YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

May 9, 2015

Monster Moms

sweet kaulitz09, Deviant Art

sweet kaulitz09, Deviant Art

Ever since I read Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers (1942) I have been racking my brains for the origins of his diatribe against MOM. Here is how Wylie, later to be matched by the fictional mother in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), or the frequent naming of the welfare state as “nanny state” by conservative journalists, described the transformation of the faultless Cinderella into a (secret) monster:

[Wylie:] “MOM is the end product of SHE. She is Cinderella…the shining-haired, the starry-eyed, the ruby-lipped virgo aeternis,  of which there is presumably one, and only one, or a one-and-only for each male, whose dream is fixed upon her deflowerment and subsequent perpetual possession. This act is a sacrament in all churches and a civil affair in our society. The collective aspects of marriage are thus largely compressed into the rituals and social perquisites of one day. Unless some element of mayhem or intention of divorce subsequently obtrudes, a sort of privacy engulfs the union and all further developments are deemed to be the business of each separate pair, including the transition of Cinderella into mom, which, if it occasions any shock, only adds to the huge, invisible burthen every man carries with him into eternity….Mom is an American creation.” (Chapter XI, p.184)

[Clare:] Here are some of my prior musings upon the origin of the Bad Mother, ambivalently celebrated in film noir and pop culture: First, Freud described the Oedipus complex, in which daughters would inevitably compete with Mom for the favors of Dad. This can’t end well.

Second, the Switch from smiling caretaker to Bitch Goddess, of good Mother to bad: (This is an excerpt from an MLA paper I delivered in 2002 to the Melville Society):

“Extrapolating from his texts (and from the writings of other Symbolists) perhaps Melville’s demonic clouds are related to the “ruffled brow”: the sudden pained and searing glance that mars the happy mother’s smooth placidity when her child vomits, wets his bed, soils his clothing, touches his genitals, blurts out a dirty word: the glance that makes him feel so poisonous to her, he imagines she would like to spit him out…and yet, she molded and branded him in her womb-factory: she is his double and his shadow.  Ever entwined, they are Eve/Cain, the Wandering Jew, Beatrice Cenci, and Pierrot: over-reachers whose self-assertion and gall will be rendered innocuous in the final scene.  The thick black eyebrows of the Gothic villain (like the mark of Cain or Pierrot’s black mask) will trigger the memory of Mother’s distress and her child’s shame.  Romantic defiance, in its identification with the designated enemies of authority, portends only degeneracy and decline; as Melville has shown us, it brings remorse and cleansing punishment, not better forms of social organization.  The cancellation of early childhood “dirt” and parental disapproval (which may be registered as sadness–Mortmain’s “muffled” “moan”–as well as anger), then the return of the repressed in the ostensibly opposed symbols, “archetypes” and “types” of popular culture, undermines emancipatory politics.” [This was an inference only. I have never seen it described in the psychoanalytic literature, let alone by feminists.]

Third, political scientists and historians agree that since the Industrial Revolution, paternal authority in the home has diminished, giving rise to “domestic feminism.” Men would be the absent breadwinner, no longer paterfamilias (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pater_familias), while Mom now (seemingly) ruled the roost, then, in her moralistic way, going on to invent progressivism and its welfare state. Simultaneously, Jesus became feminized, as Ann Douglas pointed out in her overwrought defense of traditional, masculinist Calvinism in The Feminization of American Culture (1977).

Fourth, “splitting” as the Kleinian object relations analysts describe it: Romantic attachments, whether to the family or to other love objects, often entail idealization. The [narcissist], depleted of “narcissistic supplies” demonizes what was once a perfect creature. Which brings us back to Papa Freud, who had already figured this out in his descriptions of romantic love and idealization.

Fifth, and perhaps the most current and relevant. Mom’s are supposed to keep us safe, but I hear reports that pre-teens and teens are suffering from OCD and related problems (e.g. eating disorders) because the world is perceived as just too dangerous. Even omnipotent Mom is helpless against these real-life monsters: jihadism, global warming, race relations gone wrong, etc. Hence the pop culture vogue for zombies, werewolves, vampires, etc. who have nothing to do with the return of the repressed but are signs of objective media-fortified anxieties.

There is no escaping from the Good-Bad Mother (or Father either), for these imagos are reinforced in popular culture, but rarely analyzed in journalism, not even by many feminists.

All attachments are problematic. Get used to ambivalence, and if your parent is gone, my advice is to focus on her or his strengths, not her weaknesses. (https://clarespark.com/2013/05/12/i-remember-mama-betty-spark/.)

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July 6, 2014

The Hobby Lobby Decision and the War on Women

silencedwomanThree events prompt this blog today: 1. Last night I saw the much praised “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” for the first time (out of anxiety in watching a fiercely antagonistic marriage told through an existentialist lens?); 2. There was a Masters of Sex marathon in preparation for the second season starting next Sunday on Showtime; and 3. One of the panelists on Fox News Sunday predicted that Democrats would benefit from the Hobby Lobby SCOTUS decision, one that upheld the right of businesses to withhold abortifacients from their employees in the cause of “religious liberty.” This blog is definitely NOT about government forcing pro-life advocates to provide free contraception/abortifacients.

Start with Lizzy Caplan’s character “Virginia Johnson”—a witty and streetwise young woman “ahead of her time” as the show is set in the repressed 1950s, and the bohemian Virginia (a divorced ex-singer with a swing band and mother of two children) is a model of sexual freedom, outspokenness, an advocate for “women’s health”, and a reluctance to commit to bourgeois marriage. (The women’s health argument is currently featured in the talking points of liberal feminists reacting with shock and anger at the Hobby Lobby 5-4 decision.)

Which reminds me: numerous professionals on current television series are depicted as monomaniacally devoted to their professions, and wary of marital commitments (both “Alicia Florrick” and the late “Will Gardner” on The Good Wife, “ “Dr. Katherine Black” and her doctor lover on Black Box, “Olivia Benson” on Law and Order: SVU, “Meghan Draper” on Mad Men, and even “Olivia Pope” on Scandal. Is it any accident that married women or “male feminists” created most of these shows?

