor–a loving, spatially regulated description of Billy ensues, in which his beauty is itemized physical attribute by physical attribute, the narrator lingering over each corporeal detail like a collector savoring rare gems. One swath of the Billy palimpsest, the uppermost one, is indeed, “heroic,” i.e., conventionally male, something the Greek sculptor in some instances gave to his heroic strong man, Hercules.” But that obvious, manly layer removed , the special qualities of Billy’s special beauty may be appreciated:

The ear, small and shapely, the arch of the foot, the curve in mouth and nostril, even the indurated hand dyed to the orange-tawny of the toucan’s bill…but, above all, something in the mobile expression, and every chance attitude and movement, something suggestive of a mother eminently favored by Love and the Graces; all this strangely indicated a lineage in direct contradiction to his lot (51).

[34]   The Handsome Sailor also functions as a force of both rehabilitation and retribution, or “comeliness and power,” or femininity and masculinity. Billy as the Handsome Sailor functions as a unifying force of social accord for the sailors, even as he threatens to let fly his lightning bolt-arm. His comeliness lies in his androgynous beauty, his power in his ever-available capacities as a killer. In cyclical fashion, Billy’s feminine beauty softens, makes acceptable, his brute, even awesome strength, a strength that renders his androgyny less threatening, more acceptable. His beauty is a soft cover over the core identity that D. H. Lawrence located in the essential American man, who is “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer” (73).The itemized list of Billy’s endowments signifies that he is a visual subject, perpetually scanned, disassembled into components, anobjet d’art weathered by the gaze. The concern over his lineage–presumably noble–adds a whiff of Dickensian fortune to Billy’s fate. Will a rich seaman claim him as a son? But Billy is hardly fatherless. He has a horde of fathers looking after him, tending his laundry, carving out his furniture. When asked who his father is, Billy responds, “God knows, sir” (51). Billy’s anonymity is crucial to his role as foretopman on this ship since he is the summoned-up manifestation of the sailors’ desires for a self-sufficient connection, desires that can only be expressed in “dark parody” (Fiedler 363)–or blond Nothingness.

[35]   The sign of Billy’s beauty is a screen behind which the murderous anxieties mobilizing the fraternal relations of the ship can hide. Romanticized though it is, the world of Billy Budd writhes in panic: panic of identity (Claggart), panic of upheaval (ever-threatening mutiny), panic of authority (Vere), and a general male sexual panic of emasculation, which is to say, of penetration (rape) and castration. These last fears are underscored by the iterated references to “invading waters” and to the spectacle of “spilled soup” on deck when Billy and Claggart have a puzzling incident. Every man aboard the Bellipotent lies in dread of the serpent wriggling into their company, even as they worship Billy. It’s no surprise that the name of the ship in Melville’s early versions was the Indomitable–the fantasy state these soldiers imagine themselves to occupy. What so intrigues and maddens the execrable/pitiable Claggart is that Billy has never “experienced the reactionary bite of that serpent” (78). Literally, a bite from that reptile would be the kind of evil thoughts teeming in Claggart’s brain. But the unbittenness of Billy also points to his inviolate virginity. Claggart despises Billy for his virginity, his moral and physical innocence. Only Claggart and Vere can appreciate the “moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.” Billy Budd, to the extent that he is even aware of having a self, cannot appreciate himself as a being who might provoke multivalent speculation, much less as a moral phenomenon.

[36]   Claggart, the deviant Other on this ship, boils in his own high intellectuality–in some ways, he’s evilbecause he thinks, obsesses, too much. Vere is presented as a model of rationality, modulated good breeding and logic. Claggart and Vere stand-in for two destinies available to Billy, who, much like Verena Tarrant in James’s 1886 novel The Bostonians, serves as a battleground for their warring drives and programs, just as he serves as a vehicle for the sailors’ utopian male desire. Billy Budd always serves, never lives; he is always the fulfillment of needs and fantasies, never the perpetrator of his own desires and wishes, never autonomous but always subservient to the yearnings of the crew. He is their true, desperately inviolate vessel.

