YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

February 16, 2018

Nikolas Cruz and his undefined “mental illness”

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magical thinking Mother Jones.com

The Florida shooter has been identified as “the epitome of evil” by one (or many?) anchors on Fox News Channel, with an astounding conformity to the resistance of the media to any but religious (specifically Manichaean) definitions of the moral spectrum: presumably, a strong dose of “love” would have eliminated the horrors of “hate” wrought by this young adult.

What is missing from this prescription? In no particular order:

1. Mixed feelings (of “love” and “hate,” aka “ambivalence”), especially in regard to his family, living and departed. What were the bonds and/or values encouraged in either Cruz’s adopted family or family of origin?

2. What are the politics of young Cruz? Facebook was initially pushing the notion that Cruz was a “white nationalist,” a typical liberal diagnosis. But that “trending” item has been removed.

3. What are the politics of Superintendent Runcie and the faculty of the high school that was the scene of the recent Valentine’s Day Massacre? I.e., what was Cruz learning about before he was expelled (the answer appears to be “social justice,” according to Runcie’s bio: (http://browardschools.com/superintendent/bio). Did Cruz’s various schools target any individuals or groups as “the enemy”?

Other related topics tackled by “moderate” Fox News include the notion of depression, to be cured by “connectivity,” as if “atomization” encourages “personality disorders.” (https://clarespark.com/2013/05/18/friendship-in-the-era-of-anti-freud/). Cure that patient of bourgeois values and presto-chango, magical thinking does it again, namely cures dis-order. Moreover, affected families suffering devastating losses will eventually “heal” (as if the loss of a child can ever be repaired: more magical thinking).

Finally, what constitutes “mental health” is widely contested. For religious conservatives, the father-led family is vital to national “unity.” For (liberal?) practitioners hoping to alleviate (unnecessary) psychic pain, a patient history is a prerequisite to any degree of cure.

From Harvey Weinstein or Rob Porter to Nikolas Cruz, that history is missing from mass media treatments of “abuse,” notwithstanding our current preoccupation with “relationships” and “identity.” (https://clarespark.com/2013/08/01/power-relationships-identity/.)


December 15, 2012

Sandy Hook, Candide, Melville, and the problem of Evil

Obama tears Candide, chapter 20, transl. Robert M. Adams (Norton, 1966):

[Candide:] “You must be possessed of the devil.

[Martin, the disillusioned scholar and Manichean:] He’s mixed up with so many things of this world that he may be in me as well as elsewhere; but I assure you, as I survey this globe, or globule, I think that God has abandoned it to some evil spirit—all of it except Eldorado. I have scarcely seen one town which did not want to destroy its neighboring town, no family which did not want to exterminate some other family. Everywhere the weak loathe the powerful, before whom they cringe, and the powerful treat them like brute cattle, to be sold for their meat and fleece. A million regimented assassins roam Europe from one end to the other, plying the trades of murder and robbery in an organized way for a living, because there is no more honest form of work for them; and in the cities which seem to enjoy peace and where the arts are flourishing, men are devoured by more envy, cares, and anxieties than a whole town experiences when it’s under siege. Private griefs are worse even than public trials. In a word, I have seen so much and suffered so much, that I am a Manichee.

[Candide:] Still there is some good.

[Martin:] That may be but I don’t know it.

(The late Robert M. Adams, who taught me expository writing at Cornell long ago, is the editor of this edition of Candide, and in his concluding essay, questions Puritan attitudes toward “work.” And yet, Voltaire was a great favorite in the Soviet Union.) Adams is devastating on the subject of Candide’s choice of the garden: “He has never really been with us, and now he is going back where he came from, to some place outside Europe, outside history, outside people, to a cold and lonely garden where the vegetable he cultivates most assiduously will be his own indifference, his own self-sufficiency. He was, is, and always will be, an outsider….” (p.173, 1966 edition. But see Georg Brandes’s two vol. biography of Voltaire, II, p. 145: To cultivate one’s garden signifies “…work [that] keeps them free of three great evils: ennui, sin, and poverty”…it is the consolation he holds out to the human race”. Nobody read Brandes any more (though Peter Gay, Ben Hecht, and I did), but Peter Gay sees Candide’s garden as all of Europe, and Voltaire as a radical activist.)

