YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

September 20, 2014

“Taking responsibility” for ourselves and society

free_will-net_This blog is about personal responsibility and how that demand affects the writing of both personal histories and world historical events, especially catastrophic ones that cause mass death.

Personal responsibility/free will: I have written before about the ambiguities of assigning praise and blame for our life choices. When Melville did it in his under-read novel that followed Moby-Dick, Pierre, or the Ambiguities,  his mother thought he was crazy and called in Oliver Wendell Holmes (author of the snake-infested book Elsie Venner) to evaluate his mental health, perhaps to institutionalize him. Yet on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we are told to take an individual (not collective) inventory of those whom we have harmed, to change our conduct, and to make restitution to the damaged victim of our presumed malice or carelessness. (On Melville and free will see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/.)

If only it were that easy to determine cause and effect. My baby may be screaming and driving me to distraction, but is her wailing an inherited feature of her temperament, or is she responding to negligent or stupid parenting choices, possibly picked up from my own parents?

Social responsibility. I have been reading books by historian Michael Burleigh, who seems quite Catholic to me in his leaning toward a late 19th century version of social democracy (see Pope Leo XIII and his encyclical Rerum Novarum 1891), and Burleigh’s rejection of the liberal theory of “totalitarianism” that equates Nazism and communism, i.e., Nazism is bad because of its divisive racial theories, while the Soviet Union attacked the materialist, modernizing bourgeoisie; at least the Reds were not wigged out with nationalism and differing sets of rules for hedgehogs and foxes. Or perhaps Burleigh dislikes the notion of totalitarianism because it implies total control and hence threatens his notion of free will and personal responsibility, without considering the details of Soviets versus Nazis. (The latter seems more likely, as he uses and abandons the term “totalitarian” depending on his outrage.)

Burleigh’s co-authored book on the Nazi “racial state” (with Wolfgang Wipperman) makes the point that Hitler’s welfare measures were directed solely at biologically fit, sports loving Aryans and depended on a racial hierarchy that demeaned Jews, feminists, Slavs, gypsies, “asocials”, and homosexuals; i.e., he is protecting the welfare statism of social democrats and their much vaunted “tolerance” of “difference.”


As an historian of the Third Reich, Burleigh has emphasized individual acts of resistance to Hitler’s policies, thus linking him to those believers in free will and social responsibility. BUT this traps us in the double bind so plainly delineated in “crazy” Melville’s novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852) that mocked “virtuous expediency.” (On the latter see https://clarespark.com/2011/06/12/call-me-isabel-a-reflection-on-lying/.)

I would gladly atone for my lapses and flaws; would that I knew what they are, without the inevitable muddle. “These free men are  not as free as they think” wrote Melville in his novel Mardi (1847).



March 18, 2013

Babel vs. Sinai

Sinai desert sunrise over Red Sea

Sinai desert sunrise over Red Sea

This is the second of two blogs on the awful effects of collectivist propaganda, including Obama’s deployment of “the rhetoric of the political family.” See https://clarespark.com/2011/01/26/obama-and-the-rhetoric-of-the-political-family/

My son-in-law Steve Chocron, after discussing with me what Jews and Christians have in common (i.e. “western humanistic values” as opposed to David Nirenberg’s fixation on “anti-Judaism” as the corrupt core of “the West), came up with the contrast of Babel (or Babylon) versus Sinai:

Babel is collectivist and its language is muddied and muddled even as it promotes “politically correct speech,” while Sinai’s speech is clear, if subject to increased precision over time.

Babel promotes “victimology,” while Sinai promotes individual responsibility and the development of free will.

Where would Freud fit into this scheme? Some determinists, misappropriating “Freud,” would seize on repression, oppression, and bad families as excuses for anti-social behavior (including sadism and masochism), while the residents of Sinai, in the spirit of the true Freud, would probe the darkness in their minds and bodies, would demand that individuals take a complete family history, then do what is necessary to comprehend both family and social sources of wounds, anxieties, and malfeasance, but then would make the effort to correct or sublimate those impulses (rage, hypersexuality, submitting to illegitimate authority whether that be an abusive state or an abusive sibling or parent). Such efforts constitute a form of atonement and are life-long tasks that may never be completed or fully comprehended. They do not resemble the “adjustment” advised by ego psychologists, but rather distinguish between forms of activism, eschewing utopianism, while embracing the necessary and possible. (On Nirenberg’s indictment of “the West as corrupt to the core, see https://clarespark.com/2013/03/15/nirenbergs-mischievous-anti-judaism/. On free-will vs. determinism, focused on Melville and Moby-Dick see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/.)

