YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

June 12, 2011

Call Me Isabel (a reflection on “lying”)

Illustrations by Maurice Sendak from a truncated edition of “PIerre”

From the chapter “The Journey and The Pamphlet” (Herman Melville, Pierre, or the Ambiguities,Book XIV):

“[When a youth discovers that his father has been misrepresented as morally irreproachable, and is hence disillusioned and angry] an overpowering sense of the world’s downright positive falsity comes over him; the world seems to lie saturated and soaking with lies.” Properly instructed by philosophy, the youth will discard his romanticism, and then realize that “…A virtuous expediency…seems the highest desirable or attainable earthly excellence for the mass of men, and is the only earthly excellence that their Creator intended for them.”

During the research phase of my work on the politics of the interwar and postwar Melville Revival I discovered several juicy items. One factoid (that Melville was a brutal husband and father) was considered to be excellent red meat for a journal article by several editors, and indeed Andrew Delbanco quoted my nugget in his Melville biography, without noting that it was bogus, and that I had demonstrated it to be bogus throughout my book.

Another fact (not a factoid) was the suppression of a family letter by key revivers strongly suggesting that the plot of Melville’s novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852) was taken from real life, and that Melville’s family had hidden the existence of a real-life natural sister roughly corresponding to the character Isabel (an archetypal Dark Lady, i.e., a rebel and emancipator) in the novel. Briefly, Pierre jilts the safely blonde and wealthy girl preferred by his mother, risks being disowned and ostracized, and runs away to the city to “gospelize the world anew” as a [Voltairean, Byronic, Promethean] figure. In short, Pierre is another Captain Ahab, a character who had been linked to Hitler in the approved Melville scholarship, and in my book, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent State UP, 2001, 2006),  I show parallel passages in both novels linking the two characters as truth-seekers in the mode of John Milton speaking through Satan in Book IX of Paradise Lost.

When I offered to write journal articles about my findings (in the late 1980s), including the suppression of the family letter,  I aroused angry, even hysterical responses in editors. They wanted dirt on Herman Melville (he was crazy or violent), but not an accurate account of his family situation, one that made impossible demands to be both a good Christian and lover of truth, but not to disturb conservative notions of order. For these editors, like the officially sanctioned Melville scholars, were conforming to the profile of the moderate men that Melville had denounced in The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), see http://clarespark.com/2010/11/06/moderate-men-falling-down/. These scholars were therefore advocates of “virtuous expediency” as “Plotinus Plinlimmon’s” pamphlet had advised. To say that they were merely ideological or incompetent is to excuse what was a blatant lie—the pretense that the family letter didn’t say what it said, or ignoring its existence altogether in order to maintain the Melville-as-Ishmael fiction. Or you can call the polite suppression of the family letter a noble lie, if you prefer, for “community cohesion” and “stability” trump the discovery of the truth every time. Melville scholars generally approve of “virtuous expediency” and don’t see it as a sin against the truth. As Dr. Henry A. Murray argued, the perfect father was needed as “the focus of veneration”. Murray also linked Melville, the romantic artist, to Hitler in a confidential report to FDR.

I further discovered that in one College Board exam constructed by Terence Martin, it was correct to state that Ahab was a terrorist, while Ishmael was an advocate for interdependence–the antithesis of Ahab.  Does this distortion of the text rise to the ignominious accusation of lying, or is it merely ideological? When a student’s future is guaranteed by lying, what does it say about our culture and the path to success? The world is indeed, soaked in lies. Call me Isabel. If Anthony Weiner is to be punished, let us all take a personal inventory as we go about our business, deferring to others for opportunistic purposes.

