The Clare Spark Blog

November 23, 2012

Historians vs. pundits: the Eric Hobsbawm synthesis

Liberty Leading the People

For a more recent assessment of Hobsbawm, see https://clarespark.com/2012/12/08/hobsbawm-obama-israel/.

I was going to write a straightforward few paragraphs on the irresponsibility of today’s journalists/pundits compared to archive-scouring historians. But in the meantime, I was reading Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (1962), and my focus changed to the achievement of EH’s major work, and its precise transmission of Marxist-Leninist dogma, dialectical materialism and all, as he strives to fuse the Hegelian opposites of Romanticism and neoclassicism, letting vitalism and mysticism into his ostensibly rationalist synthesis explaining the rise of mass politics after the French Revolution.

For those who have missed the furious debate since the death of EH and his legacy on October 1, 2012, here is a sampling of what I have read. Ron Radosh’s essay was my favorite, for it was a fine survey of opinion, and also recounted some horrifying details missed by others, for instance, EH’s ferocious rejection of Israel, which he wished would be nuked, according to one unpublished account.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Hobsbawm

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/oct/01/eric-hobsbawm-historian

http://frontpagemag.com/2012/bruce-bawer/intellectuals-rally-to-eulogize-stalinist-eric-hobsbawm/

http://pjmedia.com/ronradosh/2012/10/13/can-stalinist-be-good-historian/

Though I thought that EH was clueless regarding the contributions of the Romantic composers and authors (e.g. their exploration of human emotions as worthy subjects for art, often leaving more rigid forms for fantasy. Cf. EH condemning the Romantics as Satanists, or as flunkeys for the bourgeoisie and its heroic individualism/economic liberalism),  I came away with one valuable insight: EH explains that the creation of the new industrial working class kept both aristocracy and bourgeoisie on edge up to the present day. For it was the (middle-class) French Revolution and Napoleon that elevated the self-esteem of “the People” in what EH calls the double revolution: 1. The French Revolution, and 2. The Industrial Revolution. (He implied a third factor: the development of “national cultures” that would lead, in his later life, to the lauding of “liberal nationalism” as a spur to further progress, with capitalism yielding to communism and the defeat of the bourgeois oppressor.)

In whatever period I have studied since the Enlightenment, I have seen the red specter operating in the imaginations of every artist and writer. Certainly it is foregrounded in the work of Herman Melville, whose interpreters cannot make up their minds whether he is a Romantic individualist (of the type that EH excoriates) or a proper moderate conservative like themselves, hence the Ishmaelite repudiator of that arch-individualist and revolutionary Captain Ahab (or his successor, Pierre Glendinning).

EH mentions Herman Melville twice, though he does not go into any detail whatsoever. I presume that he viewed Moby-Dick as an allegory for the French Revolution and those that followed in 1848, perhaps dwelling upon the multi-colored crew of harpooners, as did C. L. R. James, a favorite of the New Left anti-imperialists. But this would make EH no better than the bourgeois primitivists EH attacks as perpetuators of the noble savage image. [Added, Nov. 23: In his second book, EH makes it clear that he believes that Moby-Dick is an indictment of American capitalist-imperialism; he has a superficial reading about whaling ships and the denouement near Japan. EH believes that Melville is the greatest artist of the American 19th century, for that reason, obviously.]

Alarmingly, EH’s book on the “Age of Revolution” laid out the synthesis that guided my graduate work in history at UCLA, and that now dominates textbook writing throughout the liberal school system in America. Prende garde, mes amis. Eric Hobsbawm, in death lauded by many communists, liberals, and conservatives alike, fused the roles of pundit and historian, leaving us with activists in both fields, while drowning in their wakes those historians whose regard for the truth is, well, undialectical. (For my assessment of “activist” scholars see https://clarespark.com/2013/05/06/the-new-left-activist-scholars/.)

October 4, 2011

Coulter’s demons, Melville, John Adams on the late 18th C.

Ann Coulter. Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America. New York: Crown Forum, 2011. 354 pages. $28.99.

Best-selling author Ann Coulter, with 19th century ultra-conservative French writer Gustave Le Bon for backup, has determined that the liberals of the US today are a hysterical mob, given to group-think and heinous atrocities, depicted here in detail as she pivots from the enraged French scum to such favorite targets as MSNBC, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, the better for our sick delectation. Upon reflection as I look at her repeated examples, it seems to me that her pages depicting mob-driven mayhem (600,000 French casualties!) are to be compared to 53 million unborn babies massacred by her arch-enemies, pro-choice feminists. She has just as little love for The Declaration of the Rights of Man,* gays, androgynes, liberal Jews (all Jews?), and other women, the latter the objects of Le Bon’s contempt as well.

This is most ironic, for whereas Le Bon was an irrationalist, but a secularist pondering how to control the lower orders since revealed religion (allied with arbitrary authority), had lost its gleam, Coulter, flying his counter-Enlightenment flag, allies herself with the divinely-inspired rationalism she imputes to Anglo-Saxons, the American Revolution, and the Federalist Papers. Such “harmonious order,” delivered by rules-regulated, mob-smashing, yet calm leadership, is invidiously compared to the “Latin” nations’ proclivity for cannibalism, blood lust, tumult and mindless, i.e., womanish, violence. Coulter may be one of the last respectable nativists.

