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.)
March 20, 2012
January 31, 2012
One of the virtues of the progressive movement in America was the increased deployment of statistics (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statistics). Before that, the political culture could rely on wild claims about the nature of the opposition, without deploying expert-developed “scientific” charts and graphs to prove a point. (Not that economists use the same sets of numbers or rely upon identical economic models.)
The reason I bring it up today, is the ongoing appeal of gory stories about the American past that I have found in both fiction and in the writing of history. While reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (1883), I came across his account of the bandit and slave-stealer, “Murel,” but this turns out to be a heavily embellished “tall tale,” according to Wikipedia’s entry on “John Murrell (Bandit).” One cannot discount the public appetite for stories depicting in graphic detail dismembering, disemboweling, decapitations, defenestration, flogging, gouging, cannibalism, vampirism, and every atrocity known to our evil species. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and White-Jacket may appeal to the sadomasochist public more than we know.
After reading about the disgusting “Murel”, I was about to apologize for my reproach to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, for if Murel could perpetrate his massive crimes, why not the horrid characters who murder each other on the borderlands of the Southwest, described by McCarthy? To be clear, I doubted that records existed that would have matched McCarthy’s imagined violence with real events, especially since McCarthy, unlike the poet-historian Paul Metcalf, did not give a note on sources for the history he purported to represent. The reader may object “but he never said it was history.” That only makes matters worse to me, for if not grounded in fact, then the author is playing to blood lust in the reader, and to be frank, so does Mark Twain. Why anyone thinks of him as primarily a jolly humorist is beyond me. His work rather suggests a violent, antimodern and misogynistic imagination, larded with a huge dollop of cultural pessimism, (not to speak of internal contradictions). I don’t know how much Life on the Mississippi was influenced by Melville’s synoptic look at industrializing America, also located on the great river, The Confidence-Man, His Masquerade (1857), but the bleakness and accounts of mercantile fraud are common to both. And the Wikipedia article that surveys the many uses of statistical reasoning quotes Mark Twain as a nea-sayer: statistics were damned lies. Here is a sample from chapter nine of Life on the Mississippi that demonstrates a mixture of pride in mastering the technique of piloting a steamboat, but then lapses into regret that the world has been disenchanted by [science]:
[Mark Twain:] “…The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book — a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every re-perusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an ITALICIZED passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.
Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.
I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.
No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?” [End, Twain excerpt]
[Clare:] Many a romantic author (e.g. Wordsworth) has enunciated the same sentiments: “Science” has disenchanted the world. Melville made the same complaint in his journal (1857-58), this time blaming the loss of poetic imagination on the higher Biblical criticism. During my graduate school training in history, I remember one tendency among the cultural historians to deplore “fact fetishism.” Such a nosy search for hard evidence was held to be a symptom of feminization, hence the decline of masculinity. The “feminist” demand for “no secrets” was outrageous (again, see Melville’s fear of being caught by the probing female gaze). Similarly, many conservatives rail against “the nanny state.” Are the real men all “lighting out for the territories?”
November 21, 2011
[This is the second of two blogs on Cormac McCarthy: see https://clarespark.com/2011/11/17/blood-meridian-and-the-deep-ecologists/]
At a bookstore in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a retired English professor friend of mine was offered a signed copy of McCarthy’s The Crossing for $1250. McCarthy does not sign his books any longer and apparently does not give interviews, except for this long piece for the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/1992/04/19/magazine/cormac-mccarthy-s-venomous-fiction.html?src=pm, authored by Richard B. Woodward, which contains the following passage:
“Blood Meridian” has distinct echoes of “Moby-Dick,” McCarthy’s favorite book. A mad hairless giant named Judge Holden makes florid speeches not unlike Captain Ahab’s. Based on historical events in the Southwest in 1849-50 (McCarthy learned Spanish to research it), the book follows the life of a mythic character called “the kid” as he rides around with John Glanton, who was the leader of a ferocious gang of scalp hunters. The collision between the inflated prose of the 19th-century novel and nasty reality gives “Blood Meridian” its strange, hellish character. It may be the bloodiest book since “The Iliad.”