I have written numerous blogs criticizing the focus on sexuality to the exclusion of the context in which sex happens or doesn’t happen; I have also written about “the family” as the site of strife and even bondage—a point that is obscured by political rhetoric deploying the rhetoric of heterosexual family unity either to buttress collectivist ideology, or to fend off the decadence and poverty that conservatives attribute to illegitimate birth and mother-headed (usually minority) families.

I have also written extensively about misogyny, a neglected subject in defenses of male homosexuality, even as male critics praise film noir as their favorite genre, a genre that gloried in representations of the “femme fatale,” carrying forth the stereotype of the terrifying “woman with book” (as Leo Steinberg called her, in one of his popular lectures: I believe that the newly literate woman is one of the monsters inhabiting the Tory imagination: Woman as Jew of the Home). (See https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/, retitled “Film Noir decoded”.)

Also on this website, I have emphasized developments in the diagnoses of mental health problems, both aligning with and opposing the anti-psychiatry movement. I should have mentioned more frequently that individual psychiatry is no substitute for family therapy—a field that presumably closely examines how individuals in families relate to one another—or fail utterly owing to underdevelopment of the emotions in our supposedly “modern” society. Such family or couples therapy presumably avail themselves of attachment theory.

But most to the point, I have criticized the omnipresent, belabored usage of the phrase “hard work” especially as the key to achieving “the American Dream.” The subject of women’s labor in the home, with or without male participation, is rarely treated with the respect and caution it deserves: surely the second wave feminists were often on the lam and only partly deserved my scorn.

In one of my favorite episodes of Masters of Sex, Lizzy Caplan (“Virginia Johnson”) sings “You Don’t Know Me”—either a conventional love song about a triangle, or an ironic comment on a doctor lover who wants to tie her down, while her heart remains with another. She is in a booth in an amusement park, with the (temporary) boyfriend and her children looking fondly at her while she warns them through music not to presume anything about the content of her inner thoughts. (For the entire clip see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjfQwNXSfgo.) We have always lived in hierarchies, whatever the pretensions of democratic “egalitarianism” may be. Let those higher up in the food chain beware: You don’t know me/us.

As I have said over and over, “hierarchies breed deceit.” The Woman Question may never go away; in any case, the women’s vote may well decide the next series of elections. And it will be about sexual freedom. (For my explanation of “sexual freedom” see https://clarespark.com/2014/07/08/what-is-sexual-freedom/)

Image (84)-001

August 22, 2013

The Godfather, Jamie Wyeth Gorgon, culture wars and rustic chivalry

Jamie Wyeth unsettles Dr. Taussig

Jamie Wyeth unsettles Dr. Taussig

I was gone for a week, and ONLY 52 viewers (outside of regulars who come to the home page) came to my last blog (https://clarespark.com/2013/08/13/victor-hugos-93-and-condorcet/), which quoted from Victor Hugo’s 93. I haven’t had numbers that low since I started the website. What was unattractive about this contrast of Terror and Mercy? Was a preference for absolute standards in morality the problem? Be warned, as a historian, I understand that morality is culture-specific, though the Enlightenment popularized the notion of universalist ethics as first advanced by the early French Revolution, and before the Reign of Terror. The Enlightenment philosophes were looking to a future where all people would live in republics and abide by the rule of law.

While gone I had three or four interesting encounters with popular and high culture.

First, the New York Times article about the controversy regarding Jamie Wyeth’s long-hidden painting of a famous female doctor. See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/18/arts/design/a-showing-for-jamie-wyeths-portrait-of-a-cardiac-pioneer.html?pagewanted=all. Helen Brooke Taussig was the subject, but when her portrait was unveiled in May 1964, male doctors/colleagues freaked out. Look at the portrait yourselves and leave comments if you care to. (Jamie Wyeth preceded by famous painters and illustrators N. C. Wyeth, grandfather, and Andrew Wyeth, father and realist painter.)

Second, I have been reading both academic and coffee table studies (written by professors here and in Germany) of the history of the movies. Before that I read a recent biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, and to leave him out of the story where dopy Jewish moguls (all by themselves) are said to have caused mass degeneracy and a misreading of history in our most popular art form, and without mentioning either Joe Kennedy, Will Hays, Joseph Breen, and the Catholic Legion of Decency, is yet another depressing episode in the cultural history we teach to our eager beaver tech-savvy children who adore images and are virtually on their own in finding out how stories and images can shape their emotions and politics. What the “history of the movies” reveals, for these liberal writers, is the inevitability of radical subjectivism, mystery, and the unknowability of even the most famous, documented lives. A running theme in many of these film histories:  McCarthyism caused brain drain in Hollywood, so the 1950s were beneath contempt, except for Vertigo (Hitchcock learned from the German refugees) and On the Waterfront (“cold war liberalism,” thumbs down on snitch Elia Kazan).

The recent film histories, obviously directed to an upper-class readership, are glitzy, often lavishly illustrated, sensitive in a superficial English major way, and hardly do justice to individual artifacts. If these English professors or culture studies specialists ever turned in such hasty plot summaries to a graduate seminar, they would possible be thrown out of school. As for film noir, blame it on the German refugees and their immersion in German Expressionism and post Great War angst, which, though partly true, does not fully explain disillusion and cultural pessimism (See https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/, retitled Film Noir, decoded.)

