YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

May 24, 2012

Curiosity and the femme fatale/Jew

Infinite Zombies Ahab

May 21, 2012, the 8th season of the Fox TV production of House, starring British actor Hugh Laurie, wrapped up, amidst much commentary that the genius diagnostician Gregory House, was not only drawn from Sherlock Holmes, but, like Doyle’s creation, was interested less in people than in solving puzzles. Such intense curiosity, I suggest, is continuous with ancient imprecations against the unleased human passion for knowledge. Prying into the secrets of upper-class authority, ostensibly a departure from the bliss of human “community,” is taken to be the sin of our First Parents that sent them into a world of toil and death. John Milton, a radical puritan, was a heretic whose notion of the Fortunate Fall was off limits, apparently even to the current generation of radicals, including the New Leftists of Verso Books. In the mid-1990s, I was politely ordered by my editor to drop my chapter on Milton and those of his Tory contemporaries and their spawn, who stigmatized “Satanic” curiosity that would “trace  the wayes/ Of highest Agents, deemd however wise,” even though Herman Melville had marked and commented provocatively upon this and similar passages from Paradise Lost,  Book 9 in his own copy, a volume sequestered by a party or parties unknown until 1984.

David Shore, the Canadian creator of House, is not a doctor himself, but a lawyer, perhaps one who has internalized the lesson of Eve and the serpent, and thus dutifully followed the Tory narrative warning of untrammeled curiosity and the thirst for knowledge that sunk my chances of publishing with Verso Books, for I refused to drop the chapter that explained why Captain Ahab’s passion for finding truth had to be thwarted by the chief Melville revivers of the interwar period in the 20th century, a period that also witnessed the reconstruction of the humanities curriculum along social democratic (progressive) lines. ( Nor did I puff F. O. Matthiessen or Lewis Mumford, as demanded.) I trust that readers of my blogs will have seen an abundance of Platonic “noble lies” perpetuated by the “moderate” men tracked throughout the website.)

I doubt that many young readers will slog their way through Melville’s masterpiece, but the character of Captain Ahab is now marshalled by anyone and everyone in the “consciousness industry” as a tyrant, arch-imperialist and terrorist, to be contrasted with the “survivor” Ishmael, whose understanding of human connectedness allows him to warn us of Ahab’s hubris, and lonely death. Indeed, it is de rigeur to mention Captain Ahab unfavorably, unless you are associated with the demonic, for instance the characters of Bobby Oren in Law and Order: Criminal Intent, or Patrick Jane, in The Mentalist. During the Melville Revival of the 1920s and 1930s, Ahab was drawn as either HM himself, a romantic artist, or as tragic hero. The switch to Ahab as Hitlerian occurred about 1939, and has held firm ever since.

Mead Schaeffer’s Ahab

Eventually, I did find a publisher for my book (Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, Kent State UP, 2001, paperback rev.edition 2006), and here is a part of the introduction from the chapter that the Verso New Leftists declared not their cup of tea.

["The Modern Artist as Red Specter: 'an irruption of heretic thought hard to suppress'":]

While writing Moby-Dick, Melville confided to Hawthorne that “all my books are botches,” in this instance blaming the market. Was the author in control of Ahab’s slides from Miltonic modern artist to [his deceased older brother] Gansevoort’s war-hawk? The characters Ahab, Isabel and Margoth et al are variants of the Romantic Wandering Jew: representations of historical memory, the critical intellect, and radical political will that Melville would by turns hug or annihilate; the erasure of dissent, however, would not remain invisible; the red specter inevitably returned either to energize/haunt his efforts at self-understanding, or to taunt his capitulations to illegitimate authority for the sake of his overburdened family: in his state of perplexity, “none felt how the leveller pines.” Aided by Melville’s newly-uncovered annotations to Paradise Lost, I have argued that the virtually canonical “Left” reading of Ahab as an anticipation of Hitler slanders Ahab, and ultimately Melville; rather, Ahab is a creature of the radical Enlightenment, partly masked by the author[i] and misread by the narrator, a decayed patrician.