As a book claiming “political science” status, Demonic is so wild and undisciplined that it hardly bears further discussion. Some of her more egregious howlers: 1. The most romantic radicals of the 1960s are conflated with their liberal opponents. Think of the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968, where liberals were the target of the Weathermen and other radicals. 2. Coulter is a conservative, who uses Republicans mostly to suit her argument. Hence, they are useful as anti-racists during the Civil War and Reconstruction, but she does not distinguish between Conservative and Radical Republicans, who had divergent agendas; it was such as Sumner and Stevens who put civil and economic rights for the freedmen at the top of their must-do lists, and before that, Alexander Hamilton’s antislavery position got him labeled as an abolitionist by the Jeffersonians who sought to tear him down from his own lifetime to ours. (See Stephen F. Knott’s book for the juicy details.)

I prefer to compare her pornographic rant to some leaves from Herman Melville’s manuscript, “Billy Budd, Sailor: an inside narrative” for his last composition (unpublished in his lifetime) also pondered the contested legacy of the French Revolution, clearly the subject of his [always controversial and enigmatic] novella:

[Melville, as published in Weaver’s Constable edition, vol.13, not available on the internet:] “The year 1797, the year of this narrative, belongs to a period which as every thinker now feels, involved a crisis for Christendom not exceeded in its undetermined momentousness at the time by any other era whereof there is record. The opening proposition made by the Spirit of that Age, involved the rectification of the Old World’s hereditary wrongs. In France, to some extent this was bloodily effected. But what then? Straightway the Revolution itself became a wrongdoer, one more oppressive than the Kings, and initiated that prolonged agony of general war that ended in Waterloo. During those years not the wisest could have foreseen that the outcome of all would be what in some thinkers apparently it has since turned out to be, a political advance along nearly the whole line for Europeans.”

In the first part of this statement, Melville takes the same dim view of the French Revolution as Coulter and the most ultraconservative thinkers of the period. But he leaves the question open, asking the reader to think very hard and for him/herself, given the more positive views of significant philosophers (e.g. John Stuart Mill) who wrote during his lifetime. Melville was an American patriot and a great admirer of the Declaration of Independence, “that makes a difference” as he wrote to a friend. But for Coulter, Thomas Jefferson is too Frenchified, even a “flake,” and she much prefers the godly [Anglophile] John Adams. But what should she have made of this much reproduced and discussed quote from Adams, clearly aligning the Constitution with the Enlightenment, and with the intonations of Prometheus?

Tom Paine Press image for Billy Budd opera

[Adams:] “The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”

*At a book talk in Los Angeles, Coulter stated that the French have no conception of individual rights. The Rousseau-maddened Jacobin mob leads directly to Hitler and Mussolini. This is the same line advanced by Jonah Goldberg in his Liberal Fascism. See my discussion of the latter here: https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/.

September 17, 2011

Edmund Burke’s tantrum

Marie-Antoinette in Muslin dress

Today, Constitution Day in the United States, brings back the chief ideas of the American Revolution, an exceptional event that partly inspired the French Revolution, the latter upheaval said by its critics to be the blueprint for 20th century totalitarian states. On my Facebook page yesterday, I quoted Burke’s line “…the age of chivalry is gone.” Readers took it to mean chivalrous behavior by men toward women today, and generally did not recognize the quote, nor did all but one show concrete knowledge of the nature of feudalism and its knightly practices, made hollow by the Inquisitions and constant war/anarchy. Most did, however, distance themselves from 1970s feminism. So I quote the context of Burke’s lament, and note that Burke saw a written constitution based on universal human rights as an offense against Nature herself. Note the inversion of deference to established authority and “exalted freedom.” Orwell, anyone?

Before reading the Burke quote, here are two links that fill in some history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Antoinettehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_the_Rights_of_Man.

[Burke, writing about Marie Antoinette* after the natural rights/natural law doctrine embodied in the  Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), and four years before her execution by guillotine]:

“ It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in—glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendor and joy. Oh! What a revolution! And what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream, when she added titles and veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace in her bosom! Little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more [Poe’s “The Raven”?CS] , shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness!….” [footnote: The quoted paragraph “has been called a landmark in the beginning of English literary romanticism.”][i]

Is there any doubt that Disraeli was writing about the Austrian noblewoman in his first novel? See https://clarespark.com/2011/05/04/disraelis-captive-queens/?

Declaration of the Rights of Man


[i]
Edmund Burke, “Impractical Zealots,” The French Revolution: Conflicting Interpretations, ed. Frank A. Kafker, James M. Laux, Darline Gay Levy (Malabar, Florida: Krieger, Fifth Edition, 2002), 87-88. This was an excerpt from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), famously answered by Thomas Paine in a controversy that remains timely today.

