Matthew Rebhorn, “Billy’s Fist: Neuroscience and Corporeal Reading in Melville’s Billy Budd” (pp. 218–244)

This essay explores the relationship between Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (published 1924) and late-nineteenth-century neuroscience—particularly works by Alexander Bain and George Henry Lewes—to argue that this novel advances a new way of reading the body. Inflected by Melville’s late encounter with Arthur Schopenhauer’s ruminations on “will power,” Melville uses neuroscience to develop Schopenhauer’s idea into what I am calling a “corporeal reading” practice. This is a reading practice, I argue, that erodes the ontological distinction between the mind and body, between the mind as subject and the body as mere object. Yet because Melville set this novel in wartime, this new reading practice also reveals the deep, and often deadly, tensions that accompany understanding the body as having a mind of its own. In this way, Billy Budd becomes a primer not only for expanding the notion of the bodily consciousness, but also for learning to read the political inflections of the animate body and its “will (to) power.”

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