The Clare Spark Blog

March 30, 2013

Philip Roth, The Following, and Identification with the Aggressor

Sabbaths_theaterI raised this issue after the third season of HBO’s In Treatment, (See, and continued my theme in After having seen the PBS American Masters “unmasking” of novelist Philip Roth ( and noticing a representation of the devil on the cover of the 1995 National Book Award winner Sabbath’s Theater (’s_Theater), a novel about sex, adultery, and suicide, and roughly based on the life of artist R. J. Kitaj (who was indeed a suicide at age 75), I thought it was time to write a very short blog on the attraction to the demonic, a theme usually tossed off as wayward Romanticism, and yet devil worship and sadism pervade popular and high culture alike. (Think of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), that made his reputation in Europe and prompted many suicides.)

Why is such identification with the demonic so prevalent? Bill O’Reilly interviewed Christopher Ruddy, a Catholic professor of theology, and Rabbi Aryeh Spero, who is famous on the Right for defending America’s “Judeo-Christian heritage.” O’Reilly seemed surprised to learn that Jews have no conception of the Devil as an independent force in the universe, looking rather to inborn instincts at odds with one another: good versus evil. After pushing him, O’Reilly finally got the Rabbi to declare that there would indeed be heavenly rewards or punishment, thus bringing Judaism in line with the Catholicism that O’Reilly vigorously defends. (So much for the unbridgeable gap between Judaism and Christianity, not a popular theme these days.)

But that gap is not the subject of this blog. Rather, I want to focus on the popularity of gangsters and other rebels against such admonitions as “thou shalt not murder.”

Although it was never explicitly addressed in the PBS documentary, though the first part did dwell at some length on Roth’s middle class parents, we do learn that 1. His father expected him to be a lawyer; and 2. Before the release of the raunchy Portnoy’s Complaint, the novel that made Roth not only famous but financially independent, he “prepared” his parents for the shock of the content matter, reassuring them that the parents in the novel bore no resemblance to themselves, but were fiction. From the documentary, we might infer that Roth never separated from his parents, was afraid of their rejection, and has maintained a punitive, puritanical superego to this day. (Look at his home in Connecticut: it is a model of 17th century puritan architecture.) I would not be surprised if Roth takes his own life now that he has retired from writing, for he dreads a biography, as he made clear in the PBS piece.


How to explain this bad boy of literature and the fascination he exerts on millions of liberal readers? I have often mentioned authoritarian parenting on prior blogs. There are many ways to be authoritarian, ranging from physical abuse, incest, clinging, or abandonment to aggressive siblings or schoolmates, on to subtle or overt disapproval of the path taken by one’s children. Perhaps they marry out of the faith or “race,” perhaps they are bisexual or gay, perhaps they go native by choosing a life of bohemian lawlessness over middle-class respectability. Or in Roth’s case, perhaps some of the above, but also what if they write stories hostile to many Jews, literally taunting religious, unassimilated Jews in such stories as “The Defender of the Faith,” “The Conversion of the Jews” (published in Goodbye Columbus, 1959) or the novel Operation Shylock (1993) in which the protagonist and his double share the same anti-Zionist narrative of the founding of Israel and its subsequent history. In the PBS documentary, Roth asserts that he is not a Jewish writer at all (as many consider him to be), but an “American” writer.

Roth Conn

Finally, I get to my argument: as any clinical psychologist or psychoanalyst or social worker will tell you, a defense against the (usually repressed) rage felt against the cruel or confusing* parent or parents who may be internalized in the omnipresent superego, is to identify with the aggressor (some people call this the Stockholm Syndrome). By becoming the parent/perpetrator (even if only imaginatively), we avoid the stigma of victim and avoid intolerable feelings of helplessness, the dread of falling that we experienced as dependent infants or toddlers. (This is the profile of the sadomasochist, who, in my experience as a student of sadomasochism, harbors rage against the Mother who asks her son for unattainable perfection in a society replete with cognitive dissonance.)

