Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor is evidently an extremely divisive text when one considers the amount of dissension and disagreement it has generated critically. The criticism has essentially focused around what could be called the dichotomy of acceptance vs. resistance. On the one hand we can read the story as accepting the slaughter of Billy Budd as the necessary ends of justice. We can read Vere’s condemnation as a necessary military action performed in the name of preserving the political order on board the Bellipotent. On the other hand, we can read the story ironically as a Melvillian doctrine of resistance. Supporters on this pole of the debate argue that Billy Budd’s execution is the greatest example of injustice. They argue that the execution is a testament of denunciation, deploring the shallow political order of a paranoid military regime. I do not wish to argue either side of this debate. I have pointed it out to illustrate that Billy Budd, Sailor is a text about principles of right conduct, or at least this view is held by critics. Is Vere’s conduct right or wrong? This is the basic question at stake. In this sense it is a text about moral values and ethical conduct. However, considering that Billy Budd, Sailor is an ethical text, what I find most curious about it is the mysterious absence of the emotion guilt. Here we have a story about two murders. Billy obviously kills Claggart and Vere (Although it is indirect, ultimately the decision is his) kills Budd. Neither of these murderers shows the emotion of guilt in the form of remorse. For a narrative which tries so hard to situate the reader in an ethical and moral position of choosing interpretations, isn’t it somewhat ironic that the characters themselves don’t exhibit that which would seem to be the most ethical and moral of emotions following the taking of a persons life? Where is the guilt? This is the question I have sought and found a possible answer for in this paper.
I have said that neither Billy Budd nor Captain Vere exhibit remorse following their acts of killing. Immediately following the fatal blow to Claggart we are shown no outlet of emotion stemming from Billy. Whatever emotion he may be experiencing is not accounted for by Melville. Indeed, he is silent and nothing is revealed of his physiognomy as Vere orders Billy to exit the scene: “This order Billy in silence mechanically obeyed.” This is not behavior one would typically expect from someone who just accidentally murdered someone. An ethical or moral reaction would seem to be one of surprise and inquiry such as, “My god, What have I done!” or something to that effect. Instead Billy is mechanical. When he reemerges for the trial, Billy says this to account for his actions: “I did not mean to kill him. But he foully lied to my face and in presence of my captain, and I had to say something, and I could only say it with a blow, God help me!” This statement illustrates Billy’s emotional reaction to his crime. Firstly, he shirks the full weight of his action by pointing to its accidental nature, which surely accounts for something, however in his own mind this is a complete reprieve. Billy is sorry that Claggart was killed, but he is sorry in the way a schoolboy is sorry. He states the utterance as a response without truly feeling apologetic. Indeed this statement is an appeal to save himself more than a eulogy to Claggart, however a feeling of remorse for murdering another human being is nowhere to be found. His concerns are not at all for the one he killed, but for himself as is indicated by “God help me!”
After the hanging of Billy Budd, the narrative ceases to relate the events on board the Bellipotent. For this reason, we are never shown Vere’s emotional reaction to his decision to hang Billy. The only reaction we are presented with is immediately before the death, when Billy cries out “God bless Captain Vere!” At this moment Vere “stood erectly rigid as a musket in the ship armorer’s rack” Melville accounts for Vere’s emotion at this point by describing it as “stoic self-control or a sort of momentary paralysis induced by emotional shock.” Either Vere is completely indifferent or unaffected by joy, grief, pleasure or pain at the penultimate moment, or he is overcome by the weight of the events and is physically frozen. In either case, no release of emotion is evident and Vere’s inner feelings regarding his action are conspicuously concealed from the reader.
In each instance, moral and ethical dilemma is laid out for the readers to squirm under. Indeed, as Joseph Schiffman says regarding the execution, “…does not the reader gag?” But what about the characters? Why are the readers coerced into a moral stance while the characters exhibit none? Earlier I asked the question what happens to guilt? To understand the relationship of guilt as it applies to these two characters, Captain Vere and Billy Budd, I will examine their relationship in the context of what Neitzsche calls the “contractual relationship between creditor and debtor” in the second essay of On The Genealogy Of Morals entitled, “’Guilt,’ ‘Bad Conscience,’ and the like.” Captain Vere is the creditor and Billy Budd is the debtor.
According to Nietzsche, “the major moral concept Schuld [guilt] has its origin in the very material concept Schulden [debts].” Guilt therefore, comes from the initial stages of human cultural development. The fundamental societal actions of barter, selling, trade and traffic of goods is directly analogous to the beginnings of the notion of requital for injury endured. The debtor makes a promise to the creditor, a promise to repay.
