YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

October 23, 2009

Murdered by the Mob: Moral Mothers and Symbolist poets

Mad Kate

Mad Kate

In my own quiet way, I am attempting to revise “psychoanalysis” by inspecting the imaginations of individual artists, many of whom died early. Raymond M. Weaver of Columbia University was the first modern biographer of  Herman Melville; he was also an uncloseted gay man, an author, and possibly a sadomasochist. Numerous subsequent Melville critics attacked his biography as “Freudian” and Weaver himself as a radical.  James Thomson (“B.V.”) was an English nineteenth-century radical journalist and poet, author of The City of Dreadful Night, and was an admirer of Melville, who reciprocated his interest. All three men came from Calvinist backgrounds, but can be seen as pagan in their sympathies.

In this excerpt from an unpublished ms., I use the Melville-Thomson-Weaver triad to probe the sexual and class politics of some Symbolists as they encountered “the modern woman” (for them, the moral mother as Goddess of Annihilation/the Mob). We begin with the perception that Weaver was a radical insurgent, a liberal, or a Freudian; I will try to more fully describe Weaver’s social imagination: we shall see that Weaver, like other Romantics and Symbolists, led a double life, oscillating between the defiance and capitulation we have seen before in the contrasting postures of romantic and repentant Wandering Jews. Quotes from rare sources are used throughout, using my collage technique. The blog is rated X. (For part two see http://clarespark.com/2009/10/24/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets-2/.) Since the essay is a collage, I shall take the name of  Fuseli’s Mad Kate for my interpretative comments.

[Hughes on Daniel Macmillan, 1837, 58-59:] [Daniel Macmillan's] recovery was slow, and he had to spend the next two months in Scotland, this time for the most part in towns where he came across numbers of mechanics and weavers, a sad contrast to the poor peasants of Arran, intercourse with whom had so cheered him three years before. “The discontent of the lower classes is most painful in itself,” he writes, “in the form it takes, and the spirit it springs from. How different was the old Covenanter spirit. These Covenanters were most noble. They fought for God’s truth, and wished to rid the earth of whatever was an abomination to the Lord. Duty was the highest thing to them, and they struggled hard to obey its behest. Their boldness was not a brutal, vulgar, ignorant temerity, without reverence, without faith, but solemn and noble. I feel sure of this, notwithstanding Sir Walter’s graphic misrepresentations. I have often talked with some of the remnant of that old stock,–a few who still keep alive the holy flame,–and know what true refinement lies at the bottom of their noble natures. But, alas, that race is becoming quite extinct. The poor men, the mechanics, weavers, and the like in our towns, care not one farthing for the Covenant, or for those deeper matters of which the Covenant was a symbol. They know nothing about duty or faith, or God; they care only about their rights; they talk only about reform, universal suffrage, from which they look for justice and deliverance from oppression. They do not look up to God for help in the old-fashioned way. This may be a ‘progress of humanity,’ and all the rest of that jargon, but I, for one, cannot admire it.”

[W.B. Yeats, Early Memories, MCMXXII, 21] Sometimes here in New York I have wandered into apartments and among people where they were running some great factory for the production of opinion, anarchist, socialist, pacifist, I know not what. The din seemed that of the trenches, only that instead of heroism and the sobering effect of great issues on which man stand face to face with death itself, we have small antagonisms and vanity and temper, always temper, and instead of intensity, vehemence; and pitiful mental and moral squalor of men trying to dominate, and with that end in view quite content to be shallow in feeling as in thought; quite willing, also, to insult with ugliness and to make themselves ugly–in fact, anything for effect! To be with my old friend was like entering a shaded parlor, its quiet only broken by the rustling noise of a fire burning briskly on the hearthstone.

[The Grand Conspiracy of the Members against the Minde, of Jewes against their King, by John Allington [a sequestered Divine], London, 1653:] An example strongly convincing me, that even the Law and light of Nature, were it not clouded with carnall and perverse affections, even that glimmering light were enough to teach the minde, that resist we may not against God’s ordinance.

[Shelley, "Passage from The Wandering Jew":] The Elements respect their Maker’s seal!/ Still like the scathed pine tree’s height,/ Braving the tempests of the night/ Have I ‘scaped the bickering flame./ Like the scath’d pine, which a monument stands/ Of faded grandeur, which the brands/ Of the tempest-shaken air/ Have riven on the desolate heath;/Yet it stands majestic even in death,/And rears its wild form there.

