YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 8, 2013

Is Ahab, Ahab? The Free Will Debate

Royal Doulton Ahab Jug

Royal Doulton Ahab Jug

I take it for granted that readers know that Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and some Jews believe, to various degrees, in free will, while atheists, Freudians, other Jews, and the Left lean toward determinism, turning our “choices” into problems to be solved, perhaps never. This blog discloses the evasiveness of the Melville industry in confronting Herman Melville’s most painful quandary.

There are two competing narratives in academic studies of Herman Melville:

1. The Narcissis/Icarus myth.  In this narrative, Melville, identified too closely with his romantic characters Ahab and Pierre, crashed or drowned after completing Moby-Dick (1851) and its sequel  Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852). The short stories of the 1850s begin what Melville’s first 20th century biographer, Raymond M. Weaver, named “the long quietus.” This narrative was taken up by Lewis Mumford, Henry Murray, and some New Leftists who would read “Billy Budd” as an ironic text, a work of protest not to be taken literally, notwithstanding Billy’s blessing of Captain Vere. But what these critics ignore is the unresolved character of the issue that most exercised Melville: the competing claims of science and religion that, unlike, say, cultural historian Peter Gay or the philosopher William James, he could not reconcile in some form of cultural pluralism. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/01/07/some-backstory-for-hunting-captain-ahab/.)

Here is an example of the author’s quandary: In “The Symphony” one of the final chapters of Moby-Dick, Starbuck has urged Ahab to give up the hunt for the White Whale and to return to the (ordered) family. Ahab replies, putting on the table the question that tormented Melville through life: Is it Fate (pagan), free will (Christian), or determinism (Spinoza style modernity) that informs “his” decisions. To leave this question unresolved, links Melville/Ahab with the demonic Fedallah (and perhaps the Wandering Jew).

[Melville quote:] “What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozzening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new- mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year’s scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swaths – Starbuck!”

But blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.

Ahab crossed the deck to gaze over the other side; but started at two reflected, fixed eyes in the water there. Fedallah* was motionlessly leaning over the same rail. [Moby-Dick, Chapter 132, my emph.]


*One internet source links Fedallah with Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book One: “Wandering o’re the earth, Through God’s high sufferance, for the trial of man, By falsities and lies the greatest part Of mankind they corrupted to forsake God their Creator, and the invisible Glory of Him that made them to transform Oft to the image of a brute, adorned With gay religions full of pomp and gold, And devils to adore for deities.” Another “deviant” painting suggests an affinity with the Wandering Jew, who is seen as daemonic, like Nature herself.

Fedallah as Wandering Jew: Behnone

Fedallah as Wandering Jew: Behnone

2. The Conversion Narrative. The second wave of Melville studies wrote a far different story of Melville’s rise and fall (and rise). Narcissus and Icarus were abandoned in favor of a Christian-neoclassical narrative, one that returned Melville/Ahab to the conservative family, by returning doubting Herman to conservative religion. It chief accomplishment was in rehabilitating “Billy Budd” through defending Captain Vere’s judgment in condemning Billy to death, and in declaring the Civil War as the turning point in Melville’s biography. No longer the whacko Romantic, the bloody catharsis of North versus South sobered up crazy Ahab; Melville was now a proper believer, as his long poem Clarel, a poem and pilgrimage to the Holy Land (1876) “proved.”  The chief perpetrators of this narrative have been the Yale graduate students of Stanley Williams, curiously led by autodidact Jay Leyda, an unabashed, unreconstructed Stalinist and lover of Sergei Eisenstein (who had made his own journey from early romanticism to neoclassicism at Stalin’s behest).

Implications for teachers and readers of Herman Melville’s oeuvre. Except for the primitivist early books that made Melville famous and that offer few problems of interpretation once the reader identifies the appealing primitivism in Typee and Omoo, teachers are at the mercy of their teaching guides and prominent academics, many of them blatantly on the Left. Andrew Delbanco & Co. are out to get Captain Ahab as the image of war-mongering Amerikkka, personified in George W. Bush, while other leftists praise Melville’s noble savages as premature anti-racism.