May 5, 2011

Assimilation and its malcontents

Yesterday on Facebook I started a thread asking my friends what they thought that assimilation meant, then refined it to assimilation in a democratic republic. I got this strong response from Tom Nichols, a political scientist and frequent contributor to the History of Diplomacy (Humanities Net) discussion group:

“Assimilation, to me, has never had a negative connotation. To me it means that if you ask to immigrate to another country, you’re accepting that you’re asking other people to let you make your home with them. The house rules are posted up front: you don’t get to pick and choose. If the adopting country is attractive enough to you to move there and seek citizenship, then you must accept all of the communal responsibilities of citizenship. But let’s leave the U.S. out of it for a moment, and let’s pretend we’re talking about assimilation if you move to Saudi Arabia. If you want to move to the Kingdom, then suck it up: the little missus is going to have to wear a headscarf. It’s their country, not yours, and if you want to join their family, get it straight about who wears the veil and who wears the pants. It might be ridiculous, but it’s their right as a society. On the other hand, it’s our right not to have to move there, and this might explain why talented, smart people in the West are not deluging the Saudi consulates for immigration visas.

Or better yet, take France, which has had the stones to pass some laws we would never have the guts to pass here. If you move to France, you respect and practice French values, at least in public — and that means you don’t form roving packs of boys raping unveiled women in Marseilles. If your son is in one of those packs, you don’t later defend him by saying that in your culture, women who are unveiled are asking for it. (If you like your own culture so much, then stay where you are.) It means you accept the decisions of the legally-elected French government until the next election, and
if you lose in that election, you don’t protest those decisions by wilding in the streets because it’s your “culture” to do so. You become French, and you damn well stand up when the French flag is raised. Assimilation doesn’t mean losing your identity; in a democratic republic it means your public identity must conform to the values that made you want to move in the first place. It means not being cynical about being an immigrant. And in a democratic republic, the bargain is this: it means your private life is just that — private. Do what you like at home, but one you step outside, your public life conforms to the norms of the Republic. Most importantly, you cannot be a hypocrite. You cannot come to France, take citizenship, study in the great
halls of the Sorbonne, gorge on wine and cognac, chase the local gals, download porn at prodigious rates over Europe’s free and uncensored internet, and then complain that the EU is just a decadent, indulgent melange of perverts and that is why you therefore maintain two or three passports, just like you have two or three wives, no matter what those French snobs think about it. That all sounds harsh, maybe, but the solution is clear: if you don’t like it, don’t get off the plane at De Gaulle. Try Russia or Japan or Mexico, pull your anti-assimilationist *merde* there, and see how that goes for you. So vive la France. And good luck to every other country that takes in and tolerates immigrants who think that “immigration” means staking out a community like some sort of hostile base camp deep in enemy territory. Let’s have more assimilation and less use of the word “culture.” Oh, and PS: Learn French, damn it.” [end, Tom Nichols quote]

I was glad that professor Nichols picked France as his example, as it has been secular (off and on)* since the much derided French Revolution, a revolution that took its inspiration in part from the previous American Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment to the Constitution. This is significant to me because some “traditionalist” conservatives regularly condemn “secularism” as if the conception was derived from the godlessly atheistic Soviet Union. These same persons are busy finding fault with the separation of church and state, and combing through documents for proof that the Founding Fathers were godly and never intended to leave spiritual matters to the privacy of the individual conscience. Hence, the culture wars. I have written about that tendency among the social conservatives before on this website, and deplore their abandonment of libertarian ideas originated in the early modern period.

To end this blog, let me make a distinction between multiculturalism ( a pseudo-solution to the existence of prejudice or bigotry) and the pluralism guaranteed by our Constitution, particularly in the First Amendment. The American and French Revolutions were children of both the Reformation and the Enlightenment, with the exception of the divergent German Enlightenment, the latter an irrationalist assault on the Age of Reason. Multiculturalism was consciously counter-revolutionary, a response to the French philosophes, materialists all, who preceded them. As I have shown with quotes from Herder and his followers on this website, the notion of national character, a racialist and collectivist idea, was the linchpin of their philosophy.

[Added after I was working on the blog, from Tom Nichols:  just to be clear, I think every country’s culture is its own business, and that each nation decides for itself what is acceptable within its own social norms — except when those practices become so dangerous to human life that they must be stopped (like, say, genocide or ritual female mutilation). I just happen to think that *Western* nations have the same rights.”

* When I first wrote this I had forgotten that the Declaration of the Rights of Man has had a rocky history in France. When Melville’s Billy Budd says farewell to the Rights of Man, we have a hint that Melville was not assigning to his character the qualities often ascribed to him.

November 14, 2010

The ABC’s of Antisemitism

19th C. image of The Wandering Jew

[For an index to many of my blogs on antisemitism, see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/29/index-to-blogs-on-antisemitism/.]

Antisemitism entails much more than a direct assault upon Jewish life. But as a multifaceted part of the imagination, certain aspects of this phobia emerge at different moments in the history of the West.  These notes are a crude, first attempt to locate particular aspects of modern antisemitism in the turning points listed below. I list them so that readers can identify certain tropes that evoke images of the Bad Jew* even when Jews themselves are not directly under investigation.

