Melville On ‘The Most Dangerous Sort’: The Outwardly Rational Madman

In Billy Budd, Sailor (Barnes and Noble Classic Edition, New York, p. 40) Herman Melville writes:

[T]he thing which in eminent instances signalizes so exceptional a nature is this: though the man’s even temper and discreet bearing would seem to intimate a mind peculiarly subject to the law of reason, not the less in his heart he would seem to riot in complete exemption from that law, having apparently little to do with reason further than to employ it as an ambidexter implement for effecting the irrational. That is to say: Toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of malignity would seem to partake of the insane, he will direct a cool judgement sagacious and sound. These men are true madmen, and of the most dangerous sort, for their lunacy is not continuous but occasional, evoked by some special object; it is probably secretive, which is as much to say it is self-contained, so that when moreover, most active, it is to the average mind not distinguishable from sanity, and for the reason above suggested that whatever its aims may be–and the aim is never declared–the method and the outward proceeding are always perfectly rational.

This is an acute observation by Melville, for the personality type he describes here is indeed ‘the most dangerous sort.’ Its tokens conform outwardly to social and moral expectations at all times even as they reserve their malignancy for occasional and pointed demonstrations, which continue to don the cover of ostensibly reasonable behavior. (Indeed, their general conformance to normative standards earns them the indulgence of others, who are then ready to forgive what may come to seem like only an occasional aberration; the pattern in these aberrations may not be visible unless it is too late. ) These agents know how to commit unpardonable acts under the cover of legality; they are adept at picking and choosing among the offerings of the reasonable and civilized, looking for those rhetorical and argumentative maneuvers that will give their actions the best veneer of respectability. (Perhaps they should remind us–via an inexact analogy–of Nietzsche’s ‘educated philistines;’ outwardly sophisticated but lacking in inner culture.)

Unfortunately for this world, Melville’s ‘most dangerous sort’ is a little too common. Its most devastating and dangerous exemplars are found in the political sphere–like those who commit war crimes while proceeding according to some impeccable logic of statescraft–but the skepticism of their opponents may ensure that their cover is easily blown. Matters are far harder in the domain of personal relationships, especially abusive ones. There, in the private sphere, away from prying eyes, the abuser can concentrate on his ‘special object,’ the abused. Their ‘sanity’ may bring the abused to the edge of insanity; their weapon of choice is very often the questioning of the mental competence of their partner. Their long and intimate relationship with their target has granted them access to weaknesses, secrets, chinks in the armor; these are now mercilessly and ruthlessly exploited by language and action which is artfully cloaked by reason and respectability.

Beware the superficial moral and intellectual education; for its most dangerous effect is to produce precisely the type Melville warns us against.

The NYPD And The Serial Abuser’s Oldest Trick

A dozen or so years ago, a friend told me his wife’s sister was on the run, seeking shelter and safety after her abusive, drunken husband had assaulted her–and threatened to assault her young child–again. She had spent a night at her mother’s place but was considering moving on to a ‘neutral venue.’ All too soon, she suspected, she would be forced to confront her serial tormentor, who would approach her, asking as usual, for reconciliation and forgiveness. The worst part of it all, she said, was that soon enough, she would find herself, the abused one, asking for forgiveness from her husband.

Come again, I said, to my friend. Why would your sister-in-law be the one asking for forgiveness?

I was not the first, and I won’t be the last, to be mystified by an all too common phenomenon in abusive relationships: very soon, after committing yet another offense, the serial abuser neatly turns the tables, going from a loud, blustering, abusive, violent maniac to being a sobbing, begging, whimpering, self-pitying whiner, one who points out that this abusive behavior was forced upon him, that he meant no harm, that his hand could  have been stayed, but it wasn’t, just because he felt so much pain and torment and anguish. And sure, he punched his wife, and threw a bottle at her, and smashed a hole in the door in his rage, but he’s just so sad and angry, he’s so tormented, don’t you know? And bizarrely, miraculously, the one with the black eye and the swollen lip, she would be the one asking her now sobbing husband to forgive her, to take her and her frightened child back into their house.

The oldest trick in the book of the serial abuser is to know when to play the part of the victim, to turn the tables on the abused and make them into the guilty ones. There’s so much pain in his heart that needs addressing–can’t the victim just put her pain on hold for a second and attend to this big blustering fool here, you know, the one that almost broke your jaw?

Think of this, when you think of the NYPD asking for kid gloves treatment, when it asks for a critique-free zone, for the #BlackLivesMatter marches and protests to end–which it offensively and cluelessly made responsible for the shootings of Officers Liu and Ramos–even as it insists its job is dirtier and dangerous than ever, that it wants to go deploying as much force as it sees fit, punching, choking, shooting, whomever, when and wherever it chooses. And if any of those punched, shot, choked, or humiliatingly searched ever dare speak up, ever dare protest, then well, aren’t you just being mean and unfair to the poor cops, who hurt so much, who are in such pain, who need your forgiveness and your love, because their hearts are so wide open to all the pain in the world. They are so hurt, they would rather declare war on the people and their elected representatives rather than hear one more hurtful word of criticism about their violent working out of all their job-related stress.

Get us a restraining order, please.