Vital Wound

[37]   The text endorses Claggart’s envious apprehension of Billy. The narrator makes Billy Budd’s strengths and fatal flaw obvious: “Though our Handsome Sailor had as much masculine beauty as one can expect to see,” nevertheless, there was just one thing amiss in him, “a liability to vocal defect…in fact more or less of a stutter or even worse” (53). Without the power of speech fully at his command, Billy must rely all the more heavily on his physicality–his extruded, apparent self–to communicate with others. Billy Budd becomes a eunuch–the partial loss of speech points to a “defect” in Billy, a rupture in his masculine perfection, a castration. It signals Billy’s incompletely armored masculinity, and therefore his phantasmatic availability as a feminized male sexual object. Billy’s stutter is a point of penetration in the text, generative of meaning but also horrifyingly vulnerable to the dread intrusions against which the whole figure of the sexually unavailable male is meant to be a barrier. As the wily narrator wryly notes, Billy Budd’s stutter is potent clarification that Satan, “the envious marplot of Eden,” still has everything to do with human life, and “is sure to slip in his little card” (53). The terrifying threat of such slippages to the integrity of the masculine self–the threat of penetration–will become the chief concern of the text.

[38]   The stutter serves as Billy’s vulnerable spot, the orifice at which Billy may be penetrated. Speech is that which distinguishes man from animal, so it’s no wonder that Billy Budd is shown to be a liminal figure jumping from each of these identity categories. As Benson Bobrick writes, “Stuttering is an affliction that renders defective the uniquely human capacity for speech… The dignity of the person, his distinctive humanity, and even his soul, as made manifest in rational discourse, was (and is) by tradition associated with speech” (23). (In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud gives great attention to the concept of “parapraxis,” the “faulty function” which produces bungled speech, slips of the tongue, and stammering or stuttering [5].)The rational discourse that Billy Budd has only incomplete access to is what distinguishes him as male in the first place. In the world of Billy Budd, Billy Budd’s failure to wield the power of phallogocentric discourse leaves him in the position of the Decapitated Woman in Cixous’s famous essay–his stutter leaves him in the subject position of Woman. The rendering of Billy Budd as a kind of male Woman in this text is crucial to the staging of homosocial failure in Melville’s work. The stutter is the story’s vital wound, the site at and through which the story’s and the sailors’ conflicted yearnings can pass and cross. Billy’s stutter simultaneously confirms one rigid mode of maleness precisely by symbolizing a “defect” in Billy’s masculinity and ruptures this rigid mode by providing a conduit, fissure, or an entrance into the brawny armor of Billy’s extruded masculinity. If Billy is a new Christ, then his stutter is his stigmata, bleeding on cue for the “sins” of the homosocial community.

[39]   We almost never hear Billy “speak” the language of interiority. The only moment we get in which we hear Billy’s private thoughts occurs just before Billy steps into Vere’s office for the confrontation with Claggart. And in this moment Billy merely wonders if the Captain is to make Billy his new coxswain. No great depths in Billy Budd’s psychic life are plumbed or revealed in this moment: Billy Budd’s subjecthood is never comprehensively but only scantily developed. But through his stutter, we can learn what the fraternal order that converges around him needs: a point of entrance, a way in, to Billy’s magnetic but unknowable, unreachable interior. And because his speech or lack thereof allows Claggart to die with a contented post-coital smile on his face; Vere to rise to the challenge of juridical expediency; and the men to mourn for the loss of the ideal of their fraternal order, to grieve cathartically for the necessary loss of the ideal which Billy Budd represents, a loss necessary because the homosocial community must be contained, Billy Budd’s stutter signifies the internal conflict within his own relationship with the order he serves and enslaves. His stutter is the ship’s, the fraternal order’s, involuntary, defining, stutter. Through it, Billy Budd somatically complies with the fraught, disjunctive wrongness, for Melville, of the fraternal order’s utopian desires.

