The Clare Spark Blog

March 22, 2012

The Great Dumbing Down (2)

Devils from Rila Monastery

In a prior blog, I attempted to “periodize” the moment when American culture turned toward stupidity and away from the Prometheanism implied in the conception of American exceptionalism and the making of the Constitution by such as Alexander Hamilton (not that Hamilton was an American Candide). In that blog (, I fingered William James and other “pragmatists” as major figures in the deterioration of education. Now I add that moderate man Reinhold Niebuhr to my enemies list.

In the Fall of 1957, I took David Brion Davis’s course in American intellectual history at Cornell U. I have a clear memory of his stating that “the devil was back” in his discussion of Hawthorne and Melville. What Davis meant was that both writers took a dim view of the theory of progress, attacking its key precept, that man was malleable morally (as demonstrated in travel narratives or utopian communes such as Brook Farm) and that better government and capitalism could ameliorate what had been lives that were “nasty, brutal, and short” (Hobbes). Davis also lectured about the importance of Reinhold Niebuhr in furthering that pessimistic ideology after the second world war. See That Niebuhr should have switched his political views at that time, puts him in the camp of other pessimists who sought to dampen American hubris after the defeat of  the Axis powers by the Western democracies (see my blog on film noir:

It was also a moment when the high school population exploded and when returning veterans were availing themselves of the G. I. Bill, flooding colleges with cocky survivors of a war unprecedented in its mayhem. The major universities took note and reconstructed the humanities curriculum in collectivist and anti-urban directions– a direction that would halt the feared road to communism in America. Simply put, the real Marxist-Leninists were mostly purged, and “right-wing social democrats” (the “moderate” conservatives) took over and now are referred to as “the Left.” Their statism (but one that includes “ a reasonable amount of private property”) often leads some right-wing authors to conflate social democrats with Leninists, Italian Fascists, and Nazis.

As the Wikipedia biography of Niebuhr demonstrates, the key element in his conversion to “Christian Realism” (said to be a forerunner of “realism” in foreign relations), was the linking of evil to self-love and pride. Comes now the canonical reading of Melville’s Promethean Captain Ahab as the epitome of narcissism; indeed the Icarus legend was used to describe his literary fortunes from 1919 on. (As Ahab, his wings melted, plunging HM back to earth where he either drowned as Narcissus or burned as Icarus. In any case, he was demonic—the mirror of the Parsee Fedallah– and that theme remains dominant in Melville criticism as taught in the dumbing-down schools and universities controlled by the so-called left.)

Melville was ambivalent about “evil” as an independent entity apart from historically specific institutions and individuals. At times he wrote “evil is the chronic malady of the universe,” or in another mood he would say that good and evil were braided together so confusingly that he could say through one of his characters (the ambiguous Pierre) that “virtue and vice are trash” and that he must “gospelize the world anew.” I am convinced that Mark Twain read Melville, for in his fragment “The Character of Man” he echoes Melville in his most depressed and misanthropic moods.

To summarize: “moral relativism” has been a term used by some conservatives to condemn the explorations typified by the modern, mind-expanding world. What it meant to the Enlightenment was not the trashing of “virtue” but the realization that such conceptions as good and evil were socially constructed and could vary according to the institutional structures and resources of different societies; that in lauding individuals or social practices as either laudatory or destructive, such valuations had meaning only in specific historical contexts. Because many of the Founding Fathers were highly educated men, conversant with antiquity as well as with the discoveries of European explorers, they did not rely upon such ahistoric conceptions as The Devil to mold the Constitution that would govern negative human impulses in favor of a more orderly progress than had heretofore existed. But in the “progressive” world view of such as William James and Reinhold Niebuhr, the human capacity to be educated and uplifted has been ringed round with anxiety and self-doubt. Learning is hard enough without that extra dollop of immobilizing fear. For more on “the moderate men” (Melville’s phrase), see Moderation is a buzz word without concrete meaning, and is a key word in psychological warfare.

February 10, 2010

“Balance,” “equilibrium,” and psychological warfare

Herman Melville, balanced in old age

[Read this along with]  I have been reading Roy R. Grinker Sr.’s memoir Fifty Years in Psychiatry: a Living History (1979), and was not surprised to discover his resignation as he contemplated his life path: Grinker, a leader in the field, sighed (?) that psychiatrists and other mental health workers should not expect to “cure” their patients, but to aim for “stability.”  “Psychiatry,” he wrote, “no longer entertains the notion of cure, reconstruction of personality, or ‘adjustment.’ On the contrary, we help people in trouble to regain a stability that has been lost temporarily for a number of reasons, or we help them to attain a degree of adjustment which they never had–in other words, to reestablish the continuity of development that has been interrupted at some time for a variety of reasons (145).”

But then Dr. Grinker, the harmony-seeking progressive echoing Edmund Burke, seemingly reverses himself, advocating a general systems theory approach: “…instead of referring to dichotomies and conflict, we may refer to two processes inextricably linked: Stability and change. …’Unity in diversity and continuity in change,’ or unified thinking characteristic of a systems approach. This is contrasted with dualistic thinking oriented only toward stability and permanence based on the illusion by objective science that some parts or variables and especially our terrestrial background can be viewed as steady.”