To inspire trust in his promise to repay, to provide a guarantee of the seriousness and sanctity of his promise, to impress repayment as a duty, an obligation upon his own conscience, the debtor made a contract with the creditor and pledged that if he should fail to repay he would substitute something else that he “possessed,” something he had control over; for example, his body, his wife, his freedom, or even his life…
This form of compensation to the creditor even had legal bounds. There were legal evaluations as to the specific value of various body parts which could be removed by the creditor as compensation. In place of a compensation of money, land or possession, a recompense in the form of pleasure is provided to the creditor. The pleasure lies in inflicting bodily harm or injury as requital for injury upon the debtor. In this sense, “The compensation, then, consists in a warrant for and title to cruelty.”
Surely, we don’t want to think Captain Vere executes Billy Budd in order to gain some kind of sick pleasure as an act of repayment. However, the concept of recompense in the form of pain for injury, which is fundamental to this creditor and debtor system, is present in Vere’s actions. In the sense that punishment is the means to gratification for the creditor, Vere employs, interprets and adapts a procedure of punishment for Billy Budd. A procedure that is prescribed by law, but which is inflicted in what Nietsche describes as:
Punishment as a declaration of war and a war measure against an enemy of peace, of the law, of order, of the authorities, whom, as a danger to the community, as one who has broken the contract that defines the conditions under which it exists, as a rebel, a traitor, and breaker of the peace, one opposes with the means of war
Vere, regardless of how he personally feels, as a military disciplinarian he
must see Billy as a transgressor and enemy of the peace of his ship. Billy’s crime has upset the law, order and authority of his community on board the Bellipotent. As a result, Vere must requite the “debt” and employ punishment.
Punishment, in the Nietzschian sense, thus supposes that every injury has some sort of equivalent that can be paid back or requited. Essentially, injury can be remunerated by pain. This is essentially how punishment works in human culture, and how it works in Billy Budd, Sailor. In most cultures, we punish and inflict pain by locking transgressors in prisons outside of society or by killing them by various means. This is in effect, an infliction of pain. The same is true in Billy Budd, Sailor, the punishment is a hanging which certainly is a punishment including pain. The notion of compensation for injury by inflicting pain is what is essential for discovering what happens to guilt in the text.
Punishment is ideally supposed to invoke feelings of remorse. We punish to make sure that the feeling of guilt is felt in the guilty person. As Nietsche says, “one seeks in it the actual instrumentum of that psychical reaction called ‘bad conscience,’ ‘sting of conscience.’” Thus, in accordance to the action of Vere, ideally the punishment should cause a “sting of conscience” in Billy Budd. However, as Nietsche illustrates and as the text of Billy Budd, Sailor confirms, seldom, if ever is this the case. Punishment itself precludes the guilty party from experiencing remorse: “prisons and penitentiaries are not the kind of hotbed in which this species of gnawing worm is likely to flourish” Indeed, locking someone in a filthy prison for committing a crime seldom causes that person to really feel remorse for their crime. If you need evidence of this you need only look at the number of repeat offenders in our justice system. Punishment generally makes people hard and indifferent. In the act of punishing, the punisher (creditor) is placed in a position of power over the punishee (debtor). This power vs. powerless relationship alienates the guilty one and alienation strengthens the power of resistance. By resistance I mean the act of opposing the force which seeks to impose a feeling of guilt. Therefore, for someone to feel remorse or guilt, they must feel it from within themselves. The punishment inflicted by others (the injured ones) is nothing to the cause. In this sense, punishment and guilt are contradictory forces. Punishment impedes and precludes the emotion of guilt from being experienced.
It is the punishment that precludes the expression of guilt and remorse in Billy Budd, Sailor. To read the story as either accepting or resisting an ethical dilemma is perhaps a moot point. The ethical thrust of the story could possibly be to indict mans insatiable need to punish and requite injuries through erroneous means. As Nietzche seems to think, “we may unhesitatingly assert that it was precisely through punishment that the development of the feeling of guilt was most powerfully hindered.” If we conceive of the text of Billy Budd, Sailor as situating the reader for an alignment with this viewpoint, then perhaps the reader “gags” at the death of Billy Budd not for the seemingly unfair and unjust killing of a sympathetic character, but instead for its illustration of a social system inherently disjointed at its foundation; one which doesn’t make sense considering human nature, but one which is so inextricably linked to society that it is doubtful that it could ever, or will ever, be changed.