The Clare Spark Blog

July 18, 2014

Sartre, existentialism, and red antisemitism

The Void Game ad

The Void Game ad

I have been reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s much lauded first novel Nausea (1938), followed by his canonical Anti-Semite and Jew (written ca. 1944).

It is difficult to imagine the younger Sartre as a future revolutionary socialist (though he presents himself, dubiously, as an anti-Stalinist) reading the novel, as compared to the wartime essay that nearly everyone quotes to the effect that society creates the Jew it needs for ideological purposes, i.e., actual Jewish behavior is irrelevant.

This blog continues the theme that I have developed on this website: it is increasingly difficult to separate social democrats from revolutionary socialists.
The early progressives made no secret of their counter-revolutionary goals, as I laid out here: https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/. These conservative reformers, no less than New Dealers, were frank about their politics: proletarian internationalism was their monster, and in its place they offered a paternalistic, elite-led welfare state that would contain any hanky-panky from below.

But the Soviet Union did a sharp about face with the rise of the various (irrationalist) fascisms in Italy, Spain, and especially Germany. At first appalled by the slaughter of revolutionaries in China (see Harold Isaacs’s famous book) that prompted a sectarian assault upon “Social Fascists” after 1928, the Soviets suddenly made common cause with the bourgeoisie through Popular Front politics in 1935—as long as there were bourgeois anti-fascists, as seemed to be the case during the Depression years, and especially after prominent intellectuals took up the Loyalist cause in Spain.

Someone should have told Sartre that, for in his novel, playing the Nietzschean, perhaps, he added to the voices of the resolutely anti-bourgeois, anti-modern voices of trendy European philosophers—Husserl (?) and Heidegger to mention a few of the nihilists confronting “the death of God.” For “Roquentin” there was only the Void and the denial of progress, most importantly in the possibility of overcoming evil—the very staples of the Judeo-Christian world view (this Manichaeism is not a traditional Jewish belief: in “old-fashioned” Judaism,  humanity should seek to fix or rectify self-destructive behavior).

Roquentin, a writer, seems paranoid to me, certainly disoriented, and hostile to his own body. Here is a striking passage from the novel:
“The thing which was waiting was on the alert, it has pounced on me, it flows through me, I am filled with it. It’s nothing: I am the Thing. Existence, liberated, detached, floods over me. I exist.” (p.98, New Directions paperback, my emph.) What struck me reading this passage was his quick association between liberation and detachment. I could not help thinking of the lyrics of the old song “After You’ve Gone” (1928) which are quoted several times in the novel. It was made famous by [Jewish] Sophie Tucker (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAuCSSLC-bk), and other major pop singers, but in the novel, Sartre is moved by its imagined Jewish composer and its “Negress” songstress. (Turner Layton was not Jewish, but a black songwriter, as was his lyricist Henry Creamer (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turner_Layton.)

Layton-Creamer Goodbye Alexander

Layton-Creamer Goodbye Alexander

Sartre was born into a Catholic family, and early on in the novel, I took him for a lapsed Catholic—his world was that bleak and dessicated, while his body or Nature was that repulsive, as horrifying, perhaps as the mother figure/vagina that was the real Thing. What if he became a communist because that creed and its mystical dialectical materialism reattached him to an abstract cause that did not frighten him? [I may have confused Catholicism and Puritanism, although there are puritanical Catholics.]

Turn now to his influential essay written during the war years in France. Usually taken to be a philosemitic tract, condemning Europe for its pervasive antisemitism, I was startled to see how he ended it with a standard communist trope: the working class understands its situation in the material world and is free of antisemitism, while it is the (muddled?) bourgeoisie that uses “the Jew” as scapegoat, to deflect petit-bourgeois (lower middle class in today’s argot) discontent away from their masked masters. Jews escape their “inauthenticity,” he claims, by reading Hegel’s “Master and Slave,” and finding authenticity in revolt against the ever antisemitic bourgeois oppressor. Through communism, antisemitism will disappear.

In rereading Sartre’s essay I was struck by his attack on mob society (shades of Hannah Arendt), and the anomie [inflicted by cities and industrialization?]. An entire flood of academics, young and old, follow the nearly identical philosophy of Emile Durkheim/the Frankfurt School/critical theory/the New Left/counter-culture mystics seeking both attachment and detachment.

