YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

December 18, 2014

Rape culture

rape-culture-imageThis blog is about “rape culture” (an invention of such “man-haters” as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon in the 1970s), “The Affair” (a Showtime series), and postmodern treatments of the battle of the sexes.

The second wave of feminism did not turn out well, although some of the chapters in The Shock of the Global (Belknap Press of Harvard U., 2010), state or hint that feminism was the most lasting of the 1970’s “human rights movements” that displaced the “Cold War consensus,” going so far in its chapter on Rock Music to claim that groupies were sexually liberated, like androgynous rock stars, making a lasting contribution to the war against the puritanical 1950s. That a woman wrote this chapter, inverting freedom and slavery, should not surprise us. The second wave of feminism was sex-obsessed and most of the activist women I have known would hate this blog.

I have written earlier about the unwinnable and inevitable “battle of the sexes” for all research and personal observation show that men and women are put together differently, and no amount of activism, cross-dressing, or preaching will change these biological differences. (I wrote about androgyny here: http://clarespark.com/2014/01/23/androgyny/.)

DavidBowie

Thus when postmodern feminists of either sex try to contrast male and female perspectives on events in a marriage or an affair, they get it only partly right, as for instance, the contrasting views of recent events in Noah vs. Alison in “The Affair.” (For instance, Noah initially sees Alison as a femme fatale, a perception reiterated in the Fiona Apple death-obsessed song “Container” that heads each episode; whereas Alison sees Noah as the more aggressive of the pair.)

What is missing is any depth of insight into the difficulties in maintaining the romance in any relationship. Also MIA is the attraction that all mature adults feel for the unspoiled beauty of young children, who we imagine to be “innocent” of the animal urges that torment us in attempting to maintain a monogamous relationship, especially a relationship with children who may arouse contrasting and incompatible feelings in fathers versus mothers. (See http://clarespark.com/2009/06/16/woody-allen-and-the-myth-of-the-artist/.)

Most public speech is heavily censored, much of it by ourselves, as we fight to maintain our idealizations of those we love or admire. So we count on poetry and fiction to illuminate the “dark” side of our impulses, but authors, no matter how talented, well-intentioned, and “conscious” may have the same limitations as readers. For we are all populated internally by “ignorant armies that clash by night.” As I have maintained often on this website, we are to an unknowable extent prisoners of our contexts.

This blog has been abstract and vague for reasons of privacy, or perhaps not. For as Herman Melville famously observed in his “crazy” novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), “It is impossible to talk or to write without apparently throwing oneself helplessly open.” (Note the qualifying word “apparently”; this is how Melville hooks the reader, laying traps wherever he wanders. On the ideological misreadings of Melville’s oeuvre see http://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/.)

“NO TRUST.”

notrust

December 2, 2014

Academics, artists, and the “Nazi question”

affinity-groupsSometimes I ask myself, why do I read so much about theories of “fascism” and/or Nazi Germany? This blog attempts to answer that question, with some asides on the socialization of academics. My overall concern is why we don’t have a proper education for democracy.

I. First, my apparent “obsession”: Being born in 1937, I was a small child during WW2, and I still remember my anxiety when my father went off to join the Army medical corps; then we followed him around the country as he spent most of his service as a pathologist at various army bases. I don’t remember a time when I did not fear for his life, though he didn’t get in trouble until he suffered life-threatening allergies in Guadalcanal—the one time he (briefly) left the States. I didn’t hear a word about “the Holocaust” until after the war, and then my parents were reluctant to give me any details. It wasn’t until television treated the subject in the early 1970s that I first understood the magnitude of the event. And it was not until 1986 when I heard David Wyman and Deborah Lipstadt lecture on the cover-up of the event. After that, I even asked my favorite professor when Americans first learned about it, and she answered: “1945”—clearly the wrong answer. Thus began my extended inquiry into the character of anti-Semitism and related distorted notions. Before that, I had constantly minimized the power of this so-called “prejudice,” which left me vulnerable to many leftist personalities, many of whom were supposedly “Jewish.” (For some of my unusual blogs on anti-Semitism, see http://clarespark.com/2010/11/14/the-abcs-of-antisemitism/, and http://clarespark.com/2010/11/16/good-jews-bad-jews-and-wandering-jews/. Generally,  “bad” Jews are seen as “rootless cosmopolitans”: the anti-race or the enzymes that accelerate “change.”)

