YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

November 18, 2017

Is Little Women still relevant?

Louisa May Alcott stamp 1940

Madelon Bedell’s populist-progressive scholarly “Introduction” to Alcott’s now classic Little Women (1868) evades the mixed messages that modern women receive for an explanation of Alcott that will not please 1. lesbians (who are convinced that the obviously autobiographical character of “Jo” and her attachment to “Marmee” as proof that Alcott was one of them) or to 2. Freudians (who would see Little Women as minimizing the attachment to Father, especially in her choice of a much older intellectual husband, but also her choosing to educate poor boys, not girls at the conclusion of the book). [On mixed messages delivered to women, see https://clarespark.com/2017/10/27/moral-chaos-of-womanhood-the-harvey-weinstein-scandal-and-lolita/.%5D We are asked to surmount the contradiction between virgins and whores all why we knock ourselves out to “realize our potential” –but as what?)

Bedell does however throw bones to anti-capitalism, the fashionable feminist theory of “domestic feminism” (i.e., women get power and status in the revitalized domestic sphere), unconscious motivation AND to behaviorism. It is as if Bedell wants to please everybody—a typical female tic that I recognize within myself.

L’il Friends of Kelly

But perhaps the greatest lapse in this College Edition is Alcott’s obvious connection to sentimental reformism of the American antebellum period, which Bedell ignores in her Jazz Age-style dismissal of the moralism of Alcott’s life and art, an attachment to melodrama that persists today as political figures portray themselves in the archetypes of Christianity* (Alcott mentions in passing, the large nose of a Rothschild, while emphasizing “Amy’s” turned up nose. See https://clarespark.com/2015/06/15/hillary-clinton-and-second-wave-feminism-looking-backwards/, https://clarespark.com/2015/11/07/the-change-of-heart-explanation/, and https://clarespark.com/2013/08/09/melodrama-and-its-appeal/.)

What would an unconfused feminist write today? Is such an outcome even possible, given the overriding value placed on family/state cohesion and stability?

*Ann Douglas denounced Protestant reformism in her widely reviewed The Feminization of American Culture (1977), but she let Catholicism off the hook. Now I view her as being an apologist for a Christian consensus (in the spirit of Rerum Novarum, 1891) and a rehabilitator of the happy family that, as a feminist, she should not have done. See https://clarespark.com/2012/09/22/materialist-history-and-the-idea-of-progress/.

Madelon Bedell, biographer of Alcott family


October 21, 2014

The Klinghoffer protest and the problem of ‘realism’

KlinghofferprotestA rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout Europe and America has alarmed Jews, Israelis, and their supporters, hence the furor over the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. Many of those protesting have focused on “moral equivalence” between Jews and Palestinians as the opera’s chief sin, and indeed, many journalists and critics in the mass media have fed into this impression. To my knowledge, only Phyllis Chesler has given a more detailed account of the pro-jihadist content of the opera, as she did last night: http://www.phyllis-chesler.com/1377/israel-hatred-has-scaled-the-wall-of-high-culture. I assume that Chesler would not risk her reputation by making up the details that support her allegations of Jew-hatred. She saw the opera, while I have not. (For an even tougher essay by Alan Dershowitz see http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/4808/klinghoffer-opera.)

This blog, however, has a different take on the problem of the opera’s presentation in this polarized environment (with current ultra-liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio supporting “free speech,” while the more conservative ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani supported the protesters). I will not address the politicization of “art” for I believe that all art of any genre is ideological, and that no artist in any medium can escape ideology reinforced by patronage, institutional context, and family or personal history. In this era of formalist criticism (at best—we should be so lucky to get even that in this ignorant period), I dare not hope to find broad agreement with my assumptions. Nor do I believe with politicians of either left or right that “speech” is ever “free.”

What is neglected in the current excitement is the problem of “realism” and what I write here is more about what we expect from art: do we hope for an enlargement of our imagining past, present and future, or an affirmation of our religion and politics (as in Nazi or Soviet glorification of labor and sacrifice (“socialist realism”), or do we latch onto the Enlightenment project of demystification—i.e., the tearing away of all veils to get at something either absolutely truthful or, if not that foolishly (?) ambitious, the unpacking of symbol and myth? [Readers of my blogs will not be surprised that I prefer the latter, but not without the recognition of opportunism, ambiguity, or unconscious errors of interpretation on my part or of those critics I admire.]

We would like to think that our favorite artists (usually those that affirm our belief systems) are beyond anything so tawdry as prejudice or hitching their stars to fashion and publicity; similarly, we like to believe that family photographs are not simply a posed or candid moment in time, but convey the essence of family bonds, not bondage to sadists and masochists.

