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The Language of Gesture: Melville's Imaging of Blackness and the Modernity of «Billy Budd»

Par Klaus Benesch : Professor of English and American Studies - LMU, University of Munich
Publié par Clifford Armion le 04/01/2010
In light of recent studies of both the life of black seamen and of the role of blacks in the Enlightenment, the paper discusses the representation of African sailors in the work of Herman Melville, in particular in his unfinished manuscript ((Billy Budd, Sailor)). As I argue, Melville's imaging of a "noble" black sailor in the opening chapter is crucial to the author's ongoing attempt to untangle the complex relationship of race and modernity. By invoking a non-totalitarian, gestural/visual aesthetics of blackness Melville not only reinforces his earlier critique of modernity's foundation in slavery; he also revivifies and, simultaneously, trans-forms the eighteenth-century tradition of visualizing blacks as tragic witnesses to the para-doxes of the enlightenment. In so doing, Melville couches his argument against racism in a 'gestural' (black) critique of white judgments on blacks that may well be read to foreshadow later, more radical gestures of black pride from zoot-suiters to the raised fists of black pan-thers or the corporeal self-fashioning of the gangster rapper.

Man of war

Sometimes the negro gave his master his arm, or took his handkerchief out of his pocket for him; performing these and similar offices with that affectionate zeal which transmutes into something filial or fraternal acts in themselves but menial; and which has gained for the negro the repute of making the  most pleasing body-servant in the world.

 Herman Melville, Benito Cereno


 We are not a nation, so much as a world.

Herman Melville, Redburn


If the sea has been generally considered a separator, border, or dangerous boundary, it often also figures, according to Haskell Springer, as "the joiner of human beings and the center of their communities" (1). Quite paradoxically, this is true of African Americans, who had been abducted from their homeland and brought to a strange new world where they found themselves, in Olaudah Equiano's famous phrasing, "deprived of all chance of returning to [their] native country" (56). To the exiled slave population, Africa was irretrievably lost. The desire to cross again the Atlantic and to return to the land of origin has therefore become a prominent feature of the African diaspora. Real or imagined, for people of African descent Africa remained the guarantor of a common identity, a mythic source of inspiration and community. In this scheme, the sea often emerges as a means to bridge the historical and geographical gap between Africa and the descendants of former slaves ((For a detailed discussion of the sea in African American imaginative discourse, see Pedersen.)). As Barbadian poet Edward K. Braithwaite claimed, it was only the return to Africa that enabled him to discover his native Caribbean. Afro-centrist paradigms such as Ethiopianism, Pan-Africanism or the francophone Négritude bear witness to the notion of common roots and a shared transatlantic cultural heritage within the African diaspora. In the wake of these manifold attempts to undo the initial separation and dramatic uprooting associated with the middle passage, the sea has been reconsidered as a space where routes cross and cultures merge to form an encompassing network of transatlantic exchange.

Along these lines, Paul Gilroy's path-breaking concept of the "Black Atlantic" also suggests that the sea had been both a dividing and a conjoining force in the imaginative discourse of New World Africans. "Moving to and fro between nations, crossing borders in modern machines that were themselves micro-systems of linguistic and political hybridity," Gilroy argues in the Black Atlantic, "the relationship to the sea may turn out to be especially important for both the early politics and poetics of the Black Atlantic world" (12). Afro-British and African-American history, according to Gilroy, have so far been nationalist rather than internationalist, that is, they failed to acknowledge the shared cultural heritage of the entire Black Atlantic Diaspora and instead highlighted the fate of a particular group of African expatriates. To remedy this myopic, nationalist take on black culture, Gilroy tells the story of what the cultural heritage of the Black Atlantic entails and how ships have become "the most important conduit of Pan-African communication before the appearance of the long-playing record" (13). Yet more than merely signifying a site of contact and cultural exchange, shipboard life has often also served as an arena to stage scathing critiques of the racial underpinnings of modernity at large.