Grinker continues, hopefully: “Unitary  thinking, on the other hand, considers that both parts and whole, both focus and background, are constantly changing, but regulated by some form of organization that prevents de-differentiation, focal cancerous overgrowth, internal psychological confusion, social chaos, and anarchy. Our problem is to identify the ways by which the organizational principle operates (160).” Grinker’s obscure and abstract theorizing echoes the structural functionalism promoted by Harvard sociologists, and before that Malinowski, the cultural anthropologist. In other words, legitimate mental health professionals aim to keep their patients or clients from making trouble–for a multiplicity of families and for the State.

If you doubt this leap of mine, read these Grinker tocsins: “Currently, we are experiencing a shift from materialistic to moral values, which is creating a precarious balance at all ages, particularly adolescence. In the United States, a group has ‘dropped out’ of the mainstream of the life of technology into a drug society, which frequently results in irreparable damage. Another group fights against our current establishment, hoping to change it prior to their necessary and ultimate commitment. Another group completely avoids affectionate involvement with any other human being and ends with the stable instability of the borderline (159).”  In an earlier book, Grinker as usual, attacked objective science: “…science is not free of religon….It is constantly involved in faith that the ultimate truth will be uncovered….Attempts at complete objectivity are never successful….” (Psychiatry in Broad Perspective, 1975, p.12). This is precisely the view of “interdisciplinary” studies of the history of science, as derived from functionalists at war with the skeptical masses. (On “healthy skepticism” see

I was already onto this panicky line while conducting my dissertation research, and I am excerpting from one chapter (“Pluralism in a Perfectly Happy Family”), an excursus that barely made it into the book. If you wondered what a “progressive”  organic conservative is or was, you will see yet more examples below.

[Excerpt, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival ] Composing his “Memories” at the end of the 1930s, the Harvard physical chemist Lawrence Henderson, founder of the Pareto seminar and mentor to Henry Murray, [i] reviewed the development of his social thought. As a young man he had studied in France, learning quickly to distrust the emotional Germans. Henderson preferred the French because “so many Frenchmen escape the cruder forms of sentimentality and…so many of them are individualists and also very French, that is the opposite of anomic in Durkheim’s sense.” He admitted that the French were excitable in little things, but “cool and restrained in serious situations. In all countries most men are stupid, but I find more Frenchmen interesting than mere chance can account for” (90-91). Toward the end of the memoir, Henderson described his theory of historical change (afterwards noting that the model resembled his first scientific paper on molecules and atoms):

“Promises and principles are among the forces that determine the actions of men. There are other forces such as passions, political, military, and economic expediency that are also operative. Any concrete action by any person is a resultant of all these factors. Moreover, these factors are mutually dependent. In operation, each modifies all the others (236).” [ii]

These words were written on July 14 (Bastille Day), 1939, but there is no resemblance to the political science theories proposed by radically enlightened intellectuals. Henderson’s model is scientistic and falsely compares historical causation (“the actions of men”) with the attractions and repulsions of atomic particles; his scientism is also characteristic of the conservative Enlightenment, deployed to stave off the rival materialism of the nineteenth century– those ideological formulations supported by the “imperialist” “heroic science” that prevailed throughout the academy before some cultural/social historians of the 1960s-90s unmasked its fatal pretensions.[iii] Diverting his gaze from the facts that could model the structures, functions, and operations of real human institutions, Henderson undergirds fascist ideology in the twentieth century. It would be wrong to say that such thinkers erase class as an analytic category because of their commitments to nation or race as the source of identity. On the contrary, these philosopher-kings are acutely class-conscious, believing they can manipulate systems made cockeyed and thrown off-balance by selfish and stupid mass/class passions. The moderate men were classicists sensitive to “proportion” in all things. As several 1930s corporatists put it, unlike the Puritans who liquidated their peasantries, peasant-rooted countries such as Italy, France, Belgium and Ireland, creatively mastered their bourgeoisies. Their remedy for the chaos of modern decadence was to remand the usurping, snobbish, class-conscious and divisive nineteenth-century middle-class back to the middle where such anti-social, anti-intellectual persons naturally belonged. With the materialists safely sandwiched, sick societies would be returned to the steady state. Social equilibrium, classlessness, and a coherent national character were achieved, then, when society was rooted in the peasantry and governed by the aristocrats they, the peasants, had always thrown up in a crisis. In turn, the peasant-chosen self-sacrificing aristocrats would be obedient to the self-sacrificing good king who spoke for the common people.[iv] Here was the “ideal force” that bound communities, bringing order out of chaos; that force was a fact, a higher truth that materialist historians were too blind to see.[v]

Of course (self-indulgent) romantic artists, like other demagogues, should be silenced. In late 1943, Norman Foerster looked ahead to “the humanities after the war” and saw the necessity for lost intellectuals to “refind themselves” in the new-old criticism: “With few exceptions the departments of the humanities in higher education are ill prepared for the high task before them. An age of science and of naturalistic philosophy has left its mark upon them. They have misapplied the method of science, and they have adopted views of life that make most of the great writers and thinkers of the world appear of little meaning to the modern age. Lost in a relativism approaching nihilism, they have all but ceased to look for the abiding truths which make the distinction between past and present unimportant. If for a century they have declined in prestige, the reason is partly that they themselves have robbed their great field of its greatness. Today their first task is to refind themselves, not to encourage an intellectual and artistic creativity of any and every sort but rather to lay the critical foundations which will give imaginative presentation a sound direction.”[vi]

It would not do for the lower orders to suppose that the anger one person feels for another could be alleviated through comprehending the larger social situation in which individual struggles are enmeshed, or that economic and political institutions are ill-described with the analytic tools bequeathed by corporatist Greeks, medievalists, and Renaissance humanists.

