YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

November 13, 2009

Supermen wanted: early “Freudians” and the Mob

Image (90)

William Blake, Laocoon

What follows is an excerpt from chapter 7 of my book, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent State UP, 2001, 2006).

[Publius, Federalist #10:] “Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principle task of modern legislation and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of government….

“If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interests both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.” (my emph.)

[Overman Committee Report, Revolutionary Radicalism, 1920:] “If the great forces which have been set in motion are not checked and the movements redirected into constructive and lawful channels, the country faces the most serious problems that it has had to meet since the establishment of this Republic…It is time that we awoke to the fact that the lack of religious and moral training which distinguishes this generation has given full swing to the baser instincts. What can be done to re-create right standard [sic] of right and wrong, of subordination of private to public good; to stimulate mutual understanding by frankness and the application of new standards of justice and mutual confidence. Knowledge of the facts is the first step in dispelling distrust. This knowledge we aim to suggest in this part of the report.”

[Publius, Federalist #10, cont.:] “The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than in a particular member of it, in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district than an entire State.”

[Revolutionary Radicalism, “Epilogue”:] “In this rapid survey of a new and important educational idea we have carried Marja, the immigrant girl, from king and caste-ridden Europe to America, the land of hope and opportunity. We have seen her struggle with an unknown tongue and with ways of life unfamiliar to her. In the end we see her transformed, reborn–no longer foreign and illiterate, but educated and self-respecting. Later she will marry and her children, though they may have traditions of another land and another blood, will be Americans in education and ideals of life, government and progress. It was been worth while that one man has broken through this barrier and made the road clear for others to follow.

“All real education has the development of discipline as its basis. Poise, self-control and self-esteem are characteristic of the well-ordered mind, and the growth of these in the industrial worker makes for efficient service and better wages. Gradually there is an awakening of social consciousness–the awareness of one’s place in society and the obligations such membership entails upon the individual in respect to the group or racial mass, with a constantly developing sense of one’s personal responsibility in all human relationships.

“In conclusion, the higher significance of this work means that we must descend the shaft and share the lives of those that dwell in the lower strata–the teeming populations that never see the stars or the green grass, scent the flowers or hear the birds sing–the huddled, hopeless foreign folk of the tenements. We are living in the Age of Service, and are growing into a conviction that life is not a matter of favored races or small, exclusive social groups, but embraces all humanity and reaches back to God. To those of prophetic soul comes a vision of the day that haunted Tennyson when

‘The war-drum throbbed no longer and the battle flags were furled/ In the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World.’ ” [i]

[Marianna speaking, in “The Piazza,” 1856:] ” …An old house. They went West, and are long dead, they say, who built it. A mountain house. In winter no fox could den in it. That chimney-place has been blocked up with snow, just like a hollow stump.”

Laocoön sighs softly, advised Lessing. Conservative social theorists responding to the Age of Revolution formulated a model of reason and balance that was objectively mad in its project to impose order upon the doubly bound; for James Madison “popular government” was both there and not there. Were the non-propertied interests to become the new majority, “the spirit and form of popular government” would be preserved even as the wicked majority was “dispersed” by rational and virtuous citizens better attuned to “the public good.” Speaking through Isabel and Marianna,[ii] Melville had identified authority as strange and wandering; his literal history of a permanently wounded, wild and wooly psyche was intolerable; Melville could not be a quasi-lunatic fending off madness fostered by mixed-messages, but the prophet of social dissolution.

Disillusion with the idea of Progress supposedly explains Melville’s sudden acceptability in the twentieth century; it was Melville’s all-too-graphic disintegration, though, that frightened his critics. His (apparent) corrective flights to corporatism were promoted by Nietzschean radicals such as Van Wyck Brooks or Lewis Mumford defining themselves against a mechanistic and alien mass culture. In concert with the Frenchman Gustave LeBon, Dr. Wilfred Trotter (1872-1939) had earlier laid out the premises and ambitions of a rectified Freudian “mass psychology” that could intervene in the headlong rush to oblivion, for “the so-called normal type of mind” “being in exclusive command of directing power in the world, is a danger to civilisation.”[iii]

Trotter’s influential essays, Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, first published in Sociological Review in 1908 and 1909, were updated and reprinted to comment upon the Great War in 1919, then brought out by Macmillan in fifteen printings by 1947. Freud, according to this “sometime Honorary Surgeon to the King,” though the architect of “a great edifice” was bringing “a certain harshness in his grasp of facts and even a trace of narrowness in his outlook” along with a pervasive and repellent “odour of humanity” (78, 80). “The Freudian system” had developed “a psychology of knowledge” rather than a “psychology of power”; what was needed was an unveiling of “the sources of a director power over the human mind” so that “the full capacity of the mind for foresight and progress” could be developed (93, 94). Trotter addressed an elite audience sharing his belief in instincts and will power, understanding that war is “a contest of moral forces” and heeding his call for a “practical psychology,” mobilizing “science” to achieve “a satisfactory morale…[which] gives smoothness of working energy, and enterprise to the whole national machine, while from the individual it ensures the maximum outflow of effort with a minimum interference from such egoistic passions as anxiety, impatience, and discontent.”