In what follows, I am particularly interested in the obscure, unfinished Billy Budd Sailor, in how this text - a text Caribbean critic C.L.R. James has found crucial for any discussion of Melville yet abstained from including it in his own book on Melville because of what he calls its utter "darkness" - takes center-stage in Melville's project to articulate an encompassing gestural (rather than simply literary) aesthetics of blackness. The compelling iconography of a swaggering black jack in the opening chapter of Billy Budd adds, I argue, to Melville's life-long project of shedding light on the "dark," totalitarian downside of modernity. In many of his maritime fictions he envisioned modernity through floating utopian communities that form a kind of third space (Bhabha), where trans-racial, trans-national freedom reigns. Melville's "new humanism," to retool James's congenial phrase, is keenly aware of the modern entanglement with slavery and its corollary, racist constructions of blackness. If on one level, he depicts the heterotopian space aboard ship as the antithesis of the "slavery of social division and the ongoing racializing of modern capitalist society, on another, his is clearly also an attempt to imagine a diasporic, Black-Atlantic counterculture that thrives on an unsentimental notion of cross-cultural connectedness and democracy ((In his largely neglected book on Melville, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (1953), James traced in Melville's work the constant attempt to forge a 'new humanism' against the odds of modern civilization gone awry: "In his great book the divisions and antagonisms and madnesses of an outworn civilization are mercilessly dissected and cast aside. Nature, technology, the community of men, science and knowledge, literature and ideas are fused into a new humanism, opening a vast expansion of human capacity and human achievement" (96).)). What is more, through its proud, self-confident gesturality the image of the African sailor invokes and, simultaneously, transforms an eighteenth-century tradition of visualizing the black subject as tragic witness to the paradoxes of the enlightenment. Put another way, Melville couches his argument against racism in a black's gestural critique of white judgments on blacks, a move that can be read to foreshadow later, more radical gestures of black pride from zoot-suiters to the raised fists of black panthers or the corporeal self-fashioning of the hip-hop community.


Of the numerous narrators of the sea during the nineteenth century Herman Melville seemed to have understood best the social and symbolic import of maritime life for African Americans. Melville's own experience as a sailor aboard a merchant ship, a Pacific-bound whaler, and a navy frigate fitted him well for a detailed description of early shipboard life in the Americas. Yet Melville's interest in the sea was not exhausted by the skillful representation of firsthand knowledge of ship's officers and crews. As a writer of philosophic romances he often used maritime settings to proffer the time-worn idea of the "ship-as-world" and the "world-as-ship" ((On Melville's allegorical use of shipboard life, see Springer/Robillard and Allen.)). From his early travelogues about the enchanted islands of the South Sea to the somber, posthumously published Billy Budd Sailor, Melville's ships are floating microcosms with macrocosmic meanings. To test philosophic ideas and map the uncharted regions of the human psyche, Melville manned these ships with a motley crew of sailors from all walks of life. In Melville's seafaring narratives race was still a factor to reckon with, as is apparent in the tragic figure of "Benito Cereno" ((The issue of race and the historical context of slavery in "Benito Cereno" are discussed in Welsh and, more recently, Jones.)). Yet the many communal occupations aboard ship also enabled him to conjure up a floating utopian space that cuts across the boundaries of race and class.

In Moby-Dick, the work of ordinary sailors represents not merely a necessity but a way of living, a life-style equally attractive and repellent ((As yet the best analysis of this aspect of Melville's workand the literary representation of labor in antebellum society at largeis Bromell (see, especially, "The Erotics of Labor in Melville's Redburn" 61-79).)). The toiling seamen aboard the Pequod participate in a ceremonious routine that seems to undo the divisions of race and class and emphasize instead the democratic, fraternizing aspects of maritime labor. As many critics noted, the collective squeezing of the lumpish sperm of the whale into a fluid, unctuous mass in preparation for the boat's try-works epitomizes the corporeal affection and the sense of connectedness widespread among the lower classes on board. By the same token, Melville frequently juxtaposes the mythic communion and solidarity among the multi-racial crews - a solidarity arising from shared hardship, danger, and often also physical oppression - with the isolation and mental derangement he saw at work in the (predominantly white) officers' caste. With a truly Hegelian twist, Melville depicts his officers, commanders and commodores as enthralled by a rigid division of labor and the silly accoutrements of maritime etiquette. Their formal powers notwithstanding, it is an utterly alienated, irresponsible class of people who have become slaves to the ideology of either social status, military routine, or the mere accumulation of capital (as in the whaling business).

It is in this context that Melville introduces the imagery of slavery as the accursed condition and contagion of modern society. In one of Moby Dick's most compelling scenes, Ahab extols the excruciatingly painful isolation of his position:

When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain's exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without . . . Guinea-coast slavery of solitary command! (chap. 132, my emphasis)

To conceive of Ahab's solitary position at the very top of the ship's hierarchy, a rank that signified both absolute power and absolute distance with regard to every member of the crew, as a form of social enslavement is quite striking. Just consider the scientific rationality and extraordinary nautical expertise that mark Ahab's command. Both his nautical and whaling skills are well beyond those of his officers (who appear to be entirely overwhelmed by the ruthlessness with which Ahab makes use of his intellectual power). Significantly if also somewhat paradoxically, Melville's description of Ahab evokes Orlando Patterson's conception of slavery as "social death," as the ultimate negation of ordinary human interaction and discourse. If Melville is acutely aware of the totalitarian underpinnings of modern society, of the slavery and social death that comes hand in hand with the progress of science and an increase in the division of labor, he equally registers that blackness or, if you will, race lurks at the very bottom of this fatal dialectics of enlightenment.

