YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 20, 2014

Role models, Talcott Parsons, and Structural Functionalism

Tinguely construction

Tinguely construction

The persistent theme of this website is to decode the propaganda of all political factions, tracing their histories back to the invention of the printing press, when ordinary people first became at least partly independent of “traditional” hierarchies. So began the modern world in my lexicon, where anything can happen in relations with “authority” and new strategies for “order” were invented by threatened elites.

Reading comprehension (my strongest suit) became my preoccupation, for language, music, and visual symbols are powerful forces that may either aid emancipation from illegitimate authority, or may fasten “ordinary people” to bad “role models” as they are called today.

The phrase “role model” is constantly trotted out as THE solution to upward mobility for “victims” of capitalism and the modern world in general. The “leaders” we encounter are held to mold our characters and desires: parents, teachers, entertainers, artists, the media, public intellectuals. These figures may be forces for positive growth as unique individuals, capable of seeing through confidence men, or, as now-and-then rebels/protesters, they may relieve the negative aspects of “tradition,” allowing us to blow off steam—a process that leaves oppressive elites undamaged.

Or these designated role models may be so ambiguous as to be indecipherable, even as they appeal to our needs for safety and sense of belonging to what is called either “family” or “community.” It is my view that multiculturalism is one pervasive elite strategy that appears to “include” everyone in the “international community”, but in practice, divides groups from one another. Enter cultural anthropology and its spin-off: “interdisciplinary cultural studies” that avoid “economic determinism” like the plague.

For economic factors are too central to understanding the material world we live in, and too close to science, especially to the empiricism that strengthens “ordinary people.” They also buttress the claims of classical liberals (the Founders and framers of the US Constitution); try to read the Federalist papers without understanding the economic disaster of the Articles of Confederation, or without understanding the liberating conception of equality under the law—and the laws are at bottom about economic factors and their interpretation.

One reason I mention the moderate men so frequently is not out of antagonism toward moderation as such, but because “moderate conservatives” (the progressives) changed their spots with particular effectiveness at the end of the Red Decade (the 1930s), in order to lure “ordinary people” away from either communism or “laissez-faire capitalism” as it was derisively called by its elite antagonists. (FDR, a conservative reformer, called his opponents “economic royalists,” all the while courting allies such as Harvard social psychologist Dr. Henry A. Murray, whose notes on Melville’s White-Jacket insisted that ordinary people were not “trained to rule.”)

Central to that project of counter-Enlightenment were the fields of social psychology, social relations, and sociology. No longer would professionals in these fields follow the procedures of science (either “pure” or “applied”), following material evidence to its logical conclusions, but now, echoing British Tories and Whigs, their aims were “social cohesion” and “political stability”—sometimes called the Third Way.  If this meant abandoning the authority of (unreliably changeable) science, so be it. After all, materialist procedures buttressed the arguments of the Enlightenment (see https://clarespark.com/2009/12/12/switching-the-enlightenment-corporatist-liberalism-and-the-revision-of-american-history/.) Here are some of Parsons’s other achievements: 1. The declaration that free speech should be tolerated solely in a psychiatrist’s office; 2. An essay in a volume on antisemitism that described the Jewish God as domineering and genocidal; and 3. The blaming of native Nazism on “romantic puritans”. These claims were not hidden away in private communications or notes, but published in 1942, where I found them, with my eyebrows raised to my hairline.

Indeed, the great achievement of progressive sociology (as exemplified by Parsons and other authoritarian “liberals”) was to place the academic reader in a double bind: society was ideally a self-contained smoothly functioning machine, similar to that of the plant world. But social bonds were mystical, not materialist as the puritan romantics would have it.

Enter the role of language: “communities” substituted for identity of material interests, let alone the rule of law.  “Role models” became a useful form of identity formation, stopping moves toward individual judgment, for role models originated within “the system”—hyper-“individualists” must be outside agitators, troublemakers too reliant on their sense impressions and readings of key texts.

Indeed, the Parsons cohort had elaborate plans to enhance “national morale” that effectively identified gritty individuals before they ascended to positions of power. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/19/committee-for-economic-development-and-its-sociologists/ followed by https://clarespark.com/2011/01/02/the-watchbird-state/. These are excerpts from my book on the Melville Revival and are unknown or off limits to most researchers.)

Is it any wonder that artists have resisted the process by which they were invited to enter the machine world of the structural functionalists and their allies in the progressive movement, even as they, like Jean Tinguely, proclaimed the superior “social” qualities of the “self-sufficient” world of the artist? http://www.moma.org/pdfs/docs/press_archives/4149/releases/MOMA_1968_July-December_0081.pdf?2010. Would they have been exhibited under a different banner?


November 30, 2013

Railroading Captain Ahab

Everett Henry's Map of the Pequod's Voyage

Everett Henry’s Map of the Pequod’s Voyage

[What follows is an excerpt from my book Hunting Captain Ahab; it sums up my argument that progressives are incapable of describing this “great book” with accuracy, for they would have to admit their overweening statism as embodied in the White Whale (Leviathan).

Rockwell Kent's Starbuck shielding his eyes

Rockwell Kent’s Starbuck shielding his eyes

[Clare:] One feature of the (reinstated) organic society favored by many progressives is central to the Melville problem. Before the age of science, discovery, and increasing lower-class demands for a fully-realized popular sovereignty, Church and State conducted their affairs in secrecy. Their subordinates, ordinary people, were free to confess their sins to their betters, but without reciprocity; when Ahab fleeced double-talking “liberals,” from one point of view the gesture was tantamount to deicide and fratricide. For many of the corporatist thinkers who shaped the Melville Revival, Captain Ahab was the classic American type: a frontiersman, a “nosey Hebrew” (as D.H. Lawrence would say) whose curiosity must be moderated; similarly Melville’s dubious “character” as husband and father would preoccupy numerous Melville critics in the twentieth century. Much of the history I shall present is derived from published or archival materials long available but hitherto undescribed to students of American literature; literary scholars and curators have examined the astonishing archives of Henry A. Murray, Charles Olson, and Jay Leyda and biographies of Murray and Olson have been published by the most reputable presses. Many questions still remain tantalizingly unanswered and invite further research, but it is clear to me, if not to previous investigators, that in the unmonitored autodidact Herman Melville, Murray, Olson, and Leyda had an able instructor, a mirror, and an irresistible adversary who, insofar as he was Captain Ahab, must have been nervously deranged, twisted by hate. The isolato Ahab was the paradigm of social irresponsibility and his own worst enemy, while sociable Ishmael was the scholars’ antecedent doctor to society. Here is Ishmael’s ominous blood and soil account of Ahab’s origins in his native habitat: Nantucket was originally settled by peaceful Quakers, but they have been invaded by outside influences, they were “variously and anomalously modified by things altogether alien and heterogeneous.” (As Melville’s antebellum readers would have known, “…Nantucket Quakers [were] members of a sect notorious for its literally visionary beginnings and its subsequent antislavery zeal.” [i])

[Ishmael as narrator:]”…For some of these Quakers are the most sanguinary of all sailors and whale hunters. They are fighting Quakers; they are Quakers with a vengeance.

” So there are instances among them Nantucket Quakers of men, who, named with Scriptural names—a singularly common fashion on the island—and in childhood naturally imbibing the stately thee and thou of the Quaker idiom; still, from the audacious, daring, and boundless adventure of their subsequent lives, strangely blend with their unoutworn peculiarities, a thousand bold dashes of character, not unworthy a Scandinavian sea-king or a poetical Pagan Roman. And when these things unite in a man of greatly superior natural force, with a globular brain and a ponderous heart; who has also by the stillness and seclusion of many long night-watches in the remotest waters and beneath constellations never seen here in the north, been led to think untraditionally and independently; receiving all nature’s sweet or savage impressions fresh from her own virgin voluntary and confiding breast, and thereby chiefly, but with some help from accidental advantages, to learn a bold and nervous lofty language—that man makes one in a whole nation’s census—a mighty pageant creature, formed for noble tragedies. Nor will it at all detract from him, dramatically regarded, if either by birth or other circumstances, he have what seems a half wilful overruling morbidness at the bottom of his nature. For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.” (73-74).

[Clare:] In Moby-Dick’s pivotal chapter “The Quarter-Deck,” Starbuck, echoing Ishmael’s earlier diagnosis, reproaches Captain Ahab for abandoning his proper search for profits; the quest for vengeance against a “dumb brute” is blasphemous and mad. Ahab reproaches the imperceptive first mate, suggesting twice that he adopt the ways of geology and dig: “Hark ye…the little lower layer.” Then, lest Starbuck or other dense readers remain in the dark, Melville spills it: “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”[ii] Starbuck is briefly won over, but protests in a chapter that directly follows Ahab’s railroading speech:

[Chapter 37, “Sunset,” Ahab:] “Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!”

[Chapter 38, “Dusk,” Starbuck:] “My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a madman! …he drilled deep down, and blasted all my reason out of me. I think I see his impious end; but feel I must help him to it. Will I, nill I, the ineffable thing has tied me to him; tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut. Horrible old man! Who’s over him, he cries;-aye, he would be a democrat to all above; look, how he lords it over all below!…Oh, life! ‘tis in an hour like this, with soul beat down and held to knowledge,–as wild, untutored things are forced to feed–Oh, life! ‘tis now that I do feel the latent horror in thee! but ‘tis not me! that horror’s out of me! and with the soft feeling of the human in me, yet will I try to fight ye, ye grim phantom futures! Stand by me, hold me, bind me, O ye blessed influences!”