affinity2

Second, because I started studying censorship in the art world in 1969, I came across the interrogation of “myth and symbol” by various artists, both living and dead. This in turn, led me to the power of patronage and the fractured history of Christianity and paganism. Since much of contemporary art was reworked versions of modernism (starting in the nineteenth century), it was but a short step to the art and culture of the interwar period. Thus I was plunged into the controversies over Nazi versus Soviet art, sculpture, and architecture—controversies that had never been resolved. (I should add that the Museum of Modern Art did much to entrance me with the many variants of modernism, but like other museums, their labels were not informative: we were supposed to admire and not think too much about what conditioned the production of these materials.)

Arkady Plastov Threshing on the Collective

Arkady Plastov Threshing on the Collective

Third, as a result of my collaboration with composer and musicologist Joseph Byrd (in the 1970s), I got a grant to provide the cultural context for American sentimental song in the early to mid-nineteenth century. This led to Melville—an arch-critic of sentimentality—and then to graduate school in US history at UCLA, where I convinced (with some difficulty) my dissertation director Alex Saxton to allow me to study two different time periods (I was still obsessed with fascism): the family relationships and politics of Herman Melville (1809-1891) AND the period of the Melville Revival, mostly occurring in the interwar period, which facilitated the investigation of how far “fascist” beliefs had penetrated the US. I am told that had I been in an English department, I would never have been allowed to study a “major figure,” but Saxton had been a novelist in his youth, and though an unreconstructed Stalinist, he never entirely gave up his artistry to the Party—how else to explain his unusual permissiveness in my case?

BigWomanII. In recent weeks, I have returned to my interest in modern European history, filling in books that I had missed. Followers of my blogs will notice older references to George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, and the Frankfurt School, but then to recent readings of Robert O. Paxton, George L. Mosse, and Michael Burleigh.

Yesterday I completed a historiographical survey of all the literature on Nazi Germany by the late French historian Pierre Ayçoberry [The Nazi Question (Pantheon, 1979)], that denies the very existence of a generic “fascism,”  ending with the conclusion that whether Nazi German was unique or continuous with German history remains entirely unsettled. (In a few years, the much publicized and unresolved “historians’ debate” broke out in Germany; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historikerstreit.)

Fabius Maximus image

Fabius Maximus image

What have I learned from this immersion in academic and literary treatments of European and American history? Aside from my oft stated premise that we are all, to some unknowable extent, prisoners of our context (including the access to primary sources), it occurred to me that my reverence for the “better” academic historians was misplaced: that they had been asking the wrong questions of their laboriously collected evidence, for, as the sociologist Stephen Turner has observed, scholarship is subsidized [by specific institutions with an agenda].

The question I should have been asking, but have hinted at throughout the website is this: under what conditions is it possible to have a functioning democratic republic? Has one ever existed? Why talk about scholarship at all, when there is so much pressure from institutions to stay on the narrow path prescribed by family, other patrons, “affinity groups,” and the anxieties of readers? If I have been a maverick, is it not because I am not dependent on a salary, or by anyone’s approbation but my own [possibly flawed] sense of what is reasonable, given the materials at hand? Why didn’t Pierre Ayçoberry raise these issues? Could it be that his ideology and that of Pantheon books–that of an academic “right-wing social democrat” (a term that Ayçoberry loathed)–preclude such tough questions?

Above all, is the “civilized” West ready for an appropriate education for democracy?

R. B. Kitaj, Rise of Fascism, 1975-79

R. B. Kitaj, Rise of Fascism, 1975-79

September 20, 2014

“Taking responsibility” for ourselves and society

free_will-net_This blog is about personal responsibility and how that demand affects the writing of both personal histories and world historical events, especially catastrophic ones that cause mass death.

