YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

April 17, 2016

House of Cards and cynical Democrats

Claire and Frank go to Moscow, season 3 House of Cards, Netflix

Claire and Frank go to Moscow, season 3 House of Cards, Netflix

I have just binge-watched House of Cards seasons three and four, set during the presidency of upwardly mobile, cynical and manipulative poor white trash Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey co-starring with Robin Wright as his teammate Claire—- a former “Dallas debutante” with a preternatural understanding of how “the system” really works. Both Spacey and Wright are actually from humble backgrounds, and perhaps retain much of their repressed rage/nihilism).

I also saw the much-preferred UK original on PBS, so long ago that I remember most of it only vaguely, but who could forget the shocking murder of the young journalist? (At least my polled Facebook friends liked that version, nearly all finding the US adaptation boring at best; I disagree, all long series are uneven, but the writing is often compelling).

Ian Richardson as PBS villain (1990)

Ian Richardson as PBS villain (1990)

So I am in the uncomfortable position of questioning my own taste for television series, which turn out to be relatively highbrow compared to the “lowbrow” network offerings. (http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/02/is-i-house-of-cards-i-really-a-hit/284035/)

What frightens me most about House of Cards (I have now seen all versions, entirely), is my own naiveté as a historian and reader of texts. I have often called attention to our limited access to relevant documents as we attempt to interpret and present the past and present, but I didn’t factor in silent, underhanded deeds and interactions that confront the reader/viewer with unmitigated evil. There is enough nastiness in my own life history to temper my disbelief that such behavior could exist. Frankly, I don’t know how the writers got so much of our political situation down with conviction, for in spite of my “realism” about what to expect from other people, I could never imagine such degrees of immorality, even from “Big Government.”

What is most surprising is that the actors and writers are associated with the Democratic Party (presented as rife with corruption, including mayhem), or perhaps they lean left, like many artists confronting the philistine bourgeoisie/modernity in either political party. There is a punkish, oppositional sensibility at play in the writing and acting, though one wonders if life offers more than an Artaudian scream or Brechtian ruthlessness.

Although the plot line is said to be “implausible” I find the series, like Billions (a Showtime offering that has completed its first season), to have ripped the mask off our elites, with enough ambiguity to satisfy any educated, fearless student of human nature.

No wonder I am attracted to the writing of Herman Melville, who ventured on the dark side more than most of his nineteenth century “optimistic” contemporaries, with attention to his life and art only made possible after the horrors of World War Two. And no wonder that the trashing of his masterpiece Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852) had to be denounced in 1947 by FDR-allied psychologist Henry A. Murray, whose lies I have reluctantly exposed on this website.  (https://clarespark.com/2011/06/12/call-me-isabel-a-reflection-on-lying/).

Call me Isabel.

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July 18, 2014

Sartre, existentialism, and red antisemitism

The Void Game ad

The Void Game ad

I have been reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s much lauded first novel Nausea (1938), followed by his canonical Anti-Semite and Jew (written ca. 1944).

It is difficult to imagine the younger Sartre as a future revolutionary socialist (though he presents himself, dubiously, as an anti-Stalinist) reading the novel, as compared to the wartime essay that nearly everyone quotes to the effect that society creates the Jew it needs for ideological purposes, i.e., actual Jewish behavior is irrelevant.

This blog continues the theme that I have developed on this website: it is increasingly difficult to separate social democrats from revolutionary socialists.
The early progressives made no secret of their counter-revolutionary goals, as I laid out here: https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/. These conservative reformers, no less than New Dealers, were frank about their politics: proletarian internationalism was their monster, and in its place they offered a paternalistic, elite-led welfare state that would contain any hanky-panky from below.

But the Soviet Union did a sharp about face with the rise of the various (irrationalist) fascisms in Italy, Spain, and especially Germany. At first appalled by the slaughter of revolutionaries in China (see Harold Isaacs’s famous book) that prompted a sectarian assault upon “Social Fascists” after 1928, the Soviets suddenly made common cause with the bourgeoisie through Popular Front politics in 1935—as long as there were bourgeois anti-fascists, as seemed to be the case during the Depression years, and especially after prominent intellectuals took up the Loyalist cause in Spain.

Someone should have told Sartre that, for in his novel, playing the Nietzschean, perhaps, he added to the voices of the resolutely anti-bourgeois, anti-modern voices of trendy European philosophers—Husserl (?) and Heidegger to mention a few of the nihilists confronting “the death of God.” For “Roquentin” there was only the Void and the denial of progress, most importantly in the possibility of overcoming evil—the very staples of the Judeo-Christian world view (this Manichaeism is not a traditional Jewish belief: in “old-fashioned” Judaism,  humanity should seek to fix or rectify self-destructive behavior).

