The Clare Spark Blog

May 10, 2013

Losing focus and mass media

mass-media1This blog is about how journalism can break our concentration on the most vital subjects, simply through its format. Nothing gets treated in adequate depth, anchors don’t press their guests to answer questions in any detail, and other events are interpolated that are de-politicizing and hence impede ameliorative action or curiosity about those debates that are crucial to our personal safety and survival as a putatively democratic republic.

Why elites hate mass media. Mass illiteracy in reading print and in reading other forms of media (including photos) is a present-day emergency, but I can’t get anyone excited about this. Many academics (the Frankfurt School critical theorists, for instance) blame totalitarianism on mass culture, by which they mean newspapers, radio, television, and movies. Today, add to that list the internet and social media. Why? Because religous authority, the Church that diverted attention from this world to life after death, suffered the greatest crisis since the Reformation at the point where visual and audio media became cheap and popular, promising large financial rewards to its technicians, writers, and artists.

Once naturalism and realism overtook mysticism and symbolism, accelerated by the world-shaking innovation of mass literacy that began to build after the invention of the printing press, democratic sects sprang up in Europe as part of the Reformation. (Read the communist historian Christopher Hill’s semi-classic The World Turned Upside Down that detailed such as Gerard Winstanley’s Diggers and other radical puritan sects of the 17th century, and which Hill clearly hoped would inspire current day readers to adopt their collectivism, including the notion that the earth was a common treasury. Such a historical reconstruction and popularization was surely meant to counter the growing individualism that leftish Romanticism and free markets had encouraged.)

In prior blogs I have shown how popular television shows not only instil fear of the internet and social media as a goad to “malignant narcissism” and serial killers, but that many series create an atmosphere of paranoia (“you are being watched” says Person of Interest every episode). Paranoia erodes basic trust, without which self-confidence and the search for truth are effectively undermined. We can’t count on our own senses, even when we reflect upon them and do research, for “we see through a glass darkly.” Thus, the old religious fears of “worldliness” and the terminal acceptance of insoluble “mystery” is reinforced: We won’t solve the mystery until we get to Heaven. (For related blogs see https://clarespark.com/2013/04/21/fascism-what-it-is-what-it-is-not/, and https://clarespark.com/2012/01/13/mark-twains-failed-yankee/.)

Why I wrote this blog. This blog, however, is not a defense of the potential democratizing mass media as currently practiced, but rather a different kind of warning about their effects, for this criticism comes from a historian who must focus, if necessarily, obsessively, on a significant problem before any writing can begin, and even after that, one’s writing is constantly interrogated with the same concentration, lest distortions and false claims be laid upon readers, readers who are expected to act upon this new knowledge that has been dug up, chewed over, tested and retested, and usually read by sympathetic but critical colleagues prior to publication.

What concerns me the day after the “explosive” hearings on the Benghazi affair, is that no sooner has the viewer or listener or reader absorbed new and potentially destabilizing information, than the subject is suddenly changed to a “human interest story” that invariably arouses strong emotions and causes the new facts on State Department misconduct to disappear from memory. So it was yesterday: the Jodi Arias verdict, the continuing drama of the Cleveland kidnappings, new facts on the Tsernaev brothers, all jumbled together with Democratic Party accusations that the hearings were a Republican stunt over a phony affair that was already moribund, and that nobody could have saved the four Benghazi victims, even if Clinton and the military had acted immediately upon being notified. (What is of course ignored is the prior cries for enhanced security sent to the State Department and then refused. A few commentators have emphasized this point, but only a few.)

Hence rational political discourse is discouraged, not only because the French Revolution is still on, producing only mobs, or because the nation is polarized over economic strategies or illegal immigrants. We are hampered from focusing on those preconditions that make citizenship possible: the close scrutiny of all our relationships, the desperate need for education reform, and the knowledge gap between most of the electorate and the specialists who make our society hum.

