This blog is about healthy skepticism versus the sort of philosophical skepticism that is blatantly nihilistic and/or reactionary. In writing this piece, I am immersed in rereading my favorite passages in Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). Like most of his other works, the theme of the book is protest against the rule of the moderate man of the Enlightenment. Even another “Captain Ahab” makes an early, but brief appearance as a wooden-legged scoffer at the masquerades of the multiform confidence men who dot the book. These con artists are shape shifters, and include “Black Guinea, the herb doctor, the cosmopolitan, and more. The theme is “No Trust.”
What we are to distrust (says Melville) is the moderate Enlightenment theme of cosmic benevolence, and the very idea of progress from pre-industrial to market societies, where everyone plays a role and bamboozles his or her victims. I remember the art critic Harold Rosenberg lauding this particular Melville text in the late 1940s, perhaps as his sour response to the weakly resisted Holocaust, the latter surely an example of an absent deity and the depraved indifference of humanity writ large. He read the text with understanding of its allover trajectory of nihilism and abandonment in an empty universe. Such are the ways of nihilism, a popular artistic theme in the immediate period following WW2. What do I think of this trend, still extant today? To a large extent, we are all prisoners of our particular families, personal and world histories. I will give “the new historicists” that. What is the engaged citizen supposed to do, given the imprisonment in specific contexts? Should we all turn ourselves into the figure of Pierrot, the spectator, who comments, but with blood on his hands because of his passivity? (For a picture of Picasso’s immobilized seated Pierrot of 1918, and a collage linking antisemitism and misogyny see http://clarespark.com/2009/10/24/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets-2/.) Melville went back and forth on this question: sometimes roaring as the unmasker of frauds, sometimes soothing himself with reveries that returned him to the perfectly happy family.
[David Hume on moderation, History of England, Vol.8, pp 310-311, jousting with Locke:] “The Whig party, for a course of near seventy years, has, almost without interruption, enjoyed the whole authority of government; and no honors or offices could be obtained but by their countenance and protection. But this event, which in some particulars has been advantageous to the state, has proved destructive to the truth of history, and has established many gross falsehoods, which it is unaccountable how any civilized nation could have embraced with regard to its domestic occurrences. Compositions the most despicable, both for style and matter, have been extolled, and propagated, and read; as if they had equaled the most celebrated remains of antiquity. And forgetting that a regard to liberty, though a laudable passion, ought commonly to be subordinated to a reverence for established government, the prevailing faction has celebrated only the partisans of the former, who pursued as their object the perfection of civil society, and has extolled them at the expense of their antagonists, who maintained those maxims that are essential to its very existence. But extremes of all kinds are to be avoided; and though no one will ever please either faction by moderate opinions, it is there we are most likely to meet with truth and certainty.”
And why not embrace the manipulative moderates, rejecting Locke and empiricism as Hume did, to his everlasting glory in the political ruling class? Few of us have the inner strength and indomitable will to escape the prisons of our contexts, to strip ourselves and our institutions of pretense. And so we fail. Back in the days when I was friends with leftists, I remember reading that it was the task of each generation to determine what was possible, given the times, to accomplish something that would advance human liberation. I still think that is a noble aspiration, and grown-up too, for only chiliasts and other apocalyptic thinkers and actors would imagine immediate utopian outcomes to our efforts at understanding the world with a modicum of accuracy. The point of this blog: to be skeptical of pretenses to expert knowledge, but, after much investigation, to make a stand for empiricism and self-discovery, for human mental and physical health, even though present pressures and future developments could render our decisions flawed and ignorant. But not to succumb to utter nihilism, as Melville did during a difficult period in his own life, lived in a transition from a pre-industrial world to a new world that seemingly rewarded only frauds and phonies.
[From Moby-Dick:] “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.
Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!”(Northwestern-Newberry edition, 363-364). Has Ahab seized the narration, or is it the survivor/spectator Ishmael who warns against knowledge of the self that could estrange him from the family of origin? Or is the narrator saying that to discover that we don’t know ourselves is an unbearable horror?
Pierrot can and should bend the bars of his prison to escape, at least for the moment. We should know when we bite our tongues, and forgive ourselves for not always speaking or writing what we most deeply feel and think. I feel an Ishmael writing here.