It is widely recognized that Jews have come to represent modernity in the eyes of their enemies, but the entire history of the West contributes to the power of the antagonism.

Legacy of Greek antiquity: gloom and narcissism. Narcissus was in love with himself, hence deaf to cries from community, self-destructs. Matthew Arnold famously contrasted gloomy Hebraism with the sweetness and light of Hellenism, a distinction that Herman Melville, for one, internalized.

Legacy of New Testament antisemitism: lucre-loving hence materialistic, demonic, legalistic and unforgiving (Shylock); Christ-hating hence antithesis to Christian love; carnal “Chosen People” seek subjugation of all non-Jews. The Jewish God is wrathful and genocidal, transmitting these characteristics  to his “chosen” ones. Hence, “Wall Street” under the guise of “wealth creation” is out to “slaughter” the (non-Jewish) “middle class.” A Jewified (modern, secular) world is infested with bloodsucking vampires. (I do not deny that many Christians have denounced this legacy, and now stand with Jews against antisemitism and against anti-Israel policies. See http://rubinreports.blogspot.com/2011/09/what-jews-should-know-about-christians.html).

Legacy of Reformation: Protestants seen as Church-destroying Jews, and as such lack reverence for established authority. These Faustians focus on worldliness as opposed to other-worldliness. The Christian myth of the repentant, indestructible Wandering Jew takes hold (see https://clarespark.com/2010/11/16/good-jews-bad-jews-and-wandering-jews/). Jews will always be alien, “a people apart,” even if they convert or are born into a family of converts.  They can never be rooted in the nation, no matter how assimilated they may appear to be (see the Nazi movie Der ewige Jude with its emphasis on the masked Jew).

Legacy of Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and market societies/capitalism: the innovating (mad) scientist seeking perfection and direct contact with reality (cf. the contrasting views of Plato, Matthew Arnold, Nathaniel Hawthorne). The Jew becomes associated with the rise of the moral mother (Locke says mothers imprint tabula rasa), and misogyny results as woman becomes the Jew of the Home, the voice of conscience: clinging, criticizing, and kvetching. Romantic poets are attracted to Prometheus and the Romantic Wandering Jew myth as limited revolt against philistine (Jewish) materialists and their “leveling,” historicizing (i.e., desacralizing) analyses of the Bible, of “traditional” social structures and ideologies, with their utopian mishegas.

Legacy of German Romanticism/Aufklärung: Jews are natural destroyers of the Volk, Gemeinschaft (the organic community mystically bound by language, blood and soil). Jew becomes incarnation of selfish individualism, universal ethics, and resistance to the national, ethical, racial state. In Germany’s case, Deutschland is chosen by Fate to purify the world of the “Jewish” idea of individual responsibility and free will. The German Romantic idea of “national character” (the primacy of ethnicity over class) takes hold in American universities during the late 1960s, but was already trotted out in the nineteen teens by Randolph Bourne and Horace Kallen, in the latter case to oppose the rootless cosmopolitanism advocated by “proletarian internationalism.”

The Bolshevik triumph of October 1917. Antisemites often view all Jews as either communists or potential communists, latter-day self-righteous Jacobins bending human nature to make the new man and heaven on earth.** Even as conservative businessmen, Jews are agents of modernity, and modernity, having given birth to a new industrial working class,  spawned the likes of Marx and Lenin. Scholars of Hitler and the Nazis frequently neglect mentioning this crucial component of their antisemitism. Similarly, many Jewish scholars think it is irrational to conflate themselves as liberal capitalists with communists, whom they often vigorously oppose to protect social democracy.

Prominence of “Jewish” Communists in civil rights movement. It is no secret that persons of Jewish ancestry were prominent supporters of blacks in the civil rights movement–even during the 1930s, though with the rise of black nationalism, that relationship became strained to the breaking point. Although “Jews” who joined the Communist Party gave up their “particularist” Jewish identity to join “proletarian internationalism,” that renunciation means nothing to far right racists, whose antisemitism is intertwined with white supremacy. For them, Jews are not white people at all, but the red enemy who supports either the Democratic Party or some leftist variant. They may seize upon the supposedly “Jewish” Frankfurt School critical theorists as the source of decadence, though these same individuals (e.g. Adorno and Horkheimer) bonded with mainstream Protestant-progressive social psychologists, and abjured the “materialist” Enlightenment.

*By “Bad Jew” I do not mean a non-observant Jew as judged by orthodox Jews, but rather the antithesis of the Good Jew who is considered “useful” to European ruling classes, or who joins with upper-class businessmen as “socially responsible capitalists.” Hence the Good Jew is accepted insofar as s/he is “assimilated.” For more, see my blog Good Jews, Bad Jews, and Wandering Jews. https://clarespark.com/2010/11/16/good-jews-bad-jews-and-wandering-jews/.

