YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 13, 2014

What is cultural relativism?

culturalrelativism2Briefly, cultural relativism does NOT mean that there are no impermissible human actions—sex and violence for instance, but that different cultures have ethical systems that make sense to them, given their state of material development and the belief systems that sustain them.  Cultural relativism exists in tension with human rights and ethical universalism. The Left uses that contradiction to trash the “bourgeois” notion of human rights advanced by ethical systems as diverse as the Catholic Church and freethinking. (Multiculturalism, a form of relativism, does not acknowledge this contradiction, but imagines different cultures united without conflict as in this illustration. This is the dream world of Wilsonian internationalism and today’s multiculturalism or rooted cosmopolitanism.)

I recall a period when leftists commonly attacked “imperialism” for destroying native “communities”—no matter how backward and horrifically sexist these pre-scientific/pre-capitalist cultures were. It was also the case that some Enlightenment freethinkers (Diderot for example), imagined that “primitive” cultures were free from the instinctual repression that they attributed to the West and its strict religions. (I have written about the fantastic nature of primitives earlier on this website: see http://clarespark.com/2013/04/16/blogs-on-anarchismpunkprimitivism/.)

Or, some European leftists imagined that native Africans lived in untroubled harmony with Nature: the late Roger Garaudy for example. This was yet another common idealization of the primitive, following Rousseau or the multitudes who celebrated noble savages as a critique of surplus repression in their families of origin. The Melville Revival was partly motivated by his first two novels–the best sellers Typee and Omoo.

Turn now to Andrew Klavan’s booklet The Crisis in the Arts: Why the Left Owns the Culture and How Conservatives can Begin To Take it Back (David Horowitz Freedom Center, 2014). Klavan, a  crime fiction novelist, wants “conservatives” to open up a new front in the culture wars, by leaving off their censorious ways, and exploring the inner lives of humans, as if human nature has been the same no matter what stage of development a particular society may be in. The irony is that Klavan is addressing religious persons, either Catholics or evangelical Protestants, many of whom have been complaining about hypersexuality and violence in the media, and in popular or high culture in general. He wants their money to support Klavan-approved artists, and he wants them to create “conservative” art—art that would disseminate a new, conservatively constructed conscience, thence to rule the world, as Shelley advised in one of his most Romantic moments. Klavan also appeals to the late activist Andrew Breitbart, claiming that this was Breitbart’s hope before he died at the age of 43.

But Klavan is deeply unaware of art history, literary history, the history of popular culture, and of the marketplace of ideas that he presumably wants to extend to include his monolithic notion of conservatism (as if there were not deeply conservative trends in culture already). First, he imagines that there is something called the Left, monolithic and unified, that is currently in control of both high and popular culture. Take popular culture for instance: as a watchful consumer of both high and pop culture, I am struck by its populism, not its Leninism. The working class is not depicted as the vanguard of communist revolution, but as worthy of our compassion and respect, just as it is. Moreover, pop culture celebrates the tastes of the Common Man and Common Woman: for spectacle, for glitter, suspicion of hanky-panky in high places, and for shows of military force and physical virtuosity.

Such shows as Law and Order resemble other socially responsible capitalist productions, taking their marching orders from those institutions attacking irresponsible rich people (often Jews), whose instinctual excesses will, unchecked, instigate revolts from below. (For detailed blogs analyzing television programming see http://clarespark.com/2012/03/16/index-to-blogs-on-popular-tv-shows/.)

hornedhunk

To conclude, Klavan is still living in a magical world of mystery and simplicity, where there are no troublesome clashing world views, where families can be depicted as always happy and unified, where soldiers come home without PTSD or missing limbs, and where women would rather leave the workplace and go back home to the kitchen and multiple pregnancies. He means well; he wants an art that is so powerful it will defeat the big bad Left, to reinstitute a culture of conscience that never co-existed with the libertarian values that he simultaneously champions in this confusing booklet.

culturalrelativism1

You can stop reading here, or go on with an endnote to my book on the Melville Revival, along with some statements by powerful figures in the history of Western civilization; they deal with monsters and monstrous ideas. Monsters are one target of Klavan’s wrath, when he is in his conscience-instructing mood (as opposed to the libertarian mood):

An endnote from Hunting Captain Ahab: See John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981), 35, 47-49, 53. The Attic sensibility was viewed by medieval (Aristotelian) Catholics as moderate, disciplined and balanced, while its monstrous antitheses represented “emotion, redundance, and formal disorder”; monstrosity was correlated with “the enigmatic, the inflated and the grandiose.” The hot, deserted antipodes were linked to the vaguely situated Ethiopia, and found at the most extreme distances from the Greek center of the world; its perverse inhabitants had feet turned backwards and walked upside down; i.e., they were out of reach of the Christian gospel.

[From Chapter Five of HCA:]

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.”[i]

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!”[ii] Not surprisingly, the same tumescent Heads exasperated Dryden in Absalom 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.[i]


NOTES to book excerpts


[i] 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”?

[ii] 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.

[iii]  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).

February 22, 2014

Healthy Skepticism

noimageThis 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? davidhume 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.

Lipschitz, Pierrot Escapes

Lipschitz, Pierrot Escapes

February 7, 2014

Herman Melville on the [materialist, solitary] “backwoodsman”

possumMelville’s chapters on “the metaphysics of Indian-hating” in The Confidence-Man (1857) are often cited to defend multiculturalism and to instill liberal guilt for the fate of “les pauvres Peaux-Rouges.” This is a typical error of ideologues who rip pages out of context to appropriate an eminent writer to their cause du jour.

Not long ago, I wrote about Sydney Ahlstrom’s influential history of religion in America, pointing out that the frontiersman was his bête noir, “the anti-intellectual” bad boy of US history. (See http://clarespark.com/2014/01/08/the-frontiersmansettler-as-all-purpose-scapegoat/.) But see how Melville (speaking through the skeptical Man from Missouri/”Coonskins”) describes this same archetype: the frontiersman’s sin is primarily a deficiency of deference to his betters, a mood Melville might embrace or reject:

“The backwoodsman is a lonely man. He is a thoughtful man. He is a man strong and unsophisticated. Impulsive, he is what some might call unprincipled. At any rate, he is self-willed; being one who less hearkens to what others may say about things, than looks for himself, to see what are things themselves. If in straits, there are few to help; he must depend on himself; he must continually look to himself. Hence self-reliance, to the degree of standing by his own judgment, though it stands alone. Not that he deems himself infallible; too many mistakes in following trails prove the contrary; but he thinks that nature destines such sagacity as she has given him, as she destines it to the ‘possum. To these fellow-beings of the wilds their untutored sagacity is their best dependence. If with either it prove faulty, if the ‘possums betray it to the trap, or the backwoodsman’s mislead him into ambuscade, there are consequences to be undergone, but no self-blame. As with the ‘possum, instincts prevail with the backwoodsman over precepts. Like the ‘possum, the backwoodsman presents the spectacle of a creature dwelling exclusively among the works of God, yet these, truth must confess, breed little in him of a godly mind. Small bowing and scraping is his, further than when with bent knee he points his rifle, or picks its flint. With few companions, solitude by necessity his lengthened lot, he stands the trial—no slight one, since, next to dying, solitude, rightly borne, is perhaps of fortitude the most rigorous test.