Without basic trust in our (educated) abilities to make sense of conflict; without proportion and a sense of appropriate scale so that we can discern between national emergencies and local problems, all talk of “participatory democracy” is an obscene joke. At one time, our opinion leaders knew this. (See Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, publ. in 1922, and my blog about Chomsky’s attempt to take it down: https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.)

media overload

This was a letter from your surrogate mother. Happy Mother’s Day.

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March 20, 2012

Links to Cormac McCarthy and Mark Twain blogs

https://clarespark.com/2011/11/17/blood-meridian-and-the-deep-ecologists/

https://clarespark.com/2011/11/21/cormac-mccarthy-vs-herman-melville/

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/13/mark-twains-failed-yankee/

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/21/huck-finn-and-the-well-whipped-child/

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/31/the-numbers-game/ (This is about Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and his re-enchantment, and turn away from the skills acquired as a river pilot.)

January 21, 2012

Huck Finn and the well-whipped child

cleansed edition of Huck FinnWe all know about the controversy about the use of offensive dialect in the writings of Mark Twain. This blog is not about the triumph of the language police, but about a deeper and more sinister subject: the inability to stand up to illegitimate authority. [For related blogs see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/20/links-to-cormac-mccarthy-and-mark-twain-blogs/]

But first take a look at this teaching guide to one of the masterworks of American literature: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/teachers/huck/index.html.

This is one of many teaching guides on how to handle the “hand grenade” of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1885). Here is a hipper one that gives a mini-biography of Leslie Fiedler, whose Love and Death in the American Novel became a major text for New Left literary critics. (In this essay, the story is told that Hemingway confronted Fiedler (the maverick critic who was the first to use the term postmodernism), over his reading of Huck Finn: http://www.bookforum.com/archive/sum_03/posnock.html). The issue for Hemingway was obviously manliness and Fiedler’s suggestions of androgyny and feminization in the American psyche.

Although Fiedler makes more of the homoeroticism of the relationship of Jim and Huck than I would, at least he addresses the retreat into Nature, a nature that is protective and nurturing, unlike the sadistic “Pap” (father of Huck) or the hypercritical, chatty Calvinist female relatives, upholders of slavery themselves, who drive Huck into primitivism.

I advise my readers to read Huckleberry Finn (1885) and Connecticut Yankee (1889) together, but the latter first. See also the passage from Yankee on poor white acquiescence in the institution of slavery that I quoted in https://clarespark.com/2012/01/13/mark-twains-failed-yankee/, for it is my hunch that 6th century Britain is a transposition of the antebellum South that Twain experienced as a boy, with the slave-owning classes analogous to the endless and irrational violence of the alliance between the aristocracy and the medieval Catholic Church—a force that, in Twain’s book, cannot be vanquished, even with modern technology, for men, with few exceptions, seek the traditional rule of abusive authority, not freedom.

The rest of this blog continues the theme of gender difference, with Twain (b. 1835), speaking through the poor white Huck, unable to break through the pervasive moral law existent in the slave states: that slavery was a positive good that uplifted savages: such was “civilization” in the slaveholding states. Huck’s is the lesson of the well-whipped child, a theme that pervades much of popular culture: that even as an adult, the rebel against illegitimate authority is too weak to overthrow the oppressor. The farthest that the rebellion may go is to identify with evil, with Satan, and thence to experience the depression that such an adventure into the dark side perhaps? necessarily? confers.

As the issue of manliness is not always discussed in the scholarly literature (as opposed to white racism), I shall quote from the two key chapters, 16 and 31, that reveal Huck’s moral prison, one from which he cannot escape even with wildly improbable plot devices.

[From Chapter 16. Huck hears Jim celebrating his imagined freedom if he gets to Cairo: “…He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife…and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn’t sell them, they’d get an Ab’litionist to go and steal them.

“It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t even dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, ‘Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell.’ Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children—children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.”