**Crane Brinton, the influential Harvard historian characterized the Jacobins as possessed by “Hebraic fury” and in their self-deceiving, fanatical, revolutionary virtue, were allied to Calvinism. This link between the angry God of the Old Testament Jews and Calvinism is often applied to puritanism in general by organic conservative scholars. It is entirely ahistoric, for there is no one brand of puritanism. For a case study of how colonial puritans have been lumped together and stigmatized as persecuting, see https://clarespark.com/2010/05/15/blog-index-to-anne-hutchinson-series/.

Samuel Hirszenberg, 1899

Samuel Hirszenberg, 1899

June 12, 2010

Preface to second edition of Hunting Captain Ahab

Posa's creator, Friedrich Schiller

His bosom glows with some new-fangled virtue,

Which, proud and self-sufficient, scorns to rest

For strength on any creed. He dares to think!

His brain is all on fire with wild chimeras;

He reverences the people! And is this

A man to be our king?

           — Schiller, Don Carlos, Father Domingo speaking

A POLITE LETTER TO THE READER

     I admit it. This is a passionately-written study of censorship and self-censorship that is also more detailed than most academic monographs. As a multi-voiced modernist collage, mining and organizing nuggets of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary thought spanning five centuries, it is unusually presented. I am preoccupied with vindicating Ahab as the explorer-creator who resides within Melville’s nervous imagination, reading and protesting the mixed-messages dispensed by the family and other confusing institutions insisting  that there is no conflict between the post-Enlightenment search for Truth and the maintenance of traditional Order. And why not? Captain Ahab, a stand-in for bemused autodidacts everywhere, is now routinely caricatured as a crusading madman, whose mistaken imputation of evil in his enemy and determination to “strike through the mask” of duplicitous authority is simply a ruse that covers up his own unquenchable and uncontrollable thirst for power and domination. Television writers and newsmen drop Ahab’s name and can expect a self-congratulatory nod from the reader, who would not be caught dead indulging in such narcissistic delusions and misguided rage. Given this apparent consensus of sobered-up Ishmaels, who would dream, say, of scanning the orations of Charles Sumner, the Senator from Massachusetts and Melville’s contemporary, whose antislavery resolve finds resonance in Ahab’s determination to grapple with Leviathan?

[Charles Sumner, 1848:] “This [new coalition of antislavery men] will be the Freedom Power whose single object will be to resist the Slave Power. We will put them face to face, and let them grapple. Who can doubt the result?”

 [Ahab, chapter 135:] “…Towards thee I roll, thou all destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee….”

       Before this book appeared, who has objected, with appropriately extensive evidence, to the misappropriation of this fictional character, this pre-Hitlerian Ahab and synecdoche for America ? And who has traced the shift by politically-motivated Melvilleans away from Ahab as Promethean artist/antebellum reformer, and toward Melville as prophet of totalitarian dictatorship in that subsequent blood-soaked black century doomed through unleashed mass politics?  I refer to those scholars and their followers who have been most responsible for the Ahab-tyrant connection: reacting to Raymond Weaver’s artist-Ahab, they were Henry A. Murray, Charles Olson, and Jay Leyda, whose intellectual biographies are attempted in chapters 6 through 9. Can a scholar care too much about the welfare of students and of other readers where Ahab-ish demystifications of hitherto idealized authority are concerned? Promethean readers would like to make distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate authority so that their own capacities for creativity and innovation are not warped, or their curiosity misdirected. Could it be that Melville’s alleged wife-beating (notwithstanding the lack of material evidence for such conduct) reflects discomfort with Melville as fist-shaking Ahab, avatar of radical Enlightenment (that forbidden rupture with the past suggested in Hawthorne’s “blood-incrusted pen of steel” that the latter associated with the Wandering Jew)? As a creature of  Enlightenment, should I tamp down my indignation that reforms in the humanities curriculum during the early 1940s that are specified here were constructed by ultra-conservatives intent on propagating “the tragedy of mind?” William Ellery Sedgwick (1899-1942), knew that he had found the key to Melville’s psyche as expressed in his art: Thinking can only take us from youthful utopianism and joy to mature and realistic desolation as we discover the foulness of human nature, or so he said posthumously, for he had suffered a heart attack in early 1942 under mysterious conditions, perhaps not the suicide that was rumored, and that I had reported as fact in the first edition. Harvard published his Herman Melville: Tragedy of Mind in 1944, and Jay Leyda sent this book (along with Matthiessen’s American Renaissance) to Sergei Eisenstein in 1946; it is still cited approvingly by Melvilleans. But Sedgwick’s stoicism could only depress and immobilize students trying out an adult identity with new-fangled virtues and intellectual skills that might alarm their families of origin.  Similarly “progressive” advocates of “organic unity” between generations and between ancients and moderns (like Sedgwick), had published with supporters of fascism and Nazism in the mid-1930s (pp.631-33, n.44), or were, like Leyda and Matthiessen, uncritical supporters of Stalin’s Soviet Union (chapter 8).