Methods and standards of elite recruitment and performance would have to change; old leadership “types” of “a class which is in essence relatively insensitive towards new combinations of experience” were unfit and obsolete (56); radical doctrines could be redesigned to fit new conditions:

[Trotter:] “If the effective intrusion of the intellect into social affairs does happily occur, it will come from no organ of society now recognisable, but through a slow elevation of the general standard of consciousness up to the level at which will be possible a kind of freemasonry and syndicalism of the intellect. Under such circumstances free communication through class barriers would be possible, and an orientation of feeling quite independent of the current social segregation would become manifest (269-270).”

Thus “true progress” will replace “oscillation” and wars will cease:

[Trotter:] The only way in which society can be made safe from disruption or decay is by the intervention of the conscious and instructed intellect as a factor among the forces ruling its development…Nowhere has been and is the domination of the herd more absolute than in the field of speculation concerning man’s general position and fate, and in consequence prodigies of genius have been expended in obscuring the simple truth that there is no responsibility for man’s destiny anywhere at all outside his own responsibility, and that there is no remedy for his ills outside his own efforts. Western civilization has recently lost ten millions of its best lives as a result of the exclusion of the intellect from the general direction of society. So terrific an object lesson has made it plain enough how easy it is for man, all undirected and unwarned as he is, to sink to the irresponsible destructiveness of the monkey… No direction can be effective in the way needed for the preservation of society unless it comes from minds broad in outlook, deep in sympathy, sensitive to the new and strange in experience, capable of resisting habit, convention, and other sterilising influences of the herd, deeply learned in the human mind and vividly aware of the world (my emph., 6, 7, 266, 267).”

For Van Wyck Brooks, Melville was a fog-horn, not a role-model for Trotter’s New Mind-Manager; that honor went to his best friend Lewis Mumford, the source of “human renewal” poetically aligned with William Morris: “He had caught in England the last rays of the morning glow of William Morris’s poetic socialism, and he was to remain a vitalist in a world of mechanists, behaviourists, determinists, Marxians and so on.” Melville’s appeal to youthful cynics of the “lost generation was limited” whereas

“Lewis… knew that the optimists of the machine had forgotten that there was madness and night and that mankind had mystery to contend with, coexisting with universal literacy, science, and daylight, and why, because they ignored the darker side of the nature of man, they had been unprepared for the catastrophe that followed. He could see why it was that a grimly senescent youth confronted the still youthful senescents of the older generation, and having, along with Emerson and Whitman, read Pascal and Saint Augustine, he was fully able to enter their state of mind. Writers like Melville and Dostoievsky, with their sense of the presence of evil, had fitted him to grasp the post-war scene, the disintegrated world in which humankind, convinced of its inadequacy, ceased to believe in its own powers of self-renewal…[W]ith his feeling for the inner life, he was convinced that the problem of our time was to restore the lost respect for this. For Western man had forgotten it in his concentration on the improvement of the machine. In a world obsessed by determinism, the human person must come back to the centre of the stage, he said, as actor and hero, summoning the forces of life to take part in a new drama.”

Mumford had deepened his prewar “liking for brass buttons, music and drums” with “the consciousness of evil”; newly balanced he could steer clear of shallow optimists and sour apples alike, the latter including Melville and “Wilson, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Hemingway and Cummings”: no vitalist renewal in either corner. It was Mumford and his circle, less innocent, but no less confident, who had guided orphans through the mine-fields of modernity; Melville, however salutary as a corrective to rationalist naiveté, was not a proper dramaturg, but an Isabel: the madness, night, and mystery “humankind” (imagined as one organism) “had to contend with.” Brooks distanced himself from his Harvard teacher Irving Babbit’s bullying, negativity, sectarianism, and disdain for “the desire for the masses for their place in the sun”; still, Brooks was grateful that Babbitt and Harvard had introduced him to “the writings of Renan, Taine, and above all, Sainte-Beuve, who had almost all the qualities I admired so greatly…How enlightening were Saint-Beuve’s phrases about the master faculty,–the ruling trait in characters,–and families of minds, with his “group” method in criticism and his unfailing literary tact, his erudition subdued by the imagination. How wonderfully he maintained his poise between the romantic and the classic.[iv]

