The Clare Spark Blog

November 17, 2009

Melencolia I and the apocalypse, 1938

In my reposted blog on panic attacks, I mentioned the use by Eric Gill of Dürer’s famous image. Here is the image as drawn by Eric Gill’s son-in-law Denis Tegetmeier for Gill’s book Unholy Trinity (1938). Opposite the illustration is this text by Eric Gill:

pastiche of Durer’s Melencolia I by Denis Tegetmeier

MELANCHOLIA—This is a very gloomy picture, and quite right too. There is no remedy for our troubles. The sick ‘old lady’ has got to die someday. I think any kind of mass conversion–as when Ninevah repented with three days of sackcloth and ashes–is not to be expected. Perhaps some kind of healthy barbarism will follow the war, pestilence and famine which are upon us. That is very likely. Nations and states go through a life cycle just as humans do, and though many will endeavour to soften our last days—it is astonishing how we cling to the deception that horrid things only happen to other people & not to us—we must today recall the words of St John in the Apocalypse:

‘Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all. And the voice of harpers and musicians, and of pipers, and trumpeters, shall be heard no more at all in thee. And no craftsman, of whatsoever craft he be, shall be found any more in thee; and the sound of a millstone shall be heard no more at all in thee; and the light of a candle shall shine no more at all in thee; and the voice of the bridegroom and of the bride shall be heard no more at all in thee; for thy merchants were the great men of the earth’ . [end Gill, there is no more text on the page]

Is there not a popular Hollywood genre of the apocalypse brought on by those commercial values foisted upon the world by merchants (a.k.a. Marx’s Jewish hucksters)? Would there have been a Renaissance, or an Age of Discovery, or the expansion of the West without them? Would we have great cities of the type anathematized by such as the arch reactionary Eric Gill without these dread traders? How much has this antimodern narrative penetrated into the popular consciousness to the detriment of mental health? And to what extent did the genre of film noir reflect such fears? Or such recent films as Revolutionary Road?

     In my view, we neglect such questions to our peril. If we cannot recognize “progress” where it has actually benefited humankind, how can we even begin to talk about appropriate remedies for emotional distress (depression! anxiety!), let alone public policy in such crucial matters as health care reform?  Just asking. For more on the popularity of “Melencolia I” in the last two centuries see the passages on James Thomson (“B. V.”) in , part one of a two-part essay that shows the links between antisemitism, misogyny, and antimodernism.

[Added in the early evening, submitted to one of the H-Net discussion groups:]

I want to launch this hypothesis: that antisemitism, like sexism, is underweighted as a cause of social malaise or what used to be called “neurosis/neurasthenia.” Those who subscribe to the History of Antisemitism list have done decades of work on the history of antisemitism, yet if it is taken up at all in the media, some crucial facet of it is neglected. Why?  Here are some suggestions:

1. Probably most of the Left does not want to admit that Marx was anti-Semitic in his early essay “On the Jewish Question.” Taking that further, the very notion that “capital” is inherently exploitative would seem to come from the old and incorrect notion that Jews loved money more than their neighbors. (Were there bitter Jews who fit the stereotype? Why would there not be? But if we reject the idea of race and national character, it is insane to attribute such avarice and heartlessness to all Jews who ever lived.)

2. The New Left and the counter-culture of the 1960s defined themselves against the soul-less cities (see the blog), celebrating rootedness and other tropes of the agrarian ideology. Remember the class base of utopian socialism in the 19th century? It was not the working class, but would-be patricians of the kind once identified as aristocratic backwoodsmen by G. C. Webber in his book on right-wing factions. Do I detect the color Green in their vaporings?