From the interview, we also learn that McCarthy is a cult figure, that Saul Bellow was on the McArthur Foundation committee that gave CM a “genius” award, financing the writing of Blood Meridian, and that the author is a reclusive “radical conservative”, born of a Catholic well-off family in Tennessee, the son of a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority. (Another source adds that his sisters were high achievers, and that his father was stern.) Also that he prefers the company of scientists to writers, and that he is no fan of modernity, quotation marks or semicolons. For a more recent interview see http://tinyurl.com/7dg52qr, that elaborates on the father-son theme.
I would like to go on with a psychoanalytic meditation on this writer, especially the father-son dyad, but I don’t know him.* Instead, this blog is about the Melville-McCarthy connection, which is tenuous at best. First, the notion that Judge Holden is a Nietzschean Superman, beyond good and evil, may have been gleaned from David Brion Davis’s Homicide in American Fiction (1957), wherein Captain Ahab was limned as a Nietzschean Superman. That was the year (Fall, 1957) I took Davis’s class in intellectual history at Cornell U., and I well remember his linking Hawthorne and Melville as the authors who brought back the conception of evil into American culture, which, presumably, had been overly optimistic about the possibilities of perfecting human nature, supposedly a core belief in American exceptionalism. Or so I infer, for Davis may have been thinking primarily about racism, or, with students, anti-colonialism: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Brion_Davis, and my prior blog https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/.
But on the subject of Enlightenment optimism regarding human nature, consider this passage from Benjamin Franklin’s letter to Joseph Priestley (7 June 1782):
“…Men I find to be a Sort of Beings very badly constructed, as they are generally more easily provok’d than reconcil’d, more disposed to do Mischief to each other than to make Reparation, much more easily deceiv’d than undeceiv’d, and having more Pride and even Pleasure in killing than in begetting one another, for without a Blush they assemble in great armies at Noon Day to destroy, and when they have killed as many as they can, they exaggerate the number to augment the fancied Glory; but they creep into Corners or cover themselves with the Darkness of Night, when they mean to beget, as being ashamed of a virtuous Action….”
[Perhaps writing a novel is for the male, a similar generative act to be submerged in darkness– the powerless, demoralizing blackness that envelops today’s popular culture, whether it be gangsta rap, gangster movies, cultish vampire movies, recent movie versions of McCarthy’s books, or science fiction fantasies that end with the bad guys prevailing: see Joss Whedon’s The Dollhouse, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, preceded by such antimodern classics as 1984 or Brave New World or Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange). In academe, the same tone is set in Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature, that is elaborated in McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic tale The Road (2006).]
Second, return to Captain Ahab’s supposed amorality. He is nothing like Judge Holden, who is a Nietzschean amoralist, even a Foucaldian, as these lines from Blood Meridian demonstrate:
“Might does not make right, said Irving. The man that wins in some combat is not vindicated morally. [Holden responds:] “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak….” [p.250, quotation marks not in original.]
On the most superficial level, perhaps, it may be said that Blood Meridian is some kind of homage or rereading of Moby-Dick (or even Joyce’s Ulysses). There are compound words, neologisms, and an often nauseating text. It starts with three quotations that correspond only roughly with the “Extracts,” there is an epic journey, in which most of the characters perish, and there is an Epilogue. But in Melville’s allegory, the first edition (published in England) not only lacked any survivors whatsoever, but ended with the Extracts, and these pages of quotations in turn ended with a Whale Song,[i] certainly to be taken ironically: “Oh the rare old Whale, mid storm and gale/ In his ocean home will be/ A giant in might, where might is right,/ And King of the boundless sea.”