What is sublimation? Freud advised instinctual renunciation to protect precious relationships, while advocating sublimation: Using repressed rage or Eros as energy for sports, creativity in any medium, excelling in an intellectual or artisanal skill, participating in those political movements that honor individuality and independence. Above all, learning about the body, about preventive medicine (impossible without study of nutrition, hygiene, anatomy, and knowledge of the natural world; about child development, and raising children to maximize their own gifts and readiness for participation in the larger world outside the family).

Brueghel the Elder Tower of Babel

Brueghel the Elder Tower of Babel

May 17, 2010

Beethoven, A Clockwork Orange, and rosy Prometheans

Beethoven, colored as black by an Afrocentrist

My roses are in hectic bloom and vegetable seeds are sprouting in the back yard.  My cousin Victor Rosenbaum, a concert pianist, was practicing at my house for a concert tonight in a Southern California university, and as I listened to his program of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin, and, given the season, I thought once again of the astonishing flowering of Romantic music during the late 18th and early nineteenth centuries in Europe, the repertoire most favored by my cousin and that continues to beguile my own imagination.  I thought too of some hard things I have said about self-styled “traditionalists” who believe that “secularism” is leading us down the path to perdition.

Recall the film A Clockwork Orange, with a script by Anthony Burgess, and based on his novel, but directed (some say misdirected and botched) by Stanley Kubrick. In the film, the thuggish street urchins who killed at random were seemingly inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.* I was frightened and bewildered when I saw the movie long ago, and disappointed that it was considered to be a triumph of vanguard movie-making by a John Cage-influenced composer teaching at California Institute of the Arts (1971). Today I am not so shocked. The Pelagian-Promethean impulse, though essential to the understanding of such ambivalent writers as Goethe or Herman Melville, is now discredited by leading intellectuals and politicians as Jacobin, or Napoleonic, and leading ineluctably to catastrophic mob rule or the debauched tastes of “mass society.” Also, there is a clear track from the Jacobins to Nazism and Communism in the writing of some other figures on the Right, despite an entirely different genealogy described persuasively by Frank E. Manuel in his The Prophets of Paris (1962): Turgot, Condorcet, Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Comte.

I am thinking of some of the traditionalist figures on the Right criticized in prior blogs: Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Newt Gingrich, who claim that our Constitution was God-given and hence not the conscious creation of the Founding Fathers, themselves building upon such prior intellectuals as Spinoza, Montesquieu, or other figures of the European Enlightenment who had theorized a republican form of government. Yet, if one reads the correspondence of John Adams, Abigail Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, it is clear that they viewed their efforts at inventing a republic as experimental.  And like the New England radical Protestants who preceded them, they understood that their efforts would be nil without universal literacy.  Do those influential figures of the Right (mentioned above), while advocating “free will” and “personal responsibility,” diminish the power of human creativity by attributing all of our Constitutional liberties to the will of God? Do our young people even experience European Romanticism and/or the related literary movements described today as realism and naturalism, all of which, with modern technology in the reproduction of great music and literature, had appeal to a larger public than the aristocracy that originally paid for them?

*Since writing this blog, I read the Burgess novel. It is a tour de force in that Burgess invented a special language for Alex the narrator, drawn from Slavic tongues. After a while, one figures out what the neologisms mean. But the main theme is an attack on all Enlightenment projects that are in any way derived from Rousseau. Like Orwell, Burgess was criticizing the statism and optimism of social democracy (I am using the term loosely), for in his medieval Catholic mentality, the notion that man could be made good and peaceful was a utopian illusion.  Burgess himself was a music lover, and Alex’s delight in Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and other classical composers is probably a hint that Alex represents the daemonic side of Burgess’s own character. One must remember that modern artists could view themselves as the Devil’s minions, for they were usurping priestly authority in their manufacture of imaginary worlds. When Alex is subjected to behavior modification, he is outraged that Beethoven’s Ninth is used in the sound track that accompanies pictures of terrible brutality, hence makes him physically ill until he attempts suicide, injuring his brain and removing the vile associations that made him averse to his prior random brutality. He ends up renouncing his romantic adolescence as he enters adulthood and resolves to find a wife.

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