Adams's  Candide

It is instructive to see how each of us responds to this mass trauma in Newtown, Connecticut, so far away for most of us. We know almost nothing about Adam Lanza and his family dynamics, or even the details of the massacre, but we do know (or don’t know) about our own psyches. How we defend ourselves against such a horrible event is a way to get out of the inner darkness how each of us is put together. I will be watching myself, and hope others will try be self-reflective too.

In the comments that follow, I see each type of response as a defense against grief, seeking some soothing explanation or tactic that will explain what no one yet knows. I would suggest that all the comments, whether they come from Left or Right, tell us more about how we defend ourselves against our own often repressed rage and fears of loss of control than they tell us about Adam Lanza and the so-called ‘tragedy’ at Newtown, Connecticut.

I started with Voltaire’s controversial comment (speaking through Martin) on the problem of evil, a preoccupation that runs through the fiction of Herman Melville, who was well aware of Voltaire as a great infidel. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/. Melville invokes Voltaire in his annotations to Book 9 of Paradise Lost  comparing Milton with Voltaire as an “Infidel”.*  These annotations were read aloud by me on Pacifica Radio in 1990, but not published by scholars until years later, and then later detoxified by moderate men and women. It is notable that Lillian Hellman’s orignal play of Candide was watered down in later productions of the Bernstein musical.

Adam Lanza (20)

Adam Lanza (20)

What follows are various conservative diagnoses and advice regarding the ‘tragedy’** at Sandy Hook:

Bill O’Reilly: inexplicable “evil” [and he is expressing learned helplessness: nothing can be done (same as “the poor will always be with us”)]. Same with Hannity. Evil is the devil. A forensic psychologist agrees with Bill. Bill puts on camera a third grader Lebinski and her mother: questions her mother in front of the dazed child. Saturday: Monica Crowley: massacres not preventable [can’t imagine preventable measures and psychiatric interventions] Dr. Keith Ablow is an outlier on Fox: believes that the mental health system has broken down. Geraldo hates this kind of talk.

Family therapist/clinical psychologist; the community is gathering to start the process of healing. Various clerics: the children are angels now and are safe.

Second Amendment male, cited on FB: Obama had faked his tears to start the process of disarming the people.

[Added, 12-17-12: Bernie Goldberg criticizes Right wing for explaining massacre as absence of God in the classroom and abortion. O’Reilly brags that his was the best coverage on Cable (Friday) ignoring that he was intrusive in showing victims and a parent. He is also convinced that Lanza wasn’t a loon.]

Moderates, liberals and left-wing radical diagnostics follow:

The allover liberal explanation has three parts: 1.the shooter and his family; 2.poor security/wide availability of guns; 3. a culture of pervasive violence. All reiterated on Fox News Sunday.

Larry Mantle on NPR radio KPPC, Los  Angeles, interviewed a traumatized teacher and pushed her to divulge her feelings. Later some of her distraught words are repeated on NPR, All Things Considered.

Mental health professionals and other liberals: gun control. (i.e., regulate) (12-15) Dr. Alvin Poussaint from Harvard: a rare event, but gun control, conflict-resolution study should be supported.

Charles Krauthammer (12-14): he killed his mother and those attached to her. [He did not know that she was a volunteer teacher and that his brother claimed he might be autistic or suffer from some unstated learning disorder.]

Lefty on FB: Chicago is worse than this, and no one cares. Rich people get more sympathy and coverage. Lefty (cont.) OR Reagan started this by attacking warehousing of crazies (it was actually Carter’s idea, said one of my FB friends).