[Clare:] Standing by Starbuck, one Melville scholar has construed these pages as evidence of Ahab’s protofascism:

[Christopher Durer:] “Like Adolph Hitler, Captain Ahab reaches for the “folksoul” of the crew, and manipulates their minds with the sinister skill of Joseph Goebbels. As in Nazi Germany, so on board the Pequod, the excesses of the will play a major role, as is illustrated in the various speeches of Ahab, and her fated course is, in effect, another triumph of the will. Again, paralleling the transformation of the German nation under the Nazis, the crew of the Pequod becomes “a folk organism and not an economic organization,” since Ahab deliberately rejects the commercial advantages of whaling for a collective psychological fulfillment, resulting from the revengeful pursuit of one whale, seen as the enemy of the state…Ahab is in reality a prototype of a twentieth-century fascist dictator.”[iii]

Ahab and Starbuck as imagined by John Huston and Ray Bradbury

Ahab and Starbuck as imagined by John Huston and Ray Bradbury

[Clare:]For many Melvilleans, ineffably tied to their tormentor, the most unassimilable element of Melville’s psyche has been Ahab’s materialism yoked to universal standards of ethical conduct. To the extent that Melville is Ahab, he is mad, self- and socially destructive, tyrannical, and an arch-villain. Such views conform to the terror-gothic scenario, amplified by conservatives since the Radical Reformation, the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, the American and French Revolutions, then the intertwined reform movements of the 1830s-1850s, especially abolitionism. In the “tale of terror” brains and mobs are indissolubly merged; the pregnant bourgeoisie, swollen with a new class and its chimerical socialist utopias, has delivered catastrophes from the French Revolution to Bolshevism and Nazism. In two-dimensional artworks, this aristocratic narrative of the drowning Narcissus/crashing Icarus is frozen as the apocalyptic sublime, the style attributed to mass politics and America. Harold Lasswell, political science consultant to the influential postwar Committee For Economic Development, transmitted such neo-classical diagnoses of “romantic Fascism” and urged the adoption of Murray’s projective testing to implement a program of personnel screening and preventive politics, sighting latent radicalism in prospective leaders in government, industry, labor, and education before they succumbed to the blandishments of Ahab, thereby obviating sleazy witch hunts. Threatened or dispossessed elites continue to flood popular culture with identical antidemocratic propaganda, shaping academic disciplines and mental health treatments to blunt the tools of fiery artisans and their radical descendants.

Defining Melville’s mental states, then, was not simply grist for variously voyeuristic or discreet literary historians, but part of ongoing “Cold Wars” to diagnose and delimit normality and deviance. For some Melvilleans, the divisive apostate Melville, like his characters Ahab, Pierre, Isabel, the “Hegelised” German-Jewish geologist Margoth, and other Bad Jews, has been cast out; ‘Melville’ and other Good Jews have been taken in and ‘tolerated’ by ‘the nation.’[iv] The national bedrock is the sanctity of (upper-class) property (i.e., overweening state power: Leviathan), not the republican principle of equality before the law. Melville has been selectively embraced by a reconstructed lovely family–an erasure of conflict evident in the letters of Melville’s mother and wife. In my study of the Melville Revival, I challenge Starbuck’s view of Ahab as totalitarian dictator along with the concomitant argument followed by some Old and New Leftists that the voyage of the Pequod is an unambiguous allegory of capitalist technology and exploitation, Manifest Destiny, and mind-management in its harshest aspects.[v]

Labor Vincit Omnia

[i] 22. Carolyn Karcher, Shadow Over The Promised Land: Slavery, Race, and Violence in Melville’s America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1980), 172.

[ii] 23. Neither statement was included in the dialogue of the movie Moby-Dick (1956); thus there is no way to link Ahab’s quest to Mapple’s Sermon (which in the film does include the imperative to seek and preach the truth in the face of worldly opposition); moreover the interchange takes place in Ahab’s cabin and Starbuck challenges his authority immediately. The director was John Huston; the script writer Ray Bradbury.

[iii] 24. Christopher S. Durer, “Moby-Dick and Nazi Germany,”Melville Society Extracts 66 (May 1986): 8. Constructions of Ahab as Hitler invariably depend upon irrationalist explanations for the appeal of fascism and Nazism; rational political and economic interests have been erased.

[iv] 25. See William Braswell, Melville’s Religious Thought: An Essay in Interpretation (Durham, North Carolina: Duke Univ. Press, 1943). “Melville was aware of the deification of science in some quarters. Henry Kalloch Rowe, in his History of Religion in the United States, writes: ‘Many scientists were so enamored of their facts and hypotheses that they claimed too much. They seemed to take pleasure in the destruction of that which was old. They inclined toward a materialistic explanation of all phenomena to the exclusion of spiritual reality altogether.’ It is scientists of this type that Melville derides in Clarel in the character of Margoth, a Jewish geologist who says that ‘all’s geology,’ and who would do away with the ‘old theologic myth.’ Because of Margoth’s insensibility to spiritual things, the pilgrims condemn him severely, and Melville adds an extra touch by causing an ass to bray after certain of Margoth’s speeches” (111, my emph.). Even more crudely put, see Vincent Kenny on Margoth: “…a geologist, a ‘Hegelised–/Convert to science.’ He calls the Bible a tissue of lies and insists that the so-called Holy Land must be made over in the name of progress. Unlike the Syrian monk with his gentle appeal, Margoth repels everyone within sound of his loud voice.” In Companion to Melville Studies, ed. John Bryant (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 382-383. Insofar as Melville is seen to espouse these classically Christian antisemitic views, he would be a positive figure to organic conservatives discussed in this book.

[v] 26. D. H. Lawrence (1923) is cited by Ronald Mason, The Spirit Above The Dust (London: John Lehmann, 1951), as characterizing the Pequod as a sign for American industry. (Indeed,  Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature demonized America as a mongrel country that would, aided by the machine, destroy Europe and the white psyche. Ahab was destroying phallic power as epitomized in the White Whale, hence for Lawrence, Moby-Dick was a warning to true aristocrats.) With the exception of the try-pot, however, the technology of whaling ships had not changed for three hundred years when Melville wrote Moby-Dick. The mechanics of whaling partook of craft in hunter-gatherer societies, not the increasingly divided labor and mastery of nature characteristic of industrial processes. The few exceptions to the bad Ahab reading include Raymond M. Weaver, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic (New York: Doran, 1921); Granville Hicks, The Great Tradition (New York: Macmillan, 1935), 7; Henry Alonzo Myers, Are Men Equal? An Inquiry into the Meaning of American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell Univ.Press, 1955, c.1945), 51-55; Cecil M. Brown, “Through a Looking Glass: The White Whale,”Partisan Review (1969): 453-459; and Toni Morrison,“Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,”Michigan Quarterly (Winter 1989): 16-17. Hicks and Myers see Ahab as reformer; Myers, a pluralist, recognizes Ahab’s driving (but misplaced) intensity; he is the romantic “earnest reformer” (like those 19th C. crusaders assaulting “ignorance, clericalism, slavery, alcohol, capitalism, war”); whereas Cecil Brown sees a heroic revolutionary (contrasted with the “jew-bastard” surviving liberal, Ishmael); for Toni Morrison (a cultural nationalist), Ahab is a great foe to racism: “the only white male American heroic enough to try to slay the monster that was devouring the world as he knew it.” Most recently, Richard C. Doenges presented a paper “Ahab Redux: or Playing the Devil’s Advocate,”at the “Melville and the Sea” Conference, June 19, 1999, Mystic Connecticut. Doenges sees Ahab as both mad and a tragic hero with the whale a representation of Nature in its hostile mode; I view this as a moderated reading, not one entirely favorable to Ahab, who, unlike Ishmael, as the author argues, was blinded by the fire.

Readings by liberals and leftists hostile to Ahab include Charles H. Foster, “Something in Emblems: A Reinterpretation of Moby-Dick,” New England Quarterly (Mar. 1961): 3-35, who views Father Mapple as an ultra-abolitionist the likes of Garrison, Richard Hildreth, and Gilbert Haven, but Ahab as Daniel Webster, an apologist for slavery and a demagogue. Some see Melville, or Ahab (or both) as ineffectual bohemian, consummate narcissist or world-destroying arch-capitalist; or anticipator of Hitler and Stalin: see V.F. Calverton, The Liberation of American Literature (New York: Scribner’s, 1932), 272-273; Henry Bamford Parkes, “Poe, Hawthorne, Melville: An Essay in Sociological Criticism,” Partisan Review 16 (Feb.1949): 157-166; Richard Chase, Herman Melville: A Critical Study (N.Y., Macmillan, 1949), 101; John Howard Lawson, The Hidden Heritage (New York: Citadel Press, 1950): 428; James B. Hall, “Moby Dick: Parable of a Dying System,” Western Review (Spring 1950): 223-226; C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (self-publ.1953), its last chapter (suppressed in a later edition) linked Ahab to a duplicitous Jewish communist named “M.” See also Leo Marx,”The Machine in the Garden,” New England Quarterly 29 (Mar. 1956): 27-42; and H. Bruce Franklin, The Victim As Criminal And Artist: Literature from the prison (New York:  Oxford Univ. Press, 1978): Chapter Two.

October 6, 2013

The wild ones: Brando, Pacino, romantic rebels

Brando_-_The_Wild_OneIn prior blogs, I have tried to understand the appeal of such film masterpieces as The Godfather series. This blog will go beyond what I have written previously.

