Melville thinks he does, though he cannot speak quite so confidently of the rest of us. The Navy of Billy Budd is a heterocosm, a separate, self-contained and self-regulating world. The tale of the doomed, angelic foretopman begins with a swaggering parade. Billy enjoys his local triumph, to be followed in due course by his tragedy and his partly victorious aftermath. Neither he nor his black counterpart in the opening pages belongs to the nautical tradition of “Billy-be-Damn” (no doubt a more decorous avatar of Bollicky Bill). Their twin asexual cocksureness receives apparently sexless worship from their fellows, for whom they are first among equals. Perhaps because we see no battle action in this story, a curious passivity seems to reign. Billy is a “cynosure”: a static magnet for admiration, and later a hapless target for malevolence. Although “to deal in double-meanings and insinuations of any sort was quite foreign to his nature” and though he is hardly conscious of the pun involved when he bids farewell to his first ship, the “Rights of Man,” his creator Melville stands in for him in this function. “Indirection” is Melville's preferred mode, He exploits his impeccable hero as the locus of double dealing, innuendo, lies, ambiguity, treachery, perverted history, and finally popular legend. Simple goodness, and complex evil, may be freaks of human nature, ultimately unfathomable alike, but Melville refuses the passivity of his sailors, and intervenes to make some sense of mystery. As Polonius said to Reynaldo: “With assays of bias, By indirections find directions out.” Like God in the Portuguese proverb dear to Claudel, Melville seeks to write straight in crooked lines. Since the pun, like irony and oxymoron, is an oblique mode, he appeals to its devious resources in his search.
The naval world provides a firm basis for this weaving approach, since it is governed by clear lines of demarcation: hierarchical vetoes, territorial imperatives, disciplinary codes. “Life is not a game with the sailor, demanding the long head; no intricate game of chess where few moves are made in straight-forwardness, and ends are attained by indirection.”