In previous pages I gathered excerpts from Moby-Dick to contrast Ahab’s self-understanding with Ishmael’s anxious portraiture. Ahab’s project both to demystify duplicitous authority and unlock the secrets of nature (even his own) is frequently described with metaphors suggesting the inexorable drive of the steam engine: railroading Ahab’s lunges toward the whole truth, “hit or miss,” are expressed in images of digging, stabbing, piercing, and striking through masks; however, it does not follow that the whale hunt must be a microcosm of industrial society desanctifying and degrading nature, or that Ahab’s curiosity is necessarily sadistic, an expression of pride, self-gratification and separation from the human community, as William Blake or other corporatists would have seen it.[ii]

Arshile Gorky, 1944

Of course, Melville’s churning tableaux roll in the perilous conditions of labor; but the demonic character that bathes the narrative and Ahab with a blinding charisma is the invention of the Carlylean Ishmael, for whom the insatiable curiosity of the lower orders evokes the vindictiveness of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror and fantasies of strangulation. Parallel passages from Pierre have supported my contention that Ahab, like Pierre, is that “something unmanageable” in his creator.[iii]

In this chapter I continue my examination of Hebraic radical puritanism as imagined and transmitted by antidemocrats, proposing that Melville, like his modernist predecessor Milton, either concealed his sympathies with the materialists or vacillated in his identification with their supposedly corrosive politics. The late seventeenth-century poet Dryden and the eighteenth-century historian and philosopher David Hume elaborated Tory portraits of the radical puritans as destructive primitives likened to ancient Hebrews: it is the admixture of (Jewish) fanatical religion and politics that creates an irrational political culture. Nineteenth-century conservatives cured left Romantics such as the Chartists, Melville, and themselves; like Thomas Carlyle and Melville’s relatives they adopted the Christian conversion narrative, moving adolescent (Hebraic) Byron out and upward to socially responsible Goethe. Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke (a founding text of Christian Socialism) is the literary example that charts this transformation. Charles Francis Adams’s account of the Antinomian controversy (1636-38) types the New England spirit as essentially importunate and Hebraic. An English Carlylean’s 1924 essay on Byron completes the gallery of trapped Anglo-American conservatives, force-fed and held to knowledge, beating down their own deliciously unruly impulses.

The criteria for naturalistic literature proposed by 1930s radical liberals summon Hawthorne’s red specters. Ahab’s immediate precursor was Hawthorne’s “Virtuoso”–the heartless Wandering Jew as archivist, historical memory, and genius. Ahab and his cannibal crew may be seen as representations of modern art-making, revolutionary puritanism, and mass politics (cubistically developed): romantically decadent activities for Tories in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for Hawthorne in the 1840s, and for neo-classicizing conservatives after the Bolshevik triumph in 1917. Organic conservatives are still operating upon (Hebraic) hot heads and cold hearts; distinguished professors Henry Farnham May and Richard Brodhead allude to the persistent Hebraic strain in American culture. I begin with some snapshots of the disappearing center, crumpled by bad Jews and other rebel angels.

Patrick Stewart Ahab

[Ishmael:] I was struck with the singular posture he maintained. Upon each side of the Pequod’s quarter deck, and pretty close to the mizen shrouds, there was an auger hole, bored about half an inch or so, into the plank. His bone leg steadied in that hole; one arm elevated, and holding by a shroud; Captain Ahab stood erect, looking straight out beyond the ship’s ever-pitching prow. There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance. Not a word he spoke; nor did his officers say ought to him; though by all their minutest gestures and expressions, they plainly showed the uneasy, if not painful, consciousness of being under a troubled master-eye. And not only that, but moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe (124).