Similarly, Floyd Dell, novelist, poet, and associate editor of The Masses, was appalled by “intellectual vagabondage,” a symptom of “shell-shock” that followed the collapse of idealism after the war. Hoping to clear away the rubble of ugliness and chaos he saw in modernist renderings of “the unconscious” drawn from Freud, Dell (ambivalently?) recommended [ego psychology] as a new source of order:

“The scientific activities of mankind, unlike its imaginative activities, have not suffered from shell-shock; and we do not find the students of the human mind rejoicing in the chaos of the “unconscious” as an excuse for their failure to form a good working theory of it. On the contrary, we find that the “unconscious” is to them no chaos at all, but a realm in whose apparent disorder they have found a definite kind of order; in fact, they have been enabled by what they have found in the “unconscious” to correlate and explain all sorts of bewildering and painful discrepancies in outward conduct, previously inexplicable; they have created an intelligible and practically demonstrable theoretic unity out of just those aspects of human life which have for fictional and other artistic purposes seemed in the past a hopeless jangle of contradictions. And finally, they actually undertake therapeutically the task of bringing harmony, order and happiness into inharmonious, disorderly and futile lives. The imaginative artist need not be asked to “believe” in this; it may appear as alien to his own tasks as belief or disbelief in the new theory of electrons. But it is significant that such fiction as has undertaken to use these new concepts in the interpretation of life has met with no wide response from the intelligentsia–while on the contrary such fiction as has enriched its data with mere confusing and terrifying (one might say “bloody and stinking”) disjecta membra of psycho-analytic research, has had the reward of our enormous applause and admiration. It is evident that we, at this moment in history, do not want life to seem capable of being interpreted and understood, because that would be a reproach to us for our own failure to undertake the task of reconstructing our social, political and economic theories, and in general, and in consonance with these, our ideals of a good life.[v]

The moderated neo-classicism of New Humanism was growing in influence in the late 1920s; its practitioners were viewed by left-liberals as allied to political fascism, not just the “literary” variety.[vi] In the case of radical Floyd Dell, we see an abuse of scientific method typical of the conservative “Freudians” I am discussing: “the unconscious” may not disclose ugliness and chaos, the “bloody and stinking” gobbets of memory that revolted him. Science and art are good only when they order and fully explain experience, building morale for social reconstruction: axe the pessimists. Dell does not ask whether the “vagabonds” he criticizes are accurately depicting economic contradictions (which may or may not be relieved), but blames the victims for childishness and social irresponsibility, as if the eternal conflict between “the individual” and “society” were the sources of “romantic” pain and ambivalence, not revulsion against hypocrisy and the quietism of upper-class allegiance. The “disillusionment” theory for the Melville Revival seems part of the arsenal of conservative mind-managers defending themselves against history, materialism and critical Reason by promoting mystical notions of national character and group mind, with passions of “egoism” (i.e., distance from “the folk”) postulated as the source of social friction and decay.

The aristocratic radicals were responding to the Bolshevik Revolution, an undeserved triumph perpetrated by returning exiles, intellectuals opportunistically seizing power amidst the chaos of impending defeat. And wars are made by hidebound and greedy old fogies who misshape the national character by enforcing state worship: “War is the health of the state,” as Randolph Bourne famously protested. Brooks, Mumford and Murray, writing in this great tradition of Progressive reproach, were pasting a piece of Melville to their projects while lengthily railing against the evils of “machines.” Like Trotter, they believed (mechanistically) that a tiny elite of Supermen could rescue the masses from themselves.[vii]


[i]               12. N.Y. State Legislature. Joint Committee Investigating Seditious Activities, Revolutionary radicalism: its history, purpose and tactics with an exposition and discussion of the steps being taken and required to curb it, being the report of the joint legislative committee investigating seditious activities filed April 24, 1920 in the Senate of the State of New York(Albany: J.B. Lyon, 1920), 2014, 2201, 3136-3137.

[ii]               14. Marianna is the sad seamstress (another Isabel) who tells the narrator of “The Piazza” that her “strange fancies” (as the narrator defines them) “but reflect the things.” The Jungian critic E.L. Grant Watson, a contributor to London Mercury, inverted Isabel’s identical point in “Melville’s Pierre,” New England Quarterly 3 (Apr. 1930): 195-234, praising Pierre as HM’s greatest book; I know of no correction to this revealing gaffe in the Melville scholarship, though Watson is frequently mentioned. On p.207 Watson characterized Isabel’s “collective unconscious” as transmitter of the “strangely demented people” that Melville’s Isabel clearly identified with real world authority during her stay in the [unnamable institution/asylum]. Stanley T. Williams was an editor of NEQ.

