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  • Billy Budd's Song:Authority and Music in the Public Sphere
  • Jonathan A. Neufeld (bio)

Billy Budd is about communicative incapacity: the failure to speak, to listen, and to hear. Billy's stutter, Claggart's ability to deceive, the crew's inarticulate and repressed protest of Billy's execution, and Captain Vere's inability to find expression for Billy's innocence within the structure of law all point to various shapes and consequences of this incapacity and failure. Such communicative incapacities and failures are a central concern of any account of modern political justification that relies on the public exchange of reasons, the possibility of communicating needs in a pluralistic society. Yet a demand for openness to new voices and to different modes of expression that might be excluded from political discourse focuses our attention on the conditions and requirements of modern political authority and participation. Differentiating between new voices that ought to be heard, voices that ought to be ignored, and voices that ought to be silenced is a delicate and difficult task for political philosophers and political authorities.1 It is also at the heart of Billy Budd—both Herman Melville's novella and Benjamin Britten's opera2—by presenting a voice that can be heard and felt but whose form does not fit within the existing structure of authority and political justification. Billy serves as the nexus of communicative and political difficulties on the ship. While it is his stutter that is the immediate cause of his destruction, it is his beauty, I will argue, that unsettles the structure of authority onboard the ship. Moreover, the beauty is a specifically musical beauty.

While Billy's beauty has often been connected to his innocence and his moral goodness, the significance of the musical character of his beauty—what I will argue is the site of a struggle for political expression—has not been remarked upon by commentators of Melville's novella. It has, however, been deeply explored by Britten's opera. Music has often been situated at, or just beyond, the limits of communication; it has served as a medium of the ineffable, of unsaid and unsayable truths (and lies), of an expressive power beyond language and reason.3 It is this expressive but communicatively problematic role that Billy embodies and that [End Page 172] Billy Budd sets into political motion. In this essay, I would like to suggest that Billy's musical beauty can only be fully appreciated, and assumes full significance, when considered within the context of the various conceptions of beauty, and corresponding conceptions of authority, presented in the novella and in the opera. In particular, I will argue that Billy's beauty is a modern one that calls for the active participation of its audience (his shipmates, the officers, Captain Vere, and Claggart).

This modern conception of participatory beauty4 is set against two other competing conceptions found in both novella and opera. The first is the premodern auratic beauty exemplified by the charismatic Lord Nelson in the novella. The second is the modern utilitarian beauty of the manipulative Claggart in both novella and opera. Neither of these two conceptions of beauty allows for the autonomous participation of audience members. Rather, each depends on members of the audience either being awed or manipulated into service to an end determined heteronomous—an end decided by someone other than the appreciators of the beauty. Billy's musical beauty is at the very least compatible with his audience's autonomous participation and, I will suggest, even demands it. The men hear and struggle to give their own voices to Billy's song, only to be silenced by the order that Claggart imposes on the ship. The demand of Billy's music is one that Vere can feel but is unable to reconcile with his conception of authority, let alone to act upon. Britten's Billy Budd thus presents a vivid account of the political stakes of listening by making communicative conflicts—between what is said, what is expressed, and what is heard—audible.

The essay has five sections. In the first I give a brief account of the musical nature of Billy's beauty as its...


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pp. 172-191
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