[Written in late August 2013:] Speaking of angst, on the flight home I watched all of The Godfather  (175 minutes). Like zillions of others, I thought it was a powerful and well-made movie; I have done zero research on it yet, but here are some guesses ahead of my future study. First, it was obviously Coppola’s FU to the Hollywood system. The first villain, though not identified as Jewish, was vulgar (rather like Citizen Kane/Cain). His name was Woltz (sounds German, could be German-Jewish). The corruption of Hollywood stands for a society that is utterly bought and sold by criminal elements: politicians, law enforcement, newspapers, everybody that shapes public opinion or protects us from the bad guys: (more Citizen Kane). The transformation of war hero, Ivy-educated Michael from “civilian” to his father’s successor as head of the family “business” could signify that brutalization of the young that is said by many historians to have followed the Great War. Note that conflicts between gang bosses are always referred to as wars, not disputes between criminals. In the world we see depicted everybody is guilty, except for the women, who are merely hysterical when they are not putting up with spousal abuse or neglect. They are both protected from the world of men, or are contented to be Sicilian breeders and feeders. Finally, I noted the importance of neighborhood, religion, family and ethnicity to Southern Italian immigrants. The Godfather series came out during the height of the social policy transition from an emphasis on class, to an emphasis on the durability of ethnic ties over class ties. The Corleone family has not assimilated, and doesn’t care. They hew to the colorful ways of 19th and 20th century urban ethnics with their scofflaw patronage systems, or in the case of the Corleones, Sicilian peasants and the patriarchal system. In comes localism, radical historicism, and multiculturalism. In other mass media offerings, the demonic is celebrated, in dangerous neo-Romantic fashion, see https://clarespark.com/2013/03/30/philip-roth-the-following-and-identification-with-the-aggressor/.

[This was a sentence from Hunting Captain Ahab (my book on the 1920s Melville revival), quoting a progressive American Rabbi:] Lee Levinger’s “exceptional individual,” the “genius or social discoverer” was linked to the “criminal or social rebel.” Mad and tragic misfits–like stubborn, hypersensitive, primitivistic Jews regressively merged with their “alters” or “other”– refused the “tolerant” “social self.”

In a Facebook comment yesterday, I expressed my discomfort with the Godfather series, arguing that it was typical counter-cultural in its intention and result. A few howls went up, as many view the first two in the series as masterpieces of movie-making. They are surely skillfully made, but I will continue to analyze them as morally suspect, even dangerously so.

First, are they artifacts of the counter-culture (including the Left)? In the days when I was on the radio or in graduate school at UCLA, I met countless leftists, some of considerable fame and reputation. Many of them urged me to prove my bona fides by engaging in some criminal act. One street theater fellow even urged me to steal something from a wealthy art-collector’s home. Another (in academe) attempted to borrow money from me (illegal), or to engage in an action that would help a red buddy to evade taxation. Being a first child, I am very disposed to following the rules, and such approaches were anathema. I always viewed my younger sister as the rebel in the family (which she was), which is typical first child behavior on my part. I was the Apollonian, she was the Dionysian.)

I left the Left because when the chips were down, these supposed freedom fighters did not support me when I was purged as program director by a Stalinist manager (who actually forged a document to “prove” that I had been warned as Pacifica procedures directed), and then the mostly Trotskyists or anti-Stalinist leftists for whom I went out on a limb, neither anticipated my imminent firing (which I did), nor did they go beyond letter-writing to the President of the Pacifica Foundation, a prominent Berkeley radical New Leftist, who ended up upholding “at will” firings–so much for solidarity with the labor movement and its allies. In retrospect, the leftist commitments of my “friends” did not amount to much. They were perhaps primitive rebels, of the type described by communist historian Eric Hobsbawm in one of his shorter books (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_bandit).

Then, after having received the doctorate in history, I was shopping my book ms. around. Verso books solicited the book ms., one of their editors told visiting academics that my book was to be published, but when I refused to drop the chapter on Tory resistance to the rising (crypto-Jewish) Whig bourgeoisie, I was warned to look elsewhere. Again, some prominent Left friends who had been published by Verso, sympathized with my “shabby treatment” but did nothing to defend my interests in getting the book published. Bucknell UP did the same song and dance; I must tone down the politics, or else. It was the Melville descendant, Paul Metcalf, whose close friend was on the board of Kent State UP, who took interest in my work and brought the ms. to the attention of Kent State UP, who not only published it with enthusiasm, but gave me no page limit, allowed extra photos, then entered it into every conceivable book award. These were mostly women younger than I, and exceedingly supportive.

Excuse this digression: the point is that these “leftists” or “counter-culture” types mentioned while I was still on the radio or in grad school, were all talk and no action. I was being the good lefty, encouraging the labor movement, while they were protecting their air time and such power as they imagined they had.


Back to the appeal of The Godfather series, or for that matter, of Al Pacino in the remake of Scarface. I have written before about ritual rebellion and the primitivist gesture.  (See https://clarespark.com/2011/05/12/the-great-common-goes-to-the-white-house/, retitled “ Rappers, Primitivism, and Ritual Rebellion”). No one would argue that The Godfather series (especially the first and second installments) are not virtuoso movie-making. Some aesthetes would argue that art and propaganda are not to be intermingled. I cannot agree with that judgment. Every art work is a cultural artifact and is positioned within the larger conflicts of the time.

Who does not want respect? Who does not want the family to be cohesive and protective of each member? How many of us get such respect or loyalty, in the family or out of it? How many of us crave the safety of the imagined family? The museums are chock full of jewelry or weaponry of bygone days, and they attract that infantile part of us that loves glitter, simplicity, and “honor”—no matter how bogus, no matter how far we fall back into a re-imagined early childhood.

Movies will do that to us, whether they serve as catharsis of violent impulses, or identification with heroes or antiheroes. Primitivism is a poor substitute for concerted political action grounded in the universalist ethics embodied in the laws that civilized people make. Enjoy the barbaric yawps if you like, but don’t pretend that they are a substitute for advanced morality. Above all, take note that these gangster sons in the Coppola movies never have to suffer through individuation. They neither “kill” the father, nor forge a separate identity from the Stern Patriarch. That’s where the wild things are.

September 8, 2013

Reading between the lines

Humpty-DumptyIn an often contentious thread on my Facebook page yesterday, I responded to a critic who suggested that I view my website as if it had the legitimacy of Biblical texts and rabbinic commentary. As part of my response, I argued that Biblical texts and associated commentary were “texts” susceptible to criticism and analysis (just as my blogs are meant to be by readers who fault my reasoning and/or facts).

Mine was postmodern talk (i.e., that all communications are “texts” susceptible to deconstruction) so this blog is about where I stand regarding postmodernism, which I do use selectively as part of my critical toolbox, along with “historicism” (See https://clarespark.com/2013/09/04/the-syria-crisis-and-historicism/.).

I.First, wherefore the term “postmodernism”? Here is the Wikipedia definition of the movement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism. Its critics are vehemently opposed to this movement in criticism because of its “nihilism,” its denial of “truth,” its challenge to the authority of “science,” its tendency to “anarchism,” and its “moral relativism.” In practice, the postmodernists often point to bureaucratic rationality and mechanistic thinking as the cause of such catastrophic phenomena as the Holocaust. Since the general tendency of cultural studies follows the postmodern/poststructuralist agenda, I will explain why I find much of it useful, if not all.

While in graduate school at UCLA, many postmodernists saw me as sympathetic to their cause, perhaps because I was doing “reader-reception theory” (exploring the drastically changing meanings assigned to Herman Melville’s texts since the 19thcentury). I.e., I was looking competing narratives that explained Melville’s sometimes difficult texts . There was a similar interest in my finding that many of the key Melville revivers were practicing psychological warfare, while in some cases, caving to academic pressures that conflicted with their spontaneous responses to Melville’s often ambiguous, even mysterious life and art.

The key word is “ambiguity” along with “indeterminacy,” terms espoused by “pomos.”  Being an introspective person, I do find my own life to be ambiguous in the sense that I cannot relate a personal history with a definite cause and effect sequence. Where I depart from postmodernism is in its insistence that all of science is “a swindle”, or that “mechanical materialism” is a philistine element of the Enlightenment that caused “the Holocaust,”  or that all attempts at reconstructing the past are fool’s errands.

II. Second, a few words about cultural pluralism as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. It is undoubtedly offensive to some readers that I view the Bible as a text, rather than seeing it as God-originated revelation; I imagine that my Orthodox Jewish son-in-law would see my position as Talmudic and typically Jewish. One reason for the duration of our representative republic is the notion of tolerance and relatively free exchange of ideas. Whereas Europe was engulfed in war following the Reformation, the Founders very wisely insisted in a separation of Church and State: there would be no established state religion. The culture wars are fought over this point, and they have polarized the country around competing readings of the Constitution, with “secular progressives” read out of the polity by some pundits on the Right.


III. Third, the notion of “the will to power” (the title of one of Nietzsche’s books).  I have seen many Facebook comments attributing “the will to power” as the driving purpose of their ideological opponents. Indeed, in a past field exam for the U.S. history graduate students, one question asked us to comment on feminism as “the will to power.” I took this to be a hostile response to such usurpers of male authority as Anne Hutchinson in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But in my dissertation research, I noticed that aristocrats threatened with dispossession by partly emancipated women, Jews, and workers after the French Revolution, attacked these rising groups as motivated solely by a demonic, hence illegitimate, desire to control them. It is my view that Foucault and his followers come out of this aristocratic reaction to the rise of the bourgeoisie with its all-engulfing “cash nexus.”

