“Organic Hesitancy”: On Speechlessness in Billy Budd

From Secret Sharers: Melville, Conrad and Narratives of the Real, edited by Pawel Jedrzejko, Milton M. Reigelman and Zuzanna Szatanik:

It is all the rage, in autism circles, to diagnose a particular historical or literary figure as autistic. Some scholars have even diagnosed fictional characters—Bartleby, for example—as being on the spectrum. When I began writing this chapter, I had just finished a book on autism, and I was seeing it everywhere. I knew that I wanted to analyze disability in Billy Budd—both stuttering and cognitive difference—and I thought that Hans Asperger’s idea of “an intelligence scarcely touched by tradition or culture… strangely pure” (qtd. in Sacks, 252–253) might be a profitable lens through which to view Melville’s “upright barbarian” (110), that “child man . . . [whose] simplemindedness [had] remained unaffected” by experience or age (135). As Melville puts it, “Experience is a teacher indeed; yet did Billy’s years make his experience small” (136). I wanted to historicize the Handsome Sailor’s “essential innocence” (162), rescue it, for a time, from the brilliance of symbol and allegory by asking questions about how the nineteenth century understood stuttering and cognitive disability.

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