Personal responsibility/free will: I have written before about the ambiguities of assigning praise and blame for our life choices. When Melville did it, his mother thought he was crazy and called in Oliver Wendell Holmes (author of the weird book Elsie Venner) to evaluate his mental health, perhaps to institutionalize him. Yet on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we are told to take an inventory of those whom we have harmed, to change our conduct, and to make restitution to the damaged victim of our presumed malice or carelessness. (On Melville and free will see http://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/.)

If only it were that easy to determine cause and effect. My baby may be screaming and driving me to distraction, but is her wailing an inherited feature of her temperament, or is she responding to negligent or stupid parenting choices, possibly picked up from my own parents?

Social responsibility. I have been reading books by historian Michael Burleigh, who seems quite Catholic to me in his leaning toward a late 19th century version of social democracy (see Pope Leo XIII and his encyclical Rerum Novarum 1891), and Burleigh’s rejection of the liberal theory of “totalitarianism” that equates Nazism and communism, i.e., Nazism is bad because of its divisive racial theories, while the Soviet Union attacked the materialist, modernizing bourgeoisie; at least the Reds were not wigged out with nationalism and differing sets of rules for hedgehogs and foxes. Or perhaps Burleigh dislikes the notion of totalitarianism because it implies total control and hence threatens his notion of free will and personal responsibility, without considering the details of Soviets versus Nazis. (The latter seems more likely, as he uses and abandons the term “totalitarian” depending on his outrage.)

Burleigh’s co-authored book on the Nazi “racial state” makes the point that Hitler’s welfare measures were directed solely at biologically fit, sports loving Aryans and depended on a racial hierarchy that demeaned Jews, feminists, Slavs, gypsies, “asocials”, and homosexuals; i.e., he is protecting the welfare statism of social democrats and their much vaunted “tolerance” of “difference.”

socialresponsibility

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

I would gladly atone for my lapses and flaws; would that I knew what they are, without the inevitable muddle. “These free men are  not as free as they think” wrote Melville in his novel Mardi (1847).

doublebind

September 13, 2014

Melville, Edmund Burke, and literary cubism

Picasso, 1910

Picasso, 1910

[My comment on Burke as reactionary raised a ruckus on Facebook (see http://clarespark.com/2011/09/17/edmund-burkes-tantrum/), so here is some material from my book on Burke’s neoclassical rage for order and rejection of both the Sublime and the Beautiful. It is also relevant to the practice of conservative psychiatry and mental health services.]

[Excerpt: Hunting Captain Ahab:] Since the nineteenth century, images of Melville have moved from lunatic to Fallen Superman to rootless cosmopolitan to rooted cosmopolitan, with the figure of the rooted cosmopolitan unmasking would-be tyrants posing as democrats.  Underneath the mixed, ever-ambiguous reception to Melville’s art is a larger impulse: the subliminal blue-penciling of natural rights.  The eighteenth-century organic conservative Edmund Burke, like Samuel Johnson, reacted to Bacon, Milton and Locke by nervously constructing a politicized aesthetics. Whether rendered as Sublime or Beautiful the seductive material world the neo-classicists called Nature was always subversive to rational inquiry.[1]  The Sublime was the terrifying but alluring romantic style associated with rupture or iconoclasm, unchecked fancy and speculation, unmonitored boundary-blurring science, and Hebraic “puritanism.” It was contrasted with its Beautiful rival, the soothing, bounded pastoral style associated with conservative reform.

Melville’s gigantic sin was, perhaps, also the source of his greatness to corporatist readers.  In cleaving to purple/black/brown sublimity, he jammed his poetic prose with too many images.  The disorienting view from mountain tops, foretops, and rooftops (the brain) bored within the psyche and without, and defied Ovid by mating “unlike things,” thus muddling distinctions between art and life, dreams and reality.[2]  While the literary cubist Melville melted walls between some categories and made them interpenetrate or turn into their opposites, he had a fitful but keen eye for structures that could not be washed away by his conservative narrators. The cubist Melville interrupted their moralistic admonitions with materialist expletives.  The Nation magazine had explained in 1919 (the year they helped initiate the Melville Revival) that “the inherent common sense” of the flexible “Anglo-Saxon race” would overcome Jewish Bolshevism in America.  Following their logic, Melville would have betrayed his Anglo-Saxon racial inheritance by describing group antagonisms and double binds that, in turn, suggested the necessity of structural reform. Structural reform would not only ameliorate the condition of labor and create “the first firm founding of the state,” but, in a related perception, it would prevent mental illness in the laps of “families” that wanted to erase the contradiction between (adolescent) truth and (parental) order, families that madly promoted the critical spirit while fencing the rebel senses.

