Individual Dignity before the Court of “Ruthless Democracy”: The Case of Herman Melville

Herman Melville explores the theme of human dignity in the context of his radical stake in democracy­ — at first naïve, later tested by doubt, and increasingly “ruthless.” Deprived of “God-given” aristocratic privilege, inherited self-respect, the capability for “greatness,” and heroic self-sacrifice, what remains of individual dignity? What might inspire the “simple separate person” to look above the “little democratic and bourgeois pot of soup” (A. de Tocqueville)?

As a proponent of democracy Melville is deeply skeptical of “artificial” dignity — the product of convention, tradition and ritual — and more interested in “natural regality,” “phenomenal” preeminence, as possessed by a “Handsome Sailor” — “a cynosure” among his shipmates — or by a leviathan among creatures of the sea. In the conditions of modernity, however, no form of superiority is self-evident or self-contained or buttressed safely by traditional authority. Each and every one becomes a problem to itself and to others.

In the secular world the source of self-respect resides in a subject’s self-reliance and capability for free autonomous choice, in being the “author” of one’s own life. Reflection, however, makes one aware of a rupture between one’s innermost worth and the social significance attached to it from without. Between “man in the ideal” (“so noble and so sparkling”) and the forms of signification or enactment of human potential there always remains a rift, the space of indeterminacy, ambiguity, or tragedy. For Melville, to strive to greatness is as to create a monument to oneself — its statuary impressiveness has a suspiciously hollow ring. The absolute (“chronometrical”) and relative (“horological”) dimensions of value cannot be harmonized. To place stake in the first is to court absurdity, to do the opposite — willful limitation. Individual dignity is conceptualized, therefore, as a paradox: an imperfect ideal, invisible, yet intuited, secret though unconcealed.

In Melville’s last, unfinished novel, the natural “goodness” of the young foretopman, Bully Budd, illiterate and inarticulate under pressure, is tested against the martial code of honor cultivated by Captain Vere, who is endowed with aristocratic stature, experience, and the capability for reflection and argumentative speech. Over the near-one-hundred years since its first publication the novel has remained the object of intense interpretation as a case of human dignity alternately defined, insulted, destroyed in the act of self-defense, and then denied by legal judgment. On page, on screen, and on stage — as in David Alden’s recent production of Benjamin Britten’s opera for the English National Opera and the Bolshoi Theater — the case of Billy Budd is retried again and again.

For Melville, the question of personal dignity seems interrelated with a problematic reinterpretation of the author-function and the function of literature itself. As a writer, Melville was both made and unmade by the democratic public, which in the course of his career he courted and rejected. Somewhat like Captain Vere, Melville played the complex role of accuser, witness, and accused in an aesthetic court of which the composition and the competence (who the judges? who the jury?) remained highly uncertain. Melville’s narrator renounces authority, positioning himself as a mere re-teller of a factual account. Thus the text creates the hyper-responsible position that necessitates final judgment, but leaves that position vacant, to be assumed only — reluctantly — by the reader.

Insofar as the necessary closure of fictional form seems incompatible with “truth uncompromisingly told,” Melville opts to experiment with an open form, one that might harbor creative energy without stifling it with social or ideological prescription. Might not his renunciation of literary publication toward the end of his life be akin to Tolstoy’s withdrawal from art in the same decades, albeit differently (aesthetically rather than ethically) inspired? In both cases we deal with an act of literary self-destruction, that is at the same time an attempt to preserve human dignity through the rejection of compromise, however “inevitable.”