…Whatever the nation’s growing opulence or power, does it not lackey his heels? Pathfinder, provider of security to those who come after him, for himself he asks nothing but hardship. Worthy to be compared with Moses in the Exodus….he rides upon advance, as the Polynesian upon the comb of the surf.” (Chapter XXVI)

Herman Melville went back and forth on the American mission, sometimes lauding his countrymen as the Chosen People, sometimes criticizing them as reckless killers–hence the wild divergences of interpretation as to his politics. But in the case of the backwoodsman, quoted above, I have no doubt that deference to illegitimate authority was ever Melville’s overwhelming concern. He may have had discovery anxiety, but in the end, he pushed through it, “Ishmael” may have survived, but “Ahab” kept returning to unmask the confidence-men. No wonder Henry A. Murray and Charles Olson, in their private notes, accused him of being a Jew or Hebraic.

CMcover

February 5, 2014

Joe McCarthy and the warrior spirit

McCarthy shaded by Cohn

McCarthy shaded by Cohn

I asked a historian of communism and anticommunism what books to read regarding the dread figure of Joe McCarthy, and got this assessment of M. Stanton Evans’s Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and his Fight Against America’s Enemies (Three Rivers Press, 2007) that presented an exhaustive new biography of the demonic Senator from Wisconsin: it was too sympathetic to McCarthy, said this academic whose judgment I respect.  Perhaps he is correct: I don’t know.

This blog is about how an independent scholar views the wreckage of the academic literature on the infamous anticommunist. I write because furious accusations against former allies have at times roiled the Right, though leftists and moderates have no doubt as to the beastliness of the bully, drunk, and wild man of the Midwest, along with his unsavory associates, Roy Cohn and G. David Schine. The proposed National Standards for the teaching of US history emphasized the plague of “McCarthyism” that presumably created a climate of fear and suppressed dissent until the nirvana of the 1960s and the widespread protest of the Viet Nam war. The fight over McCarthy’s veracity and character is tied up with the propriety of the US entering the Viet Nam conflict, a matter that continues to engage the field of diplomatic history.

As I have noted many times on this website, the blandness of academics in the humanities rubs me the wrong way. Even many “radicals” are conformist and timid– seemingly afraid of their shadows, lest they cast doubts on their earnestness in the eyes of the affinity group that maintains their careers. I speak from extensive experience.

Return to McCarthy and his latest champion: the journalist M. Stanton Evans. Perhaps to maintain his credibility, Evans was not reluctant to criticize the Senator for errors of judgment, for instance in attacking George Marshall and James Wechsler, superfluous targets in McCarthy’s attempts to uncover communist and fellow traveler infiltration of US policy circles, especially the State Department that “lost China.” But in order to discredit the Evans book, should not a historian go back to his sources and show that Evans misread or otherwise exaggerated their significance? That could take years unless a platoon of advanced graduate students is in tow. A “liberal” English professor wrote to me indignantly that Evans, a native son of Indiana, was sure that fluoridation of water was a communist plot, and that Evans was probably a Klansman.

I tend to view the hatred of McCarthy as a class problem. McCarthy, the son of a farmer, was an Irish Catholic who was never part of the Northeastern Ivy League-generated establishment of moderate men. Indeed, his “populist” energy and support was diminished by UC Berkeley political scientist Michael Rogin, who made the influential judgment that agrarian populist constituencies cannot account for “McCarthyism”, but rather that “traditional conservative elites” backed the Senator. (Rogin did not distinguish between moderate conservatives–i.e., liberals, and the more disreputable type.)

Well of course. Agrarian populism was dead at the time that McCarthy entered the Senate, having been co-opted by the progressive movement at the beginning of the 20th century.  While reading Evans, it occurred to me that the focus on the changing of the guard in 1952 that elected Eisenhower and threw out the Truman administration, was crucial to the drama that followed, one leading to McCarthy’s televised fight with the Army and his subsequent censure and early death. For Evans sees the moderate Eisenhower at odds with McCarthy and his mission. The new president was tied to the New Deal state, as was the Truman administration before him.

It seems to me that McCarthy and his followers were analogous to the current breach between Tea Party conservatives (small business men and white workers) and “the Republican establishment”.  It is also the case that the Midwestern, Southern, and Western “cowboys” were the targets of wrathful professors in the Ivy League, who blamed frontiersmen and other “expansionists” for the rape of the land and non-whites in their helter-skelter rugged individualist advance against Indians,, Mexicans, and Nature (see http://clarespark.com/2014/01/08/the-frontiersmansettler-as-all-purpose-scapegoat/). It is the 21st century, and only the names have changed.

I cannot explain the transformation of myself from conforming good girl and obedient wife and daughter to the libertarian/classical liberal iconoclast evident on this website. It was probably my years at Pacifica radio, where I strongly bonded with a diverse audience of autodidacts, and I continue to feel that my relative privilege and leisure allow me to seek and relate my research and reading without retaliation from a peer group of academics. “Win or lose, one must fight” said a human rights activist of my acquaintance.  The warrior spirit is socialized out of academia, though subtly and sometimes invisibly to outside observers. It was a shock for me to go from wild and wooly Pacifica to the decorum and silence of my fellow graduate students in U.S. history, who,  in order to get a job, did what they were told.

I don’t know enough from the various McCarthy biographies I have read to account for his persistence and downfall. But I do know that there are more “moderates” on the Right than is generally acknowledged, and that valiant seekers of truth are hard to come by. Read Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857): “NO TRUST” by which Melville meant not to be taken in by illegitimate authority.