The social views of Princeton professor Willard Thorp, like the corporatists quoted above, bear comparison with Henderson’s. Thorp’s model societies are paragons of deep-breathing and balance, repelling the modernity that forces the anomic (atomized) individual to clash with other individuals. Here is the conservatively enlightened Thorp’s 1938 account of Melville’s radicalism; perforce “one” arrayed dogmatic and marauding transcendental Ahabs against deep-diving Herman Melville, the proto-Durkheimian proto-New Dealer Ishmael who said NO!:

[Thorp:] “When one contemplates the number of matters on which the age had come to a final opinion, to which Melville offered a challenging negative, and the number of subjects which the age, for its safety, refused to discuss at all, but which Melville insisted on dragging up to the light, one is astonished that he was tolerated as long as he was. He seems, indeed, to be unique among his contemporaries in his freedom from zeal or prejudice. Even the most sacred tabus he insisted on examining with a cool dispassionateness. Not only did he question the inalienable right to property, the dogmas of democracy, the righteousness of imperialist wars and Christian missions, but he dared to discuss in a voice louder than a whisper such horrific subjects as cannibalism, venereal disease, and polygamy. At the moment when young men in America, imbued with transcendentalism, were giving eloquent support to the doctrine of the manifest destiny of the nation and defied the world to show any civilization which could equal ours, Melville was studying with habitually clear eyes a savage society in the South Seas which had achieved an admirable social equilibrium. While American orators scolded the Old World as corrupt and decayed, the home of tyranny and oppression, he measured against their glorious American standards the attainment of the naked Polynesians. Equipped as no man in his day was by his contact with all sorts and conditions of men, having crossed many social frontiers without the baggage of the “yes-gentry,” he returned to the America of 1845 to record what he had observed. He could report that he had seen happy savages who could live together in charity, and this had made him form a higher “estimate of human nature than [he] had ever before entertained”; he could also report that he had lived on an American man-of-war where unbelievable human vileness that made the heart sick nearly overturned any previous theories of the perfectibility of man he may have had.

Though the business of navigating a ship never interested Melville, he felt a deep concern for the destination of the inhabitants of the world which the ship enclosed. He pondered the social relationships, the code of life and manners, the clash of individual on individual, which determined the nature of this compact, artificial society, and endeavored to relate what he saw there to the larger society which dispatched the ship on its errands of commerce or war. Every serious book or article which Melville wrote is a variation on the social theme (Thorp, 1938, xcvii-xcviii, my emph.).”

One wishes that Thorp had not mixed-up the reader with his bouncing balls of personified and incommensurable social and political categories; but he cannot help himself because the social science or anthropological skills he attributes to the intrepid “Melville” are part of one’s own religious, anti-scientific world-view, one in which the psychological acumen/self-control/decorum of individuals leads either to “admirable social equilibrium” or commerce/war.[vii]

[D.H. Lawrence, 1923, Ch. 9:] ” There are lots of circuits. Male and female, for example, and master and servant. The idea, the IDEA, that fixed gorgon monster, and the IDEAL, that great stationary engine, these two gods-of-the-machine have been busy destroying all natural reciprocity and natural circuits, for centuries. IDEAS have played the very old Harry with sex relationship, that is, with the great circuit of man and woman. Turned the thing into a wheel on which the human being in both is broken. And the IDEAL has mangled the blood-reciprocity of master and servant into an abstract horror.

 Master and servant – or master and man relationship is, essentially, a polarized flow, like love. It is a circuit of vitalism which flows between master and man and forms a very precious nourishment to each, and keeps both in a state of subtle, quivering, vital equilibrium. Deny it as you like, it is so. But once you abstract both master and man, and make them both serve an idea: production, wage, efficiency, and so on: so that each looks on himself as an instrument performing a certain repeated evolution, then you have changed the vital quivering circuit of master and man into a mechanical machine unison. Just another way of life: or anti-life.”

An organicist discourse conflates political organization with physical organisms. Is your society devolving into warring classes or sects? Then loosen the whalebone stays of your Victorian corset, follow with a dose of paternalistic Christian charity, moderate expectations for improvement, and the Hobbesian, over-urbanized nineteenth century will approach the happiness and natural harmony of Melville’s (clean, generous) savages. The West had not brought progress, but there was a Golden Age before greed, individualism and artifice [consumerism] blighted the landscape. Although his notebooks of the early 1930s had condemned romantic escapism, by the late 1930s a more conservative, even reactionary Olson, like Thorp, would find his Golden Age in archaic, pre-literate societies: there was no pattern to history, neither repetitious cycles of rise and fall nor the unfoldings of Whiggish progress. “I feel too strongly about chance,” Olson wrote, identifying with archaic societies mayhap because their warrior myths provided hero-fathers who, in some sense, won the battle with cosmic mothers.