Speaking of angst, on the flight home I watched all of The Godfather  (175 minutes). Like zillions of others, I thought it was a powerful and well-made movie; I have done zero research on it yet, but here are some guesses ahead of my future study. First, it was obviously Coppola’s FU to the Hollywood system. The first villain, though not identified as Jewish, was vulgar (rather like Citizen Kane/Cain). His name was Woltz (sounds German, could be German-Jewish). The corruption of Hollywood stands for a society that is utterly bought and sold by criminal elements: politicians, law enforcement, newspapers, everybody that shapes public opinion or protects us from the bad guys: (more Citizen Kane). The transformation of war hero, Ivy-educated Michael from “civilian” to his father’s successor as head of the family “business” could signify that brutalization of the young that is said by many historians to have followed the Great War. Note that conflicts between gang bosses are always referred to as wars, not disputes between criminals. In the world we see depicted everybody is guilty, except for the women, who are merely hysterical when they are not putting up with spousal abuse or neglect. They are both protected from the world of men, or are contented to be Sicilian breeders and feeders. Finally, I noted the importance of neighborhood, religion, family and ethnicity to Southern Italian immigrants. The Godfather series came out during the height of the social policy transition from an emphasis on class, to an emphasis on the durability of ethnic ties over class ties. The Corleone family has not assimilated, and doesn’t care. They hew to the colorful ways of 19th and 20th century urban ethnics with their scofflaw patronage systems, or in the case of the Corleones, Sicilian peasants and the patriarchal system. In comes localism, radical historicism, and multiculturalism. In other mass media offerings, the demonic is celebrated, in dangerous neo-Romantic fashion, see https://clarespark.com/2013/03/30/philip-roth-the-following-and-identification-with-the-aggressor/.

Third, I found a copy of a documentary study and chronology of the Culture Wars, that covers the censorship of artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, and focuses primarily on events during the Reagan administration and the first years of Bush 41. The introduction that I raced through made the claim that the artist freedom jeopardized by right-wing kvetching about tax dollars going to the National Endowment for the Arts, was tied to working class benefits. It does have a useful chronology of government funding of the arts since the Kennedy administration, and it is something to look into. How “high art” that many Americans see as handmaidens to the wealthy became a matter of interest to the labor movement and other ‘slobs’ defies comprehension. Artist Richard Bolton explains away this seeming  contradiction, “It is more than passing interest that ‘populist’ conservatives, while rejecting ‘high culture’ in the name of the masses, also detest the popular culture–television, music, and film—commonly shared by these same masses. And in matters of policy, conservative activists and officials  have consistently opposed government programs that would benefit the typical worker….” (Culture Wars, ed. Richard Bolton, p.5) Bolton goes on to describe statist interventions against the market that ostensibly benefit the working class. In other words, Bolton’s ‘populist’ conservatives are hypocrites. Mapplethorpe and Serrano et al are the true populists.

But there was solidarity of a sort evident in the movie The Big Chill that I watched on my way back East. This cloying cluster of U. of Michigan graduates, ex-radicals who have gone bourgeois in their forties and feel guilty about it, is hardly worth mentioning, though it was interesting to see how major movie stars looked when much younger. The one Jewish character was something of a geek (played by Jeff Goldblum) whose attempts to fit in were ludicrous.

Give me Cavalleria Rusticana transferred to post WW2 America any day over 60s-70s nostalgia felt by successful hippies.  Or perhaps The Big Chill was a less obvious form of rustic chivalry as the Glenn Close character makes a gift of her husband (Kevin Kline) for a night to fertilize the egg of her chum (played by Mary Kay Place). After all, the story was set in the South.

January 12, 2013

Hate, “hard liberty,” quick fixes

mammon_11-0x550LOVE VERSUS HATE. First, take a look at this blog on Bullies: https://clarespark.com/2012/09/19/bullies/ . Although the Harvard education school was mostly fixated upon the controversial switching of gender identities and the promotion of Love as against Hate, Harvard hasn’t noticed that the “binary opposition” of love and hate is one of the staples of Western Civilization. One of the great fears of the “paleo-conservatives” is that the Religion of Love will lose its authority, hence unleashing sinister forces (the “neocon” haters) upon the land. Paleos dig Chuck Hagel.

Here is how “Ishmael” described the most striking feature of Ahab’s personality: “He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it” (p. 184)

That word “hate” is omnipresent in our political and social discourse: we condemn “hate speech” as if changing the language with which we describe the poor, minorities, women, and gays will remove “prejudice” against them and summon that lost “unity” we believe once characterized “the nation.”

And before Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick, the British essayist William Hazlitt declared his hatred of tyrants:

[William Hazlitt on love and hate, 1819:] “To be a true Jacobin, a man must be a good hater;…The love of liberty consists in the hatred of tyrants…I am no politician and still less can I be said to be a partyman: but I have a hatred of tyranny, and a contempt for its tools…I deny that liberty and slavery are convertible terms, that right and wrong, truth and falsehood, plenty and famine, the comforts or wretchedness of a people, are matters of perfect indifference. That is all I know of the matter; but on these points I am likely to remain incorrigible.”

Both authors, Hazlitt and Melville had read John Milton’s Paradise Lost, written under censorship. Surely each of these close readers noticed this speech from Book II, possibly Milton’s own (semi-silenced) voice speaking through “Mammon,” who counsels the other fallen angels to avoid war with the heavenly Deity:

…how wearisome

Eternity so spent in worship paid

To whom we hate. Let us not then pursue

By force impossible, by leave obtain’d

Unacceptable, though in Heav’n our state

Of splendid vassalage, but rather seek

Our own good from ourselves, and from our own

Live to our selves, though in this vast recess,

Free, and to none accountable, preferring

Hard liberty before the easy yoke

 Of servile pomp. Our greatness will appear

 Then most conspicuous, when great things of small,

 Useful of hurtful, prosperous of adverse

 We can create, and in what place so e’er

 Thrive under evil, and work ease out of pain

 Through labour and endurance. This deep world

Of darkness do we dread? How oft amidst

Thick clouds and dark doth heaven’s all-ruling sire

Choose to reside, His glory unobscured,

And with the majesty of darkness round

Covers his throne; from whence deep thunders roar

Mustering thir rage, and Heav’n resembles hell?

As he our darkness, cannot we his light

Imitate when we please? This desert soil

Wants not her hidden lustre, gems and gold;

Nor want we skill or art, from whence to raise

Magnificence; and what can heaven show more?