Dr. Alan Lipman (mental health professional) all signs were there that he could have had psychotic break into paranoid delusions. The aim is prevention and treatment. (Fox guest 8:20 am Saturday) See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Lipman. Founded a Center for the Study of Violence at Georgetown. Followed by Robert Stone, who diagnoses autism and lack of empathy.

Centrist child of divorce: incomprehensible and doesn’t know how he will explain it to his children.

Wall Street Journal editorial: a crushing event: let our emotions run pending further revelations.

*From Hunting Captain Ahab:  [To Mitford’s comment on Milton’s religious wanderings (xcix):] He who thinks for himself never can remain of the same mind.  I doubt not that darker doubts crossed Milton’s soul, than ever disturbed Voltair [sic].  And he was more of what is called an Infidel.

[To Satan’s seduction of Eve, Book IX, Melville double scored: “And life more perfect have attained than fate/ Meant me, by venturing higher than my lot.”(689-690) A partially erased note follows “Why then was this forbid? Why but to keep ye low and ignorant,/ His worshippers?”(also double scored, 703-705):]  This is one of the many profound atheistical hits of Milton. A greater than Lucretius, since he always teaches under a masque, and makes the Devil himself a Teacher & Messiah.  [Leyda marked the word “Fate” with an arrow].

[To Book X (5-11): “…for what can scape the eye/ Of God all-seeing, or deceive his heart/ Omniscient? who, in all things wise and just,/ Hindered not Satan to attempt the mind/ Of man, with strength entire, and free will armed,/ Complete to have discovered and repulsed/ Whatever wiles of foe or seeming friend.”]  The Fall of Adam did not so much prove him weak, as that God had made him so.  From all that is gatherable from Milton’s theology, the Son was created.  Now had the Son been planted in the Garden (instead of Adam) he would have withstood the temptation;–why then he and not Adam?  Because of his created superiority to Adam. [Leyda writes] “M adds, later: Sophomoricus”[1]

[Book X, (41-43): “…man should be seduced/ And flattered out of all, believing lies/ Against his maker…] All Milton’s strength & rhetoric suffice not to satisfy concerning this matter–free will.  Doubtless, he must have felt it himself: & looked upon it as the one great unavoidable flaw in his work.  But, indeed, God’s alleged omnipotence & foreknowledge, are insuperable bars to his being made an actor in any drama, imagined.[2]

NOTES to Melville’s annotations of Paradise Lost.

                [1] The word “sophomoricus” was written with a darker pencil and separated from the rest of the comment.

                [2] The two volumes, heavily annotated, with numerous comments erased or cut away, were offered anonymously at auction; Jay Leyda and Hershel Parker were allowed to copy the marginalia; Leyda reported to Harrison Hayford, 3/6/84 that Parker was “hysterical.”  Leyda’s transcription was sent to Harrison Hayford 2/4/85.  In a letter of August 18, 1987, Parker wrote to me “After seeing M’s Milton marginalia I would be more wary than ever about deriving a coherent ideology from M’s texts.” Hayford, at my request, sent me a photocopy 4/3/90. I have analyzed these annotations (and their implications for Melville scholarship) on Pacifica radio (KPFK) to celebrate Melville’s birthday in 1990 and 1991. Their new owner had refused access to scholars, but later sold the volumes to another anonymous collector who subsequently donated the Milton volumes to Princeton University.