[But then Jim rejoices:] “Pooty soon I’ll be a-shout’n’ for joy, en I’ll say, it’s all on accounts o’ Huck; I’s a free man, en I couldn’t even ben free ef it hadn’ ben for Huck; Huck done it. Jim won’t ever forgit you, Huck; you’s de bes’ fren’ Jim’s ever had; en you’s de only fren’ ole Jim’s got now.” (pp 126-27)

[Huck is about to turn Jim into the hands of two slave-catchers who demand to know what is the color of the other man on the raft:] “I didn’t answer up prompt. I tried to, but the words wouldn’t come. I tried for a second or two to brace up and out with it, but I warn’t man enough—hadn’t the spunk of a rabbit. I see I was weakening; so I just give up trying, and up and says: ‘He’s white.’” [my emphasis]

Huck pretends to be a ghost

A man, in Huck’s imagination, obeys the law that disallows Jim belonging to himself. (But in the preceding chapter Huck had humbled himself before Jim, for his “mean tricks” that impelled Jim to reproach Huck for worrying him that Huck might have drowned during the great fog. “And I warn’t ever sorry for it [the apology] afterwards, neither.” Huck/Twain has actually acknowledged Jim as an equal, momentarily at least.)

Shortly after the interchange in chapter 16 (quoted above), Huck continues his self-examination and concludes that he would feel just as bad doing right (turning Jim over) as doing wrong (breaking the law), “and the wages is just the same.” A few pages later a steamboat capsizes the raft and Mark Twain puts down the manuscript for several years. (Henry Nash Smith says three years, relying on Walter Blair’s scholarship in reconstructing the composition of the ms.). After many chapters in which Jim leaves the narrative, the two runaways are reunited, and Huck, pretending to be Tom Sawyer, is comfortably lodged on the Phelps plantation (with Jim hiding on the raft nearby, then captured by Phelps), where his Southern conscience is once more goaded into a proposed action. This is where Huck unites with Satan as the only felt outcome for the well-whipped and indoctrinated child/man. Huck composes a letter to Jim’s owner, Miss Watson:

“Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. Huck Finn.

“I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happening so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell.” Huck then reminisces about their friendship, emphasizing Jim’s protectively maternal aspects, and utters the often quoted lines: “’All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.” (Ch. 31, p.278-279).

And is one of the wicked things, Huck’s collaborating with Tom Sawyer’s sadistic pranks during the concluding chapters, sadistic because Tom knew that Miss Watson had already freed Jim in her will? By what circuitous route does Huck move from a vow to saving Jim again, to allowing Tom Sawyer to control his actions, in effect, tormenting Jim, perhaps reminding the reader that Twain the author killed off Hank Morgan and his modernization project at the end of Yankee? Having bonded with perfect evil (Satan) in chapter 31 of Huckleberry Finn, was this bond not the juice that enabled the writing of the Jacobin and Promethean Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court? And if so, how could Twain’s next big book not have had a depressing and depressed denouement? We may be fascinated by bad boys, but they are not marriage material.

I do not know what punishment Mark Twain’s father meted out to his children, for the role of yelling or caning in early childhood and youth is rarely taken up in literary histories. We do know that Twain’s father was a slaveowner, an attorney and a judge who died when Samuel L. Clemens was only 11 years old, surely a trauma in itself. Twain mentions his father in Life on The Mississippi as follows: “My father was a justice of the peace, and I supposed he possessed the power of life and death over all men, and could hang anybody that offended him. This was distinction enough for me as a general thing; but the desire to be a steamboatman kept intruding, nevertheless.” (Ch. IV) In the novel, an unnamed judge sides with Huck’s Pap, returning Huck to certain death in his father’s hovel. I have written a very personal, speculative blog. One thing is for certain: Mark Twain was not the name given by the author’s parents. (For more on the Clemens household and slavery see http://www.literarytraveler.com/authors/terrell_dempsey_searching_for.aspx. )

January 13, 2012

Mark Twain’s failed Yankee

Soviet poster

When a writer chooses a name suggesting that two personas occupy one body (as in the nom de plume Mark Twain), the reader should take this self-definition seriously. Years ago, Dr. David James Fisher, psychoanalyst and intellectual historian, wrote a short paper on Twain’s difficulties with writing Huckleberry Finn. As I recall, in the scene where Huck, after determining that he feels as bad doing right (obeying the law) as doing wrong (risking a link to abolitionism), and hence will not turn the escaped slave Jim in to slave-catchers, Twain put down the manuscript and did not pick it up for several years. In any case, in the published version, the paddles of a looming steamboat capsize the raft and both Huck and Jim are in danger of drowning.