Our torments also may in length of time

Become our elements, these piercing fires

As soft as now severe, our temper changed

Into their temper; which must needs remove

The sensible of pain. All things invite

To peaceful counsels, and the settled state

Of order, how in safety best we may

Compose our present evils, with regard

Of what we are and were, dismissing quite

All thoughts of war: ye have what I advise. (II, 247-283)

HARD LIBERTY. (Milton’s seventeenth century puritan readers would have understood that mining was a symbol for discovery and the search for knowledge.)

As I write this, the media are obsessed with the gun control debate, as if further restricting access to certain weapons and ammunition, in tandem with greater attention to “mental health” and the “culture of violence” will prevent future massacres by deranged young men. These would be amusing quick fixes were not the cultural issues so deeply conflicted and elusive. Why are they so hard to explicate and pin down?

  1. There is no agreed upon definition of what constitutes mental health, nor has there ever been. Freud is still an offbeat interest and thought to be crazily sex-obsessed himself (thus fulfilling the image of the carnal, divisive, lucre-obsessed Jew).
  2. No one can measure the effects of “media violence” or pictorial violence; for centuries images of violence were thought to provide a salutary catharsis for the pent-up rage that all civilized societies inflict upon children. And since Freudian ideas are off the table, for instance that siblings consciously and unconsciously harbor murderous impulses toward each other and toward one or both parents, we have no critical tools to evaluate “violence” by psychopaths. True, the better “profiler” shows on television do point to parental abuse as the long term cause of serial killing. But they do not mount any substantial critique of masculinity, even when favorite sports figures sacrifice their lives, like gladiators of old, to entertain the masses.
  3. As for the femmes fatales (the woman with gun), the general subject of motherhood is evaded, even as film noir is celebrated by film critics. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/.)
  4. Who doesn’t hate anything smacking of “the Puritan” today? We throw around the words “freedom” and “liberty” as if these had the same meaning to everyone, or worse, we invert freedom and slavery, so that we do not see our lust for “servile pomp.” Nor would we imagine that such a dark passion only binds us closer to Leviathan.
Femme Fatale

Femme Fatale

November 8, 2012

The Magical power of “Negroes” and other Beautiful People

Viola Davis as magical

One Facebook friend reports polls concluding that Romney voters focused on the economy, while Obama voters responded to his “caring” persona. This is valuable intel, for it reminds us of the Magical Negro archetype described here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_Negro. As Wiki tells it, this archetype is a throwback to the “noble savage” who emerges in the European age of expansion.

(This one of those “back to basics” blogs, basic tactics for political support that are cross-cultural and universal in their efficacy.)

But more, we should reflect upon the power of the Beautiful People, and the mass appeal they exercise. Why? Is it simply that “beauty” is a supremely rare quality that mesmerizes us in all times and places? Or is it something more primal, which returns us back to the emotions of early childhood and our dependency on mothers and fathers for care and protection?  After all, Mitt Romney projected a “caring” persona, as Anne Romney emphasized in her RNC account of their marriage, noting her husband’s constant attentions to needy neighbors and even strangers. But all the demonstrated compassion in the world is not enough to compensate for the image constructed by Democrats that Romney was the (uncaring) tool of Wall Street and the Big Money.

In prior blogs, I have written much about populism and its embedded antisemitism, how many ideologues continue to blame Hollywood “Jews” for corrupting the masses and either converting them to the Democratic Party and to the Left in general, or conversely, fastening the “mass” psyche to the material goodies promised by capitalist economies. Both claims are nonsensical, for such “Jewish” titans as Laemmle, Mayer, Goldwyn, or the Warner brothers adapted themselves to immigrant tastes and prejudices. The history of the Hollywood film is replete with bloodsucking bankers and other capitalist villains, valiantly opposed by the muscular Common Man. (For the femme fatale as a repudiation of the idea of progress, see https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/, retitled “Film Noir, decoded.”)

All tyrants use visual images (including architecture) to consolidate support and to divert mass rage away from themselves; pictures are deployed to evoke parental imagos.  The tyrant’s friends are beautiful—as lovely as the nursing Mother to her clamorous infant, or as her glittering earrings are to her toddler who pulls on them, while enemies are as repulsive as the angry father wielding a cane or whip (think of the omnipresent Big Brother) or old crones—women who no longer expect to please men, and who have nothing to lose by stirring the pot.

Female Chartist

And so, fed by a diet of idealized/demonized images, we continue the process that psychoanalysts describe as “splitting.” Our love objects, whether politician or other celebrity, can switch with alarming frequency from ministering angel to terrifying demon. Don’t look to popular culture for “integration, “ i.e., a less distorted view of The Loved/Hated One.

September 4, 2012

Links to some blogs on feminism

Crone with fruit

https://clarespark.com/2016/06/09/sex-and-aggression-in-hillarys-following-in-either-gender/

https://clarespark.com/2016/05/06/the-womens-vote/

https://clarespark.com/2016/04/29/the-woman-card/

https://clarespark.com/2016/04/01/70s-feminism-and-its-bizarre-legacy/

https://clarespark.com/2015/07/26/masters-of-sex-second-wave-feminism-and-the-ratings-game/

https://clarespark.com/2015/03/21/great-goddess-feminism-the-phyllis-chesler-model/

https://clarespark.com/2015/01/10/the-case-for-feminism/

https://clarespark.com/2014/12/18/rape-culture/

https://clarespark.com/2014/06/14/is-the-us-feminized-a-fathers-day-blog/

https://clarespark.com/2014/01/23/androgyny/

https://clarespark.com/2013/10/22/masters-of-sex-and-70s-feminism/

https://clarespark.com/2013/05/02/teen-age-sex/

https://clarespark.com/2013/09/15/authenticity-and-the-bottled-up/

https://clarespark.com/2013/06/14/father-dear-father-come-home-with-me-now/ (includes material on gender roles)