3. The Jews, in league with certain Scotsmen, are blamed for the disenchantment of the world. This was brought home to me by the J. C. Squire papers at UCLA. (Squire, a Tory poet, traveled from Fabianism to support for Italian Fascism. He was part of the English Melville revival.) It is also spelled out in Herman Melville’s sketch of a Dissenter in his late poem, _Clarel, a poem and pilgrimage in the Holy Land_ (1876). These works build upon the pervasiveness of the mad scientist in popular culture, made famous in spin-offs of Mary Shelley’s _Frankenstein_.  The best book I ever read on the subject of disenchantment was Tillyard’s short work, _The Elizabethan World Picture and Shakespeare’s History Plays_. As the Biblical higher criticism proceeded in the 19th century, Melville nervously complained about the loss to imagination by historical analysis of the Bible. His despair reflected that of James Thomson, author of _The City of Dreadful Night_ . We are back again to Dürer’s Melencolia I and the panicky reaction by Church and King to the advent of the scientific revolution, the Reformation, and other seemingly apocalyptic events. If the Jews are constantly seen as the vanguard of modernity (either implicitly or explicitly: think of the diabolic trinity of Marx, Einstein, and Freud), they get the blame. And a scientific outlook becomes “reductive” and an abomination.

4. If one is an upwardly-mobile assimilationist Jew (on the lam from mom?), it is probably little comfort to acknowledge the persistence of genteel antisemitism in the canyons of Manhattan, or in the heart of the non-Jew one has snagged. This hardly needs elaboration. Better to repress the entire subject.

If we underweight antisemitism as a destructive force in the human psyche, imagine how bad is our underestimation of the power of sexism and patriarchy. To what lengths will the ‘feminist’ ‘anti-imperialist’ go to minimize the desire to control women and mothers in particular, and not just in the Muslim world? I will not belabor this point here, except to note that for Eric Gill,  Melencolia is a sick old lady who would be better off dead than modernized/urbanized. History for these antimodernists is not susceptible to human understanding and agency, but is a subset of “natural history.” When we understand that, there might be some progress in the teaching of the humanities.

For a related blog see


  1. […] This populist term of abuse (“money-grabbing”) led me to wonder if Orwell’s critique of Communism, Fascism, and “Ingsoc” in 1984 was not at least partly motivated by an aversion to the “jewification” often ascribed during his lifetime to the modern world.  [In prior blogs I have noted that Hitler had been assumed to carry cunning Jewish blood;  that Hitler himself viewed Soviet Communists as fronts for finance capital; and that J. A. Hobson’s influential study Imperialism (1905) blamed a conspiracy of wealthy Jews for war, which they instigated through their control of international finance and mass media (in his case, newspapers).] I am not concluding anything in particular about Orwell’s possible Jewish problem, but noting that it is worth exploring. (For pertinent blogs see,,, and […]

    Pingback by “Bibi” and the human nature debate « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 29, 2012 @ 3:32 pm | Reply

  2. As I understand you, in reviewing and interpreting history, anti-modernists have denied the power of anti-semitism, outwardly welcoming Jewish intellectualism in forming the modern world, yet inwardly blaming the Jews for creating a horrific, self-destructive world. History, in their eyes, is a process of cherry-picking “facts” to support their a priori conclusions; that civilization is collapsing, the industrial era is depleting resources — water, fuel, food, raw materials — at unsustainable rates, human overpopulation cannot be supported, and democratic institutions cannot make the “right” decisions. Worse still, as a subset of “natural history,” the collapse is interpreted as inevitable, like the death of a species denied its environment. In such a mindset, melancholia is the only response a person and society can have.

    What is not yet clear to me is how understatement of anti-semitism (and feminist anti-imperialism, et al.) contributes to that negative interpretation of history. What I see in anti-semitism, particularly in Jewish anti-semitism, is a self-abnegation, a hatred in what the enlightenment has wrought, a movement intent on destroying itself and the world around it. Is the understatement of anti-semitism yet another layer of denial, an insulation against the reality of what is really happening in the mind of the anti-modernist?

    Comment by stereorealist — November 27, 2011 @ 3:07 pm | Reply

    • This blog was mostly about reactionary persons who blame the rise of cities and the emancipation of Jews and women as signs of decadence. These reactionaries are usually attracted to medievalism and the great chain of being (the organic society) that modernity has torn asunder. We don’t teach about antisemitism (often linked to misogyny) because it is useful for statists to maintain hierarchy in order to legitimate their bureaucratic rule. In the case of Jewish antisemitism, it is more about assimilation: making oneself agreeable to establishments.

      Comment by clarespark — November 27, 2011 @ 3:58 pm | Reply

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