YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

February 11, 2014

Leo Steinberg and the dilemma of the Jewish intellectual

Leo Steinberg

Leo Steinberg

Leo Steinberg, the famous and controversial art historian who died only recently, was the most cultured and brilliant of all my New York friends after my divorce in 1971. I sought him out after reading his essay on the serpentine manner in which Picasso drew or painted sensual women, an article published in Artforum in 1972. We were close friends until he died in 2011.  It was he who urged me to study antisemitism, claiming that there was no European myth of the Good Jew, an idea that I applied here: http://clarespark.com/2010/08/15/nazis-exhibit-der-ewige-jude-1937/.

I bring him up, because though he had Freudian psychoanalysis, he never escaped the specter of his famous father’s disapproval.  I. N. Steinberg, briefly in a coalition government with Lenin, was head of the Social Revolutionaries, but fled the SU in 1923 in the belief that his life was in danger. The socialist father never approved of Leo’s artistic proclivities, demanding that he should devote his life to the suffering masses, instead of indulging himself in drawing or the study of art and architecture. You won’t find that in Wikipedia.

After periods in Germany and the UK, the Steinberg family emigrated to America, where Leo studied both art and art history. He was a breathtakingly handsome and charismatic figure, wrote like the acculturated European he was, and never believed that he had made an impact on his profession.  Or so he told me over and over.

Isaac N. Steinberg, leader and refugee

Isaac N. Steinberg, leader and refugee

I am writing about Leo today, because he had the limitations of all academics; though world famous, worshipped, and bold, he ever viewed his life as a failure. While in graduate school, I was appalled by the timidity and narrow outlooks of my fellow graduate students, even the best of them. No surprise there, as getting a job in a semi-aristocratic profession with high status was their objective, not making waves and challenging old narratives.

scaredycatdog

Leo adapted to American life by ingratiating himself with powerful persons, and adopting their culture heroes. In a sense, he became more Catholic than the Catholics he competed with and occasionally shocked with such books as The Sexuality of Christ In Renaissance Art And In Modern Oblivion (Pantheon, 1983). (Revealingly, he refers to Catholic art as “Christian art,” as if there had never been a Reformation.) He owned eleven copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses and worshipped this author, as did his au courant contemporaries.

To return to the Jewish question, Leo showed some gumption by criticizing the martyred conceptual artist Hans Haacke, whose exhibition on the Manhattan real estate holdings of Nathan Shapolsky (a Jew), had been cancelled by the Guggenheim Museum, and the curator Edward Fry fired for protesting.

Yesterday, I picked up the catalog dealing with Haacke’s work: Hans Haacke: Unfinished Business, ed. Brian Wallis (MIT Press, 1987). Leo had the lead essay in the volume, “Some of Hans Haacke’s Work Considered as Fine Art,” briefly noting that Haacke had singled out a Jewish “slumlord” and, even when permitted to change the name of the exhaustively documented monopolist, Haacke chose the pseudonym of “Harry Schwartz.” This second Jewish name did not go over well with the trustees, so the exhibition became famous through reputation and was installed elsewhere (I recall).

Even though Leo, unlike other critics, identified the antisemitic slur in the choice of subject matter, he caved on Haacke’s later more mature work, for Leo  was a social democrat like Haacke, and a critique of antisemitism is something to be dropped or picked up on an ad hoc basis, depending on the presence or absence of top dogs.

Such is the socialization of academics in America, even tainting the one who, more than anyone else on the Left, urged me to educate myself in the nuances of antisemitism.

We are all prisoners of our context and life histories. Leo Steinberg taught me that writing expository prose was as challenging as poetry or fiction, and that it took months and years to master even one image handed down from the past.  If he was at times a scaredy cat, like other precariously situated intellectuals, I don’t hold it against him. He was my best, and most faithful mentor. I should have dedicated my book on the Melville revival to him, especially since he read Moby-Dick in a gesture of comradeship.

July 31, 2012

Censorship, bohemia, and the Big Sleep

Haruhi Gothic Lolita

Having announced that I was thinking of writing a new blog on censorship in the arts and in the media, numerous Facebook friends sent me comments expressing their own disgust with the mass media, with the ineffective ratings system that fails to protect children from exposure to excessive violence, and with the general coarsening of our culture.

In prior blogs, I have complained mightily about what I perceive to be a loss of standards throughout the culture, sometimes focusing on primitivism, rappers, Tom Wolfe’s genteel variant of primitivism, and the Great Dumbing Down. One friend starts the dumbing down with the revolts of the 1960s, and there is something to be said for that turning point. Another blames the movies and mass culture in general. Many believe that the Aurora massacre was stimulated at least in part by the increasing violence of Hollywood movies. Indeed, I had already noticed the disturbing abundance of horror movies directed to adolescents. What was the appeal, I wondered, and still can’t answer that, other than speculating that youngsters are terrified of the modern world in ways that have not been adequately described: Feeling perhaps impotent in the face of predators, they Identify with the Aggressor, to use a once well-known Freudian formulation.

