YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 12, 2015

What “free speech”?

free-speechThe march of millions in the streets of Paris on January 11, 2015, in solidarity with the libertarians of Charlie Hebdo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Hebdo), has been met with either euphoria or cynicism. What no one is interrogating is the history of free speech, though much ink has been spilled over political correctness, politeness and tact in verbally assaulting our enemies du jour. I am still waiting for some French or Francophile academic to trot out the postmodern objections regarding (mis) representation and the elusiveness of precision in language.

My favorite enemy of “free speech” is Bill Donahue of the Catholic League. He makes no bones about good manners, tact, and impropriety, and like some Fox anchors, still fuming at Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, just as Donahue’s predecessors did as they compiled the Index or burned heretics at the stake. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquisition, and  http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/what-was-the-index-of-forbidden-books-and-is-it-ok-to-read-those-books-now.

Are all these censorious institutions and practices safely tucked into the bad old days? Or do they linger into the present, affecting everyday speech and action in what one Herman Melville character described derisively as “free Ameriky”? I do remember my delight when I came across Melville’s abundant markings in Goethe’s autobiography, where Goethe described his frightening proclivities toward Prometheanism after he discovered the Pelagian heresy (a denial of original sin), taken up by the Moravians. For it has long been my position that Captain Ahab is a stand-in for the author himself, defying authority by proclaiming “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” Yet cautious Ishmael, not Ahab, survives the wreck that is the outcome of “the fiery [i.e. Promethean] hunt.”

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For Melville, even his much admired Shakespeare was “a muffled man”. One reason that “deep-diving” Melville is in vogue among the pessimistic postmodernists is his poem “In a Church in Padua” that ends with this verse: “Dread diving-bell! In thee inurned/What hollows the priest must sound/Descending into confidences/Where more is hid than found.”

As I wrote in my blog https://clarespark.com/2015/01/10/the-case-for-feminism/, as long as hierarchies exist, free speech is a fond dream. We are all more or less tongue-tied; we are all acting whatever roles will keep us out of trouble with our superiors or even our closest friends and children.

And even were the pecking order to magically disappear, would we “tell the truth”? That would be a relief, assuming that we know ourselves and are safe from persecution or banishment from polite society.

donahue_II

Fat chance of that, no matter what Socrates or his predecessors advised http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Know_thyself).

No wonder the frustrated young resort to punk, impudent rapping, and related forms of ritual rebellion. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/05/12/the-great-common-goes-to-the-white-house/, retitled “Rappers, primitivism, and ritual rebellion”). Is it only a coincidence that the young rebels are often hyper-masculine?

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March 19, 2014

Thomas Carlyle, German Romanticism, and the double bind of modernity

thomascarlyle [Thomas Carlyle’s idea of politically correct sublimity:]…In Goethe’s mind, the first aspect that strikes us is its calmness, then its beauty; a deeper inspection reveals to us its vastness and unmeasured strength.  This man rules and is not ruled.  The stern and fiery energies of a most passionate soul lie silent in the centre of his being; a trembling sensibility has been inured to stand, without flinching or murmur, the sharpest trials.  Nothing outward, nothing inward, shall agitate or control him.  The brightest and most capricious fancy, the most piercing and inquisitive intellect, the wildest and deepest imagination; the highest thrills of joy, the bitterest pangs of sorrow: all these are his, he is not theirs.  While he moves every heart from its steadfastness, his own is firm and still: the words that search into the inmost recesses of our nature, he pronounces with a tone of coldness and equanimity; in the deepest pathos, he weeps not, or his tears are like water trickling from a rock of adamant.  He is king of himself and his world; nor does he rule it like a vulgar great man, like a Napoleon or Charles II, by the mere brute exertion of his will, grounded on no principle, or on a false one: his faculties and feelings are not fettered or prostrated under the iron sway of Passion, but led and guided in kindly union under the mild sway of Reason; as the fierce primeval elements of Nature were stilled at the coming of Light, and bound together, under its soft vesture, into a glorious and beneficent Creation.

[Carlyle, continued:] This is the true Rest of man; no stunted unbelieving callousness, no reckless surrender to blind Force, no opiate delusion; but the harmonious adjustment of Necessity and Accident, of what is changeable and what is unchangeable in our destiny; the calm supremacy of the spirit over its circumstances; the dim aim of every human soul, the full attainment of only a chosen few….[German Romance, Vol. IV, 17-18].

[Clare:] Historicizing the double-bind.  Since the inception of modernity (especially after the seventeenth century), conservative “liberal” institutions have placed their inhabitants in double-binds, transmitting libertarian ideals while simultaneously (and vaguely) delimiting the institutional transformation that would make these ideals fully realizable.  Treasured liberal virtues of free thought and tolerance of intellectual difference need to be shored up and reinforced by institutions that boldly imagine structures capable of systematically advancing and protecting autonomy; not only emancipation from the burden of the antidemocratic past, but informed participation in collective decision-making.  As moderns of course, we are supposed to be willing to dissolve conventional categories to follow the dynamics of change; we allow our minds freely to speculate and experiment, no matter who may be offended.

As social critics, we supposedly bring to the humanities and social sciences the same attention to minute empirical detail that a biochemist applies to the study of molecular structure.  Although every serious artist studies the world with the concentration of scientists and puts out, similarly darting habits of mind will be absent from academics who study each other for career cues then lapse into strategic silences.  Inattention to psychological nuance in primary source materials yields the field to practitioners of psychological warfare and other tireless propagandists who, like Thomas Carlyle, while apparently affirming the values of the Reformation, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, have sought to undo the democratic momentum of the scientific revolution, attacking the self-confidence of newly empowered groups (the increasingly literate lower orders of the bourgeois democracies) with cautionary tales that stigmatize the questing, critical (Lockean) intellect that exposes “the ill designs of the rulers” as sources of social catastrophe.

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The pseudo-moderate men make no sense: Carlyle, in one breath, denounces “the reckless surrender to blind force”; in almost the next he praises “the harmonious adjustment of Necessity and Accident.”  The “will,” we have already learned, is a “mere brute exertion,” ruled by “Passion,” unless led by “mild Reason”–madly defined as that “Rest” discerning what “is changeable and what is unchangeable in our destiny” as if the formulation of correct social policy (an intervention) is not only obvious to the quieted mind but not canceled by “destiny.”

In his sketch of Goethe, Carlyle has given us a rectified Wandering Jew recognizable now as a conservative psychoanalyst/academic, a “scientific” harmonizer at once promoting “the temper of a third party” (today called “the observing ego”) and the stoic adjustment to social forces that may be incomprehensible and certainly are not of his making.  History is marshaled to underline the inevitability of human weakness; coolness and kindness are attained when he objectively understands the power of the past “in the formation of his character and mode of thought.”  Here is the proof of superior self-control, a quality glaringly absent in the weeping, willful, defiant lower orders: masochism builds character.

Germanromanticmorbid

I want to suggest why, even in the most exhaustive historical treatments of the Third Reich, the psychological aspects of “the National Socialist past” are the least developed and understood.[1]  We should look to the repressive character of academic politics since the late 1930s, intensified, but not initiated by “the Cold War.”  No societies, even those with robust Left intelligentsias, have formulated satisfactory explanations for popular support of authoritarian regimes and genocidal practices in this century.