Our analysis of the divisions that matter, of the source of social evil, will determine strategies for self-defense and amelioration. Whereas the scientistic Thorp had identified “the age” (Victorian materialism) as the great Adversary, the radically enlightened social theorist studies the structural constraints on piecemeal reform; reformers should not raise unrealistic expectations that only structural transformations in the political economy can accomplish. The corporatists studied in this book, demagogically appealing to primitive emotions with images of spontaneity, unity and relaxed tensions, cannot formulate a transformative politics because they do not arm themselves with facts by studying how “the system” actually functions before they launch their salvos. Revolutionaries will betray their populist politics by the optimism with which they describe the projected outcome: for the corporatist Left, all social evil will be swept away with the bloated capitalists who manipulate Wall Street and the market, while the corporatist Right would puncture bloated bureaucracies (that pamper non-whites and Nature) to liberate self-adjusting market mechanisms.[viii] The operative word is “bloated” and signifies very old upper-class associations of usurpers from the lower orders with puffed-up toads. The toads are the new men, the scientists and engineers who displaced the old elites to create the revolting twentieth-century “mass society” articulated by Ortega y Gasset in 1930. Being toads, they are naturally oblivious (blinded) to the lessons of the Fall; or worse, they are the fallen angels who caused the Fall.[ix] These demonic interlopers are possessed by an insatiable will to power a.k.a. the yen for absolute knowledge to be handed over, in their toadying way, to absolutist monarchs. The toads recognize none of the boundaries that have hitherto preserved order and continuity in the realms of good, tolerant kings, who, of course, frown upon excessive deference in their subjects, while the toads’ expansionism destroys the balance of power that the good king would like to protect. Such fairy tales suggest social hygiene, the purge, as rational means to a rational end.

For the so-called functionalists, the national/ethnic natural “community” (always a good thing) is a chemically regulated “system” optimally in equilibrium, like any other biological body seeking homeostasis. Unless overwhelmed, it adjusts to invasion by foreign agents through either expulsion (vomiting, defecating or excreting) or through internal destruction. Antibodies mask themselves in clothes closely resembling the enemy’s apparel; they may blacken up, enticing hostile microorganisms or aberrant cells to the crushing hug. The primitivist vaccinations of conservatively enlightened Melvilleans cannot be fathomed without seeing through this rhetorical strategy, since the agents of counter-subversion appear to be imitating Melville, adopting the persona of the Enlightenment historian/geologist/sleuth who detects hidden faults and fissures in harmonious corporatist ‘families’ and ‘honest’ individuals. But the black mask functions solely to establish a safe distance from their femme fatale; first they must kill it. The organicist model continues to be embraced by antidemocratic social theorists because, unable rationally to legitimate class rule, they are forced to keep worker-soldiers anxiously focused on defenses–on threats to national security. The forbidden materialist gaze, like the demand for intimacy in love and friendship, is experienced as pressure that leads to disintegration: a breach in the fortress, a hole in the wall, a ripping of the social fabric, a nuclear weapon.

Here is one Fascist writer from the 1930s who used some of these very images to lure the uncommitted to the camp of revolutionary reaction; note especially his segué from chastity to the “real” boundary between subject and object, his escape from merging: “Fascism arises…as an answer to the rise of Communism which accompanies capitalist decay. Communism is the toxin that calls up the Fascist anti-toxin. And Fascism does not appeal to the discredited capitalist values, but to pre-capitalist ones: it emphasizes those virtues and that way of life which capitalism has steadily undermined and which Communism would destroy completely…[T]he full romantic tide of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has risen with increasing force against all the foundations on which Western civilization was built: it seeks to sweep away things as various as Christian sexual morals and the epistemology which maintains that subject and object are real distinctions. Whatever it attacks it attacks out of hatred of discipline and authority; it is a philosophy which deifies hybris.” [x]

The inflated rhetoric of the populist propaganda I have described may be intended to advance particular careers by mobilizing resentment and hope in the lower orders, but must lead to disillusion and apathy when repressed facts of the real world return. Here is an unfinished early poem by Charles Olson, perhaps written to his lace-curtain Irish-Catholic mother, who is not at all like Milton’s Muse:

[14 Oct. 1932:] “You gave me curtains and I hung them/ fingering the coarseness of the gauze/ as though it were as soft as your white skin/ –Gauze/ That stood between us like the veil/ That separates this frantic life (Death)/ From that other death (Living) beyond./ Gauze/ That hid–oh. God, I want to press/ you close/ to me – on my knees before you -k  (This is enough–better to write it in the closest chambers of my brain–and body!)”

Perhaps Olson wanted to press mother’s/ God’s goodness into his evil flesh, but Mother’s blocked, blocking vision would lead the white rat into endless mazes and “mostly madness.”

