Monday, August 31, 2015

Billy Budd by Herman Melville

One would be hard pressed to find a more homoerotic novel, masquerading as quite a different tale, than Melville's Billy Budd. Certainly homo-eroticism is a deep concern in all of Melville’s books, even Moby Dick.  Yet Billy Budd surpasses them all; the entire plot, the strange attraction which the crew members find in the young sailor Billy Budd, is the beat of the entire narrative.  His beauty is his salient feature, his good nature his secondary charm.  Combined, he is called an Adonis by the narrator; it is explained that if he removed his clothes, he would be as perfectly formed as Adam.  An older sailor calls him baby, a play on his name Billy, but also as a show of affection.

Billy Budd’s strange stutter, his wild homicide, his execution… do you they all really fall back on his great beauty, both the power conveyed by it, and the inability of other men to bear it without artifice or subterfuge?  This is a difficult question to answer.

I suppose this is part of the ongoing fascination with this small, strange novel.  There are Melville’s famous asides on topics not completely related to the plot, and the plot itself has an odd, jumpy feel, as if Melville is trying to fit congruent into a seamless whole. Anyone who has read Moby Dick will find this familiar.

So what we get is an odd novel with implausible events and murky, human motivations.  In other words, a work by Melville.

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