[W.B. Yeats, The Trembling of the Veil, 1922, 58-60:] I know very little about myself and much less of that anti-self: probably the woman who cooks my dinner or the woman who sweeps out my study knows more than I. It is perhaps because nature made me a gregarious man, going hither and thither looking for conversation, and ready to deny from fear or favour his dearest conviction, that I love proud and lonely things. When I was a child and went daily to the sexton’s daughter for writing lessons, I found one poem in her School Reader that delighted me beyond all others: a fragment of some metrical translation from Aristophanes wherein the birds sing scorn upon mankind. In later years my mind gave itself to gregarious Shelley’s dream of a young man, his hair blanched with sorrow, studying philosophy in some lonely tower, or of his old man, master of all human knowledge, hidden from human sight in some shell-strewn cavern on the Mediterranean shore. One passage above all ran perpetually in my ears–“Some feign that he is Enoch: others dream/ He was pre-Adamite, and has survived/ Cycles of generation and of ruin./ The sage, in truth, by dreadful abstinence,/ And conquering penance of the mutinous flesh,/ Deep contemplation and unwearied study,/ In years outstretched beyond the date of man,/ May have attained to sovereignty and science/ Over those strange and secret things and thoughts/ Which others fear and know not.”…Certainly if wisdom existed anywhere in the world it must be in some such lonely mind admitting no duty to us, communing with God only, conceding nothing from fear or favour. Have not all peoples, while bound together in a single mind and taste, believed that such men existed and paid them that honour, or paid it to their mere shadow, which they have refused to philanthropists and to men of learning?

[Axel to Sara, Axel's Castle, MCMXXV:] The external world! Let us not be gulled by the old slave who sits fettered in broad daylight at our feet and promises us the keys of an enchanted palace when his clenched sooty fist hides only a handful of ashes!

[Mad Kate:] In both his 1919 essay on Melville and in the 1936 attack on Lionel Trilling, Weaver had distanced himself from “Freudians,” perhaps too vehemently. A receipt in his files show that he was reading The Psychology of Insanity while researching the Melville book; Joseph Freeman wrote that Weaver had introduced him to Freud through A.A. Brill;[1] meanwhile unpublished letters to John Erskine and Mark Van Doren suggest or indicate that he was under psychiatric (probably not psychoanalytic) supervision shortly before his death, and probably earlier. Before we examine these and other Weaver materials at Columbia University, I shall draw out Weaver’s intellectual debt to the Romantic tradition, particularly to the Victorian poet and radical reformer James Thomson (“B. V.”), whose affinity to Melville is well known, but has not been analyzed in the Melville scholarship. Weaver frequently cites Thomson in Mariner and Mystic; the politics of Sphinxes and Medusas are plainly drawn in Thomson’s Symbolist poetry.  Thomson admired Shelley, whose sequence of poems: Queen Mab (1813), The Mask of Anarchy (1819), Beatrice Cenci (1819), and Prometheus Bound (1820), suggests the pattern of revolt and recantation one sees in Hawthorne, Melville, Thomson, and Weaver. For instance, in The Mask of Anarchy, “written on the occasion of the massacre at Manchester,” Shelley advises “the many” to passively resist future assaults by “the few” by resolutely refusing to answer violence with anarchic violence, thus shaming their persecutors who will reform and desist.[2]

Perhaps these pure young men and the readers who respond to their art react furiously against illegitimate parental authority and excessive punishment by “bitter and biting” sainted mothers, but then turn their contaminating aggression inward.  Romantic defiance seeks the inner check to preserve the family: Comes now the repentant Wandering Jew, following, not truth, but longing for the violent death of annihilation or the easeful death of oblivion, “conquering penance of the mutinous flesh” thus “attained to sovereignty and science over those strange and secret things and thoughts which others fear and know not.”[3] Such asceticism, both admired and resented by (the child in?) Yeats, is an evasion of personal history that protects the pure and Christ-like suffering mother. The ancient witch archetype makes sense to these “allegorical” writers and their witch-hunting friends not because of a “collective unconscious” or because they simply copy other writers or because they are inscribed with a cultural code or because mothers (not fathers) socialize children. Rather, my collected witch-hunters share an unusable past, partly or entirely repressing the same searing memory: the now benignant, now malignant evangelical mother whose flashing eyes and burning criticisms implied abandonment and death to the child who has been too needy, dirty, rude, or unhappy and who persistently asks the “why” question. Such writers will create “doubles” to confront the abusive parent whom they may never cease to idealize; but the double will die, dying only to return in another costume.

James Thomson said he was thinking both of Dürer’s figure of Melencolia[4] and the Victorian Radical George Eliot when he constructed the heroic female figure who rules his City of Dreadful Night, but it is possible that he also drew upon Shelley’s Wandering Jew fragment (while installing his own pessimism into Melencolia’s “tenebrous regard”) for Thomson’s Melencolia does not suffer from writer’s block, as does Panofsky’s. Here She is:

[Thomson:] Anear the centre of that northern crest/ Stands out a level upland bleak and bare,/ From which the city east and south and west/ Sinks gently in long waves; and throned there/ An Image sits, stupendous, superhuman,/ The bronze colossus of a winged Woman,/ Upon a graded granite base foursquare.

Low-seated she leans forward massively,/ With cheek on clenched left hand, the forearm’s might/ Erect, its elbow on her rounded knee;/ Across a clasped book in her lap the right/ Upholds a pair of compasses; she gazes/ With full set eyes, but wandering in thick mazes/ Of sombre thought beholds no outward sight….

Unvanquished in defeat and desolation,/ Undaunted in the hopeless conflagration/ Of the day setting on her baffled prime.

Baffled and beaten back she works on still,/ Weary and sick of soul she works the more,/ Sustained by her indomitable will:/ The hands shall fashion and the brain shall pore,/ And all her sorrow shall be turned to labour,/ Till Death the friend-foe piercing with his sabre/ That mighty heart of hearts ends bitter war.