The Significance of Personal Beauty

[40]   Billy Budd’s stutter also fits in perfectly with Melville’s oft-ignored but palpably present depiction of Billy as little more than an “upright barbarian” (52). For in its earliest linguistic state the term “barbarian” connotes “stammer” (and Melville uses the terms “stutter” and “stammer” interchangeably), as the OEDdescribes in its definition. Familiar as he was with both Classical and biblical traditions, Melville’s use of barbarian most likely carried for him the freight of the word’s ancient uses, depicting both the uncouth, stammering foreign strangeness of the barbarian and the propensity to savagery. Both unwise–blank, uncultured, unironic, unknowing, unwondering–and savage–prone to violent outbursts of physical rage–the barbarian Billy Budd stammers rather than states, stutters rather than stresses his innocence, the one trait he should be counted upon not only to embody but also to express.

[41]   Melville amply demonstrates that, for him, Billy Budd is a barbarian in every sense, the linguistic, the physical, the cultural, the social. Therefore, contrary to what critics from Raymond Weaver to Robert K. Martin have written, however, Melville expresses very little textual tenderness for Billy Budd; in fact, he most often expresses contempt: “Noble descent [may be] as evident in him as in a blood horse,” as the narrator tells us, but “in many respects,” we are also told, Billy is “little more than a sort of upright barbarian” (52). Melville links Billy Budd to the bestial (horses) and the savagely unintelligent (barbarians). Like a horse or a St. Bernard, animals to which Billy is likened, he serves his masters well, with unquestioning animal fidelity. His profound obviousness always contrasted to Claggart and Vere’s intense braininess, Billy is, finally, a domesticated animal, his concerns ranging the canine gamut from A to B. When the old Dansker informs Billy that Claggart is out to get him–“Baby Budd, Jemmy Legs [Claggart] is down on you”–Billy’s “welkin eyes” dilate, and he “ejaculates”: “Why, he calls me the sweet and pleasant young fellow, they tell me…I seldom pass him but there comes a pleasant word” (71, Melville’s emphasis). If a contented St. Bernard could speak, it might sound like Billy: stroked, coddled, basking in the attention given it. Melville suggests the incompatibility between Billy’s innocence and the moral deprivation of the social world through Billy’s almost willfully sustained out-of-it-ness in the face of increasing danger.

[42]   The Dansker repeats that Jemmy Legs is down on Billy. I think that the point Melville makes here is that Billy is so oblivious to events going on around him that Jemmy Legs might be down on him this very second–i.e., plotting his downfall and/or performing fellatio on him–and Billy still wouldn’t know. Melville may not have had–given the twentieth century heritage of the phrase “go down on” as a slang term for fellatio–this sexual activity in mind here. In any event, from these words spring images of a supine Billy and a descending Claggart, images of power and domination and submission that are unmistakably sexual. Billy’s concerns bob happily on the surface; he completely accepts the facade of Claggart’s behavior, never suspecting the simmering fury. Claggart’s sweet and pleasant words, like magic talismans, are what Billy prizes, not their dark import. He likes to be spoken to sweetly. We can infer that Billy really likes all of the attention he receives as Baby Budd, Handsome Sailor, Beauty, as a living trope of male comeliness. The critical consensus on Billy as a kind of shimmering Christlike figure of goodness misses the crucial satiric scheme of his depiction, since, for Melville, Billy Budd must be depicted as a laughable, bestial figure in order to castigate the community that idealizes him and which he metonymically represents.

[43]   In the famously sexually suggestive scene of Billy’s spilled soup on the scrubbed deck, Claggart is, of course, passing by, and

the greasy liquid streamed just across his path. [He observes that Billy spilt it.] Pausing, he was about to ejaculate something hasty at the sailor but he checked himself, and, pointing down to the streaming soup, playfully tapped [Billy] from behind, saying…”Handsomely done, my lad. And handsome is as handsome did it, too” (72).