During the period that I was shopping my book manuscript, an occasional reader would accuse me of too closely identifying with the dastardly Captain Ahab, and imagining that I had the right answer to the Melville problem, notwithstanding that I refused to conclude anything in particular other than the suppression of key documents in Melville’s life and art that would have made his more influential critics look really bad. There are problems that are insoluble, particularly where the human psyche and a dearth of primary source documents are involved.

Some other Melvilleans claimed that I was vindictive owing to my firing as Program Director of KPFK in 1982! Obviously, I, a female with strong views about censorship, must be possessed by “the will to power” over authoritative male literary historians.  Whereas I should have backed off and admitted that there are a “multiplicity of readings” on all matters of fact. For these nay-sayers I perhaps invoked Hawthorne’s sketch of the uppity, puffed-up “Woman” : Hester Prynne was modeled on Anne Hutchinson as Michael Colacurcio once argued.

As the late Norman J. Levitt insisted in his takedown of the postmodernists among the academic Left, some science is “settled.”  But the “bourgeois apologist” Levitt is dead, and I hear rumors that 2+2=5.

will to power

August 5, 2013

Evil (crypto-Jewish) Puritans

PuritansHarvard sociologist Talcott Parsons once described American analogs to evil Nazis: they were the “romantic Puritans” of New England. In the Wall Street Journal of August 5, Kirk Davis Swineheart reviews For Adam’s Sake: A Colonial Saga in Colonial New England by Allegra di Bonaventura. The reviewer praises “the great Puritan divine John Winthrop” in the first sentence, then goes on to make the startling observation that New Englanders held slaves. At least he did not echo black supremacist claims that Jews dominated the slave trade, but his rendering of the sins of colonial New England find resonance in American Studies, in studies of colonial history, and in the fiction of Thomas Dixon, author of the screenplay for the notorious The Birth of a Nation—a movie that set off the second wave of KKK activity in the nineteen teens and twenties.

When I entered graduate school in the early 1980s to get my degree in US history, I quickly discovered that New England was one of the most studied in the social history (bottoms-up) sub-field. The Salem witchcraft trials were one sensational attraction, but so was the Antinomian Controversy of 1636-1638, considered to be a prelude for the worst excesses of the English Civil War. John Winthrop (whose organicist ideology harkened back to medieval economic practices) was pitted against the troublemaking avatar of market society Anne Hutchinson. I wrote about this controversy at length here: https://clarespark.com/2010/05/15/blog-index-to-anne-hutchinson-series/. [This series is highly recommended. Nothing like it anywhere.]

The favored explanation for the Salem witch hunts turned out to be “inequality” between settlers in Salem, and one book that explained the witch hunt was especially favored (by Boyer and Nissenbaum, both part of the academic left). Imagine my surprise when in my dissertation research I discovered that one famous American, a member of the Adams family, viewed the Puritans as Hebraic, and indeed as a “persecuting race.” What follows is an excerpt from Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. It brings together the notions of Puritans as proto-Nazis, the puritan as romantic, and the antisemitic slant adopted by Talcott Parsons and his predecessors or intellectual descendants in American history/cultural studies. Even Lord Byron enters the picture of villainy, racism, and tainted Jewish blood (as victim, not perp).

[Book excerpt:] In an effort to achieve upper-class unity after the Civil War against an expanding industrial working class, the essentialist anti-puritan/anti-Jewish/misogynistic reading of “the American character” was adopted by ideological brethren on American soil.  The “left” Romantics, like New England Puritans, were consistently “typed” or “raced” as Hebraic or Jewish by organic conservatives. But the fanatics were also “gendered” as the moral mother, her prototype Anne Hutchinson.  Take the case of the nineteenth-century American historian Charles Francis Adams who analyzed the Antinomian controversy (1636-38) that he claimed had rent and permanently damaged the infant colony of Massachusetts Bay even as the provoking Anne Hutchinson and her corrupting middle-class will to power were banished:[1]

[Charles Frances Adams:] “It was a struggle for civil power and ecclesiastical supremacy in a small village community.  As such it naturally–it almost necessarily–resulted in a display of the worst qualities of those engaged in it.  It illustrated also with singular force the malign influence apt to be exercised by the priest and the woman as active elements in political life.  Stirred by an access of ill-considered popular enthusiasm, the body of the freemen had, at the election of 1636, put a slight upon the time-honored magistrates of the colony, by placing the boyish Vane over their heads, in the office of governor.  An ambitious woman, with her head full of Deborahs and the like, and with a genius for making trouble, had then sought to drive from his pulpit, in the chief town, its long-settled pastor, in order to install her own favorite preacher in his place, with her kinsman as that preacher’s associate and successor.  In her day-dreams she herself probably occupied, in the new order of things she proposed to bring about, the position of a prophetess,–the real guiding spirit of the whole, –with her husband possibly in the judge’s seat.  Altogether it was an exhilarating vision,–such a vision as self-conscious and usually unappreciated natures have in every time and most places been wont to revel in….(569)…At the hands…of an historian whose intelligence is not mastered by his sympathies, she and her friends, including Governor Vane, are entitled to no consideration.  They went on a fool’s errand, and they brought great principles into lasting odium.

On the other hand, the way in which the adherents of [Henry] Vane and Mrs. Hutchinson were suppressed cannot be defended, without including in the defence the whole system of religious and political intolerance of that time.  But why should it be defended?  It is impossible to ignore the fact, and worse than useless to deny it, that the New England Puritans were essentially a persecuting race.  They could not be otherwise. They believed that they were God’s chosen people.  As such, they were right; all others were wrong.  If, therefore, they failed to bring up their children in the strait and narrow way, and to protect them and all the people from the wiles of the Evil One, God would not hold them guiltless.  The Israelites were their models in all things, and the precedents which guided their action were precedents drawn from the books of the Old Testament.  “So, by the example of Lot in Abraham’s family, and after Hagar and Ishmael, he saw they must be sent away.”  The Israelites were not an attractive or an amiable or a philosophical race; they were narrow, devout and clannish.  No one ever presumed to sophisticate away their cruelties or their persecutions.  Yet withal they were a strong and aggressive people, believing certain things implicitly; and accordingly they impressed themselves and their beliefs on the human mind.  Their very imperfections were essential elements of their strength.  They believed to fanaticism; and it was the strength of their fanaticism which caused their belief to dominate.  It was the same with the Puritans of New England. They persecuted as a part of their faith.”

Bad Anne Hutchinson

Bad Anne Hutchinson

[Book, cont.]    The impartial historian Adams’ misreading of ancient history is remarkably sturdy.  In his Hume-style portrait of the usurping Anne Hutchinson (a.k.a. Hawthorne’s “the Woman”) we have the ahistoric archetype of the totalitarian agitator, the clingy maternal superego that holds humanity, rulers and ruled alike, to universal and timeless ethical standards, that dispatches Ahab and Pierre on utopian crusades that are sure to fail. [2]  It is fascinating and alarming to contemplate the birthing of Adams’-style “pluralism,” scattering the dark shadows of ‘intolerant’ Hebraic Puritanism, cradle of both factions in the Antinomian controversy. Today Anne Hutchinson is a heroine to some feminists and libertarians, a proto-Nazi to one prominent New Americanist. Richard Brodhead, dean of Yale college and Professor of English, writing for an educated middle and upper-class audience, has depicted the lineage she spawned, worsened by “the emotional dependencies produced in the hyper-affectionate, inward-turning, hothouse family newly prominent in Melville’s time”:

“Captain Ahab is a figure of the psychically damaged man as visionary authority and charismatic leader.  Ahab knows and persuades others of the One Sole Truth, the truth of his demented obsession.  Pierre is another incarnation of a type that has run through American history, from the antinomian religious dissidents of the 1640s [sic] to the civil disobeyers and antislavery radicals of Melville’s generation to the sect and militia leaders of our own time.  In its harrowing rendition of the cult of private visionary calling, “Pierre” envisions this urge as leading not just to violent trashing of the conventional social world but to a meltdown or disorientation of the moral world.”[3]

[Book, cont.]    For gentleman scholars, English and American alike, Lord Byron was the epitome of adolescent negativity, Thomas Carlyle his antithesis.  Written in 1924, the English critic H.J.C. Grierson’s remarks could have been voiced by any of the lashed Melville scholars peering at Mother’s ruffled brow.  They register an appetite both for suffering and its relief, an oscillation between pious aversion and illicit admiration:

” To Byron’s acute, clear mind the mystical philosophy which is at the heart of romanticism was altogether foreign.  He never approached the inner shrine of romanticism where the mood of a mere rebellion begins to give way to dimmer or clearer intuitions of a new and positive vision, a faith to take the place of that which the spirit has rejected, the dawning of a new comprehension of the magic and beauty of nature, the mystery and beauty of human nature, full as it is of “misery, heartbreak, pain, sickness, and oppression.”

