Billy Budd, Sailor, by Herman Melville

Chapter 26

When some days afterward in reference to the singularity just mentioned, the Purser, a rather ruddy rotund person more accurate as an accountant than profound as a philosopher, said at mess to the Surgeon, “What testimony to the force lodged in will-power,” the latter — saturnine, spare and tall, one in whom a discreet causticity went along with a manner less genial than polite, replied, “Your pardon, Mr. Purser. In a hanging scientifically conducted — and under special orders I myself directed how Budd’s was to be effected — any movement following the completed suspension and originating in the body suspended, such movement indicates mechanical spasm in the muscular system. Hence the absence of that is no more attributable to will-power as you call it than to horse-power — begging your pardon.”

“But this muscular spasm you speak of, is not that in a degree more or less invariable in these cases?”

“Assuredly so, Mr. Purser.”

“How then, my good sir, do you account for its absence in this instance?”

“Mr. Purser, it is clear that your sense of the singularity in this matter equals not mine. You account for it by what you call will-power, a term not yet included in the lexicon of science. For me I do not, with my present knowledge, pretend to account for it at all. Even should we assume the hypothesis that at the first touch of the halyards the action of Budd’s heart, intensified by extraordinary emotion at its climax, abruptly stopt — much like a watch when in carelessly winding it up you strain at the finish, thus snapping the chain — even under that hypothesis, how account for the phenomenon that followed?”

“You admit then that the absence of spasmodic movement was phenomenal.”

“It was phenomenal, Mr. Purser, in the sense that it was an appearance the cause of which is not immediately to be assigned.”

“But tell me, my dear Sir,” pertinaciously continued the other, “was the man’s death effected by the halter, or was it a species of euthanasia?”

“Euthanasia, Mr. Purser, is something like your will-power: I doubt its authenticity as a scientific term —— begging your pardon again. It is at once imaginative and metaphysical — in short, Greek. But,” abruptly changing his tone, “there is a case in the sick-bay that I do not care to leave to my assistants. Beg your pardon, but excuse me.” And rising from the mess he formally withdrew.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11