https://clarespark.com/2013/06/02/hair-and-make-up-megyn-kelly-smackdown/

https://clarespark.com/2012/10/03/the-sexual-revolution-2/

https://clarespark.com/2012/12/26/martha-gellhorn-blogs/

https://clarespark.com/2012/05/10/androgyny-with-an-aside-on-edna-ferber/

https://clarespark.com/2012/03/03/sluts-and-pigs/ (retitled Limbaugh v. Fluke)

https://clarespark.com/2012/09/01/sex-sex-and-less-sex/

https://clarespark.com/2012/07/29/girls-or-the-new-lost-generation/

https://clarespark.com/2012/11/15/female-genitals-as-red-flag/

https://clarespark.com/2012/09/08/what-is-a-materialist/

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/07/feminism-and-its-publicists/

https://clarespark.com/2011/11/12/the-woman-question-in-saul-bellows-herzog/

https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/ (retitled Film noir decoded)

https://clarespark.com/2009/12/23/she-who-gets-slapped-the-magic-of-middle-aged-boomerdom/

https://clarespark.com/2009/10/20/news-from-the-social-justice-front/

https://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/

https://clarespark.com/2009/10/24/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets-2/

Hecate Crone

April 27, 2011

Film Noir, decoded

Cover art for audio version of unabridged Mildred Pierce

This is the analysis of James M. Cain’s popular novel Mildred Pierce, especially as interpreted by HBO this Spring (2011). I started by finding the lyrics to the song derived from Chopin’s Grand Valse Brillante, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” (1917). This song is the leitmotif for both the HBO series and Cain’s book.

At the end of the rainbow there’s happiness,
And to find it how often I’ve tried,
But my life is a race, just a wild goose chase,
And my dreams have all been denied.
Why have I always been a failure?
What can the reason be?
I wonder if the world’s to blame,
I wonder if it could be me.

Chorus:

I’m always chasing rainbows,
Watching clouds drifting by,
My dreams are just like all my schemes,
Ending in the sky.
Some fellows look and find the sunshine,
I always look and find the rain.
Some fellows make a winning sometime,
I never even make a gain, believe me,
I’m always chasing rainbows,
Waiting to find a little bluebird in vain.

I have read the very wild and violent and strange James M. Cain original as adapted both in cinema and by HBO in a much touted and praised miniseries.  Briefly, Cain sees all women, especially those grown in Southern California, as monomaniacs, driven by unhealthy passions. The theme of mother-daughter incest runs throughout the novel, though Cain, born an Irish Catholic, is almost reserved on the subject. His last word on the Mildred-Veda dyad is the remark that she was a woman who loved her daughter too much, but there are insinuations and even graphic descriptions of a physical passion dotted throughout (and that HBO downplayed). I had suspected that the film noir or literary noir corpus was an assault on the idea of Progress (with its predecessor in the Terror Gothic genre that appeared in the eighteenth century and eventually became a staple of horror movies, for instance Frankenstein). But what I did not see was the full-blown assault on women as killers, serpents, and parasites on men and even on each other.

In Cain’s novel, Mildred is no laudable waitress-becoming-businesswoman, picking herself up as an entrepreneur and capitalizing on her capacity for hard work and talent in cooking artistic cakes and pies. She does cook brilliantly, apparently an inborn quality, just as Veda’s inborn musicality is prodigious, rare, and obsessive. Rather, after her husband’s fall in the early Depression, every move she makes is for the sake of Veda, her superior in every way, and whose love or classiness she can never gain. The HBO treatment of the novel does capture much of that, but not with the social history clarity of the novel, including the dialogue spoken in dialect that is un-PC, or the important original class difference between Mildred and her husband Bert Pierce, or their tenuous religious affiliations (Episcopalian vs. Methodist). The matter of class is crucial, for Veda resembles Bert, not Mildred, and seeks to restore or exceed his prior success.

Like other writers utilizing the realist tradition in literature, and infusing his tales with forbidden sex and violence to gain a popular audience, Cain has more than one agenda. In his case, his novel is not only about two crazed women, but about materialism, pride, and the failure of the American dream, a dream that is built on the theft of Indian and Mexican lands. The University of Maryland Special Collections (where his papers are stored) tells the researcher that Cain was interested in the lives and speech of the common man. They don’t say that he looked down on the lower-middle class; indeed his sociology in Mildred Pierce is very precisely delineated, down to the last detail of decor and clothing, but also the occupations of Mildred’s family and friends. The uppity Pierce home is decorated with paintings of cowboys and the West, with a hat tip toward the covered wagons and their pioneers. Later, the decayed patrician Monty Beragon makes light of his ancestors and their triumph over Mexicans in California. Mildred’s foolish overspending for the sake of Veda is described with the zeal of a bookkeeper, and of course this unrequited, very physical, passion brings her down and back to her first husband, who outclasses her throughout. Very little of this detail makes it into the HBO version, which condenses some of the most significant episodes in the novel, for instance the repeated image of the rainbow, first seen as a halo around the dead younger child in her coffin, Ray, who dies of a respiratory ailment early on in the tale, leaving Veda as the sole focus of Mildred’s life. The rainbow, traditionally a symbol of God’s benevolence after the Flood, refers to the American pursuit of happiness that eludes these characters who are stunningly devoid of self-knowledge, with the exception of Veda and Monty, matched, purposeful, and articulate cynics, unlike the comparatively wordless Mildred, whose untamed passions are mirrored in a winter storm that she fails to defeat, and whose temporary success is the result of the business-sense of others.

We should not underestimate the importance of the popular song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” as used in both the novel and the HBO series. Long ago, I interviewed Roger Angell on his fascination with baseball, and he said that the sport was really about the inevitable failure that we all experience. I called that radio program (a collage) “Play Ball, or The Aesthetics of Failure.” Chopin’s ravishing lyricism can be seen as romantic yearning. The noir genre, whether in literature or film, should be seen as a sign for the end of the line for humanity. This ideology is profoundly antidemocratic and anti-American. It does not deserve our sympathy, though James M. Cain’s novel is interesting as a reactionary artifact, and more skillfully written than I had anticipated.