Roquentin, a writer, seems paranoid to me, certainly disoriented, and hostile to his own body. Here is a striking passage from the novel:
“The thing which was waiting was on the alert, it has pounced on me, it flows through me, I am filled with it. It’s nothing: I am the Thing. Existence, liberated, detached, floods over me. I exist.” (p.98, New Directions paperback, my emph.) What struck me reading this passage was his quick association between liberation and detachment. I could not help thinking of the lyrics of the old song “After You’ve Gone” (1928) which are quoted several times in the novel. It was made famous by [Jewish] Sophie Tucker (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAuCSSLC-bk), and other major pop singers, but in the novel, Sartre is moved by its imagined Jewish composer and its “Negress” songstress. (Turner Layton was not Jewish, but a black songwriter, as was his lyricist Henry Creamer (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turner_Layton.)

Layton-Creamer Goodbye Alexander

Layton-Creamer Goodbye Alexander

Sartre was born into a Catholic family, and early on in the novel, I took him for a lapsed Catholic—his world was that bleak and dessicated, while his body or Nature was that repulsive, as horrifying, perhaps as the mother figure/vagina that was the real Thing. What if he became a communist because that creed and its mystical dialectical materialism reattached him to an abstract cause that did not frighten him?

Turn now to his influential essay written during the war years in France. Usually taken to be a philosemitic tract, condemning Europe for its pervasive antisemitism, I was startled to see how he ended it with a standard communist trope: the working class understands its situation in the material world and is free of antisemitism, while it is the (muddled?) bourgeoisie that uses “the Jew” as scapegoat, to deflect petit-bourgeois (lower middle class in today’s argot) discontent away from their masked masters. Jews escape their “inauthenticity,” he claims, by reading Hegel’s “Master and Slave,” and finding authenticity in revolt against the ever antisemitic bourgeois oppressor. Through communism, antisemitism will disappear.

In rereading Sartre’s essay I was struck by his attack on mob society (shades of Hannah Arendt), and the anomie [inflicted by cities and industrialization?]. An entire flood of academics, young and old, follow the nearly identical philosophy of Emile Durkheim/the Frankfurt School/critical theory/the New Left/counter-culture mystics seeking both attachment and detachment.

One wonders how many of them are similarly on the lam from Mom and her illicit sticky power in the modern world.

stickymothers

February 22, 2014

Healthy Skepticism

noimageThis blog is about healthy skepticism versus the sort of philosophical skepticism that is blatantly nihilistic and/or reactionary. In writing this piece, I am immersed in rereading my favorite passages in Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). Like most of his other works, the theme of the book is protest against the rule of the moderate man of the Enlightenment. Even another “Captain Ahab” makes an early, but brief appearance as a wooden-legged scoffer at the masquerades of the multiform confidence men who dot the book. These con artists are shape shifters, and include “Black Guinea, the herb doctor, the cosmopolitan, and more. The theme is “No Trust.”

What we are to distrust (says Melville) is the moderate Enlightenment theme of cosmic benevolence, and the very idea of progress from pre-industrial to market societies, where everyone wears a mask (role-playing) and bamboozles his or her victims. I remember the art critic Harold Rosenberg lauding this particular Melville text in the late 1940s, perhaps as his sour response to the weakly resisted Holocaust, the latter surely an example of an absent deity and the depraved indifference of humanity writ large. He read the text with understanding of its allover trajectory of nihilism and abandonment in an empty universe. Such are the ways of nihilism, a popular artistic theme in the immediate period following WW2. What do I think of this trend, still extant today? davidhume To a large extent, we are all prisoners of our particular families, personal and world histories. I will give “the new historicists” that. What is the engaged citizen supposed to do, given the imprisonment in specific contexts? Should we all turn ourselves into the figure of Pierrot, the spectator, who comments, but with blood on his hands because of his passivity? (For a picture of Picasso’s immobilized seated Pierrot of 1918, and a collage linking antisemitism and misogyny see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/24/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets-2/.) Melville went back and forth on this question: sometimes roaring as the unmasker of frauds, sometimes soothing himself with reveries that returned him to the perfectly happy family.

[David Hume on moderation, History of England, Vol.8, pp 310-311, jousting with Locke:] “The Whig party, for a course of near seventy years, has, almost without interruption, enjoyed the whole authority of government; and no honors or offices could be obtained but by their countenance and protection. But this event, which in some particulars has been advantageous to the state, has proved destructive to the truth of history, and has established many gross falsehoods, which it is unaccountable how any civilized nation could have embraced with regard to its domestic occurrences. Compositions the most despicable, both for style and matter, have been extolled, and propagated, and read; as if they had equaled the most celebrated remains of antiquity. And forgetting that a regard to liberty, though a laudable passion, ought commonly to be subordinated to a reverence for established government, the prevailing faction has celebrated only the partisans of the former, who pursued as their object the perfection of civil society, and has extolled them at the expense of their antagonists, who maintained those maxims that are essential to its very existence. But extremes of all kinds are to be avoided; and though no one will ever please either faction by moderate opinions, it is there we are most likely to meet with truth and certainty.”