One wonders how many of them are similarly on the lam from Mom and her illicit sticky power in the modern world.

stickymothers

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May 3, 2014

The Good Old Days

good-old-days-276x300[This is the second blog on Elie Kedourie: see https://clarespark.com/2014/04/09/disastrous-nationalisms-the-kedourie-version/, written before the second reading of his book.]
Usually I blog about subjects I understand well and can analyze with some clarity, but I admit to being at a loss to explain why arch-conservative intellectual historian and social theorist Elie Kedourie’s famous book Nationalism (1960) is considered to be a classic in the field of intellectual history. Nor can I explain why Blackwell Press (in the UK) brought out a fourth expanded edition (1993), for Blackwell is a publisher I associate with the Left: indeed they published Thomas Picketty’s Capital, which has lefties in a tizzy, calling Piketty the new Marx. “Everyone is talking about it.”

Kedourie’s book bears all the imprints of the reactionary: he blames the French Revolution for giving ordinary persons the notion that they could reject authority, even secede from or overturn despotic states; he loathes Romanticism as demonic; he prefers the catch as catch can “order” of the Middle Ages (and antiquity?) to modernity—even the “balance of power” is attributed to the sensible compromises that medieval dynasties/royal families were ostensibly prone to; he loathes John Locke’s empiricism, aligning himself with Kant’s radical subjectivism (anticipating postmodernist claims that “all knowledge is local”?); the invention of the printing press was a disaster for Order, as were the Industrial Revolution, machines in general, and the economic determinism they spawned; and the notion of the modern woman working outside of her traditional role is foreign to his mind-set. As for cities, they are home solely to anomie.

On the other hand, he attacks German philology and the notion of national character advanced by the Germans Herder and Fichte, leading, he says to Hitler’s deadly super-nationalism; he blames the settlement following the Great War for disturbing local communities and carving out artificial states that made no sense to either Central Europeans or to the Middle East. (I agree with this critique, and have traced cultural nationalism myself in numerous blogs on this website. But how odd is it that Kedourie uses the word “race” as if these races were real in the world, and not socially constructed: there goes his implicit critique of “multiculturalism”!)

For admirers of England and American constitutionalism, he blames neither the Reformation, the English Civil War, nor the American Revolution as contributing to the chaos he limns throughout his book.

It appears that democracy is his target, but not rule by a flexible hereditary elite. What leaves me bewildered is his affection for primitives on some pages (they comprise authentic communities and should not be disturbed by modernizers), while on other pages primitivism feeds into “nationalism” through the development of distinctive languages that embody popular “feeling”.

In the good old days that Kedourie admires, ordinary people went about their artisanal business and put up with whatever elites dished out: religion bound peasants to monarchs and the status quo (for more on the excellencies of this social bond, see https://clarespark.com/2010/02/10/a-brooding-meditation-on-intimacy-and-distance/). I give up and am open to comments that explain how an apparent anti-statist can appeal to a distinctively left-wing publishing house–unless the hidden agenda is a defense of Islamic principles. The target of Kedourie’s wrath may be “Jewish nationalism” as embodied in “the Zionist state.” See http://zioncon.blogspot.com/2007/07/yoav-gelber-disease-of-post-zionism.html.

Unless, as Ralph Nader rejoices in his latest book, Left and Right have not only converged, but their marriage is part of a historic political realignment where statist leftism gets thrown out the window.
goodolddaysleft

March 21, 2012

Big Cities and the Mob

Hip cultural historians are still studying the anomie (rootlessness) they impute to big cities. While watching a recent PBS documentary on the achievements of Oscar Hammerstein II, it occurred to me that his oeuvre as a whole pointed back to a period of imagined rural or small-town neighborliness, to a time before his mother died when the lyricist was only fifteen (Fordin bio). That “neighborliness” (a soothing social bond represented in the mother-child dyad) was then translated to his idealized anti-racist international community, as then proposed by the United World Federalists (also a pet project of Harvard’s social psychologist Henry A. Murray) or in the premises of the United Nations. Although Hammerstein was a noted liberal anticommunist, his attempt to unite groups and nations with clashing political and economic interests, reminded me of Hitler’s populist elevation of the Volk, and also the Soviet attempt to merge peasants and workers, notwithstanding that peasants and workers had different material interests, as explained in this blog. https://clarespark.com/2009/08/27/hitler-and-the-jewish-mind-part-three/.

