Eros and Ares in Billy Budd,Sailor by Herman Melville

In order to understand what is happening with Billy Budd in Herman Melville’s novel, we have to take into consideration that the main character is caught in an unusual situation which requires unusual solutions. We can name that his life is caught in a scheme of duty for the state and for the well-functioning of the culture. The problem of morality, law and love is stated very interestingly in this novel. For Herman Melville, the notion of law is similar with that of war. The suitable definition of law in this case must be understood as, is “ a system of rules that a society or government develops in order to deal with crime, business agreements and social relationships”according to Collins Advanced Dictionary. This is a suitable and comfortable vision in order to approach to this text. Still, we can apply the pattern of law as “a natural process in which a particular event or thing which always leads to a particular result”. Or, in other words, “the particular result” could be, like in physics, the death of Billy Budd. Still, we have to define the concept of “love” and how this is seen in this text. Do we have a Platonic love, a Christian love or a odd, homosexual relationship? A first striking aspect is that, as being a story about sailors, we do not have any women characters. The generic term for love is not suitable in this situation. Instead, a proper definition would be “a strong liking for something or someone, or a belief that it is important”. In other words, it is dilemmatic the relationship between Billy Budd and Captain Vere from this point of view.

Throughout the text, we can observe that we have a strong sense of duty from Captain Vere and from Billy Budd. Still, whereas Billy fails to do his duty properly, Vere manages to do his duty and to respect the law. To what extent the war manages to suppress any other natural feelings, like love and ultimately, life itself?

In order to understand the mixture between love and war, first of all we have to focus on the symbiosis relationship between love and war, then to see the different points of these two themes and finally, to explore the possibilities of the process.

Love with war.
For a first approach, we must understand that Herman Melville confuses the reader from the beginning and especially in the final part. We must observe that society is seen, as in George Orwell’s “1984” as a strong entity which drags at the end every individual. The action is happening after the “regicidal French Directory” and always exists a possible menace for the order of the state. Everything functions within the state and inside this great society: the King has all powers: “there are Englishmen forced to fight for the King against their will”. In other words, everything is supported inside the state unless it menaces the existence of the state itself. This can be understood very well in this fragment, especially in the tensioned chapter 21, when Billy Budd holds his speech and preaches this idea. The narrator of Billy Budd is not the typical omniscient narrator for the 19th century story. He often gives us clues that this situation is beyond any level of understanding, for example when he refuses to explain the reason why Billy Budd is so hated by John Claggart. Some critics suggest that Melville in this novel wants to suggest that “society elaborates social forms and conventions to render the individual subordinate to social norms” . In other words, love is a social convention in order that state to be functional.

This opinion can be found throughout the text in several places. In the first chapter, the figure of the “Handsome Sailor” can be explained by following the statement just mentioned. The adjective “handsome” can refer to a particular physical quality of the sailor, but also can suggest the relativity of virtue. In the absence of a strong, stable presence of virtue, culture must be induced in order to have the possibility to rule. In this case, the sense of love must be induced in order to impose the society, as Melville seems to state in Billy Budd, Sailor. The love present as a form of social manifestation is mentioned from the first chapter by Herman Melville, by using explicit words, like: “the Red Whiskers now really loves Billy-loves him”, “but they all love him” . In the first example, the repetition of the verb “to love” in a simple form gives to this affirmation a value of universal law, which existed for ever.

Billy Budd is not accustomed with the phenomenon of “usage” present at the board of Bellipotent. In other words, the men is reduced to the point when it can be controlled by the state. For instance, the actions of Vere are done after the same pattern: he judges the case not according to his mind and the expectances of the society and not according to his own believes and vision. For instance, the principle of usage is central in chapters XXIII and XXVII: “Now each proceeding that follows a mortal sentence pronounced at sea by a drumhead court is characterized by promptitude not perceptibly merging into hurry, though bordering that”. Everything is done according to a strict cannon. The love functions as a form of punishment too. The image of the reading of the sentence is similar for John Rathbun with a Calvinist church. The role of civilization is to impose the culture, the institutions and the formal establishment. According to this novel, the stability in the novel is maintained also by war: At any rate, for notable instances, since these have no vulgar alloy of the brute in them, but invariably are dominated by intellectuality, one must go elsewhere”.

2.Love against the experience of war.