And why not embrace the manipulative moderates, rejecting Locke and empiricism as Hume did, to his everlasting glory in the political ruling class? Few of us have the inner strength and indomitable will to escape the prisons of our contexts, to strip ourselves and our institutions of pretense. And so we fail. Back in the days when I was friends with leftists, I remember reading that it was the task of each generation to determine what was possible, given the times, to accomplish something that would advance human liberation.  I still think that is a noble aspiration, and grown-up too, for only chiliasts and other apocalyptic thinkers and actors would imagine immediate utopian outcomes to our efforts at understanding the world with a modicum of accuracy. The point of this blog: to be skeptical of pretenses to expert knowledge, but, after much investigation, to make a stand for empiricism and  self-discovery, for human mental and physical health, even though present pressures and future developments could render our decisions flawed and ignorant. But not to succumb to utter nihilism, as Melville did during a difficult period in his own life, lived in a transition from a pre-industrial world to a new world that seemingly rewarded only frauds and phonies.

[From Moby-Dick:] “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.  Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks.  Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

     Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?  For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life.  God keep thee!  Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!”(Northwestern-Newberry edition, 363-364). Has Ahab seized the narration, or is it the survivor/spectator Ishmael who warns against knowledge of the self that could estrange him from the family of origin? Or is the narrator saying that to discover that we don’t know ourselves is an unbearable horror?

Pierrot can and should bend the bars of his prison to escape, at least for the moment. We should know when we bite our tongues, and forgive ourselves for not always speaking or writing what we most deeply feel and think. I feel an Ishmael writing here.

Lipschitz, Pierrot Escapes

Lipschitz, Pierrot Escapes

March 28, 2013

“Power,” Foucault, and other aristocratic radicals

Foucaltcard03For those interested in how others interpret “power” in socio-political terms see  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_(social_and_political).

Several Facebook friends have expressed concern about “power,” seemingly equating it with illegitimate desires for malevolent control over other persons. Such notions of total control are usually implied in the notion of “totalitarianism” especially as the latter word equates communism and Nazism (a notion that I have challenged here: https://clarespark.com/2012/10/15/orwell-power-and-the-totalitarian-state/.)

This blog tries to sort out how one fashionable academic ideology abuses the notion of “power.”

Postmodernists/poststructuralists and Foucauldians. For these intellectuals, power is what the bourgeoisie, through total surveillance, wields over hapless Others, and one of the “pomo” villains is the bourgeois Enlightenment figure of “Freud”. For instance, take these sentences from Terry Eagleton’s chapter in “Self-Undoing Subjects” in Rewriting the Self, ed. Roy Porter (Routledge, 1997): p.264. “Isn’t Freud all about the unfathomable subject of the unconscious, about the production of some eternally elusive psyche folded upon its own inscrutable depths?” This is a wild misreading of Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis, as if he preached helplessness, not insight and potential cure in a collaborative relationship between psychoanalyst and analysand, wherein, through a variety of techniques, the patient would ultimately gain a measure of power over neurotic anxiety and psychogenic illnesses: “Where Id was, let Ego be!”*

Freud, even in his time, was a master in stepping outside the self to observe self-sabotaging subjectivity, but Eagleton has taken this power away from Freud and his followers, for like other contributors to this volume, there is no “self” except that which is constituted through dominant discourses in modern/bourgeois institutions intent on doing us in.

It is not irrelevant that Eagleton is writing from the Left, and that psychiatrists were incarcerated in the Soviet Union.

There is no doubt in my mind that numerous authoritarian forces push us around, diminishing political participation, or that language matters and can affect political and/or personal choices, not to speak of our emotional configurations, our loves and taboos, our sense of the possible and impossible. But to so drastically historicize “the self” to the point where we may not distinguish between sanity (having a relatively accurate grip on reality) and insanity (being ruled by delusions) is a romantic fantasy, and it is no accident that R. D. Laing’s name is mentioned in other articles in this volume, as if he were an accepted authority on mental illness, and not a marginal Romantic who saw schizophrenia as an adventure into the world made invisible by the uptight [bourgeois]. See https://clarespark.com/2012/02/19/the-romantic-repudiation-of-freud-co/.

foucault-info-panopticon

What is wrong with the Foucault/poststructuralist picture? Their panopticon makes no distinction between sectors of the bourgeoisie, for instance between classical liberals and social democrats, for the latter do favor “the watchbird state,” and their suspicious movements have been traced throughout this website, for instance here: https://clarespark.com/2011/01/02/the-watchbird-state/.