[iii]              15. Wilfred Trotter, Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 94. The scientistic “Publishers’ Note” to the 1947 edition reads: “The aftermath of the Second World War, bringing with it the application of Atomic Energy and the need to prevent aggression (an indulgence now realised to have within its reach the power to do even greater harm to civilisation)–these are the considerations either at the front or the back of everyone’s thinking. In Europe they apply to the Peace Settlement yet to be made with Germany, and the future part to be played by her strange and able people…[Trotter’s] conclusions can be tested by the evidence of two great wars. Incidentally, they offer one explanation of the German political and social mentality which the British and the American mind find so incomprehensible.” The O.S.S. explanation for the rise of Hitler, as purveyed by Murray, for instance, was rooted in a similar organicist theory of history, with its notions of national character and group mind. Trotter’s publishers, Macmillan, avid disseminators of Anglo-American culture, also published Richard Chase’s Jungian study of Melville in 1949. Other publishers of Trotter’s book include T.F. Unwin, The Scientific Book Club, and Oxford University Press.

[iv]              16. Van Wyck Brooks, An Autobiography, Foreword by John Hall Wheelock. Introduction by Malcolm Cowley(New York, Dutton, 1965), 407-410, 125-26. See Meyer Schapiro review of Mumford, The Culture of Cities, “Looking Forward to Looking Backward,” Partisan Review (June 1938): 12-24, for analysis of Mumford’s reactionary organicism.

[v]               17. Floyd Dell, Intellectual Vagabondage (New York: Doran, 1926), 247-249 (Doran published Weaver). See Daniel Aaron, Writers on the Left (New York: Oxford Univ. Press paperback, 1977), 102-107 for discussion of Dell’s and Joseph Freeman’s critique of bohemian symbiosis with puritan middle-classes, the babyishness of the bohemian rebel. Such magisterial critiques of romantic infantilism ignore the real hypocrisies and incompatible demands and expectations that have driven “bohemians” into flight and withdrawal. Dell’s interest in Nietzsche, Ignatius Donnelly, G.K. Chesterton and Ezra Pound bears looking into.

[vi]              18. Daniel Aaron, Writers On The Left, 233-243. And see photographs at UCLA Special Collections of D.H. Lawrence and Frieda in the Southwest, 1922-1923: Lawrence in tie and (usually) three-piece suit, Frieda above him, framed in a black window; elsewhere always dressed in ethnic clothing, Indian or Mexican, earth mother and duende, i.e., Isabel.

[vii]             19. See The Van Wyck Brooks-Lewis Mumford Letters: the record of a literary friendship, 1921-1963, edited by Robert Spiller (New York: Dutton, 1970), passim. Henry A. Murray said he hoped that I would be able to solve the problem of violence and war, since he had failed (Interview, Nov. 4, 1987). Matthiessen denounced the Nietzschean Superman as protofascist while maintaining his reverence for the genius of poets who would, through adherence to organicist aesthetic theory, revitalize and unify culture; see discussion of American Renaissance, below, keeping in mind the taming of “Marja.”

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6 Comments »

  1. [...] In this blog, I argue that it is an error to link in any way whatsoever the Progressive uplifters and more recent advocates of violence and anarchy. For uplift was an orderly process, an expression of the “moderate” strategies of the chief publicists of progressivism. It was also, at its core, defined against “revolutionary radicalism” as evidenced in the I.W.W. or anarchism in the labor movement. Here is a juicy example of their thought, taken from my book on Melville and from a previous blog. (See http://clarespark.com/2009/11/13/supermen-wanted-early-freudians-and-the-mob/.) [...]

    Pingback by Progressive uplift vs. “New Left” nihilism « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 15, 2012 @ 8:57 pm | Reply

  2. [...] had spurned unless they could be improved through uplift. (See the project to uplift “Marja” in http://clarespark.com/2009/11/13/supermen-wanted-early-freudians-and-the-mob/. ) Early Hollywood had no illusions about mass taste, and provided adventure, sex and violence to a [...]

    Pingback by YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 4, 2012 @ 9:34 pm | Reply

  3. [...] Ironically, it was Herman Melville’s first modern biographer, the overtly gay Raymond M. Weaver, who was impressed by Freud (as interpreted by A. A. Brill), and who spotted the intense and troubled attachment of Herman to his mother, Maria Gansevoort Melville. Weaver has yet to be forgiven for his insightful efforts at understanding the ever mysterious “greatest American writer.” (For more on the 1920s reception to Freud, see http://clarespark.com/2009/11/13/supermen-wanted-early-freudians-and-the-mob/.) [...]

    Pingback by Sex Without Freud « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — October 20, 2011 @ 5:06 pm | Reply

  4. [...] given to unregulated sex and aggression. [On the Mental Director advocated by Wilfred Trotter, see http://clarespark.com/2009/11/13/supermen-wanted-early-freudians-and-the-mob/. Trotter is lauded in Discovering Ourselves, see [...]

    Pingback by T.W. Adorno and his funny idea of “genuine liberalism” « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 6, 2009 @ 7:04 pm | Reply


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