The deficiencies of academe today may be partly traced to the eerie quiet that followed World War II regarding the nature of fascism, a richly controversial subject in the relatively wide-open 1930s.  One might think that “the Holocaust” would have provoked tireless efforts to decode the symbols and narratives that undermine democratic morale.  Instead we have been served a very few crude explanations, each interesting and perhaps useful, but too narrow and unempathic fully to explain Hitler’s mass appeal, even in the working class.[2]  Why do we not demand the teaching of competing systematic accounts of Nazi ideology, scrutinizing those features also found in the discourse and practice of  Progressive reform, or to Nazism’s corporatist precursors in Wilhelmine Germany and other hierarchical societies, Western and non-Western alike?

In my view, the reticences reflect the prestige of “holistic””structural-functionalism,”[3] the victorious counter-Enlightenment that purged the classical liberals, tending to legitimate only different varieties of conservatives and reactionaries: a coalition of “centrist” or “moderate” corporatist liberals, and “left-wing” romantic anticapitalists, defining themselves against “right-wing” or “fascist” laissez-faire conservatives.  Rallying its forces in the late 1930s, the new “non-élitist” cultural anthropology/”new historicism” tended to proscribe the critical tool of empiricism, employing an ostensibly more advanced, but arguably pseudo-modern, protofascist concept of “the individual-in-society” pursuing “equilibrium,” not enlightenment.[4]

Structural functionalists following Talcott Parsons have co-opted the terms and methods of science to mystify social structures and functions, substituting their “interdisciplinary” social science for the soul-less “economic determinism” ushered in by the Individualists: materialists such as Locke, Mandeville, and Smith who fixated upon relations between men and things, displacing the prior preoccupation with relations between men and men in that healthier world where economics and morality were fused.[5]  Hence all of American intellectual history could be organized around the “tension” between “individual and community,” suggesting that self-control, curbing our evil propensities, was the key to social cohesion, and this was a quality that rulers had or could display as they faced down and soothed screaming mobs and other self-interested parties.  (See Boas above and compare to Henry A. Murray’s “personology.”)  This idealist formulation dominates the profession of history today; current guides to upwardly-mobile youth include “pragmatists” William James, John Dewey and Richard Rorty.

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NOTES


                [1] See Tim Mason, “Open Questions on Nazism,” People’s History and Socialist Theory, ed. Raphael Samuel (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981): 205-210.  Cf. Wolfgang Benz, “Warding Off The Past,” Hitler, The Holocaust, and the Historians’ Debate, ed. Peter Baldwin (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990): 198.  Benz wants the social psychological processes more fully explored, but does not acknowledge that social psychology was invented by antidemocratic social theorists.  I see “psychology” as coterminous with the recuperation of an accurate personal and social history/critical sociology, all institutional sources of coercion and duplicity in place.

                [2] Many conservative historians argue that fascism was rooted in the period between the wars and cannot be theorized.  But liberals and Marxists disagree.  For example, Marxists argue that fascism is always present in crisis-ridden late capitalism, its productive relations and capitalist forms in increasing irreconcilable conflict appearing as monopoly capitalism or “social democracy”; or, fascism is a response to capitalist crises, but crucially is a mobilization of the ruined middle-class that moves both against big capital and the revolutionary workers; or capitalism will produce cyclical downturns, but not necessarily crises (which are caused by bungling leaders and bad political decisions which then allowed the rise of crazy Hitler, a unique event); or Nazism was the product of crazy, cynical Hitler and his deluded German followers (the inheritors of German Romanticism lacking a developed pluralistic bourgeoisie, unlike Mussolini); or Hitler could not have existed without Stalin.  I prefer the approach of the German historian Fritz Fischer in Germany’s Aims in the First World War (Norton, 1967) which stresses the similarity in objectives between the German imperialism of the Wilhelmine and Nazi periods; hence the weight given to Hitler’s demonic personality and its aberrant hold over the duped masses is diminished by crucial archival evidence (retrieved by Fischer and unavailable until after the second world war) demonstrating that the German military and industrial élite stage-managed the diplomacy leading to the outbreak of hostilities in World War I to make Germany appear as innocent victim of the Entente powers.

There is an important debate between “intentionalists” and “functionalists” re the dynamics of the Final Solution; however the psychoanalytic model, ostensibly opposed to the instrumentalism of the functionalists is not an alternative.  Psychoanalytic theories of Nazi antisemitism are biologized and mirror the reform-or-ruin adjurations of post-French Revolution conservatives (and before that all antidemocratic “classical” theorists): overly repressive (aristocrats, fathers, superegos) should be reformed to prevent catastrophic revolts from below (the bloody, tyrannical People, Id merged with seductive Mothers); this may produce contradictions in the thought of its leading historians.  Saul Friedländer argues simultaneously that Germans in general were unenthusiastic about Jewish extermination during the late 1930s-early 1940s and that the same Germans liberalized family relations in succeeding generations to give us hope.  For a classic statement of the Stalinist 1930s view of fascism as capitalism in decay, see Joseph Freeman, “The Meaning of Fascism,” (favorable review of R. Palme Dutt, Fascism and Social Revolution), New Masses, 10/2/34, 34-36.  For a non-Marxist account of Hitler’s rise to power, then Third Reich business policies see David Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological change and industrial development in Western Europe from 1750 to the present (Cambridge U. P., 1969): 359-419.

For the second position (that “late capitalism”is not necessarily fascist), see Stephen Eric Bronner, Moments of Decision (N.Y.: Routledge, 1992).  For historiographical essays, see Peter Loewenberg, “Psychohistorical Perspectives on Modern German History,” Journal of Modern History 47 (1975): 229-279.  Also, Pierre Ayçoberry, The Nazi Question (Pantheon, 1981): Chapter 10 (for Freudian interpretations); Saul Friedländer, “From Anti-Semitism to Extermination: A Historiographical Study of Nazi Policies Toward The Jews and an Essay in Interpretation,” Yad Vashem Studies 16 (1984): 1-50.

The other (related) set of debates concerns whether or not fascism (or Nazism, which is not necessarily “fascist” because of the centrality of antisemitism to its ideology) is rooted and sui generis, or in any way comparable to tendencies in the “democratic” West, and most sensitively, whether or not “the Holocaust” can be compared with other forms of group violence.  See Tim Mason, “Intention and Explanation: A Current Controversy about the Interpretation of National Socialism,” The Führer State: Myth and Reality, ed. Gerhard Hirschfeld and Lothar Kettenacker (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981): 23-40; also Peter Baldwin, “Introduction,” Reworking The Past (Beacon, 1990) for a review of these issues insofar as they impact on “the historian’s debate” (Nolte vs. Habermas, et al, 1988 and after) regarding continuity and rupture in German history.  Conservatives seem to have set the agenda for postwar history of Germany, Nazis, and antisemitism; see Forever In The Shadow of Hitler? The Dispute About The Germans’ Understanding of History, trans. Knowlton and Cates (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1994): All these eminent scholars use the terms of enlightenment to “unmask” each other; no one reports the contours of Hitler’s antisemitism as it is revealed in the texts quoted in my essay, perhaps because their organicist assumptions would become apparent.

Deborah Lipstadt takes a similar line in Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (N.Y.: Free Press, 1993).  Though ostensibly defending the rationalism of the Enlightenment, Lipstadt discards any attempt at comparative analyses of twentieth-century genocides as right-wing relativism akin to Holocaust denying.  On Pol Pot and the sorely tried Khmer Rouge: “…what they did was quite different from the Nazis’ annihilation of the Jews, which was ‘a gratuitous act carried out by a prosperous, advanced, industrial nation at the height of its power’“ (212).  Nor does she correctly report a key point in Nazi propaganda and in their precursors: Referring to the conspiracy theory of the Illuminati, she claims “Those who unearthed this conspiracy were able to impose a logical coherence on the seeming irrational nature of their charges–bankers aiding communists–by arguing that the bankers anticipated that the communists would create a world government that they would then appropriate and control” (37).  This is the only time the book deals with the seemingly irrational claim that Jews were both capitalists and communists.  But it was Hitler’s contention that all Jews were materialists destroying normal racial harmony, and that the Bolsheviks were not communists but the secret representives of finance capital.  The Protocols of the Elders of Zion claimed that Jewish communists would swindle the masses into overthrowing their nationalist masters, then would turn the masses over to the bankers who would fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham and the Chosen People; i.e., the switch is missing from Lipstadt’s account.