What could I possibly add to this discussion now, I wonder? In the past, I argued that cultural radicalism was not only wrong-headed, but a distraction from other questions that were not focused solely on sex and violence or political correctness.  I had insisted that the idea that words and images created reality for readers and viewers was in itself deeply ideological. But I did not dismiss the power of propaganda, but rather pointed out that popular explanations for the rise of Hitler among allies to the Roosevelt administration had blamed mass culture as the primary explanation for the bond of Hitler with the German people, thus discarding political errors, economics, and diplomacy. (See http://clarespark.com/2009/06/04/modernity-and-mass-death/.)

I must say the same for the rowdy arts, whether found in pop culture or in the highest reaches of Kultur. While bohemians were kicking up their heels and converting adolescents to drugs, sex, and rock and roll as transformative politics, petit-bourgeois media reformers wanted positive images of their group, acting on the belief that “role models” (and “inclusion”) would repair grave deficiencies in education or family life. But these same reformers were reinforcing ethnic or racial ties, thus undermining the search for explanations of poverty that are more properly found in political and economic institutions, not just “discourses.”

Young James Joyce

Since the days of Plato and Aristotle, intellectuals have been fighting over the effects of pornography: Plato would have banished poets from the Republic, while Aristotle believed that catharsis through the arousal of pity and terror would keep the masses in line. I adhere to neither of these philosophies. Either we have a marketplace of ideas or we do not. What matters is the critical context surrounding controversial works of art or other toys and entertainments. Sadly, perhaps disastrously, the “critics” and other explicators of cultural artifacts tend to share the same ideology as those who produce the “edgier” pieces, and leave the field to those whose own sensibilities are disgusted  by “vanguard” works. Hence, our culture is impoverished. Vanguard artists and critics stand together, while “philistines” remain bemused and angry. The feedback loop is thus severed and everyone loses.

But more, what may be decisive is the deliberate silence around certain issues; e.g. the increasing acceptance of sadomasochism, Satanism, misogyny and antisemitism, or the opacity of governments, or the widely held belief that there is no truth, or the power of some families to screw up their kids, or limited interest in the great issues of our time, such as the causes of mass death in the 20th century—a subject that has been hitherto dominated by left-leaning statists with designs on the public.

vagina dentata vampire shoes

November 21, 2011

Cormac McCarthy vs. Herman Melville

Premodern Cormac McCarthy

[This is the second of two blogs on Cormac McCarthy: see http://clarespark.com/2011/11/17/blood-meridian-and-the-deep-ecologists/]

At a bookstore in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a retired English professor friend of mine was offered a signed copy of McCarthy’s The Crossing for $1250. McCarthy does not sign his books any longer and apparently does not give interviews, except for this long piece for the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/1992/04/19/magazine/cormac-mccarthy-s-venomous-fiction.html?src=pm, authored by Richard B. Woodward, which contains the following passage:

“Blood Meridian” has distinct echoes of “Moby-Dick,” McCarthy’s favorite book. A mad hairless giant named Judge Holden makes florid speeches not unlike Captain Ahab’s. Based on historical events in the Southwest in 1849-50 (McCarthy learned Spanish to research it), the book follows the life of a mythic character called “the kid” as he rides around with John Glanton, who was the leader of a ferocious gang of scalp hunters. The collision between the inflated prose of the 19th-century novel and nasty reality gives “Blood Meridian” its strange, hellish character. It may be the bloodiest book since “The Iliad.”

From the interview, we also learn that McCarthy is a cult figure, that Saul Bellow was on the McArthur Foundation committee that gave CM a “genius” award, financing the writing of Blood Meridian, and that the author is a reclusive “radical conservative”, born of a Catholic well-off family in Tennessee, the son of a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority. (Another source adds that his sisters were high achievers, and that his father was stern.)  Also that he prefers the company of scientists to writers, and that he is no fan of modernity, quotation marks or semicolons. For a more recent interview see http://tinyurl.com/7dg52qr, that elaborates on the father-son theme.

I would like to go on with a psychoanalytic meditation on this writer, especially the father-son dyad, but I don’t know him.* Instead, this blog is about the Melville-McCarthy connection, which is tenuous at best.  First, the notion that Judge Holden is a Nietzschean Superman, beyond good and evil, may have been gleaned from David Brion Davis’s Homicide in American Fiction (1957), wherein Captain Ahab was limned as a Nietzschean Superman. That was the year (Fall, 1957) I took Davis’s class in intellectual history at Cornell U., and I well remember his linking Hawthorne and Melville as the authors who brought back the conception of evil into American culture, which, presumably, had been overly optimistic about the possibilities of perfecting human nature, supposedly a core belief in American exceptionalism. Or so I infer, for Davis may have been thinking primarily about racism, or, with students, anti-colonialism: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Brion_Davis, and my prior blog http://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/.