Alleging that Ahab’s sin consists in his hubris, with Ahab believing 1. That truth exists; or 2. That he can extirpate evil from the world, has been one theme in scholarly and popular misreadings of the text. Surely, the Ahab as Superman reading by David Brion Davis must have been based in a common postwar belief (initiated by Charles Olson, then F. O. Matthiessen) that Ahab was an anticipation of Hitler and Stalin, and moreover that Hitler was influenced by Nietzsche, is probably the source of Cormac McCarthy’s misconception of Melville’s great book.
I will say this on behalf of a McCarthy-Melville affinity. In his recent novel, The Road, McCarthy uses the word “secular” twice. This suggests to me that CM’s bleak books are laments for the supposed loss of faith in a “secular” world (an argument that some conservatives make in the culture wars). Without religion, humanity is out of control and on its death trip, the road to oblivion. After the Civil War, Melville wrote a long poem, Clarel, and, earlier, in his journal of the trip to the Mediterranean and environs in 1857-58. But in the poem of 1876, Melville distanced himself from his most pessimistic characters, inter alia, masking himself beneath his Promethean, secularizing Jew, whereas McCarthy is silent, preferring to hide himself and his meanings in “mystery.” One has to wonder about that suicidal sister, a character that haunts McCarthy’s latest novel, still in process.
*From reading interviews and other journalistic materials, I think that McCarthy’s well-received novel, The Road, tells us a lot. CM had two failed marriages as a younger man. He is older than I am now, and in his third marriage, had a son John, who is described by his father as delivering much of the dialogue in the novel. I infer that this last novel expresses his fear of dying before John reaches manhood, hence his father will no longer be there to protect him. Although in Blood Meridian, the Indians are as depraved and bloodthirsty as the whites and Mexicans, Indians and frontiersmen alike know how to survive cold and hunger, and also how to make do with the detritus that “civilization” leaves behind. Hence the Southwestern garb that McCarthy wears in his cover photos, along with the amazing ingenuity of the father figure in The Road.
[Added, 12/12/11: While reading Claude Bowers’s The Tragic Era (1929), it occurred to me that the ruined Southern landscape under the occupation of Northern soldiers may have been part of the cultural memory transmitted by McCarthy’s family or his neighbors. (His family originated in the North, but moved to Tennessee, the home of Andrew Johnson, staunchly defended in the Bowers best-seller.) This would give an added resonance to The Road. For more on Bowers, see https://clarespark.com/2011/12/10/before-saul-alinsky-rules-for-democratic-politicians/.]
[i] “Moby-Dick was the neglected masterpiece that most excited the 1920s Melville revivers and their successors; it was first published in England as The Whale; unlike the American edition that followed, the title page featured an epigraph connecting Milton’s fallen Satan with Leviathan, and its last words, “Whale Song,” were a final blast at the ancient doctrine that Might makes Right. Readers seeking to understand the dynamics of the Melville Revival should ask whether the Leviathan State was a good or bad thing in the twentieth century, and what entities and social forces made it what it came to be. ….” These are lines taken from my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 2001, rev.ed. 2006)
November 17, 2011
Before I launch into some remarks on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, here is an example of what the deep ecologists in cultural studies are studying now in the transnational academy (I am reproducing their CFP in its entirety):
“Call For Papers: Conference: Science, Space, and the Environment, Location: Smith Centre, Science Museum, London,Date: Tuesday/Wednesday July 17-18, 2012, Sponsor: Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Munich, Organizers: Helmuth Trischler, Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Munich; Ludmilla Jordanova, King’s College London Department of History; Simon Werrett, University of Washington Department of History/ Science Studies Network, Seattle; Science Museum, London.
Although the sciences have provided critical resources in environmental debates, their own role in environmental change has been little studied.
This conference will explore how the sciences have affected the physical environment. How have scientific practices and ideas impacted on nature – for example do practices such as voyages of exploration or natural history collecting exploit plants and animals and their environments?