                [3] See Barbara Heyl, “The Harvard “Pareto” Circle,”Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 4 (1968): 316-334.  Talcott Parsons changed his earlier (less organicist?) views perhaps as a result of the Pareto seminars organized by the charismatic physiologist Lawrence Henderson, an admirer of Mussolini, in the early 1930s; the Paretans were seen as fascists by their liberal opponents at Harvard.  Participants included Crane Brinton, Henry A. Murray, Clyde Kluckhohn, Joseph Schumpeter, Bernard De Voto, and Robert Merton  However, after sketching a horrifying picture of fascist social theory at Harvard the author concludes that we are finished with such ideas, thanks to the alliance with the Soviet Union during World War II.  Merton is a key figure in the history of science as presently constituted, relativistically emphasizing the shaping power of institutions against 19th century optimism and claims for science’s relative autonomy.  See Puritanism and the Rise of Modern Science; The Merton Thesis, edited with Introduction by I. Bernard Cohen (Rutgers U.P., 1990): 1-111, for a glowing anticommunist account of Merton’s eye-opening salutary effect on a hitherto vaguely Marxist (hence, narrow, dogmatic, utopian) British-dominated discipline: “[Mentioning earlier works of the 1930s and 40s on science and society:] It is notable, however, that these works were all produced by socially-minded scientists and were not informed by considerations of professional sociologists [i.e., Durkheim], but exhibited instead a liberal or vague Marxism.  In fact [!] such writings–almost exclusively by British men of science–tended to be more concerned with the potentialities of science as a major molding force of a better society than with an analysis of the possible effects or influences of society on the course of science and its stages of development” (4-5).

                [4] See Carolyn F. Ware, The Cultural Approach to History, ed. for the American Historical Association (N.Y.: Columbia U.P., 1940): 3-16, also Introductory Note.  This source was recommended by Leo Marx at the American Studies Association meeting, November 1990, to demonstrate the links between his generation of scholars and the New Left: they were all pluralists, opposed to hegemony and élitism.  The élitism under assault by Progressives was “scientific history” which led the investigator into uncharted waters.  The “new social history” is drawn from this “centrist” and “bottoms up” ideological tendency.  See also the first issue of Commentary, 1945, which aligned itself with the Progressive movement.

                [5] E.g., Louis Dumont, From Mandeville to Marx:The Genesis and Triumph of Economic Ideology (University of Chicago Press, 1977).  This subtly antisemitic and overtly anti-materialist specimen of cultural anthropology follows Sombart, Weber, and Parsons; it was based on lectures delivered at Princeton in 1973.

May 18, 2012

“Smash” and the demonic

Theresa Rebeck and Jess LynnI will get to Smash in a minute. I watch a lot of television, and have previously blogged about some of the ‘classier’ series, noting how the same intertwined themes are reiterated that have occupied culture in the West since the invention of the printing press:

  1. The authority of science and empiricism versus the claims and ordering of religious belief.
  2. Worldliness versus other-worldliness, sometimes expressed as the conflict between the world, the flesh, and the devil. (Nouveaux riches, like advertising men, are the devil’s disciples. Bruno Heller’s The Mentalist plays with this theme constantly, see https://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/.)
  3. With Promethean romanticism, the lure of fame and hyper-individualism as a threat to “traditional family values”.
  4. And flitting and in and out of all of the above, the thrill of the “demonic” as allied to “the  mob.”
  5. The role of the Broadway stage, movies, and television, now the internet in star-making or  conversely, dethroning or debunking “authority” and/or religion. The health-conferring country versus the crazy-making city, that unleashes  illicit ambition and Faustian bargains.
  6. How the social movements that accelerated in the 1960s have plunged American culture into heightened conflict regarding all of the above.
  7. Fat people versus thin people, and the health effects therein.

On to the super-expensive NBC-produced backstage musical, Smash. Theresa Rebeck, artistic creator, has left the show, for reasons that are not publicly stated. Rebeck is illustrated above, with a colleague, Sam Gold.

I have watched every episode twice. The actors and writers who have attempted to describe it have been mostly vague in their public pronouncements regarding their own characters, nor do they pretend to see deeply into the admitted complexities of Marilyn Monroe and/or her obvious predecessor the fabulous and similarly self-destructive Marilyn Miller, for whom she (no longer Norma Jean) was named. Rather, the series is organized around the conflicts I listed above: for instance, Marilyn, though a “bombshell” in the sex appeal department, has an underlying innocence, wholesomeness, and sweetness that the Jack Davenport character, director “Derek” (like JFK before him), sees in the Katherine McPhee character (Karen), in the series, a corn-fed Iowan with ordinary middle class parents, unlike her competition, the treacherous Megan Hilty (“Ivy,” the daughter of an aging Broadway star played by Bernadette Peters, who may expect too much of her daughter).  The country (as represented by “Iowa” Karen) wins the coveted starring role, partly because Derek has a hallucination in which she appears (more than once) in an entirely modest dress, of lavender with white trim; moreover she is not zoftig, unlike her rival Ivy (let alone size 14 MM), the easy urban girl, who, in her crushing defeat in the last episode is seen taking a full bottle of tranquilizers, rhyming with the death of MM from barbiturates and chloral hydrate.

The fact that Karen is living “in sin” with her (Asian) Indian boyfriend, does not detract from her purity, for she resists the temptation to sleep with Derek, unlike Ivy. Indeed, Karen is loyal to the play (still in workshop or previews) over temptations from a record producer who could make her famous without the slog through ensemble singing and dancing. In one of the funnier moments, Karen indignantly rebukes her lover in his proposal of marriage, for she exclaims that the show is “in tech!” and how dare he expect her to focus on anything outside the theater, though at that moment, she is only in the chorus.

On the fat versus thin battlefield, it is worth noting that tall and slender Katherine McPhee battled an eating disorder at one time, and that neither Marilyn Miller nor Marilyn Monroe was skinny. They were plump and shapely bottle blondes, and MM succumbed to a Hollywood makeover.

Marilyn Miller as brunette

One more item: the pilot for the show begins with McPhee singing Midwesterner Judy Garland’s signature song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Of course the romantic yearning these days is for stardom, which is not necessarily the same as fame. McPhee has a big voice, and I wonder if she is being promoted as another Judy Garland, whom she slightly resembles and perhaps imitates in her body movements. Is it only a coincidence that Judy Garland played Marilyn Miller in the 1946 MGM film, Till The Clouds Roll By, a movie whose chief theme is the supremacy of the “theater” over the whims of any individual, surely the ideology promoted by Smash. A nice collectivist touch that follows progressive ideology, such as the hopeful  “Look For The  Silver Lining,” Marilyn Miller’s most famous number.