As Melville showed us, the process of emancipation from parental imagos is long, tortuous, and perilous. Only a few individuals in a few modern societies have attempted this Promethean task in their own lives, yet civil liberties are meaningless without the self-knowledge and social knowledge that makes self-determination and self-expression more than a recruiting slogan. Social organization may always be conflicted, no matter how rational and equitable the planning and feedback mechanisms in the hands of socialists, or, no matter how free of government regulation the market may become in the hands of libertarian conservatives. The critical thinker, like Melville, is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but alert to ambiguities, flaws, hypocrisies and blind spots in the processes that legitimate authority. Visions of a more perfect union are deceptive when they imagine the uninterrupted bliss of suckling infants (the fantasy of kneeling Charles) as the end point of human evolution. These regressive longings for the idealized social relations of pre-modern societies are more powerful and dangerous than rationalists think. Charles Olson, like other irrationalists, would turn my analysis upside down. For Root Man, historians and political scientists are the primum mobile of social decay, “the Protestant thing” that is really Jewish. [End of unwinding excursus.]


[i]           60. See Barbara Heyl, “The Harvard ‘Pareto’ Circle,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 4 (1968): 316-334. The Paretans were viewed as fascists by their liberal Harvard colleagues in the 1930s. The seminar included Crane Brinton, Henry Murray, Clyde Kluckhohn, Talcott Parsons, Joseph Schumpeter, Bernard De Voto, and Robert Merton. Merton was a major figure in the developing discipline of the history of science; its agenda is avowedly anti-Marxist and anti-liberal. See Puritanism and the Rise of Modern Science: The Merton Thesis, ed. with Introduction by I.B. Cohen (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1990). George Sarton proposed the discipline in 1916 (see letter, Harvard University Archives).

[ii]           61. “Memories,” Lawrence Henderson Papers, Harvard University Archives. Cf. Joyce Appleby, Margaret Jacob, and Lynn Hunt, Telling The Truth In History (New York: Norton, 1994), 253. “Historians cannot comprehend all the variables bombarding a single event. Human beings participate in a dense circuitry of interacting systems, from those that regulate their bodily functions to the ones that undergird their intellectual curiosity and emotional responses. A full explanation of an event would have to take into consideration the full range of systematic reactions. Not ever doing that, history-writing implicitly begins by concentrating on those aspects of an event deemed most relevant to the inquiry.”

[iii]          62. See Joyce Appleby, et al, Telling the Truth In History, 51 and passim.

[iv]          63. See Carl Schmitt, “A Note on Europe,” American Review 9 (Sept.1937): 407-410. I am using Schmitt’s metaphors. The same argument can be found in Geoffrey Stone, “The End of Democracy: Ralph Adams Cram’s Plea for a New Order” AR 9, 365-379. For these fascist critics, “moderation” does not signify the willingness to compromise, but to subdue the bourgeoisie without sacrificing progress.

[v]          64. Folke Leander, “The Materialistic and the Humanistic Interpretations of History,” American Review 9 (Sept.1937): 380-406.

[vi]          65. Norman Foerster, “Introduction,” The Humanities After the War (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1944), vii. Wendell L. Willkie was a contributor to the volume.

[vii]         66. Thorp later edited A Southern Reader (New York: Knopf, 1955), stating in the Introduction that he had always found the South to be the most exotic and exciting part of America, its problems with Negroes and poverty notwithstanding. See E.M.W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (New York: Macmillan, 1943), for a concise summary of the organic conservative cosmos shared by corporatist thinkers from Plato through the late Middle Ages and the Elizabethans on into Central Europe of the fascist period. See also Stephen Copley, ed. Literature and the Social Order in Eighteenth-Century England (Sydney: Croom Helm, 1984), Introduction, for the contrast between the discourses of the humanists and Adam Smith (along with other analysts of economic institutions).

[viii]         67. See F.A. Hayek, Individualism: True and False (Oxford: Blackwell, 1946) for a concise enunciation of the main principles of libertarian conservatism in which science is annexed to hierarchical organic conservatism and the rule of expertise. His recommended lineage for “true individualism” is Locke, Mandeville, Hume, Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton. Hayek has undermined the search for legitimate authority based on common understanding and checks from below.  Man is innately incapable of grasping totalities; only deluded and false individualists would claim such an achievement. These include rationalist philosophes and utilitarians, along with the “original” German Romantics;  similarly looking to coercive, bureaucratic state power to impose order, destroying checks and balances attainable through spontaneous voluntary organization at the local level. The only role for the state is negative: to prevent any one group from arrogating to itself the excessive power that destroys equilibrium. Describing the conditions that enable true individualism, Hayek explained: “[It is absurd to think that] individualism postulates (or bases its arguments on the assumption of) the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose whole nature and character is determined by their existence in society (7)…The willingness to submit to [flexible but normally observed rules that make the behavior of other people predictable in a high degree], not merely so long as one has no definite reason to the contrary, is an essential condition for the gradual evolution and improvement of rules of social intercourse, and the readiness ordinarily to submit to the products of a social process which nobody has designed and the reasons for which nobody may understand is also an indispensable condition if it is to be possible to dispense with compulsion…coercion can probably only be kept to a minimum in a society when conventions and tradition have made the behavior of man to a large extent predictable (23-24).”