Although I had not thought of nostalgia for the pre-urban America as an underlying theme in the social thought of the early progressives, I suggest that fear of Cain’s cities, with their imputed urban neurasthenia and exacerbated individualist striving, not to speak of class warfare, animated the emotions of the intellectuals described below. The Scary City is a theme now being taken up by cultural historians, mostly writing from the left, who may have more in common with these agrarian critics of modernity than they realize. (If you have time for only one blog, choose the scary city.)

https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/

https://clarespark.com/2009/09/23/progressives-and-the-teaching-of-american-literature/

https://clarespark.com/2009/11/17/melencolia-i-and-the-apocalypse-1938/

https://clarespark.com/2009/11/19/the-scary-city-lamprecht-becker-lynd/

https://clarespark.com/2011/08/14/review-in-the-garden-of-beasts-by-erik-larson/.

https://clarespark.com/2012/04/24/the-subtle-racism-of-edna-ferber-and-oscar-hammerstein-ii/.

https://clarespark.com/2012/10/07/christian-socialism-as-precursor-to-orwell/.

It is important to remember that “mass culture” was considered to be a mobbish urban phenomenon that explained Hitler’s support and rise to power (the Frankfurt School story, see https://clarespark.com/2011/10/21/did-frankfurters-kill-the-white-christian-west/), but it was also the explanation for all manner of mental illnesses, particularly narcissism (vainglory), deranged relations between the genders, and constant back-stabbing. For an example, see the NBC series Smash, which although it appears to sympathetically portray the New York theater world from a feminist, pro-gay perspective, Smash also calls into question the values it apparently celebrates, for instance contrasting the loneliness of stardom with the mutual solidarity offered by chorus members to the Katherine McPhee character. (In the last installment, nothing “works” in NYC, including the plumbing and heating. I have watched all seven episodes again, and wonder if the contrast drawn between country and city life will now evolve into the corruption of the innocent Karen, who will, like Marilyn, be ruined by the mercenary, anti-art values of show business.) (For more on Smash, see https://clarespark.com/2012/05/18/smash-season-finales-and-the-demonic/.)

We are so wrong about the imputed innocence and wholesomeness of the  [judenrein] small town life hitherto enjoyed by “Karen Cartwright” who starts Smash with a truncated performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (JFK used “innocence” and “wholesome” to describe Marilyn Monroe’s lascivious Happy Birthday song). Alongside of tight families and neighborliness, there were also troubled social relationships and authoritarian conduct pushing toward mindless conformity, as such writers as Sherwood Anderson were quick to identify and condemn. We do better to read Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio), along with such authors as Mark Twain and Cormac McCarthy for a better reading of force and fraud in American 19th century frontier life and beyond. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/03/20/links-to-cormac-mccarthy-and-mark-twain-blogs/.)

It is time to rehabilitate the “rootless cosmopolitans” who have been unfairly demonized by multiculturalists: Stalinists and Nazis alike. As the black novelist and ex-communist Richard Wright once implied: “any place I hang my hat is home.” Thornton  Wilder’s Stage Manager, in Wright’s scenario, is nowhere to be found. (For one rendition of the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer song alluded to, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mtEp2paaes.)

Thornton Wilder as Stage Manager in Our Town

June 2, 2011

The Mass Culture Problem

There is a Humanities-Net list devoted to the period between 1918-1945 that has been discussing modernity, mass culture, and assimilation. For some, “nativists” are viewed as perpetrators of racism.  I started a glossary to see if we could come to agreement on the terms we used in debating this premise.

