The Seeming Banality

Besides, this Bland, the master-at-arms, was no vulgar, dirty knave. In him—to modify Burke’s phrase—vice seemed, but only seemed, to lose half its seeming evil by losing all its apparent grossness.  (Melville, White Jacket)

No doubt evil can be normalized, institutionalized, and even made socially just and proper in its place.  Does Arendt hold Eichmann to no account for knowing what is wrong?  Beats me.  It has been suggested that Eichmann was creatively and proudly capable in his diabolism.  Eichmann and those who are like him are terrifying manifestations of the worst that is in the human, but consider the delusion that keeps us trying to find ways to exempt some parts of the “body” as detached from our “heads.”

By this I mean the evil men and women who appropriate our will and actions to their own purposes within the systems that serve war and government.  Obama (the head) is a killer, so are you and so am I (the bodies).  I am at least a collaborator if I am a cog in the war machine; I know many who are far more active in this murder as a matter of daily course.  In this country that is inescapable without a willingness to be incarcerated.  And that is the “banality” and bland nature of the ways that our machine age commits atrocities without compunction.  We are parts of the murder machine.  And we don’t on the whole care; we don’t on the whole even think about it.  We don’t, probably can’t, believe we are ruthless and horrible in every way.  We are taxed into it: your W2 is a kind of membership card to monstrosity.  Welcome.

Of course, I am no one to determine how or why this has come about; many others have weighed in on this and I do believe that Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” is at least necessary to help one understand this current and prevailing mindset among imperial nations.  Racism seems to be the heart with Money the life-blood and Bureaucracy the head.  That seems pretty much to describe this entirely unfree nation we call a land of liberty.

I cannot help thinking that at the very least these horrors would be mitigated if we were not in thrall to “leaders,” to “representatives” and to “courts”–all of which have always been of the Kangaroo sort just with far more subtlety so that we cannot recognize this.  Further, all aspects of our social and political economy serve to diminish mind and dignity and that is the very fertile ground wherein evil sprouts to become our primary mode of thinking and being: it has become our true cash crop and we work so hard to justify it constantly.

It is interesting to a man (me) who has only late in life (midway upon this journey…and now plus about 10) come to actually start thinking about these things that so much of the clear WRONGNESS of this life has always been deemed so by so many writers and thinkers, men and women, over the last few hundred years.  It is impossible not to see these grand horrors as simply “scalable” effects made possible by the machine; and that the machine made money grow for a few hands to cultivate and propagate their brand of ideology (e.g., racism, religious bigotry) raised to the victor’s stand in commerce, congress and the pulpit.

But, I have said this and said this and said this and so you and I are both tired…

What surprised me today–and I will say that if you are a reader of any breadth and depth you cannot fail to be surprised on a daily basis by the past–was the following account by Melville on the “blandness” of evil; evil is legitimated within the totalitarian hierarchy of the state.  The brief piece below that comes out of chapter 44 of White Jacket details the discovery that the Man-of-War’s master-at-arms (chief of police) was the head of a smuggling operation.  (The frigate is named Neversink: as boats do sink, perhaps Melville means the ideology and system of this kind of social organization.)

What must be seen here besides the systemic opportunity to exploit (to see a way to “venture” and “gain”) is how this act, if performed by the “right” person (an officer, a friend, an alumni, a partisan, a contributor), is seemingly condemned while the obverse is true.


Besides, this Bland, the master-at-arms, was no vulgar, dirty knave. In him—to modify Burke’s phrase—vice seemed, but only seemed, to lose half its seeming evil by losing all its apparent grossness. He was a neat and gentlemanly villain, and broke his biscuit with a dainty hand. There was a fine polish about his whole person, and a pliant, insinuating style in his conversation, that was, socially, quite irresistible. Save my noble captain, Jack Chase, he proved himself the most entertaining, I had almost said the most companionable man in the mess. Nothing but his mouth, that was somewhat small, Moorish-arched, and wickedly delicate, and his snaky, black eye, that at times shone like a dark-lantern in a jeweller-shop at midnight, betokened the accomplished scoundrel within. But in his conversation there was no trace of evil; nothing equivocal; he studiously shunned an indelicacy, never swore, and chiefly abounded in passing puns and witticisms, varied with humorous contrasts between ship and shore life, and many agreeable and racy anecdotes, very tastefully narrated. In short—in a merely psychological point of view, at least—he was a charming blackleg. Ashore, such a man might have been an irreproachable mercantile swindler, circulating in polite society.