Many a “leftist” intellectual has more in common with displaced aristocrats than with the working class they claim to champion. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/10/11/the-other/.) While researching various social psychologists affiliated with the Roosevelt administration, I noted that some stigmatized the rising [crypto-Jewish] middle class as having a wicked yen for “power,” which they then “projected” upon minorities and women, even “business.” It was these potential quasi-fascist agitator-adoring usurpers who projected their illicit “will to power” upon favored authority figures, and knuckles were rapped accordingly. If you know your Nietzsche, you will recognize an aristocratic anti-plebeian ideology, one that spurned “history” as written by “the plebs.” Is it any accident that the sub-title of the anthology referenced above is “Histories from the Renaissance to the Present.” There is no one magisterial history dominating academia; there are only histories, or as is widely bruited about, only unreliable points of view. Granted that we all struggle with subjectivity, even seeking the power to see through ourselves and others, but to throw out a coherent self, able to make sense of her surroundings, to identify friends and enemies, is not only to kill off the author of literary texts (as some academics nail Foucauldians), but is a new peak (or low) in the annals of nihilism, one worthy of the Marquis de Sade himself.

*Another questionable reading of a classic text is found in Jonathan Sawday’s chapter “Self and Selfhood in the Seventeenth Century” (p.44), where he gets John Milton’s ambivalent reading of Satan all wrong: “Technology, invention, discovery, in Milton’s political poetics, are ideas associated with the absolutist, monarchical world of Hell.” I suppose Blake and Shelley were poor readers of Paradise Lost when they suggested that Milton was secretly of the Devil’s Party. A reminder that the regicide Milton was writing under censorship and could have been hanged for his role in the Interregnum.

Glenda Jackson, Marat/Sade

Glenda Jackson, Marat/Sade

September 22, 2012

Materialist history and the idea of Progress

Rerum Novarum by gercalher

[This is the second of two blogs on the ambivalence surrounding the First Amendment. The first is https://clarespark.com/2012/09/21/milton-mason-melville-on-free-speech/. For an interview with David Horowitz about the book reviewed here, see http://tinyurl.com/adtw9c2. ]

Another marker in the culture wars has been laid down by David Horowitz’s new book Radicals (Regnery, 2012). The chapters recount the careers of Christopher Hitchens, Bettina Aptheker, Cornel West, assorted Weathermen bombers (mostly female), and Saul Alinsky’s power-grabbing, crypto-Leninist nihilistic ideology.

But it is the last chapter wherein Horowitz lays his cards on the table. As a traditionalist (i.e., Burkean, Disraelian) conservative, he assails the “progressives” described throughout the book, lauds “compromise” as the alternative to “progressive” atheism, puritanism, perfectionism and futurism, and then declares, pessimistically in my view, that all civilizations are cyclical: they rise and fall. This view is of course associated with Counter-Enlightenment organic conservatives, who impose the life cycle of plants (Goethe famously did this), onto human organization.

In short, with his apparent view that all conflicts can be compromised, David Horowitz is aligned with the moderate men. Though he is dismayed by aggressive radical atheists, whose foibles include a Manichaean distinction between Good and Evil, DH’s essentially religious orientation to conflict resolution seats him at the same table as the radicals he vigorously criticizes throughout. I can only infer that anyone who discerns irreconcilable conflicts must be an Evil extremist who destroys [ neoclassical] social order. His vision is antagonistic to “puritans” (i.e., Hebraic Protestant voluntarism, worldliness, and free-market capitalism, which he links to the Satanic). Such a posture is in agreement with the Elizabethan compromise of Anglo-Catholicism or even the liberal Catholicism promoted by Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rerum_Novarum), a landmark pronouncement on the necessity of class harmony.  In other words, class harmony is Good, while unfettered materialism/atheism destroys and demoralizes families and all ordering institutions, in effect abandoning children to body- and spirit-crushing factories, nihilism and the terrifying immensities of an empty universe. Only a Satanist (or Promethean Romantic?) would commit such Evil acts.

Rerum Novarum Cupidus

I did not recognize myself as a materialist historian in any of Horowitz’s radicals.  Nor does he engage the battle of the sexes, putting quotation marks around the word “sexist”* (p.194)as if women have nothing to complain about.  I am a feminist, a materialist, and a secular Jew, who puts aside my private beliefs as I read archival materials and attempt to get inside the head of historical actors. DH is attuned to family relationships, as am I, and indeed faults Hitchens for failing to address his relations with his suicidal mother, a crypto-Jew.  But his criticism is not Freudian in any sense, but looks like a rebuke to the Mother’s dire “romantic” influence on her son, who never severed his ties with the [Romantic, Satanic] Left.

I have throughout this website carefully marked the original Progressive movement’s aims in addressing the red specter (through selective co-option), and in creating institutions that would soften relations between labor and capital—in order to prevent red revolution spurred by laissez-faire capitalism. I have also recognized the Communist infiltration of the progressive movement, taking advantage of New Leftism and its anti-anticommunist agenda, that further enabled the takeover of the humanities by the social justice avatars. But I cannot give all weight to the New Left for the deranged politics that confuse our political culture. We remain resistant to science and imagine that we are free when we are submissive to impulses laid down in early childhood, and reinforced in much of popular culture and/or partisan propaganda.