But as if blacker night could dawn on night,/ With tenfold gloom on moonless night unstarred,/ A sense more tragic than defeat and blight,/ More desperate than strife with hope debarred,/ More fatal than the adamantine Never/ Encompassing her passionate endeavour,/ Dawns glooming in her tenebrous regard:

The sense that every struggle brings defeat/ Because Fate holds no prize to crown success;/ That all the oracles are dumb or cheat/ Because they have no secret to express;/ That none can pierce the vast black veil uncertain/ Because there is no light beyond the curtain;/ That all is vanity and nothingness….

…Her subjects often gaze up to her there:/ The strong to drink new strength of iron endurance,/ The weak new terrors; all, renewed assurance/ And confirmation of the old despair.[5]

[Mad Kate:] Throughout Melville, Thomson and Weaver, I have found an obsession with this Mother: the outwardly beguiling and impressive but inwardly terrible Nature goddess of the fatherless nineteenth century: with “the instruments of carpentry and science scattered about her feet” Melencolia is a Promethean figure of science, artisan revolt, and indomitable aspiration, like Milton’s Mammon, turning sorrow into labor, but whose “full set eyes…wandering in thick mazes of sombre thought” crazily pore into the heart of things…to discover the void which Thomson’s desperate characters had asserted earlier in the poem.   Following the logic of Thomson’s imagery in this and other works, however, Melencolia may not have discovered anything; rather, she has created the void by destroying all meaning in the universe with her “tenebrous regard,” with the eyes that belong not to “science” or to the process of introspection, but to the punitive mother crucifying the furious but cowed and silent child, and carrying not only her own deadly disapproval, but his.

The abused child is trapped through introjection of the cruel parent’s judgment; by internalizing the parent’s point of view with masochistic self-punishment and/or the sadistic punishment of other “evildoers,” the child is temporarily relieved of the dragging burden of anxiety brought up by filial opposition, specifically, the sense that his anger has poisoned the family well, that he has brought greyness to a clearly delineated black and white world. Disowning or repenting of his world-destroying feelings, the purified ex-rebel child/man stands tall to declare  “objectively” that all striving for knowledge, goodness, and happiness is misguided, pointless and dangerous; revolution, even reform, is “vanity” or terminal narcissism: the unpardonable sin of excessive self-regard.

[This passage refers to Melville's "crazy" novel, Pierre, or The Ambiguities (1852).] The apple of the tree of knowledge  (which confers knowledge of both good and evil) has turned to ashes in the mouths of Milton’s rebel angels (the snakylocks); after Pierre learns of his idealized father’s duplicity and tries to rectify this hero-worship by blending previously split images of happy and sad father (a view which brings him into opposition with his mother), he dissociates. After Pierre recovers his “composure” he looks inside himself to see a charred landscape, a frightening image which presages the final catastrophe. We are to conclude that there is no truth, there are only “rebel senses,” “points of view,” and dauntingly endless ambiguities. However, such melancholy formulations may not be hard-won bold and risky “truths.”  Before we acquiesce in the ever more fashionable attacks on the Enlightenment,[6] we might consider how convenient such drastically subjectivist and anti-materialist epistemologies most certainly are and have been to conservatives and reactionaries in class societies bent on monopolizing learning: terrorizing the many in order to limit the impious curiosity and self-confidence of, say, public library patrons that threaten to delegitimize established authority. We look to earlier passages in Thomson’s poem and a predecessor, To Our Ladies of Death (1861), to propose a source for Melville’s Mortmain[a disillusioned ex-revolutionary in Clarel], and the imagery which expressed Raymond Weaver’s nihilism (in his own view, apparently, sadomasochism) and the rationalization for his destructive behavior–but also which may have prepared him to grasp some of the pressing structures in another Ishmael’s psyche.

MELENCOLIA AS A WAY OF LIFE

[James Thomson:] …Some say that phantoms haunt those shadowy streets,/ And mingle freely there with sparse mankind;/ And tell of ancient woes and black defeats,/ And murmur mysteries in the  grave enshrined:/ But others think them visions of illusion,/ Or even men gone far in self-confusion;/ No man there being wholly sane in mind.

And yet a man who raves, however mad,/ Who bares his heart and tells of his own fall,/ Reserves some inmost secret good or bad:/ The phantoms have no reticence at all:/ The nudity of flesh will blush through tameless,/ The extreme nudity of bone grins shameless,/ The unsexed skeleton mocks shroud and pall.

I have seen phantoms there that were as men/ And men that were as phantoms flit and roam;/ Marked shapes that were not living to my ken,/ Caught breathings acrid as with Dead Sea foam:/ The City rests for man so weird and awful,/ That his intrusion there might seem unlawful,/ And phantoms there may have their proper home….

“Who is most wretched in this dolorous place?/ I think myself; yet I would rather be/  My miserable self than He, than He/ Who formed such creatures to his own disgrace.

“The vilest thing must be less vile than Thou/ From whom it had its being, God and Lord!/ Creator of all woe and sin! abhorred,/ Malignant and implacable! I vow

“That not for all Thy power furled and unfurled,/ For all the temples to Thy glory built,/ Would I assume the ignominious guilt/ Of having made such men in such a world.”

