by Herman Melville
Billy Budd Foreignness and 'Other' Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
That is to say: Toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of atrocity would seem to partake of the insane, he will direct a cool judgment sagacious and sound. These men are madmen, and of the most dangerous sort, for their lunacy is not continuous, but occasional, evoked by some special object; it is protectively secretive, which is as much to say it is self-contained, so that when, moreover, most active it is to the average mind not distinguishable from sanity, and for the reason above suggested: that whatever its aims may be – and the aim is never declared – the method and the outward proceeding are always perfectly rational. (11.10)
The narrator's description of Claggart here makes him sound very much like a sociopath. Are sanity and insanity black and white concepts? How does one tell one from the other? Why is it more comfortable to think of men like Claggart as incomprehensible and insane? What happens if we try to empathize with them, to think that they are just as human as we are?
Beyond the communication of the sentence, what took place at this interview was never known. But in view of the character of the twain briefly closeted in that stateroom, each radically sharing in the rarer qualities of our nature – so rare indeed as to be all but incredible to average minds however much cultivated – some conjectures may be ventured. (22.2)
The narrator here admits that no one knows what happened between Billy and Vere when Vere went to tell him that he would be executed. At other times, though, the narrator clearly oversteps the bounds of possible knowledge. In some cases, he even narrates a character's internal thoughts. Why does he leave this one event un-described? What is it about the nature of Billy and Vere's meeting that is so hard to imagine or depict?
True, Billy himself freely referred to his death as a thing close at hand; but it was something in the way that children will refer to death in general, who yet among their other sports will play a funeral with hearse and mourners. (24.5)
Is the way that adults think of death really that different from how children think of death? Can one think of death as the ultimate other, the thing that it is absolutely impossible to imagine or relate to? Might the narrator be trying to undermine Billy's strength in the face of death by relating him to a child?