And don’t miss this important essay by historian Harvey Klehr: http://www.frontpagemag.com/2013/harvey-klehr/setting-the-record-on-joe-mccarthy-straight/. Finally, there can be no reliable biography of Joseph McCarthy until his papers at Marquette University are unsealed. See http://www.marquette.edu/library/archives/Mss/JRM/JRM-main.shtml.

americaundercommunism

November 30, 2013

Railroading Captain Ahab

Everett Henry's Map of the Pequod's Voyage

Everett Henry’s Map of the Pequod’s Voyage

[What follows is an excerpt from my book Hunting Captain Ahab; it sums up my argument that progressives are incapable of describing this "great book" with accuracy, for they would have to admit their overweening statism as embodied in the White Whale (Leviathan).

Rockwell Kent's Starbuck shielding his eyes

Rockwell Kent’s Starbuck shielding his eyes

[Clare:] One feature of the (reinstated) organic society favored by many progressives is central to the Melville problem. Before the age of science, discovery, and increasing lower-class demands for a fully-realized popular sovereignty, Church and State conducted their affairs in secrecy. Their subordinates, ordinary people, were free to confess their sins to their betters, but without reciprocity; when Ahab fleeced double-talking “liberals,” from one point of view the gesture was tantamount to deicide and fratricide. For many of the corporatist thinkers who shaped the Melville Revival, Captain Ahab was the classic American type: a frontiersman, a “nosey Hebrew” (as D.H. Lawrence would say) whose curiosity must be moderated; similarly Melville’s dubious “character” as husband and father would preoccupy numerous Melville critics in the twentieth century. Much of the history I shall present is derived from published or archival materials long available but hitherto undescribed to students of American literature; literary scholars and curators have examined the astonishing archives of Henry A. Murray, Charles Olson, and Jay Leyda and biographies of Murray and Olson have been published by the most reputable presses. Many questions still remain tantalizingly unanswered and invite further research, but it is clear to me, if not to previous investigators, that in the unmonitored autodidact Herman Melville, Murray, Olson, and Leyda had an able instructor, a mirror, and an irresistible adversary who, insofar as he was Captain Ahab, must have been nervously deranged, twisted by hate. The isolato Ahab was the paradigm of social irresponsibility and his own worst enemy, while sociable Ishmael was the scholars’ antecedent doctor to society. Here is Ishmael’s ominous blood and soil account of Ahab’s origins in his native habitat: Nantucket was originally settled by peaceful Quakers, but they have been invaded by outside influences, they were “variously and anomalously modified by things altogether alien and heterogeneous.” (As Melville’s antebellum readers would have known, “…Nantucket Quakers [were] members of a sect notorious for its literally visionary beginnings and its subsequent antislavery zeal.” [i])

[Ishmael as narrator:]“…For some of these Quakers are the most sanguinary of all sailors and whale hunters. They are fighting Quakers; they are Quakers with a vengeance.

” So there are instances among them Nantucket Quakers of men, who, named with Scriptural names—a singularly common fashion on the island—and in childhood naturally imbibing the stately thee and thou of the Quaker idiom; still, from the audacious, daring, and boundless adventure of their subsequent lives, strangely blend with their unoutworn peculiarities, a thousand bold dashes of character, not unworthy a Scandinavian sea-king or a poetical Pagan Roman. And when these things unite in a man of greatly superior natural force, with a globular brain and a ponderous heart; who has also by the stillness and seclusion of many long night-watches in the remotest waters and beneath constellations never seen here in the north, been led to think untraditionally and independently; receiving all nature’s sweet or savage impressions fresh from her own virgin voluntary and confiding breast, and thereby chiefly, but with some help from accidental advantages, to learn a bold and nervous lofty language—that man makes one in a whole nation’s census—a mighty pageant creature, formed for noble tragedies. Nor will it at all detract from him, dramatically regarded, if either by birth or other circumstances, he have what seems a half wilful overruling morbidness at the bottom of his nature. For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.” (73-74).

[Clare:] In Moby-Dick’s pivotal chapter “The Quarter-Deck,” Starbuck, echoing Ishmael’s earlier diagnosis, reproaches Captain Ahab for abandoning his proper search for profits; the quest for vengeance against a “dumb brute” is blasphemous and mad. Ahab reproaches the imperceptive first mate, suggesting twice that he adopt the ways of geology and dig: “Hark ye…the little lower layer.” Then, lest Starbuck or other dense readers remain in the dark, Melville spills it: “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”[ii] Starbuck is briefly won over, but protests in a chapter that directly follows Ahab’s railroading speech:

[Chapter 37, “Sunset,” Ahab:] “Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!”

[Chapter 38, “Dusk,” Starbuck:] “My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a madman! …he drilled deep down, and blasted all my reason out of me. I think I see his impious end; but feel I must help him to it. Will I, nill I, the ineffable thing has tied me to him; tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut. Horrible old man! Who’s over him, he cries;-aye, he would be a democrat to all above; look, how he lords it over all below!…Oh, life! ‘tis in an hour like this, with soul beat down and held to knowledge,–as wild, untutored things are forced to feed–Oh, life! ‘tis now that I do feel the latent horror in thee! but ‘tis not me! that horror’s out of me! and with the soft feeling of the human in me, yet will I try to fight ye, ye grim phantom futures! Stand by me, hold me, bind me, O ye blessed influences!”

[Clare:] Standing by Starbuck, one Melville scholar has construed these pages as evidence of Ahab’s protofascism:

[Christopher Durer:] “Like Adolph Hitler, Captain Ahab reaches for the “folksoul” of the crew, and manipulates their minds with the sinister skill of Joseph Goebbels. As in Nazi Germany, so on board the Pequod, the excesses of the will play a major role, as is illustrated in the various speeches of Ahab, and her fated course is, in effect, another triumph of the will. Again, paralleling the transformation of the German nation under the Nazis, the crew of the Pequod becomes “a folk organism and not an economic organization,” since Ahab deliberately rejects the commercial advantages of whaling for a collective psychological fulfillment, resulting from the revengeful pursuit of one whale, seen as the enemy of the state…Ahab is in reality a prototype of a twentieth-century fascist dictator.”[iii]

Ahab and Starbuck as imagined by John Huston and Ray Bradbury

Ahab and Starbuck as imagined by John Huston and Ray Bradbury

[Clare:]For many Melvilleans, ineffably tied to their tormentor, the most unassimilable element of Melville’s psyche has been Ahab’s materialism yoked to universal standards of ethical conduct. To the extent that Melville is Ahab, he is mad, self- and socially destructive, tyrannical, and an arch-villain. Such views conform to the terror-gothic scenario, amplified by conservatives since the Radical Reformation, the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, the American and French Revolutions, then the intertwined reform movements of the 1830s-1850s, especially abolitionism. In the “tale of terror” brains and mobs are indissolubly merged; the pregnant bourgeoisie, swollen with a new class and its chimerical socialist utopias, has delivered catastrophes from the French Revolution to Bolshevism and Nazism. In two-dimensional artworks, this aristocratic narrative of the drowning Narcissus/crashing Icarus is frozen as the apocalyptic sublime, the style attributed to mass politics and America. Harold Lasswell, political science consultant to the influential postwar Committee For Economic Development, transmitted such neo-classical diagnoses of “romantic Fascism” and urged the adoption of Murray’s projective testing to implement a program of personnel screening and preventive politics, sighting latent radicalism in prospective leaders in government, industry, labor, and education before they succumbed to the blandishments of Ahab, thereby obviating sleazy witch hunts. Threatened or dispossessed elites continue to flood popular culture with identical antidemocratic propaganda, shaping academic disciplines and mental health treatments to blunt the tools of fiery artisans and their radical descendants.