“As if a Being, God or Fiend, could reign,/At once so wicked, foolish, and insane,/As to produce men when He might refrain!

“The world rolls round for ever like a mill;/ It grinds out death and life and good and ill;/ It has no purpose, heart or mind or will….”

Man might know one thing were his sight less dim;/ That it whirls not to suit his petty whim,/ That it is quite indifferent to him….” [James Thomson, City, 1874.] [7]

[Raymond Weaver:] Full divers times I fall a thinking,/ Thinking of this life on earth,/ Thinking of the scheme of man,/ Thinking of his roles from birth;/ Thinking how he strives and masters,/ Falling, how he braves disasters,/ Thinking how he shirks square labors,/ Rough cabals onto his neighbors;/ How cunningly he strokes designs,/ To cull the gold from strait confines,/ Until at last, I fall ablinking,/ Blinking in my cushioned chair.

Witness man’s affections waver,/ How untruly full they savor;/ Mastered still by earthly passions,/ Yet impelled by Gobbo’s fashions;/ How unaptly reigns his reason,/ Yet how choicely tricks in season./ Thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking,/ Then I tire in my chair,/ Fidget, wriggle, turn to visions/ And my heart falls in despair./ Nature’s dogmas, planned to follow,/ Leave no loopholes fools to wallow,/ Nature’s laws are last decrees,/ Rendered final, how they tease,/ Enigmatic, sealed, charaded,/ E’er long it was light evaded./ Seeing that ’tis useless picking,/ I subject me to the licking.

Yet postulatum humbly offered,/ If in spirit fair ’tis proffered,/ Can’t but lessen, if a mite,/ The burden of the clouded sight./ This life is but a quickened vision,/ Reserved for men of fast decision,/ Replica’d in salient phrases,/ Birth and love and death that razes,/ This cosmic unit whole, entire,/ Is but a ghastly bog of mire,/ For him who waits and waits and waits,/ And him who prates and prates and prates. [“A Soliloquy,” R.W., Headlined “He Philosophizes on Life, In Poetry. ‘R.W.’ Waxes Poe-esque in Anathemmatizing [sic] the Cosmic Unit.” Oct.4, 1919, Evening Sun. Weaver papers; he was working on the Melville biography.]

[Thomson:] Next Thou, O sibyl, sorceress and queen,/ Our Lady of Annihilation, Thou!/ Of mighty stature, of demoniac mien;/ Upon whose swarthy face and livid brow/ Are graven deeply anguish, malice, scorn,/ Strength ravaged by unrest, resolve forlorn/ Of any hope, dazed pride that will not bow.

Thy form is clothed with wings of iron gloom;/ But round about thee, like a chain, is rolled,/ Cramping the sway of every mighty plume,/ A stark constringent serpent fold on fold:/ Of its two heads, one sting is in thy brain,/ The other in thy heart; their venom-pain/ Like fire distilling through thee uncontrolled.

A rod of serpents wieldeth thy right hand;/ Thy left a cup of raging fire, whose light/ Burns lurid on thyself as thou dost stand;/ Thy lidless eyes tenebriously bright;/ Thy wings, thy vesture, thy dishevelled hair/ Dark as the Grave; thou statue of Despair,/ Thou Night essential radiating night.

Thus have I seen thee in thine actual form;/ Not thus can see thee those whom thou dost sway,/ Inscrutable Enchantress: young and warm,/ Pard-beautiful and brilliant, ever gay;/ Thy cup the very Wine of Life, thy rod/ The wand of more voluptuous spells than God can wield in Heaven; thus charmest thou thy prey.

The selfish, fatuous, proud and pitiless,/ All who have falsified life’s royal trust;/ The strong whose strength hath basked in idleness,/ The great heart given up to worldly lust,/ The great mind destitute of moral faith;/ Thou scourgest down to Night and utter death,/ Or penal spheres of retribution just.

O mighty Spirit, fraudful and malign,/ Demon of madness and perversity! The evil passions which may make me thine/ Are not yet irrepressible in me;/ And I have pierced thy mask of riant youth,/ And seen thy form in all its hideous truth:/ I will not, Dreadful Mother, call on Thee….[To Our Ladies of Death, James Thomson, 1861. Thomson chooses the mother of oblivion, rejecting both this annihilating Isabel (the precursor of the Queen who rules the City of Dreadful Night); and the "gracious mother" for whom he is not worthy.]

[George Eliot:]  Dear Poet,–I cannot rest satisfied without telling you that my mind responds with admiration to the distinct vision and grand utterance in the poem which you have been so good as to send me.