There is really not much more to say about this musical, which I found compelling and well-acted despite the annoyingly weak book; anyone can see the conflict between traditional attachments and the bohemian lives of actors; Goethe laid it out in his contrasting Wilhelm Meister novels long ago. But anyone who expects music and lyrics of the quality of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen, Stephen Sondheim, Lerner and Loewe, or their antecedents in opera, operetta, or Gilbert and Sullivan, will be disappointed, for the music is at best, mediocre, signifying the general degeneration of middle class culture since the 1960s, and perhaps the decline of the singing actress with a large vocal range. (Though I must admit that I like McPhee’s singing and dancing. She does remind me of Judy Garland in a favorable way, and both were indebted to female black singers.)

Have we become a country of characters, over-identifying with fictional or fictionalized movie and television stars, whom we worship, neglecting our responsibilities to ourselves as striving, creative beings? Are we living our unique lives or are we hypnotized by the lives of others, fixated on “stars” and happily regressed so as to be ever more manipulated by celebrities who do not share our needs and interests? [Added 6-13-12: Everything I have written above can be applied to the better-written My Week With Marilyn. Michelle Williams, though slender, does a more convincing rendition of suffering Marilyn and she has the singing skills to be plausible.]

[Added Season two, as of 3-19-13]: The focus has shifted from rivalry over who is to play Marilyn Monroe to the ongoing debate in popular culture: “commercial theater” vs. “fringe”-type romantically defiant off-broadway theater. It is too soon to determine how the story will resolve the various triangles, but Katherine McPhee has returned with larger breasts, and there is a new love interest, indeed, a triangle between her, the director played by Jack Davenport (who so far has gone over to the Romantics), and the angst-ridden young offbeat genius played by Jeremy Jordan. The bad writing has not been amended, notwithstanding the addition of various guest stars designed to boost ratings. To one who grew up loving the musicals of the 20th century, with lyricists of the quality of Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Oscar  Hammerstein II, Alan Jay Lerner, Yip  Harburg, and a slew of other artists, the deterioration in middle-class entertainment can only come as a shock and disappointment.

Internet sources consulted for this blog:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Miller. http://web.usi.edu/boneyard/miller.htm

http://www.squidoo.com/MarilynMiller?utm_source=google&utm_medium=imgres&utm_campaign=framebuster#module19718002

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

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Monroe. (the latter quotes JFK “sweet and wholesome” public characterization of Marilyn’s notorious Happy Birthday song)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smash_(TV_series)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Shaiman, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Wittman  (life partners, previous hit Hairspray)

February 27, 2012

Chardon High School, “negativity” and depth psychology

I woke up to the news of the shooting of several students at Chardon High School, Ohio. As I write this, pundits are already attempting to add to the paucity of concrete detail regarding this student shooter with reassurances and/or warnings to parents. All we know as I write this at 12:20 PST, is that the shooter is a male, that he had made his preoccupation with death and vengeance known on Facebook last December, and that he shot his ex-girl friend’s new boy friend, Daniel Parmertor, now killed. Four other students are wounded. There may be more deaths. [Added 2-28: two more students have died, and the shooter was a student at a special school for “at risk” students; also described as “outcast.”]

Ever since I started reading about the history of American culture, I have heard endless repetitions on the theme that we are a violent people, owing to our history. And yet, polls seem to show that “negativity” in political ads is often rejected by a populace that is notoriously bloodthirsty and amoral. (Ask Cormac McCarthy about this.)

In prior blogs I have ruminated about the strong lobby against psychiatry and other mental health services, although we know a great deal more about child development than, say, our forebears at the beginning of the modern period in about the 16th century and 17th centuries, when witch burnings and other forms of torture were common in popular and high culture alike.

I have also argued that the particular form of co-optation of 1960s protest movements produced a willed refusal to look at what was common in human nature. Multiculturalism asserted that only members of a race or gender were able to opine about groups in which they did not belong, owing to the group “character” of the oppressed group du jour. Multiculturalists, along with their Stalinoid enemies, also made great generalizations about our national character. Amerikka was held to be essentially imperialistic, money-mad, racist, patriarchal, ecocidal, genocidal, and so on. Graduate students in  history were more likely to get a job if they adhered to this catechism, especially if they could prove their competence in “whiteness studies.”

It happened that the psycho-historian Peter Loewenberg (illustrated) was a professor in my department at UCLA, but his focus on power relations in numerous types of  “families” was considered to be a specialty beyond the ken of ordinary graduate students like myself, who were told by the numerous social historians that it was better to identify with the grass roots or mobs and their laudable resistance to upper-class atrocities, than to follow the path cleared by Freud, and before him the acute insights into individual and group psychology offered by every great writer in the history of the West, starting with Greek tragedy, and going on through Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Schiller, and many others. (And I have not mentioned the revelations of the great visual artists, and before them, archaic religions, all of which interested Freud and his better followers.)

It is not likely that even our best private schools, aimed at training leaders, delve into the affective lives of their students, other than to preach against “hate” and to promote “tolerance” of those who are “different.” What would Freud have said? What did our Founding Fathers think? Where did the notion of childhood innocence come from? I will leave that last question unanswered for now. (Don’t blame the Jews. The better educated among us have no illusions about benevolent human nature, agreeable to shaping by social engineers educated by Rousseau.)

Clearly, there is a dark side to human nature, and it is common to every one of us. But the anti-psychiatry and anti-capitalist culture in which we swim does not consider our material bodies appropriate objects of study. Yet we are seething with rage, jealousy, and longings for revenge—emotions that are part of our human equipment from birth. In the medieval past, these common qualities were attributes of the Devil, and in this life, we were in his snares and subject to his constant lying. Madness was attributed to demonic possession, and many the death-dealing remedies that were offered to purge us of his maleficent urges.

Many pious Americans still believe in the Devil, and believe that “secularists” (include in that category psychologists, feminists and Jews) are in his serpentine grasp. But because teaching children how to manage their “negative” emotions is considered to be a violation of parental rights, schools back away from challenging the medievalists among us. Meanwhile, kids are flooded with terrifying images of monsters, vampires, zombies, and other projections of their forbidden anger—anger at being bullied, lied to, overestimated, underestimated, pushed, neglected, abandoned to the mass media (including comic books)– but make your own list of treacherous adult conduct.

Similarly, “narcissism” is now considered to be a personality disorder and also the chief feature of laissez-faire (a.k.a. free market) capitalism, according to many progressive intellectuals. Yet little girls are taught from early childhood to emulate the glitterati, turning themselves into decorative objects for the sexual delectation of strangers, men, and even family members.

It is now “cool” to identify with the demonic and with criminals. It is one way to defy authoritarian parents and authoritarian ideas, one desperate way to feel a modicum of power.  We are committing mass suicide in our resistance to taking a detailed family history, including how every institution we inhabit deals with the dark side of human nature.

December 15, 2011

Billy Budd’s ragged edges

Benjamin Britten and friends

The Wikipedia entry on Melville’s Billy Budd has an extensive survey of the critical literature and the history of the text. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Budd.

This blog is intended to show what is at stake in the contending interpretations of the novella, and how my own research into the reception of BB may be relevant to our ongoing discussion of legitimate and illegitimate authority, and how literature may be appropriated to contending ideologies in the 20th century, especially during the post-1960s scholarship. For instance, a recent series of essays weighs Melville in relation to Frederick Douglass, as if racism, or its absence, is the primary object of scholarly scrutiny in Melville’s texts.