It is curious that nowhere in his book, does DH look at economic history or the conflicting models for wealth-creation offered by Keynesians as opposed to the followers of Milton Friedman, Hayek, et al. Nor does he get down and dirty in exploring generational conflict of the [Freudian] kind so tellingly explored by Herman Melville and a host of other authors. For that would be dipping into materialist history, facing “things as they are,” and perhaps delineating too disruptive, ambiguous, and kaleidoscopic views of how we got into this mess.  (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2013/05/30/nostalgia-for-the-middle-ages/.)

[Added, 9-23-12: Compare DH’s view of “human nature” to this passage from John Dos Passos’s post-radical period:

Responding to German students as to what is admirable about US, “I told them they should admire the United States not for what we were but for what we might become. Selfgoverning democracy was not an established creed, but a program for growth. I reminded them that industrial society was a new thing in the world and that although we Americans had gone further than any people in spreading out its material benefits we were just beginning, amid crimes, illusions, mistakes and false starts, to get to work on how to spread out what people needed much more: the sense of belonging, the faith in human dignity, the confidence of each man in the greatness of his own soul without which life is a meaningless servitude….Faith in self-government, when all is said and done, is faith in the eventual goodness of man.” (p.508, Virginia Spencer Carr’s bio of John DP)

*The complete paragraph begins on p.193: “It is not because radicals begin by being unethical people that they approach politics this way. On the contrary, their passion for a future that is ethically perfect is what drives their political agendas and causes others to mistake them for idealists. But the very nature of this future–a world without poverty, without war, without racism, and without “sexism”–is so desirable, so noble, so perfect in contrast to everything that has preceded it as to justify any and every means to make it a reality.” I thank David Horowitz for welcoming discussion and catching my error. In a second communication, DH explains that the quotes around “sexism” expressed his dislike of viewing sexism and racism as comparable discriminations. Many readers will agree with him, but in a recent publication (Created in the Image of God)  David Brion Davis, a liberal, devotes an entire chapter to the subjugation of women, which Davis does compare to slavery.

May 15, 2012

Progressive uplift vs. “New Left” nihilism

Bill Ayers, Weatherman

Several writers on the Right have been selling books with the premise that the Progressive movement in early 20th century America was protofascist, or fascist and racist. Their aim is to mobilize their constituencies to vote for organic conservatives like themselves in the hopes of halting “the nanny state.”  Similarly, they dwell on the President’s links to racist extremists in the period before he ran for office as a uniter, not a divider.

In this blog, I argue that it is an error to link in any way whatsoever the Progressive uplifters and more recent advocates of violence and anarchy. For uplift was an orderly process, an expression of the “moderate” strategies of the chief publicists of progressivism. It was also, at its core, defined against “revolutionary radicalism” as evidenced in the I.W.W. or anarchism in the labor movement. Here is a juicy example of their thought, taken from my book on Melville and from a previous blog. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/11/13/supermen-wanted-early-freudians-and-the-mob/, also https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/.)

[Revolutionary Radicalism, “Epilogue”:] “In this rapid survey of a new and important educational idea we have carried Marja, the immigrant girl, from king and caste-ridden Europe to America, the land of hope and opportunity. We have seen her struggle with an unknown tongue and with ways of life unfamiliar to her. In the end we see her transformed, reborn–no longer foreign and illiterate, but educated and self-respecting. Later she will marry and her children, though they may have traditions of another land and another blood, will be Americans in education and ideals of life, government and progress. It was been worth while that one man has broken through this barrier and made the road clear for others to follow.

“All real education has the development of discipline as its basis. Poise, self-control and self-esteem are characteristic of the well-ordered mind, and the growth of these in the industrial worker makes for efficient service and better wages. Gradually there is an awakening of social consciousness–the awareness of one’s place in society and the obligations such membership entails upon the individual in respect to the group or racial mass, with a constantly developing sense of one’s personal responsibility in all human relationships.

“In conclusion, the higher significance of this work means that we must descend the shaft and share the lives of those that dwell in the lower strata–the teeming populations that never see the stars or the green grass, scent the flowers or hear the birds sing–the huddled, hopeless foreign folk of the tenements. We are living in the Age of Service, and are growing into a conviction that life is not a matter of favored races or small, exclusive social groups, but embraces all humanity and reaches back to God. To those of prophetic soul comes a vision of the day that haunted Tennyson when ‘The war-drum throbbed no longer and the battle flags were furled/ In the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World.’ ” [From N.Y. State Legislature. Joint Committee Investigating Seditious Activities, Revolutionary radicalism: its history, purpose and tactics with an exposition and discussion of the steps being taken and required to curb it, being the report of the joint legislative committee investigating seditious activities filed April 24, 1920 in the Senate of the State of New York (Albany: J.B. Lyon, 1920), 2014, 2201, 3136-3137.]

