YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

July 4, 2009

Unfinished Revolutions and contested notions of “identity”

Professor Nicholas Boyle

[For a more recent blog on decadence see http://clarespark.com/2011/04/03/progressives-the-luxury-debate-and-decadence/.]

Anyone who has followed recent developments in history and politics should be amazed by the ubiquity of the term “identity”. What is not noted is the drastic transformation in the meaning of that word, and the implications are alarming for those who believe that civil rights (most especially the right of every individual citizen to challenge authority and to question the lines of interpretation handed down by all existing establishments as to “truth” or the causes of conflict) are intrinsic to an advanced democracy, such as the one we celebrate today, July 4, 2009. For as I have argued in all my published work and in various blogs and comments on the internet, the very concept of the free-standing, relatively autonomous individual is being systematically erased by antidemocrats or pseudo-democrats, who imagine themselves to be “anti-imperialists” and “anti-racists.” (I have written about the origins of multiculturalism and its racialist discourse in numerous venues, but here is one that tries to sum it all up: http://hnn.us/articles/4533, or see the version I posted here: http://clarespark.com/2009/12/12/switching-the-enlightenment-corporatist-liberalism-and-the-revision-of-american-history/.)

What do I mean by unfinished revolutions? While in graduate school in history, as I learned about “the Age of Revolution” it dawned on me that none of the great transformations from the feudal world to the modern one, mostly in “the West” had been resolved. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation were not simply about whether monarchs in Europe would adhere to Catholicism or Protestantism or Anglicanism (the “Elizabethan compromise”), but the key element–whether or not individual conscience trumped the authority of Churches and Kings–is still a hot topic today. Then came the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, and the warfare between science and religion proceeds apace, often disguised in “the culture wars.” What is at stake here is the universality of observed facts, but the new identity politics relegates such an affront to authority as crypto-fascism or imperialism. For these supposed freedom fighters, there are only group facts, incomprehensible to those not sharing the same (group) identity.  Now recall that the further liberalizing American Revolution, grounded in both the scientific revolution and left-wing Protestantism, established the “levelling” notion of equality before the law, along with meritocracy, as its founding principles (at least for propertied white males).

Hard by that unprecedented blessed event came the French Revolution (inspired in part by the American Revolution)  and its continued transfer of authority to citizens: Power, knowledge, and virtue now fled castles and cathedrals to repose in the breasts and brains of ordinary people, and, affirming the liberties that had been asserted in the preceding upheavals, appeared a Declaration of the Rights of Man and the elevation of the Prometheus myth, even in the principalities of Germany, as early Goethe and Schiller can attest (and before that, Spinoza in the seventeenth century Netherlandish revolt against Spain).

Lest anyone think that the traditional elites took these events, disastrous to their property and privileges, lying down, one need only read the outpouring of conservative Catholic and other organic conservative denunciations of the bloodthirsty Jacobins and their hideous progeny, progeny that includes Stalin and Hitler. For the purpose of this essay, their most significant gesture was the erasure of “rights” in favor of “obligation” or “duty” to the ‘race’ or ‘nation’ or ‘community.’ Similarly, the individual observer, testing reality with her or his senses, then submitting facts to open-minded and curious others for confirmation, was beheaded or deemed “vile atheist” and mad scientist. Now “identity”, understood in my youth as a coherent sense of self, a sense of self that was antithetical to the fragmented and dissociated sufferer from paranoia or other mental illnesses, that notion of self was drastically transformed into “identity” as “national character”: a set of perceptions shared by all of the inhabitants of a nation-state or “race” –a population that formed a “community” with a specific Zeitgeist. This latter notion came down to us as Lamarckianism or a kind of blood and soil “environmentalism.” The eighteenth-century German theologian J.G. von Herder, the founder of cultural anthropology, got the credit for his “rooted” cosmopolitanism, supposedly an improvement over the atomized, narcissistic, world-destroying individual allegedly promoted by the dread liberals who preceded him in the English, American, and French Enlightenments. (On the perils of the Age of Reason or Utilitarianism, see the interchanges between Coningsby and Sidonia in Benjamin Disraeli’s Coningsby.)

Not too long ago, I discovered that some of Herman Melville’s markings in one of his Bibles came straight out of Goethe’s two Wilhelm Meister novels (the first wild one, written before the French Revolution, the second “reverential” one, written late in life in reaction to the Terror and Napoleon), so I have been reading Goethe and Goethe biography and criticism. It turns out that one Nicholas Boyle, a most prestigious professor of German intellectual history and literature at Cambridge University in the U.K. had published two mammoth volumes on Goethe’s life and art, with a third volume promised. Boyle was so outraged by the French Revolution (an event that seems to have dampened the ardor of the Sturm und Drang German writers), that I suspected a conservative Catholic or Tory reading of that revolution. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered that Boyle had denounced the unforgiving Captain Ahab in another of his books (quoted below), and also admonished Ishmael too for homosexuality! Melville had written a gay and blasphemous book! My notes from Boyle follow, and I have included them here because he gives us a clue as to the real content of “identity” today as understood by its multicultural advocates. As I have proposed above, we are still fighting for the most basic of human rights as promised in the Declaration of Independence.