Sublimemartin08

But even as a Burkean, Melville was subversive.  As Burke recognized, the relaxing Beautiful was not the antidote to the agitating Sublime, but a different style of Romantic seduction.  Melville’s “primitivist” or “reactionary” protests, no less than his “Marxian” moments, were utopian delegitimations of deceptive or heartless authority in the name of universal standards of truth and justice.  Such unsettling criticism as the desire for something better, as desire itself (as opposed to the impassibility [3] of “aestheticism”) may initiate processes that can get out of hand, that may lead to unpredicted developments more far-reaching than Machiavellian “moderate” conservatives, the managers of “ritual rebellions,” would like.  The impeccably WASP American writer, on closer scrutiny, turned out to be a bad Jew even when he tried to be good by working within the system.

BeautifulKantian

“The Melville problem” (what is he, where is he, why did he fail?), “the Jewish problem,” and the problem of the form and content of American democratic institutions trampled over the same dark and bloody ground.  The Melville scholars studied here were transmitters of his “Hebraic” utopian provocations, while dependent on “neutral” (but really conservative) institutions. They have, with frequent resentment, tightened their corsets, assaulting the body in repose, the body freed from intimidation, the relaxed body better able to exercise curiosity and formulate those worldly assessments of social relationships and domination that build confidence in rising groups.  The revivers anxiously merged with and simultaneously rejected their Hebraic monster/monument, fencing their own “rebel senses” as well as Melville’s.  Given the structural pressures in American universities after 1919, the ongoing appeal of crypto-Tory nostrums, and a series of fatal decisions by the Left, the Melville malaise was inevitable.

This study revealed the etiology of the Melville problem in the attempts of organic conservatives to contain the explosive forces unleashed by science, liberal nationalism, universal literacy and mass suffrage. Their reactive concept of national, ethnic, or racial character is the heart-string that constricts and arrests the questing or utopian imagination in either its sublime or beautiful expansiveness. Ahab’s quest was viewed by conservatives as leading to the creation of a rational-secular international order with universal standards of excellence and human rights.  Red pencils were flaunted in 1917-1919 with the stunning advent of Bolshevism and Wilson’s appealing concept of a New World Order.  The corporatists  forged a middle way between the “extremes” of right-wing reaction and revolutionary socialism in 1919, and similarly, between laissez-faire liberalism and Nazism/Communism in the mid-1930s.  The strategy of these “moderates” was to co-opt the scientific language of the Enlightenment. They purged or discredited class-conscious “Bolshevists,” left-liberal materialists, and laissez-faire liberals alike. As corporatist thinkers, they incorporated newly discovered “facts” into “totalities”or “organic wholes.” In doing so, they presented their blood and soil historicism as the democratic vanguard of progress; their interacting biological, geographical, psychological or cultural “types”were offered as novel interventions that protected the uninitiated reader from mad scientists and the Bomb.  I have neither typed nor stamped Melville; rather, I have followed his lead, noting the tight harness of nineteenth-century family loyalty (corporatism and hereditarian racism) that restrained the isolato’s equally stubborn efforts to depict, overturn, or escape illegitimate authority, to merge his interests with those of suffering humanity. Whether hiding or writhing under the boot, Melville was an insoluble problem for the moderate men in all factions of Melville studies after 1919.