But he was still more than this. Indeed, I claim for this master-at-arms a lofty and honourable niche in the Newgate Calendar of history. His intrepidity, coolness, and wonderful self-possession in calmly resigning himself to a fate that thrust him from an office in which he had tyrannised over five hundred mortals, many of whom hated and loathed him, passed all belief; his intrepidity, I say, in now fearlessly gliding among them, like a disarmed swordfish among ferocious white-sharks; this, surely, bespoke no ordinary man. While in office, even, his life had often been secretly attempted by the seamen whom he had brought to the gangway. Of dark nights they had dropped shot down the hatchways, destined “to damage his pepper-box,” as they phrased it; they had made ropes with a hangman’s noose at the end and tried to lasso him in dark corners. And now he was adrift among them, under notorious circumstances of superlative villainy, at last dragged to light; and yet he blandly smiled, politely offered his cigar-holder to a perfect stranger, and laughed and chatted to right and left, as if springy, buoyant, and elastic, with an angelic conscience, and sure of kind friends wherever he went, both in this life and the life to come

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While he was lying ironed in the “brig,” gangs of the men were sometimes overheard whispering about the terrible reception they would give him when he should be set at large. Nevertheless, when liberated, they seemed confounded by his erect and cordial assurance, his gentlemanly sociability and fearless companionableness. From being an implacable policeman, vigilant, cruel, and remorseless in his office, however polished in his phrases, he was now become a disinterested, sauntering man of leisure, winking at all improprieties, and ready to laugh and make merry with any one. Still, at first, the men gave him a wide berth, and returned scowls for his smiles; but who can forever resist the very Devil himself, when he comes in the guise of a gentleman, free, fine, and frank? Though Goethe’s pious Margaret hates the Devil in his horns and harpooner’s tail, yet she smiles and nods to the engaging fiend in the persuasive,winning, oily, wholly harmless Mephistopheles. But, however it was, I, for one, regarded this master-at-arms with mixed feelings of detestation, pity, admiration, and something op-posed to enmity. I could not but abominate him when I thought of his conduct; but I pitied the continual gnawing which, under all his deftly-donned disguises, I saw lying at the bottom of his soul. I admired his heroism in sustaining himself so well under such reverses. And when I thought how arbitrary the Articles of War are in defining a man-of-war villain; how much undetected guilt might be sheltered by the aristocratic awning of our quarter-deck; how many florid pursers, ornaments of the ward-room, had been legally protected in defrauding the people, I could not but say to myself, Well, after all, though this man is a most wicked one indeed, yet is he even more luckless than depraved.

Besides, a studied observation of Bland convinced me that he was an organic and irreclaimable scoundrel, who did wicked deeds as the cattle browse the herbage, because wicked deeds seemed the legitimate operation of his whole infernal organisation. Phrenologically, he was without a soul. Is it to be wondered at, that the devils are irreligious? What, then, thought I, who is to blame in this matter? For one, I will not take the Day of Judgment upon me by authoritatively pronouncing upon the essential criminality of any man-of-war’s-man; and Christianity has taught me that, at the last day, man-of-war’s-men will not be judged by the Articles of War, nor by the United States Statutes at Large, but by immutable laws, ineffably beyond the comprehension of the honourable Board of Commodores and Navy Commissioners. But though I will stand by even a man-of-war thief, and defend him from being seized up at the gangway, if I can—remembering that my Saviour once hung between two thieves, promising one life-eternal—yet I would not, after the plain conviction of a villain, again let him entirely loose to prey upon honest seamen, fore and aft all three decks. But this did Captain Claret; and though the thing may not perhaps be credited, nevertheless, here it shall be recorded.