November 17, 2009

Melencolia I and the apocalypse, 1938

In my reposted blog on panic attacks https://clarespark.com/2009/11/16/panic-attacks-and-separation-anxiety/, I mentioned the use by Eric Gill of Dürer’s famous image. Here is the image as drawn by Eric Gill’s son-in-law Denis Tegetmeier for Gill’s book Unholy Trinity (1938). Opposite the illustration is this text by Eric Gill:

pastiche of Durer’s Melencolia I by Denis Tegetmeier

MELANCHOLIA—This is a very gloomy picture, and quite right too. There is no remedy for our troubles. The sick ‘old lady’ has got to die someday. I think any kind of mass conversion–as when Ninevah repented with three days of sackcloth and ashes–is not to be expected. Perhaps some kind of healthy barbarism will follow the war, pestilence and famine which are upon us. That is very likely. Nations and states go through a life cycle just as humans do, and though many will endeavour to soften our last days—it is astonishing how we cling to the deception that horrid things only happen to other people & not to us—we must today recall the words of St John in the Apocalypse:

‘Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all. And the voice of harpers and musicians, and of pipers, and trumpeters, shall be heard no more at all in thee. And no craftsman, of whatsoever craft he be, shall be found any more in thee; and the sound of a millstone shall be heard no more at all in thee; and the light of a candle shall shine no more at all in thee; and the voice of the bridegroom and of the bride shall be heard no more at all in thee; for thy merchants were the great men of the earth’ . [end Gill, there is no more text on the page]

Is there not a popular Hollywood genre of the apocalypse brought on by those commercial values foisted upon the world by merchants (a.k.a. Marx’s Jewish hucksters)? Would there have been a Renaissance, or an Age of Discovery, or the expansion of the West without them? Would we have great cities of the type anathematized by such as the arch reactionary Eric Gill without these dread traders? How much has this antimodern narrative penetrated into the popular consciousness to the detriment of mental health? And to what extent did the genre of film noir reflect such fears? Or such recent films as Revolutionary Road?

     In my view, we neglect such questions to our peril. If we cannot recognize “progress” where it has actually benefited humankind, how can we even begin to talk about appropriate remedies for emotional distress (depression! anxiety!), let alone public policy in such crucial matters as health care reform?  Just asking. For more on the popularity of “Melencolia I” in the last two centuries see the passages on James Thomson (“B. V.”) in https://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/ , part one of a two-part essay that shows the links between antisemitism, misogyny, and antimodernism.

[Added in the early evening, submitted to one of the H-Net discussion groups:]

I want to launch this hypothesis: that antisemitism, like sexism, is underweighted as a cause of social malaise or what used to be called “neurosis/neurasthenia.” Those who subscribe to the History of Antisemitism list have done decades of work on the history of antisemitism, yet if it is taken up at all in the media, some crucial facet of it is neglected. Why?  Here are some suggestions:

1. Probably most of the Left does not want to admit that Marx was anti-Semitic in his early essay “On the Jewish Question.” Taking that further, the very notion that “capital” is inherently exploitative would seem to come from the old and incorrect notion that Jews loved money more than their neighbors. (Were there bitter Jews who fit the stereotype? Why would there not be? But if we reject the idea of race and national character, it is insane to attribute such avarice and heartlessness to all Jews who ever lived.)

2. The New Left and the counter-culture of the 1960s defined themselves against the soul-less cities (see the blog), celebrating rootedness and other tropes of the agrarian ideology. Remember the class base of utopian socialism in the 19th century? It was not the working class, but would-be patricians of the kind once identified as aristocratic backwoodsmen by G. C. Webber in his book on right-wing factions. Do I detect the color Green in their vaporings?

3. The Jews, in league with certain Scotsmen, are blamed for the disenchantment of the world. This was brought home to me by the J. C. Squire papers at UCLA. (Squire, a Tory poet, traveled from Fabianism to support for Italian Fascism. He was part of the English Melville revival.) It is also spelled out in Herman Melville’s sketch of a Dissenter in his late poem, _Clarel, a poem and pilgrimage in the Holy Land_ (1876). These works build upon the pervasiveness of the mad scientist in popular culture, made famous in spin-offs of Mary Shelley’s _Frankenstein_.  The best book I ever read on the subject of disenchantment was Tillyard’s short work, _The Elizabethan World Picture and Shakespeare’s History Plays_. As the Biblical higher criticism proceeded in the 19th century, Melville nervously complained about the loss to imagination by historical analysis of the Bible. His despair reflected that of James Thomson, author of _The City of Dreadful Night_ . We are back again to Dürer’s Melencolia I and the panicky reaction by Church and King to the advent of the scientific revolution, the Reformation, and other seemingly apocalyptic events. If the Jews are constantly seen as the vanguard of modernity (either implicitly or explicitly: think of the diabolic trinity of Marx, Einstein, and Freud), they get the blame. And a scientific outlook becomes “reductive” and an abomination.

4. If one is an upwardly-mobile assimilationist Jew (on the lam from mom?), it is probably little comfort to acknowledge the persistence of genteel antisemitism in the canyons of Manhattan, or in the heart of the non-Jew one has snagged. This hardly needs elaboration. Better to repress the entire subject.

If we underweight antisemitism as a destructive force in the human psyche, imagine how bad is our underestimation of the power of sexism and patriarchy. To what lengths will the ‘feminist’ ‘anti-imperialist’ go to minimize the desire to control women and mothers in particular, and not just in the Muslim world? I will not belabor this point here, except to note that for Eric Gill,  Melencolia is a sick old lady who would be better off dead than modernized/urbanized. History for these antimodernists is not susceptible to human understanding and agency, but is a subset of “natural history.” When we understand that, there might be some progress in the teaching of the humanities.