By suggesting ongoing conflict between materialist and pseudo-materialist (organicist) thinkers in the West as the sub-text of the ‘Melville’ Revival, I implicitly criticize the notion of Cold War culture as the unique creation of “fascist” Republicans.  The identification of classical liberalism with “romantic fascism” has been the dubious construct of the corporatists and their Popular Front Left allies, supporters of the New Deal.  The same thinkers have identified Red Scares as hysterical over-reactions to a relatively insignificant Communist presence in the labor movement or to an exaggerated Soviet military threat after 1945: this is their explanation for assaults on civil liberties.  The picture changes when we take elite perceptions of lower-class autodidacts in a period of mass literacy and mass media as the subject of inquiry.  In my view, ongoing hostility to “materialism” and “insatiable curiosity” (self-assertion in the independent labor movement and its associated internationalism) explains the continuities in the Melville Revival and modifies the Cold War explanation for repression of civil liberties.  Rather than diagnosing Far Right hysteria or overreaction, I relocated “hysteria” in the moderate center, in its “cool” neo-classical (but not Beautiful) response to hot-headed romanticism or “paranoia” on the fringe.  There was an epochal emancipatory moment in the seventeenth century; all subsequent intellectual history in “the West” may be seen as counter-attack to the Titanic threat of universal democracy and scientific advance, grounded in economic arrangements that would facilitate that goal. I cannot think of a single political movement that has embraced the scientist’s open-ended and experimental program, though it should be implicit in the struggle for cultural freedom.

Enlightenment materialists argued for the universal natural rights of individuals; as republicans they demanded one set of rules for rich and poor, institutionalizing natural rights in the state as civil liberties.  In this context, the so-called eternal conflict between individual and society denotes rather a fight specific to bourgeois democracies: the defense of civil liberties against privileged minorities or intolerant or uninformed majorities.  Moreover, as Locke and Diderot insisted, the citizen protester demanded that authorities heed exactly their own rules and standards–the precepts that legitimated their power and signified superior competence.[4]  Transferring their own libertinage onto social rebels (in this case, the revolutionary bourgeoisie) the threatened aristocracy resorted to stereotypes that slandered democracy and The People.  In a scenario still played out in offices of conservative psychiatry, the conflict between the individual and “civilization” originates in self-indulgent acting-out of anti-social emotions and instincts, not legitimate grievances. Unlike Don Juan/Faust socially responsible elites possess an “inner check,” the measured response to provocation that staves off both violent, rigid responses in themselves and revolution by the desperate.[5] A rainbow (not reaction or rubble or rivers of blood) is dispensed by the good father and other mental health professionals. [6]

NOTES.

                [1] See two eighteenth-century works, both in Melville’s library: Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Introduction by Adam Phillips (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1990, originally publ.1757); in Phillips’ opinion, the Sublime and the Beautiful were not antinomies for Burke: both were arousing and opposed to indifference and immobility; however, Phillips makes the comparison with rupture and continuity, Thanatos and Eros.  Also see Samuel Johnson, Rasselas (1759), especially Chapter XVII, the remarks on “fancy” (the meteor: transitory, irregular, delusive; i.e., the Melville career as read by conservatives) and Chapter XLIV “The Dangerous Prevalence of Imagination.”  Both the pastoral (fantastic delight) and the visionary utopia (which Johnson connects) are dangerous and lead to fixed ideas, melancholy, insanity, parricide and fratricide. Rasselas (in subject matter and philosophy likened to Voltaire’s Candide) was Johnson’s most popular work, enjoying 450 editions by 1959. See Samuel Johnson, LL.D., An Exhibition of First Editions, Manuscripts, Letters and Portraits to Commemorate the 250th Anniversary of his Birth, and the 200th Anniversary of the Publication of his Rasselas (N.Y.: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1959). Cf. the attempt by Harry Hayden Clark, 1944, op.cit., to fasten Thomas Paine to this neo-classical literary tradition, cviii-cxviii.

[2] My reference to the mating of unlike things is from Ovid’s definition of Chaos that begins Metamorphoses as well as Melville’s poem “Art.” Burke describes the obscurity that results from Milton’s description of Satan (and poetry in general) as the consequence of compressing unlike things (a problem not shared by imitative painting), Philosophical Enquiry, Part II, Section IV (cont.), 57.  “Here is a very noble picture; and in what does this poetical picture consist? in images of a tower, an archangel, the sun rising through the mists, or in an eclipse, the ruin of monarchs, and the revolutions of kingdoms.  The mind is hurried out of itself by a croud of great and confused images; which affect because they are crouded and confused.  For separate them, and you lose much of the greatness, and join them, and you infallibly lose the clearness.”