Clearly, judging by the book sales of such as Jonah Goldberg and Ann Coulter, demonization of the Democratic opponents, like the world-wide demonization of Captain Ahab/Melville  is rewarded; similarly left-wing authors often return the favor, hence our polarized polity. Did Jonah Goldberg, like Noam Chomsky before him, lie about the major claim of Walter Lippmann’s important book Public Opinion, in order to buttress Goldberg’s populist agenda in opposing “the nanny state”? I say that he did. (See http://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.) Has this kind of wicked distortion anything to do with the witch hunt being mounted against Anthony Weiner? I thought it did, and criticized these right-wing publicists of hypocrisy. For this I was reprimanded by another scholar, who, in passing, denied that anyone could claim “absolute objectivity” as a historian.

Although I am generally very cautious about definitive answers to controversial questions,  I have no problem claiming absolute objectivity in declaring that many of Herman Melville’s most revered biographers withheld documents that would have changed their readings of his texts (not just the family letter about an Isabel, but other weighty letters that countered the rumor that he was a violent father and husband). In doing so, they betrayed the ideals of professional scholarship. I feel the same in authoritatively stating that Melville was ambivalent and a waverer, as many another writer has been– while in the dangerous position of endangering his economic survival by flouting the prejudices of his relatives or patrons (see the life of Goethe for another waverer, compare for instance the two Wilhelm Meister novels). The same goes for scholars who fail to defy their dissertation directors or colleagues (when warranted)  in order to get a job. If conforming to what is known to be timid scholarship is not lying, then I don’t know what is. (For more on this theme, see the following blog: http://clarespark.com/2011/06/13/weinergate-papa-freud-and-the-imperfect-father/.)

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9 Comments »

  1. […] As an historian of the Third Reich, Burleigh has emphasized individual acts of resistance to Hitler’s policies, thus linking him to those believers in free will and social responsibility. BUT this traps us in the double bind so plainly delineated in “crazy” Melville’s novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852) that mocked “virtuous expediency.” (On the latter see http://clarespark.com/2011/06/12/call-me-isabel-a-reflection-on-lying/.) […]

    Pingback by “Taking responsibility” for ourselves and society | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 20, 2014 @ 8:26 pm | Reply

  2. […] This website promotes a marketplace of ideas, because that is the only route I know to emancipation from illegitimate authority. [This blog dedicated to my daughters Jenny and Rachel, and to Melville's novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852); see http://clarespark.com/2011/06/12/call-me-isabel-a-reflection-on-lying/.%5D […]

    Pingback by Authenticity and the “bottled-up” | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 15, 2013 @ 10:43 pm | Reply

  3. [...] On a recent blog (http://clarespark.com/2011/10/19/sex-without-freud/), I have noted that the “Jew” Freud was more controversial than the “Jew” Marx as I researched literary criticism and the reconstruction of the humanities curriculum between the wars. It was probably Freud’s The Future of An Illusion (1927) that was most offensive to the progressives I was studying, for Marx’s anticapitalism was not far from their own. Though many of these academics were not overtly religious and may have been agnostic or atheistic or primitivist followers of “the Greek Way,” they were strongly defending the notion of “the good father” (e.g., FDR) as “the focus of veneration.” Hence, Melville’s straying father as depicted in his “crazy” novel Pierre, or, the Ambiguities (1852) had to be defended against excessive [female, Hebraic] puritanism, while Melville himself, a covert sympathizer with Captain Ahab, had to be denounced as murderer and/or abuser of his wife and sons. (See http://clarespark.com/2011/06/12/call-me-isabel-a-reflection-on-lying/.) [...]

    Pingback by Moral atheists? « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 26, 2012 @ 8:45 pm | Reply

  4. Lest you think I am trying to say the witch hunt for Weiner isn’t a witch hunt, let me be clear I think it is. It differs not at all from the witch hunts conducted by the left on figures on the right. However, the pursuit of Weiner is certainly rooted in his bad behavior, as are many witch hunts from the other side of the aisle.

    However, does it follow from the fact that we are all imperfect means that Weiner ought to be let off the hook for the behavior which raised the hue and cry.