Defining Melville’s mental states, then, was not simply grist for variously voyeuristic or discreet literary historians, but part of ongoing “Cold Wars” to diagnose and delimit normality and deviance. For some Melvilleans, the divisive apostate Melville, like his characters Ahab, Pierre, Isabel, the “Hegelised” German-Jewish geologist Margoth, and other Bad Jews, has been cast out; ‘Melville’ and other Good Jews have been taken in and ‘tolerated’ by ‘the nation.’[iv] The national bedrock is the sanctity of (upper-class) property (i.e., overweening state power: Leviathan), not the republican principle of equality before the law. Melville has been selectively embraced by a reconstructed lovely family–an erasure of conflict evident in the letters of Melville’s mother and wife. In my study of the Melville Revival, I challenge Starbuck’s view of Ahab as totalitarian dictator along with the concomitant argument followed by some Old and New Leftists that the voyage of the Pequod is an unambiguous allegory of capitalist technology and exploitation, Manifest Destiny, and mind-management in its harshest aspects.[v]

Labor Vincit Omnia


[i] 22. Carolyn Karcher, Shadow Over The Promised Land: Slavery, Race, and Violence in Melville’s America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1980), 172.

[ii] 23. Neither statement was included in the dialogue of the movie Moby-Dick (1956); thus there is no way to link Ahab’s quest to Mapple’s Sermon (which in the film does include the imperative to seek and preach the truth in the face of worldly opposition); moreover the interchange takes place in Ahab’s cabin and Starbuck challenges his authority immediately. The director was John Huston; the script writer Ray Bradbury.

[iii] 24. Christopher S. Durer, “Moby-Dick and Nazi Germany,”Melville Society Extracts 66 (May 1986): 8. Constructions of Ahab as Hitler invariably depend upon irrationalist explanations for the appeal of fascism and Nazism; rational political and economic interests have been erased.

[iv] 25. See William Braswell, Melville’s Religious Thought: An Essay in Interpretation (Durham, North Carolina: Duke Univ. Press, 1943). “Melville was aware of the deification of science in some quarters. Henry Kalloch Rowe, in his History of Religion in the United States, writes: ‘Many scientists were so enamored of their facts and hypotheses that they claimed too much. They seemed to take pleasure in the destruction of that which was old. They inclined toward a materialistic explanation of all phenomena to the exclusion of spiritual reality altogether.’ It is scientists of this type that Melville derides in Clarel in the character of Margoth, a Jewish geologist who says that ‘all’s geology,’ and who would do away with the ‘old theologic myth.’ Because of Margoth’s insensibility to spiritual things, the pilgrims condemn him severely, and Melville adds an extra touch by causing an ass to bray after certain of Margoth’s speeches” (111, my emph.). Even more crudely put, see Vincent Kenny on Margoth: “…a geologist, a ‘Hegelised–/Convert to science.’ He calls the Bible a tissue of lies and insists that the so-called Holy Land must be made over in the name of progress. Unlike the Syrian monk with his gentle appeal, Margoth repels everyone within sound of his loud voice.” In Companion to Melville Studies, ed. John Bryant (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 382-383. Insofar as Melville is seen to espouse these classically Christian antisemitic views, he would be a positive figure to organic conservatives discussed in this book.

[v] 26. D. H. Lawrence (1923) is cited by Ronald Mason, The Spirit Above The Dust (London: John Lehmann, 1951), as characterizing the Pequod as a sign for American industry. (Indeed,  Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature demonized America as a mongrel country that would, aided by the machine, destroy Europe and the white psyche. Ahab was destroying phallic power as epitomized in the White Whale, hence for Lawrence, Moby-Dick was a warning to true aristocrats.) With the exception of the try-pot, however, the technology of whaling ships had not changed for three hundred years when Melville wrote Moby-Dick. The mechanics of whaling partook of craft in hunter-gatherer societies, not the increasingly divided labor and mastery of nature characteristic of industrial processes. The few exceptions to the bad Ahab reading include Raymond M. Weaver, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic (New York: Doran, 1921); Granville Hicks, The Great Tradition (New York: Macmillan, 1935), 7; Henry Alonzo Myers, Are Men Equal? An Inquiry into the Meaning of American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell Univ.Press, 1955, c.1945), 51-55; Cecil M. Brown, “Through a Looking Glass: The White Whale,”Partisan Review (1969): 453-459; and Toni Morrison,“Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,”Michigan Quarterly (Winter 1989): 16-17. Hicks and Myers see Ahab as reformer; Myers, a pluralist, recognizes Ahab’s driving (but misplaced) intensity; he is the romantic “earnest reformer” (like those 19th C. crusaders assaulting “ignorance, clericalism, slavery, alcohol, capitalism, war”); whereas Cecil Brown sees a heroic revolutionary (contrasted with the “jew-bastard” surviving liberal, Ishmael); for Toni Morrison (a cultural nationalist), Ahab is a great foe to racism: “the only white male American heroic enough to try to slay the monster that was devouring the world as he knew it.” Most recently, Richard C. Doenges presented a paper “Ahab Redux: or Playing the Devil’s Advocate,”at the “Melville and the Sea” Conference, June 19, 1999, Mystic Connecticut. Doenges sees Ahab as both mad and a tragic hero with the whale a representation of Nature in its hostile mode; I view this as a moderated reading, not one entirely favorable to Ahab, who, unlike Ishmael, as the author argues, was blinded by the fire.