Public library luring readers with Captain Ahab "sea food"

Modernity: some  scholars start it with the age of expansion. I see modernity as starting with the Reformation, nascent capitalism in England on the land and then in finance, the invention of the printing press and growing mass literacy and numeracy, the Scientific Revolution, then the  speedup in industrialization, long distance transportation, and the settling of great cities in the West. Other scholars prefer to start with expansionism/imperialism alone. When the postmodernists seemingly burst upon the scene, I noted that there was little agreement about when modernism began or ended. Some seemed to be irrationalists echoing the
widespread horror at the casualties of the Great War.

Racism: Recent scholars have frequently erased “class” by collapsing it into “race” or “ethnicity.” Scientific racism and the intertwined notion of national character is best traced to the German Romantics of the late 18th century, following Herder. I blogged about the latter and others here:

https://clarespark.com/2010/07/20/german-romantic-predecessors-to-multiculturalism,
also https://clarespark.com/2010/04/08/racism-modernity-modernism/.

Race” as a concept that predicts mental and other psychological characteristics was challenged in the mid-1930s, as was “ethnicity” insofar as these were held to be predictors of character, as opposed to physical variations within one species. It is my view that “antiracists”today use a racialist discourse while disavowing “racism.”

Assimilation:  the Left in general interprets this as adjusting to ugly nativism, and the nativists are supposedly chauvinistic believers in “American exceptionalism” by which they supposedly agree that America is the greatest country in the history of the world, based upon American military power. It is my view that assimilation in America requires no more than learning the customary language and obeying the laws of the land, by which I mean internalizing the novel idea of equality before the law and limited government. (It is true that the quietism of immigrant ancestors may cause rifts in families.)  As for “American exceptionalism” it once referred to “careers open to the talents” as opposed to a rigid class and caste society. America, lacking a hereditary aristocracy, was the land of upward mobility for all, and after the civil rights movement and the laws that followed, such mobility was offered to the descendants of slaves and even women.

Secularism: many cultural historians characterize the modern world as primarily “secular”.  This term is hotly contested in the culture wars.  “Traditionalists” abhor “secularists” who, they believe, have opened the flood gates of diabolism, degeneracy and every type of “unrest.”  The traditionalists insist that no separation between Church and State was intended by the Founding Fathers, who believed in America’s Providential mission. It is my position that religious and intellectual pluralism were institutionalized in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The culture war positions point to the unfinished revolutions, about which I wrote here:  https://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/.

Organic conservatives:  These persons tend to reject the “anomie” of the modern world, also the notion of irreconcilable conflicts between persons,  nation-states, religions, and so on. They prefer social models, either state-imposed or religious, that unite warring factions or individuals through mystical bonds, not congruent material interests. Examples are the Catholic essayists de Maistre and  Bonald after the French Revolution.  But many of the corporatist liberals (i.e., conservative reformers of the New Deal) also posit mystical bonds of blood and soil. Here are to be found the ethnic nationalists and some regionalists.

Organic conservatives may be found throughout the political spectrum. They are not to be confused with libertarians, who tend to be materialists, and expect competing (free) markets to produce social well-being and a rising standard of living for all. The dread homo economicus is described here: https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/.

Mass Culture: This is a term much used by the Frankfurt School critical theorists, who, as I have shown elsewhere on this website, attribute Hitler’s appeal to “the revolt of the masses” in tandem with the one-sidedness of an increasingly technological society and a Kafka-esque bureaucracy. They blame the Enlightenment for the Holocaust. I reject both their counter-Enlightenment views and their explanation for the rise of Hitler, which is a culturalist one only, and is historically inadequate to explain such a multi-faceted phenomenon. Modernity and “consumerism” are seen by the critical theorists (Frankfurters) as bourgeoisifying a social class that should be transcending capitalism and bringing in a form of libertarian socialism. These refugees from Germany were linked to left-liberals who themselves did sykewar for the Roosevelt administration and its social psychologist allies. There is a related category: mass politics, which signifies the type of log cabin politics initiated by the administration of Andrew Jackson. Mass politics are said by left-wing academics to have replaced “the politics of deference” and the rule of the best families. Hence the novel catering to “public opinion” in our political culture, and the fascination with propaganda as the primary mover of political choice.

[Added 6-3-11:] Don’t miss the two interesting comments by CatoRenasci below. Read #3 first, then #1.

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