 [Jay Leyda’s high school notes on “The Bible”:] a. Made English Puritanism 1.Puritan tradition fostered in the English and American people most of the best and most distinctive qualities. b. Inspired the poetry of Milton and the prose allegory of Bunyan. c. Gave Cromwell and the Pilgrim Fathers that which made them honourable, stead-fast, and self-reliant d. Has had direct influence on the English language and thought for 1. Has influenced the great Victorian writers 2. Men so diverse as Emerson and Whitman came under its spell. 3. Abraham Lincoln a genius in statecraft and speech was essentially a man of one Book–the Bible. 4. For two centuries it has been the source of Anglo-Saxon idealism. 5. It has shaped the English language. 6. It has been the supreme spiritually creative force in the civilization of the British Empire and the American Commonwealth…William Tyndale’s translations…sought to serve the common people. [iv]

[John Crowe Ransom to Allen Tate, Independence Day, 1929:] Satan is the Hebrew Prometheus and so conceived is Milton’s P.L.–he is Lucifer the Spirit of the Renaissance, the Zeitgeist of Milton’s own age of science, very boldly displayed and only rejected after a proper hesitation. But then Jesus is Lucifer again….[v]

For Thomas Hobbes (1651), curiosity was not an aid to reason, but an indomitable passion of the mind that could overpower and displace the less troublesome pleasures of food and sex:

Desire to know why, and how, is CURIOSITY; such as is in no living creature but Man; so that Man is distinguished, not onely by his reason; but also by this singular Passion from other Animals; in whom the appetite of food, and other pleasures of Sense, by praedominance, take away the care of knowing causes; which is a Lust of the mind, that by a perseverance of delight in the continuall and indefatigable generation of Knowledge, exceedeth the short vehemence of any carnall Pleasure.[vi]

In 1659 “Committees of the Good Old Cause” were virtuous vampires: “This Dragon it was and a monstrous Beast,/ With fourty or fifty heads at least,/ And still as this Dragon drank down Blood/ Those heads would wag and cry “good-good-good!”[vii] Not surprisingly, the same tumescent Heads exasperated Dryden in Absolom and Achitophel:

The Jews, a Headstrong, Moody, Murm’ring race,

As ever tri’d the’extent and stretch of grace;

God’s pampered People, whom, debauch’d with ease,

No King could govern, nor no God could please;

(God they had tri’d of every shape and size,

That God-smiths would produce, or Priests devise:)

These Adam-wits, too fortunately free,

Began to dream they wanted liberty;

And when no rule, no president was found

Of men, by Laws less circumscrib’d and bound,

They led their wild desires to Woods and Caves,

And thought that all but Savages were Slaves.[viii]

Similarly, the moderately moral philosopher Thomas Morgan advised his countrymen to cherchez la femme fatale:

…this wretched, insufferable Scheme of Superstition and false Religion, as it made Multitudes of Bigots and Enthusiasts at first, so it has brought forth the Atheists of this Age. For Atheism is the natural Production of Superstition and Enthusiasm, as one Extreme terminates in and begets another. An Atheist is only an Enthusiast between sleeping and waking, in which Sort of Delirium he feels enamour’d on Reason as his Mistress and Idol, while he is raving against God and Providence. The Enthusiast is commonly grave and severe, but the Atheist gay and ludicrous; one groans and sighs, and the other laughs and sneers at Religion and Virtue. The Enthusiast in his sullen, dumb fits is always premeditating Mischief, and waiting for an Opportunity to rush upon you unawares, or stab you in the Dark; but the Atheist gives fair Warning, and cries out I am unclean, unclean! Stand off or I shall destroy you. In short, there are only two species of Distinction: the Enthusiast is deeply and sullenly out of his Wits, and the Atheist is merrily and rantingly mad, and both are owing to the same general Cause, and may be reckoned the two opposite and distinct sorts of religious lunacy. And one of these Extremes Men must always necessarily run into, when they bewilder themselves in the Clouds and Darkness of their own Imaginations, and seek for Religion anywhere, without the Boundaries of moral Truth and Righteousness. [ix]

(For related blogs see http://clarespark.com/2011/10/01/updated-index-to-melville-blogs/, or http://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/preventive-politics-and-socially-responsible-capitalists-1930s-40s/.)


                [i] 1. Fybate Lecture Notes (Berkeley, California, 1968) reads Ahab as a seeker after truth, at any cost (29), also mentioning oscillations between Ahab and Ishmael (31).