   So much for my closing/opening argument to the jury of readers, new and old. In response to helpful feedback from other Melville readers, there have been corrections or other refinements in some previous assertions about the personalities and politics of the Melville revival; I believe they strengthen the chief argument of my book: that Melville was ambivalently attracted to a positive view of the human capacity to uncover the secrets of the self, of nature, and of society’s mechanisms of control; that he was obliged, even driven, to resist inquisitorial internal and external voices, and that his (underground, partially erased) optimistic opinions continue to be repressed or marginalized by “moderate” Melvilleans; and that most established academic critics, defenders of the New Deal corporatist liberal state, aver that such radical protestant heresies as had existed in his pre-Civil War stage were mercifully transcended in Ahab-Melville’s conversion to Captain Vere. The irrepressible conflict engendered by Sedgwick’s fanatical abolitionist New England forebears turns out to have been repressible after all.

    The most fruitful corrections and additions to the hardcover book are these: two of Melville’s lengthiest Bible markings ( p.164), previously either unattributed or misattributed to St. Evremond), were actually extracted from major works by Goethe as translated by Carlyle: Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and Wilhelm Meister’s Travels. As Goethe scholar Jane K. Brown tells us, the confessional Wilhelm Meister novels encompass Goethe’s Faustian drive to boldly expand his creative powers and the equally urgent call for renunciation of such individualistic self-absorption to protect traditional  hierarchies and social cohesion, a need made more forceful in the wake of the French Revolution. Goethe’s movement from the boundlessly expanded and developed art-making self to the austere and contracted social self can be seen in the contrast between Ahab and Ishmael/Vere. But had Ahab been discarded?

[Schiller’s Marquis Posa:] “…grant us liberty of thought… Tell him in manhood, he must still revere/ The dreams of early youth….”

 [Evert Duyckinck, 1851:] “[Ahab is] the Faust of the quarter-deck.”

      I found in Carlyle’s The Life of Friedrich Schiller, and in Schiller’s play Don Carlos, suggestions that Melville’s “heretic” “irruption” never ceased: he was writing “Billy Budd” with a synopsis of Schiller’s motif  (“Keep true to the dreams of thy youth”) pasted to the interior of his writing desk, perhaps to warn against lapsing into conformity with Vere’s mob-managing “measured forms.” What were those youthful dreams about? Glory, fame, or the uncircumscribed freedom to describe his inner and outer worlds, like other romantics, creating forms that had never been admitted to art as patronized by neo-classicizing elites?  In his Schiller biography, Carlyle likens Goethe to Shakespeare, and Schiller to Milton, invidiously contrasting Shakespeare’s “catholic”  “quiet eye” with the “sectarian” passions of Milton, who is “earnest, devoted; struggling with a thousand mighty projects of improvement; feeling more intensely as he feels more narrowly; rejecting vehemently, choosing vehemently; at war with the one half of things, in love with the other half; hence dissatisfied, impetuous, without internal rest, and scarcely conceiving the possibility of such a state.” (Should we think of Daniel Orme’s “vital glance” or  Margoth’s “brave vitality” as a Melvillean riposte to the Carlyle “quiet eye” quietism he attributed to Faust’s creator?)

     One of the chief themes of my book is the persistence of such Carlylean put-downs,  whether applied to Milton and other radical puritans of the seventeenth century or to left-wing romantics, including Byron or the pacing insomniac Melville in his earnest, enthusiast mood. I have argued throughout that the suppression of Melville’s annotations to Paradise Lost is one of the worst examples of censorship in Melville studies; but since the hardback edition of HCA appeared, happily, the annotations to Milton’s poetry have been published.  Critical commentary, however, tends to render Milton and Melville alike as moderates, while no one has teased out the implication of Melville’s partially erased ratification of Satan’s seduction of Eve (p. 147): “This is one of the profound atheistical hits of Milton. A greater than Lucretius, since he always teaches under a masque, and makes the Devil himself a Teacher & Messiah” ). When I saw this annotation in 1990, I began to wonder if Melville was not simply ambivalent or vacillating (as many Melvilleans, including Hayford, Leyda, and Parker had agreed), but ever masked, his most heartfelt Posa-type sentiments voiced only through his “dark” or Promethean characters–Ahab, Pierre, Isabel, Pitch, and Margoth. We may never know.

    My last thoughts in this preface are directed to political scientists, historians of U.S. foreign and domestic policy, and scholars in cultural studies who remain dubious about “science” and its claims for objectivity, or who doubt that empiricist historians, limited by “point of view,” can reconstruct prior institutions. Too often the history of mind-management has been written by “moderates” or leftists, who attribute antidemocratic propaganda to the protofascist bourgeoisie, to a monolithic and savage right-wing America, wrongly exemplified, I believe, by the hallucinating map-maker and mad scientist Captain Ahab. Melville’s “dark” characters were inadmissible to scholars of “the vital center”; as their private notes and letters have shown, many nevertheless suffered depression and other extreme mental distress while evacuating Melville’s modernists. Similarly “progressive” scholars may be snatching from their students’ hands those critical intellectual and emotional tools essential to Progress, most particularly an educated reverence for the potential of “the people” in analyzing and overcoming the less attractive impulses of our common humanity. I speak of “the people” not as a compact mass or “jacobin” mob, but as the great liberal Charles Sumner envisioned his uniquely blessed countrymen: a collection of striving individuals “created in the image of God,” critical and self-critical, but never succumbing to Bartleby’s existentialist despair. It is to the everlasting credit of Kent State University Press that they have brought this paperback edition and its innovations in style and content to the attention of a wider audience. My gratitude for their support lies beyond words.

