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‘Roll Me Over Fair’
Macro-Funerary Impressions of Billy Budd by Herman Melville: 1/31/24
© 2024 James LaFond
FEB/5/24
Moby Dick and Tepee were studies of the masculine character in industrial, primal and tribal [cultural] situations. Billy Budd is a direct distillation of honorable men, occupying various stations in the artificial monstrosity of Empire, faced with their own liquidation.
Billy Budd is a square four hours read by a man with a command of various masculine voice types and accents, affecting a dead pan in narration and breaking into character for dialogue. The story is set at the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars that followed the French Revolution, in about 1800. This was the peak of Age of Sail war technology. A chapter is spent discussing the two British naval mutinies of the year in which the narrative is concerned, the 20th year of a young sailor’s life.
“The handsome sailor,” is discussed, the natural athlete of the Age of Sail. This character is a general type, the paragon of his trade, perhaps the best reefer, climber, oarsman or harpooner.
Billy himself is a younger, innocent version of this type, his face not yet creased with scheming or scowling. Good at his trade, his masters are pleased. Quick with his fists, those older hands jealous of him get a drubbing, and, Billy is so good natured that the brawny man he had to drub came to love him.
“A barbarian,” in the sense of having a basic honor code and no knack for conspiracy, Billy is doomed in the Modern World.
“Variance of usage” is a term employed often to describe the terms of equity expected of enslaved men, that their use by their masters will be tolerable and predictable.
Billy stuttered under stress and had a childlike disposition, uncorruptible for mutiny as he had “Taken the King’s bread.”
Billy was the best sailor on a merchant vessel. A 74-gun ship of the line sent over an officer to “press” a man into service. The officer looted the merchant captain’s liquor and took his best man, Billy. Billy had been happy under that master and loved his new master, Captain Veer, a victor in one battle and an alien to his peers, based on his bookish personality. The crew soon discovers that Billy had no parents, that he had been placed on a door step as an orphan. The older hands end up calling him Baby Budd.
There is a naturally evil man of the upper class who has fallen into crime and debt and has been placed in Middle Age as the Master at Arms, the lowest ranking Petty Officer. The Master at Arms was the police man of the gun decks.
Out of pure jealousy, the Master at Arms attempts to have Billy hanged for mutiny, taking him to the Captain’s state room. Billy stutters when he is upset, and not having the conspiratorial frame of mind required to succeed in an evil world, he has only one answer to this slander, to punch the liar, who then died.
The apex chapters are well served in the Captain’s State Room. He has the surgeon place Billy in one locker and the corpse in the other. He calls a drum head court, with the Captain of Marines and the two ranking sailors as jury, acting himself as both witness and counsel. [1]
The drum head court of the three officers and the Captain did not want to convict. Billy cannot lie. Billy must die. The Captain spends much effort on explaining to the officers that when they sign on with the British Navy, that they are Imperial functionaries, that natural notions of good and bad and right and wrong have no place. The jury felt horrible and the Captain spent time alone with the prisoner.
It was common for navy chaplains to exact gallows confessions and even pro-government speeches from condemned men in return for a chance at Heaven. See Defoe’s General History of the Pyrates. [1] This chaplain refrained from conversion or confessions, seeing innocence as a better thing to be taken to Judgment than dogma. The narrator reminds the reader that while the chaplain may be the representative of The Prince of Peace in the military, that his paymaster is Mars, God of War. The chaplain knows that his very role is to facilitate the rampage of War across the world with the blessings of The Prince of Peace.
Asked for his last words with the noose around his neck, Billy said, “God bless Captain Veer.”
He then hung without a flinch or a jerk, just dying, as the clouds broke in a place to admit the sun. The sailors were then driven to their work according to the “passive docility” instilled in them by military discipline.
The surgeon who supervised hanging was unable or unwilling to explain Billy’s lack of hanging dance and did state that “Will” was not a scientific fact, though the lack of postmortem muscle spasms was a “phenomenon.”
A cloud seemed to receive Billy.
Gulls were thought to send him below in his shot- weighted hammock.
The spar he was hung from was noted in its passage of use by the “blue jackets” of the Navy until it became a dockyard boom. There they collected chips from it as if it were the Cross.
Three Epilogues provide a meditation on how heroic memory works in society.
“Billy, Billy Budd” were the last words of Captain Veer, after a victory in which he was mortally wounded. Thus those who know We the Wrong best carry our authentic memories to their rest, the primal way of most of humanity.
Billy was smeared in a newspaper as a mutineer and murderer, demonstrating Melville’s opinion of the anti-record of newspapers; a fact of our age in which EVERY [3] media report is a lie, the modern way of Civilization.
Billy was immortalized in a poem by a fellow, who extolled only his innocent virtue in death, the ancient way of Culture, the final line repeated in the title above.
In the end, Billy’s death shroud was his hammock, his low, untrusted and stridently used berth in life serving to cloak his descent into oblivion. Thus, Melville preserved a character of the millions of men who died in battle, in chains and at unpaid labors in service to the men who write the history books, the men who hate and envy them.
Notes
-1. As in Defoe’s History, the “contractors” who supplied the fleet are characterized as supplying less than the value to the men than the King had paid for their feed.
-2. Note that in 1816, the Year Without A Summer, the surviving veteran sailors of the Fleet, 60% to 80% of whom had been pressed into service like Billy, were released without food, winter clothes or pay, to die on country roads and in city streets from starvation and exposure, a more severe if like reward to the veterans of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan in my life.
-3. I stand by this, for, if a news report is not a lie, it serves no purpose, no master, and will be published by no editor.
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