Readings by liberals and leftists hostile to Ahab include Charles H. Foster, “Something in Emblems: A Reinterpretation of Moby-Dick,” New England Quarterly (Mar. 1961): 3-35, who views Father Mapple as an ultra-abolitionist the likes of Garrison, Richard Hildreth, and Gilbert Haven, but Ahab as Daniel Webster, an apologist for slavery and a demagogue. Some see Melville, or Ahab (or both) as ineffectual bohemian, consummate narcissist or world-destroying arch-capitalist; or anticipator of Hitler and Stalin: see V.F. Calverton, The Liberation of American Literature (New York: Scribner’s, 1932), 272-273; Henry Bamford Parkes, “Poe, Hawthorne, Melville: An Essay in Sociological Criticism,” Partisan Review 16 (Feb.1949): 157-166; Richard Chase, Herman Melville: A Critical Study (N.Y., Macmillan, 1949), 101; John Howard Lawson, The Hidden Heritage (New York: Citadel Press, 1950): 428; James B. Hall, “Moby Dick: Parable of a Dying System,” Western Review (Spring 1950): 223-226; C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (self-publ.1953), its last chapter (suppressed in a later edition) linked Ahab to a duplicitous Jewish communist named “M.” See also Leo Marx,”The Machine in the Garden,” New England Quarterly 29 (Mar. 1956): 27-42; and H. Bruce Franklin, The Victim As Criminal And Artist: Literature from the prison (New York:  Oxford Univ. Press, 1978): Chapter Two.

November 5, 2013

Kerry Washington, SCANDAL, and miscegenation

Kerry W in "Olivia Pope" mode

Kerry W in “Olivia Pope” mode

This blog is about actress Kerry Washington’s confusion about the primary fear of segregationists in both the antebellum North and South and then in the post-60s age of multiculturalism. The host of SNL November 2, 2013, complained that she was paired with a white president. Ms. Washington seems not to have understood that her sexual liaison with the white President was the scandal of SCANDAL.

On Monday November 4, the bean counters of NPR noted Ms. Washington’s appearance on SNL, noting that she was funny, and that it was scandalous that there was no regular African-American female cast member.  (See the “diversity” issue brought up here also: http://popwatch.ew.com/2013/11/03/snl-recap-kerry-washington-eminem/.)

It is indisputable that the fear of miscegenation was the great fear of Americans before bohemianism and bogus ‘anti-racism’ overtook American culture,  recent developments that have screwed up the formulators of affirmative action, who relied on blood and soil definitions of identity, as had their German Romantic forebears. What box to check when the applicant has “mixed blood”?

What follows is an excerpt from my book ms. that lays out the overpowering importance of “amalgamation” that infused even so advanced a city as antebellum Boston, home of abolitionism and such luminaries as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Charles Sumner.  By radical Enlightenment, I refer solely to intellectual freedom and human rights as limned in the Declaration of Independence and the First  Amendment to the US Constitution. (I call the Progressives conservative enlighteners, because they co-opted ‘science’ in the service of political stability and social cohesion, discarding the search for truth.)

[excerpt Hunting Captain Ahab, chapter 2:] One distinguished proto-Progressive was Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the State of Massachusetts (1830-60), Herman Melville’s father-in-law and patron until his death. I have joined two of Shaw’s major decisions to suggest a leitmotif for the Melville Revival: the paradoxical Progressive gesture of simultaneous incorporation and encysting; we will see this process repeated as ambivalent Melville scholars elevate/reject Melville as Ahab, charismatic transmitter of radical Enlightenment.

Judge Shaw had decriminalized labor unions in his landmark decision of 1842, Commonwealth v. Hunt.[i] In Sarah C. Roberts v. City of Boston, 1849, however, Judge Shaw created the precedent for Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896, the “separate-but-equal” doctrine that was not overturned until Brown v. Board of Education removed the legal basis for school segregation in 1954. Concluding the Roberts case, Shaw announced a unanimous decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court upholding the right of the Boston Primary School Committee to exclude black children from white schools as long as blacks were educated elsewhere. The Chief Justice explained, “The law had not created, and could not alter the deep-rooted prejudice which sanctioned segregation.” Undaunted, Charles Sumner, advocate for five-year-old Sarah Roberts and her father Benjamin, pressed on, accompanied by fellow abolitionists and integrationists, white and black. With the added support of sympathetic opinion in the towns, school segregation was outlawed by the state legislature and signed into law April 28, 1855. Prayed the New York Herald May 4,

“Now the blood of the Winthrops, the Otises, the Lymans, the Endicotts, and the Eliots, is in a fair way to be amalgamated with the Sambos, the Catos, and the Pompeys. The North is to be Africanized. Amalgamation has commenced. New England heads the column. God save the Commonwealth of Massachusetts!” [ii]

Propinquity alone must overwhelm blue blood; ring the tocsin! Not so for Captain Ahab as he took “Bell-boy,” the black child Pip, into his cabin: “Come! I feel prouder leading thee by thy black hand, than though I grasped an Emperor’s!” Melville and his revivers often diverged in their approaches to independent labor organization and its multifarious amalgamations; the labor question, in turn, is entwined with epistemology in an Age of Revolution. In the venerable centrist discourse (in use since the English Civil War) agreeable folks possessed qualities hitherto associated with race or ethnicity: moderates were good (Tory) Anglo-Saxons; extremists were bad (Hebraic) Anglo-Saxons, overtaken and infiltrated by radical puritanism–the source of all obdurate, selfish, polarizing and deceptive materialist influences. As introduced above, I use the term “corporatist” and “organic conservative” to characterize the triumphant ideology of postwar businessmen, federal bureaucrats and union leaders, the moderate men of “the vital center,” viny humanists all. Emulating the gradualism advocated by the eighteenth-century politician Edmund Burke, the corporatist ideologues presented their scientific socio-economic theory as progressive, i.e., updated and rectified liberalism. The claims of individuals would be balanced against the claims of community and tradition. A weak social democracy was the outcome, with the stipulation that the doctrine of abstract rights, a Jacobin innovation, was out of bounds.

The holistic “vital” vision would unify warring fragments. Spiritualized but fact-loving moderates were at odds both with materialists to their Left (such as the IWW and the Socialist Party, later the Communist Party and the anti-Stalinist liberal Left) and with materialists to their Right. During the Depression, the Left wanted independent labor unions, extensive government regulation of industry, and all forms of social security (including health insurance) to emanate directly from the federal bureaucracy; the market-oriented Right opposed all labor unions and all state regulation. (For the latter, “inefficient” national social security programs would undermine self-reliance, choice, and local control. At that time, some Progressives classified National Socialism as a racist movement of the Left, not the Right; indeed, during the 1930s Gerard Swope’s social democratic proposals, more extensive than Roosevelt’s, were greeted by Herbert Hoover as “fascistic.”)

