The Scorpion's Suicide: Claggart's Death in Billy Budd

Article excerpt

There are people dedicated to evil in the world," writes Arthur Miller in the Introduction to his Collected Plays. "'Evil is not a mistake but a fact in itself.... I think now that one of the hidden weaknesses of our whole approach to dramatic psychology is our inability to face this fact--to conceive, in effect, of Iago." (1) A notable exception to Miller's strictures is Herman Melville, who in Billy Budd created a character as much impelled by "motiveless malignity" as Iago--John Claggart, the master-at-arms of the warship Bellipotent. Of the three principle characters in Billy Budd, Claggart ought to be--and to some extent is--the most enigmatic, his personal dynamic shrouded in mystery, what Melville called "the mystery of iniquity." Melville finesses the issue of Claggart's malignity by authorially declaring it the tale's donnee. "What was the matter with the master-at-arms?" (2) the narrator asks at the beginning of the crucial section 11, addressing the cause of Claggart's irrational, obsessive malice toward the handsome, naive, wholly good-natured young foretopman, Billy. The answer is simple: Claggart is evil.

Melville adduces a definition of "Natural Depravity" offered (supposedly) by Plato : "a depravity according to nature"(75). (3) The circularity of this definition suggests that the term serves Melville as what is sometimes called a "primitive locution," one of those terms that must be considered axiomatic in order to conduct moral discourse. He distinguishes this negative quality from Calvin's theological concept of natural depravity which marks the whole of the fallen human condition, emphasizing that the term, as he uses it, describes only the rare individual who relishes evil for its own sake, who subscribes to Satan's credo: Evil, be thou my good. "These men are madmen, and of the most dangerous sort ..." (76), and such a man is Claggart.

Melville realized that such "dark sayings," savoring somewhat of Holy Writ, would ill commend his work to readers of his own day, already too "enlightened" to accept the notion of a human being "naturally depraved"; and in our own day, socio-psychologized to the nth degree, the explanation appears even more retrograde. (For our modern view of the matter, one cannot do better than consult the lyrics of "Gee, Officer Krumpke" from West Side Story: "I'm depraved on account of I'm deprived.") Despite, then, Melville's insistence on the intractable, but undeniable mystery of Claggart's iniquity, literary critics have, of course, offered rationalistic explanations of every sort, thus "solving" the mystery. Probably the currently most fashionable interpretations (so much so that they figured recently as a dinner-table bone of contention in an episode of the gangster epic, The Sopranos) assume that Claggart's animus toward Billy stems from repressed, unexpressible homoerotic desire, a view for which, admittedly, the novella provides ample suggestion. Thus: watching Billy--the narrator comments in one of the tale's most remarkable passages--"would Claggart look like the man of sorrows. Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could have loved Billy but for fate and ban" (88). A work as complex, ambiguous, resonant, provocative and profound as Billy Budd will never yield to any single interpretation--precise, complete, pat--so that even the narrator's characterization may seem inadequate, somehow evasive, implying more than it concludes.

Nevertheless, I want to take at face value the narrator's claim that Claggart's motive for seeking to destroy Billy stems from natural depravity, innate evil. There is, says Iago of Cassio, a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly. Something like this same antithesis obtains between Billy and Claggart, the natural innocence and beauty of the one evoking the venomous hatred of the other. But how best destroy an innocent man? By making him guilty, of course. …


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