The Clare Spark Blog

September 7, 2009

Melancholia as a way of life

Thos. Cole, The Course of Empire: Desolation, 1836

For other apocalyptic landscapes, see

This week the President will be offering his own version of  health care reform, a subject that I have been addressing in all my recent blogs, though usually through the prism of intellectual history, rather than medical economics or legislation (subjects in which I am not competent). And today is Labor Day. I am almost at a loss for words.

I am wondering if our “public intellectuals” (including political journalists, some blogging academics, media pundits, teachers, movie reviewers, and more) have anything constructive to say about “labor.” Are those workers who provide the material basis that gives us the “leisure” to read and make pronouncements about reality, history, antidemocratic propaganda, and so on, being served or betrayed by the current “culture wars?” I confess to deep anxiety about 1. The growing numbers of Americans on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication, whose physicians or therapists are undereducated with respect to the political, economic, and institutional causes of their clients’ fatigue and withdrawal from an active (but fully informed) engagement with either public or private affairs; and 2. The increasing stridency and polarization as opponents dig in their heels and hurl epithets at “liberals” or “conservatives,” eschewing careful, detailed historical analysis of rhetoric and ideology, while conspiracy theories proliferate like cartoonist Al Capp’s shmoos, giving only imaginary succor to the perplexed and overwhelmed escapee to this or that elite-hating populism, and many of the latter could hail from the ranks of labor, but who counts them nowadays?
Death Valley. In today’s blog (September 7, 2009) I offer one possible explanation for the immobility and escapism, not to speak of hard-heartedness, that has afflicted our society: the antimodern narrative, perpetrated by some artists and intellectuals who are false friends to labor (labor, big or small, needs all the science and education it can get). Before the second world war, labor’s false friends were widely recognized as reactionaries; today, not so much: just look at the apocalyptic “Red-Greens.” The antimoderns included such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, William Butler Yeats, and a host of followers in the humanities who, in turn, influenced manufacturers of popular culture. Their common enemy, the free-thinking scientist or “mechanical materialist” whose cultural practice mocks organic conservative formulations of society and nature. The “materialists,” seen through the eyes of their critics, turn gardens into wastelands, while “Americanization” signifies total renunciation of beloved ancestors and the loss of “individuality” as we are turned by “Fordism” into cogs in a machine.*  (Does not the S-M ritual attempt to reverse this process, of course never succeeding in reinstating the lost paradise?)
“The fact is, we have all been a good deal puzzled because the affair is so simple, and yet baffles us altogether.”
“Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which puts you at fault,” said my friend.”
“What nonsense you do talk!” replied the Prefect, laughing heartily.
“Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain,” said Dupinstein.
“Oh, good heavens! who ever heard of such an idea?”
“A little too self-evident.”
“Ha! ha! ha!–ha! ha! ha!–ho! ho! ho!–roared our visitor, profoundly amused, “oh, Dupinstein will be the death of me yet!” [1]

Sweet Mystery of Life. The antimodern narrative is frequently transmitted in popular culture but rarely identified.   For instance, the critically acclaimed film, The Fly (1986, directed by David Cronenberg), carried a blatantly reactionary message, yet no one seems to have noticed; instead The Fly has become a cult favorite, its ads telling viewers to “Be afraid, very afraid.”  Here is the plot: Seth Brundle, a bug-eyed brainy Jewish-looking physicist employed by Bartok Industries (a company linked to abstract modern art in the opening scene) is having a problem with his computer program that is to “change human life as we know it” through a new technology called “teleportation.”  The object to be transported is disintegrated in one “telepod” (which resembles a high-tech phone booth) and reintegrated in another.  One baboon has already been reduced to a red mess; the scientist (a “systems manager” who does not fully understand his project because of the divided labor which has conceived it) solves his problem with the knowledge of the flesh provided by an ambitious, liberated, sexually assertive female journalist (Veronica, a brow-wiper, but androgynously nicknamed “Ronnie”).

