Just joking. Kind of. We read Billy Budd for this week.
Leading up to our seminar yesterday I had a number of conversations with my classmates which may be summed up as: “Reading Melville is painful as fuck.” Now while I definitely understand and appreciate this experience with Melville’s writings I actually found myself flipping through the pages of Billy Budd quite easily (compared to my classmates, anyways). It actually got to the point where I almost began to question if I was “missing” something in my enjoyment! In the end, though, I’ve come to the decision that reading Billy Budd as ~A Queer Text~ is a lot easier and more entertaining/enjoyable than reading it as ~Melville~.
With that frame in mind: As part of a rather prolonged migraine aura, I’ve been stuttering to varying degrees for about a week. I mentioned on Twitter that I was hoping to get a recording of myself stuttering, but due to the nature of my stutter as a transient symptom it tends to… be transient. Un/luckily for me on Wednesday (or Thursday?) of last week I spoke with what is about as severe as my stutter gets for long enough to record myself reading Chapter 19 of Billy Budd. As opposed something like a series of tongue-twisters I wanted to read Billy Budd as a Big Queer in an effort to call attention to the Narrator as Figure, and the Narrator as an interpretive lens for the novella. It would be difficult to read any homoeroticism into the novella if the Narrator didn’t provide us with the text, after all. Additionally, there are a couple reasons I chose Chapter 19 specifically to read. To begin with Chapter 19 marks one of the few points wherein Billy stutters. Though not formalized through linguistic cues, Billy’s stutter is marked textually as “a dumb gesturing and gurgling […],” and “a convulsed tongue-tie” (297). Additionally the killing of Claggart acts as a climax for the story. As was pointed out my one of my classmates on Monday this climax also marks the point wherein Billy is pulled into what Lacan would call the symbolic order–from Claggart’s death onward Billy’s life is predetermined: “Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!” (299).
Beyond all of that, though, I found Chapter 19 to be one of the most entertaining points in the novella due to Captain’s Vere’s language towards Billy, and Billy’s subsequent reactions. Vere switches between being a paternalistic figure, and a militaristic one: “The father in him, manifested towards Billy thus far in the scene, was replaced by a military disciplinarian” (298). This switch was most interesting to me because of the language Vere uses to describe Billy also changes depending on his role: Billy is “my boy” (298) when Vere is in the role of the father, yet “man” (297) when Vere is commanding attention as a military superior. While this is perhaps an obvious switch to make it no doubt adds to Billy’s infantalization as “Baby Budd” (248).
tl;dr Here’s Chapter 19 of Billy Budd, as read by a Big Queer Stutterer:
Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other stories. Ed. Peter Coviello. NY, NY: Penguin, 2016. Print.