                [ii] 2. See Stephen C. Behrendt, The Moment of Explosion: Blake and the Illustration of Milton (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1983), 71. “Separation was for Blake the essence of the fall of man; the establishment and assertion of separate individuals was an act of fragmentation grounded in pride and totally destructive to unity, integration and wholeness.”

                [iii] 3. The recently expurgated Pierre, edited by Hershel Parker and illustrated by Maurice Sendak (New York: HarperCollins, 1995) excises those passages that reveal Pierre as a writer, a move justified by Parker’s theory that the novel as he conceives it was finished before the middle of January, 1852 (xl), and that further additions were an impulsive response to bad Moby-Dick reviews and an insulting book contract. Such abridgement also has the effect, however, of obscuring Ahab’s “private quest” as art-making/ demystification, an aim found in a lower layer than the one perceived by Starbuck.

[iv] 4.  Leyda Papers, NYU, Folder pre 1930, Sunday School clippings, etc.

[v] 5. Quoted in Thomas Daniel Young, Gentleman in a Dustcoat (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1976), 191. See 162-163 for Ransom’s concept of romantic irony as the dualism produced by disillusion with youthful hopes for happiness in the garden of this world, a happiness brought about by man’s shaping interventions.

[vi] 6. Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651, Part I, Chapter 6, 26. Do Melville’s rebel senses refer only to repressed sexuality, or are they the necessary stimulus to thought, reflection, and the perilous search for “why” and “how”?

[vii] 7. “Sir Eglamor and the Dragon, How General George Monck slew a most Cruell Dragon, Feb.11, 1659,” Rump: or an Exact Collection of the Choycest Poems and Songs Relating to the Late Times (London, 1662), 371-2.

                [viii]  8. Quoted in Cicely V. Wedgwood, Politics and Poetry Under the Stuarts (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1960), 165-166. Dryden’s fears have not been quieted in her commentary: “Leaving aside this sidelong shot at current political theories about noble savages, this is the statement of a man who remembers the excesses of the sects and disorders of the Civil War, who sees how fatally easy it is to kindle into flame a ‘Headstrong, Moody, Murm’ring race’–a one-sided but not untrue description of the seventeenth-century English–and who knows how difficult it will be to put out the flame once kindled?” Her obituary (NYT, 3/11/97) credits her with “vivid narratives [that] told the story of Britain with the common man in mind.” A fellow at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, 1953-68, Dame Veronica was born in 1910 to Sir Ralph Wedgwood, a baronet and former head of British Railways, and was great-great granddaughter to Josiah Wedgwood (identified here as a potter).

                [ix] 9. Thomas Morgan, The Moral Philosopher. In a Dialogue Between Philalethes a Christian Deist, and Theophanes a Christian Jew (London, 1738, second edition), 219-220.

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5 Comments »

  1. What a rich seam you have mined here with the introduction of Vincent D’Onofrio’s brilliant and tormented Bobby Goren and Hugh Laurie’s bitter Dr. House. Both Goren and House were created to be acted and I have to assume that the actors involved came to have some say about who the characters were. First-run theatre (even tv theatre) involves collaboration in a way the adaptation of a novel to stage and screen doesn’t. My mentor, Louis Coxe, told me he had no hand in the adaptation of “Billy Budd” for Ustinov’s movie though he and Robert Chapman had adapted the novella for the off-Broadway “Uniform of Flesh” which Josh Logan then doctored into the Broadway play retitled “Billy Budd”.

    These multiple filtrations cannot help but literally strain and dilute the original creator’s intent. When I played Captain Vere in a university production of “Billy Budd,” the director wanted to cut Vere’s line referring to the “uniform of flesh” we put on before the military one. I got him to keep the line, but it took a lesson in Melville to accomplish the retention.

    Technicians who make recordings from recordings will tell you that each generation down from the original will be less true to the original. I guess that’s what eventually turns oral history into myth.

    Unfortunately neither of the films based on “Moby Dick” that I’ve seen came anywhere that anatomy’s soul.