    Comment by CatoRenasci — June 13, 2011 @ 12:47 am | Reply

    • To answer your question, I am not letting Weiner off the hook, and would not do so were it in my power. I am primarily looking at the scale of the thing, but also looking at the silence around the entire issue of male sexuality and its vicissitudes.

      Comment by clarespark — June 13, 2011 @ 1:02 am | Reply

  5. This is a very interesting post. I don’t know the Melville scholarship (I obviously need to find a copy of your book and read it carefully, which I will do this Summer), so I can’t comment on it. Assuming your description is accurate, I don’t see where we have any basis of disagreement: the things you point to in your Melville work all represent intentional dishonesty, intentional suppression of facts, or a refusal to look at information proffered. Precisely the sort of thing I find as reprehensible and intolerable as you do, and eminently worthy of the high dudgeon they inspire in you.

    As despicable as the Terence Martin story is, does it rise to “lying”? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure. Did he actually know better? Or, was that his sincerely held (if wrongheaded) interpretation of the facts? At least in your post, you don’t lay out the case.

    The move I don’t see, however, is the transition from the dishonesty in the Melville scholarship world to Goldberg and Coulter. Assuming Goldberg misrepresented Lippmann (and I think you’re right that he at least misreads Lippmann), did Goldberg intentionally misrepresent Lippmann? I don’t know, and I’m not sure how you know. Unless you can show that Goldberg knows he’s wrong, or is recklessly indifferent whether he’s right or wrong, I’m not comfortable calling it lying. Shoddy, perhaps? Sloppy, to be sure.

    I think there is a fundamental difference between showing that someone is wrong – because he don’t have the salient facts, or misinterpret the facts in way which other evidence can demonstrate simply doesn’t work – and showing that some one is lying – that is, knowingly misstating facts, or positing an interpretation while ignoring known facts that refute the interpretation.

    I also don’t see how charges of “lying” advance the historical debate unless you have evidence that misreadings and misinterpretations are intentional, or involve a reckless disregard of the historical record.

    You are clearly a very sophisticated historian, and as far as I can tell, you seem to take fidelity to fact and truth (as far as it can be known) seriously. All things I admire and think are critical to the historical method. Where I think we seem to be having disagreements is in the philosophy of history. As you say, I made my point about absolute objectivity almost in passing. When I speak about objectivity as an historian, I’m not talking about whether a particular fact appears to be true on the basis of all the available evidence, but rather whether it is possible for the historian ever to free himself completely from his unquestioned (and often unacknowledged) metaphysical assumptions in determining what he thinks the facts mean.

    It seems to me what you are claiming is not absolute objectivity in the sense I’m using it, but, rather you are making two claims. Claim one could be more properly described as asserting that you are more (even absolutely) faithful to the facts (documents that exist, but have been suppressed) than your antagonists. Your second claim seems to be that acknowledgement of those facts would necessarily change the reading of Melville’s texts by those antagonists. I am perfectly comfortable with your first claim, but less so with the second claim.

    I mean nothing of this (or my previous comments on the meaning in the context of “lying”) as a reprimand. I thought of it more as a give and take in a conversation with a colleague.

    Comment by CatoRenasci — June 13, 2011 @ 12:30 am | Reply

    • It was not as if the Melville scholars did not have antagonists themselves who argued differently about the Melville-Ahab connection. They chose dogmatically to destroy their enemies in the profession. But I take your point. By now, my Jonah Goldberg blog and the one on Chomsky v. Lippmann have made the rounds. Neither author has chosen to defend his work.
      As for my Melville book, almost no reviewer (and there were lots of positive ones) accurately transmitted what was in the book. Some chose to attack me personally as another Ahab, i.e., I wrote the book out of revenge against Pacifica radio. Were they lying? Incompetent? There are some frauds that only God can detect. I read that somewhere in Milton, I think.
      The cover-up of Melville’s Milton connection is almost as scandalous as what I reported in this blog.

      Comment by clarespark — June 13, 2011 @ 12:53 am | Reply


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