                [3] See Piero Camporesi, The Incorruptible Flesh: Bodily mutilation and mortification in religion and folklore, transl. Tania Croft-Murray (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1988): Chapter Two, “The Impassible Saint.”

                [4] See Denis Diderot, Memoirs of a Nun, transl. Frances Birrell (London: Elek Books, 1959).

                [5] See Heinrich Heine, Doktor Faust, A Dance Poem, transl. and ed. Basil Ashmore (London: Peter Nevill, 1952): 16,17 for the intertwining of the Don Juan/Faust legends and the threat of the autodidact; the conflation of printing with necromancy and compare to some criticism of mass media today: Heine wrote in 1851 (the same year Moby Dick was published), “The Church deliberately confused [the historic Faust, a magician, with the inventor of printing] because in its opinion, necromancy has found its most wicked tool in the diffusion of thought by means of printing.  To such minds Thought is a terrible menace to that blind credo demanded in the Middle Ages, which requires acceptance of the Church’s total authority in matters spiritual and temporal, and keeps the humble charcoal burner [the Carboneri!] on his knees.  Faust began to think.  His impious intellect rebelled against the meek acceptance of his forefathers.  He was not content to read in dark places and to trifle with simple arts.  He longed for scientific knowledge and lusted for worldly power.  He demanded to be allowed to think, to act and to enjoy life to its full extent, and so…to use the language of the ancients…he became an apostate, renounced all hope of heavenly bliss, and turned to Satan and his earthly ways and promises.  This single man’s revolt was most certainly spread abroad by means of the printer’s art, so that his doctrine was very soon assimilated, not merely by a handful of intellectual rebels, but by whole populaces.  Small wonder then, that men of God denounced the art of printing as an attribute of Satan.”

                [6] See Robert Filmer’s classic formulation of stealthily advancing, bloodthirsty, irrational democracies in Patriarcha, ed. Peter Laslett (Oxford U.P. 1949: 89,90.

August 14, 2014

Understanding Obama’s ongoing appeal

Ridha Ridha "Normal Ambivalence"

Ridha Ridha “Normal Ambivalence”

Many dark thoughts cross my mind as I contemplate the list of failures attributable to POTUS, but ranking the reason for his continued popularity in some quarters goes beyond his obvious appeal to recipients of state largesse, proud or despised minorities, and guilty liberals.

Why has no one mentioned his stirring speeches promising national unity that helped elect him in the first place? For his healing messages imply that not only warring sections of our country shall be reunited, but that the disunity that we feel inside ourselves, and inside our supposedly harmonious “families” shall also be resolved.

And yet ambivalence is part of the human condition, as Freud controversially alleged in his formulation of the inescapable Oedipus Complex. One old standard partly and incompletely expresses these mixed feelings that occasionally surface, but are usually quickly repressed. (Here is Nat King Cole singing the Vincent Youmans tune “Sometimes I’m Happy” 1957: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtPeknt0mBA.)

Psychiatrists Melanie Klein, Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg, in their studies of “object relations” and “narcissism” all explored the common practice of “splitting” in which we escape ambiguity and ambivalence by turning those figures (public or private) who arouse deep emotions into all good or all bad figures. I find myself doing this myself, and it is only in retrospect that I correct these black and white divisions. For like most other people, I am capable of either demonizing or hero-worshipping figures who are themselves sometimes benign, sometimes threatening, but always struggling to stay afloat.

Perhaps it is the greatest challenge we face as historians, as journalists, or as citizen-critics of our leaders to understand that each of us lives within a controlling, often menacing, context that we did not choose; moreover that we struggle to rationalize our own self-interest and to conform to the imprecations of our parents and siblings to be like them, to maintain idealized attachments, and indeed to like them without ambivalence.

We would rather escape into desolation or into the illusion of unity than face “things as they are” (Melville, speaking through the dubious (?) narrator of Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), or try his The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857)—if you can take the challenge to your amour propre.)

Ryoshimizu, "Ambivalence"

Ryoshimizu, “Ambivalence”

Here is a related blog: http://clarespark.com/2013/09/17/the-illusion-of-national-unity/, with a disquieting painting by Max Beckmann expressing alienation and lack of connection with others or “things as they are.”