I am not a Roth scholar; I have read many of his books, but not nearly all of them, and have enjoyed his writing, especially in American Pastoral and The Human Stain. Whatever I write here about him, is what I caught from the PBS documentary, and my ongoing study of the irresistible demonic in popular and high culture.

*I have not mentioned mixed messages and double binds that liberal parents often inflict (See Roth mentions that his family was generally “left-of center,” implying that some were communists. But if he harbors communist sympathies, he is surely a Popular Front red, for FDR rescues the USA from Lindbergh’s fascism in The Plot Against America (2004). This novel is the closest he will get to the possible extra-parental traumas of his youth: the Great Depression, the second world war, and the (supposedly invisible) Holocaust. None of that is in the PBS special. [POSTSCRIPT. Since writing this blog, I have read Sabbath’s Theater, and admire it more than words can express. It is Roth’s masterpiece, and wonderfully funny and trenchant. Of all his contemporaries, he has made the best use of Freud that I  have yet encountered, and the protagonist’s traumas lay exposed for all to see.]

Kitaj: Where the railroad meets the sea

Kitaj: Where the railroad meets the sea


October 27, 2012

Melville, Orwell, Doublethink

 This is my second major Orwell blog: see for the first one.

During my recent forays into the changing interpretations of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1949), I was surprised to learn that Orwell had read passages from Herman Melville’s White-Jacket (1850) while broadcasting on the BBC during the early years of WW2. Specifically, he excerpted a gory description of a naval doctor performing an unnecessary and fatal amputation on a wounded U.S. sailor. Elsewhere in White-Jacket, HM had sharply and vividly written about “flogging through the fleet,” a practice that he abhorred, possibly because he had been caned as a child by his own father. Indeed, Roy Porter sent me an ad from a British newspaper offering White-Jacket as sadomasochistic porn. (On the dynamics of sadomasochism see

Though at least one Orwell biographer (Jeffrey Meyers) has emphasized GO’s masochism, I have not found a source yet that relates where the conception of Doublethink originated. Did Orwell know about “cognitive dissonance” from experience, or reading, or had he read Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), where Melville not only describes his mother’s frequent mixed messages, but invents “Plinlimmon’s Pamphlet” that praises “virtuous expediency” as the best morality attainable on this deceptive earth. My book on the Melville Revival (Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival)  is nearly entirely devoted to this theme of the double bind/cognitive dissonance/virtuous expediency, all of which signify what Orwell chose to call Doublethink.

Here are the double binds that I suggest were made apparent in Melville’s novels, and then may have driven his academic revivers in the 20th century into all manner of psychogenic symptoms and illnesses. (It is my contention that Melville readers who wished to advance in academe had to suppress the evidence before them in order to please the reigning ideology in the universities that employed them, so many derided Melville/Ahab as crazy, while defending Plinlimmon’s sensible philosophy, that they attributed to their “moderate” Melville/Ishmael .) But first take Doublethink in Pierre.

  1. There is no conflict between “truth” and Order. Mary Glendinning, Pierre’s mother in the novel, wants her son “just emerging from his teens” to grow into a manly individual, but not such an individual that he disobeys her choice  in choosing his future wife, who will also be perfectly obedient to her wishes.
  2. Pierre is expected to revere his dear perfect (Christian) father, but he must not be so good a Christian as to rescue from near-beggary his “natural” half-sister Isabel.
  3. Pierre reads the double bind, jilts his mother-chosen fiancée, runs off with Isabel, and mother dies of insanity. This book will not end well. (See Pierre’s scolding mother in this hard to find set of illustrations by Maurice Sendak, for a truncated edition of Pierre.

In the much quoted Father Mapple’s sermon in Moby-Dick, the abolitionist preacher speaks of snatching the truth even if it lies hidden under the skirts of judges and Senators. It is unclear here whether “truth” signifies the truth of Christ, or of the truth as defined by lawyers (or today, scientists). But it is a fact that during Captain Ahab’s speech on “the quarter-deck”, he declares that “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” Since Ahab is widely described as a blasphemer, I suspect that it is empirical truth that the relatively powerless see, and which is denied by their superiors, that Melville meant to call out. Which links him now to Orwell’s famous “dystopia.”