After the master-at-arms had been adrift among the ship’s company for several weeks, and we were within a few days’ sail of home, he was summoned to the mast, and publicly reinstated in his office as the ship’s chief of police. Perhaps Captain Claret had read the Memoirs of Vidocq, and believed in the old saying, set a rogue to catch a rogue. Or, perhaps, he was a man of very tender feelings, highly susceptible to the soft emotions of gratitude, and could not bear to leave in disgrace a person who, out of the generosity of his heart, had, about a year previous, presented him with a rare snuff-box, fabricated from a sperm-whale’s tooth, with a curious silver hinge, and cunningly wrought in the shape of a whale; also a splendid gold-mounted cane, of a costly Brazilian wood, with a gold plate, bearing the Captain’s name and rank in the service, the place and time of his birth, and with a vacancy underneath—no doubt providentially left for his heirs to record his decease.

Certain it was that, some months previous to the master-at-arms’ disgrace, he had presented these articles to the Captain, with his best love and compliments; and the Captain had received them, and seldom went ashore without the cane, and never took snuff but out of that box. With some Captains, a sense of propriety might have induced them to return these presents, when the generous donor had proved himself unworthy of having them retained; but it was not Captain Claret who would inflict such a cutting wound upon any officer’s sensibilities, though long-established naval customs had habituated him to scourging the people upon an emergency.

Now had Captain Claret deemed himself constitutionally bound to decline all presents from his subordinates, the sense of gratitude would not have operated to the prejudice of justice. And, as some of the subordinates of a man-of-war captain are apt to invoke his good wishes and mollify his conscience by making him friendly gifts, it would perhaps have been an excellent thing for him to adopt the plan pursued by the President of the United States, when he received a present of lions and Arabian chargers from the Sultan of Muscat. Being forbidden by his sovereign lords and masters, the imperial people, to accept of any gifts from foreign powers, the President sent them to an auctioneer, and the proceeds were deposited in the Treasury. In the same manner, when Captain Claret received his snuff-box and cane, he might have accepted them very kindly, and then sold them off to the highest bidder, perhaps to the donor himself, who in that case would never have tempted him again.

Upon his return home, Bland was paid off for his full term, not deducting the period of his suspension. He again entered the service in his old capacity.

As no further allusion will be made to this affair, it may as well be stated now that, for the very brief period elapsing between his restoration and being paid off in port by the Purser, the master-at-arms conducted himself with infinite discretion, artfully steering between any relaxation of discipline—which would have awakened the displeasure of the officers—and any unwise severity—which would have revived, in tenfold force, all the old grudges of the seamen under his command.

Never did he show so much talent and tact as when vibrating in this his most delicate predicament; and plenty of cause was there for the exercise of his cunningest abilities; for, upon the discharge of our man-of-war’s-men at home, should he then be held by them as an enemy, as free and independent citizens they would waylay him in the public streets, and take purple vengeance for all his iniquities, past, present, and possible in the future. More than once a master-at-arms ashore has been seized by night by an exasperated crew, and served as Origen served himself, or as his enemies served Abelard.


More on the insidious education of evil in “Lemons for Lessons.

I would like to offer The Thermals’ the Body, the Blood, the Machine as the music to accompany this piece.  Here’s a taste.

I might need you to kill

Locust tornadoes, crosses, and Nazi halos
They follow, they follow
Ashes and friends, ass-backwards medicines
They follow, they follow

You know I might need you to lead
And part the sea so we can cross if they follow us still
I might need you to kill
Every room and every human at will

They’ll drown your disease
They’ll pound you with the love of Jesus
They follow, they follow
They’ll own your days, they’re only God’s babies
They follow, they follow

They know I might need you to hack
And cover the tracks so we can hide if they cite us still
I might need you to kill

They can tell me what to read
They can sell me what to eat
They can feed me and send me the bill
But they tell me what to feel
I might need you to kill

Yeah, I might need you to kill
I might need you to kill


photo credit: New York Social Diary

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