From the beginning, we can observe very easily how the image of Billy Budd is based on the Christ’s image. The love pattern functions in this case as a pattern of refusing the establishment of the society. If we analyze the Biblical source, we can observe how Christ often acted against the Jewish establishment, for example during the Temple incident. The type of love that can be found in this novel, in the relationship between Billy Budd and the crew is caritas love, if we credit Denis de Rougemont’s work about love in the Western civilization. In order to have a more exact approach about this vast term called “love”, we will use the distinction made by Denis de Rougemont in “L’Amour en Occident” , where distinguishes between philia (maternal love), eros (passionate love), agape (pure love) and caritas (the love of the church, or in this case, the community). It is important to make this distinction because the term love is very large and deals, as we can see, with a large category of relations. A possible approach may be to see the law system as a part of caritas category.

Of course, beside this interpretation we can argue that the relationship between Billy Budd and Captain Vere is a homosexual one. Herman Melville gives throughout the text some key phrases and situations. First of all, it is a story about sailors and we can suppose that this is a womanless life. However, the image of Billy Budd is constructed following the emergence of an elusive and ambiguous bound between the purity of Eros and greed of Ares. His figure, from this point of view, is inspired from the image of the ancient Greek god Dyonisos. The “diversion” which Herman Melville makes at the beginning of the chapter, in the second paragraph of the 1st chapter wants to emphasize the dual character of the character that later will appear in this story: “I saw (…) a common sailor so intensely black (…). The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest, in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head.” This is an unusual image for a sailor and trying to evoke desire for the reader. The image can be a replica of an ancient Greek statue, with all the corporal harmony.

We also can speculate on the meaning of the ship Bellipotent and the authority of it that has to be guided by captain Vere. Another spelling for the ship could be “Billy-potent”, with clear sexual connotations effects. Also, Billy repeatedly is called by Captain Vere as Billy as an angel: “Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!” (p.352). Billy is considered to be the “jewel” of the sailors. Another aspect which reminds us about Christ is that he managed to make peace in a turbulent crew.

3.The trial that passes understanding
We can observe that the climax of the whole story is when Billy Bill kills Claggart and assumes his act. We can observe that he is not determined by a specific fact. He is affected by the incapacity of telling a word or a sentence. The 20th and 21st chapters are determined by an unusual avoid of words. First of all, Billy Budd has forgotten his ability to speak and to defend himself and reacts very fast and on the other hand, the whole process happens in the cabin, with doors closed (huis clos). Being the only witness, Vere relates the events that happened before with all the explanations: the fact that Billy Budd was accused by Claggart and how Billy responded to it. In this situation, Billy Budd reacts and explains what happened with exact details. The question about a potential conspiracy is revealing in order to understand the hierarchical system. The court is afraid of a conspiracy first of all rather than on the effect of the process. The order must be maintained on Bellipotent at all costs.
The roles changed betweem Claggart and Billy Budd were changed: ”innocence and guilt personified in Claggart and Budd in effect changed places”. According to the law imposed by the system, Billy Budd is the one that has made mistakes and has to be punished. In the next chapters, his story has a more specific religious echo. On the other hand, Melville gives here another clear biblical reference or textual allusion. The myth of Abraham gives an alternative explanation about the present situation: the God’s degree is above the individual conscience and for Vere the martial law is above the sense of duty towards Billy. In other words, love within the war wins. Melville seems to say that the system has to be preserved, as well as the social order. The main religious reference in the part of the execution is the striking similarity between Billy and the image of Christ, as a image of forgiveness and mercy. Religion is in this case a form to impose the culture, in tension with nature: religion imposes “the discipline and purposes of war”.
Another possible interpretation is the Kantian imperative, regarding morality. Billy Budd seems to follow the principle enounced by Kant: “two things awe me most, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me”. The discourse held before his execution seems to follow this topic and to urge his death: “private conscience should not yield to that imperial one formulated in the code under which alone we officially proceed?”. We can observe that Billy Budd’s life follows the pattern of fatum, the life that has already been written and can not be changed at all.

To conclude, we must understand that the novella manages to sum up interesting ideas from different cultural backgrounds. I consider that Herman Melville insists very much on the phenomenon of ‘usage’, how the system manages to exploit the people and how only by return to the natural state you can fight the social order. At the end, we can observe that love inside the war wins, the love imposed by the order of the system. We can observe how Eros is not only defeated by Ares, but also works in order to establish the order of war.

1. Melville, Herman Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories, with an Introduction by Frederick Busch, Penguin Books, London.
Critical works:
1. De Rougemont, Denis, Love in the Western world, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1983.
2. Rathbun, John Billy Budd and the Limits of Perception, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol.20, No.1 (Jun.1965).


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