YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

June 25, 2014

Penny Dreadful’s sinister significance

Frankensteinpenny-dreadfulIn the US, late 19th century dime novels were the precursors to early movies; while in the UK, their similarly cheap, sensational analogs were “penny dreadfuls” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny_dreadful).

Surely working class males are not the target audience for the Showtime series Penny Dreadful that is winding up its first season this Sunday; otherwise how can we account for its deliriously positive reception in, say, The New York Times and Vanity Fair?

CoverPennydreadful

When I commented on the postmodern slant of this serialized horror thriller with pretensions to serious high art, one of my Facebook friends groaned. This blog explains why I think the fact of its existence and its considerable success is of more than passing interest. I had thought that horror movies with their vampires, zombies, and werewolves, were for adolescents with kinky tastes. But the successful writer for screen and theater, John Logan, author of the series, is no kid (born 1961), but as a graduate of Northwestern University, he may have been exposed to the techniques of postmodernism, along with a fine cast of actors who probably think that this is a high class production, appropriately critical of this entirely mechanized, overly rational and complacent world we supposedly inhabit. I sometimes think that the production is a postmodern emphasis on “acting” and the theatricality of everyday life, along with the postmodern/youthful preoccupation with “real or fake”–a question I have taken up before on this website. What ever its intentions, it surely plays up the irrational and could not be more emphatically counter-Enlightenment, and even anti-American, particularly “America’s” treatment of its indigenous peoples, cruelly uprooted from their native culture and languages by the (ever imperialistic, expansionist) White Man.

Eva Green as Artemisia in

Eva Green as Artemisia in “300: Rise of an Empire”

The “pomos” deploy pastiche, distort prior genres, and appropriate prior cultural figures at will, all to comment on the horrors of modernity, most famously rendered in the Tory Terror-Gothic genre, and exemplified in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus. Wordsworth and Keats are quoted, while one of the characters is lifted out of Oscar Wilde—Dorian Gray. Significantly, Jack the Ripper hovers over the production, as if the overarching theme is that the social fabric is ripped to shreds by 19th century optimism and confidence in progress through market capitalism. Logan’s target is clearly the empiricism and leftish Romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries. For the theme of the series, despite its mysterious plot twists and turns and lurid developments, is this: science (including medicine) is destroying our humanity and fellow-feeling, by ignoring the invisible world of demons—the monsters within, and who lead us to perdition when we deny their existence. Even the Catholic Church, possibly represented in the lead character “Vanessa Ives” cannot overcome the unpredictable demon(s) who torments her. And that demon, if we are to believe the publicity surrounding the series, may be inescapable “destiny”–a doctrine opposed by Catholic emphasis on free will and personal responsibility for our actions. Or compare the emphasis on “fate” with Milton’s Mammon, a puritan character who argues for “hard liberty” instead of submission to an unaccountable deity. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/07/09/preconditions-for-hard-liberty/.)

Penny-Dreadful-image-penny-dreadful-36465075-450-253

Prometheus, along with the rest of the Judeo-Christian West, is so over. As for individual moral accountability, that too is gone with the desert wind: we are left with a reproach to God as Frankenstein’s omnivorously reading monster quotes Adam’s lament in the season finale: “O fleeting joys Of Paradise, dear bought with lasting woes! Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay To mould me Man?”[ Paradise Lost, Book 10]. More: in the last words of the season finale, a Catholic priest asks Vanessa (the femme fatale who stands in for the demon-touched, hence “sacred” Romantic artist, i.e., Logan himself) “Do you really want to be normal?”

For in Logan’s Terror-Gothic world, a world shared by many opponents of “modernity”, “reality” exists solely in a chaotic invisible world that is inaccessible to our eyes, brains, and control. Could anything be more reactionary, hence agreeable to antidemocrats?

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June 4, 2014

Did “bureaucratic rationality” cause the Holocaust?

“Devilish Children and the Civilizing Process”: Dream Theater

Don’t expect a sophisticated, historically correct account of either antisemitism or “the Holocaust” or the history of Israel to come out of the European or American Left. They have abandoned the pro-Enlightenment Marx for Lenin, Norbert Elias, and Foucault, and have gone native as well.

I have just finished reading Enzo Traverso’s The Origins of Nazi Violence (The New Press, 2003), which seeks to set us straight about the vexed questions raised by the “historians’ debate” of 1986. Traverso takes on Ernst Nolte (the rightist who blames Nazism on the Soviet revolution), Francois Furet (the liberal who uses the word “totalitarian” to equate Nazism and Communism), in favor of such fashionable figures as Norbert Elias (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Civilizing_Process), Max Weber, Adorno, Horkheimer, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, and Zygmunt Bauman.

Traverso, an Italian Trotskyist now teaching at Cornell University, fits perfectly into the academic Left in America, for (unlike Marx who favored the progressive bourgeosie), he pushes the Leninist line influenced by the antisemitic journalist J. A. Hobson (but also early Marx, as in “On The Jewish Question”), but with a twist. Whereas Hobson (like Marx) blamed the rule of money, specifically an international cabal of Jewish financiers and their seizing of mass media for modern wars, Traverso follows the Max Weber/Frankfurt School/cultural studies analyses that pin modern antisemitism on the Enlightenment, the all-controlling machines and division of labor initiated by the Industrial Revolution, and the brutalizing imperialism that it spawned. Traverso’s imagination contains an anti-Promethean Frankenstein fantasy populated by imperialists of Europe who flocked into Africa to swipe all their raw materials, open markets, massacred millions of “inferior” natives, and because of their rivalries initiated the Great War that further brutalized humanity and nationalized the masses. Enter Nazism and the steel helmet, symbol of the demise of the noble ancient warrior.