[ix]          68. Thorp’s fixation on stable savage societies can be explained by their focused contemplation upon natural creation that is abandoned in the introspective individual of modernity. Tillyard in Elizabethan World Picture quotes Hooker on this phenomenon: “The bad angels fell away voluntarily, and they did so because they turned their minds away from God and from God’s creation, itself, the evidence of God’s goodness, to themselves. There was indeed ‘no other way for angels to sin but by reflex of their understandings upon themselves; when, being held with admiration of their own sublimity and honour, the memory of their subordination unto God and their dependency on him was drowned in this conceit. Whereupon their adoration love and imitation of God could not choose but be also interrupted. The fall of the angels was therefore pride’ ” (50). The multicultural emphasis on diversity and inclusion refers back to the idea of God’s (Nature’s) plenitude and perfection described at length in Frank Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being.

[x]           69. Geoffrey Stone, “Excelsior,” American Review 9 (Summer 1937): 299, 303. Stone, a future Melville critic, was reviewing Stephen Spender’s Forward From Liberalism.

November 22, 2009

On “literariness” and “the ethical state”

The theme of this blog is the hopeless project to repair fragments. First I review the fiction of a unified Jewry, then I take on literary criticism as promulgated by New Critics, the organic conservative parents of today’s “New Historicists.”

Last night I saw the 1999 film Sunshine, directed by Istvan Szábó, and written by Szábó and Israel Horovitz. Besides its obvious merits as an epic rendition of three generations of Hungarian Jews in the twentieth century, the film raised a question that it is typical of this director’s work: can the artist find refuge in aestheticism at all times, or is there a particular moral imperative to unmask deceptive elites when they use the arts (including overt propaganda) to misguide the people? (In the case of the Sonnenschein/Sors family, the three characters played by Ralph Fiennes bond with the ruling authorities, first the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then, after the Great War, Hungarian nationalists in alliance with Hitler, and then, after the defeat of the Nazis, the Hungarian Communist Party, until the youngest Sors rebels against the Communists and changes his name back to the obviously Jewish Sonnenschein.) And more, can Jews, even when they convert to one of the dominant belief systems, find safety by separating themselves from other Jews? Obviously not. I bring this up today because the conflict in the Middle East has sharply divided what is sometimes called “the Jewish community,” though any alert Jew, secular or religious, would find the term implying a unified Jewish community absurd.

What is interesting about the reconstruction of the humanities curriculum (particularly with respect to critical method) in late 1930s America is the shotgun wedding between the aesthetic and the moral, in the service of what I have been calling corporatist liberalism or organic conservatism or the ideology of the moderate men, and that others call progressivism or the Third Way. These critics called themselves Formalists or New Critics, or more recently New Historicists. What follows are gleanings from the cutting room floor: footnotes to Hunting Captain Ahab that were saved for future publication.

[In what follows the reader should understand that I have not selectively excerpted the quotes from Norman Foerster’s seminal book, erasing concrete definitions, contexts, and examples. The vagueness and abstractness are in the original. Also note that Marxism had consistently been presented in the writings of  populists and progressives as a materialist ideology, whereas 1930s Marxists themselves were split on this crucial question: some were Hegelian-Marxists writing in the tradition of German idealism; others were materialists and positivists; see Partisan Review, the debate between William Phillips and Edmund Wilson.]

See Norman Foerster, et al, Literary Scholarship: Its Aims and Methods (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1941): especially the Introduction by Foerster, Chapter  Three by René Wellek, and Chapter  Four by Austin Warren. This latest group intervention in the teaching of literature was, as usual, directed against the disruptive and decadent forces of science, Marxism, psychoanalysis, relativism, romanticism, naturalism and realism, all of which were seen as reductive, deterministic, and invasive:  realism and naturalism had mounted false claims to objectivity.  Always born of literary tradition , not “social history, the biographies of authors, or the disjointed appreciation of individual works” (118), a literary work was a “dynamic system of signs” (97-98) to be judged by critics with respect to a larger, constantly evolving and unpredictable set of values (124-125).  Science and literature occupied different spheres: (the language of science was denotative and transparent; that of literature was connotative and generated multiple meanings including the accretions of previous interpreters, as Wellek and Warren explicated in a subsequent text, Theory of Literature, 1948, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation).  But science (materialist Marxism in the minds of the authors?) was not comparable to the literary as a guide to action:  for instance Catholicism was demonstrably superior to Marxism : “…no critic who is himself a scrupulous and integrated mind can regard Catholicism and Marxism—to cite a pair of contemporary options—as equally tenable readings of reality.  Privately, he must have arrived at the decision that one exceeds the other in maturity and coherence; and, as between two hypothetically equal writers, the one a Catholic and the other a Marxist, he must consider the “true believer” to be the greater, though this certainly need not mean that the critic will use his author, whether “orthodox” or “heretical”, as the occasion for doctrinal homily (166).” (Warren had cited critics, including Plekhanov and Farrell, who agree with his critical methods,  neither labeling their authors, nor practicing “vulgar sociology,” p.164)).