[44]   The business with the spilled greasy soup releases the premonitory, gathering sexual tensions of this all-male world. Claggart’s momentary near-ejaculation signals that in some ways he craves a mutual sexual experience, or spilling of soup, with Billy. Absolutely tickled by his own status as the Handsome Sailor, a celebrity elated at being recognized, Billy relishes the public revelation that he is appreciated as a trope, delighting in his own function as symbol, cynosure, signal object, Handsome Sailor, Beauty, Baby Budd, and his ad infinitum possibilities as a Ganymedelike figure. To Billy’s flirty question “Who said Jemmy Legs is down on me?” comes the “demanded” response, “And who said he was, Beauty?” (72). Everyone onboard is complicit in Billy’s self-apotheosization.The sailors laugh “with counterfeited glee.” Billy laughs because “tickled…by the allusion to his being the Handsome Sailor” and “merrily” says: “There now, who says Jemmy Legs is down on me?” (72).

[45]   When Billy finds himself in the “closeted” conference with Vere and Claggart after the latter has accused him of mutinying, Billy does not feel either

apprehension or distrust. To an immature nature essentially honest and humane, forewarning intimations of subtler danger from one’s kind come tardily if at all. The only thing that took shape in the young sailor’s mind was this: Yes, the captain, I have always thought, looks kindly upon me. Wonder if he’s going to make me his coxswain. I should like that. And maybe now he is going to ask the master-at-arms about me (97-8).

At the time of his imminent death, Billy’s concerns are about his being liked, being made the captain’s coxswain. That Billy is unable to fathom the depths of Claggart’s contempt for him strikes the narrator as a thing “to be wondered at.”

Yet not so much to be wondered at. In certain matters, some sailors even in mature life remain unsophisticated enough. But [Billy] …is much of a man-child. And yet a child’s innocence is but its blank ignorance, and the ignorance more or less wanes as the intelligence waxes. But in Billy Budd intelligence, such as it was, had advanced, while yet his simplemindedness remained for the most part unaffected. …He had none of that intuitive knowledge of the bad which in natures not good or incompletely so foreruns experience, and therefore may pertain as in some instances it too clearly does pertain, even to youth… (86).

[46]   Billy Budd is not just sexually unavailable but sexuallyunthinkable. Far from tenderly revering Billy, then, as so many critics have asseverated, Melville sees him, in a troublingly reactionary way, as a source of homoerotic contagion. Alluringly beautiful and utterly dead, like the fake Madeleine in Hitchcock’sVertigo, Billy Budd has valences with Euripides’s Hippolytus in thePhaedra and Wilde’s Dorian Gray: all are beautiful boys who incite erotic frenzy yet can never satiate it. I disagree, then, with Martin’s finding thatThis rumination on Billy is a subtly severe condemnation. Billy’s inability to perceive the bad in others is a harrowing flaw: his noose. As Martin puts it, “the degree of innocence that Billy represents simply cannot exist in the world; indeed, it becomes a kind of evil, the inability to ever know or judge” (110). In light of Claggart’s sexual hunger for significantly beautiful Billy, of the myriad references to spilled soup and invading waters, one must see knowledge of the “bad” in Billy Budd as postlapsarian knowledge of sex. An irresistible site of sexual energies, Billy can neither possess nor harness these energies for himself. He has no concept of the sexual in others or in himself (which is not to suggest that Billy is unsexual but that he has no perception of the ramifications of sexual desire). In this way, he is a dangerous figure, a carrier of sexual intrigue who is himself sexually inert, empty, hollow, vacuous. He incites eroticism while he personally eradicates it.

Melville wanted Billy to prevail. At moments, I believe, he wanted that desperately. He did not want to believe in his own dark vision. Surely a beautiful man might come along and change everything (122).

