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August 12, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: White-Jacket.

Melville is often cranky, but never a crank: he bitches for meaningful reasons, always (although I imagine his bitches were more scattershot and pointless  in his life than in his works).  The height of his crankiness in W-J comes in his masterful argument against flogging in the American navy.

The discussion of flogging is the most famous aspect of this book, and the portion I’m primarily discussing here (chapters 33 to 36) is not the end of it.  Nevertheless, Melville’s rhetoric in this section is so powerful, so fascinating, and so pertinent to the contemporary American reader that I’m compelled to discuss it.

It’s an argument against torture, essentially, and for due process, and for the necessity of all Americans living by American, democratic principles, in uniform or not:

Depravity in the oppressed is no apology for the oppressor; but rather an additional stigma to him, as being, in a large degree, the effect, and not the cause and justification of oppression.

In the American Navy there is an everlasting suspension of Habeas Corpus.  Upon the bare allegation of misconduct, there is no law to restrain the captain from imprisoning a seaman, and keeping him confined at his pleasure.

…we assert that flogging in the Navy is opposed to the essential dignity of man, which no legislator has a right to violate; that it is oppressive, and glaringly unequal in its operations; that it is utterly repugnant to the spirit of our democratic institutions…

And if any man can lay his hand on his heart, and solemnly say that this scourging is right, let that man but once feel the lash on his own back…

A little later, in chapter 44, there’s a startling example of the kinds of through-the-looking-glass abuses of power that can result from the absurd faith that those who inflict punishment — in the military, intelligence agencies, or elsewhere — are somehow beyond reproof, beyond oversight, beyond wrongdoing themselves:

The sailors who became intoxicated with the liquor thus smuggled on board by the master-at-arms were, in almost numberless instances, officially seized by that functionary, and scourged at the gangway.  In a previous place it has been shown how conspicuous a part the master-at-arms enacts at this scene.

Being chained and flogged by the very same man who has organized and profited from the smuggling that resulted in your punishment: priceless.  Worthy of Catch-22.

Then again, Melville’s argument also transforms, in his argument against naval precedents for flogging, into a stunning insistence on American exceptionalism:

But in many things we Americans are driven to a rejection of the maxims of the Past, seeing that, ere long, the van of the nations must, of right, belong to ourselves…. we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time… Long enough have we been sceptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether, indeed, the political Messiah had come.  But he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings.  And let us always remember, that with ourselves… national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we cannot do a good to America but we give alms to the world.

As lamentable as the road this kind of proselytizing eventually led us down might be, the world would be a better place if we had kept foremost in mind the awesome responsibilities that would come with such an ambition.  In this argument, as in many other passages in this book which purports to show “The World in a Man-of-War,” Melville reveals himself (at this time, at this point in his life and career, or at least for this argument and in this piece of what he dismissed as job-work) as a True Believer — in America, in that “more perfect Union” that’s so much in the news recently.  (This is fascinating to me, because I think Melville was the foremost American pessimist of his time — the one who seemed to see most clearly how lofty and perhaps unattainable its ideals really might be, and what disastrous consequences such unrealistic hopes might have.  So rather than “revealed himself,” perhaps it’s safer to say that Melville, through his narrator White-Jacket, takes the persona of the American patriot, its Ideal Concerned Citizen.)

He is making his arguments on the assumption that Americans must be an example for the benighted, barbaric world: that they must hold themselves accountable.  And that especially in their implementation of military discipline and law they must conform to their democratic better selves.  As much as I hate to be one of those a-holes that keeps harping about it, it does seem to be a lesson we’re still in the process of forgetting.

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