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John Claggart, the villain in Herman Melville’s short novel Billy Budd, can in some ways be seen as an example of the kind of corrupted individualism sometimes associated with so-called “dark Romanticism.” Claggart is less an individualist than a narcissist. He is ruled by pride and arrogance, showing no respect, for instance, for common Christian virtues such as humility, honesty, and charity. He would never humble himself before God.
At one point, for instance, the narrator says of Claggart that there was in him
the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short "a depravity according to nature."
Claggart is a “Romantic” figure in much the same way that Milton’s Satan, in Paradise Lost, might also anachronistically be termed a “Romantic figure.” He sets his own rules and is the center of his own moral universe. He is destructively envious of Billy partly because he knows that he himself can never be as morally pure and innocent as Billy is. Claggart’s impulse is to destroy the good he knows he can never achieve. Rather than humbling himself, he is driven by his pride. Rather than submitting to traditional religious morality, he is a rebel whose individualism is ugly rather than attractive.
Yet Claggart is “Romantic” in another sense. Despite his above-average intellect, he is also driven by emotion and passion –
passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that of cynic disdain -- disdain of innocence.
The narrator also soon describes him as “surcharged with energy” – another typical Romantic trait.
Like Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby-Dick, Claggart is Romantic in another sense: he is monomaniacal. In fact, the narrator even speaks of “the monomania in the man.” Claggart feels driven to obey his own basest impulses rather than to conform to a conventional code of ethics. In this respect as in so many others, he resembles Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello – one of the other supreme egotists in literature.
In short, Claggart is a “Romantic individualist” in all the very worst senses of that term. He is driven by pride and envy to destroy whatever he dislikes. He is a dark Romantic in the same sense (though on a different scale) as Hitler might be called the same.
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