While drunk (Ronnie seemed to have abandoned Seth, and this dependent type can’t handle alcohol, he is so Jewish), the scientist tests the new computer program on himself after a second baboon survives the teleportation.  But Brundle fails to notice the fly buzzing around the telepod; he ends up “teleported” (transported, Americanized?), but spliced genetically with the fly’s chromosomes.  Soon Brundle talks like Hitler (enunciating cruel, brutal and uncompromising “insect politics”); he is sexually insatiable and superstrong, then begins loathsomely to degenerate, drooling nauseating and lethal bodily fluids, getting redder by the minute.  At the climax, there is a near parricide: the Fly’s milky fluids dissolve the hand of Ronnie’s bossy editor (holding a rifle intended to kill the Fly and rescue his defiant employee, now impregnated with Fly-semen).  After failing to trap Ronnie into bonding her (and her foetus’) genes with his to save him and create a new superbeing in the telepod, the all-Red Fly’s mournful eyes plead with his terrified but ever-sympathetic, contaminated girl friend, “Please shoot me.”  She picks up her boss’s rifle and fires.  Euthanasia (to be followed by a therapeutic abortion) has restored order.

Teleportation may be compared to Romantic Captain Ahab’s red flag of revolt[2]; while Seth Brundle’s fatal hubris linked to transformative technology, recalls the cataclysms generated by Melville’s character Margoth, an apostate German-Jewish geologist who desacralizes the Holy Land of Palestine in Melville’s late poem Clarel.  The opposition between (disruptive, death-dealing) critical thought and (stabilizing, liberating) mysticism is one which fans of The Fly may apprehend as distinct, but in all candor, I cannot point to an individual, society, or social movement as all Head or all Heart; I see “Reason” and “Feeling” as interpenetrating, but not as a feature of the unchanging human psyche. Rather, defending our socialization in societies moving from tribalism or feudalism to capitalism and beyond as we either tweak capitalism or formulate alternatives, we may be torn between a darkening romantic conservatism and a motion toward the light.  Growing up may not remove the contradiction, but it should alert us to the ways in which the imagos of childhood (which we may take to be accurate representations of social reality, since they are reinforced in popular and high culture), drag us backward toward hierarchy and despair.  Melville has dramatized this tension with cubist clarity and poignancy; the grieving Isabel’s long black hair “arbored him with ebon vines” in the last sentence of Pierre; at the same time the black mask protects his privacy and the vulnerable body.  But critics have generally lacked (or refused) the social imagination to bring his “religious” or “sexual” conflicts home to politics.

This is scary, because the institutions and social processes that produced Melville’s sometimes violent rebels are related to those that exterminated other surrogates for capitalism and its allegedly cruel, brutal and uncompromising market forces.  Mystical thinkers want capitalism without tears; mystical thinking produces moralistic social criticism and the obligatory purge.  Critical thought does not identify the source of evil in the Devil, in “human nature” or in whatever group is designated as the enemy, but recognizes the abstract and impersonal institutional rules and relationships that structure and limit moral choices; critical thinkers propose either structural or incremental reforms to transcend the limitations of capitalism (as we know it), one which points us toward true liberalism and goodness, however imperfectly.  Critical thinkers would never acquiesce to negative reference-group politics as an inevitable feature of the landscape of pluralism: That we may grow only by fits and starts, need not be an occasion for despair, but a warning against complacency and sectarianism.[3]
* “At the end of the issue [National Affairs] Leon R. Kass delivers an unforgettable article on why he decided to give up a career in the sciences to devote himself to the humanities. It nicely captures the spirit of the magazine — the fierce desire to see the human whole, to be aware of people as spiritual beings and not economic units or cogs in a technocratic policy machine.” –David Brooks, NYTimes, 9-8-09. Dear reader, don’t say I didn’t warn you. C.S.

[1] This is a rectified readymade gleaned from Edgar Allan Poe, “The Purloined Letter.” C. Augusta Dupinstein is one of Dr. Etta Enzyme’s alter egos.

[2] Naive historians who believe there is an author behind the blankness of “the text” are linked to Ahab in David Harlan’s article in American Historical Review 94, p. 592. On Ahab’s red flag: I interpret it to mean the romantic gesture of piercing through the mask of imposed neoclassical  pictures of “things as they are,” not only to reconfigure the real world, but to re-imagine human possibilities for constructive change.
[3] For instance, Sander L. Gilman, Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness (Ithaca: Cornell U. P., 1985): 240.

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