The next Twain fiction was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), with pointed illustrations by Dan Beard, the latter said to be even more of a radical democrat than Twain. As for the plot, briefly, a 19th century weapons engineer, an ex-worker risen to foreman of the Colt factory, after a blow to his head, wakes up in 6th century Britain, where he introduces modern science, weapons, factories, modern communication including railroads, education, and newspapers in order to rescue the oppressed masses and to institute a Republic, modeled after the Northern U.S., perhaps New England. This blog reacts to my third reading of the novel, with some thoughts regarding ambivalence in the Missouri-born author, with special reference to the ways some 20th century critics have appropriated the novel, in my view, missing what is most interesting about it. Here comes a brief meditation on my response to the novel.

Mark Twain was heavily promoted in the Soviet Union, for more reasons than his objection to the Spanish-American War. Reading CYKAC, one can see why. The narrator of the tale, Hank Morgan states that, regarding the French Revolution, though he started out as a Girondin (a moderate bourgeois, like Condorcet), he ended up as a sans-culotte! Moreover, both Twain and his fictional persona believe that armed struggle is the only route to revolution. When you tote up the casualties of the Terror, they are as nothing compared to the crimes against humanity inflicted by the heartless aristocracy. Soviets elevated Robespierre and other Jacobins, while many conservatives and centrists alike have drawn a straight line between Jacobins and 20th century Fascists and Nazis.

Moreover, Marx was a great admirer of the American Civil War, as are his followers among left-liberals. It was one of the great world revolutions and the most radical moment in U.S. history, they aver. And Hank Morgan’s modernizing animus against the medieval Catholic Church, allied as it was with the vicious, predatory aristocracy, would sit well with Soviets and their supporters. Morgan’s graphic descriptions of medieval barbarism, which many communists associate with the equally savage Gilded Age bourgeoisie, surely endeared Twain to those Soviet propagandists who associated late capitalism with fascism and imperialism. (See my notes on Henry Nash Smith, below in bibliography.)

Mark Twain ca. 1889

One wonders what communist readers would make of the following passage from Twain’s fantasy. I wonder if he was not disclosing one aspect of his own white-suited psyche as he complains that the common people buy into caste position, without a murmur of dissent or complaint: Twain suddenly returns to the present, in my view, defending his manhood, called into question by his youthful folly in briefly joining a Confederate militia, which he then deserted. But recall that Hank Morgan admires the manly gait and elegance of King Arthur. Part of Twain may admire the aristocracy he so vehemently rejects:

“[Referring to ‘the alacrity with which this oppressed community had turned their cruel hands against their own class in the interest of the common oppressor’] This was depressing—to a man with the dream of a republic in his head. It reminded me of a time thirteen centuries away, when the ‘poor whites’ of our South who were always despised, and frequently insulted, by the slave lords around them, and who owed their base condition simply to the presence of slavery in their midst, were pusillanimously ready to side with the slave lords in all political moves for the upholding and perpetuating of slavery, and did also finally shoulder their muskets and pour out their lives in an effort to prevent the destruction of the very institution that degraded them. And there was only one redeeming feature connected with that pitiful piece of history, and that was, that secretly the “poor white” did detest the slave lord and did feel his own shame.  That feeling was not brought to the surface, but the fact that it was there and could have been brought out under favoring circumstances, was something—in fact it was enough, for it showed that a man is at bottom a man, after all, even if it doesn’t show on the outside.’” (UC Press, Mark Twain Project edition, 1984, p.297)

One can almost hear Gyorg Lukás applauding Twain’s/Morgan’s reference to false consciousness, a failing that could be rectified by re-education by a communist vanguard or the “cultural Marxism” of the Frankfurt School critical theorists.