Does scientific activity cause pollution, depletion of resources, or other forms of damage to ecosystems? How are such practices to be evaluated, and how are they related to scientific and other ideas of nature and the environment, e.g. notions of conquest, mastery, or interrogation. How should scientific ideas about the environment be related to the impacts of scientific research on it? In particular papers should address scientific activities involving the circulation of knowledge and materials. A growing body of work in the history of science has explored the issue of circulation, examining how physical specimens, books, people, and materials related to science have been made to move around the globe in the service of producing or disseminating scientific knowledge. What has been the environmental significance of such circulations? How has the movement of people, plants, animals, and scientific instruments, books and personnel affected environments, e.g. on voyages of exploration, in processes of establishing colonial scientific institutions, or in undertaking imperial cartography or surveying? Papers which aim at fostering current theoretical debates on how to link the conceptual approaches of history of science, environmental history, and spatial history are particularly welcome. ” [end, CFP]
[My comment and critique of McCarthy:] In the early 1980s, I met such as Rudolf Bahro (the leader of the German Green Party (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudolf_Bahro) and attended a conference featuring Kirkpatrick Sale, a deep ecologist. The audiences for both events seemed to be New Left, then following the critical theorists, anarchist tendencies on the Left (followers of Murray Bookchin), and some form of localism or primitivism. It struck me then that these leftists were masochists in the face of Nature, and that they knew almost nothing about ecology as a scientific discipline, but were adopting environmentalism as a cudgel in the campaign to smash modernity and the drive toward progress, i.e., progress understood as the war against Nature and native peoples. With respect to the indigenous persons who were victimized by Westward expansion in to the Americas, East Asia, and Africa, it was widely believed that the indigenous peoples were attuned to Nature and embodied the communitarian social structures that these Leftists aspired to. (Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy was one such romantic, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Garaudy.) These true believers were dissatisfied with [Promethean] Marxism with its elevation of technology, arguing that there must be a non-industrial path toward socialism.
It seems to me that Colman McCarthy’s much lauded novel Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (1985), can only be understood in this political context. For a summary of his career, see http://www.onlineenglishdegree.com/resources/biography-of-cormac-mccarthy/. The writer of this essay notes that the author’s work is historically sound, for he visited the locales and even learned Spanish. We also learn that his favorite book is Melville’s Moby-Dick. In a way, Blood Meridian is a (mis) reading of Melville’s masterpiece, that assumes, along with post-colonialists, that MD was a critique of Western expansionism and its death-dealing war against Nature. But see my blog https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/, especially in light of Harold Bloom’s encomium to McCarthy’s great book as a spectacular example of the Sublime. Bloom also heaps praise upon the creation of Judge Holden, the evil Promethean who survives the events of the book: the god of war (249), perhaps aided by “a Prussian jew,” purveyor of Colt pistols (82). (On the character “Speyer’s” presumed historicity, see http://tinyurl.com/843vopy.)
But it is the judge alone, unaided by Jewish pedlars of contraband, who takes a careful inventory of living and inanimate things, and who will not tolerate mystery. After telling Toadvine that nothing may live on earth without his permission, the judge goes on: “…The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.” (199)
Am I being too harsh? Perhaps it is because McCarthy, who could not possibly know the awful details of the slaughter he presents throughout a book of 337 pages, has had honors heaped upon him by the liberal literary establishment for what I sense is, in effect, a sadistic attack upon the reader (or even himself), conducted from a great height, gazing obsessively far below at “ignorant armies [that] clash by night” (see the “Dover Beach” reference, p. 213). I do credit the “Irish King” with an imagination unprecedented perhaps in its relentless ferocity, and though MD is a violent book, particularly in its graphic accounts of the whale butchery, it is no match for BM. Whereas Melville would tear the veil from benevolent nature [Mother] to reveal “the charnel house within,” McCarthy’s Nature is never enticing. As Charles Dickens said of Pittsburgh, it is “hell with the lid off.” (For a slight article on the critical reception to Cormac McCarthy, see http://tinyurl.com/b9gxyqk.)