Kerry femme fatale mode

Kerry femme fatale mode


                [i]  10. See Philip Foner, History of the Labor Movement In The United States, Vol.1 (New York: International Publishers, 1947), 163-64. Foner was discussing the Whig pretense that their party served the interests of independent workingmen using suffrage to remedy their grievances. Shaw’s decision had made it legal “to organize and bargain collectively” (but with “enough leeway” to be gutted by “reactionary judges”). In 1839-40, seven leaders of the Boston Journeymen Bootmaker’s Society had been indicted and found guilty for conspiracy, the bootmakers having made rules that would have excluded non-members from the craft. It was argued that they maliciously intended to destroy the plaintiff’s business; Shaw was reversing a Municipal Court decision that had held the Bootmakers’ regulations a conspiracy, enforced or not. Foner quoted Shaw’s opinion: associations could “adopt measures ‘that may have a tendency to impoverish another, that is, to diminish his gains and profits, and yet so far from being criminal and unlawful, the object may be highly meritorious and public spirited. The legality of such an association will therefore depend upon the means to be used for its accomplishment. If it is carried into effect by fair or honorable and lawful means, it is to say the least, innocent, if by falsehood or force, it may be stamped with the character of conspiracy.’ ” Shaw had drawn a clean boundary between honorable and dishonorable social action; Melville would be interrogating Shaw’s distinction in his most disputed texts: what if the fair and honorable were always punished, while the rascals were deemed “innocent”?

                [ii] 11. See Leo Litwack, North of Slavery (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961), Chapter 4 for a full discussion of the conflict. The Roberts case was argued by Charles Sumner before Shaw’s court, Dec. 4, 1849. Melville began writing Moby-Dick in 1850.

August 9, 2013

Melodrama and its appeal

melodramacrThis is a defense of the professional historian, with a further exploration into the dream world of melodrama. It follows http://clarespark.com/2013/08/08/neocons-academics-melodrama/, and is best read in sequence. (I am taking sides here, but I ask my “side” to take into account the emotional attachments and psychodynamics of the other side, as well as our own.)

It is all too easy to fall into the language of myth. Thus, in the current polarization over whether or not Ronald Radosh is a hero or a villain (the same goes for his antagonist Diana West), we may fail to transcend these mythic stereotypes. I brought up the pervasiveness of “melodrama” in my last blog, but skipped over it too quickly.

There are numerous academics who insist that relatively objective history is impossible and we should not even bother. Hayden White, who ran the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz, is one example: he argued that all history falls into the genres of literature, such as comedy or tragedy. His “postmodern” followers are legion and many are in powerful positions. I remember Richard Slotkin, a popular professor at Wesleyan University and author, arguing with me at a conference on “The American Hero” in 1978: There could be no escape from myth, he insisted. I demurred, though I will acknowledge that it is no easy task to get beyond our own subjectivity, i.e., the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world we inhabit. These are stories that often have well-defined heroes, villains, and victims. I was born August 10, 1937, and I still amaze myself with reconfigurations of my family dynamics, all my decisions, including “mistakes”, or the flaws vs. the achievements of my immediate family. I pride myself on my willingness to correct errors, to escape the vocabulary of melodrama, but wonder if I have fallen into yet another trap of subjectivity, that perhaps I will never “get it right.”

This is healthy. Before I went to graduate school in history, I was compiling a context for sentimental song as popularized by the middle class before the American Civil War. It was then that I saw the abundance of songs about dead infants (infant mortality and early death were common occurrences at that time). I also noted the prevalence of heroes, villains, and victims in the discourses of the popular composers of the antebellum period. I read Melville with relief, because I was sick to death of gruesome lyrics and relieved to see him satirize the emotional vocabulary of his contemporaries, for instance in his send-up of sentimental novels: e.g., Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852). Decades before Freud, Melville interrogated his family myths, and ended up with ambivalence and ambiguity, not only about his choices, but with respect to his feelings about his closest relatives, particularly his “dear, perfect father.” Melville, then and now, remains one of our greatest critics of melodrama. He has been punished for that, and his major crime would seem to be that he makes us think; he makes us look inside ourselves, and even then, we may never know what motivated us for certain. His protagonist “Pierre” is another Captain Ahab; there are striking similarities between the two Romantic heroes. The lesson they suggest to the reader is that the Romantic hero may be an antihero, even a destructive, demonic force. Melville does not conclude with clear answers; he leaves readers somewhat disoriented, but with a curious, questioning, unsettled kind of mind.

My major gripe with populism is that it hews to the romantic vocabulary of hero, villain, and victim. “The people” (rarely defined in terms of precise socio-economic class or gender) are the victims of villains (finance capital, warmongers, Jews, political hacks, professors), but are saved by designated heroic figures who finger the bad guys, and turn victims into heroes as they defend the people’s detective against onslaughts from, say, Ronald Radosh or the professors and journalists who support his critique of Diana West. Years ago I faced a similar situation when I defended Walter Lippmann from the followers of Noam Chomsky. Some Chomsky-ites remain unpersuaded by my essay, remaining heroically tied to their Leader against the forces of “manufactured consent” (i.e. the Jews who allegedly control mass media. See http://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/). I understand these attachments, which find their force in loyalty to families and other authority figures who hold the powers of life and death over us, even as we grow into adulthood.

Hero-worship is unattractive and un-American whether it emanates from the far Left/counter-culture or far Right. To many populists, Joseph McCarthy has been vindicated by the briefly opened Soviet archives after 1989, but they do not appreciate the caution that trained historians and political scientists exerted when interpreting the revelations about real Soviet espionage during the 1930s onward. It is one thing to recognize that Alger Hiss was guilty, but quite another to implicate all liberals, including FDR and his entire administration in Hiss’s treason. It is one thing to argue that the Cold War was fought too weakly (see Revel’s How Democracies Perish, summarized here: http://clarespark.com/2011/04/09/jean-francois-revel-and-father-mapple/), but quite another to claim that “America” was occupied by commie-symps for decades, that “America” was “betrayed” by moderates and liberals.

None of this mythologizing would be possible without the “culturalist” turn in the writing of U.S. history, combined with the promiscuous gullibility of internet users who enjoy being “inside-dopesters.” Economic interest was erased in favor of ethnicity and identity politics. The result? Our journalists usually fail to describe partisan conflicts (including internal ones) with accuracy. In my reading, economic factors and beliefs about wealth creation are foremost in the current polarization: Keynesians believe that the State is the most potent force enabling upward mobility, while free market theorists generally favor supply-side economics as more efficient and conferring improved life chances. (This conflict about wealth creation perhaps splits both political parties internally, complicating our political culture insofar as it goes unnoticed.)