In the brief time that I have looked into recent appropriations of Twain’s text, I have seen only these two points brought out: First, the novel created a sub-genre of science fiction: the time traveling narrative; and second, that Twain was primarily objecting to the medieval revival of his period, and blaming the Southern rebellion as the consequence of besotted readers of Sir Walter Scott’s medieval romances. (Marx also read Scott, incidentally.)

But, such a (culturalist) reading misses one of the most obvious themes of the novel: that modern technology, especially modern weaponry, has changed the nature of warfare; that such innovations as the Gatling gun (mentioned many times in the text, and occasionally deployed in the Civil War), plus the shocking and unprecedented casualties of that conflict, had led, combined with the passivity and herd-behavior of the masses, turned Twain against the very optimism with which “the [Nietschean?] Boss” had begun his innovations. By the end, the would-be republican Twain has killed off his protagonist; he is no radical, but a bohemian who been fantasizing freedom, but finally bows to the all-powerful masters. Hank Morgan’s modernizing efforts cannot stave off the all-powerful Church and its befuddled masses. He has assumed the tragic, nihilistic demeanor of the author of The Mysterious Stranger. No Soviet commissar would have approved such disillusion and cultural pessimism, although Henry Nash Smith, remarked that Morgan’s top-down modernization plan was Soviet in conception.

Many a historian has studied the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Few, if any, would disagree with the notion that it is impossible to modernize without movement toward  mass literacy and numeracy, competitive markets and the scientific world-view that markets encourage, except those Leninists, perhaps, who believe that the dread bourgeois phase of development can be leaped over straight into heaven on earth. To them, I recommend Twain’s famously ‘failed’ tragedy, with the proviso that the author, in Life on the Mississippi (1883) had hard things to say about soul-less machines and even mentioned Frankenstein. Henry Nash Smith erred in identifying Twain with Hank Morgan (ostensibly a laissez-faire capitalist), although there is something of Hank in Twain’s character.

Bibliography.

Smith, Henry Nash. Mark Twain’s Fable of Progress: Political and Economic Ideas in “A Connecticut Yankee” (Rutgers UP, 1964). While the quasi-socialistic William Dean Howells and Melville-admirer Edwin Stedman thought that the novel was Twain’s masterpiece,  Smith makes the book an evasion of the true nature of class struggle in the laissez-faire Gilded Age; a product of “Promethean” Twain’s regrettable Anglo-phobic “jingoistic nationalism”; and finds philistine folk humor too weak a reed to carry the immense project of the novel. Twain was simply not up to the challenge, and problems with his own finances explain the unconvincing and depressing finish. He does not note a possible reference to Civil War casualties, nor does he associate the knightly class with Southern slaveholders, but he does see Twain as sympathetic to some noble aristocrats. He is also put off by Dan Beard’s naughtily [Jacobin] illustrations, that had no basis, Nash says, in the text. I disagree with that judgment. Beard’s affinity with Tom Paine was obviously shared by Twain throughout.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Connecticut_Yankee_in_King_Arthur%27s_Court

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

http://www.twainquotes.com/19600306.html. Joseph Wood Krutch on how the Soviets got Twain wrong.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Takaki, author of Iron Cages: Race and Culture and 19th Century America (Knopf, 1987). Takaki associates  Hank Morgan with Melville’s Captain Ahab.

http://tinyurl.com/7y8usec. Richard Nielsen quoting Max Weber. Teaches at Boston College.

http://tinyurl.com/7wxxnnf. E-Book version of Connecticut Yankee with introduction, including social views

http://www.newswise.com/articles/mark-twain-staunch-confederate-once-upon-a-time-150-years-ago-baylor-professor-says.

http://tinyurl.com/7kw4n77 Daniel Aaron on Mark Twain’s Civil War politics

[Tom Nichols translation of the illustrated Soviet Poster:] “And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one–our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.” (http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/twain.html)

The Soviet poster says:  “We can set up a special flag, just the same flag with the white stripes black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones. — Mark Twain”  Then at the bottom: AMERICA – THE NATION OF TRAMPLED RIGHTS.

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