Elemental & Sophisticated Evil
April 2012By Mitchell Kalpakgian
Mitchell Kalpakgian, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is currently a visiting professor of literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire. He is the author of The Marvelous in Fieldings Novels (University Press of America), An Armenian Family Reunion (Neumann Press), The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature (Neumann Press), and, most recently, Modern Manners: The Virtue of Civility and the Poetry of Conduct (Neumann Press).
Billy Budd. By Herman Melville.
In his posthumously published novella Billy Budd, Herman Melville depicts two types of evil that, at first blush appear, to have nothing in common. On the one hand, he presents Claggart, the malicious master-at-arms on board the ship Bellipotent. It is Claggart who, motivated by jealousy, accuses Billy Budd of mutiny an outright, unfounded lie that provokes a reflexive blow from Budds fist that kills Claggart, a capital crime under military law that forbids a sailor from striking his superior in a time of war at sea. Budd, a dutiful, competent shipmate called the handsome sailor and my best man by his former commander, epitomizes purity of heart and moral integrity. He exudes health, beauty, and manliness as he befriends all the shipmates with his genial, happy-go-lucky air. A peacemaker by reputation, Budd combines noble strength, a good heart, and a clean conscience: To deal in double meanings and insinuations of any sort was quite foreign to his nature.
Claggart resents Budds popularity, is repelled by his spotless character, and envies the admiration the sailor receives from all quarters. Budd, however, does not consciously provoke or antagonize Claggart and is unaware of Claggarts vicious hostility toward him. He performs his duties with conscientious diligence and enjoys the camaraderie of his mates: Not that he preached to them or did anything in particular; but a virtue went out of him, sugaring the sour ones.
Budds aura of virtue, however, does not sugar Claggart. It whets his animosity, stirs a depravity according to nature, and awakens in him the mania of an evil nature. Melville identifies Claggarts vice as one of envy, irreconcilable to reason, which no one thinks of attributing to an intelligent man: Well, though many an arraigned mortal has in hopes of mitigated penalty pleaded to horrible actions, did anybody ever seriously confess to envy? Claggarts jealousy, then, not only bespeaks irrationality but partakes of the insane, the erratic lunacy that is not continuous but occasional that is, it suddenly appears out of nowhere and for no apparent reason. And so, the master-at-arms twists an accident of spilled soup as Budds indirect affront to his dignity and as evidence of Budds disdain for him. This episode supplies the pabulum that the greediness of hate devours and pours out as vitriol into Claggarts envy.
This is the insidious, sinister nature of savage, barbaric evil an evil that lurks in corners and hides in darkness, and then attacks violently when least suspected. Claggarts malice is carefully concealed and deeply buried, but when it strikes it intends violence: But since its lodgment is in the heart not the brain, no degree of intellect supplies a guarantee against it. Claggarts type of envy, Melville explains, does not belong to the vulgar form of the passion that Saul expressed in his resentment of Davids fame among the Israelites for killing ten thousands compared to Sauls mere thousands: Claggarts envy strikes deeper. Barbaric evil dwells in the darkness of a depraved soul, just as it inhabits the hellish underworld that is explicitly diabolic and monstrous.
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