Take the case of depicting a Palestinian terrorist, for instance the murderer of Leon Klinghoffer. How would a librettist or musician convey what drives such an individual or social movement to barbarism? How would we, in the brief period, s/he is onstage, grasp all the factors which drove him or her to murder? Michael Walsh, for instance, is defending great depictions of villains, but he does not interrogate the history of melodrama, and why we take its vocabulary of heroes, villains, and victims to be pure representations of real people and real events, persons and events which are beyond the ability of even the greatest geniuses to fully decode. See for instance https://clarespark.com/2013/08/09/melodrama-and-its-appeal/. With melodrama we enter a dream world only.

We may imagine that there is something called art for art’s sake that is purely aesthetic, beyond cavil. It is the same with the writing of history. The 60s and 70s generation was fond of studying history painting in order to point out its ideological content. But in many cases, that led them into hatred of all art as propaganda. No less than the heroes they demystified, these critics are the victims of melodrama and its myth-laden vocabulary.

As an art lover myself, I cannot join these New Leftists in their tearing down of all cultural artifacts as fatally tainted by politics and myth. I like gripping ‘art’ of all genres. Nor can I join rightists in their call to “take back the culture” (at the expense of a more accurate history, psychoanalysis, and science).
What then is the solution to the Klinghoffer fracas? I have nothing to offer but the marketplace of ideas, and suspicion of our own motives in crossing out that art, culture, or political argument that makes us squirm. We need all the insightful criticism that we can get, including criticism that takes down the elevation of value-free art and commentary. “I am not so innocent.”


August 9, 2013

Melodrama and its appeal

melodramacrThis is a defense of the professional historian, with a further exploration into the dream world of melodrama. It follows https://clarespark.com/2013/08/08/neocons-academics-melodrama/, and is best read in sequence. (I am taking sides here, but I ask my “side” to take into account the emotional attachments and psychodynamics of the other side, as well as our own.)

It is all too easy to fall into the language of myth. Thus, in the current polarization over whether or not Ronald Radosh is a hero or a villain (the same goes for his antagonist Diana West), we may fail to transcend these mythic stereotypes. I brought up the pervasiveness of “melodrama” in my last blog, but skipped over it too quickly.

There are numerous academics who insist that relatively objective history is impossible and we should not even bother. Hayden White, who ran the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz, is one example: he argued that all history falls into the genres of literature, such as comedy or tragedy. His “postmodern” followers are legion and many are in powerful positions. I remember Richard Slotkin, a popular professor at Wesleyan University and author, arguing with me at a conference on “The American Hero” in 1978: There could be no escape from myth, he insisted. I demurred, though I will acknowledge that it is no easy task to get beyond our own subjectivity, i.e., the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world we inhabit. These are stories that often have well-defined heroes, villains, and victims. I was born August 10, 1937, and I still amaze myself with reconfigurations of my family dynamics, all my decisions, including “mistakes”, or the flaws vs. the achievements of my immediate family. I pride myself on my willingness to correct errors, to escape the vocabulary of melodrama, but wonder if I have fallen into yet another trap of subjectivity, that perhaps I will never “get it right.”

This is healthy. Before I went to graduate school in history, I was compiling a context for sentimental song as popularized by the middle class before the American Civil War. It was then that I saw the abundance of songs about dead infants (infant mortality and early death were common occurrences at that time). I also noted the prevalence of heroes, villains, and victims in the discourses of the popular composers of the antebellum period. I read Melville with relief, because I was sick to death of gruesome lyrics and relieved to see him satirize the emotional vocabulary of his contemporaries, for instance in his send-up of sentimental novels: e.g., Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852). Decades before Freud, Melville interrogated his family myths, and ended up with ambivalence and ambiguity, not only about his choices, but with respect to his feelings about his closest relatives, particularly his “dear, perfect father.” Melville, then and now, remains one of our greatest critics of melodrama. He has been punished for that, and his major crime would seem to be that he makes us think; he makes us look inside ourselves, and even then, we may never know what motivated us for certain. His protagonist “Pierre” is another Captain Ahab; there are striking similarities between the two Romantic heroes. The lesson they suggest to the reader is that the Romantic hero may be an antihero, even a destructive, demonic force. Melville does not conclude with clear answers; he leaves readers somewhat disoriented, but with a curious, questioning, unsettled kind of mind.

My major gripe with populism is that it hews to the romantic vocabulary of hero, villain, and victim. “The people” (rarely defined in terms of precise socio-economic class or gender) are the victims of villains (finance capital, warmongers, Jews, political hacks, professors), but are saved by designated heroic figures who finger the bad guys, and turn victims into heroes as they defend the people’s detective against onslaughts from, say, Ronald Radosh or the professors and journalists who support his critique of Diana West. Years ago I faced a similar situation when I defended Walter Lippmann from the followers of Noam Chomsky. Some Chomsky-ites remain unpersuaded by my essay, remaining heroically tied to their Leader against the forces of “manufactured consent” (i.e. the Jews who allegedly control mass media. See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/). I understand these attachments, which find their force in loyalty to families and other authority figures who hold the powers of life and death over us, even as we grow into adulthood.