A few of the comments have appeared in Robin Sandra Grey, “Surmising the Infidel: Interpreting Melville’s Annotations on Milton’s Poetry,” Milton Quarterly Vol.26, #4 (December 1992): 103-113.  Grey (a Milton scholar, not a Melvillean) finds herself “confronted with a reading of Milton’s ambitions and agenda so curious, indeed perverse, that perhaps only William Empson in Milton’s God and Harold Bloom in Ruin the Sacred Truths would have regarded Melville’s assessments without significant surprise” (110).  She has read Melville as another Satan: “…Milton’s powerful dramatic depictions of Satan’s character have interest for Melville largely as they reveal the tension in Satan between his former glory and virtue and his present degradations and viciousness” (fn 21, p.112).  Her comment on the Devil as Messiah annotation states her preference for “skeptical” Ishmael over “frenzied” Ahab, linking only Ishmael to the masque because of his remarks in the Whalers Chapel.  Cf. David Hume, HE, Vol.7, 337 (year 1660) on Paradise Lost, which he fervently admired despite its not being wholly purged of (Leveller) cant.

Hershel Parker has been reticent about these matters in the first volume of his authoritative Melville biography, Volume I (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1996).  Of the marginalia I have quoted, Parker has heretofore published only the comment about Milton and Voltaire (618).  (One other annotation is quoted, in which Melville ratifies separation of church and state in Mitford’s Introduction.)  Paradise Lost influenced Moby-Dick insofar as “Melville took some of Ahab’s qualities as Satanic opponent…”Ahab is the “tyrannical captain” likened to Cromwell  (699-700).  Parker does not discuss the mysterious prior provenance of these books.  In the Historical Note to the N/N edition of Moby-Dick, Milton is mentioned, but his battles are aesthetic ones alone, as these sentences hint: “ [While writing the book] Melville’s imagination for many months had unrolled at will a panorama of Milton’s dubious battle on the plains of heaven. The dubious battle being waged in his study was…the most intense aesthetic struggle yet waged in the English language on this continent.” (617).

Parker has answered my query regarding his mental states while copying the annotations, also his intentions regarding their publication:  “I will not write an essay on HM and Milton, ever, but I will refer to the marginalia–esp in the 1860 chapters.” “I wasn’t hysterical, except that Jay and I were at the Phillips Gallery in 1983, not 84, with someone else who simply would not shut up his mouth. It was excruciating. I was not hysterical about the annotations. As usual with me, the excitement came long afterwards—when I was drafting the 1860 chapters of volume two, in 1990 or 1991 or so. I sacrificed myself and led him around the corner so Jay could have some time with the books. By the time the volumes came back on the market I had a set of the same edition and carried that up to NYC and got all I could, in the right place on the pages; the day was very overcast, but I got some erased words, nevertheless, by carrying the volumes to the windows.  Princeton tried some very expensive processes, I understand, but failed to recover erased words….I will quote all the recovered annotations in the LOG, I assume, when the time comes.” (e-mail message to me Nov.1, 1997).

** I questioned the current meaning of ‘tragedy,’ inferring that “in the best of all possible worlds” only hubris or a similar character flaw can bring us down.

November 13, 2012

Orwell, superpatriots, and the election

(The Revised Orwell, p.204)”If one thinks of the artist as…an autonomous individual who owes nothing to society, then the golden age of the artist was the age of capitalism. He had then escaped the patron and had not yet been captured by the bureaucrat…. Yet it remains true that capitalism, which in many ways was kind to the artist and to the intellectual generally, is doomed and is not worth saving anyway. So you arrive at these two antithetical facts: (1) Society cannot be arranged for the benefit of artists; (2) without artists civilisation perishes. I have not yet seen this dilemma solved (there must be a solution), and it is not often that it is honestly discussed.” (George Orwell, in TRIBUNE, 1944). Quoted by Arthur M. Eckstein, “George Orwell’s Second Thoughts on Capitalism.”

The last month or so I have been surveying the wildly divergent postmortems on the life and writings of George Orwell, particularly those books that I have studied, Homage to Catalonia (1938), Animal Farm (1946) and his last novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). The three books are inseparable, for they reflect Orwell’s disgust, not only with Soviet Communism, but with dishonest journalists and others in the mass media, including those who produced Hollywood trash. Keep in mind that this media-centered diagnosis of capitalism run amok was very popular during the 1940s, after the Holocaust was finally publicized. That there could have been lurking antisemitism in the explanation that mass media was the demonic force allowing for the rise of Hitler was not broadly recognized.

