Herman Melville’s Beautiful Pagan Christ

Herman Melville. Billy Budd, Sailor. c.1889. Allegorical nautical novella.

747533Melville’s posthumously published story of the sea partakes of the allegorical profundity and majestically crafted biblical prose of Moby-Dick. However, its brevity doubles its impact.

“All but feminine in purity,” the able seaman Billy Budd charms everyone on board with his Nordic beauty and innocence, for he is as flaxen-haired, courageous, and inarticulate as the Angles (or Angels, in Pope Gregory’s phrase) from whom he descends. Indeed, Melville likens this Christ-like, Myshkin-like innocent to both barbarian and child but also to a nude Adam sculpted ere the Fall, giving Billy a veiled homoerotic appeal.

Billy’s tragic flaw (or hamartia) is a tendency to stutter in passion. So when the ship’s Master-at-Arms John Claggart, a being of sociopathic and elemental evil who embodies Plato’s “depravity according to nature” axiom, accuses Billy of plotting mutiny, Billy can defend himself only by striking Claggart dead. As Captain Edward Vere of the HMS Bellipotent exclaims, “Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!”

A compassionate edition of Creon or Javert, Captain Vere nonetheless orders Billy hanged for striking an officer, despite the extenuating circumstances, citing the all too recent Nore Mutiny as showing the need for adherence to the rigid exigencies of the Law rather than to natural justice. Vere’s teleological suspension of ethics (a la Kierkegaard) generates a tragic confrontation between right and right, necessitating the crucifixion of this beautiful pagan Christ.

Inevitably, Vere’s own fate is intertwined with a French warship called the Athée—Atheist.

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2 thoughts on “Herman Melville’s Beautiful Pagan Christ

  1. Moby Dick was beautifully written but to slow, so something short is definitely more appealing. Your review is brilliantly written, I am already in love with this book…and I never got past the chapter about the different whales in Moby Dick.

  2. Melville seems to improve on each rereading. His “nonfiction” travelogues in the South Sea are phenomenal, and I just reread Moby Dick; it was much more engaging than I’d remembered. Reading one or two chapters at a time helped me survive the excruciating detail.

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