The Clare Spark Blog

February 25, 2011

The King’s Speech flap

The Royal Family

[This blog is for Christopher Hitchens:]  Some heated debates have erupted on my Facebook page over the controversy regarding the movie, The King’s Speech. At stake is what sources the average person relies upon to get a sense of what happened in the past. In the case of this much-Oscar-nominated movie, the stakes are very high, for nothing less than the record of the European aristocracy in either appeasing or opposing the rise of Hitler and the expansion of the Third Reich is on the table.

As the comments proliferated, I realized that very few people are aware that history can be, but should not be, an instrument for advocacy in partisan squabbles. We are all at the mercy of our primary source materials, and many of the most crucial records, for obvious reasons, are sequestered far away from the prying eyes of the public (and even when they are released or leaked, we must reckon with the subjectivity of the author). This theme of primary source-aversion is so huge in the story of the Western countries painful slog toward the open society that William Godwin wrote Caleb Williams (1794) about the dire consequences of opening the master’s trunk to ferret out his secrets (as I recall it was title to the land, but correct me). Nathaniel Hawthorne read that book when he was sixteen, and I wonder if his well-known conservatism was fortified out of fear, for neither master nor man turned out well in Godwin’s cautionary tale.  [Read the book, for it is a landmark in English literature and much more complex and deep than my erroneous citation. Melville bought it during his trip to England in 1849, and it had to have influenced Moby-Dick and Pierre.]

Similarly, Captain Ahab’s harpoon was hurled at Leviathan to uncover its secrets, a theme that is carried out in Melville’s subsequent novel, Pierre.  One reason my book on the Melville revival was so long (730 pages, including about 145 pages of endnotes) was that I wanted the reader to look at as much of the evidence I had found as possible, so s/he could determine for herself whether I had mischaracterized the sources or not. This is not the usual practice among academics in the humanities, for it is considered bad form to inflict long quotes on the reader, and a sign that the historian can’t summarize aptly. In the case of Hunting Captain Ahab, I was aware long before publication that fellow academics would think I was on some monomaniacal quest for revenge in stating flat out that almost all the Melville scholarship was either wrong or seriously flawed.

To conclude these brief remarks, we are either up to the challenge of reading and writing history or not.  We cannot sacrifice primary sources for the sake of family or partisan unity. So far on the world wide web, some leftists and liberals have been skeptical about George VI and his possible role as appeaser in the late 1930s, while conservatives have tended to defend the royal family, in one case citing the official biography of George VI as told by John Wheeler-Bennett.  One thing I do know: Hollywood film has tended to play to its audience: movies were populist in the 1930s and remained so during the next period of upheaval—from the 1960s on. Populists are not without their own heroes, nor are they immune from ancestor worship. As for me, I suspect everyone, as a good hunter after hunters is compelled to do.

April 4, 2010

“What is truth?”

Giotto’s Pontius Pilate

Wander about public space these days and wear dark glasses, for it is very bad out there, and friends can turn out to be bosom enemies. I cannot recall a period during my lifetime (with the exception of the 1960s) when our country was this polarized about the very meaning of words.

In the pivotal chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab addresses the crew in an attempt to gain their allegiance as he pursues the White Whale, leaving commercial considerations aside. At the climax of his peroration, he declares, “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” This is not a statement that has inspired much commentary from the academic establishment that tries to control acceptable [i.e., anti-Ahab] readings of Melville’s masterpiece, but it has inspired me for decades, and made me a renegade. In my reading, Ahab’s ruling idea is ultra-democratic and aligned with the antislavery men and women for whom the immorality of slavery was paramount. It also recapitulates the significance of popular sovereignty as partially established in the American and French Revolutions, and prefigured in the English Civil War of the 1640s. Over a period of centuries, mobs have been turned into citizens*, a process that is nowhere near complete, either in the West or elsewhere.

To continue Captain Ahab’s impudent assertion:  ruling classes, whether they were comprised of English aristocrats or Southern slaveholders who dominated the American government in the antebellum period (while Melville was writing his major fiction), could not keep their secrets from the public with impunity. (See Godwin’s Caleb Williams, a book Melville read before he commenced on his great whale hunt.) These new “levelers” (my sympathetic readers and I) expect the powerful, like all others,  to cough up the truth so that citizens may choose their representatives, not out of coercion or blind charisma, but because concrete policy, enunciated without double-talk,  protects them and helps improve their condition.

I looked for images of Pontius Pilate on the internet, and was not surprised to see a website entitled “What is truth” that asserted the subjectivity and relativity of all knowledge. That is the winning line in our age of multiculturalism, an ideology and a practice that asserts that cultural (read “racial”) differences mean just that: we cannot reach each other over the “racial” or national divide to arrive at an agreement over what is or what is not a fact, as opposed, say, to an opinion based on limited knowledge. That we are all entirely irrational is now the ruling ideology, and if you want a job in academe or wish to ingratiate yourself with the mass media establishment, you had better adhere to that line. Sadly, some persons of my acquaintance who have a background in science, seem to doff their hats to power when they leave their laboratories or classrooms. When challenged, they wash their hands and defer to force. (For a related blog see

*Think about the title of the “greatest”  movie ever, Citizen Kane. I had focused previously on the link to Cain and the Wandering Jew myth, but the word “citizen” is ironic and suggests that the writers had a dim view of the French Revolution, emphasizing the Terror as its essential gesture, rather than the movement away from absolute authority toward popular sovereignty.

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