Sadly, if this tirade against American “identity” is all there is to Herman Melville, we might as well watch Oliver Stone‘s revisionist Showtime series on post-WW2 history, or read Howard Zinn, rather than wading through the sometimes difficult prose of an author who was coming to grips with a confusing family and confusing culture that was pulled in sharply different directions. Melville’s family, no less than our own polity, pretended to serene unity and provided its [prisoners? Bartlebys?] with road maps to achieve the almost painless resolution of conflict, i.e. the conflict between science and religion, with the unresolved question of personal identity and motivation for every “rational choice.”

Is Ahab, Ahab? Am I who I think I am, and how did I get this way? Ask your students or family members that one in class or at a family gathering and see how far you get. (For some related blogs that explain why I wrote this one, see  https://clarespark.com/2012/09/28/bibi-and-the-human-nature-debate/,  or https://clarespark.com/2010/03/05/organic-conservatives-and-hitler/, or https://clarespark.com/2013/02/23/peter-gays-freud/.)


April 10, 2011

“Who ain’t a slave?”

Rockwell Kent drawing, 1927

The deeper meaning of Ishmael’s query to the reader, “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that,” was raised in my prior blog. I took this up in my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, chapter 3. Here is an excerpt with its footnotes. I relied upon a published typescript written by two leftist professors who were making a case for working-class abolitionism. I likened the utopian socialism of Brook Farm, with its patrician deviation from American industrialization (Hawthorne had been there briefly, and parodied it in The Blithedale Romance) to “Ishmael” and his upper-class rebellion.

[Book excerpt:] Had Melville switched from radical to conservative, or was his fiction of the 1850s, situated in its full historical context, always acceptable to conservative readers and publishers, especially those sympathetic to the Jeffersonian agrarian critique of industrial capitalism, a belief-system agreeable to Southern planters who had claimed that “wage slavery” was worse than chattel slavery and that African savages were benefited by the civilizing influence of their Christian owners? Utopian socialists and land reformers alike possessed an organic, communitarian view of the ideal society and gradualist schemes for how to get there; they generally were not based in the working class,[i] and their spleen was directed against abolitionists like Charles Sumner or the Garrisonians whom they relentlessly slandered as bourgeois individualists indifferent to the welfare of Northern workers. “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that,” says an (apparently) resigned and passive Ishmael in “Loomings,” the first chapter of Moby-Dick, where the narrator identifies the “story of Narcissus” as “the key to it all.”[ii]

Only land ownership, it was believed by patrician radical reformers, could preserve independence and republican virtue. I have inferred from Melville’s writing that he shared their fantasy that the process of proletarianization would inevitably cause massacres perpetrated by landless, hence impoverished and demoralized masterless men (and yet he sneeringly calls one conformist in White Jacket “Landless”: hence “the Melville problem”).  Of course the abolition movement was not monolithic: the modernizers who controlled the new Republican Party were eager to rid the country of Southern domination of both parties (Whig and Democratic) that had hampered expansion and industrial development with free labor; the more progressive among them (writing in The National Era or The National Antislavery Standard) expected future adjustments in the relations between capital and labor, but certainly not drastic structural transformation. There was, however, a substantial and vocal working-class abolitionist constituency with international moral and intellectual support, and for them abolition was the immediate objective that made more equitable class relations possible; they denounced the “Associationists” (Fourierists) and land reformers as knowingly or unknowingly complicit with Southern interests and proslavery apologetics. [iii]

Melville did not publish in The Voice of Industry or The Liberator orother periodicals that presented dialogue between the various factions of the antislavery movement; instead such confrontations found their way into his fiction. Most disturbingly, he transformed successful slave revolts (for instance, the episodes of the Creole and Amistad) into the disaster of Benito Cereno that brought everyone down. The question remains: during the decade of accelerating national crisis and dramatic political realignment was his political stance that of a neutral party? Was he a subtly reactionary amanuensis of Southern agrarian interests? [Since I wrote this, I have reread George Fitzhugh’s Cannibals All! (1857): I believe now that Melville was indeed the organic conservative that many  have suspected, and that his proletarian years convinced him that free labor was hardly free.] Or could he have been a covert partisan of the most advanced materialists (at least on those occasions when he was not overwhelmed with feelings of responsibility for the decline of his family)? [Some believe that such romantic radicalism as he frequently displayed was probably owing to his outsider status as either a closet or practicing homosexual.]