The Damned

But it is precisely because Melville does not want Billy to prevail that Billy Budd achieves its maddening and haunting power. To my mind, Billy Budd is not a figure Melville cherishes, however acutely he conceives him. Every reference to his beauty, however heightened, is underscored by one to his caged, trapped, mindless animal nature. His presence aboard ship involves the men in a symbiotic cycle of awakened group desire leading into irresolvable, unsatisfiable needs that are themselves untenable. Billy dies because he is more trope than man, more alluring than he is all there; he’s a shadow, the specter of eroticism, the corporealized yet ephemeral manifestation of the tropes of the Handsome Sailor and Beauty. And as the specter of this particular eroticism, he passes over the ship like the shadow of death. He is used to lure out the “natural depravity” in Claggart, the inhuman logic in Vere, the zombielike acquiesence to authority in the crew, who may mourn the loss of Billy but do nothing to halt his death (however much they may all mourn his passing, no revolt takes place, no efforts to halt Billy Budd’s execution.)

[47]   In Billy Budd, what Melville attempts to portray and finally affirms is the poisonous fatality he finds inherent in an all-male world. In this regard, his sensibility resembles Luchino Visconti’s in his 1969 film The Damned. That film’s treatment of Nazism ends in a grotesque, debauched display of the unleashed homosexual desires of pitiably self-deluded brownshirts, who cavort in apocalyptic drag orgies. But whereas Visconti aims to show that the Nazis were homosexuals whose repressed desires can only find vent in evil, Melville suggests that the all-male world of Billy Budd is the realization of the fascist potentialities in the social organization of gender itself. (In his book The Explanation for Everything: Essays on Sexual Subjectivity, Paul Morrison questions why deviant sexuality is used as the “explanation” for Nazism [140-172].) The “authentically fascist,” in Morrison’s phrase, is embodied, for Melville, within the way nations construct, demarcate, and ruthlessly consign gender.

[48]   What Melville reacts against in Billy Budd and other works is the nineteenth century construction and implementation of separate spheres, the rigid separation of the sexes into male Paradises and female Tartaruses, the bifurcation of the world into homosocial spheres, into the public world of men and the private world of women, into same-sex spaces whose integrity is breached only by the equally pressing demands of compulsory heterosexuality. No world is more intensely homosocial than that aboard a ship like the Bellipotent. Through the microcosmic yearnings for homosocial space of the sailors aboard the Bellipotent, Melville critiques the nineteenth century’s determined creation and enforcement of rigidly demarcated same-sex spaces.

[49]   Far from being a homosexual paradise, the world of theBellipotent, an order that mobilizes itself through an idealization of its own binding desires–an idealization embodied by the trope-persona of the Handsome Sailor–is, for Melville, an anti-life. The Handsome Sailor, or Beauty, is, in the end, an inadequate substitute for those maids abandoned in Tartarus. However feminized Billy Budd is, he is nevertheless hopelessly male. The flesh-seeking desires of the sailors–embodied by sailors who can’t resist jabbing at Billy’s ribs–must be contained lest they erupt into a full-blown realization of Natural Depravity (to which Claggart is linked). Herein lies the urgency of Vere’s advice to the jury that Billy must hang. Under the circumstances, it is good advice indeed.

[50]   The chief figure of idealization in the novel, the distorted and distorting mirror image–the Monsieur du Miroir–held up to the male world of Billy Budd, Billy Budd cannot be the end to tyranny when he is enmeshed with tyrannical forces himself. Mannheim described the utopia as “that type of orientation which transcends reality and which at the same time breaks the bonds of the existing social order” (192). For Melville, though, there is no transcendence, only a ruinous breaking of apparently much-needed bonds. Billy Budd’s execution allows him to remain inviolate. And, the maddening force of Billy Budd extinguished, the utopian urge to form homosocial community can await reactivation, leaving disparate sailors endlessly anticipating the next Handsome Sailor who can inspire this ultimately unsustainable worship. The Handsome Sailor represents a compensatory source of futurity for the (naval) male utopia–though one particular version may be snuffed out, another one is on the way.