Also, I trust that an intellect formed by so much passionate energy as yours will soon give us more heroic strains with a wider embrace of human fellowship in them–such as will be to the labourers of the world what the odes of Tyrtaeus were to the Spartans, thrilling them with the sublimity of the social order and the courage of resistance to all who would dissolve it. To accept life and write much fine poetry is to take a very large share in the quantum of human good, and seems to draw with it necessarily some recognition, affectionate and even joyful, of the manifold willing labours which have made such a lot possible….M. E. Lewes [George Eliot to Thomson, defining good workers, May 30, 1874]

[Thomson:] Dear Madam,…I have no Byronic quarrel with my fellows, whom I find all alike crushed under the iron yoke of Fate, and few of whom I can deem worse than myself, while so many are far better, and I certainly have an affectionate and even joyful recognition of the willing labours of those who have striven to alleviate our lot, though I cannot see that all their efforts have availed much against the primal curse of our existence. Has the world been the better or the worse for the life of even such a man as Jesus? I cannot judge; but I fear on the whole considerably the worse. None the less I can love and revere his memory….

I ventured to send you a copy of the verses (as I ventured to send another to Mr. Carlyle) because I have always read, whether rightly or wrongly, through all the manifold beauty and delightfulness of your works, a character and intellectual destiny akin to that grand and awful Melancholy of Albrecht Durer which dominates the City of my poem….[James Thomson to George Eliot, June 18, 1874, in Henry Salt's biography of Thomson, owned and marked by Melville (Eliot on labor and order).]

[Mad Kate:]  James Thomson’s religious and political views are said to have shifted from conservatism to pantheism to pessimism and “confident atheism” during his career as a journalist and poet,[8] but his biographers have not studied the continuities in his image of woman, or the childhood experience of early and devastating loss which, like Herman Melville’s, guaranteed that his “politics” would always be grounded in the irrational.  Thomson was an insomniac and an alcoholic who, like Weaver (but unlike Melville in Pierre), was loath to discuss his childhood directly: he did not consciously attack his parents, but displaced his resentment onto nature, reformers, and powerful Jews (as in his essay “An Old Jewish Firm”, attacking Christianity), viewing himself as “Ishmael in the desert from my childhood.”  Like Melville’s family, Thomson’s experienced a “fall in the social scale.” In the autobiographical sketch he provided for his sister-in-law shortly before his death from alcoholism, Thomson demonstrates the selective memory that implicates himself and a “terrible storm” as chief villain and author of his distress:

[Thomson:] “I was just past eight years old and at the school when mother died, so I can only give you very early impressions. These are, that father and mother were very happy together when he was at home, until, when I was about six, he [a sea captain] returned from his last voyage paralyzed in the right side, the result, as I understand, of a week of terrible storm, during which time he was never able to change his drenched clothes. Before then I think he was a good husband and a kind father; her I always remember as a loving mother and wife. He may have been a bit gay, in the sense of liking a social song and a glass, being, I believe, much better looking and more attractive in company than either of his sons. She was more serious, and pious too, following Irving from the Kirk when he was driven out. I remember well Irving’s portrait under yellow gauze, and some books of his on the interpretation of prophecy which I used to read for the imagery. The paralysis at first unhinged father’s mind, and he had some fits of violence; more generally his temper was strange, disagreeable, not to be depended upon. I remember him taunting her with her being his elder. Mother must have had a sad time of it for a year or so. His mental perturbations settled down into a permanent weakness of mind, not amounting to imbecility, but very, very different, I should say, from his former brightness and decision. Before I went to the school he used to take me to chapels where the members of the congregation ejaculated groaning responses to the minister’s prayer, and to small meetings in a private room where the members detailed their spiritual experiences of the week. Good, bad, or indifferent, these were not the sort of things with which he had anything to do in his days of soundness….

I think mother, who was mystically inclined with Edward Irving, had also a cloud of melancholy overhanging her; first perhaps, from the death of her favourite brother, John Parker Kennedy, drowned on the Goodwin Sand; then probably deepened by the death of my little sister, of whom I remember being devotedly fond, when she was about three and myself five, of measles caught from me. Had she or someone else lived [which one?!], I might have been worth something; but, on the whole, I sincerely judge that it was well for both to die when they did, and I would not, for my own selfish comfort, call them back. At first I would have doubtless have done so, but not for many years past.” [Salt, 3,4. Salt, an English Melvillean, mentions the widespread impression that Thomson inherited his imagination from mother and his dipsomania from father; then suggests that whatever the inheritance, Thomson's nature contained warring elements of cheerfulness and constitutional melancholia.(5)]

[Mad Kate:] To review this family history (mostly ignored in Schaefer’s revisionist work), but restoring its chronology: At age five, Thomson’s beloved little sister dies of the measles, caught from her devoted brother. At age six, hostile nature destroys his father’s physical and mental health, throwing the family onto the charity of others and subjecting James to an unvaried regimen of Calvinist guilt and self-loathing. At age eight (through the intercession of a friend of mother’s), James is admitted to school (the Royal Caledonian Asylum); mother dies shortly afterward, partly of grief at the loss of the little sister who caught James’ measles. At age eighteen there is more trauma: Thomson meets a fourteen-year-old Angel, Matilda Weller, “the beautiful young girl whose love he won, and whose sudden death was the heaviest calamity he ever endured.” [Salt]

Keeping this personal history in mind, we may infer that Thomson’s three goddesses represent a process; that they are not three separate figures, but symbolize the longings and fears that follow sensual indulgence. The child whose mother demands moral purity and family loyalty, or else, will idealize his mother and feel unworthy of her love; contemplating his secret sins he turns away from any optimistic ideology promising either earthly or heavenly paradise. Unconsciously, he probably resents the relentless demands which crush his sense of self-worth and his capacity for enjoyment, just as he must have resented the intrusion of his little sister, a feeling he may not entertain: he could feel that his anger has killed these (three) angels.