November 24, 2009

Perceptions of the enemy

Cindy Sherman, Untitled (1990)

 

I have reformatted this blog and added material: see https://clarespark.com/2009/12/16/perceptions-of-the-enemy-the-left-looks-at-the-right-and-vice-versa/. Ignore this version.

 

Some mistaken identities. I don’t think that some “Right-wing” partisans understand Leftists, often conflating revolutionary socialists, anarchists, and [anticommunist] social democrats. And yet media pundits constantly refer to “the Left” as if it still existed in its historic 19th and 20th century red-hot formulations and in the same numbers. What is lost is the memory of moderate conservatives or conservative reformers like FDR (descendants of New Dealers, now called “the Left”) and their practices of lopping off those who were to their left, that is, the structural reformers, unless there was a “Popular Front” against looming internal and external fascism, as did exist from 1935 until the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939.  At what point did these “moderate conservatives” as they called themselves  metamorphose into “the Left” as sole defenders of the little guy? I am guessing around 1919. More on that another time, or see chapter two of my book on the Melville revival. 

From long experience with leftists and the entire socialist-communist-social democratic traditions, however, despite their sharp differences in goals and tactics, I can generalize about them as follows:  All factions of “the Left” believe themselves to be the true bearers of morality and that conservatives are heartless fascist* murderers. By contrast, as progressives they see themselves as sacrificing their own personalities, economic interests, and happiness for “the public good” or “suffering humanity”; to be one of them, you must “stand with the oppressed,” even if that means helping Hamas. In other words, they seek to uplift those whom “the Right” (e.g. Israel) knowingly and viciously victimizes. And unless they follow Kant and Rosa Luxemberg, they may accomplish this grand goal “by any means necessary.” (e.g. see Trey Ellis in HuffPo, 12-16: “The Obama administration needs to course-correct immediately. He needs to make a series of bold, muscular, ruthlessly political moves immediately (reconciliation anyone?) to put the fear of god into all those puny adversaries out there that have been pushing him around with impunity.”)  So they are the true humanitarians in their own eyes and the antitheses of the “fascists” they valiantly oppose.

 Also, do not minimize both continuities and ruptures between the factions of what is loosely called “the Left.” Anyone who has studied or had contact with revolutionary socialists knows about their history of sectarianism. It makes Protestantism look demure and pure. They have killed or sacrificed  each other without hesitation: just look at what the Stalinists did to Trotskyists and Anarchists during the Spanish Civil War, or the notorious Stalin purges of his former comrades, not to speak of other communists with Jewish backgrounds, a process that ceased only with his death in 1953. But mixing them in with social democrats is absurd, for the motley Marxist-Leninists inhabit mostly such outposts as Pacifica Radio, a few journals, and increasingly-criticized departments of comparative literature and other humanities.
    
 But most crucially, “right-wing social democrats” (as some Leftists call them, distinguishing them from the Second International left-wing social democrats favoring incremental reforms) have an entirely different lineage from the Marxist-Leninists.  As I have shown in other blogs, European aristocrats, following Bismarck and before that, reformers in Great Britain, “christianized” the new [“jewified”] industrial society with social insurance that we now call the welfare state. (See my blog The Enigmatic Face of Philosemitism https://clarespark.com/2009/10/29/the-enigmatic-face-of-philosemitism/.) 
    
As for those artists who once were reds in the 1930s, many of them shifted to populism/progressivism when they saw that the Communist Party wanted to control their work. Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan are two examples. I was particularly disturbed by their film, A Face in the Crowd (1957), that pinned fascism on the media-worshipping mass audience that had elevated the loutish “Lonesome Rhodes,” whose meteoric career had been aided and abetted by a female sentimental liberal–a stand-in for the moral mother, perhaps the figure who had driven them into the arms of the 1930s authoritarian Left. In other words, though Schulberg and Kazan  professed themselves to be progressives, they replicated the aristocratic explanation for fascism as “the revolt of the masses,” bamboozled by the new mass media (radio and television), and shadowed by anti-progressive old money, particularly as embodied in immoral and hidebound Southern politicians.
    Here are some quotes from the screenplay: Lonesome Rhodes (the demagogue who has risen from the People):  “You made me, Marcia.  You made me, Marcia, I owe it all to you.” [Marcia, the arty, sentimental Liberal]:”I know it.”  Marcia, explicitly linked to “marshes” (i.e., quagmires) and ever the guilty mother, finally aware of the duplicity of her monstrous birth, opens the microphone to expose Lonesome’s secret contempt for the TV audience (the common folk) who adore him and who would turn the State over to his fascist backers. [Lonesome Rhodes is ruined:]  “It was the sound man.  I’ll get that dirty stinking little mechanical genius [who did this to me].”  [Marcia:] “It was me.”  The Muckraker’s last words rectify the sentiment of Lonesome’s banner (“There’s nothing so trustworthy as the ordinary mind of the ordinary man.”)  [Muckraking journalist to Marcia:] “You were taken in.  But we get wise to him [the Lonesome/Hitler type]; that’s our strength.”  Mama’s boy, a.k.a. Lonesome’s last words wailed from a balcony (and the night) as Marcia and muckraker depart:  “Marcia, don’t leave me…come back.” That Marcia destroyed her monstrous birth is missing from Nicholas Beck’s “bio-bibliography” of Schulberg, where Lonesome is supposed to be the agent of his own destruction (p.59, fn4, quoting Donald Chase).
  
