YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 5, 2010

Organic conservatives and Hitler

Neoclassical Hitler vs. Romantic Ahab

For some organic conservatives, Hitler’s relationship  to the classical ideal changed after the war. As I show in an endnote to Hunting Captain Ahab, opportunistic critics such as Geoffrey Stone could turn a neoclassical Hitler into a figure closer to the American romantic puritan stigmatized by Talcott Parsons during the war. Two related endnotes  follow:

Younger critics may be surprised at the number of New Critics (and related members of the prewar literary establishment mentioned in this book) who published frequently in The American Review (formerly Bookman), edited by Seward Collins and blatantly pro-fascist during its period of publication in the mid-1930s (Apr. 1933-Oct. 1937): these include Cleanth Brooks (vols. 3, 6, 8), Harry Hayden Clark (vols. 2, 4, 5), John Gould Fletcher (vols. 3-6), Norman Foerster (vols.1-5, 9), John Crowe Ransom (vols.1-7), Robert Shafer (vols. 2, 4), Geoffrey Stone (vol. 1, 2, 5-9), Allen Tate (vols. 1-3, 6-8), Mark Van Doren (vol. 8), Austin Warren (vols.3-9), Robert Penn Warren (vols.2, 5, 6, 8), Yvor Winters (vols. 7-9). It was the stated mission of the periodical to bring together the English Distributists (Belloc and Chesterton), New Humanists (Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More), Neo-Thomists, and Southern Agrarians in a neo-classical synthesis to halt the slide toward romantic decadence and socialism (constantly and viciously associated with the inordinate power of international Jewry as either capitalists or communists). A few of the AR writers also published in American Literature: Austin Warren, Yvor Winters, Donald Davidson, and Norman Foerster (who joined the editorial board in the later 1930s). Melville was not mentioned in this journal until May 1936. Yvor Winters wrote in “Jones Very: A New England Mystic,” AR 7: “In the past two decades two major American writers have been rediscovered and established securely in their rightful places in literary history. I refer to Emily Dickinson and to Herman Melville. I am proposing the establishment of a third” (159).

Of the AR critics I have just mentioned, only the future Melvillean Geoffrey Stone vociferously supported the fascist dictatorships. Most confined their essays to literary subjects. See Stone’s “Left Wings Over Europe,” an admiring review of the Wyndham Lewis book of that name defending the re-armament of Germany, AR 7 (Oct. 1936), 564-585. The following passages by Geoffrey Stone sum up humanism as understood in AR:

“[Wyndham Lewis] gives expression, in his amazingly flexible and informal style, to a point of view which is too rarely advanced in England and America. In fact, a leading exponent of the Nazi as a sort of groping Distributist has been Mr. Lewis himself, who, in 1930, gave a thoughtful account of German National Socialism in his book Hitler. At that time Hitler had not yet been chosen by the German people as their ruler and the Nazi movement was still to enjoy the outbursts of vituperative denunciation, variously Marxian, Liberal, and Jewish, which have been hurled at it since its assumption of power. Though Mr. Lewis came forward as the exponent rather than the advocate of the Nazi party, he saw in the movement a resurgence of national vigor and an affirmation of our traditional Western way of life against the corruptions of capitalism and Marxism. He saw in it (and no one who has read his other books can deny Mr. Lewis an eye acute to discern levelling influences) a great popular movement to re-establish individual dignity and to escape the slave-status which collectivism everywhere imposes–whether by machine-guns in Russia or uplift unctuousness in America. He further pointed out that what, to the Anglo-Saxon reader, might seem the nonsense of “Aryan” pride was at least an expedient way of meeting the disintegration brought about by class strife. Pride in race, as he indicated in a still earlier book, Paleface, was far from reprehensible, since it offered one method of lifting the inferiority complex that was being saddled upon the Western white with the purpose of degrading him to the coolie’s level, to the accompaniment of much talk about the equality of races and even the superiority of the darker ones. Fascism–as it exists in Germany, Italy, and Portugal, and as it may exist tomorrow in Belgium under Degrelle’s Rexists and in France under the leadership of Doriot of La Rocque–is not the last embattled stand of capitalism, but, however objectionable some of its features, a truly popular attempt to preserve the ideals of Christian society and to assert, through the classic conception of him, the worth of the individual; and upon recognition of this depends the solution of the problems of our democracies, threatened as they are, by the imminence of the Servile State, whether Marxian or neo-Benthamite. Throughout Left Wings Over Europe Mr. Lewis stresses the need of recognizing the true character of fascism and insists that the attempt being made to prevent such recognition can result only in war and slavery” (570-571, my emph.).

In the very opening pages of his Melville, directed to general readers and published by Catholic publishers Sheed and Ward in 1949, Stone changed his line, now distancing himself from the European tyrannies (brought about by the Calvinist/Puritan/Romantic sensualist spirit, the cause of Melville’s very American problems), and of course, racism. Whereas [neoclassical] Nazis were essentially preserving the classic conception of the individual in Stone’s prewar essay, now they were all Romantics: “American fiction from the first has been touched by the Romantic vision and given to the Romantic attitude. The essence of Romanticism is revolt; it asserts the superiority of the individual’s impulses over all that is established, organized, and rationally articulated. Every false theory eventually works out to its own negation, because falsehood is of its nature contradictory; and the absolute freedom sought by the first Romantics has resulted in our time in tyrannies, whether or practice or theory, as thoroughgoing as any the world has ever seen. The same course of development is plain in the lives of the chief figures of Romanticism” (1). Stone’s study of Melville’s tormented narcissism and abused family can be seen as a cautionary tale to Catholic readers tempted by modernity to “question the Christian ethic” (26) and lured to political adventurism by Eros (44). Stone identifies with Ungar’s reactionary antimodernism, Plotinus Plinlimmon’s virtuous expediency, and Captain Vere’s justice. Arguing against his contemporaries, Stone claims that Melville was never a democrat and did not fundamentally challenge Christianity (26), though he did overcome his earlier rage by the time he wrote Billy Budd. Cf. the notes of Charles Olson and Henry A. Murray, excerpted below.

