Schopenhauer dans Cycnos


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Cycnos | Volume 28 n° Spécial

« En-dehors de la communication de la sentence » : le silence du refus de Billy Budd

On hearing the capital punishment decreed by the drum-head court, Billy Budd responds with an inexplicable passivity and a strategy of silence. More than just a lack of commitment, the remarkable silence and resignation of the young sailor appear as Billy Budd’s preferred form of refusal. Far from expressing the character’s suicidal impulse, this paradoxical attitude reflects Melville’s interest in Schopenhauer, and his thorough reading of the World as Will and Representation. This influence is reflected particularly in the novella’s 26th chapter, where the explicit mention of “euthanasia” is to be taken in its philosophical significance of “negation of the will to live”. With this form of “passive refusal”, a sort of physical and bodily denial, Billy Budd first expresses a rejection of the absurdity of the world; visible to all, his hanging is tantamount to a suspension of the will, recalling the self-denial attitude typical of asceticism. This silence, which might look like self-sacrifice, is primarily a refusal to speak, at least to use a certain kind of speech. By refusing to defend himself, Billy Budd replies by self-denial when faced with a “sentence” whose scope goes beyond the words that compose it: “beyond the communication of the sentence, what took place at this interview was never known”. For the essential lies well beyond the level of surface meaning: essentially, it is something else, an “elsewhere”, an Other. In Melville’s text, the irreducible figure of the “outside” that Levinas calls a “face” appears under the features of Claggart, the master at arms. When the extreme distance, the irreducible other occurs, he then becomes an “outside” or an “other”, a threatening face, with whom no relationship can be established. “Beyond the communication of the sentence points to the “beyond” or “outside” that the Handsome Sailors’s strange aphasia reveals, as well as an irresistible attraction he feels toward the void, now so close but still inaccessible. “Beyond”,” outside”: eventually the sentence communicates nothing, Billy hardly says anything, and stutters before sinking into silence and denial, thus refusing to speak a certain type of speech.

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