Hero-worship is unattractive and un-American whether it emanates from the far Left/counter-culture or far Right. To many populists, Joseph McCarthy has been vindicated by the briefly opened Soviet archives after 1989, but they do not appreciate the caution that trained historians and political scientists exerted when interpreting the revelations about real Soviet espionage during the 1930s onward. It is one thing to recognize that Alger Hiss was guilty, but quite another to implicate all liberals, including FDR and his entire administration in Hiss’s treason. It is one thing to argue that the Cold War was fought too weakly (see Revel’s How Democracies Perish, summarized here: https://clarespark.com/2011/04/09/jean-francois-revel-and-father-mapple/), but quite another to claim that “America” was occupied by commie-symps for decades, that “America” was “betrayed” by moderates and liberals.

None of this mythologizing would be possible without the “culturalist” turn in the writing of U.S. history, combined with the promiscuous gullibility of internet users who enjoy being “inside-dopesters.” Economic interest was erased in favor of ethnicity and identity politics. The result? Our journalists usually fail to describe partisan conflicts (including internal ones) with accuracy. In my reading, economic factors and beliefs about wealth creation are foremost in the current polarization: Keynesians believe that the State is the most potent force enabling upward mobility, while free market theorists generally favor supply-side economics as more efficient and conferring improved life chances. (This conflict about wealth creation perhaps splits both political parties internally, complicating our political culture insofar as it goes unnoticed.)

What makes historians competent is their long immersion in archival research and their participation in the most heated debates over what really happened in the past. This is a discourse that has no place for hero-worship. We ought to suspect everybody, including ourselves as we read what is available to our eyes. It takes the most arduous training and ongoing humility to become even somewhat competent in any sub-field. To imagine that an English major from Yale, armed with only a bachelor’s degree, is able to correct the work of an entire group of historians (some of them sadder-but-wiser neocons), is to indulge oneself in the most primitive and destructive thinking.


August 8, 2013

Neocons, academics, melodrama

Dallas flyer Nov. '63

Dallas flyer Nov. ’63

A welcome voice of moderation and self-examination has crept into some writing on the internet and other mass media. Yesterday, Frontpagemagazine.com published Ronald Radosh’s “take-down” of Diana West’s new book that in his view revived the take-no-prisoners approach of Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society (See http://frontpagemag.com/2013/ronald-radosh/mccarthy-on-steroids/#idc-container.) Today, August 8, 2013, I have been in touch with other writers who are calling for a renewed attention to the style in which various commentators who write for a generally conservative audience are addressing their concerns. [Added 8-11-13: Clarice Feldman quoted passages from this blog here: http://www.americanthinker.com/2013/08/demagogic_writers_and_the_people_who_love_them.html.]

(At the same time, a major realignment seems to be underway within the Republican Party as libertarians, classical liberals, and “moderates” or “RINO”s slug it out. I find the “neocons” in this debate to be more appealing, though I understand the outrage of those libertarians who have had it with authoritarian governments, leaders, and families, even as I disagree with their sometimes illiberal views on such questions as gay rights and feminism.)

Since I have been critical of those “moderate conservatives” who masked themselves as New Deal liberals on this website, I think it is time I clarified my own stand on “moderation.” (See https://clarespark.com/2010/11/06/moderate-men-falling-down/.)

True moderation is linked to balance. These are powerful words that send a signal to the emotions of the reader that s/he will not be humiliated or stomped underfoot with ridicule. The reader will not fall down or be tossed over a cliff. So far, so good. I have tried to be forthright and scholarly, specifying my sources and giving weight to those opponents whose considered opinions clash with mine. The key word here is “considered.” I have little patience with amateurs who take advantage of the internet and cable news to delve into political and diplomatic history willy nilly, taking advantage of the poor educations of their target audience—an audience that is hurting, confused by conflicting truth-claims, and looking for guidance. It is possible to be moderate without being wishy-washy or wavering. We are all limited by limited access to documents and to our own inner psychodramas. And yet we strive for objectivity and for truthfulness. But the heated political language of our time, playing on our emotions, makes moderation a wish, rarely achieved. Some of our “unmaskers” are self-righteous opportunists, unbalanced and averse to even friendly criticism. True, they seek your financial support, but there must be more to it.

Here is a tentative suggestion: Popular culture is often expressed in a language of melodrama that turns us back into the dependent states of childhood, even infancy. How ironic that a wildly popular book that celebrates sadomasochism is entitled “Fifty Shades of Grey.” For the images of S-M are black and white, elevating domination and submission, sometimes simultaneously. In this regressive alternative universe, we are Heroes, Villains, and Victims, switching places at alarming speed. Insofar as we are attuned to these archetypes, we are stuck and dependent on demagogues.

There is no place for true moderation in the S-M universe, or in the language of paranoid populists who hate the more emotionally and intellectually responsible and mature. There is something to be said for the moderate tone and demeanor of the public intellectual/statesman, self-revising, self-critical, and attuned to the worries and fears of the reader. (For part two of this analysis see https://clarespark.com/2013/08/09/melodrama-and-its-appeal/.)


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