This conservative Catholic theme is taken up in another endnote:

Ronald Mason was the author of The Spirit Above The Dust (London: John Lehmann, 1951). It is as pure and shocking an example of fascist literary criticism to be found in the Melville Revival, though the reader must be familiar with interwar cultural politics to see it. Mason constantly counterposed Ishmael and Plinlimmon (the detached, flexible, pragmatic Christian stoics) with Ahab and Melville (the rigid puritans/dogmatic sectarian Jews). For Mason, Melville’s high points were found in the Supplement to Battle-Pieces (in which the Lincolnesque Melville nobly calls for reconciliation of the conflicts of (simply different) convictions (217-218); those parts of Clarel where he leans upon Catholicism; and most prominently in Billy Budd, at which point the rootless Jew becomes a moderate man. What makes Mason’s book fascist as opposed to conservative, is his conflation of the unified work of art, the “order of nature,” “ natural justice,” and the lawfulness of the military state as realized in Vere’s pitiless judgment of Billy. Vere/ the authoritarian state does not simply speak for God: it becomes God. (See especially 256-58.) It is Melville’s conversion at the end of his life that makes him, though technically imperfect until that moment, the most important American writer.

While writing Clarel, Melville’s tragic heroes had moved forward: “Melville is perhaps not so much proclaiming his approval of Catholicism as underlining a new realisation that was only now forcing itself upon his meditations—that no faith can be effective and no philosophy have sanction without a firm discipline to enforce it. Protestantism he regarded as flabby with the lack of it; Judaism as perhaps tyrannical with an overdose of it; but Rome he saw for the time as providing just that necessary blend of regulation and rapture that could illuminate an individual without rendering him either unsuitable for contemporary society or too readily corruptible by its compromises. Rome, I must emphasize, symbolized this discipline only, did not necessarily represent it. Melville did not turn Roman Catholic; merely had the perception to invoke on behalf of his rarest visionaries a discipline that their own hearts could not provide alone, but for which they would be forced to turn to a tradition outside their own contexts. This I believe to be one of the most important stages in his spiritual progress” (241).

For Mason, all human conflicts are rooted in human nature, in the struggle to overcome base instincts. Historic struggles are subsumed in this eternal warfare between God and the Devil. The concrete facts of the material world feed the symbolic, mythic, spiritualizing imagination of the artist. Most significant, however, is Mason’s typically medieval belief that the study of the material world and of human institutions intended to lead to amelioration of suffering is Satanic in motivation and result. Protestant or Jewish reformism is seen as the expression of deception, hatred and revenge, with Ahab read accordingly. Echoing the Catholic and fascist writers of American Review, Mason viewed human suffering, like force, as a designated part of the natural order of things.

See also the Melville study by Geoffrey Stone (1949), ideologically identical with Mason’s and described above. The French Melvillean Jean Simon, commenting on the voluminous new Melville scholarship, noted that Mason’s book was to his taste, an example of the “via media” he had always attempted to follow. See his review in Études Anglaises (Feb. 1953), 46. A reprint is located in Jay Leyda’s NYU papers.

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6 Comments »

  1. [...] Is Ahab, Ahab? Am I who I think I am, and how did I get this way? Ask your students or family members that one in class or at a family gathering and see how far you get. (For some related blogs that explain why I wrote this one, see http://clarespark.com/2013/01/07/some-backstory-for-hunting-captain-ahab/, or http://clarespark.com/2012/09/28/bibi-and-the-human-nature-debate/,  or http://clarespark.com/2010/03/05/organic-conservatives-and-hitler/.) [...]

    Pingback by Is Ahab, Ahab? The Free Will Debate « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 13, 2013 @ 5:06 pm | Reply

  2. [...] materialist? This question cannot be answered without asking what is an organic conservative.  See http://clarespark.com/2010/03/05/organic-conservatives-and-hitler/, in which I give examples taken from my book on the Melville Revival. That essay takes patience and [...]

    Pingback by What is a materialist? « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 8, 2012 @ 6:47 pm | Reply

  3. [...] Lamprecht, a diagnostician of the mental illness caused by cities and speedy urban life. Or see http://clarespark.com/2010/03/05/organic-conservatives-and-hitler/ for influential  American literary critics who published in the pro-Fascist American Review, that [...]

    Pingback by Review: In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — August 14, 2011 @ 8:07 pm | Reply

  4. [...] and the Melville Revival, as a number of their writers were great fans of Herman Melville.  (See http://clarespark.com/2010/03/05/organic-conservatives-and-hitler/, for names of famous critics who published in AR.) There was also some crossover with the writers of [...]

    Pingback by When did “modernism” begin? « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — June 9, 2011 @ 8:36 pm | Reply


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