[i] 40. See William Lloyd  Garrison’s critique of the non-threatening character of Fourierism as compared to the antislavery movement, June 14, 1850, while debating William Ellery Channing at the 1850 Antislavery Convention: “What signal success has yet crowned the Fourier movement…? What alarm, what commotion has it caused throughout the country? What mob has howled upon its track? To what extent has it secured the confidence and awakened the zeal of the white laboring classes? Where are its multitudinous supporters! They are non est inventus. I am not speaking reproachfully, but dealing with facts. On the other hand, how eventful has been the history of the anti-slavery movement! What discussion and conflict, what agitation and tumult, what tremor and consternation, in Church and State, among all sects and parties, have marked its triumphant career! And how many have been induced to become its advocates and supporters! Is not this an evidence of rare vitality?” Garrison goes on to accuse “the Socialists” (i.e. the utopian socialists) of racism and sexism. (Philip Foner and Herbert Shapiro, Northern Labor and Antislavery, 172-173.)

[ii] 41. If Melville is seriously identified with Ishmael here, then he has repudiated White-Jacket (who scorns the lackey Happy Jack) and every other one of his democratic rebels. The tone is joking and ironic; perhaps such teasing of the conservative reader (including Hawthorne) constitutes the “wickedness” of the book.

[iii] 42. See Foner and Shapiro, Northern Labor and Antislavery. For the land reformer critique of abolitionism (wage slavery was worse than chattel slavery), see George Henry Evans, Young America, 11 Mar. 1848 (174-178).  On the comparable conditions of wage and chattel slavery, see John Pickering, National Reformer (184-185), or Evans, Working Man’s Advocate, 27 July  1844 (189-91). On international support for abolitionism, see “Address From the People of Ireland,” signed by “Daniel O’Connell, Theobald Matthew, and Sixty Thousand other Inhabitants of Ireland, published in The Liberator,  21 Mar. 1842 (114-116). See also “Address to Mr. Collins,” a statement by Glasgow workers, in Herald of Freedom (Concord, New Hampshire) 4 June 1841 (236-41), and the racist plea to Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor to abandon his support for abolitionism, published in Working Man’s Advocate 22 June 1844 (186-189).
[end, book excerpt]

March 30, 2011

Eric Foner’s Christianized Lincoln

Columbia U. Professor Eric Foner

Eric Foner’s recent history book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery ((N.Y.: Norton, 2010) has received the coveted Bancroft Prize. In this blog, I deploy a critical tool used by postmodernists, but with a different purpose. According to the “pomos,” all history writing necessarily falls into one literary genre or another, and the “master narratives” used in the writing of the history of the West are suspect (because the Pomos reject Progress and the [protofascist ]Enlightenment). Much as I deplore the cultural relativism and epistemological skepticism of the pomos, I found such an analytic approach useful in identifying trends in Melville criticism, especially biography. Early revivers of Melville’s reputation followed the Narcissus/Icarus myth. “Ahab”(i.e., Melville) over-reached in the writing of Moby-Dick, so crashed and drowned in the crazy book that followed—Pierre, or the Ambiguities. Drowned, he was done for and lost his reading public. But a competing myth or narrative followed that one (and it is deployed by Foner in his Lincoln study): the conversion narrative as exemplified in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  In this rendition, Melville, sobered up by the blood bath or quagmire of the American Civil War, recovers to write Clarel: a poem and a pilgrimage to the Holy Land–his very long “Christian” poem (the narrator is devout, but not the title character) and later his supposedly Christianity-infused “Billy Budd,” with Billy blessing the State that is killing him. Of course, all Melville scholarship is controversial, and Melville never followed the neat and consoling mythic narratives that are used to reconcile the deep ambivalence he felt about most issues that roiled the 19th century. Real lives, unlike myths, are messy.