What makes historians competent is their long immersion in archival research and their participation in the most heated debates over what really happened in the past. This is a discourse that has no place for hero-worship. We ought to suspect everybody, including ourselves as we read what is available to our eyes. It takes the most arduous training and ongoing humility to become even somewhat competent in any sub-field. To imagine that an English major from Yale, armed with only a bachelor’s degree, is able to correct the work of an entire group of historians (some of them sadder-but-wiser neocons), is to indulge oneself in the most primitive and destructive thinking.

Perilsofpauline

May 30, 2013

Nostalgia for the “Middle Ages”

old tapestryNew Republic literary critic Leon Wieseltier was quoted in the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, May 29, 2013 as “Notable and Quotable.” These excerpts were taken from the commencement speech delivered by Wieseltier at Brandeis University on May 19, which warned students not to yield to the blandishments of science and technology.: “There is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the two imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction—once bitterly contested, then generally accepted , now almost completely forgotten—between the study of nature and the study of man.  …You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history—you are the stewards of that quality….Perhaps culture is now the counterculture. “

Wieseltier believes that this “saving remnant” will protect us against “the twittering acceleration of American consciousness….” [What on earth does he mean by that?]

This imprecation to drastically sever the link between the study of man with the study of nature, coupled with his nod to “religion” rhymes very well with the occasional turn to medievalism at such bastions of ex-leftist thinking as Pajamas Media (see http://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2013/05/28/video-in-defense-of-the-middle-ages/, seen also on the Dennis Prager “university” http://www.prageruniversity.com/History/Were-the-Middle-Ages-Dark.html. These videos are based on the work of Anthony Esolen: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_M._Esolen)   It has been my position as both a student of intellectual history (with a strong interest in art and literary history), that the freethinking individual was unknown and often burned at the stake for daring to deviate from the rules laid down by medieval and even Renaissance priests and monarchs.

weapons-of-middle-ages

The Promethean impulse was sorely punished before the Enlightenment, and even Voltaire had to publish anonymously. And that pioneer Spinoza was hounded as a heretic for his materialist philosophy that joined Man with Nature and for his support of the short-lived but pathbreaking Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century.

But what is most disturbing, almost laughable, is Wieseltier’s posture as a revolutionary naysayer to the most advanced democracy in the history of our species, when he comes out as a diehard reactionary. Perhaps he likes girls with long tresses. The Middle Ages lingered into the 19th century with the vogue for William Morris craftsmanship, or before his ascendancy, the prestige of the Pre-Raphaelites, now in revival as a protest against the “desecration of nature.”

A contemporary version of Archangel Raphael

A contemporary version of Archangel Raphael

The real Middle Ages were a period of anarchy and arbitrary authority, localism,  interminable warfare, short life expectancy, institutionalized Jew-hatred, material deprivation, and slavery to powerful overlords, whose control over the lower orders was reinforced by “religion” that Wieseltier lauds as the proper study of his new counterculture (note that he does not distinguish between religions at odds with each other and with secularism. Such vagueness is typical of the moderate men who do not want anyone to be angry with them).  The centuries of struggle and sacrifice that brought us to pluralist, secularized modernity should not be so casually overturned by Brandeis University and its supportive media institutions. As for the study of cultural artifacts that Wieseltier recommends, it is not so easily accomplished as he imagines. Art works do not speak for themselves: they are always positioned against competing ideas and rules: look to their patrons and you will find the key to their artworks. Indeed, one of the great neglected themes in Melville scholarship (and the same might be said for his contemporary Victor Hugo) is ambivalence, as artists struggle with themselves either to accept or reject their freedom to write as they feel, for social cohesion is at stake, including their own interior conflicts that they imagine can hurl them into the abyss of poverty and artistic failure. (Melville’s father-in-law was Lemuel Shaw, a conservative Whig and Chief Justice of Massachusetts, also his patron.)

There is much to be criticized in this modern world, but its defects are not traceable to the “imperialism” of science and technology, but to the reactionary forces that thought that the transition from feudalism to capitalism could be managed without quality mass education and the preservation of the individual conscience and its rights as institutionalized in the First Amendment to the American Constitution. I remember Dr. Henry A. Murray, mind-manager extraordinaire, complaining about religious pluralism because the very fact that some had different belief systems suggested that one’s own religion  might be fallible. Such self-doubt (often described as ambiguity) fostered social division, not the desired social cohesion. (See http://clarespark.com/2012/03/26/henry-a-murray-and-the-tat/, or http://clarespark.com/2012/09/22/materialist-history-and-the-idea-of-progress/.) Is it any wonder that so many artists and writers must write under a mask, simply to express their inner selves?Mask-SuttonHoo7thC

May 18, 2013

Friendship in the era of anti-Freud

Paul Prud'hon, 1793

Paul Prud’hon, 1793

The publication today of the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 manual, reminds us that insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies alike have no interest in Freud’s “talking cure”—which simply meant that relief from psychogenic symptoms could be alleviated by telling a neutral party (the psychoanalyst) in a protected, safe (confidential) setting about the traumas and family relationships of early childhood up to the present; in the case of Freudian therapy, such memories were usually repressed but dredged up through free association and transference, in which the analyst was the recipient of feelings about the parent that gradually, under the guidance of the analyst, were traced back to the family of origin. Presumably psychogenic symptoms would abate.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talking_cure.)

The un-ambivalently bourgeois Freud and his methods are now not only under attack by postmodernists and Foucauldians, but by his old enemies, those who believe that human suffering is inevitable in this, the Devil’s realm, and that freedom from what are now deemed to be “personality disorders” can at best be alleviated with pills and behavioral cognitive therapy, a form of short-term “affordable” therapy that ostensibly rewires the brain. (It is derived from Behaviorism, and was seen as torture in Clockwork Orange.)

While I was briefly teaching at California Institute of the Arts, a form of therapy called “Re-evaluation Counseling” was in vogue and several marriages broke up as a result, for it was my theory at least that partners in “co-counseling” (never married to each other) had never experienced being listened to for one hour as they brought up troubling experiences from their past. Such rare attention to old troubles was an impetus to romantic love (as I speculated). (On this method and its origin, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Re-evaluation_Counseling.)

Which brings me to the subject of this blog: how even one intimate, strictly confidential friendship can partly substitute for the loss of Freud and his methods.