Maintaining their moderate credentials, the authors keep their distance from racialism, folkishness, and postulations of a national literature without exactly disavowing these ideas then associated with Nazism (113, 128).  (The impetus to the study of medieval, folk literature, and literature of the Orient, is attributed to the tastes of women and the middle-class, p.154.  Cf. postwar descriptions of Hitler’s base.) Foerster’s introduction does not deviate from his article on reforming the Ph.D in English in The Nation, 5/10/19.  For instance, “race” is the first item in the list of materials useful to biographers, ahead of “family, the social status, the individual experiences and mental characteristics of an author” (102).   Published in 1941, this volume, it seems to me, expresses (or echoes) the opposition of the universalist but tolerant, culturally pluralistic (121) Catholic Church to its upstart rival, German Nazism. For instance, Catholic toleration was demonstrated in the practice of censoring the Index Expurgatorius for “the uneducated and inexperienced,” while opening them to “the critical and mature” (148). (The Nazis did the same for Melville’s Benito Cereno and Billy Budd.)

After Strange Gods is cited favorably: “…some of Eliot’s recent prose pieces, notably After Strange Gods, seeks to “apply moral principles to literature quite explicitly” without forgetting the nature of literature….” (164).  Those who imagine that the New Critics banished moral criteria in favor of an uncluttered aestheticism have not examined the context in which their tenets were formulated. It was the class polarizing romantic Nazis who were the materialists, nihilists and iconoclasts.  The reformed critical theorists should integrate aesthetic and moral criteria; properly deployed in criticism of “maturity and coherence,” these were interpenetrating (143-151).

On the question of literariness, see René Wellek, p.101:  the “environmental context” is “supplementary” to the study of those intrinsic qualities of the art work considered in its [purity].  “When these environmental methods are pushed to their deterministic extremes, and literature is conceived as causally determined by any one or any combination of these forces, a proper comprehension of literature has actually been hindered. All such extrinsic studies do violence to the individuality of the literary work and to the nature of literary evolution. Any causal explanation of a work of art by some external activity necessarily must ignore the actual integrity, coherence, and also intrinsic value of a work of literature. The work is reduced to an illustration of an example in a different scheme of references.” (101-102).  Again, the invading foreign races and the freethinking Jews of Eliot’s speech seem to embody the extreme deterministic forces that are their targets. This is a crucial point overlooked by Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory (U. of Minnesota Press, 1983).  Eagleton wants to fit the New Critical artwork into the Marxian concept of reification (the fetishized commodity appearing to its producers as an object alienated from their labor) and to link the new critics to reaction and Fascism (as they understood the concept). Austin and Warren, however, deplored the notion of the isolated artwork; when they talked of individuality and originality, they meant that variety partook of the higher unity with traditional values (the value of order and continuity with the past). This makes them Burkean conservatives and gradualists. They are arguing against the tyranny of radical puritans and Jews, agents of apocalyptic social transformation and anarchy. Eagleton wants to represent the structuralist New Critics (like the phenomenologists) as false objectivists demanding closure and certainty, whereas (he says) the post-structuralists respect the biases of the participant-observer and respect multiplicity. He also (wrongly) suggests their inception  (flourishing) in the South during the late 1930s, thus linking them constantly to southern slaveholders. My book attempts to correct his account and his periodization; see my discussion of the corporatist discourse of The Nation and of Irving Babbitt and F. O. Matthiessen; the latter are activists who want to synthesize neoclassicism and romanticism in order to defeat heartless individualism/laissez-faire capitalism, in the Stalinist Matthiessen’s case, personified in the character Captain Ahab.

René Wellek, though he retains the discourse of organicism, must reject the absorption of literary history into natural history, for that would render intervention by elites into politics pointless. “We must conceive…of  literature as a whole system of works which is, with the accretion of new ones, constantly changing its relationships, growing as a changing whole….such predictable changes called laws have never been discovered in any historical process in spite of the brilliant speculations of Spengler or Toynbee (121-122).  On the other hand, there are cycles, but it is the genre or style which rises and falls:  [Warren:] “Between literary history in its strict sense and criticism, the relation appears to be this: That which is at once history and of literature must take form as a chronologically arranged study of an aesthetic sequence (as distinct from the biographical or social references of literature or its ideological content); it must concern itself with the cycle—the rise, equilibrium, and fall of a genre or style.  But this involves, at every moment, the use of critical criteria—in the definition of the genre (and what belongs or does not belong within it), in the estimate of what elements (added or enhanced or better arranged) are to constitute “progress,” and of what constitutes the norm or height of the genre toward which it advances, from which it falls away. It is thus a serious error to speak of literary history as concerned only with facts, for only a system of values can determine what facts are relevant. The literary historian must either be a critic as well, or borrow his standards from traditional estimates or from practising critics (169-170). Note that the critic/literary historian is not beholden to any particular class, but has become part of an independent intelligentsia in modern times, and yet he is always bound to “tradition,” even though new values are admittedly created. The key value here is “equilibrium,” an appropriation of homeostasis in the biological organism, misapplied to “the body politic.”