Here we have a statement that is clearly ideological in favor of order and their version of Americanization; for a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/ .

Far different was the Prairie Fire contingent of Maoists (along with hippies and anarchists?): See /http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weather_Underground_Organization#Prairie_Fire_1974) who took over (replaced?) Students for A Democratic Society from the “Old Guard” in the late 1960s. First a bit of socialist history. In 19th century Marxist thought, it was the educated and urbanized working class that would comprise the vanguard of change. But after the stunning success of the Soviet coup in October 1917, Leninism (a branch of socialist thought that lauded bureaucratic centralism and the vanguard of intellectuals), the old Marxist anti-statist paradigm was discarded in favor of “Marxist-Leninism” with its attendant Trotskyist notion that the communist utopia could leapfrog over the bourgeois democratic phase, and stir the victims of imperialism to overthrow their European or American masters by any means necessary. (It was Stalin, not Trotsky, who insisted upon “socialism in one country.”) In China, a model for 1960s revolutionaries everywhere, the rural population was now the revolutionary vanguard, provided that they were taught by the correctly indoctrinated intellectual layer.

Such journalists as Theodore White and Edgar Snow transmitted the Maoist message to American radicals, where they received support from a communist-sympathetic faction in the U.S. Department of State.  (For details, see https://clarespark.com/2011/06/30/links-to-review-essay-on-hemingway-spy-mission-to-china/.)

To these developments in revolutionary theory, add the general brutalization caused by the slaughter of the Great War, much emphasized by George L. Mosse and his students at the U. of Wisconsin; while in the realm of culture, primitivism ruled the 1920s as a white response to the growing power or prestige of New Negroes, New Women, and working class radicalism. Indeed, Ernest Hemingway’s rise to cultural prominence as a manly prose stylist may be seen as a purification of the too-florid and feminized Victorian culture that had put white males on the defensive. Supermen were wanted, and supermen were provided by our leading writers in the Nietzsche fad that still finds adherents among ambitious students, for instance those who follow such decadent musicians as Jim Morrison and the Doors.

And what were the order-loving nativists of the Progressive movement doing after the war? They were certainly not manning the outposts of the grand innovations of mass media, including radio and the movies. Rather, that task fell to recent immigrants, who sought audiences among the masses whose instinctive populism was fully exploited, as I described here in my blog on Charles Murray (https://clarespark.com/2012/05/04/3957/):

“Early Hollywood had no illusions about mass taste, and provided adventure, sex and violence to a readymade audience that already was alienated from snooty and exclusive nativist old families. The Mayers or Goldwyns or Laemmles and their movie or television offspring still adhere to populist feeling and a hefty dose of primitivism. Social realism and didacticism do not sell, except as a warning to other “liberals” that the natives are restless and gun toting, or that criminals may be running everything. But Murray is worried that the white working class is obese and watches too much television, as if the skinnier upper classes do not enjoy the more sophisticated adventures, romance, soft porn, escapism, and even artiness provided by the younger writers and producers, affected as they have been by counter-culture naughtiness, identification with Marlon Brando or James Dean, clever parodies, and fun.”

When I first started my Pacifica radio programs on the art world in the early 1970s, I noticed that the Los Angeles hipster male artists were fans of Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X. Since I was relatively uneducated in the ways of black supremacy or nihilism* in general, I was not on guard. Not long ago, I checked out a copy of a manifesto titled Prairie Fire (1974), a production of the Weather Underground (authors William Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, Jeff Jones, and Celia Sojourn). It was so violent in its language and in its aims, that I had to put it down; it was simply unbearable in its stridency. For a fictional peek into the European nihilists who were their contemporaries, see William Herrick’s Love and Terror (1981), a brilliant and disturbing work that reveals the mindset of the Baader-Meinhof gang. The intellectual antecedents of such urban terrorists are not to be found in the utopian thought of Marx, but in the ravings of such radicals as Marx’s rivals: Proudhon and Bakunin, earlier Babeuf, later George Sorel. For all of them “property is theft” and no crime is too vicious, no product of human labor off limits to their fury and defiance.

I wrote this blog because I see the some of the same thuggery in some protest movements (the “Red-Greens”, the Occupy Wall Street troops, Chicano irredentism, or black liberationist tendencies–see photo of Michelle Obama associating with the Nation of Islam below). I worry that the Baby Boomer parents of the antiwar generation who raised their children to be spontaneous and creative, will only egg on the mindless acting out in which they, the sadder but un-wiser generation, frequently indulged as young women and men. These nouvelle enragées owe nothing to the progressives who led both American political parties to dominance in the 20thcentury. It is also true that Communists infiltrated the progressive movement, using the Popular Front as their entry. The writing of “cultural history” has been deformed accordingly.