Byron has failed, or has he?  Pain is sublime, but so is the grandeur of social transformation.  Byron reminds us of the Jews:

“…He was held in the grasp of too many contradictions–antidemocrat and democrat, believer and blasphemer, man of the world and inspired satirist.  But, to speak more truly, the Romantics were all prophets, not unlike their Jewish precursors, intent at a period of world-disorder on the quest of justice and mercy and love and beauty, a recasting of life and reconstruction of faith…. He is the constant reminder…of what the world really is, of the greatness of the task of interpreting and reforming it.”[4]

Grierson, the devotée of Carlyle, but swept away, has conceded that the [Jewish] Byron is “really” in touch with things as they are. Lord Alfred Douglas, editor of Plain English, was less favorably disposed toward the Jews. His poem, “In Excelsis”(1924) contains images that evoke the Quarter-Deck scene in Moby-Dick as read by conservative critics sighting an uprooted materialist heretic in Ahab:

“The leprous spawn of scattered Israel/ Spreads its contagion in your English blood;/ Teeming corruption rises like a flood/ Whose fountain swelters in the womb of hell./ Your Jew-kept politicians buy and sell/ In markets redolent of Jewish mud,/ And while the ‘Learned Elders’ chew the cud/ Of liquidation’s fruits, they weave their spell./ They weave the spell that binds the heart’s desire/ To gold and gluttony and sweating lust:/ In hidden holds they stew the mandrake mess/ That kills the soul and turns the blood to fire,/ They weave the spell that turns desire to dust/ And postulates the abyss of nothingness. “[5]

[Book, cont.]    There is no single left or liberal standard to evaluate the social content of art.  Today’s ethnopluralists continue to scan texts for positive or negative images of their partisans.  In the 1930s, Stalinist bureaucrats separated proletarian and bourgeois consciousness so drastically that essentialist categories permeated their critical theory no less than the racialists’.  Only “workers” or the colonized masses (a.k.a. themselves) were free of perceptual distortions.  Hegelian-Marxists have attempted to locate the text in history, analyzing form and content to discover the concrete function it might have served in “the world movement toward democracy.”  Artists who artificially reconciled glaring social contradictions (between capital and labor, between ideals and reality) either through class collaboration or resignation or through formal closure–the impossibly happy ending, all threads tidily tied up–were held to be right-wing and antimodern.  Progressive artists were those who ripped into appearances to leave secrets exposed and contradictions hanging.  This is a test that Ahab and his blood-tipped harpoon should have passed; why didn’t they?   (For a hostile Southern view of New England puritans see http://www.sonofthesouth.net/revolutionary-war/pilgrims/puritans.htm. For a blog on the Wandering Jew trope, see https://clarespark.com/2010/11/16/good-jews-bad-jews-and-wandering-jews/.) For a more recent blog that stigmatizes all early Americans Protestant nativists/murderers, see https://clarespark.com/2014/01/08/the-frontiersmansettler-as-all-purpose-scapegoat/.


[1] Charles Francis Adams, Three Episodes of Massachusetts History Vol. II (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903, Revised Edition): 574-75. Henry Vane was a puritan aristocrat, briefly governor of Massachusetts Bay, later executed as a regicide.  Note that Hutchinsonian ambition is blamed, yet the Puritans were essentially persecutors. (Adams of course was the grandson of John Quincy Adams whose Puritanism was directed against the money power;  his father had married into wealth , as Daniel Walker Howe points out,  Political Culture of the American Whigs, p. 48.)  This inner contradiction pervades much of the historiography of the Antinomian Controversy. See my ms. “Anne Hutchinson’s Red Regiment.” It is also telling that Adams Jr. had turned against the unbending radicalism of his father’s friend Charles Sumner who may be the more immediate inspiration for his hostile portrait of the puritans.

      Cf. Laurie Robertson-Lorant, 1996, p.287: “…Melville intuitively sensed, perhaps in the deepest recesses of his own heart, an inner mother—not the haughty, controlling Victorian matriarch, but the great goddess whose nurturing presence antedated the angry God of the Hebrews and the Puritans.”  Again, the slur against the angry Jewish God: Referring to a late poem, “The Devotion of the Flowers to their Lady,” Robertson-Lorant  writes “Before the Old Testament patriarchs twisted it into a symbol of sin and death as part of their campaign to destroy  the worship of the Goddess, the snake was considered sacred because it was the creature who hugged the bosom of the Mother and heard her secrets.  The inviolate Rose, a trope for the female genitals, embraces the phallic Worm, or serpent, who is demonized in the Scriptures.  Thus the poem implies that violation and conquest are the direct legacy of a jealous God whose power is controlling and destructive, not generative and erotic. (611).”

Similarly she conflates Melville’s neo-Calvinist mother, the Hebrew God, and Ahab: “In a man-of-war world, the voice of the people is strangled by propaganda, which is violence transformed into a bloodless art. The Bellipotent resembles a twentieth-century totalitarian state where government officials invoke “national security” to cover politically expedient violations of civil rights [what civil rights?], and where military necessity dictates that perversions of language are acceptable political weapons, and justice as civilians know it does not exist.  In Moby-Dick, Ahab bends the crew to his insane will by incantatory language and brilliantly orchestrated ritual. With its intentional inaccuracies and syntactical twists and turns, Billy Budd anticipates George Orwell’s 1984. (594). As with many other scholars it is assumed that Ahab foresees or igores the inevitable doom of his ship and crew; the allegorical content of the quest as explicated in “The Quarter-Deck” is not engaged. Whether Melville views Ahab as geologic Promethean/ abolitionist or something less appealing to twentieth-century liberals, the comparison with Hitler or Stalin is ahistoric.

[2] See the Robert Altman-Donald Freed film Secret Honor, in which the Quaker Richard Nixon is dominated by his mother, the source of his over-reaching and tragic descent into madness.  First his mother’s little dog, he is set up to become the running dog of the fascistic nouveaux riches Southwestern capitalists after the war.  It is hinted that the Eastern establishment erred in not taking the talented young veteran and lawyer into their club; i.e., they lacked the necessary stabilizing pluralism that keeps the ship afloat.

 [3] Richard Brodhead, “The Book That Ruined Melville,” New York Times Book Review, 1/7/96, p.35. See also Brodhead’s essay “Melville, or Aggression,” Melville’s Evermoving Dawn, ed. John Bryant (Kent: Kent State U.P., 1997): 181-191. Relying on what he calls a recent revolution in feminist cultural history that has explicated the entry of sphere ideology and new roles for  the sexes, Ahab is now understood as the exemplar of individualist masculinity as constructed in mid-19th century America, the self-assertive entrepreneur resisting subjugation, his rage a cover for inner feelings of impotence.  Ishmael, not Ahab, represents Melville’s creative capacities, sublimating male aggression into “writing, irony, and verbal play “(182).

[4] H.J.C. Grierson, “Lord Byron,” The Nation and the Athenaeum, 4/19/24, 81-83.

[5] Quoted in Gisela C. Lebzelter, Political anti-Semitism in England 1918-1939 (London: Macmillan, 1978 ):26. The “Learned Elders” were the conspiratorial rabbis exposed in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the forgery swallowed whole by respectable conservative journalists in 1920. John Freeman, the second Melville biographer, published in Douglas’ periodicals, including Academy.

July 9, 2013

Preconditions for “hard liberty”

mammon-euro-dollar1I asked my Facebook friends what were the preconditions for a functioning democratic republic. The most offbeat answer was “peace and quiet.” I can understand that frustration with the constant undeclared warfare between fragments of the American polity. It is difficult to think rationally in the eye of the storm brought about by a strident, loud, and intrusive public culture. It is not only noisy out there, but many of our young cannot tell the difference between “real” and “fake.” Giving up on that distinction would mark the end of the American Idea.

I had promised a blog about democratic republicanism, but changed my focus because I believe that the libertarianism promised by the Founders is on the defensive. So is their New Rationalist belief in empiricism, checks and balances, separation of powers, and a marketplace of ideas. Through such novel institutions, “the truth will out.” The notion that America is a collection of truth-seeking individuals has been supplanted by collectivist, organic notions of grouplets, group-think, and exaggerated “racial” or “ethnic” differences. Walls have been erected that not even the most skilled rock climbers can surmount: anti-imperialists and postmodernists control teaching in the humanities. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/07/02/groupiness-group-think-and-race/.)  The result? Most of us lack the tools (or the access) to determine who is lying to us, and who is not. Between such doctrines as “the pastness of the past” (i.e., the past is unknowable) and cultural relativism, a.k.a. radical subjectivism, we are left scratching our heads. If they are so lucky as to be able to read Moby-Dick, our young cling to “interdependent” Ishmael, not truth-seeking  and demystifying Captain Ahab.

Not surprisingly, irrationalism has supplanted the rationalism of the 18th century. It helps to remember that vanguard ideas like “hard liberty” are always threatened by traditional elites, who prefer “servile pomp” (quoting Mammon’s speech, Book II, Paradise Lost. I am not claiming that either John Milton or Herman Melville was unambivalent about digging to find the truth.)

[Hunting Captain Ahab, chapter 4: excerpt:]

Ahab’s uncracked militancy has been badly misread; it is Ishmael who deems him a monomaniac, Satanically driven to destroy God and his ship; the same insults were hurled at the abolitionists by proslavery apologists and utopian socialists or land reformers during the 1840s and 1850s. Rather, Moby-Dick relates one big moment in the West’s progress toward intellectual freedom and responsibility: the withdrawal of legitimacy from duplicitous or confusing authority. Just as the narrator Ishmael attacks Ahab in Moby-Dick, the narrator of Milton’s epic Paradise Lost (1667) initially presents Mammon as a gold bug plundering Mother Earth:

There stood a hill not far whose grisly top

Belched fire and rolling smoke; the rest entire

Shone with a glossy scurf, undoubted sign

That in his womb was hid metallic ore,

The work of sulphur. Thither winged with speed

A numerous brigade hastened. As when bands

Of pioneers with spade and pickaxe armed

Forerun the royal camp, to trench a field,

Or cast a rampart. Mammon led them on,

Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell

From heaven, for even in heaven his looks and thoughts

Were always downward bent, admiring more

The riches of heaven’s pavement, trodden gold,

Then aught divine or holy else enjoyed

In vision beatific: by him first

Men also, and by his suggestion taught,

Ransacked the centre, and with impious hands

Rifled the bowels of their mother earth

For treasures better hid. Soon had his crew

Opened into the hill a spacious wound

And digged out ribs of gold. Let none admire

That riches grow in hell; that soil may best

Deserve the precious bane. (PL, I, 670-692, my emph.)