Beckmann, Paris Gesellschaft 1931

Beckmann, Paris Gesellschaft 1931

August 7, 2014

Modernity versus modernism

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modernity2Modernity may be said to start with the invention of the printing press, as ordinary people began to read religious texts for themselves, without priestly mediation and interpretation. So historians generally start “the early modern period” with the Reformation and the proliferation of “radical sects,” many of them utopian, such as the Diggers in England. (There had been outbreaks of communal democracy before this, e.g., the Lollards or some earlier apostolic Christians/Jews).

So from roughly the 16th century onward through European wars and revolutions, often couched in the language of religious controversy, modernity led to the contentious emancipation of women, Jews, and ordinary people, not without strenuous objection from the ruling aristocracies of Europe, who were themselves sharply divided but who united against “the People” upon whom they projected their own paranoia. (See the famous and entertaining fight between royalist Robert Filmer and Whiggish John Locke here: http://clarespark.com/2009/08/24/the-people-is-an-ass-or-a-herd/.)

Modernity generated supporters and antagonists in the world of culture. It would be nice and easy to contrast order-loving neoclassicists with Romantics, but the Romantics were themselves divided, as were some neoclassicists. For instance, Wordsworth and Coleridge started out as enthusiasts for the French Revolution, but balked at the Jacobin takeover, worship of “the Goddess of Reason,” and the Reign of Terror, turning then sharply against science and Enlightenment. These were “right-wing” Romantics, to be sharply contrasted with the Promethean Lord Byron, the most prominent of the “left-wing” Romantic poets. ( The Danish critic Georg Brandes is very good on these distinctions.)

Just as people sorted themselves out according to how they felt about the French Revolution and its aftermath, the same happened after the Soviet coup of 1917. But the cat was out of the bag: the interior life was now fodder for artists and writers, and those “realists” and “naturalists” so beloved by the Soviet nomenklatura, were competing with those wild men and women influenced by Freud, Jung, and other explorers of the psyche. Some usually conservative writers, like Herman Melville, vacillated between Romanticism and neo-classicism, leading to the sharp divisions among Melville critics who find these turnabouts anxiety-provoking.

So modernity generated a usually reactive modernism. Modernism is an entirely different kettle of fish from “modernity,” being mostly a movement in the arts in reaction to the idea of progress, a shibboleth that had taken a big hit with the Great War. Even before the war, the rise of women (including “the moral mother” displacing paternal authority in the home), cities, industrialism, the loss of the agrarian myth, “the death of God,” mass politics, comparative luxury, and cultural pluralism inspired fears of decadence and mob rule. Even before WW1, Freud, Marx, and Darwin all discombobulated elites and in various ways inspired fears of decadence and the femme fatale—an all-purpose scary symbol representing all these trends (see http://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/).

The Great War that ended the lengthy “balance of power” among European states seemed like the logical culmination to these vast transformations, and the war itself that enabled the Soviet coup led to an earthquake in culture that made the French Revolution look tame, but also causal in imposing “state terror.”

I have written extensively about the turn toward the interior psyche in all its moods, particularly primitivism as ritual rebellion, and also about the recurrent image of Pierrot, an example of the alienated artist as murderer, as Cain, as zany. In prior blogs, I have mentioned Hemingway, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Sartre, all experimenters with language and form and all modernists in revolt against some aspect of “modernity.” [I have not dealt with “postmodernity here, but it is directed against science and enlightenment too, viewed perhaps as too bourgeois.]

To end with a “relevant” observation, I would guess that the rise of the moral mother (along with the emancipation of Jews) was the most important and relatively neglected of the cataclysmic developments all too briefly outlined above. Not enough has been made of the linkage between antisemitism and misogyny. (None of my speculations is in the Wikipedia discussion of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modernity.)

Many conservatives look longingly back at the time when “rational” men, not “irrational” women, ruled the roost. It is why I reject the “right-wing” strategy for taking back the culture from “the left.” (http://clarespark.com/2014/07/01/the-rightist-culture-war-strategy-wont-work/.)