First and foremost, readings of Billy Budd determine which of two competing narratives explains the trajectory of Melville’s political biography. If BB is read as a “testament of acceptance” then the conversion narrative is sustained: That is, Melville starts out as a radical democratic troublemaker in Typee, accelerates his rebelliousness in the “trilogy” of Mardi, Moby-Dick, and Pierre, writes bleak but socially critical fiction in the 1850s, then, purified by the bloodshed of the Civil War, ends up as a moderate man, an organic conservative, both in his “Supplement” to his Civil War poems, Battle-Pieces, then in his lengthy poem Clarel, a Poem and a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, some more harmless poems and sketches, and finally the unpublished ms. for Billy Budd. I have dubbed the conversion narrative as echoing  Bunyan’s popular Pilgrim’s Progress.

In sharp contrast to the conversion narrative, stands the Narcissus/Icarus story of HM’s life, initiated by his first modern biographer, Raymond Weaver (1921) and followed by such bohemian luminaries as Henry A. Murray and Charles Olson after WW2. They similarly argue: too closely identified with Captain Ahab, HM drowned, crashed and burned with the critical reception to his trilogy, and, said Weaver, went into “the long quietus” after the abject failure of Pierre. (The allegorical Promethean, Satanic “trilogy” was published between 1847 and 1852).

Today, “Billy Budd” is often considered to be the second most important creation of HM. That its meaning is contested is demonstrated by the fact that urban Nazi libraries refused “Bartleby” but accepted BB and “Benito Cereno” with “restrictions.” Hershel Parker believes that BB is too incoherent to convey a single meaning.  This may be true, but it is my view that Melville conveyed a very strong meaning in one paragraph about the role of a chaplain on a Man O’ War that I quote here, along with its marginal notation:

[conclusion, Ch XXI, Constable edition, 1924:] “ Marvel not that having been made acquainted with the young sailor’s essential innocence, the worthy man [the chaplain] lifted not a finger to avert the doom of such a martyr to martial discipline. So to do would not only have been as idle as invoking the desert, but would also have been an audacious transgression of the bounds of his function, one as exactly prescribed to him by military law as that of the boatswain or any other naval officer. Bluntly put, a chaplain is the minister of the Prince of Peace serving in the host of the God of War—Mars. As such, he is as incongruous as a musket would be on the altar at Christmas. Why, then, is he there? Because he indirectly subserves the purpose attested by the cannon; because, too, he lends the sanction of the religion of the meek to that which practically is the abrogation of everything but force.”

Melville’s note in the margin: “An irruption of heretic thought hard to suppress.” Why heretical? Compare to Charles Sumner’s first public oration, 1845, in which he denounced all war as uncivilized and un-Christian. Sitting in the front row were the military brass of the time (July 4, 1845, Boston). Sumner’s heretical speech was a scandal, but earned him a devoted following among those often deemed as “insane Quakers.” Recall that Captain Ahab is described as “a fighting Quaker” in Moby-Dick (1851).

Experienced Melville readers may or may not be attuned to when he is being ironic or sarcastic and when he is deadly serious. I read the passage just quoted as the latter. It fits in with his general line in such works as White-Jacket (1850), where his view of the American mission is Hebraic, as Chosen People bringing the blessings of political democracy to other peoples, but “without bloody hands being lifted.” (See https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/). The passage also reminds me of his marking up of Goethe’s autobiography, where Goethe describes his underground adherence to the Pelagian heresy:

[Goethe:]…What separated me from this brotherhood [the Moravians of Marienborn], as well as from other good Christian souls, was the very point on which the Church has more than once fallen into dissension. On the one hand, it was maintained that by the Fall human nature had been so corrupted to its innermost core, that not the least good could be found in it, and that therefore man must renounce all trust in his own powers, and look to grace and its operations for everything. The other party, while it admitted the hereditary imperfections of man, nevertheless ascribed to nature a certain germ of good within, which, animated by divine grace, was capable of growing up to a joyous tree of spiritual happiness. By this latter conviction I was unconsciously penetrated to my inmost soul, even while with tongue and pen I maintained the opposite side. But I had hitherto gone on with such ill-defined ideas, that I had never once clearly stated the dilemma to myself. From this dream I was unexpectedly roused one day, when, in a religious conversation, having distinctly advanced opinions, to my mind, most innocent, I had in return to undergo a severe lecture. The very thought of such a thing, it was maintained, was genuine Pelagianism, a pernicious doctrine which was again appearing, to the great injury of modern times. I was astonished and even terrified. I went back to Church history, studied the doctrine and fate of Pelagius more closely, and now saw clearly how these two irreconcilable opinions had fluctuated in favour throughout whole centuries, and had been embraced and acknowledged by different men, according as they were of a more active or of a more passive nature.

The course of past years had constantly led me more and more to the exercise of my own powers. A restless activity was at work within me, with the best desire for moral development. The world without demanded that this activity should be regulated and employed for the advantage of others, and this great demand I felt called upon in my own case to meet. On all sides I had been directed to nature, and she had appeared to me in her whole magnificence; I had been acquainted with many good and true men who were toiling to do their duty, and for the sake of duty; to renounce them, nay to renounce myself, seemed impossible. The gulf which separated me from the doctrine of man’s total depravity now became plain to me. Nothing, therefore, remained to me but to part from this society; and as my love of the holy Scriptures, as well as the founder of Christianity and its early professors, could not be taken from me, I formed a Christianity for my private use, and sought to establish and build it up by an attentive study of history and a careful observation of those who were favourable to my opinion. (my emph.). [i] [End, Goethe quote]

It is my view that the key to Billy Budd, if there is any one such thing, is the notion of a private faith, of a personal relation to the deity, that underlined the Promethean powers of our species—a power that Melville had annexed to the cause of peace and to immeasurable and messy creation itself, a power that F. O. Matthiessen seemingly rejected. See https://clarespark.com/2010/12/29/f-o-matthiessen-martyr-to-mccarthyism/.

Yes, there are extenuating circumstances that apparently justify the harsh verdict of Captain Vere to hang Billy  (the Nore and Spithead mutinies during the 1790s when conservative England and Revolutionary France were at war).  Indeed, the crew murmurs in protest both when Billy is hung and when his body is consigned to the deep. It is at this point that Captain Vere reflects upon “…forms, measured forms….” that keep the underlings in line. Melville could be reflecting here upon the power of conventional fiction in supporting the rule of force.

After years of reading Melville and his critics, it is my view that he is always 1. Writing about his family and by extension Leviathan (the State) and their ultra-conservative character, calling forth his “heretical irruptions” that could separate him from his support system; and 2. Writing about writing itself, particularly deviations from inherited forms. He once exclaimed “I write as I please,” but he also felt exposed: one is so helplessly open in the act of writing. He had much to hide from his relatives, upon whom he was financially dependent. That is why I see his final manuscript as a testament to ambiguity and that kind of modernism that refuses neatly “measured forms.” He goes out as a romantic, perhaps even more romantic than in his early works: “Truth, uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges….”

Scholastic version of Billy Budd


[i] 81. Goethe, Truth and Poetry, Vol. II, 34-35.

July 16, 2011

Disraeli’s contribution to social democracy

One of the chief tactics of populists and progressives is to depict themselves as persons of the “grass roots”; as spokesmen for the common man and woman against “the money power.”

And [hook-nosed] moneybags are held by the populist-progressives to control all information in the society, with the exception of underground messaging and alternative media. The internet has only facilitated such carelessness and populists can be found on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. I have found them to be haters and uninterested in the histories they claim to depict with accuracy, deluded into the belief that they are correcting the “propaganda” generated by serious students of the past. There is money in it, as the book sales figures or viewers of some “traditionalist” conservative stars can attest. This blog seeks to correct a common misconception I have found in the ranks of some who deem themselves conservatives: that Rousseau* generated the Jacobins, and that a straight line can be drawn between the furious mob behavior in the Reign of Terror and the Democratic or even moderate Republican (“RINO”) opposition.  And the enemy is “secularism, ” redefined to signify atheism, a.k.a., worship of the Goddess of Reason, rather than religious pluralism and the separation of church and state.