Eric Foner’s new book follows the conversion narrative: Lincoln begins as a conventional white racist, but is pushed by events and the pressures of Radical Republicans away from his earlier desire for colonization of American blacks to Africa, and toward redemption. Like Foner’s massive book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877, Foner’s latest history makes Reconstruction utterly unfinished. But in this one he more overtly praises growing state power to remedy injustice, and pulls the reader along as Lincoln “grows” even in his religious references and belief in a God that intervenes in the affairs of humans. Foner’s narrative, dry and boring as most of it is, made me weep by the time I got to the end. Hence, the reader is left responsible to remedy the deficiencies of Andrew Johnson’s awful administration and everything that follows. Foner, a populist-progressive (as far as I can tell), mentions Karl Marx only once, to buttress the notion that the real American Revolution followed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Charles Sumner is lauded throughout because he, like the other Radical Republicans, pushes Lincoln in the correct direction. This is the most positive evaluation of Sumner that I have seen since the 19th century, when he was the object of adulation in New England among the abolitionists and thousands of blacks as well. However, in his earlier book on Reconstruction(1988), Foner misreported that Sumner opposed the 8 hour day for workers (p. 481), which was not true, for Sumner came around and voted for the eight-hour day as a result of his friendship with Ira Steward. Another source reported that Sumner thought that labor was overworked and needed the time for education and leisure. (See also a sarcastic reference to Sumner, p.504, footnoting David Herbert Donald’s mostly hostile biography of [the crypto-Jew] Sumner.) So I take this deviation from the usual anti-Sumner line to be opportunistic. (In the writings of others, especially the cultural historians, Sumner is an extremist, another monomaniacal, war-instigating Captain Ahab.) We the readers are supposed to follow the lead of the Radical Republicans into the Promised Land of racial equality, whatever that means. (For a related blog noting the triumph of communist-inflected black nationalism see https://clarespark.com/2012/12/01/petit-bourgeois-radicalism-and-obama/.)

November 14, 2010

The ABC’s of Antisemitism

19th C. image of The Wandering Jew

[For an index to many of my blogs on antisemitism, see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/29/index-to-blogs-on-antisemitism/.]

Antisemitism entails much more than a direct assault upon Jewish life. But as a multifaceted part of the imagination, certain aspects of this phobia emerge at different moments in the history of the West.  These notes are a crude, first attempt to locate particular aspects of modern antisemitism in the turning points listed below. I list them so that readers can identify certain tropes that evoke images of the Bad Jew* even when Jews themselves are not directly under investigation.

It is widely recognized that Jews have come to represent modernity in the eyes of their enemies, but the entire history of the West contributes to the power of the antagonism.

Legacy of Greek antiquity: gloom and narcissism. Narcissus was in love with himself, hence deaf to cries from community, self-destructs. Matthew Arnold famously contrasted gloomy Hebraism with the sweetness and light of Hellenism, a distinction that Herman Melville, for one, internalized.

Legacy of New Testament antisemitism: lucre-loving hence materialistic, demonic, legalistic and unforgiving (Shylock); Christ-hating hence antithesis to Christian love; carnal “Chosen People” seek subjugation of all non-Jews. The Jewish God is wrathful and genocidal, transmitting these characteristics  to his “chosen” ones. Hence, “Wall Street” under the guise of “wealth creation” is out to “slaughter” the (non-Jewish) “middle class.” A Jewified (modern, secular) world is infested with bloodsucking vampires. (I do not deny that many Christians have denounced this legacy, and now stand with Jews against antisemitism and against anti-Israel policies. See http://rubinreports.blogspot.com/2011/09/what-jews-should-know-about-christians.html).