See also Austin Warren’s concluding remarks in a review of Christian Gauss, A Primer for Tomorrow, American Review 5 (Nov.?1934): 106-107. Warren joins Gauss in lamenting the loss of “a centre.” Warren writes, “But where is such a centre to be found? Here the Dean cannot help us, for he has found no “religion”, even in the reduced form of “social myth,” capable of enlisting his whole-minded and whole-hearted support. And he really desires incompatibles–a compelling faith, and toleration of all opinions. He wants liberty and authority. Ross Hoffman, in his article in the October REVIEW, sees the dilemma, candidly analyzes it, and boldly asserts that the time has come when the dispersive tendencies of democracy must be checked by the authority of the state, nationally representing Christian civilization. He envisages a “humanistic and ethical state, sworn to alliance with good morals and civilized religion, having much more in common with the early medieval monarchies and the Holy Roman Empire than with the modern, laicized, bureaucratic state”. Can such a “social myth” command Americans, divided as they are into many varieties of religion and irreligion, sectional in their cultures, diversely backgrounded? The prospect for an authoritarian state deriving its power not from the personality of a dynamic leader or the supremacy of a class but from a common religious and ethical faith, a common philosophy of values, seems more remote and more hopeless with us than with any other nation.  Yet Dean Gauss and Professor Hoffman and, I believe, most thoughtful Americans agree in their conviction that votes and tools cannot sustain civilization. What then, is the prospect before us? One shaft of hope, I repeat, has perforated our night. The sleepers have awakened; the watchmen have ascended the walls.”

The following issue of AR (December 1934) published Norman Foerster’s address at Rockford College, Illinois, “The College, The Individual, and Society,” repudiating materialism and the elevation of sentimental humanitarianism. “In its origin, humanitarianism was, I venture to assert, primarily a manifestation of materialism. It was not in harmony with the retreating forces of religion and humanism; it was part and parcel of the new emphasis on outer nature and the physical benefits promised by the Industrial Revolution. It called for freedom, but it meant nothing so certainly as it meant freedom from physical suffering. Freedom from physical suffering is a good thing, but it is not the best. Relatively to ethical and spiritual values it is not important. No great civilization ever made this its dominant preoccupation. If previous ages had emphasized proportionate living, or the welfare of the soul, or the development of personality, the humanitarian movement now emphasized the claims of the body.  It stirred appetite rather than virtue. Desires increased, things increased with which these desires could be satisfied; and men became more and more enmeshed in desires and things.” (136-137). (Does the reader see the critique of “consumerism” here?)

          Cf. Calvert Alexander, The Catholic Literary Revival (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1935), with its conclusion calling for a Catholic “free press” copying the independent publications of Jews, Communists and Socialists) to combat the pernicious influence of mass media and liberal Catholicism. The task for Catholics was to delegitimate “natural man” to reinstate “supernatural man,” but without returning to the nineteenth-century Romanticism of DeMaistre or Bonald.  Students of alternative media should study the influence of evangelical Catholicism (revolutionary conservatives, the born-again moderns) in the theorizing of public broadcasting as well as the formation of the academic disciplines of cultural history and the history of science, confessional psychoanalysis, and the ideology of democratic pluralism.

The New Historicism of the post-60s generation:  “Formalist” New Critics (notoriously conservative) supposedly focus on aesthetic values alone, ignoring context (which is not true, see above), while the corrective younger New Historicists (a mixture of self-styled radicals, including some Marxists, romantic anticapitalists, and primitivists) see texts as generated from contexts.  New Historicists claim to be relativists, but their relativism is professed in response to administrative adjustments to clamoring women and non-whites after the movements of the 1960s. Both generations derive their rooted cosmopolitanism from Herder.  See Wesley Morris, Toward a New Historicism (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1972); each chapter is headed with an epigraph from T.S. Eliot.  My diagnosis of romantic conservatism in the Left and New Left includes the “cultural materialists” such as Alan Sinfield, Literature, Politics, and Culture in Postwar Britain (Berkeley: U.C. Press, 1989), part of a series, “The New Historicism.”  Sinfield’s idealism comes out in statements such as “The contest between rival stories produces our notions of reality, and hence our beliefs about what we can and cannot do”(23), and in his epigraph to the Introduction from Gramsci: “In acquiring one’s conception of the world one always belongs to a particular grouping which is that of all the social elements which share the same mode of thinking and acting. …The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without  leaving an inventory.”  Introduced as “an exemplar of the New Historicism,” David Reynolds discussed canon revision at UCLA, 5/16/91, advocating “reconstructive criticism” (continuous with the “old cultural historicism” of Constance Rourke, William Charvat, and Henry Nash Smith) to end the Canon Wars: Scholars should reconstruct the socio-literary milieu by explicating a “broad range of literary texts produced in different regions and by different social groups.”

Some recent books are attempting to rehabilitate the Southern conservatives/New Critics, marking what they see as a powerful critique of bourgeois society/possessive individualism, but, alarmingly, are refusing to engage their protofascism. See for instance, Thomas Daniel Young, Gentleman in a Dustcoat: A Biography of John Crowe Ransom (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976):495, fn 14,  who cites Left-wing accusations that the Agrarians were preparing the way for fascism in America only to delegitimate them; Mark Jancovich, The Cultural Politics of the New Criticism (Cambridge UP, 1993); and Mark G. Malvasi, The Unregenerate South: The Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1997):153-4, stating that the Agrarians’ association with profascist Seward Collins (beginning in 1933) was “turbulent and brief,” and citing his doctoral dissertation. This is a strange claim given the continuing presence of the Agrarians in American Review. Would Collins even have approached the group to start his blatantly pro-Nazi, pro-Fascist journal had he thought their thought was out of synch with his own?

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