As everything on this website will attest, populism and progressivism did not spring, fully-formed, from the industrial working class, or small farmers, or any other sector of the population de-skilled or otherwise harmed by the industrial revolution and the concentration of ownership in corporations. Rather, its ideology was largely cooked up by those European intellectuals who identified with a threatened aristocracy, and who wrote copiously in order to persuade a frivolous and conspicuously consuming class of lords and ladies, princes and kings, that they had better unite with The People against the “laissez-faire” industrial bourgeoisie that was the chief cause of lower-class suffering with the advent of science, the machine age, utilitarianism, railroads, the Higher Criticism of the Bible, and of course, Darwinism.

With a renewed devotion to “religion” (now seen as instrument of social control for all classes) the aristocracy would mend its ways, reverting to the gentle paternalism that was believed to have existed in the Middle Ages, and the new education-hungry working-class would settle for those reforms that did not threaten the social order as it had existed before mad scientists and engineers made the scene. The lower orders would be treated to lots and lots of spectacles and costume parties.

Benjamin Disraeli, a prolific author before he entered the British parliament, later to become Prime Minister and the Earl of Beaconsfield, wrote novels all his life, but the group of novels relevant to this posting was published in the mid-1840s, and meant to introduce “The New Generation” that would represent “Young England.”  Coningsby, Sybil, or the Two Nations, and Tancred, or the New Crusade,** were a trilogy intended to instruct Europe as to the chaos that was to be generated by the new industrial poor, whether they be slaves to the machine or miners–unless they were rescued by an enlightened and progressive aristocracy. Sybil, in particular, sounded the tocsin, and appeared the same year, 1845, as did Engels’ famous book on the condition of the working class in Manchester. Disraeli’s father, Isaac D’Israeli, never renounced Judaism, but did baptize all his children into the Church of England, home of the Elizabethan Compromise.

What Disraeli accomplished was to provide the moderate conservative alternative to the red specter that was haunting Europe. The Good King would represent the People against all forces of dissolution, and all would be self-sacrificing as their model, Jesus Christ, had been. Without faith, there could be no sense of duty, and everyone was bound by duty and those rights that kept the peasantry prosperous, and the male working class not exhausted or forced to compete with female and child labor.

Sybil with book

Disraeli was hardly alone in his prescriptions for a measured progress, with his religious model apostolic Christianity and the “reverence” it embodied. He was writing in the tradition of Hume and Burke, of the German Romantics (including Herder and Goethe). His contemporaries, such as hero-worshipping Carlyle and the Christian Socialists, and later Bismarck, would echo the same tradition of conservative reform, staving off excess of every kind, whether it be upper-class selfishness (“individualism” or “puritanism”) or lower-class licentiousness and excessive interest in the heroism of some Old Testament figures (see Kingsley’s Alton Locke, a founding document of Christian Socialism, puported to be the confession of an ex-Chartist, now dying of consumption).

Populism is inconceivable without hero-worship and the obeisance to opinion leaders, stand-ins today for the Good King imagined by Disraeli. In the populist appeal to emotions (“compassion”) and false utopias, rather than to careful analysis of policy, the notion of a democratic republic is subverted beyond recognition, wherever it may be found, on the left or right. Class warfare, wielded cynically by some Democrats, works, for populists hate capitalism/the money power. That is “the way we live now.”

*See image from Columbia Today (Alumni Magazine responding to 1968 student strike): https://clarespark.com/2010/07/04/rousseau-amidst-primitive-columbia-student-strikers/.

** See cartoon and description of Tancred in Arab News: http://www.arabnewsblog.net/2011/05/11/tabsir-redux-tancred-or-the-new-crusade/. The blurb author misses the point of Disraeli’s trilogy: to relocate the fount of Christianity in Jerusalem rather than Rome. Disraeli seems to have reconciled his Judaic ancestors with Christianity by finding heroism, honor, and direct communication with the Deity in the Middle East. What this may hint about relations with his father is speculation on my part. He does mention “theocratic equality” in Tancred, which suggests that equality is defined in religious terms, not material ones (those of the working poor who rise in the class system are tamed through deference and self-control), and that an established religion is the major source of social solidarity.

With respect to his relations with Judaism, his move was simply to stress the Judaic origins of Christianity, thus knocking out the antithesis between Good Christian and Evil Jew and making Jerusalem and environs the cradle of civilization. I don’t know if he was the first to do this, but it was certainly an obsessive theme. In Tancred, he complains bitterly about antisemitism, and lets none of his characters off the hook. It is unfortunate that in the process, he cleaved to contemporary notions of race and national character.

It is also interesting that his orientalist hero, Tancred, Lord Montecute, is prevented at the last minute from marrying the gorgeous Jewess Eva. In the last sentence we discover that his parents have come to Jerusalem to get him away from all those too rich, brilliant, and irresistible  Jews. There is also a hint that momma’s puritanism may have driven Tancred to excessive religiosity and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem/Syria, where any sensitive, shy fellow would have gone off the deep end, faced with all that glamor. As for Sidonia, a character sometimes identified with a Rothschild or even with Disraeli himself, Sidonia is wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, and the model man of the world, brilliant and a linguist, but he lacks a heart: Sidonia is incapable of emotional attachments–he is a rootless cosmopolitan, the very embodiment of THE MONEY POWER, as drawn by the would-be aristocratic anticapitalist, Benjamin Disraeli.

April 3, 2011

Progressives, the luxury debate, and decadence

Thos. Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1836

Our nation is currently embroiled in a turmoil over finances, the debt, and the potential fall of the  American Republic, indeed, of the West itself. This blog sketches contrasting theories of progress and decadence. The purpose is to identify the eclectic character of history as written by the Progressives and their progeny. I propose that there are three primary schools of interpretation: one is entirely religious, and two are secular, but are not identical. All three are infused with what historians call “the luxury debate,” the secularism debate, and the danger of cities.

1. Many Christians take the position that there was a Golden Age in Eden before Eve ate of the Apple. Since that fatal bite, the world is fallen, and all hopes for amelioration are transferred to Paradise. The world we inhabit is a vale of tears and we “see through a glass, darkly.” The author Hilaire Belloc was of this view, and, like other ultra-Catholics, fixated his attention on the Crucifixion as the moment when Christ’s passion  purified humanity of its sins, promising a better place for the faithful after death. Arthur Lovejoy’s book, The Great Chain of Being, spelled out the Platonic-Christian world view very clearly. If an historian is known by the ability to distinguish between change and continuity through the accumulation of empirical evidence, then such “periodization” is irrelevant within this anti-materialist world view. See my blog on Nicholas Boyle for an example: https://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/.

2.  In the eighteenth century, Volney and others (Vico, earlier) dramatically intervened in the conservative Christian world-view with the cyclical view of history. That secular and “scientific” view is illustrated in Thomas Cole’s famous series The Course of Empire. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Course_of_Empire.) Cole’s bleak prognosis remains the preferred interpretation for organic conservatives who liken the course of history to the life cycles of plants (Goethe, for instance). A seed germinates, flourishes, then drops to the mold. Similarly, a warrior class is feminized by excessive love of luxury, and fails to maintain its defenses, hence  is invaded by warrior-barbarians, is destroyed, and we are left with romantic  ruins only. Such was the vision of those who posited a sequence of inevitable stages in the history of humanity. Keep in mind that “the Jews” have been seen as agents of feminization,  illicit luxury, and debauchery by such as the Nazis and New Dealers alike. Asceticism was the ticket to neoclassical order,  a point challenged by romantic Nietzsche in Genealogy of Morals.