In a revolutionary period, the little monster encounters images that both attract and terrify him. Other victims –mantled in virtue and Reason, carrying the Promethean lamp and wielding the sword of political struggle, their snakylocks blowing in the wind–are rising everywhere to expose and punish deceptive and illegitimate authority.[9] But instead of identifying with the militant oppressed, he sees them as an incarnation of his omniscient Mother/Christ whose eyes are everywhere, punishing him for the sins the poor attribute to the rich and which good evangelical mothers such as Maria Gansevoort, or Mrs. Macmillan, or Mrs. Thomson, or Mrs. Weaver would have tried to defeat in their children: selfishness, jealousy, lying, indolence, sensuality. His mother’s wrath and his answering resentment are both projected onto the all-too alluring and all-too-destructive mob.  He seeks the third Mother who embodies the anaesthesia of oblivion because he cannot bear the memory of his infernal rage, feelings which he unconsciously believes killed his rivals or his persecutors, perhaps also preventing him from rescuing the beautiful mother from father.

Thomson fears becoming father: the sinking, drunken, crazy, violent victim of the terrible storm. He and his affinity group describe themselves as “insane” because they feel possessed by the Infernal One when they think angrily about the persecution of the young and other helpless victims; they are losing control (“poise” and “balance”): they must be irrational to resent the loss of their independence: that is how Western culture had explained and stigmatized such levels of mobbish defiance. They must turn themselves to stone. But while in their cups (or in their dreams), defenses may relax; the vision of early childhood returns. Tenebriously, they suddenly see the “purity” of women as a trap: the whiteness and the promesse de bonheur of the smiling virgin conceals the black heart of the bloody avenger who unpredictably turns on the “naughty” child or who sends her “only recruit” off to die in battle. In the imaginations of Melville, Thomson, and Raymond Weaver, the connections between the Mother of Beatitude and the Mother of Annihilation are heretically exposed, like the crimson flower that creeps or seeps onto Lucy’s white pillow in the opening scene of Pierre. Yillah and Hautia, or Lucy and Isabel, or Thomson’s first two Ladies of Death, are aspects of the same figure (which Melville at least partly understands), and are projections of a writer who has remained fused with the mother: The sinless bearer of eternal bliss and the malicious god (or goddess) are split images of both good/bad mother and good/bad child.

[D.H. Lawrence, 1947:] Sex must go somewhere, especially in young people. So, in our glorious civilization, it goes in masturbation. And the mass of our popular literature, the bulk of our popular amusements just exists to provoke masturbation. Masturbation is the one thoroughly secret act of the human being, more secret even than excrementation. It is the one functional result of sex-secrecy, and it is stimulated and provoked by our glorious popular literature of pretty pornography which rubs on the dirty little secret without letting you know what is happening…In the young, a certain amount of masturbation is inevitable, but not therefore natural. I think, there is no boy or girl who masturbates without feeling a sense of shame, anger, and futility…[which deepens] into a suppressed rage, because of the impossibility of escape…And this is, perhaps, the deepest and most dangerous cancer of our civilization…The only positive effect of masturbation is that it seems to release a certain mental energy, in some people. But it is mental energy which manifests itself always in the same way, in a vicious circle of analysis and impotent criticism, or else a vicious circle of false and easy sympathy, sentimentalities. The sentimentalism and the niggling analysis, often self-analysis, of most of our modern literature, is a sign of self-abuse…This is just the same whether it be a novel or a work of science. The author never escapes from himself, he pads along within the vicious circle of himself…The real masturbation of Englishmen began only in the nineteenth century. It has continued with an increasing emptying of the real vitality and the real being of men, till now people are little more than shells of people. Most of the responses are dead, most of the awareness is dead, nearly all the constructive activity is dead, and all that remains is a sort of shell, a half-empty creature fatally self-pre-occupied…emptier and emptier, till it is almost a nullus, a nothingness. But null or nothing as it may be, it still hangs on to the dirty little secret, which must still secretly rub and inflame…”You may put it to death publicly a thousand times, and still it reappears, like a crab, stealthily from under the submerged rocks of the personality.” We must join the “proud minority” who want to escape from the vicious circle…The greatest of all lies in the modern world is the lie of purity and the dirty little secret. The grey ones left over from the nineteenth century are the embodiment of this lie. They dominate in the society, in the press, in literature, everywhere. And, naturally, they lead the vast mob of the general public along with them. Which mean, of course, perpetual censorship of anything that would militate against the lie of purity and the dirty little secret, and perpetual encouragement of what may be called permissible pornography, pure, but tickling the dirty little secret under the delicate underclothing. The grey ones will pass and will commend floods of evasive pornography, and will suppress every outspoken word. [10]

[The sea Crabb, published 1867]  ITT: was a man of Affrica had a ffaire wiffe,/Ffairest that ever I saw the dayes of my liffe:/ with a ging, boyes, ginge! ginge boys, ginge! taradiddle, ffaradiddle, ging, boyes, ging!