For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/28/bibi-and-the-human-nature-debate/.

October 25, 2009

Panic Attacks

 

Pierrot and manipulative Mother? Or Mask?

Pierrot and manipulative Mother? Or Mask?

 I have resurrected an old KPFK program Panic Attacks, hosted by Dr. Etta Enzyme, December 12, 1994. It was first in a projected series exploring the ways specific historical explanations (especially the causes of World War I, World War II, the Holocaust, the Cold War, ecocide etc.) affect mental and physical health, hence the possibility of constructive social change.

 1.What is a panic attack?  Panic attacks are not fear responses to immediate threats like earthquakes.  Rather, harmless but symbolically laden internal body signals stimulate terror: of isolation, of loss of support, of loss of balance, of descent into madness; it is the state of mind most desired by practitioners of psychological warfare.  Persistent anxiety weakens the immune system.  Clinicians often see panic attacks as one instance of separation anxiety, itself symptomatic of an underlying narcissistic personality disorder.

 2.Comment on Dr. Joycelyn Elders firing: how have journalists explained opposition to masturbation?  For instance, see Gina Kolata, “America Keeps Onan in the Closet,” The New York Times, 12/18/94, p. E5 for an ooh-la-la description of masturbation phobia since the 18th century “when sex became medicalized.”  Laughable consequences are listed, but none resembles the fear of critical thought (i.e., of separation from abusive authority) in D.H. Lawrence.  In a Letter to the Editor 12/20, Frederic C. Thayer writes, “Traditionally, masturbation is condemned because it wastes energy and sperm necessary for procreation, and is for selfish pleasure rather than social duty.  Masturbation is described as “self-abuse” that causes mental derangement.”

    The hostile conservative response to masturbation is more complex than some timeless resistance to (anarchic) pleasure by ascetic, corporatist thinkers.  In Pornography and Obscenity Handbook for Censors, D.H. Lawrence rants on about the “self-abuse” he attributes to mass culture which, while apparently promoting “sex-secrecy,” “stealthily” inflames the flesh: the “mental energy” sometimes released leads solely to the “futility…nothingness…sentimentalities…self-analysis…impotent criticism…suppressed rage” which characterize (solipsistic) “modern literature” and “work[s] of science.”  “[Masturbation] is the deepest and most dangerous cancer of our civilization.”  Lawrence’s is a class-bound reactionary response to the “the grey ones left over from the nineteenth century,” i.e.,, to radical Victorian culture; his panicky diagnosis of [narcissism] reminds me of more recent, equally pessimistic, radical criticism.  What (other than the family) are the political and institutional sources of this anxiety?  How have mental health professionals accounted for panic attacks and related anxiety disorders, and what are some of the debates in the field?

 3.Object inconstancy and its discontents.  Since the pioneering work of Winnicott and Mahler, new thinking in clinical psychology and social work stresses the lifelong salutary effects of a strong and reliable maternal bond, experienced as object constancy.  Should there be a lack of steady parenting in early childhood, the damage may manifest itself later in panic attacks and related phobias and symptoms, especially during adolescence; appropriate separation is sometimes impeded by parents who ask their growing children to befriend them so as to contain the parents’ anxieties.  At all ages related symptoms may include insomnia (there is no internalized representation of the protective parent: only a surrogate close at hand will allow relaxation); hoarding; fears of being poisoned (e.g., by mass culture); school phobia (clinging to mom or exposure to “secular humanism”?); drug use to deaden the pain of loss; self-mutilation and adolescent suicide (only a violent act directed against the self can restore the maternal bond); agoraphobia; compulsive “taking care” of others to control them; clinging to masochistic relationships; the inability to cope with divorce; and in borderline personalities (close to psychotic), oscillations between depression over lost attachments and fears of being swallowed up and disintegrating.  One psychologist notes a common wish: the longing for the golden fantasy of a symbiotic [i.e., not draining?!!]) relationship with mother where all needs are met, hallowed by perfection.  (None of the dozens of psychology abstracts I consulted specifically alluded to authoritarian ideologies and peasant societies of the Right or Left where individuation would not force young people into agonized choices; cf. D.H. Lawrence, or T.S. Eliot and his hatred of “worm-eaten liberalism” aka “freethinking Jews,” the catalysts or enzymes of social disintegration.)

      Professionals disagree about the efficacy of antidepressants, or whether or not separation anxiety in infancy and early childhood explains panic attacks in adulthood.  To me, the most sensible suggestions for treatment were historical and sociological in approach: psychiatrist Terry Kupers says mental health professionals must be activists to provide public funding for the treatment of anxiety disorders; meanwhile in short-term care the patient should record the circumstances of every parting to detect lifelong patterns of separation anxiety in relationships.  Another stressed the need for family therapy to scrutinize the ways in which their interactions impede autonomy.  Another writer, in a similar vein, reminded me that the problems in separation cannot be described schematically, that particular families shape the difficult problem of growing up in their own unique and awful ways. [I doubt that there is an infinite variety of  histories.] In other words, individuals and their families are being taught to read themselves and the often subtle messages they communicate around issues of maturation and difference, to discover the patterns which contribute to serious mental and physical health problems, and which in turn will affect social action.

4. The larger institutional environment in which anxiety disorders have emerged.  Because the transition from pre-modern to capitalist social relations is incomplete, the humanities lag behind the hard sciences.  There are some sociologists, political scientists, and cultural anthropologists whose work is avowedly anti-science; Harold Lasswell was part of the moderate conservative movement of academics who explicitly separated the methodologies of the social sciences from the physical sciences in the 1920s.  In a related move, the history of science as an academic discipline was contrived by Harvard’s Robert Merton to demonstrate the socially constructed character of scientific knowledge; Merton’s project was candidly counter-Enlightenment and anti-Marxian.