*By nihilism, I do not refer to anthropology that argues for cultural relativism and historicism, but to the apparent promotion of “beast of prey” by Nietzsche in such works as Beyond Good and Evil or The Genealogy of Morals, both read and studied by Jim Morrison (see comment below that defends Nietzsche against such readings).

Michelle Obama and friends

April 1, 2012

Secularism and the Affordable Care Act

I asked my FB friends what they thought the word “secular” meant, and got a number of responses suggesting that it meant one thing: atheism.

It appears that the culture wars have done their job: to most of the responders, “secular” signifies atheism, which may indicate narcissism, nihilism, and amorality to them. But in its older meaning, pre-culture wars, “secular” simply referred to matters of this world, as opposed to other-worldliness in religions that emphasized heaven and hell. But more significantly, secularism is a political science term that refers to the separation of church and state, meaning that no religion has priority over others, and that no religion is the established state religion. In the U.S. we enjoy religious pluralism. But triumphalist religions have managed to minimize the Founding Fathers’ commitment to the separation of church and state. And culture warriors such as Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Newt Gingrich have turned “the secularist” into the bogey man, insisting that the Constitution, like the Declaration of Independence before it, was divinely inspired, rather than the institutionalization of natural rights. But read the Federalist papers and see that Hamilton puts ultimate authority in the people, which is another word for popular sovereignty. Just as (later) in the French Revolution, power, knowledge and virtue had passed from Kings and Church to the People, who would then comprise the red specter to this very day, at least in the U.S. The U.S. Constitution was written to create a strong and effective national government, and owed its inception to epistemological materialism and to the Enlightenment. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/09/02/spinoza-as-culture-critic/.)

Alexander Hamilton was a church-goer, but to his most venomous critics he was not just a bastard-upstart, a foreigner, and a monarchist; he was a crypto-Jew, i.e., a variant of the anti-Christ. Recall that the Reformation convulsed Europe, with protestants (of many stripes) being defined as heretics by the outraged Catholic Church, who went on to purify their practice in the Counter-Reformation, a development that went on to censor such as Spinoza and other freethinkers at a time of burgeoning literacy among the lower orders.  (See Radical Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel’s 2001 book on Spinoza and censorship throughout Europe following the underground publication of his works; there is now a shorter work published in 2009 treating the Radical Enlightenment and the roots of democracy. But I view J. Israel as a social democrat and doubt that we have the same genealogy for democracy and free thought, since my vanguard includes such as Hayek, von Mises, and the Friedmans, but not Maynard Keynes.)

For decades, I have followed the academic assault on empiricism, medicine, and psychiatry (including the “historicizing” and discrediting of all of the mental health practitioners, Freudian and non-Freudian alike). Doctors do not share any one religious or non-religious orientation, but they do focus their training on healing the sick, which means studying the human body in various states of health, trauma,  and disease. Theirs is a secular profession, but one that finds itself in conflict with those religions that see sickness and health as dispensations from God, as part of God’s plan for the individual and for the world. Thus we find unresolved and perhaps unresolvable conflicts over such practices as abortion, contraception, abortifacients, embryonic stem-cell research, and assisted suicide in the terminally ill.

I find it odd that in all the publicity over the Affordable Care Act that these culture war issues have not been emphasized, yet the cost of medical care and what is covered or excluded is related to larger conflicts over appropriate professional intervention in the processes of life and death. Not surprisingly, much of the opposition to the ACA comes from the religious Right that correctly fears government-run “death panels” or other instances of rationing (see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/29/james-pagano-m-d-on-affordable-care-act/). They are not paranoid in this respect. In an ironic coalition, God-Squads and Doc-Squads may find themselves on the same side.

Illustrated: Top: Jonathan Israel, Middle: Spinoza toy; Bottom: Joel Strom DDS, organizer for www.docsquads.org.

February 25, 2012

Moral atheists?

Blake's Ancient of Days, 1794

[This blog is dedicated to my daughter Jenny, who called my attention to the missing father in the Whitney Houston death coverage. See https://clarespark.com/2012/02/13/whitneys-spectacular-demise/.] Fox News Channel is usually vigilant in exposing atheists and watching out for threatened family values and “the folks,” who may be waylaid by “secularists”; i.e., nihilists and cultural relativists. It is often imagined that feminists, like communists before them, are adherents to such destructive beliefs, beliefs that send its adherents to hell in this world and/or the next.

I noticed yesterday that one Republican operative who posts on Facebook had asked the question, “does not atheism lead to the breakdown of society”—or words to that effect. I engaged the question and realized I had the germ of an idea for a new blog.