[my notes:] Nicholas Boyle, “A Catholic Approach to Literature,” Secular and Sacred Scriptures: A Catholic Approach To Literature, 2004, p.140 [IDENTITY]: Boyle writes, “Both sacred and secular literature involve the noninstrumental, nonpurposive use of words, and in different ways assert our freedom from the tyranny of functional, goal-directed thought and language: secular literature by using words to give pleasure and so enabling us to enjoy what is: sacred literature by using words to utter obligation, and so to give us our identity, not as beings who perform a function, but as creatures who know what ought to be.” P.141: “Even the wisdom books of sacred literature are expressions, however refined and derived, of the original obligation. Even Ecclesiastes, in which first-person utterance and the appeal to the author’s experience are so prominent, enjoins us ‘Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth’ (12:1)”

In other chapters (e.g. on Moby-Dick): for Boyle, “having and risking” is modern (false) identity. In this chapter, Boyle deplores the transition starting in 1200 A.D.  from a “feudal” world ordained by God to one ruled by money ( capitalism and imperialism). Boyle asserts that we have forgotten that wealth has its origins in work; we have forgotten our origins in God. A capitalist identity is therefore antithetical to the true Christ-infused identity. Hence, Boyle rejects the very notion of a “feudal” world, for the true world is not characterized by such (utilitarian?) categories. So political theory or structural analysis of economic institutions are off the charts!!! But wait, artists are good: Christ redeemed sinful man, and therefore artists can represent the world, conditioned though they may be by historical and linguistic context (cf. the New Historicism!), but (he implies) their work should participate in the ongoing work of redemption (of suffering?), for we are all in Christ and Christ is in us.

How does Boyle deal with antisemitic representations in literature then?  In his Goethe biography he passes over without judgment Goethe’s several nasty comments about Jews. In the book quoted above, Boyle finds pleasure in Dickens’ Fagin, a monster-victim who is, however, forgiven: pp.133-34: “Fagin is saved from being a stereotypical instrument of anti-Semitism and is raised into literature by our enjoyment of his monstrosity, and that is made possible as much by Oliver’s final prayer for him—Oh! God forgive this wretched man!” (in which a direct vocative can be heard behind the gasp of sentiment)—as by the relish in the caricature when we first meet him, stirring the coffee in an iron pot and serving hot rolls and, of all things, ham to his ‘dears,’ while he inspects their pickings.”
Now, dear reader, if you have followed me thus far, you will understand that Captain Ahab’s unpardonable sin, for Boyle and for others who share his ideology, is Ahab’s/Melville’s (Jewish?) predilection for revenge. We may infer that Ahab doesn’t enjoy the Monster, or the idea that Might Makes Right, or that obligation sans “rights” is a source of pleasure. That Captain Ahab’s quest might be a symbol for all the unfinished revolutions of Melville’s time, revolutions that allowed a cat to look at a king, or ordinary people to educate themselves through study and reflection upon their experience, and who, moreover, might indulge themselves in the analysis of the institutions that controlled their lives, thence to participate meaningful in government and self-government–such a reading cannot be allowed in an academy that called a halt to the Age of Revolution as it was once understood.  Happy Fourth of July. (For a recent blog on this  subject see http://clarespark.com/2013/01/24/culture-wars-and-the-secular-progressives/.)

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  1. […] First, a historian may choose to write a history of a religion or of religious conflict. But if that writer is making judgments within a particular religion, and defending that religion against competitors, that person is not a historian, but a special pleader or advocate. Such a one is Bill O’Reilly, one of the most popular and prolific of the would-be “moderates” and healers, but whose world view is possibly tempered  by Rerum Novarum (see the encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, 1891), by his desire to maintain his audience ratings, and the protection of his own considerable wealth. It is no accident that O’Reilly becomes especially heated when “atheists” attack Christmas.  Or, for another example, see my essay on “cultural historian” Nicholas Boyle: http://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/. […]

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  7. [...] 1.  The standard religious view takes the position that there was a Golden Age in Eden before Eve ate of the Apple. Since that fatal bite, the world is fallen, and all hopes for amelioration are transferred to Paradise. The world we inhabit is a vale of tears and we “see through a glass, darkly.” The author Hilaire Belloc was of this view, and, like other ultra-Catholics, fixated his attention on the Crucifixion as the moment when Christ’s passion  purified humanity of its sins, promising a better place for the faithful after death. Arthur Lovejoy’s book, The Great Chain of Being, spelled out the Platonic-Christian world view very clearly. If an historian is known by the ability to distinguish between change and continuity through the accumulation of empirical evidence, then such “periodization” is irrelevant within this anti-materialist world view. See my blog on Nicholas Boyle for an example: http://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/. [...]

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