Like most Nantucket whalers the Pequod is operated by an international, motley crew, which included among other ethnic groups Africans, Asians and Native Americans. As Melville reminds his unwitting readers, "not one in two of the many thousand men before the mast employed in the American whale fishery, are Americans born" (121). When Ishmael first encounters Queequeg, the Pequod's idiosyncratic harpooneer from the South Seas, he is surprised of seeing such an outlandish character in the allegedly civilized town of New Bedford. His astonishment was even greater when the streets filled up with a fair number of strange-looking mariners, "savages outright; many of whom yet carry on their bones unholy flesh. It makes a stranger stare" (31) ((Of the 21 crew members of the Essex, the whale-ship that had been attacked in 1821 by an enraged sperm whale (and the model for Moby-Dick's famous ending), seven had been African Americans. While these were "not paid well for their time aboard a Nantucket whaler, . . .  they were assured of being paid no less than a white person with the same qualifications" (Philbrick 26).)).

Yet in Melville's floating worlds blackness is not just an indelible exotic ingredient; rather it serves as a counter model - both politically and aesthetically - to the one-dimensional, technocratic self-indulgence of modern civilization. A good case in point is the weird relationship between Ahab and Pip, the African boy who, upon losing his mind in an accident, turns into a kind of wise man and seer, the moral conscience of his deluded Captain. Symbolic empowerment of blackness is also at the heart of the memorable scene when a gigantic African harpooneer prompts Flask, the smallest and lowest ranking of the white officers, to climb onto his shoulders in the wildly rocking whaleboat. If the physical dexterity of whale men is always a sight, the view of little Flask perched on the steadfast, muscular frame of the black sailor was quite stunning. "On his broad back," writes Melville,

flaxen-haired Flask seemed a snow-flake. The bearer looked nobler than the rider. Though, truly, vivacious, tumultuous, ostentatious little Flask would now and then stamp with impatience; but not one added heave did he thereby give to the negro's lordly chest. So I have seen Passion and Vanity stamping the living magnanimous earth, but the earth did not alter her tides and her seasons for that. (191)

Melville obviously cashes in here on the mythical physicality and alleged naturalness of black people. More than merely reiterating timeworn Western stereotypes, however, the skills and superior willpower of black mariners serve to invoke the role of non-western cultures as both a foundational and a corrective element of the enlightenment project at large.

In his last fiction, Billy Budd Sailor (An Inside Narrative), written some time between 1885 and 1891, Melville returned to the idea of mythical communion and harmony among sailors of all races. The story of this enigmatic text centers on issues of mutiny, discipline, homosexuality, and, above all else, the mechanics of martial law. As in his earlier novel White-Jacket; or, the World in a Man-of-War (1850), the setting is the self-contained and repressive "world-of-men" aboard a navy frigate. In a personal head-note, Melville dated his narrative back to the year 1797, thereby linking the then expanding mutinous spirit within the British navy (and the harsh precautions taken against it) with the democratic revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century. Billy Budd, impressed from a merchant vessel into the British man-of-war Bellipotent, is Melville's idealization of the "handsome sailor," a meek, Christ-like figure, who combines physical beauty with noble birth, unsophisticated righteousness and a capacity for peacemaking ((For the history of criticism of what is perhaps Melville's darkest piece of writing, see the substantial "Editor's Introduction" in the Hayford/Sealts edition. While critics in the wake of the so-called Melville renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s tended to emphasize the tragic aspects of the story, later readers increasingly privileged its subtle irony and equivocal, complex narrative pattern.)). Falsely accused of a mutinous act, he strikes out with his fist against one of the officers in self-defense. Under the Articles of War this is a capital crime that eventually leads to Billy's highly symbolic execution at the main-yard.