Legacy of Reformation: Protestants seen as Church-destroying Jews, and as such lack reverence for established authority. These Faustians focus on worldliness as opposed to other-worldliness. The Christian myth of the repentant, indestructible Wandering Jew takes hold (see https://clarespark.com/2010/11/16/good-jews-bad-jews-and-wandering-jews/). Jews will always be alien, “a people apart,” even if they convert or are born into a family of converts.  They can never be rooted in the nation, no matter how assimilated they may appear to be (see the Nazi movie Der ewige Jude with its emphasis on the masked Jew).

Legacy of Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and market societies/capitalism: the innovating (mad) scientist seeking perfection and direct contact with reality (cf. the contrasting views of Plato, Matthew Arnold, Nathaniel Hawthorne). The Jew becomes associated with the rise of the moral mother (Locke says mothers imprint tabula rasa), and misogyny results as woman becomes the Jew of the Home, the voice of conscience: clinging, criticizing, and kvetching. Romantic poets are attracted to Prometheus and the Romantic Wandering Jew myth as limited revolt against philistine (Jewish) materialists and their “leveling,” historicizing (i.e., desacralizing) analyses of the Bible, of “traditional” social structures and ideologies, with their utopian mishegas.

Legacy of German Romanticism/Aufklärung: Jews are natural destroyers of the Volk, Gemeinschaft (the organic community mystically bound by language, blood and soil). Jew becomes incarnation of selfish individualism, universal ethics, and resistance to the national, ethical, racial state. In Germany’s case, Deutschland is chosen by Fate to purify the world of the “Jewish” idea of individual responsibility and free will. The German Romantic idea of “national character” (the primacy of ethnicity over class) takes hold in American universities during the late 1960s, but was already trotted out in the nineteen teens by Randolph Bourne and Horace Kallen, in the latter case to oppose the rootless cosmopolitanism advocated by “proletarian internationalism.”

The Bolshevik triumph of October 1917. Antisemites often view all Jews as either communists or potential communists, latter-day self-righteous Jacobins bending human nature to make the new man and heaven on earth.** Even as conservative businessmen, Jews are agents of modernity, and modernity, having given birth to a new industrial working class,  spawned the likes of Marx and Lenin. Scholars of Hitler and the Nazis frequently neglect mentioning this crucial component of their antisemitism. Similarly, many Jewish scholars think it is irrational to conflate themselves as liberal capitalists with communists, whom they often vigorously oppose to protect social democracy.

Prominence of “Jewish” Communists in civil rights movement. It is no secret that persons of Jewish ancestry were prominent supporters of blacks in the civil rights movement–even during the 1930s, though with the rise of black nationalism, that relationship became strained to the breaking point. Although “Jews” who joined the Communist Party gave up their “particularist” Jewish identity to join “proletarian internationalism,” that renunciation means nothing to far right racists, whose antisemitism is intertwined with white supremacy. For them, Jews are not white people at all, but the red enemy who supports either the Democratic Party or some leftist variant. They may seize upon the supposedly “Jewish” Frankfurt School critical theorists as the source of decadence, though these same individuals (e.g. Adorno and Horkheimer) bonded with mainstream Protestant-progressive social psychologists, and abjured the “materialist” Enlightenment.

*By “Bad Jew” I do not mean a non-observant Jew as judged by orthodox Jews, but rather the antithesis of the Good Jew who is considered “useful” to European ruling classes, or who joins with upper-class businessmen as “socially responsible capitalists.” Hence the Good Jew is accepted insofar as s/he is “assimilated.” For more, see my blog Good Jews, Bad Jews, and Wandering Jews. https://clarespark.com/2010/11/16/good-jews-bad-jews-and-wandering-jews/.

**Crane Brinton, the influential Harvard historian characterized the Jacobins as possessed by “Hebraic fury” and in their self-deceiving, fanatical, revolutionary virtue, were allied to Calvinism. This link between the angry God of the Old Testament Jews and Calvinism is often applied to puritanism in general by organic conservative scholars. It is entirely ahistoric, for there is no one brand of puritanism. For a case study of how colonial puritans have been lumped together and stigmatized as persecuting, see https://clarespark.com/2010/05/15/blog-index-to-anne-hutchinson-series/.

Samuel Hirszenberg, 1899

Samuel Hirszenberg, 1899

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