Friday, February 7, 2014

Weaver's Book on Billy Budd is Published

By Hilary Donatini
Dr. Russell Weaver

Professor Russell Weaver's book The Moral World of Billy Budd has been published by Peter Lang. Read an interview with him about it below. He will give a presentation on the book on Tuesday, February 25, at 3:00 in Schar 138.

HD: Could you give me an abstract of the book's argument in about 100 words?

RWThe Moral World of Billy Budd sees the novel not as inviting us to choose between two views of the main character, Captain Vere, but rather to challenge us to experience the difficulty of making decisions in the world. I show how the text almost programmatically complicates each judgment of the characters. The dichotomies that present Vere’s character I argue are used not to invite our choosing between their poles but to invite reflection on the nature of moral judgment itself. However, the text also assumes that the reader must decide between the alternatives even though any decision will be shadowed by the larger dilemma of operating in a theater beyond our grasp.

HD: Why were you drawn to this particular text?

RW: I worked on Billy Budd sort of by accident. Bill Vaughan [Professor of Philosophy] suggested I write a book on ethics and literature using an essay by his teacher, Peter Winch, as my starting point. This essay used Billy Budd to illustrate his philosophical concepts. I had to come to terms with the novel in order to deal with Winch's essay. I decided not to focus either on ethics and literature or on Winch (although there is a substantial discussion of Winch's essay in my book). What I was left with was Billy Budd which I found to be a great example of how texts resist reduction to theses. 

HD: How would you characterize your method?

RW: I look at everything I work on, be it a critical essay or a primary text, as closely as I can, trying never to assume what anything mean but laying out the argument or the meaning of these texts as fully as I can. My goal is, as far as is practical, not to use anything outside the texts as determining their meaning. When dealing with literary texts, I want to understand what the character is feeling consciously and subconsciously as thoroughly as I can. This, of course, means that I will be speculating to a certain degree, but in my view, since the meaning of texts is not empirically specifiable nor provable, it is not a drawback to propose meanings by simply describing what is going on in these rather than arguing for this meaning in the traditional way. However, once I have laid out the meaning, I will argue regarding the relations between the meaning as it exists in the literary texts and the way this meaning is presented in the critical texts. Finally, I use what I call the text's view as the final hypothesis regarding the text. The text's view is a hypothetical account of the primary values in a text. I always try to ask what are the relations between the values presented in a given passage and the overall values the text seems to be sponsoring. fundamentally, in Billy Budd, I ask whether Vere's hanging Billy is good or bad. This seems as though I am violating the way I am propose to view the text's dichotomies, but it is precisely through asking this question that one comes to understand the way in which the text complicates the argument.

HD: What's next on your scholarly agenda?

RW: I have been working on an analysis of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises for about six months. My basic approach is the same as it was with Billy Budd except that are many more questions raised by this text than by Melville's novel. the most fundamental question I am addressing is whether the text's primary meaning resides in the text's surface or in various analogues to history, other works of literature, Hemingway's biography, and so on. I find that critics have in general paid insufficient attention to the text's surface as well as falling into the trap of trying to make a divergent argument: i.e., that it means this rather than that. I believe that, like Billy Budd, the text is presenting a world in which almost every judgment in challenged in some way. I am in fact thinking of calling it The Moral Worlds of The Sun Also Rises, but that has not yet been finally decided on.