Replete with homoerotic imagery, Billy Budd has often been read - most prominently by the French critic Michel Sarotte - as Melville's final effort to come to terms with his long suspected homosexuality. True, the theme of the "handsome sailor," who is the cynosure of his crew and "all but feminine in purity of natural complexion" (14), lends itself forcefully to such interpretations. Yet the archetypal sailor figure can also be read as a comment on the libertarian, democratic space of maritime societies and its ongoing subversion through the influence of a glaringly totalitarian navy regime. More significantly, Melville relays his introduction of Billy to a powerful image of cross-cultural admiration and respect, both of which were not unusual among sailors of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Because it inaugurates a crucial aspect of the novel's intricate visual-symbolic structure, the passage deserves to be quoted at length:

In Liverpool . . . I saw . . . a common sailor, so intensely black that he must needs have been a native African of the unadulterated blood of Ham. A symmetric figure much above the average height. The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest; in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head. It was a hot noon in July; and his face, lustrous with perspiration, beamed with barbaric good-humour. In jovial sallies right and left, his white teeth flashing into view, he rollicked along, the center of a company of his shipmates. These were made up of such an assortment of tribes and complexions as would have well fitted them to be marched up by Anacharsis Clootz before the bar of the first French Assembly as Representatives of the human race. At each spontaneous tribute rendered by the wayfarers to this black pagod of a fellow . . . the motley retinue showed that they took that sort of pride in the evoker of it which the Assyrian priests doubtless showed for their grand sculptured Bull when the faithful prostrated themselves. (43-44)

As with other images in Billy Budd, the description of the "noble" sailor as African prince echoes an incident in one of Melville's earlier seafaring texts. When the young sailor/writer of the eponymous novel Redburn (1850), after a long, exhausting voyage, finally sets foot in Liverpool, he immediately notes the glaring "absence of negroes" (201). In contrast with even the "free" Northern States of America, in these streets "not a Negro was to be seen" (202). Yet Redburn also recalls that negro-sailors were met with special looks of interest when they walked the docks. In Liverpool "the negro steps with a prouder pace, and lifts his head like a man; for here, no such exaggerated feeling exists in respect to him, as in America" (202) ((This may be true for nineteenth-century maritime life in general. As a (white) American wharf owner remarked during the 1830s, "in the presence of the sailor the Negro feels as a man" (quoted in Bolster, 1996, 140).)). The "exaggerated feeling" with respect to African Americans is, of course, but a sardonic euphemism for lynching: in New York, a mixed couple, as Redburn had seen at least three of four times in Liverpool, "would have been mobbed in three minutes" (202). Thus, the Liverpool incident - as several entries in Melville's Journals attest - set the stage for his later investigation of race, seafaring, and modern society in Billy Budd ((In the journal Melville kept during his voyage to England in 1849, there is a cryptic entry on "the Negro" that appears out of context and that the editors have linked to the following passage in Billy Budd Sailor where a "Baltimore Negro, a Trafalgar man" communicates certain "sanctioned irregularities" to the narrator of the text. See Journals 316 (23.32).)).

Melville's homage to the black sailor in Liverpool is particularly important because it is contextualized as part of a discourse on the dialectics or totalitarian downside of modernity. Melville had visited Paris in 1849 and the historical ambiguity of places such as the Place de la Concorde, where the French Revolution reached its highpoint with the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (and, subsequently, thousands of more victims of the so-called "Reign of Terror"), still haunts his vision of the republican order in Billy Budd. As we know from the equally somber "Benito Cereno," Melville was appalled by the prospects of rebellious masses run amok. If he seemed to have been aware of the dangers of the absence of law, he was equally afraid, however, of its nemesis as hollow, abstract principle. Hence, in his last, unfinished manuscript, Melville poised the good-natured but unwitting Captain Delano with the austere, authoritarian figure of Captain Vere, an American Robespierre, whose distrust of the human soul and his belief in the supremacy of abstract law eventually led to his downfall ["with mankind ... forms, measured forms, are everything" (128)]. In contrast with conservative commentators on the horrors of the French Revolution such as Edmund Burke, Melville's antidote for the excesses of revolution was by no means moralistic or authoritarian ((Burke's criticism of Jacobinism and his ensuing plea for a rationalism contained by moral laws is expressed in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1794). Melville addresses the differing contemporary responses to the Revolution by naming the merchant ship after Thomas Paine's programmatic pamphlet Common Sense, a text explicitly written "in rejoinder to Burke's arraignment of the French Revolution" (48).)). Rather he presented the ship's microcosm, where rank was often attributed according to nautical skills, courage, and responsibility, as a viable alternative to modern society ashore.