[51]   For Sedgwick, the tragic horror of Billy Budd lies in Melville’s depiction of a life imagined “after the homosexual”: “Billy Budd is a document from the very moment of the emergence of homosexual identity. But already described in that emergent identity…[is] the fantasy trajectory toward a life after the homosexual… [The] romantic relations between Vere and the doomed Billy constitute… the disappearance of the homosexual” (127). Sedgwick’s view ofBilly Budd–as an evocation of life after the homosexual is eradicated–is the climax of a (revolutionary) essay that ultimately perpetuates the centrality of the obsessive interest in The Case for or Against Vere by functioning as a vigorous case against Vere: “It is Vere’s desire to adjudicate from…a disciplinary distance…that…entirely creates the fatality of the paranoid knot of Claggart and Billy” (106).

[52]   Sedgwick’s powerful and highly influential view that Billy Budd is a harrowing suggestion of culture’s inclination towards “gay genocide” (128) is not a point I would so much want vehemently to dispute as put another way. Billy Budd is not primarily about the eradication of gay life but about the unceasing repetition of the creation of utopian same-sex spaces that are–to put it in Sedgwickian terms–fueled by homosocial desire not limited to but inclusive of homosexual desires. The implacable, ever-regenerating capacity of the utopian ideal of the privileged same-sex space to instigate its own manifestation is the chief subject of Billy Budd. What so painfully informs this novel’s treatment of the subject is the equally inescapable and always tragic realization of the inability of that manifestation of same-sex idealization, figured in the novel as the naval male community of the Bellipotent–and undergirded as it is by occluded desires, undisclosable needs, the willed unself-consciousness of a totalizing wish for enforced sameness–to sustain itself. We have, then, in Billy Budd not life imagined after the homosexual but agonizingly with the homosexual, as exemplified by the novella’s spectacular depiction of male community’s constant embedding and expunging of mobilizing homosexual desires that remain murderously intangible yet forever circulated. Billy Budd is an ingenious compromise between the rapacity of same-sex desires and the unfeasibility of sustaining them in the public world. Billy Budd allows men to revel in the pleasurable potentialities of homoerotic desires that are temporarily extinguished along with him–with the provided reassurance that, once the next Handsome Sailor comes along, those desires will once again be enflamed.

Blindness and Oversight

[53]   What do we gain by seeing Billy Budd as a figure Melville contemns? What do we gain by viewing Billy Budd as an inviolate, sexually unavailable male who remains, in these ways, intact by the end of the work? What we gain is not a “correct” way of reading the story–I doubt, in the end, that there is one–but one that, to my mind, places the work in the larger context of Melville’s oeuvre. In work after work, Melville questions why the impulses of men to create same-sex utopian spaces results in betrayal, enmity, war. The Great (Nore) Mutiny that frames the narrative ofBilly Budd looms, unremarked upon, above the story–and it is as if the story sails right into a vortex it pretends does not exist. The endless debates over Billy Budd will presumably continue. But the idealization of Billy Budd in the history of Billy Budd criticism, matched by the equally prevalent indifference to the character in it, manages to distort through indifference the urgency and the dangers of Melville’s own work. Defanging his radically harsh depiction of the compulsory homosocial by emphasizing his reverence for Billy Budd, on the one hand, and ignoring his reactionary depiction of homosexual desire, on the other, the breadth of Billy Budd criticism has managed ritualistically to kill off Melville, secure in the compensatory knowledge that another essay will come along, revive him, and kill him with kindness.

[54]   To ensure clarity, let me baldly say that I consider Melville one of the bravest and most radical politically engaged writers in the American canon. But, much as I would like to, I cannot view his homoerotic themes as indicative of an embrace of the legitimacy of homosexual desire. There is an acid tension in Melville’s work between his longing evocation of the appeal of homo-community and his systematic annihilation of those bonds. There is, I believe, a progressive, if deeply bitter, political agenda in his exposure of the compulsory fraternity in American life as a system that potentially breeds enmity–but there is also a revulsion at the thought of male utopian community finding a way to sustain itself. Pierre and Glen Glendinning cannot revitalize their boyhood ardor as adults; the Pequod and all aboard save Ishmael must perish lest Ishmael have Queequeg to hold onto; despite the narrator’s expressed concern for him, Bartleby ends up an ostracized pariah. The sperm-squeezing passage in Moby Dick is justifiably celebrated as a transcendent moment of male-bonding—but it should not be forgotten that the novel leaves Ishmael, lost and devastated, to bob alone in cold isolation at the end. At the very least, there is, in Melville, a genuine tension between a belief in the beauty and joy of male relations and an equally profound belief that those relations are inherently hollow and potentially pathological.