But during Satan’s council with the fallen angels, Mammon does not jibe with the greedy transgressor of Book I; rather, he demystifies Heaven and withdraws deference from an omnipotent yet darkly angry and inscrutable God. Has Milton turned about?

“…how wearisome

Eternity so spent in worship paid

To whom we hate. Let us not then pursue

By force impossible, by leave obtain’d

Unacceptable, though in Heav’n our state

Of splendid vassalage, but rather seek

Our own good from ourselves, and from our own

Live to our selves, though in this vast recess,

Free, and to none accountable, preferring

Hard liberty before the easy yoke

Of servile pomp. Our greatness will appear

Then most conspicuous, when great things of small,

Useful of hurtful, prosperous of adverse

We can create, and in what place so e’er

Thrive under evil, and work ease out of pain

Through labour and endurance. This deep world

Of darkness do we dread? How oft amidst

Thick clouds and dark doth heaven’s all-ruling sire

Choose to reside, His glory unobscured,

And with the majesty of darkness round

Covers his throne; from whence deep thunders roar

Mustering thir rage, and Heav’n resembles hell?

As he our darkness, cannot we his light

Imitate when we please? This desert soil

Wants not her hidden lustre, gems and gold;

Nor want we skill or art, from whence to raise

Magnificence; and what can heaven show more?

Our torments also may in length of time

Become our elements, these piercing fires

As soft as now severe, our temper changed

Into their temper; which must needs remove

The sensible of pain. All things invite

To peaceful counsels, and the settled state

Of order, how in safety best we may

Compose our present evils, with regard

Of what we are and were, dismissing quite

All thoughts of war: ye have what I advise.” [i] (PL, II, 247-283, my emph.)

Seventeenth-century readers would have understood Mammon’s mining as the insatiable curiosity of materialists; in the twentieth century, some influential anticapitalists claimed mining as a defining ingredient of the hated capitalist system.[ii] In his own eloquent voice, Mammon’s productivity was lustrous with moral effort and simplicity; “gems and gold” could signify enlightenment, for magnificent display had been tarnished as “servile pomp.” Mammon urges the rebel angels to abandon Satan’s war against God, to create a paradise on earth won by labor and endurance. Like Milton’s Mammon, the ‘radical’ puritan Ahab has chosen hard liberty: if necessary, the artist will stand alone against evil emanating from Leviathan (the State) or an irrationally punitive God himself, but with his sturdy (Providential) God-given conscience intact. Mammon’s freedom does not lead to anarchy or chaos: the golden reward is self-respect. [End, book excerpt]

In order to respect oneself, there has to be a (relatively autonomous, striving) self. Too much of our current political culture has abandoned the very notion of the individual. It is not too late to take it back. (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/23/progressives-and-the-teaching-of-american-literature/. The “intolerable national egotism” is declared off limits to the moderate men. Also for more demonic characters in contemporary culture see https://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/. This links Ahab, Bruno Heller, Patrick Jane, and Bobby Goren. For more on the suppression of primary source materials during the Melville revival, see https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/.)



[i] 30. Melville owned John Martin’s print of Satan Presiding At The Infernal Council (the setting for Mammon’s speech). Mammon has described the “peace and prosperity” that Henry Murray would accurately associate with the promises of “Communism” (not capitalism!), contrasting communism with militaristic, power-mad fascism in his 1943 report on Hitler’s psyche. Milton’s ambivalence is explored in Christopher Hill, Milton and the English Revolution (New York: Viking, 1977), but without discussion of Mammon’s speech. For a nineteenth-century reading, see David Masson, The Three Devils: Luther’s Milton’s and Goethe’s (London: Macmillan, 1874), 26-27. Masson revealingly distorts the text: “…some of the Angels appear to have been ruminating the possibility of retrieving their former condition by patient enduring…Mammon was for organizing their new kingdom so as to make it as comfortable as possible.”Cf. Carolyn Merchant’s use of Milton’s Mammon as arch-destroyer of the earth in The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper and Row paperback, 1983), 39. The “radical subjectivity” that stems from the fortunate fall has been seen as the beginning of “the power of positive thinking,” or “bourgeois order”; see Herman Rapaport, “Paradise Lost and the Novel,” Approaches to Teaching Milton’s Paradise Lost, ed. Galbraith M. Crump (New York: Modern Language Association,1986), 141; Rapaport teaches PL and M-D together; in a richly ambiguous remark he notes Milton’s “satanic leviathan” as an influence on Melville.


[ii]31. See W.P. Witcutt, “The Future of Capitalism: A Note on Werner Sombart,” American Review 5 (Oct. 1935): 531-535. Comparing Hilaire Belloc and Sombart, Witcutt wrote (praising Sombart for his “objectivity”), “By Capitalism Sombart, like Belloc, does not mean the régime of private property, as opposed to Socialism. He does not give any formal definition of Capitalism, but indicates certain constituent elements which may be gathered under the following headings. The Capitalist system consists: (1) of a society stratified into possessors of capital, entrepreneurs, and workers, pure and simple, possessing nothing–proletarians; (2) in the intensive utilization of mineral wealth. “The exploitation of riches beneath the earth’s surface and modern Capitalism are at bottom different aspects (natural and social) of one and the same phenomenon” (531-532). Cf. A.J. Penty, “The Centrality of Money and Machinery,” American Review 6 (Nov. 1935): it is the financiers who first destroyed the stability of peasant life and property. The merchants were the “haves,” the peasants the “have-nots” (2-3).

June 6, 2013

Morale in the time of crisis overload

MORALE_G_20110814213222[This blog is dedicated to the thousands of Americans and allies who gave their lives in the invasion of Europe: D-Day, June 6, 1944. They knew what a fascist was.] Here is an excerpt from my research in the Harvard University Archives that seems especially relevant today, in the light of multiple scandals, even panic, descending upon our electorate, for we may be in danger of losing the will to resist the juggernaut of anti-Americanism, surveillance, and corruption that has been revealed since the Benghazi affair last September:

[Book excerpt, Hunting Captain Ahab, chapter 2:] In the case of the [Henry A.] Murray-[Gordon] Allport worksheets [distributed nationally to progressive groups ca. 1941], those limits were scientistically delineated; the Jeffersonian tradition was co-opted and redefined in the indispensable “Values of the Past”: “The more awareness there is of the group’s heroic past the better the morale. (Freedom from Old World Oppression, Jeffersonian Democracy, etc.) The more awareness of a national tradition of which the group is ashamed or guilty, the worse the morale…The slogan “Make The World Safe For Democracy” was anchored neither in the historical past or future. A durable morale must be historically anchored in the past and in the future, as well as in the present (Worksheet #4, 4, 5).” So much for the messianic republican mission…. The ever-questioning, self-critical temper of the Enlightenment, the very Head and Heart of the libertarian eighteenth century, could only lead to bad morale. … they went on to say that racial or economic discrimination were bad for morale, that there could be no doubt about the prospects for a better postwar world. A hodge-podge of factors: “communism, fascism, economic chaos, depression, or uncertainty,” all would impair morale (6). Peace aims were suggested: an International Police Force would ensure that “There will be a better distribution of the goods of the earth; all classes will be benefited” (Red-bound typescript, 13).” But war aims must remain vague, for we were a “pluralist society,” not a “unified society”; there were different strokes for different folks: “Disparities of statements shouldn’t be too obvious or made visible” (#4, 7).Properly guided we would be historically anchored in promises of abundance and an illusion of unity, yet we were not fascists. [end excerpt https://clarespark.com/2011/03/27/progressive-mind-managers-ca-1941-42/.]

I have been in red-hot conflict with some internet comments that insist we are already under the thumb of fascists (as opposed to, say, proto-fascists as the Murray-Allport worksheets suggested), and that civil war is inevitable. My line is this: as long as the internet and dissenting publications and television stations exist, the republic is not finished, and certainly not comparable to Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, or Franco’s Spain, at least not yet. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/04/21/fascism-what-it-is-what-it-is-not/.) These persons whom I oppose are either trolls, agents provocateurs (same as trolls), or paranoid. They have been egged on by the doom and gloom contingent of internet rightist magazines, that ask for our financial support in the emergency that never goes away. I am familiar with this technique having participated in innumerable Pacifica Radio fund drives.

However, I do remember David Dellinger at one of our KPFK teach-ins warning other post-60s activists not to lead “emergency lives” (his exact words). In warning against burn-out Dellinger echoed the advice of Murray and Allport, quoted above: too much emphasis on failure in the nation’s past is bad for morale. Instead they recommend that moral failures be corrected. (I didn’t care for their particular nostrums, but that is another story.)

There is something obscene in the claims of these trolls or deluded rightists that all is lost, and those who would stop this administration must mount the barricades.  It is true that thanks to checks and balances and the internal reformation of the Republican party (still in process), that there are reputable journalists who have uncovered lawbreakers and liars in the current administration. But there has been no military coup to shred the Constitution or any demonstrable move by POTUS to remain in office past his second term.

Instead, we have the most vigorous debates over key issues, possibly the best writers on the once impenetrable Middle East (Barry Rubin, David P. Goldman, a.k.a. “Spengler”) that I can remember. It is true that some conflicts seem confused and murky (such as the arguments pro and con immigration reform), and that not enough attention is paid to public education, but that too is changing.