3. With the development of capitalism and industry, innovations grounded in a scientific (materialist) and worldly view of humanity and its future, various optimistic proposals emerged before and during the American and French Revolutions. The most famous intervention was by Marx, but he was competing with various Utopians, also believers in Progress: Turgot, Condorcet, Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Comte.  But in all these cases, human nature was not fallen or doomed, but rather susceptible to changes in the environment and particularly in institutions that brought out the best in [malleable] human nature. Although the new industrial working class did not turn out to be the revolutionary class that would bring about emancipation and utopia(for Marxists), there was enough servile revolt (actually starting with the English Civil War) to implant the continued fear of the red menace in the upper classes. Their pre-emptive strategy was to make concessions to social movements originating from “below” or to attempt to co-opt them through various motions of conservative reform. The Populist-Progressive movement is the most prominent and still powerful of these tendencies in America; they were following that master strategist Bismarck, originator of social insurance even as he made the German Social Democratic Party illegal. Populist-Progressives may be found in either the Democratic or Republican Parties (the latter as “moderates”) and are spurned by “social conservatives” today.

Since the moderate men must deal with a constituency that is internally conflicted, they take pieces of earlier world-views and incorporate all of them in an incoherent and confusing mix. But mostly, they are slippery and hard to pin down, except where the Marxist-Leninist Left is concerned.  That Left is either purged or marginalized, so that current journalists can simply describe what was originally a “moderate conservative” movement as “the hard Left” fading gently into left-liberalism. State power in the service of redistributive justice unites all these tendencies—Marxist-Leninist Left and progressives alike. The moderate men support science, but attempt to halt the inevitable warfare between science and religion.  The recent British movie Creation (2009), a recounting of Darwin’s emotional struggles as he moved toward publication of The Origin of Species (1859), is one example. Yes, Darwin finally puts out into the world his completely destabilizing view of evolution and natural selection, removing God from direct interference in the plan for humanity, but he is buried with full Christian honors in Westminster Abbey. Goethe, with his Pelagian heresy (we are not fallen, there is no original sin), is memorialized throughout the progressive West as the greatest cosmopolitan intellectual ever, but Goethe’s view of human society and progress is grounded in the life of plants and follows Herder’s cultural relativism and rooted cosmopolitanism. His American utopia has no modern Jews—they lack “reverence” and “roots.”

Who then are the moderns? We are left with the classical liberals or libertarians. These thinkers, following Adam Smith, von Mises, Ayn Rand, Hayek, and the Friedmans, see competitive markets as the route to wealth creation and a better life on earth. They are worldly, but not immoralists, for some see the need for state action (see especially the legal theorist Richard A. Epstein). Their European predecessors were the “mechanical materialists” denounced by all the ultra-conservatives, faux liberals, and dialectical materialists who followed. It is this school (not necessarily united within their ranks) , who put the future in the laps of our assessing, choosing, individual selves, who reject the fatalism of Vico, Volney, or their Greek and Christian-Platonic predecessors. (For more on this subject see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/22/materialist-history-and-the-idea-of-progress/.)

March 9, 2011

“What is history?”

     That was the name of a book by E. H. Carr, noted historian. Graduate students were supposed to read it in graduate school. However, this blog is about two kinds of “history” writing, incompatible with each other.

It is possible to write history within an entirely religious framework. 1. The deity intervenes in the everyday affairs of humanity, or 2. An undefined entity called “human nature” defies all attempts made by “secularists” to improve the condition of others and oneself, or 3. Civilizations rise and fall, hence there can be no “progress” based upon an improved study of the world around us, followed by measures taken to rectify the errors of the past.

I have encountered many historians writing under these assumptions: the cultural historians I mentioned who dominate the teaching of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction (see my blog https://clarespark.com/2011/02/27/remembering-ralph-bunche-american/, where their names are listed.) In one instance, the leading historian of this group wrote to me that the effects of slavery still lingered, though he did not say what they were, or how such a claim could be proven.

Similarly, today I read an essay by Victor Davis Hanson in National Review Online in which the author contrasted the “therapeutic” view of human nature (he doesn’t like it) with the “tragic view” that he does like, lamenting that it is to be found in literature and not a guide to political choices. It is worth noting that the tragic view has been rightly identified by some as the viewpoint of a declining class that peers into the future and sees nothing but darkness. In Greek tragedy, the hero fell because of hubris or pride. He should have understood that the gods were spinning our fate, and to defy their divine plans was to court the fate of Prometheus.

The other kind of historian is a Promethean, and is denounced as secularist by “traditionalists.” Count me in their city of the damned. These are our crimes against the fates.

1. We pry into the affairs of our betters. We read their private letters, diaries, and journals, along with their public pronouncements. But even their most private utterances are taken with a grain of salt, for they may be leaving a false record for posterity or may simply be fallible as we all are in dealing with touchy issues that are entangled with emotional defenses. It is sometimes said that only the mature historian should attempt biography. Young persons are still wet behind the ears, emotionally speaking. In any case, we footnote our sources so that others may check out our veracity in transmitting the historical record. It is outrageous that most publishers consign these to “endnotes” instead of putting them on the page where they are referenced.

2. We do not assume the role of analyst of today’s conflicts and events, for we have not access to primary source materials, unless they are leaked, and even then we have only hints. Our betters tend to keep the good stuff away from the public eye. That is why James O’Keefe’s sting operation in exposing the views of  NPR executive  Ron Schiller is arousing hysteria in liberal circles.

3. We do not use the past as a foreshadowing or “anticipation” of the future. Unless we are Hegelian Marxists, there is no telos. And even Marx said once that men make history, but not under conditions of their own choosing. Too bad he went into prophet mode in his most influential work. But that is what organic thinkers do. For them, human history is analogous to the life cycle of a plant (e.g. Goethe), but we are not plants. Historians should study the past so that we may move on, while respecting the power of the human will and imagination to avoid preventable disasters and to increase the life chances for those who are needlessly burdened and slaughtered. We cannot be, must not be, “activist scholars” for that presumes a god-like omniscience or obeisance to a social movement; perhaps too that there is a telos or predetermined course for history, which we are hurrying on or making with our timely interventions. It is hard enough to do any kind of helpful history, given the sources at hand. But we can and must compare competing narratives of the past as disseminated by politicians, pundits, and all other communicators. Nothing and no one is sacred, especially not our own work. Writing history entails reconfiguring the past and sometimes, with new evidence,  overthrowing our own most cherished assumptions. If we can’t do that, we don’t deserve the name of scholar, but are courtiers or theologians.  Which is fine, only don’t pretend to be a participant in the Enlightenment or in the profession of  writing history.

4. Herman Melville, when queried, answered that he was neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but realistic. That is why I continue to read Melville and inspect the distortions of his work promulgated by optimists and pessimists.  Historians had better be close readers.

September 23, 2010

Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism vs. Obama’s

Woodrow Wilson on his feet

Many persons believe Barack  Obama is a crypto-communist; while others believe he is a crypto-Muslim. Both believe he is out to destroy this country. I see him as an inheritor of the Progressive tradition, especially as exemplified by Woodrow Wilson, who unsuccessfully attempted to get the USA to join the League of Nations. Wilson’s contemporaries were among the first to develop the tenets of multiculturalism, conceived as super-ethnicity (i.e., self-determination that defied individualism by elevating groupiness, nationalism, and cultural relativism) and deliberately designed as an antidemocratic panacea to the Enlightenment and the secular revolutions that were feared by all sorts of aristocrats, including “social democrats.” What follows are my research notes based on readings from Wilson’s major biographers.