    The legitimacy of the exploring, self-directing individual is advocated by only a minority of liberal and Left intellectuals; scientists are necessary but suspect, like rationalism in general.  We give lip service to “cultural freedom,” but few of us are willing to live with its consequences.  Yet our official ideology in “the West” asserts numerous civil rights and obligations to participate in democratic processes.  What critical tools are required to make popular sovereignty rational and humane?  How have threatened élites discouraged the development of critical skills through psychological warfare in popular culture?  Have upper-class radicals, in the name of socialism, served reaction, not popular education?  What public policy demands should be advanced by liberals to educate citizens for mental and physical health?

 5. On narcissism theory and recent prescriptions for its cure.  The derogatory term “narcissistic” denotes the selfishness of yuppies; for instance, some social democrats claim that “the culture of narcissism” (Christopher Lasch) has produced Generation X: abandoned, empty, confused and self-destructive.  The narcissistic disorder as I see it, is less moralistic in its diagnosis: Perhaps narcissism results from unreliable attachments in early childhood, and the repeated exposure to ambivalent systems of support inside and outside the family, in schools and other socializing institutions, including the media.  Because communication is often dishonest but unchallenged (“Be yourself, be original, but don’t make me too angry”), youthful egos are weakened while the source of domination is obscured.  Hence narcissists lack a sense of inner balance, competence in defending their interests (who dunnit to me?), and self-worth that would make them self-directed and socially responsible: creative, curious, lovable to others and effective reformers.  They may depend on omniscient others who feed their weak egos with flattery/conspiracy theories (we alone are the cognoscenti).  To restore the Golden Age, they will fuse with such heroic agitators, or with a glorified racial past, or with fetishized luxury goods.  As repressed facts of the material world return, idealizations are shattered.  The all-nurturing other (the object) may become a killer who must be destroyed (Otto Kernberg). [My reading:]  The switch occurs at the moment of disillusion, as artificially inflated self-esteem (grandiosity) ebbs or rushes away, leaving in its wake emptiness, uncontainable fear and anger.  The fear and anger (if suppressed) triggers the adrenalin that begins the panic attack; the ghastly irony lies in the misdirection of our anger toward the self; we may remain politely fastened to an object that was never there for us in the first place.  (Or perhaps as children we believed our anger caused the death of domineering or negligent parents and/or sibling rivals or the breakup of a family in divorce: any eruption of anger is unmanageable and world-destroying.)

      By contrast, some romantic conservatives account for the pervasive “narcissism” and related social problems (including the rise of fascism, a narcissistic disorder) as the result of weakened paternal authority in the family.  The newly triumphant figures of modernity have sapped the authority of the paternalistic father: vampirish specters appear as Goldfinger the international Jew (designer and profiteer of mass culture and consumerism) in cahoots with mad scientists, femmes fatales, and perfectionist puritan mothers.  Feminized and jewified, modernity has produced, what else?  The Masturbator!  Similarly, the terror-gothic genre (horror movies and gothic fiction) confronts the viewer with appalling images of the inquisitive, wandering, goal-directed imagination exploring the sensuous material world (D. H.Lawrence’s “nosy Hebrew”).  Persistently feeling one’s own unhappiness and the common pain of suffering humanity, asking authority “why” it devises particular damaging social policies, demanding access to state secrets, can lead only to bloody revolution, ripping and shredding of the social fabric, and finally, the Bomb (e.g., the theme of Pandora’s Box in Kiss Me Deadly, a classic of film noir).

      One would hope that progressive intellectuals would be alert to such right-wing tactics, but no.  As one KPFK listener put it, intellectuals today latch onto traditions which make them comfortable; the idea of the detached, disinterested seeker following the truth wherever it leads is held to be a bourgeois illusion, the Big Lie of objectivity and positivistic science that delivered scientific racism.  Some poststructuralists say that (relatively) accurate readings of the world are impossible, that there is only “intertextuality” for ballast, that the goals of “objectivity,” or of universally valid moral standards are (in fact!) a stealthy imposition of a totalitarian ideology.  Such irrationalist  [1] ideas should be vigorously opposed in the culture wars raging in our universities, and not just by the libertarian Right. Liberal Freudians are not irrationalists; rather they believe that rational processes (historical memory and the reconstruction of power relations in socializing institutions) can at least diminish the extent to which we are misdirected by self-destructive behavior. (Irrationalists have said that such fantasies are disseminated by Jews, consummate peddlers of false utopias; see the excellent description of the right-wing agitator in Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman, Prophets of Deceit, 1949).

      Are panic attacks a health risk of middle-management?  Historians revise and reconfigure the past, finding material causes for socially-induced catastrophes; we seek clarity and balance, not chaos, but threaten illegitimate authority.  Because democratic pluralists seem to support critical thought (but in practice are unevenly committed to it), institutions are vague and abstract in their demands.  Be original, but not too destabilizing, we are advised, echoing the family.  But how far to go too far?  We don’t know the rules until we break them.  So, to keep our jobs, we may betray the real and the good, not daring to hold authority accountable; all relations remain shallow and there is, in fact, little reliable support.  In such a deceptive and self-deceptive society, anyone and everyone can turn on us–whenever we demand that our arguments be engaged, calling love and support into question.  People too attached to their creative work must be “monomaniacs,” like Melville’s Captain Ahab.

      If my analysis is valid, what are the implications for the treatment of anxiety disorders?  As long as institutions are unwilling to be tested and challenged, as long as they blunt critical tools, no amount of individual or group therapy or pills will alleviate our distress; perforce we will adjust to a world without many enduring attachments.  The fearful may continue to follow false friends and false prophets: screaming, hysterical demagogues and paranoids who will divide us when only species cooperation can protect the planet.  Idealizing the father-driven family will not solve the problems conservatives are (often rightly) worried about.  Accurate readings of our bodies, our histories, our loves and friendships, the origin and development of all institutions and of the natural world which we are fast destroying, should be the goal of education.  Workers in mental health cannot neglect these aspects of their training, lest the good work they do be nullified by the strange world outside the clinic. [12-27-94]

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