Political affiliations are not carved in stone. We can collapse in exhaustion and depression, or we can take heart that our institutions have been exposed, which gives an opening for new political choices. Our future will depend on our ability to be flexible and alert for fresh coalitions, perhaps even to relegate the distractions of the culture wars to the bottom of our list of “must think about now.” (For my defense of secularism see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/01/secularism-and-the-affordable-care-act/.)

De Chirico: The Terrible Games, 1925

De Chirico: The Terrible Games, 1925

May 6, 2013

The New Left activist scholars

activist_scholarshipIt was once my fantasy that scholarship entailed a thorough comprehension of the field under discussion, and that recent events were the purview of journalists, not scholars (who were supposedly waiting for the opening of archives and all primary source materials before rushing into print).

But with the antiwar movement that was contemporaneous with the student strikes all over America during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the activist scholar came into her own.  I remember one such, Temma Kaplan (author of The Anarchists of Andalusia), introducing herself to a seminar at UCLA as “an activist” (or possibly as “an activist scholar”).

Assistant Professor Kaplan’s self-introduction suggested a sea change in the teaching of the humanities and social sciences. It is true that it is difficult to escape ideological biases, but Hugh Thomas’s mammoth book on The Spanish Civil War used sources from the Nationalist Right, interviewed many of the survivors, some of whom lived in Franco Spain, and was careful to footnote many accounts that might differ from his own generally moderate narrative and interpretations. (For instance, I call him a “moderate” because he blamed socialist factions for not cohering to prevent the rightist nationalist rebellion led by General Franco in July 1936 that finally prevailed over the Spanish Republic in a conflict that rocked the world. For some estimates of the HBO treatment of the Hemingway-Gellhorn marriage see https://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/. I saw the movie as another bow to the Popular Front that formulated interwar and postwar conflicts as ‘the People’ vs. ‘Fascism.’ ).

But with the New Left there was no such eclecticism or acknowledgements that recent events might be too polarized for a relatively objective reading, not to speak of the usual inaccessibility of government or other official documents, hoarded by interested parties or descendants protecting the reputations of their illustrious ancestors.

Alexander Saxton, my own Stalinist dissertation director, upon seeing my first draft of an introductory chapter, explicitly ordered me to delete criticisms of his ideological allies (e.g. Ellen Schrecker), and never to praise his enemies (e.g. John Dos Passos, author of the USA trilogy). Later, he also let me know that he and his [communist?] wife had met one of my chief Melville revivers and his wife (Jay Leyda and Si-Lan Chen) and liked them very much.  I pressed ahead and devoted a long chapter to Jay Leyda, an outspoken and versatile Stalinist, and after years of stubbornly sticking to primary sources (some either previously restricted, misreported, or only briefly opened) got my dissertation approved. It was a Trotskyist scholar of international fame who agreed to be my co-chair after Alex Saxton retired. (Saxton even wrote a strong letter in support of my dissertation, telling me that I was the first student for whom he had done such a favor.)

Mine is not an unfamiliar story in academe. Since I had been studying multiculturalism during the period of my dissertation research (1984-1993), and had objected to its racialist discourse in various academic forums and conferences (sometimes to the screams or taunts of tenured left professors in both public and private spaces), I discovered that David Horowitz and Peter Collier were publishing a periodical called Heterodoxy that accurately described the PC takeover of teaching. At that time, Horowitz was living in my neighborhood, and running into him with some family members, I introduced myself to him as a reader of his work, which jibed entirely with my own experience as a hounded graduate student.

Somehow word got out that Horowitz and I were allies, since he and his wife April came to my first book talk at Dutton’s bookstore in Brentwood, shortly after 9-11-2001. Not long after that, I was interrogated by two well known Marxist professors (one a sociologist, the other an art historian) whether DH was a friend of mine. I take friendship very seriously and resent interference with my choices.  I should have known that I was likely being marginalized by the academic left as at least an “unreliable” or “uncontrollable.” The final blow came when Christopher Hitchens gave a talk at the Horowitz Wednesday Morning Club in favor of the Iraq war, and numerous old friends, activist scholars and journalists, saw that I had entered the Devil’s realm. In retrospect, it was not surprising that Verso Press backed out of publishing my book on the Melville Revival (after telling people it would be published), because I refused to downplay the importance of John Milton, or to puff F. O. Matthiessen and Lewis Mumford. This was during the mid-1990s. To my sorrow, none of my once close allies, gathered when I was program director at KPFK (and had power, it seemed to them), lifted a finger to criticize Verso, which after all was publishing their work.

As an experiment (to test an old but languishing friendship), I invited one of the academics who was a close friend in the 1970s to friend me on Facebook. From what I can gather, he visited my FB page, and was appalled that I was writing about Fox News and continued to link to articles from Horowitz’s Frontpagemagazine.com, and announced that he was going to block me, but that we might still be friends, and that he welcomed a face to face discussion of our political differences (where he would have an opportunity to tell me to my face that I was now an enemy to the working class?). I responded that I had not changed; that I was still doing class analysis, and still defending the cultural freedom of every individual. Then I asked him if he had read at least part of my book. He responded that he had, but was too busy to read much of it. That did it. I thought that I understood what impelled the second wave of feminism. Here was my reasoning: he liked me before I was a scholar and had no tools to question his anti-art, anti-bourgeois cultural politics. I supposed that I was a worshipful female in his eyes. Now that I too was a scholar, I surmised that he was too burdened with committee meetings and other academic responsibilities (complained about in one of his many e-mails) to expend any effort on a book that purportedly changed Melville scholarship forever, and moreover, notwithstanding that it was mostly written from the Left (though not with any orthodoxy)! (In a subsequent email exchange, he denies that he thought any such thing.) As for my claim that my book changed Melville scholarship, I make no apologies. That is what scholars are supposed to do: find new sources and revise all previous scholarship! If they can’t do more than take other scholars  down, without providing a reconfiguration of old problems, and providing new syntheses, then they are not scholars at all, but ideologues parroting some party line. You can be a scholar, or a journalist, or a party hack, but not all three at the same time.

Join us

I have told these stories because I want my readers to know that activist scholars have designs on their students, and must be outed and opposed. These activists use academic freedom to abuse it, and to smother all dissent, even among themselves. (Ironically, before his death, my dissertation director, wrote to me with great affection and appreciation as he enclosed his last book. But then he had the soul of an artist, and every now and then, it peeped out from some chinks in the Stalinist armor. I have forgiven his erratic conduct–sometimes censorious, sometimes approving– long ago. Bottom line: Saxton allowed me to write a Melville dissertation in the history department. No English department would have allowed me to write about “a major figure.” Such erratic conduct as Saxton demonstrated ironically fit in with Melville’s own wavering between aristocrat and democrat.)

Therefore, “Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”

February 23, 2013

Peter Gay’s “Freud”

gustav-klimt.JudithI 1901I have finally read all of Peter Gay’s Freud: A Life for our Time (Norton, 1988). (Counting notes and index, it comes to 810 pages.) It told me less about Freud in his time, than it did about the American appropriation of Freud during the time when Peter Gay, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, was making his way in psychoanalysis and academe, for Gay had adapted to the progressive movement’s halt to the Enlightenment (see https://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/preventive-politics-and-socially-responsible-capitalists-1930s-40s/, especially the sentences in bold face, quoting Talcott Parsons in the early 1940s). Progressives decreed that there would be no more “romantic” defiance of authority (i.e., experts), religion would occupy a different sphere of life than science, and Freud’s last (pessimistic) works (The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents, and Moses and Monotheism*) would be roughed up as products of old age, illness, and the shock of the Great War.

For the progressives are, above all, optimists about social engineering. Hence we learn that Freud was in part a Lamarckian with a strong belief in social psychology and national character. Moreover, he declared “a plague on both your houses” when referring to Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Thus Gay can use the word “totalitarian” knowing that he will get no argument from other progressives (i.e., social democrats/left liberals: see https://clarespark.com/2013/02/02/totalitarianism-polarization-and-single-issue-politics/).

Peter Gay is an intellectual historian and a trained lay analyst, so we are somewhat bullied in taking his judgments as an authoritative, fearless account of one of the great interventions in the treatment of neurosis—for instance, of hysteria, anxiety, phobias, and all illnesses with psychosomatic causes (today we call this “stress”). Yet his imagination is curiously circumscribed. For instance, at no point does he deploy anything like a class analysis to Freud’s topography of the mind: the interconnected superego, ego, and Id. (On the long-term effects of bullying see http://www.medpagetoday.com/psychiatry/anxietystress/37467.)

Were Peter Gay an appropriately daring lone wolf, as audacious as his subject, he would surely have recognized the lasting impact of the “Jacobin” controlled French Revolution as the Red Specter par excellence. He might have seen Freud’s “Id” as the rampaging People, known throughout Europe and America for their la-dee-da attitudes toward sexuality and ever available aggression against bullying superiors (i.e., the People as the embodiment of the Pleasure Principle); similarly the “the Superego” (internalized paternal conscience) could have stood for an aristocracy/haute bourgeois elite that could be either rigid or accommodating to the new industrial working class that threatened ancient elite prerogatives, while the Ego (or Reality Principle) would be the professional layer of healers and professors who espoused “moderation” in all things, and never, ever, bullied their patients or students to adopt those practices that served “social cohesion” and “political stability;” rather for the ego psychologists among them, it was “therapy” or practices that enhanced “civilian morale.” (For the alliance of aristocracy and working class against the ‘laissez-faire’ modernizing bourgeoisie, see https://clarespark.com/2011/07/16/disraelis-contribution-to-social-democracy/.)

