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Letter to the Editor Some Reflections on Claggart’s Death and on Malcolm’s Suicide To the editor: Like Moby-Dick, Billy Budd is about suicide. Regarding Moby-Dick, just consider the text of the first full paragraph. It is a hyperbolic, albeit explicit, description of suicide: “Cato throws himself upon his sword”; “This is my substitute for pistol and ball.” As for Billy Budd: As Gorman Beauchamp eloquently argues (“Claggart’s Death in Billy Budd,” Melville Society Extracts 129 [July 2005]: 7-10), Claggart dooms himself. Either he will survive the confrontation with Billy and then be hanged for falsely accusing him of fomenting mutiny, or he will taunt Billy into killing him. What a clever, devious, devilish, original way of plotting and arranging for one’s own death. Now comes the intriguing part. If Billy—the innocent one—is Melville’s expiation, a quarter of a century after the deed, of Malcolm’s suicide, then who (in this disguised drama of remorse and philosophic entanglement) is Claggart ? I propose that he is a composite. First of all of the evil boys, young men with vices, Malcolm’s fellow clerks at the Atlantic and Great Western Insurance Company. Carnality outran repression. They represented the unspoken evil of mid-nineteenth-century congenial, hypocritical America. Unspeakable things had happened that night. Malcolm needed to silence himself, somehow to place himself beyond the reach of a father’s interrogations. They did it. They led innocent Malcolm astray, kept him out until three in the morning, partying (and probably whoring) in Yorkville and Germantown, on the fateful night in September, 1867. Melville had his own private memories of debauchery and sin, but they were of years before, vast oceans away, and in radically different circumstances. Now, here, for his sons, innocence was everything. Horny young men at the insurance company, young bucks looking for excitement and sexual pleasure were an abomination, evil personified in Claggart, antonymous to innocent Billy and Malcolm, who were creatures with “the ease of a gentle nature.” Billy Budd is Melville’s disguised (unconscious?) conession of culpability and grief over Malcolm’s suicide. He is Captain Vere, and Malcolm–Billy is his markedfor -tragedy son. C  2006 The Authors Journal compilation C  2006 The Melville Society and Blackwell Publishing Inc L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 121 E X T R A C T S Whatever the merits of the above speculations (some bordering on freeassociation ), what remains clear to me, as a long-time amateur student of Melville and as a life-long professional thanatologist, is that it does not seem likely that Melville could have written Billy Budd without Malcolm’s suicide filling his mind and causing him pain. That’s what the narrative is about. Billy Budd can be read as a belated psychological autopsy of Malcolm’s death—an extended posthumous note, the true contents of which are beyond the risk of any public interrogation. In this spooky sense, Billy Budd is Malcolm’s suicide note. Edwin Shneidman Professor of Thanatology, emeritus University of California, Los Angeles [Prof. Shneidman is author The Suicidal Mind (Oxford) and Comprehending Suicide (APA Press).] ...


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pp. 121-122
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