Sonia Delaunay painting

Sonia Delaunay painting

May 23, 2014

Gentleman’s Agreement, Remains of the Day, “professionalism” and “prejudice”

tabudergerechten Who defines professionalism nowadays? In Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857), “the Man from Missouri” casts a jaundiced eye on the soporifics offered by the herb-doctor. Should we not be equally skeptical? Should we not be more aware of elite resistance to modernity, a modernity that has elevated and emancipated ordinary people, including Jews, women, and labor from the “professionalism” that turns out to be yet another variant of servitude to the ambitions of arbitrary and irresponsible elites? Where are the social justice warriors when you need them?

After seeing the much-admired movie Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), I was curious to see how it might have departed from the best-selling novel. It turned out that Moss Hart’s screenplay stuck very close to the Hobson novel; moreover, both novelist and playwright were the children of Jewish immigrants; both married non-Jews, and Wikipedia reports that Hobson’s parents were socialists, while silent on Hart’s parents who are described simply as “English-born.”

It is worth noting that Hobson’s novel, like the movie, gets off to an agonizingly slow start as the hero, Phil Green, searches for an “angle” that will help him avoid the boredom of statistics and worked-over arguments regarding the Jewish problem. So, remembering that he had pretended to be of the working class in prior magazine exposés, in a Eureka! moment he decides to assume a Jewish identity. He is stunned and infuriated by the rejections he experiences and goes on to write a masterpiece of journalistic guilt-instilling that even converts his now-and- then genteel girlfriend away from silent disapproval to “action” in confronting “prejudice”. (Was this an anticipation of “the action faction” of the New Left?)
Peck-Maguire

Both novel and movie carried the same theme: antisemitism was a “prejudice” that was decidedly un-Christian. Such class disdain for “the Jews” interfered with the tolerance advocated by the Founders of the US, and with the internationalism promoted by FDR and his progressive supporters. Hobson’s novel paired anti-Negro racism with antisemitism as if they were variants on the same theme. I wonder if her parents were communists in the 1930s, because the CPUSA famously opposed both antisemitism and racism during the Depression, blaming such Nazi-like appeals to the mob on Republicans. Whatever Hobson’s motives might have been, she brought up, but was non-committal on the hairy question of Zionism and Palestine, a hot and controversial subject while she was writing her big interventionist and daring book. Such identification of “prejudice” with intolerance was an effective strategy for assimilating Jews for it cleared the way for “socially responsible capitalism” and later, the notion of hate speech and political correctness in order to assuage social conflict.

Then I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s postmodern tour de force The Remains of the Day. Like Gentleman’s Agreement, the screenplay stuck fairly close to the letter and spirit of the novel (though it made “Miss Kenton” somewhat anarchistic, a departure from the novel) , and like Hobson’s novel, brought up the question of antisemitism in the British upper-classes (especially in the “Cliveden Set”, manifested in their misguided sympathy with the Germans: “gentlemen” do not abuse a defeated nation, and the Versailles treaty was un-sportsman like.

Powderham Castle/Darlington Hall

Powderham Castle/Darlington Hall

What I have written so far is easily gleaned by the attentive viewer and reader of these important works of art, but they do not address the theme of “professionalism” – a word that is repeated over and over in Ishiguro’s novel. Moreover, the theme of “professionalization” is one major focus of cultural histories that take on the trendy theme of “institutionalization.” What these studies leave out is the observation that hierarchies breed deceit, arguably the theme of Melville’s “Billy Budd.” Postmodernist critics (academics) who have praised Ishiguro’s skillfully wrought novel do not bring up the problem so obviously tormenting “Stevens” the butler of Darlington Hall, perhaps because such an emphasis would cast doubt on their internalized allegiance to their own masters.

This morning’s NPR offering waxed indignant over the Koch brother’s alleged control of economics and related fields in the University of South Florida’s colleges. It was suggested that without such “conservative” bribes, there would be no crisis of objectivity in the university system, as if today’s pacifying postmodern professoriate in the humanities adhered to the search for truth. Click on the illustration below and see what standards evaluate today’s “professionals.”

professionalism

Among the sources consulted:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura_Z._Hobson

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gentleman’s_Agreement

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moss_Hart

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

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