Peter Gay 2007

Peter Gay 2007

Hyper-individualistic Puritanism (Moralizing Mothers?! See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/.) would have to go, for a harsh Superego would likely call forth world-destroying rebellion in the sons; and indeed Gay’s agitated portrait of Nazis in Vienna, the thieving, brutal mob, is indeed scary, and finally drives the deeply rooted Freud to England where he will end his 83 years in an assisted suicide, but after coming out as an anti-Semite in Moses and Monotheism. (Was it any wonder that Talcott Parsons of Harvard described the analogues of Nazis in America “romantic Puritans”? Harvard sociologists would be sure to tame that harsh superego, along the lines recommended by other moderate men, appropriating “Freud” for their mind-management techniques in the interest of “civilian morale.” See https://clarespark.com/2011/03/27/progressive-mind-managers-ca-1941-42/.** )

Personally, I remain fond of Freudian concepts such as the distinction between neurotic vs. objective anxiety, the ambivalence inside ourselves in our primary attachments to parents, siblings, and other love-hate objects, a subject developed by such as John Bowlby and other attachment-theorists. And without understanding regression, we are helpless in the face of fairy tales, Oscars weekend, pornography, and popular culture in general (See https://clarespark.com/2010/04/22/links-to-blogs-on-military-psychiatry/.) But I am not so fond of Peter Gay, who failed to interrogate his own class position/careerism in writing this supposedly authoritative, no-holds-barred biography, intended to instruct a crossover readership in the life of Freud and of his polymorphous perverse sex-obsessed (?)  followers, modernist followers who are leading us into decadence and the abyss (see https://clarespark.com/2013/03/22/traditionalists-on-the-culture-front/).

*I have read Moses and Monotheism three times, and have failed to find anything antisemitic about it, as some scholars have claimed. Freud explicitly states that antisemitism may be a displacement of resentment against Christianity, and that pre-Jewish, pre-Christian barbarism remains powerful. It may be that Peter Gay’s allergy to Freudian pessimism indicates his desire to appeal to progressive gentile American sensitivities. Here is what Freud actually wrote about antisemitism: “We must not forget that all the peoples who now excel in the practice of anti-Semitism became Christians only in relatively recent times, sometimes forced to it by bloody compulsion. One might say they all are ‘badly christened’; under the thin veneer of Christianity they have remained what their ancestors were, barbarically polytheistic. They have not yet overcome their grudge against the new religion which was forced on them, and they have projected it on to the source from which Christianity came to them. The fact that the Gospels tell a story which is enacted among Jews, and in truth treats only of Jews, has facilitated such a projection. The hatred for Judaism is at bottom hatred for Christianity, and it is not surprising that in the German National Socialist revolution this close connection of the two monotheistic religions finds such clear expression in the hostile treatment of both.” (Moses and Monotheism, transl. Katherine Jones (Knopf, 1949), pp. 144-45)

**[From Hunting Captain Ahab:] For Parsons, maladjusted neurotics were fomenting conflict and fragmentation, not adaptation and interdependence. But froward rebels could be cured in the socially responsible psychiatrist’s office through “steady discipline to which the patient is subjected in the course of his treatment. While the fact that he is required and allowed to express himself freely may provide some immediate satisfactions, he is not really allowed to ‘get away’ with their implications for the permanent patterning of his life and social relations, but is made, on progressively deeper levels, conscious of the fact that he cannot ‘get away’ with them. The physician places him in a kind of ‘experimental situation’ where this is demonstrated over and over again (561).”

Egon Schiele 1915

Egon Schiele 1915

January 7, 2013

Some backstory for Hunting Captain Ahab

MDcomicFirst take a look at this:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reception_theory. Reader-response theory was a postmodern move that contributed to the death of the author, and to the notion that there was no right or wrong way to read a text. Indeed, as publishers circulated my ms. to readers, some accused me of being another Ahab, bossy and doctrinaire, sniffing out miscreants in the profession, though there was little evidence for such a slur.

It was no miracle, but dumb luck that I came to write my big book on the twentieth century reception of a semi-forgotten Herman Melville, who was strenuously and controversially “revived” during the interwar period, then the Cold War, then again in the 1960s-70s.  This blog recounts the fortuitous conjunction of personalities and events that led to the unlikely publication of my weird and predictably unpublishable study of the Melville industry.

I begin by declaring how utterly boring most works inspired by “reception theory” are. Although the Wikipedia article starts the critical method with a gallery of leftists, historians had long been writing about the reception of major figures, for instance Goethe as received in England and America. I have always consulted such works and found them unreadable, disorganized, and boring. I had the same reaction to Peter Gay’s two volumes on The Enlightenment, which I have just mowed through, most of it unread owing to its lack of any visible method or thesis, though at the very end of Vol.2 (p.567), he brings up the Enlightenment-inspired American “experiment” and advises that the horrors that followed the generally anti-clerical 18th century (unprecedented wars and irrationalism, including class and racial discrimination in the 19th and 20th centuries) might have been averted had “the secular social conscience” (p.39) he believes join his subjects, been adopted in the supposedly progressive and exceptional USA.  Surprise, the famous Peter Gay is a liberal and advocate of the welfare state, as his discussion of Adam Smith makes clear.

What follows is a brief account of my good luck in being allowed to write about a major figure (Herman Melville), and then the peculiarities of the most important Melville revivers that led them to hoard scraps of paper that most scholars would never save, thus giving me access to their inner thoughts at the time they were reading and writing about Herman Melville. I.e., reception theory is useless without probing the inner thoughts and emotions of the critics/readers studied.

First there was my good fortune in knowing historian Alexander Saxton (who had written about Jacksonian Blackface Minstrelsy), who would be my dissertation director upon my return to graduate school after the Pacifica Radio purge of myself as Program Director for KPFK-FM (Los Angeles).  I told Saxton that I was quarreling with Berkeley professor of Political Science  Michael Rogin over Melville’s intentions in “Billy Budd,” and (perhaps) since Saxton was getting criticized by Rogin in a left-wing journal, he agreed to let me write about Melville as a history dissertation. (I was told by a Berkeley professor of English that they would never have let a graduate student tackle a major figure! From that conversation, I concluded that I had made the right decision in sticking with history over an English Ph.D.)

Second, the major Melvilleans, many of them young men at the time, complained bitterly to each other in private regarding their distressing physical symptoms while reading and writing about Herman Melville: they blamed Melville for their symptoms and accidents and were often sick of him. Normally, no researcher would have access to such private feelings, but one of my revivers, (the Stalinist) Jay Leyda, was a squirrel and hoarder of literally every letter and note paper (some written on the back of envelopes and library receipts) during his research on a chronology for HM (the Leyda Log), which could have started in 1939, though most scholars would say 1944. Lucky for me, his papers were opened after his death, and most of his Melville work was at UCLA Special Collections, twenty minutes from my house. (Leyda literally dumped his Melville materials on UCLA English professor Leon Howard, who was advised to trash most of it. But Howard too was squirrelish. Most scholars do not have protracted access to an archive, but I did, so could go through every box, and it took months and months, but the pickings were astonishing. Then I found even more material at NYU’s Tamiment Library, where a helpful archivist dug out yet more material of the kind that most scholars would kill for.)

Third, my years on the radio covering censorship in the art world had alerted me to the ways in which institutions ignored the wishes of artists (if they were shown at all), contextualizing their production to fit either the reigning ideology of the moment, or the wishes of wealthy directors and patrons. So I was diligent in reading and rereading Melville and in getting a grip on the total literary/historical output of his revivers, not just the ones who kvetched about HM to Jay Leyda (who had his own feuds and confusions).  I started reading Melville in 1976 and my book was not published until 2001.

Almost no one puts that much time into a single book, but I was obsessed with the “Melville problem” for it illuminated what had been murky about why individual writers were either in or out of the canon. At the same time, I came to see that the double binds and mixed messages that Melville plainly laid out in his fiction were duplicated in supposedly liberal institutions.  That is, there was allegedly no conflict between Truth and Order (i.e., the individual and society), between Science and Religion, between Nationalism and Internationalism. Supposedly, academics in the humanities were free to write what the evidence suggested, without interference from colleagues or superiors. That turned out to be grossly false, but since academic freedom was widely advertised, one could not talk about the backstabbing, departmental politics, hazing of graduate students, and other conspiracies. Unless one chose fiction to tell the tales, and the more avid readers of confessional novels located in the academy will know what I mean.

Finally, it was not until I had been into many archives and secondary sources that a pattern emerged: Melville was an autodidact, and the animus directed against him was directed against all readers who looked askance at authority since the invention of the printing press and the gradual improvement in mass literacy and numeracy.  Once I saw that, everything fell into place, and I could write a book that was logical, organized, and I hoped, readable.

What do I wish to be the takeaway from this short blog? Do not trust historians or any other experts who lack an abundance of footnotes and/or fail to demonstrate humility. It is likely that most professionals have an axe to grind, and are scared. Skepticism in the reader is the appropriate state of mind. Toward the end of my book, I warn the reader that I may be biased in favor of Captain Ahab, and that I ask myself everyday if I am not projecting my own mishegas onto Herman Melville in my insistence that Captain Ahab is speaking in the voice of the Romantic HM (sometimes blending his views with the more cautious Ishmael). The book is hefty because I included long quotes from my primary sources so that the reader could check ME.


For a summary of my startling research, see https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/, https://clarespark.com/2011/10/01/updated-index-to-melville-blogs/, https://clarespark.com/2011/03/11/review-excerpts-re-hunting-captain-ahab/. The third blog explains why everyone should read my book, not just literary scholars. As to how I organized my thoughts on the Melville pseudo-revival, see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/.

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