Leftists (especially “the anti-Stalinist Left” and social democrats) read collectivist and workerist Orwell as one of them, while John Dos Passos, in his later years, lauded him as a force for individual free thought, flinging himself against crushing institutions that man himself had made. As the quote above suggests, Orwell had identified a structural conflict in capitalism that put him in a bind: the marketplace of ideas protected dissident artists like himself, but capitalism was, in his view, brutally imperialistic, fascistic and sadistic toward workers. The Orwell academic criticism is not as divergent in its politics as the Melville criticism, even though Melville, like Orwell, was a fierce opponent of what we now call “Doublethink,” hypocrisy, and lying in general. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/10/27/melville-orwell-doublethink/, or https://clarespark.com/2012/11/17/index-to-orwell-blogs/.)

For most Anglo-American critics, Orwell is a good “Socialist,” a “decent” fellow who sympathized with the troubles of the victims of imperialism, the poor and the working class in general, especially lauding the nuclear family with its contented working class husband, traditional submissive wife, and (quietly) rollicking children. But there are exceptions: not only Norman Podhoretz lauded Orwell’s keen opposition to Soviet Communism, I have found an inflammatory essay by the late professor W. Warren Wagar, who thought that Orwell had a devastating effect on postwar world culture. Like a few other Orwellians, Wagar seems to have thought that crypto-Nazi Orwell’s “dystopia” or “satire” was as much directed at the ultramontane Roman Catholic Church as it was at the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or the mass media as managed by the still-capitalist British Labour Party. (Keep in mind that the Labour Party was not pure socialism/communism, but was a proponent of the mixed economy, and an outgrowth of 19th century liberal Protestant Christianity; it was most certainly not the “democratic socialism” or “ethical socialism” touted by Orwell scholars as the next big step in civilization. See https://clarespark.com/2011/07/16/disraelis-contribution-to-social-democracy/. )

Is the term “totalitarianism” old hat and imprecise? One feature of the “totalitarian” societies so reviled by 1940s and 1950s liberals or socialists like Orwell is hyper-nationalism and the cult of the Leader/Big Brother. The more alert historians have discarded the “totalitarian” label as a species of utopian perfectionism that was always unachievable; in my own writing I have stressed early childhood as the locus of “total control”, a conception that is misapplied to 20th century dictatorships. Similarly we might ask: Is nativism dead, as many Rightists claim? Or are there still numerous Americans who swallow the notion that America is not only the greatest, most perfect nation ever conceived, and is now happily relieved of the racism, antisemitism, and exclusionism that sullied the national past. And what do these words mean, in concrete reality?

I bring this up because I find authoritarian pronouncements in nearly all sectors of our political culture, but I would never call our country totalitarian, or even on its way to such an awful outcome. Rather, it is deeply fragmented, as it always was, often along sectional or regional lines. Some of us live within an ahistoric religious mentality (where the major conflict is between Good and Evil), while others live in the world of concrete institutions, that may be evaluated as fair, productive, and admirable, or, alternatively, deeply flawed and requiring reform. But whatever our current understanding, we take institutions one at a time, avoiding grandiose claims for the totality. My aim in this blog is to refine how we use political language. One of the bases of our authoritarian culture today is loose talk about prior regimes, including our own. There are persons among us who won’t do the labor of detailed history, but like to throw around big conceptions as part of their self-righteous ideologies; many believe in the devil and in the demonic as independent forces in history, apart from the actual structure and practices of specific institutions. It is they, I argue, who fail to criticize the notion of totalitarianism, a term that had clout in the 1940s and 1950s, but should be thrown out along with other outdated assessments of Germany, the  Soviet Union, Italy, and Spain between the wars. Peter Blume, The Eternal City

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