For Winston Smith works in “the Ministry of Truth” where he rewrites history to suit the propaganda requirements of Big Brother and the Inner Party. Recall Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938), where he denounces journalists for taking the Soviet line that all anarchists and Trotskyists were in league with Franco’s fascists. John Dos Passos, in Century’s Ebb, remembered Orwell as an individualist striking out at those man-made institutions that forced him to lie for the sake of Order. Compare Dos’s elevation of Orwell as truth-seeker to the trendier line that Orwell, like Melville, was a premature anti-imperialist, and for that alone we honor his life and work.

[Added 11-10-12 Dos quote: )“If one thinks of the artist as…an autonomous individual who owes nothing to society, then the golden age of the artist was the age of capitalism. He had then escaped the patron and had not yet been captured by the bureaucrat…. Yet it remains true that capitalism, which in many ways was kind to the artist and to the intellectual generally, is doomed and is not worth saving anyway. So you arrive at these two antithetical facts: (1) Society cannot be arranged for the benefit of artists; (2) without artists civilisation perishes. I have not yet seen this dilemma solved (there must be a solution), and it is not often that it is honestly discussed.” (George Orwell, in TRIBUNE, 1944). Quoted by Arthur M. Eckstein, “George Orwell’s Second Thoughts on Capitalism,” The Revised Orwell, ed. Jonathan Rose (Michigan State UP, 1992), p.204.

Another double bind that is especially relevant today:  There is no conflict between national identity and international identity. Hence, the United Nations is our best bet to avoid wars of the catastrophic magnitude of the world wars of the 20th century, or to halt “voter suppression” on November 6, 2012. Such are the psychic requirements of political correctness, the term itself an example of Doublethink, for facts (correctness) are non-partisan. Melville’s takedown of “virtuous expediency” is more to the point.

For a related blog see For “political correctness” as decorum, an idea passed out by liberal elites, see, especially the suggestion by Christopher Edley, whose career has been remarkable.

February 20, 2011

Are we still fighting the Civil War?

[Added 2-26-2011: I have finished reading David Blight’s book, quoted below, and now have a better idea of the obsessions of Blight and his academic cohort at Yale and Harvard. They are hostile to modernity, for that signifies the rule of capital, machines, and materialism. The white working class is nailed as part of the Herrenvolk democracy that they decry. So Charles Sumner, notwithstanding his reputation as a great man and friend among 19th century blacks, has to go, for he was a modernizer. Blight is clearly a Populist sympathizer and entirely “anti-imperialist,” and though not a Marxist, his version of U.S. history is identical with that of Soviet critics of the U.S, and he may be viewed, overall, as a cleaned-up Reverend Wright.  So although Blight is fiercely critical of the South, his hostility to modernization ironically aligns him with Southern organic conservatives similarly opposed to markets and the modern world. The South did win the Civil War, ideologically speaking. ]

Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg

This blog is about flawed historical analogies and the appropriation of the Civil War for partisan ends. Writing in Pajamas Media, a non-historian Rand Simberg rejected the usual analogies being tossed about in the media between the uproar in Wisconsin and Egypt or the Spanish Civil War, but chose Gettysburg, forcefully making the point that the unionized state workers were more correctly seen as slaveholders with the citizenry of Wisconsin in a position analogous to those of slaves.  I for one found this comparison to be not just distasteful but disturbing, as are many other analogies that are politically motivated, and often used as a short cut to analytic understanding of a specific conflict. Indeed I wrote about another distasteful analogy in a recent blog:

When I was considering my doctoral dissertation, I had to defend the idea of comparing the 19th century family of Herman Melville with the situation of academics in the humanities writing after 1919.  Some members of my committee insisted that I had to choose, but I held fast to my interest in both the humanities curriculum as it had been revised between the 20th century wars, and in the ways in which Herman Melville coped with his own family—a family more conservative in most ways than he was, given his life experience as a common sailor and then a form-challenging romantic artist. So I looked around and found that some sociologists considered such violations of strict historicism (the incomparability of individual historical events with one another; i.e., history never repeats itself) to be permissible in the case of a “functional group.” With respect to Melville’s family group, if the purpose of the family was socialization into a particular ideology, with similar relations of the “children” to parental authority, and if this socialization could be shown to be arguably identical with that of academics in elite universities during the decisive phase of the Melville “revival”, then I could be on solid ground. In both cases, archival research strongly indicated that cognitive dissonance abounded, or to put it my way, both institutions inflicted double binds on their members: There could be no conflict between Truth and Order. Melville faced this contradiction head-on in his fiction, while his revivers suppressed it, turned him into a moderate man like themselves,  and got sick or extremely depressed while studying and writing about Melville.

In the blog linked above, I objected to the notion that Americans should “work through” their treatment of black slavery and their promotion of the slave trade just as the Germans had been urged to “work through” the Nazi past, specifically the Holocaust.* I queried a former professor of mine about the propriety of the comparison, and in his answer he ended a long exposition comparing the brutalities of the persecution of the Jews and the slave trade and slavery with the adjuration that the effects of slavery were still with us, implying that the Holocaust and antisemitism were something of a dead letter—a problem already solved.  If that was his implication, I cannot agree.

I got a better understanding of the latter’s mind-set when reading a fascinating cultural history of how the Civil War was memorialized through 1865-1913. The book is Yale Professor David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Johns Hopkins UP, 2001). In this passage, Blight summarizes the situation that apparently motivates an entire generation of activist historians who cut their teeth during and after the civil rights movements of the mid-1950s onward, and who were inspired by the massive contributions of my Cornell professor. Referring to a number of Congressional hearings looking into activities of the Ku Klux Klan, beginning in March 1871, Blight wrote:

“These public hearings are a unique testament of how law and order collapsed in many areas of the South, and to the shuddering brutality of many white Southerners toward blacks and many whites judged to be complicitous with the Yankee conqueror. They are America’s first public record where ordinary freedmen, public officials, poor white farmers, Klansmen, and former Confederate generals came before federal officials and described, or evaded, what the war had wrought—a revolutionary society that attempted forms of racial equality without the means or ultimate will to enforce them against a counterrevolutionary political impulse determined to destroy the new order. The hearings were designed to produce prosecution and justice. Some justice was achieved, but the reconciliation that the country ultimately reached ironically emerged through avoidance and denunciation of the mountain of ugly truths recorded in those hearings.” (p.117)

An entire generation of cultural historians has not only corrected the record, but has taken unto itself a grand piece of the conscience of the nation insofar as it supports big government programs or black studies programs (with a black nationalist flavor) to instruct the unregenerate nation. Ironically, some of these same historians have tended to view Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, proponents of land reform to start the freedmen on the road to capitalist independence, as extremists, as too harsh or even paranoid in their critiques of the old South/the Slave Power/unrepentant rebels (see my conference paper,

In other words, their hearts are in the right place, but having been focused upon a piece of history that has been at least partly transcended since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and onward, they appear to me to remain invested in the cruelty of white people—a series of injustices that seems to them never to have been fully repaired, and which crowds out those antislavery Americans who rejected big government bureaucratic and collectivist remedies for a divided nation.  It remains to be seen whether this cohort will ever see school choice (as Joel Klein has advised) as a road to “social justice” for inner city schools.  Are our public schools everywhere, but especially in still backward cities and towns practicing a kind of bondage to ignorance, a bondage that can be compared to slavery? Now that is an analogy I can live with.

*In further reading by academics with similar mind sets, I see that I have missed the point: the persons I criticize here are anti-materialists, and write history through the prism of religion, and also epistemological idealism. They believe in “identity” politics, and through appropriate “working through” followed by reparations, believe that a more positive national identity can be achieved. But first, one must acknowledge the atrociousness of the past, repent, undergo a change of heart, and then redemption is possible. This kind of history writing, focusing on myth and symbols, is foreign to me as an epistemological materialist and advocate of secular modernity. Not surprisingly, their anticapitalist, anti-machine mentality, is as ferocious as any academic dare put down on paper.

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