    Comment by Bill Lannon — October 27, 2012 @ 4:51 pm | Reply

  2. I am no scholar, but I have been puzzled by Ahab’s motives since I first saw the great John Huston/ Gregory Peck movie as a child. Thank you for your blog, which has moved me to consider the Captain’s motives once again. The pursuit of an elusive, dangerous whale over the face of the earth seems to come from an obsession with the maintenance of a strict moral world order. As a sea captain Ahab had all the authority that he could want his domination of his vessel and his crew. This was not an adolescent quest for power–he already had that in spades and his authority was never challenged. Viewing the hunt as a search for truth seems to work on only a very tenuous allegorical level–to classify this as a motive requires us to ask what knowledge, insight or information was being sought and I can think of none.
    I think that the Captain was not so much an Ahab as he was a Moses. A leader with total control over his community, charged by God with maintaining not only its physical safety but more importantly its moral order. It was Ahab’s responsibility to use the technology of his ship and his knowledge and authority to kill and harvest whales. Men kill whales. Whales should not be deliberately killing men, and it was the Captain’s responsibility as to set the world right by hunting down the whale that maimed him at any cost. Moby Dick needed to be destroyed for the same reason that the Golden Calf needed to be destroyed. If it meant unleashing the Levis on the rest of the tribes, then so be it, God comes first.
    Or, Captain Ahab was nuts and Moby Dick is basically a ripping tale of adventure on the High Seas. Again, thank you for the insights that help us members of the great unwashed understand our Hollywood epics.

    Comment by Erik Anderson — May 26, 2012 @ 12:32 am | Reply

    • Erik, you can’t rely upon a Hollywood movie to faithfully transmit a literary work as complicated as _Moby-Dick_. For one thing, I doubt that the movie script included this crucial line of Ahab’s from the chapter “The Quarter Deck.” [Ahab:] “Whose over me? Truth hath no confines.” This sentiment is straight out of Book 9, Paradise Lost. If you get my book, you will find abundant quotes from Melville’s stories, but better still (!) read the Great Man himself. In private, some key Melville revivers called each other Ahab, and it was no insult, though it may have been ironic.

      Comment by clarespark — May 26, 2012 @ 1:57 am | Reply

      • Claire, I think I will take you up on your suggestion to read Milton. Reading your blog and Victoria Ordin’s FB page reminds me that I know virtually nothing about English poetry, undermining my claim to being a cultivated person. I was just going to order the Dover anthology of English romantic poetry but I think I will get off my rear end and get Milton too. That is, unless they have made a movie of Paradise Lost–maybe there’s one on Netflix?
        From the sublime to the ridiculous: your essay reminded me that I too thought that the character of House was based on Sherlock Holmes. I had been thinking for the past few years that Gregory House was suited more to crime detection than to medicine, but both characters seem to suffer from the same flaw–geniuses don’t really live in this world, their concentration on narrow topics makes them barely capable of feeding and clothing themselves. My experience of life is that brilliant doctors and other professionals generally need to marry before they starve to death or die of exposure. Yet Sherlock and House seem to be successful mostly due to their encyclopedic knowledge of the habits of common people and their communities . How many cases has House solved because he knew that women usually get pedicures with their facials, or the water requirements of urban marijuana growers, all the time surrounded by a medical team as collectively knowledgeable about medicine as himself? Remember Holmes’ study of the different types of mud in London. undertaken to help him track criminals? I thought that this was a pretty good criticism until I learned that Arthur Conan Doyle modeled Holmes on actual doctors he worked with who were geniuses at deduction from small details. Oh well, another great insight bites the dust.
        It seems to me that Greg House was more concerned with controlling his environment and dominating the people around him than with solving the riddles or even curing patients. Coming up with difficult diagnoses was the key to authority that he needed to satisfy a persisting adolescent need for power. Maybe I’m just prejudiced because I am a large man, and I have encountered this type of behavior in small bright men all my life.

        Comment by Erik Anderson — May 26, 2012 @ 3:19 am

      • Erik, House was a made-up character, and arguably a stereotype of genius. Read Milton and Melville.

        Comment by clarespark — May 26, 2012 @ 3:26 am


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