But wait! There is more. As a postmodernist and fierce opponent of science in service to the monsters, Traverso focuses on the biological metaphors applied to hapless victims. These images take on a life of their own, impelling the mass murders of Jews. Representations rule, ignoring the material interests that motivate leaders and the led. In the process, Traverso claims that the antisemitism of medieval or antique societies was entirely displaced in favor of scientific racism/social Darwinism. Thus the reader must not consider the lingering effects of Christian antisemitism in the 20th Century. (Or by extension, Muslim antisemitism today.)

Maddening science itself is to blame, but of course not the “science” of dialectical materialism. Or the pseudo-science of “social engineering” that explains Lysenkoism. For Traverso entirely discounts any role of heredity: all is environment in the shaping of human character.

I find it interesting that Traverso, a highly educated Europeanist, can utterly ignore the roles of the Germans Herder, Kant, and Fichte, in his intellectual history that nails the “Western” 19th century to the wall. For it was they who started the intellectual offensive on the “mechanical materialism” of the French Enlightenment, disempowering the all-too empirical, increasingly literate masses with their German Romantic notions of national character and the superiority of the Greek-influenced Germanic culture: a culture that celebrated the “rooted cosmopolitan” and laid the groundwork for today’s multiculturalism and cultural relativism. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/10/18/the-dialectic-of-multiculturalism-helvetius-herder-fichte/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/07/20/german-romantic-predecessors-to-multiculturalism/.

If it is difficult today to separate out progressive capitalists in the Democratic Party from hard-core communists, it may be their shared optimism that explains this strange alliance that is mis-educating our children. Taking heredity into account spoils their fun in demolishing the positive material and moral achievements of “civilization.” (For early Marx’s view of industrialism, technology, and the progressive bourgeoisie see https://clarespark.com/2014/06/07/marx-vs-lenin/.)

Oh, did I mention that the subjugation of women in non-Western countries elicits not a peep from the esteemed cultural historian from the Trotskyist Left?

elias

January 24, 2013

Culture wars and the secular progressives

Marianne, symbol of the French Republic

Marianne, symbol of the French Republic

Walter Hudson has written an essay for Pajamas Media ( http://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2013/01/15/whose-morality-is-it-anyway/) touting religion as the sole building block of social order, the only belief system that prevents “evil.”  Hudson, like many other believers, holds Communists (and by implication, “secularists”) responsible for wanton killing and mass death, perhaps of the kind we have seen at such locales as Newtown, Connecticut, or in the underreported incident in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as perpetrated by Nehemiah Griego (the fifteen-year-old killer, whose father was a local pastor and reportedly  liberal).

It is true that communists have inveighed against religion as “the opiate of the masses” that holds workers in bondage to a fantasy at best, or terrorizes them at worst (with threats of eternal hell), but Hudson’s privileging of religion as the sole source of morality is repugnant to me. I am one of the dread secularists, which puts me in the same category as those who drafted the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment, that forbade any established state religion. It is cultural pluralism that has enabled diverse immigrant groups to come to America, and protected them from forced conversion to a state religion. Has Hudson forgotten that “equality under the law” was a salutary innovation that protected all of us from murder and from what Hudson regards as “evil” in general?

But worse, Hudson’s essay negates the Enlightenment, which removed truth, absolute authority and “virtue” from Kings and established Churches, instead investing knowledge, power, and (potential) virtue in the People and their political institutions.  This disestablishment of monarchs and clergy was laid at the feet of the rising bourgeoisie (themselves the children of the French Revolution), who were then attacked by both the deposed monarchists of the ultra-right and future hard leftists. The new popular freedoms were associated by the ultras with the Cult of Reason (symbolized by Marianne), cannibalism, and a host of other horrors, including parricide and deicide.  And so Mary Shelley wrote her famous Frankenstein;  or the Modern Prometheus, while Herman Melville fretted about his own Promethean impulses throughout life. (For more on this theme see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/26/decoding-call-me-ishmael-and-the-following/.)

Much of what Hudson has written is directed at Ayn Rand, her followers, and “Objectivism” in general.  I conclude that it is the “atomized” individual (along with free market society) that is his target. This so-called “atomized” individual was also the target of the moderate men, the Progressives who hoped to stave off Red Revolution through a compassionate welfare state, that would stop just short of turning the world upside down,  and would co-opt religion in the service of those buzz-words “social cohesion” and “political stability.”

Not all moderate conservatives believed that modernity and capitalism would lead to widespread mayhem. See for instance the social thought of Charles Sumner, the anti-slavery Senator from Massachusetts, whose moral code embraced all of humanity, and most particularly slaves and then the freedmen, while his bosom enemies sought to return the freedmen to new forms of bondage after the Civil War. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/, or https://clarespark.com/2012/01/03/the-race-card/ )  Sumner was a visionary, and for his sacrifices to humanity at large, he has been assailed as a carrier of Jewish blood by his major 20th century biographer.

guillotine

If Walter Hudson and those who agree with him want to improve morality, he should come down on the authoritarian family and all those institutions that fail to educate their children to the obligations of citizenry, or those families who believe in demonic possession as the explanation for mental illness. We need more science in our thought patterns, and less regression to pre-capitalist forms of authority, authority that cannot be made legitimate through any appeal to Reason as embodied in the laws, laws that men and women of all colors fought for and formulated out of an abundance of experience.

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