Stand-ins for the controlling parent? Conservatives must read their antagonists without caricatures and without mistaking their objectives.  Revolutionary socialists and social democrats are not simply “elitists” who think they know what is best for others (though many think that “the Right” is not only monolithic, but selfish, square, dumb, and fanatical, unlike, say, those who run National Public Radio, while many on the Right return the favor, lumping all leftists and social democrats together as elitist conspirators/fascists). It is more complicated than that, though reds and “liberals” do favor various degrees of statism to rectify social inequities and achieve what all call “social justice.” In the end, we could make the public discourse on politics more rational by specifying competing theories of the good society:
Libertarians find wealth creation through free markets a good thing and, in the case of the better educated, believe that the state should protect this process through sound monetary policy. The social democratic Left (a.k.a. the moderate men) sees the state as planning rationally to compensate for what they believe to be a weak and unstable system: capitalism. Nothing is so scary as great gaps between rich and poor, for that portends another bloody French Revolution. If that means that everyone is relatively poor in the quasi-socialist utopia, such asceticism is better than the suffering of the victims du jour while the ever libertine rich feast and thoughtlessly indulge their animal appetites for glitter and other luxuries, hence “bourgeoisifying,” i.e., corrupting, the tastes and desires of the working-class. And some conservatives, angry combatants in the culture wars, even as they invoke the Constitution as written by the Founding Fathers, seek to impose their own morality on those who don’t share the same “values,” (e.g. pro-life, anti-gay marriage, opposition to stem-cell research using frozen embryos, creationism or intelligent design, the superiority of a rural way of life), thus nullifying the separation of Church and State that has served us so well. But I caution my readers who remain somewhere on “the Left” that conservatives are not evil or demented when they find such developments as the hyper-sexualization of women and children to be dangerous and destructive, or wonder, as I do, how it happened that sadomasochism became acceptable, even fashionable. And remember that Lord Maynard Keynes thought that his measures to relieve a depression were not to be permanently institutionalized. 
POPULISM. According to Rasmussen Reports, 55% of the American public is populist, i.e., they believe that government and big business are in cahoots, which makes sense if you understand that small business and big business are in conflict. Interestingly given our generally anticommunist polity, this is the analysis of the Marxist-Leninist Left: the state is an executive committee of the big bourgeoisie (as opposed to the state being an independent institution with its own interests, see sociologist Michael Mann’s books). Populism is a subject I have written about extensively on this website. It claims to speak for “the people” against “the special interests” or “Wall Street” or “the military-industrial complex” or some other dread agglomeration such as “the Jews” or “white males.”As such, it speaks to class resentments and is irrational. Whether of the Left or of the Right, populism is not good for analyzing concrete institutions and their policies. Moreover, as indicated above, it does not distinguish between fractions of those who make decisions for the rest of us, each of which has different and possibly clashing interests with others in the so-called “ruling class.” Populists are incapable of writing accurate histories, but seem content to follow their leaders. And their leaders, insofar as they resort to demagoguery, don’t really care about the folks.
*Contending defintions of “fascism.” By “fascists” the social democratic ‘left’ means a society practicing “laissez-faire” economics, militarism, hypernationalism (“national chauvinism”), the manipulation of public opinion through heavy-handed propaganda, and imperialism/racism. This absolves social democracy of continuities or comparisons with statist fascism and Nazism, not to speak of their zealousness in attacking “rugged individualism,” the American unpardonable sin that is imagined to persist beyond the pioneer period. By contrast, revolutionary socialists generally refer to the rule of finance capital or monopoly capital or “late capitalism” when they write of fascism and Nazism. Social democrats, true to their Platonic Guardian-philosopher-king heritage, tend to see fascism as the revolt of the masses, as noted above. Much psychiatry/psychoanalysis seeks to manage these “id-forces” and may be more powerful than we think in influencing the medical culture of postwar America. For more on the practice of psychoanalysis at a distance, see https://clarespark.com/2009/12/13/klara-hitlers-son-and-jewish-blood/. The importance of the father as leader and as commander of a tight militarized family unit with high morale cannot be overemphasized, a point forcefully made in the last section of the blog just cited, where I analyze the politics of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.
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