– Moreover, Melville knew that the issue of "race" is driving much of modern history. In Redburn he noted the "absence of negroes" on the streets of Liverpool. Given the town's lasting economic involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, the conspicuous absence of black people suggests a rampant effort within modern capitalist society to suppress its racist foundations ((As West Indian writer Caryl Phillips points out in his autobiographical assessment of England's racist past, The Atlantic Sound, "although trading in slaves had been officially abolished in 1807 . . .  the business relationship between Liverpool and the west coast of Africa, a relationship which had enriched families such as the Ocanseys and established Robert W. Hickson and numerous other Liverpudlian agents, had its origin in the trading of human lives. The immense wealth of nineteenth century Liverpool was based, almost entirely, upon the city's deep involvement in the Atlantic slave trade" (28).)). The catastrophic consequences of such willful repression of historical truth can already be seen in "Benito Cereno." In his late Billy Budd Sailor, Melville finally juxtaposed the glaring "invisibility" of the African slave with the image of a proud negro sailor, who is at the very center of his shipmates, a company "made up of such an assortment of tribes and complexions as would have well fitted them to be marched up by Anacharsis Clootz before the bar of the first French Assembly as Representatives of the human race" (43). This gloomiest of Melville's texts thus opens with a final plea to undo the "fall from grace" of post-revolutionary politics (both in Europe and the US), and to include race in the very concept of modern, egalitarian society. For Melville, the seasoned sailor, the model for such a multi-racial society could only be derived from the meritocratic pattern of shipboard life.

As becomes apparent in his portrayal of the anonymous black Revolutionary War sailor, whose sartorial splendor and physical boldness conveys a playful sense of professional reputation, dignity, and pride, the maritime world not only offered an alternative to the ongoing discrimination and racism ashore. It also allowed for a radically new representation of blackness as gestural critique of the totalitarian aberrations that Melville saw embedded in the enlightenment project. To read Melville's use of gestural images thus as crucial for his critical project may help to explain what Donald Pease, in a recent, congenial reading of C.L.R. James's 1953 book on Melville and the fierce criticism or rather total neglect it provoked among Melville scholars, has identified as the difference between the actual text and an alternative, radically subversive narrative Melville "may have wanted to narrate but did not" (166). If Melville, as James assumed, was "afraid of criticism" and therefore couched much of his own critique in ambiguous symbolic terms, to draw attention to the visual images and gestures inextricably intertwined with his symbolic language may help to reconsider both the Jamesian and Melville's aesthetic. Put another way, Melville's importance as a writer on race and modernity does not necessarily depend on the fact, as James believed, that he took sides with the crew (i.e. the people) rather than with the officers and rulers. His greatness, after all, may well have been his keen awareness of the 'modernity' of images and the power of gesturality.

If compared to visual representations of famous black men during the eighteenth century such as William Denton's portrait of Olaudah Equiano  (that became engraved for the frontispiece of his Interesting Narrative) or Mather Brown's painting of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the son of a Guadeloupe planter and his slave mistress and one of only two known black composers from the classical era in Europe, Melville's rendering of the African sailor stands out by its unambiguous, joyful performance of difference. Attired in an eclectic, self-fashioned manner the black sailor is the center of attention precisely because he incorporates-in one body-the democratic spirit of the masses. While embodying physical difference, he also simultaneously sublates that difference by becoming their chosen hero and representative. As James Baldwin once said, "what connects a slave to his master is more tragic than what separates them." Melville seems to have shared Baldwin's insight into the fatal dynamics of race, which is why he based his visual-gestural representation of blackness on the inclusion rather than exclusion of racial and cultural differences. What James called his "new humanism" thus bears witness not merely to Melville's prophetic understanding of humanism as an essentially transnational project (an idea increasingly prominent in both black studies and the humanities at large). As his frequent emphasis on the visual and gestural indicates, the repeated muteness or loss of language of his characters vis-à-vis the totalitarian aspects of rationalism and the Enlightenment must not necessarily be the result of their author's fear of criticism. It may as well point to Melville's - in the double sense of the term - 'visionary' recognition that language is not always very effective in conveying meaning and that gestures and visual images work better. As Richard Blackmur, in his fascinating study of modern art Language As Gesture (1954), put it "when the language of words fails we resort to the language of gesture" (3).


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Pour citer cette ressource :

Klaus Benesch, "The Language of Gesture: Melville's Imaging of Blackness and the Modernity of «Billy Budd»", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), janvier 2010. Consulté le 26/06/2019. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-americaine/the-language-of-gesture-melville-s-imaging-of-blackness-and-the-modernity-of-billy-budd

  • Herman Melville
  • sea
  • darkness
  • sailor
  • Moby Dick
  • counter model
  • race