This goodwife was bigbellyed & with a lad,/& ever shee longed ffor a sea crabbe./ ging & c.

The goodman rise in the morning, & put on his hose,/ he went to the sea syde; & followed his nose./ ging &c.

Sais, “god speed, ffisherman, sayling on the sea,/ hast thou any crabbs in my bote for to sell me? ging & c.

“I have Crabbs in my bote, one, tow, or three;/ I have Crabbs in my bote for to sell thee.” ging & c.

The good man went home, I ere he wist,/& put the Crabb in the Chamber pot where his wiffe pist. ging & c.

The good wiffe, she went to doe as she was wont;/ up start the Crabfish, & cacht her by the Cunt. ging & c.

“Alas! quoth the goodwiffe,” that ever I was borne, the devil is in the pisspott, & has me on his horne.” ging & c.

“If thou be a crabb or crabfish by kind, thoule let thy hold goe with blast of cold wind”   ging & c.

The good man laid to his mouth, & began to blowe,/ Thinkeing therby that they Crabb wold lett goe.

“Alas!” quoth the good man, “that ever I came hither,/ he has joyned my wife’s tayle & my nose together!” ging & c.

They good man called his neigbors in with great wonder,/to part his wives tayle & his nose assunder. ging & c. [11]

[Mad Kate:] Charles Maturin, clergyman and eccentric author of the Gothic novel, Melmoth The Wanderer, had told his parishioners that only Christianity had elevated woman: she was neither slave nor toy; mothers had the sacred responsibility to mold infant character, but gently, as Christ would have done, to forestall social revolution.   In Weaver’s 1926 novel, Black Valley, one of the female missionaries gloats over the power Christianity has conferred upon women in the home (“Say what you will, that’s one thing Christianity has done for the world,” Mrs. Shea swept on contentiously. “It has improved the home!–Why out here they don’t know what love is!….” BV, p.65) In Weaver’s fantasy, women fight amongst themselves to carry off innocent young men. Young Gilson lives with his missionary parents, Alurid and Monica Wilburforce, in sensual, clean, feudal Japan. He is having a secret affair with a gorgeous and exciting modern Japanese girl, an admirer of Nora and Salome, who will discard him once she has captured his seed and become pregnant. His pure and clinging mother is dying of breast cancer; an evil older woman named Gracia West, Gilson’s friend and a “Socratic demon,” arrives from America to take over his life. A Mother of Annihilation, acting, she says, in Gilson’s and his agonized mother’s interests, she smothers Mrs. Wilburforce with a pillow and takes the liberated Gilson back to America.[12]


[1] Probably the popular Bernard Hart, The Psychology of Insanity(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912). Joseph Freeman unfinished letter to Dr. Fries, June 20, 1947, Freeman Papers, Hoover Institution. Freeman does not say when Weaver began to read Freud, nor the title of the Brill which Weaver gave him.

[2] See H.S. Salt, A Shelley Primer (London, 1887). Salt likens the Wandering Jew to Shelley: “he roamed from place to place and settled nowhere.” The geography is a metaphor for ambivalence of the kind I am describing in this study. Salt was an English Melvillean and source of the story that William Morris was a Moby-Dick fan, for which I have found no confirming evidence in the Morris materials at the Clark Library, for instance, in the auction catalog of his library.

[3] And yet the ambiguity remains: is Shelley conquering his asceticism or is he subduing the mutinous flesh? The two plausible readings express the unresolved ambivalence I have seen in every Symbolist here described.

[4] See Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), 156-171. For Panofsky, “Melencolia I” represents the despair of the artist incapable of metaphysical thought (e.g., conceptualizing angels or “extramundane nothingness”) ruled by Saturn, gifted at geometry, but mired in the concrete: “Winged, yet cowering on the ground–wreathed, yet beclouded by shadows–equipped with the tools of art and science, yet brooding in idleness, she gives the impression of a creative being reduced to despair by an awareness of insurmountable barriers which separate her from a higher realm of thought….”(168). At what point did physiognomy yield to art criticism as the preferred surveillance technique?

[5] The woman who rules the City of iron endurance, despair and terror is linked to the eternal Sphinx before whom an armed male angel progressively crumbles (in the passage immediately preceding these excerpts: these end the 55 page poem).

[6] I refer both to Hayden White-style radical skepticism, and the earlier ego psychology which abused science by a dogmatic loyalty to the status quo; each supports “pluralism” and claims to abhor “prejudice” but without the tools of the radical Enlightenment. Russell Jacoby’s Social Amnesia and The Repression of Psychoanalysis, took up the attack on “adjustment” therapies after Fromm, but with a Frankfurt School conservative pessimism that Fromm did not share. See Fromm, “The Crisis of Psychoanalysis,” 1970, and Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought, 1980. For a classic statement of ego psychology’s peculiar sociology, see Gordon  Allport’s The ABC’s of Scapegoating, reprinted nine times since 1948. Allport deplores all “scapegoating” including labor’s scapegoating of business; Allport has taken a structural antagonism and turned it into a case of irrational projection. Anti-Semitism is rarely linked to the general attack on critical thought throughout the history of the West.

