Sunday, 16 March 2008

Melville, Shelley and our shadows

I’ve recently read Melville’s Billy Budd and other tales. Melville, ex-sailor and adventurer, had a lot of success with his rollicking sea adventures. However from the publication of Moby Dick onwards he sailed into murkier moral and symbolic territory, lost most of his readership, and spent the latter part of his life working as a customs inspector.

Most of these stories come from that later period, when he was struggling to make a living as a writer and with the nature of good and evil. Billy Budd itself was first published 40 years after his death and it shows – no living author would allow a story to be published with that many digressions! Yet the story is the best and (digressions excepted) most gripping example of the moral landscape Melville painted in a number of stories in this collection.

Billy Budd himself is the “handsome sailor”, an innocent, a peacemaker and source of admiration. His opponent, Claggart, is a man “naturally depraved” who takes a dislike to Budd and persecutes him. The third main character, Captain Vere, provides a “normal” counterpoint to these symbols of good and evil, and has to decide between them. The allegory is plain, with Budd standing for Jesus Christ up against Claggart’s devil. Claggart first tempts Budd to mutiny and, when this is unsuccessful, falsely accuses him of the same crime. Budd, innocent but unable to speak in his own defence, kills Claggart in frustration. Vere, in the role of Pilate, has to decide Budd’s sentence and reluctantly orders his execution as required by law. Yet beyond ridding the world of Claggart, Budd’s death is not redemptive – rather, the extremes of good and evil are removed and Vere is left to ponder what wisdom can be gained from this conflict.

This triad emerges in other stories but different questions are asked of them. In Benito Cereno, Captain Delano, good captain of an ordinary sealing ship, comes across the San Dominick, a ship in trouble. It’s Captain, Benito Cereno, is closely attended by his Negro servant, Babo, and the ship is operated in shambolic fashion by a mixture of Spanish sailors and Negro slaves. The good-hearted, optimistic Delano sees in this scene a great example of kindness and faithfulness in action, accepting the captain’s story of storm and disease as the reason for the ship’s poor state of repair and admiring Babo’s faithful attention to his sick master. At the same time, certain aspects of the crew’s conduct make him uneasy, and he wonders if Cereno is a tyrant, or perhaps if the slaves are not as servile as they ought to be. Throughout the story he wavers between optimism and fear before events finally reveal that the slaves have revolted and Cereno is their prisoner, attended by Babo to prevent him from appealing for help.

Cereno is shadowed at every step by Babo, his evil counterpart. Not only are the two inseparable, it is almost impossible to tell which is good and which is evil, because good and evil wear each other’s masks. Delano, desiring only to do good, comes within minutes of supporting the wrong party and being an inadvertent accomplice of evil. Only when evil is dramatically unmasked as Babo attempts to murder Cereno and the tarpaulin is removed to reveal the skeleton of the ship’s co-owner lashed to the bow, is Delano finally able to tell which is which and quell the slave revolt. Even then it is not that simple –the slaves have committed murder, but what of the evil that enslaved them in the first place?

Other stories fill out this interplay of good and evil. In Bartleby the narrator, a respectable and kindly lawyer, is shadowed by the law clerk Bartleby, the man who “would prefer not to”. At first Bartleby would “prefer not to” perform some of the menial tasks around the office, but as time passes the list of things he prefers not to do gradually expands so in the end he prefers not to even eat, and he fades from life. Bartleby is not actively evil – his sole evil is his inaction. Yet the Narrator is unable to be rid of him. He discovers that he is living in the office. He fires him, but he does not leave. The narrator leaves, but the new tenants insist that Bartleby is his problem. Finally when Bartleby is arrested and imprisoned he is unable to wash his hands of him, and pays for the food which Bartleby prefers not to eat. As the narrator’s shadow, he is not so much good opposed to evil, as death opposed to life, pessimism opposed to optimism, negation opposed to affirmation.

One final cameo, from The Piazza. The narrator, buying a house in a beautiful valley, sees a view of the mountains which includes an enchanted house. He decides to visit this fairy palace, but finds only a hovel, half collapsing, inhabited by a desperately poor and lonely brother and sister. The sister’s one consolation is to look at the view down the valley and the vision of an enchanted house – the narrator’s own. What, then, are we to conclude about the reality of the narrator’s own home? Is it as idyllic as he makes it appear, or does it too hide sorrow and suffering?

Melville reminds us that evil and negation is always with us. He reminds us that there is a constant conflict between good and evil, and that it is not easy to tell which is which. It is easy to make a mistake, and to back an evil which wears a good mask. Yet he is ultimately optimistic about the result of this conflict. His narrator in The Lightning Rod Man refuses to accept that lightning can strike at any time unless he follows a set of detailed rules and insists that the God who made the lightning is not ultimately wicked or ill-disposed towards us. He gives us hope that the conflict will go well, although it may cost us in the process.

Shortly after reading Melville I finally got around to reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Being aware of the films and film derivatives, the parodies and imitations, I was pleasantly surprised to find a profound if at times clumsy novel by a precocious 19-year-old girl. The novel is many things – commentary on the hubris of scientific experiment, proto-feminist reflection on men’s desire to dominate – but at its core it is an extended mediation on the nature of creation and the origin of good and evil.

Victor Frankenstein learns to create life. He creates a being in his own image, yet flawed and hideous. Then, like the Deist’s god, he leaves it to make its own way in the world. Will it be good or evil? Both are possible. If it had been shown love it would have become loving – yet its physical deformity ensures its rejection, and it turns into a bitter, vengeful murderer. It shadows Frankenstein for the rest of his life, killing those he loves and robbing him of joy and contentment until, on Frankenstein’s death, there is nothing left for the monster but end its own life.

The monster can be seen as an aspect of Frankenstein’s personality as well as the work of his hands. He tries to ignore it, and for a long time believes he has left it behind, but ultimately it is always with him. The crimes only cease when he takes responsibility and starts to hunt it. Yet this hunt consumes his life – he has nothing else but the fight and the chase.

Is this what evil costs us? Or is it simply that we ignore our own creations, our own shadows, at our peril? Is it that evil, left alone, will not simply go away, but grow and fester until it destroys every source of happiness? Yet if tamed early, and faced honestly, perhaps it can be turned to good. Nuclear technology, fossil fuels, colonisation…if we can’t bring good out of these things now that they have been created, then surely at least by diligence we can reduce their evil.