Birk, John F. Books

Herman Melville's Billy Budd and the Cybernetic Imagination
1995 0-7734-9025-6
This study takes on the interpretation of Billy Budd from a fresh perspective, one lying outside the customary spheres of literature and politics. It examines it in light of the scientific revolution marking both the setting of the story (the late 18th century) and Melville's own age a century later. The author argues that this revolution, made manifest not only in the ever-greater hegemony of the machine but in the written expression of the times (the utopian novel, science fiction), provided a backdrop for Melville to address not so much the plight of an innocent seaman or the relevance of Christianity, as the infiltration of science into the province of art and, by extension, the writing of fiction "calculated to ... egregiously deceive." This perspective can best resolve all the seeming ambiguities of the narrative, as we read beneath the surface to discover who (or what) Melville's Handsome Sailor really is: an ingenious token of aesthetic deception meant to gull all who witness amid a "willful suspension of disbelief."