[55]   Robertson-Lorant provides a chilly coda, aimed at correcting queer overreadings of Melville as a queer writer, to her otherwise affecting and evenhanded biography of Melville: “What Ishmael and Queequeg…[represent] is not necessarily overt, covert, or latent homosexuality, as Leslie Fiedler argued…but transgressive paradigms of homosocial brotherhood and male intimacy that challenge and seek to subvert the soulless, misogynistic competitive construction of masculinity dictated by the new market capitalism and industrialization” (620). Affected though I am by the sensitivity that generally characterizes this biography, I question Robertson-Lorant’s motives at this point–she would appear to be revising (as if faintly repulsed) her previously exhibited evenhandedness about Melville’s polyvalent sexuality, best exemplified by her nuanced description of Melville’s reactions to both male and female Polynesian beauty (108). Still being lost in Robertson-Lorant’s view is the way in which a radical insistence on homosocial brotherhood can potentially produce, and is potentially indicative of, the very misogynistic “soullessness” of American life Melville reacts against.

[56]   It is not possible to offer a comprehensive discussion of the historical construction of the separate gendered spheres in America in this essay. This essay hopes only to commence a re-evaluation of the construction of the homosocial in literary theory. There are, I argue, two major responsibilities that must be fulfilled by the socialized individual: the successful formation of bonds with the opposite sex (leading to Marriage, Home, and Family), and the successful formation of relationships within the homosocial sphere. Fiedler figured male friendship as an escape from “the gentle tyranny of home and woman” (194). I do not mean to discount the feminist interventions (such as those by Judith Fetterly, Lora Romero, and Dana Nelson) in the privileging of the homosocial community as an ideal space, but, in my view, insufficient attention has been paid to the ways in which, pace Fiedler, the homosocial community is itself a potentially tyrannical force from which the individual may wish to be freed, at sometimes harrowing cost.

[57]   The most radical and troubling aspect of Melville’s critique of the homosocial is his insistence on locating homoerotic attraction as its foundation. The sharp separation of homosexual desire from homosocial intimacy Robertson-Lorant makes seems absurdly indifferent to Melville’s continuous insistence on suggesting the inextricability of both. But neither straight nor queer critics (save a few) have wanted to acknowledge or have quite known what to do with the rampant homoerotic imagery and homosexual orientation of this text. In Billy Budd, Melville suggests that homosexual desire inspires homosocial community–precisely the reason why such a community must implode. The bitterness with which Melville insists upon that implosion suggests that Melville saw compulsory brotherhood as itself a construction that needed to be challenged. It also suggests, to me, that he saw homosexual desire as crucial to the construction of homosocial spheres and responded to this as both “fate and ban”–as both Natural and deadly: hence the “meaninglessness” of this text, figured in its discussions of Claggart’s “Natural Depravity or depravity according to Nature.” At the very least, there is nothing like a celebration of the homosocial–or the homosexual–in Melville’s work, even if, in his languorous evocation of homoeroticism, Melville is the greatest, most uncannily suggestive writer of queer fiction in nineteenth century America. Billy Budd’s death maintains the gendered status quo. His death signifies the inevitable failure of the Handsome Sailor; it also anticipates his triumphant, desire-instigating return. We only overlook Billy Budd and the uses made of him at our peril.

Acknowledgements: I wish to take this opportunity to thank my dissertation advisor, Michael T. Gilmore, for the extremely helpful feedback he provided on this essay (among so many others). I also want to thank John Burt, Wai-Chee Dimock, Mary Campbell, Paul Morrison, and Eugene Goodheart for leading by example.


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