First, despite the romanticizing of the nuclear family by politicians and churches, the family of origin is a hotbed of potential trauma that can haunt the adult throughout life, poisoning all relationships and causing chronic illness. I have no doubt that rivalries for the favor of either Mother or Father are real, however out of fashion “Freudians” may be. But we must bury such rivalries (with either parent, or with siblings) for the sake of the “family unity” that is favored by demagogues of every stripe.  I refer not only to Oedipal feelings or to “the Elektra complex” but to the fierce resentments inflicted through sibling rivalry. Our feelings toward parents and siblings, however, must remain “pure” and unambivalent, for ambivalence is a no-no as we celebrate Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or the birthdays of childhood rivals whom we are not permitted to resent, even as they displaced us or bullied us in untold and/or repressed family dramas. (For more on this, see http://clarespark.com/2013/01/17/bondage-and-the-family/, and http://clarespark.com/2011/01/26/obama-and-the-rhetoric-of-the-political-family/.)

How can friendship alleviate these forbidden, often sick-making feelings? My first advice is not to expect family members to substitute for the undivided attention of a friend. Parents and siblings are the last persons who want to hear about their lack of parenting skills or other deficiencies, some structural and not their fault at all.

Second, the friend must be one who has been tested through time not to gossip and to keep confidences; also to be non-judgmental about the expression of negative feelings. Such a person will presumably  have enough self-knowledge to be an appropriate recipient of such personal confidences and not to be freaked out.

If we are so unlucky not to have such a buddy, then do what I do: cuddle up to the great fiction writers and poets. Most of them were Freud’s inspiration too, as he freely admitted. Besides the Greek dramatists, many of the greatest contemporary novelists of the last two centuries were such resources, whatever their politics. Personal favorites of mine are Benjamin Disraeli, Herman Melville, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow. Melville, for instance, threw his inner feelings and ambivalence wide open for all readers to witness, to mull over, and to apply to one’s own closest attachments.

Above all, however, read the post-Freudian attachment theorists: you won’t find many feminists recommending them, for they  emphasize the danger of careless separations between mothers and infants: John Bowlby, Donald Winnicott and Margaret Mahler. (For my summary of how hasty maternal separation from infants and small children can cause panic attacks and separation anxiety, see http://clarespark.com/2009/11/16/panic-attacks-and-separation-anxiety/. For my blogs on Freud and anti-Freudians see http://clarespark.com/2013/03/16/blogs-on-freud-and-anti-freudians/. For an even more negative view of DSM-5 than mine see http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21578050-single-book-has-come-dominate-psychiatry-dangerous-shrink-wrapping?fsrc=scn%2Ftw%2Fte%2Fpe%2Fshrinkwrapping.)

Panic Attack George Grie

Panic Attack George Grie

March 2, 2013

“Free Speech” and the internet

Moreau's Prometheus

Moreau’s Prometheus

This is not the first time I have broached this subject. See http://clarespark.com/2010/04/04/what-is-truth/.

When Melville’s Captain Ahab exclaimed “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines,” the author left the exact meaning of “truth” undefined. For many Christian readers of Moby-Dick, truth signified the truth of Christ the Saviour and Redeemer, hence Ahab must be a wicked blasphemer and opponent of God. But for secularists (including deists), truth signified empirical fact, ethical universalism, and human rights. In my view, the “fighting Quaker” Ahab was another Father Mapple, an abolitionist. Many “anticlericals” of the 18th C. railed against censorship by authoritarian religious institutions, but their notion of the truth was intended to protect their own writing; such as Voltaire scrambled, using either pen names or publishing anonymously.

Sometime during the research for my book on Herman Melville’s resuscitation between the wars in the 20th century, I read the collected letters of Abigail Adams, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. It was clear that for these three icons of U.S. history, free speech was not about libel or slander, but about the search for worldly truth. Similarly, Alexander Hamilton, in the Crosswell case, argued that “truth” should be the standard in cases of libel and slander; that plaintiffs had to prove that their targets were actually lying before crying foul. (See http://clarespark.com/2012/03/03/sluts-and-pigs/.)

Several centuries later, Walter Lippmann, worried about the propensities of the new mass media to spread propaganda distortions, suggested that a special class of intellectuals be developed to determine who was lying in controverted matters: controversies where the facts were faraway and otherwise hidden from citizens who would then be asked to vote on problems that were foreign to their direct experience. (See http://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.)

When I was appointed Program Director of KPFK-FM (the local Pacifica station in Los Angeles) in February 1981, I was asked immediately to discipline a late-night young programmer who was enamored of punk rock music, and who was allegedly using language that could have cost us our broadcasting license. After warning him, he resisted, and I cancelled his show, irritating his listeners. This action was the least of my troubles at Pacifica, but it got me thinking about our using the phrase “free speech” as a rationale for supporting our famously “non-commercial” radio station.

Now with the internet and the widespread use of fake screen names to shield individuals from litigation or any exposure at all as they vent their dissatisfaction and hatred of individuals and policies, along with pressure from organized groups to control speech in public space ( see http://clarespark.com/2013/01/12/hate-hard-liberty-quick-fixes/, and http://clarespark.com/2011/05/26/who-is-a-racist-now/) the question of free speech remains a live, controverted issue. What do I think about it?

It seems to me that venting rage, either directly through insulting one’s opponents, or through catharsis by listening to or playing raucous music or watching horror films, is no substitute for the careful analysis of problems, whether these be personal or social in scope. Indeed, it may be counter-revolutionary and  destructive apart from the relief of yelling at one’s enemies du jour. Venting and kvetching is no substitute for thoughtful analysis and the labor of organizing opposition.

I used to warn my Pacifica radio listeners that contributing to the radio station was only the beginning of a lengthy process. Later I read Stephen Eric Bronner’s book on the political limitations of German Expressionism that made the same point. There are numerous intellectuals and would be journalists and bloggers who hope to make a living wagging fingers (on both the Left and Right), and some succeed brilliantly at it, but following them accomplishes nothing apart from feeling entirely alienated from their targets, whose different life experience and opinions should be understood as a required prelude to social/political action.

So I end up with a typical 18th C. Enlightenment (classical liberal) view of “the truth.” It is about discovery and innovation, especially the willingness to swim against all currents and to cherish memory and a more accurate history, letting chips fall. (See http://clarespark.com/2013/02/21/discovery-anxiety/.) If this be romantic defiance or an attack upon “unity” as many an order-loving leftist or conservative would have it, so much the better for romantic defiance. The urge to forget and to conform knows no ideological boundaries. But we warned: as fictional detective Bobby Goren warned at the end of one of his episodes on Law and Order Criminal Intent: “The search for truth is not for the faint-hearted.” It was an Ahab/Hamiltonian moment.

1960s Berkeley radicals

1960s Berkeley radicals

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