The Clare Spark Blog

November 21, 2010

“…through a glass darkly”?

Citizen Milton’s Satan in Revolutionary France, 1792

Irrationalists, quoting Scripture (1 Corinthians 13:12), have argued for centuries that we “see through a glass darkly.” The scientific revolution” changed all that. Some things are shiningly settled. My friend the late Norman J. Levitt wrote books to that effect. Moreover the notion that facts are only true in their historical context and because powerful people say they are true, is one of the chief weapons in the arsenal of the antidemocratic propagandists.

Obviously, if we are denied access to the opinions and actions of powerful figures, we are denied the possibility of objectivity. Here are two quotes from my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival:

[Milton, Areopagitica:] I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye on how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors: For books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet on the other hand unless wariness be us’d, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye.

Ahab [“The Quarter-Deck”: ] “…Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”

While shopping my manuscript, I quickly learned that hostile academic readers identified me with Captain Ahab. A know-it-all authoritarian, I was insufficiently humble in attacking established stars of the “Melville Revival.” By basing my synthesis on archival findings, I had crossed the boundary between legitimate criticism of institutions and blasphemy. Some reviewers of the published book complained that I was hysterically and vindictively trying to punish Pacifica Radio for purging me. In the words of one Charles Olson groupie, I had “written a Medusa book.” This in spite of my tentativeness in drawing conclusions about the mechanics of the Revival, or the motivations of the chief revivers. I had presented my evidence and asked the reader to think about what could be known and what could not be known about Melville’s ambivalent texts and those of his often ambivalent biographers.


It was such experiences with critics that have led me, as a lover of Milton’s great Areopagitica, to suggest that the invention of the printing press was the decisive turning point in the history of the West. Yet, just as the availability of books gave heart to the lower orders who, as “reasonable creatures”  were created in “the Image of God,” it also enabled the old ruling classes to spread their propaganda, propaganda intended to diminish self-confidence in the potentially troublesome, newly literate, beneficiaries of their tender mercies.

Perhaps our greatest and most demanding life-task is the constant interrogation of our thoughts and feelings: To what extent are our ideas and actions grounded in deference to families, experts, and the state; to what extent can we be said to have enough facts to rest on those findings, formulate a synthesis, and take reasonable action? I never said it would be easy.

fallen flesh

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