[7] The  passages in quotes from Canto VIII are overheard by the narrator; the speakers may be the phantoms in VII. Cf. Clarel (1876): Celio’s upbraiding of Christ, and the blackly defeated Mortmain’s revelations regarding the vapors and foam of the Dead Sea, representations of evil God and evil matter.

[8] William David Schaefer, Beyond “The City” (Berkeley: UC Press 1965), 77.

[9] Maurice Agulhon, Marianne into Battle: Republican Imagery and Symbolism in France, 1789-1880 (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1981).

[10] D.H. Lawrence, From Pornography and Obscenity Handbook for Censors (Michigan City, Indiana: Fridtjof-Kula Publications, 1958). Reprinted from “Remember to Remember,” New Directions, 1947. In the Gill collection, Clark Library. The cover illustration in red and white (from Eric Gill?) shows a snake emerging from a nude woman’s thighs.

[11] From Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript Loose and Humorous Songs (London: Trubner, 1867). Percy Thomas was bishop of Dromore, 1729-1811. The copy of this book in the Clark Library calls attention to the poem in a pencilled notation inside the cover.

[12] Weaver is also identifying with an interesting female character, Frances, who falls apart when her fiancé, a ship’s captain whom she hardly knows, arrives to marry her. Given Weaver’s history of emotional distress, the story of Frances should illuminate his difficulties.

[illustration: Henry Fuseli, "Mad Kate," 1806-07]

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  1. […] So modernity generated a usually reactive modernism. Modernism is an entirely different kettle of fish from “modernity,” being mostly a movement in the arts in reaction to the idea of progress, a shibboleth that had taken a big hit with the Great War. Even before the war, the rise of women (including “the moral mother” displacing paternal authority in the home), cities, industrialism, the loss of the agrarian myth, “the death of God,” mass politics, comparative luxury, and cultural pluralism inspired fears of decadence and mob rule. Even before WW1, Freud, Marx, and Darwin all discombobulated elites and in various ways inspired fears of decadence and the femme fatale—an all-purpose scary symbol representing all these trends (see http://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/). […]

    Pingback by Modernity versus modernism | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — August 7, 2014 @ 7:34 pm | Reply

  2. […] George Eliot, Thomson’s contemporary, the realist novelist, author of Felix Holt, Radical. (See http://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/, and look for the passages on James […]

    Pingback by “The People is an Ass” (or a “Herd”?) | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — October 3, 2013 @ 3:15 pm | Reply

  3. [...] Puritanism (Moralizing Mothers?! See http://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/.) would have to go, for a harsh Superego would likely call forth world-destroying rebellion in the [...]

    Pingback by Peter Gay’s “Freud” | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 23, 2013 @ 9:45 pm | Reply

  4. [...] got there first. (For a related blog that documents misogyny in some famous poets and critics, see http://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/) Historian Ruth Bloch has traced the “rise of the moral mother”, whose status was [...]

    Pingback by Female genitals as Red Flag « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — November 16, 2012 @ 9:00 pm | Reply

  5. [...] the Queen who ruled this godless, desperate place, was none other than Eliot! See my essay http://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/, where I quote an interchange between Thomson and Eliot, also from his [...]

    Pingback by Androgyny, with an aside on Edna Ferber « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 11, 2012 @ 6:23 pm | Reply

  6. [...] men, women are always dangerously unpredictable and fit the archetype of Gorgon or Medusa. See http://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/. Moreover, women, especially modern women, may signify the onset of a terrifying modernity that [...]

    Pingback by History as trauma (2), Rosebud version « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 18, 2012 @ 8:20 pm | Reply

  7. [...] notable for her switching from indulgent, constant comforter to horrifying, death-dealing witch. (http://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/).  Single mothers today are expected to be both disciplinarian and bearer of unconditional love. I [...]

    Pingback by Moral atheists? « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 25, 2012 @ 9:36 pm | Reply

  8. [...] many of the Symbolist poets and other authors I had read, some of whom were misogynists. See http://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/. Also [...]

    Pingback by Feminism and its publicists « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 7, 2012 @ 10:12 pm | Reply

  9. [...] many of the Symbolist poets and other authors I had read, some of whom were misogynists. See http://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/. In my view, the key was the clinging mother, who not only demanded that she be idealized, but [...]

    Pingback by Feminism and its publicists « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 7, 2012 @ 10:09 pm | Reply

  10. [...] Murdered by the Mob: Moral Mothers and Symbolist poets « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog [...]

    Pingback by Murdered by the Mob: Moral Mothers and Symbolist poets « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog | TrendsCity: Hot TV Shows — November 9, 2010 @ 3:31 am | Reply

  11. [...] for a related blog on fear of The Woman, see http://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/. “Who shall educate the educators?” Possibly related posts: (automatically [...]

    Pingback by Blog Index to Anne Hutchinson series « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 16, 2010 @ 9:16 am | Reply

  12. [...] I” in the last two centuries see the passages on James Thomson (“B. V.”) in http://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/ , part one of a two-part essay that shows the links between antisemitism, misogyny, and [...]

    Pingback by Melencolia I and the apocalypse, 1938 « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — November 18, 2009 @ 1:36 am | Reply


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