[This blog has been heavily augmented. Here is the first version:]

Arthur Link’s Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era (1954) ends with a chapter “From Peace Without Victory To War”.  Hollywood liberals would profit from this detailed political history, not least because it dismisses the old Left cry that Wilson’s war was for the benefit of Wall Street and the merchants of war (i.e., J.P. Morgan and munitions makers). Link’s conclusion is partly reproduced here, in order to contrast Wilson’s vision of a [Christianized] democratic world with the hazy multicultural one articulated by Obama today before the United Nations.  I will place the key phrase that distinguishes their notions of democracy in bold face. [Obama’s view was that the desired democracy would be rooted in the cultural traditions of each people. This is the standard view of “rooted cosmopolitanism” not to be confused with the rootless cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment and science. Not that Wilson was anything but an organic conservative and a racist, but his ethics were ostensibly universalist.]

[Arthur Link, pp.281-82] : The German decision to gamble on all-out victory or complete ruin…alone compelled Wilson to break diplomatic relations, to adopt a policy of armed neutrality, and finally to ask for a declaration of war–because American ships were being sunk and American citizens were being killed on the high seas, and because armed neutrality seemed no longer possible. Considerations of America’s alleged economic stake in an Allied victory did not influence Wilson’s thoughts during the critical weeks from February 1 to April 2, 1917. Nor did considerations of the national interest, or of the great ideological issues at stake in the conflict.

[Link, cont.: Wilson’s message to a joint session of Congress, April 2:] He reviewed the recent German warfare against commerce, which he termed “warfare against mankind.” He declared that armed neutrality was no longer feasible and that …the recent course of the Imperial German government was war against the United States. …The American people now knew the Imperial government, like all autocracies, was a natural foe of liberty. Therefore, “The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.” And then, with one great peroration, which has gone ringing down the years, the long ordeal of neutrality was over:

[quoting Wilson:] It is a distressing and oppressive duty, Gentlemen of the Congress, which I have performed in addressing you. There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us. It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, [white, C.S.] civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts,—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own Governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world at last free. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other. [end Wilson quote]

Wilson’s anti-imperialism cannot be understood, however, without acknowledgment of his racism. His advocacy of “self-determination” was probably grounded in a fear of merging with primitives in wars of conquest. With such a view, he reiterated the feelings and fears of earlier upper-class Americans who had opposed the Mexican war (and of course any annexation of a territory with non-white inhabitants).  But in this particular message to Congress, he was speaking from the universalist Christian (Presbyterian, Calvinist) side of his ideology, not the Southern racist side.

Second version: (For more on Wilson’s anti-materialist organicism views, see https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/. For more on the anti-materialist Counter-Reformation tendency in cultural studies see https://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/.)

I began a close study of Woodrow Wilson years ago while writing my book on the Melville Revival (Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival). His often eccentric conduct as a young man was brought out in Henry Wilkinson Bragdon’s revealing biography of Wilson at Princeton, for instance, some homoeroticism, cross-dressing and explicit antisemitism, but most important is WW’s dim view of science. He was ever the organic conservative adapting his overtly aristocratic social views later to agree with the populist and progressive mood of middle-class do-gooders in a rapidly industrializing society. That is what makes the final judgment of WW’s character in John Morton Blum’s important book, Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality (1956) so interesting, for Blum reads him as a monomaniac, closed off to the moderation that would have secured The League of Nations, in his final assessment of WW’s diplomacy:

[Blum, pp197-98:]” …His basic, lifelong faith was in the individual as a distinct moral agent, inspired by and accountable to God; in the individual as the special object of a Christian education; in this individual, so accountable and so educated, as the judicious artificer of his own political and economic life. This was the essential belief of the America of Wilson’s time, a belief derived from Calvin and Adam Smith and Emerson at least. It presumed, as Wilson did, that normative man was a kind of William Gladstone, that a normative nation consisted of a mass of separate human particles, each like him. But within the United States in the twentieth century, giving these particles a chance to compete was not enough; they needed also help and cohesion. Particularly in this century, moreover, liberal constitutionalism was not everywhere a possible or an attractive prospect. Some products of Wilson’s faith therefore, had unwholesome, unintended consequences.”

Earlier in the book, Blum had said that WW paved the way for the New Deal (that he proudly supports). Blum undoubtedly knew of the German Romantic conception of Bildung, but the organicism of German Romantic culture is invisible to him as he lists WW’s precessors. Nor will he nor any other progressive historian call out the social psychologists of the New Deal for their copying of Nazi methods of mind-management to promote social “cohesion.” Nor will he be alarmed by the Carl Schmitt critique of (liberal?) constitutionalism in favor of the executive decree. Blum, like the invisible helpers to progressive thought described elsewhere on this website, contrasted social responsibility with the atomic “particles” who would explode social bonds, refusing “compromise” and realism in foreign policy. So WW had to be taken down a peg, but just a little.

Rewriting an earlier book on Wilsonian diplomacy, Arthur S. Link, also ignored the German side of Wilson’s social thought. In Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War and Peace (1979), Link began by lauding WW’s “splendid synthesis of Anglo-American democratic theories and traditions.” Then he tackles WW’s view of a necessarily disciplined human nature:

[Link, p.5] Everything depended upon Wilson’s view of the nature and capacities of humankind. He believed that all peoples were capable of self-government because all were endowed with inherent character and capacity for growth. He was too good a student of history to be visionary in these beliefs. He repudiated and condemned utopianism and taught that people learn democracy only by long years of disciplined experience.  As early as 1885, we hear him saying:

[Link quoting  Wilson:] “Democracy is, of course, wrongly conceived when treated as merely a body of doctrine. It is a stage of development. It is not created by aspirations or by new faith; it is built up by slow habit. Its process is experience, its basis old wont, its meaning national organic oneness and effectual life. It comes, like manhood, as the fruit of youth: immature peoples cannot have it, and the maturity to which it is vouchsafed is the maturity of freedom and self-control, and no other.”

[Link, cont.] Even so, Wilson deeply believed that all peoples, whether Mexican peons or Russian peasants, whites, blacks, or Orientals, were capable in the long run of being trained or self-trained in the disciplines of democracy and of learning to govern themselves. “When properly directed,” he said in 1914, “there is no people not fitted for self-government.”

Note that Wilson conflates a “people” with the “self” who governs itself. Here is the double bind, or call it the disappearing body if you like. It is apparent that no one should impute to Wilson any linkage to the concept of the rootless cosmopolitan, the figure embodied in the “mad scientist” or to the Adam Smithian participant in market societies and their peculiar notion of “liberty” and “individualism.” What connection is there then between Wilson’s internationalism and Barack Obama’s in his address to the United Nations? I cannot find any difference, for both are indebted to the volkisch ideas of German Romanticism, updated now by collectivist progressives, with their dubious genealogy dating back to Herder and Goethe discreetly erased by such eminent historians as Link and Blum.

On competing notions of individuality see https://clarespark.com/2014/06/11/karl-marx-on-individuality/, retitled “Individuality: the impossible dream?” The turn toward “culturalism” and groupiness was a novelty of the New Deal. For instance, historian Carl Becker turned Jefferson on his head, construing him as a defender of the positive, not the negative State, which brought agrarianism in line with New Deal statism.

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.

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