But on the subject of Enlightenment optimism regarding human nature, consider this passage from Benjamin Franklin’s letter to Joseph Priestley (7 June 1782):

“…Men I find to be a Sort of Beings very badly constructed, as they are generally more easily provok’d than reconcil’d, more disposed to do Mischief to each other than to make Reparation, much more easily deceiv’d than undeceiv’d, and having more Pride and even Pleasure in killing than in begetting one another, for without a Blush they assemble in great armies at Noon Day to destroy, and when they have killed as many as they can, they exaggerate the number to augment the fancied Glory; but they creep into Corners or cover themselves with the Darkness of Night, when they mean to beget, as being ashamed of a virtuous Action….”

[Perhaps writing a novel is for the male, a similar generative act to be submerged in darkness-- the powerless, demoralizing blackness that envelops today’s popular culture, whether it be gangsta rap, gangster movies, cultish vampire movies, recent movie versions of McCarthy’s books, or science fiction fantasies that end with the bad guys prevailing: see  Joss Whedon’s The Dollhouse, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, preceded by such antimodern classics as 1984 or Brave New World or Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork  Orange). In academe, the same tone is set in Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature, that is elaborated in McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic tale The Road (2006).]

Second, return to Captain Ahab’s supposed amorality. He is nothing like Judge Holden, who is a  Nietzschean amoralist, even a Foucaldian, as these lines from Blood Meridian demonstrate:

“Might does not make right, said Irving. The man that wins in some combat is not vindicated morally. [Holden responds:] “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak….” [p.250, quotation marks not in original.]

On the most superficial level, perhaps, it may be said that Blood Meridian is some kind of homage or rereading of Moby-Dick (or even Joyce’s Ulysses). There are compound words, neologisms, and an often nauseating text. It starts with three quotations that correspond only roughly with the “Extracts,” there is an epic journey, in which most of the characters perish, and there is an Epilogue. But in Melville’s allegory, the first edition (published in England) not only lacked any survivors whatsoever, but ended with the Extracts, and these pages of quotations in turn ended with a Whale Song,[i] certainly to be taken ironically: “Oh the rare old Whale, mid storm and gale/ In his ocean home will be/ A giant in might, where might is right,/ And King of the boundless sea.”

Alleging that Ahab’s sin consists in his hubris, with Ahab believing 1. That truth exists; or 2. That he can extirpate evil from the world, has been one theme in scholarly and popular misreadings of the text. Surely, the Ahab as Superman reading by David Brion Davis must have been based in a common postwar belief (initiated by Charles Olson, then F. O. Matthiessen) that Ahab was an anticipation of Hitler and Stalin, and moreover that Hitler was influenced by Nietzsche, is probably the source of Cormac McCarthy’s misconception of Melville’s great book.

I will say this on behalf of a McCarthy-Melville affinity. In his recent novel, The Road, McCarthy uses the word “secular” twice. This suggests to me that CM’s bleak books are laments for the supposed loss of faith in a “secular” world (an argument that some conservatives make in the culture wars). Without religion, humanity is out of control and on its death trip, the road to oblivion. After the Civil War, Melville wrote a long poem, Clarel, and, earlier,  in his journal of the trip to the Mediterranean and environs in 1857-58. But in the poem of 1876, Melville distanced himself from his most pessimistic characters, inter alia, masking himself beneath his Promethean, secularizing Jew, whereas McCarthy is silent, preferring to hide himself and his meanings in “mystery.” One has to wonder about that suicidal sister, a character that haunts McCarthy’s latest novel, still in process.

*From reading interviews and other journalistic materials, I think that McCarthy’s well-received novel, The Road, tells us a lot. CM had two failed marriages as a younger man. He is older than I am now, and in his third marriage, had a son John, who is described by his father as delivering much of the dialogue in the novel. I infer that this last novel expresses his fear of dying before John reaches manhood, hence his father will no longer be there to protect him. Although in Blood Meridian, the Indians are as depraved and bloodthirsty as the whites and Mexicans, Indians and frontiersmen alike know how to survive cold and hunger, and also how to make do with the detritus that “civilization” leaves behind. Hence the Southwestern garb that McCarthy wears in his cover photos, along with the amazing ingenuity of the father figure in The Road.

[Added, 12/12/11: While reading Claude Bowers's The Tragic Era (1929), it occurred to me that the ruined Southern landscape under the occupation of Northern soldiers may have been part of the cultural memory transmitted by McCarthy's family or his neighbors. (His family originated in the North, but moved to Tennessee, the home of Andrew Johnson, staunchly defended in the Bowers best-seller.) This would give an added resonance to The Road. For more on Bowers, see http://clarespark.com/2011/12/10/before-saul-alinsky-rules-for-democratic-politicians/.]


[i]Moby-Dick was the neglected masterpiece that most excited the 1920s Melville revivers and their successors; it was first published in England as The Whale; unlike the American edition that followed, the title page featured an epigraph connecting Milton’s fallen Satan with Leviathan, and its last words, “Whale Song,” were a final blast at the ancient doctrine that Might makes Right. Readers seeking to understand the dynamics of the Melville Revival should ask whether the Leviathan State was a good or bad thing in the twentieth century, and what entities and social forces made it what it came to be. ….” These are lines taken from my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 2001, rev.ed. 2006)

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