On a recent blog (https://clarespark.com/2011/10/19/sex-without-freud/), I have noted that the “Jew” Freud was more controversial than the “Jew” Marx as I researched literary criticism and the reconstruction of the humanities curriculum between the wars. It was probably Freud’s The Future of An Illusion (1927) that was most offensive to the progressives I was studying, for Marx’s anticapitalism was not far from their own. Though many of these academics were not overtly religious and may have been agnostic or atheistic or primitivist followers of “the Greek Way,” they were strongly defending the notion of “the good father” (e.g., FDR) as “the focus of veneration.” Hence, Melville’s straying father as depicted in his “crazy” novel Pierre, or, the Ambiguities (1852) had to be defended against excessive [female, Hebraic] puritanism, while Melville himself, a covert sympathizer with Captain Ahab, had to be denounced as murderer and/or abuser of his wife and sons. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/06/12/call-me-isabel-a-reflection-on-lying/.)

[It is well known that antisemites and anti-imperialists have pictured the Hebrew God (whose name may be spoken or written only as Yahweh) as brutal, warlike, and domineering, in contrast to themselves, who walk in the steps of the gentle, peacemaking, even maternal, Christ, (or perhaps they reject all religion along with their families of origin, turning themselves into Nietzschean man-gods and goddesses). Only a selective, ahistoric, and misguided reading of the Christian Bible could support such a sharp antithesis between Jew and Christian. See https://clarespark.com/2010/11/14/the-abcs-of-antisemitism/, especially the note on Harvard historian Crane Brinton, who associated Jacobins with “Hebraic fury” and Calvinism.]

To return to my chat with the Republican operative: I argued that it was not belief in God that was decisive to a moral, law-abiding, politically engaged, creative adulthood, but rather family structure. I referred to such issues as the presence or absence of a strong, loving, protective, emotionally present father, and such relatively unstudied questions as sibling rivalry and birth order (mental health workers will know what I mean. Some economists and sociologists will strongly disagree, arguing that it is the amount of money in the family that most affects life chances for the children. I don’t know how this could be proven one way or another.).

A weak, mostly absent father, averse to domesticity and to close contact with children in their most crucial period of brain development (starting at birth but continuing through their 20s!) is more likely than not to incite cult-like behavior and nihilism in his children. Without that introjected paternal superego, we are adrift in a sea of competing ideologies, and well may seek an anchor in a repressive dictatorial father-substitute, or, as in the case of the French Revolution, we may seek direction in a vindictive mob.

As I studied misogyny in 19th century and 20th century authors, including poets, I saw frequent terror of the modern woman, a figure most notable for her switching from indulgent, constant comforter to horrifying, death-dealing witch. (https://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/).  Single mothers today are expected to be both disciplinarian and bearer of unconditional love. I wonder if this double role is not too much to expect from single mothers, indeed the double role may be the precursor to misogyny, yet some counter-culture figures, including some feminists, are not daunted by the possibility that the male-free home is not the mark of progress they imagine. Is it not likely that “the kids are not all right?”

October 23, 2009

Murdered by the Mob: Moral Mothers and Symbolist poets

Mad Kate

Mad Kate

In my own quiet way, I am attempting to revise “psychoanalysis” by inspecting the imaginations of individual artists, many of whom died early. Raymond M. Weaver of Columbia University was the first modern biographer of  Herman Melville; he was also an uncloseted gay man, an author, and possibly a sadomasochist. Numerous subsequent Melville critics attacked his biography as “Freudian” and Weaver himself as a radical.  James Thomson (“B.V.”) was an English nineteenth-century radical journalist and poet, author of The City of Dreadful Night, and was an admirer of Melville, who reciprocated his interest. All three men came from Calvinist backgrounds, but can be seen as pagan in their sympathies.

In this excerpt from an unpublished ms., I use the Melville-Thomson-Weaver triad to probe the sexual and class politics of some Symbolists as they encountered “the modern woman” (for them, the moral mother as Goddess of Annihilation/the Mob). We begin with the perception that Weaver was a radical insurgent, a liberal, or a Freudian; I will try to more fully describe Weaver’s social imagination: we shall see that Weaver, like other Romantics and Symbolists, led a double life, oscillating between the defiance and capitulation we have seen before in the contrasting postures of romantic and repentant Wandering Jews. Quotes from rare sources are used throughout, using my collage technique. The blog is rated X. (For part two see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/24/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets-2/.) Since the essay is a collage, I shall take the name of  Fuseli’s Mad Kate for my interpretative comments.

[Hughes on Daniel Macmillan, 1837, 58-59:] [Daniel Macmillan’s] recovery was slow, and he had to spend the next two months in Scotland, this time for the most part in towns where he came across numbers of mechanics and weavers, a sad contrast to the poor peasants of Arran, intercourse with whom had so cheered him three years before. “The discontent of the lower classes is most painful in itself,” he writes, “in the form it takes, and the spirit it springs from. How different was the old Covenanter spirit. These Covenanters were most noble. They fought for God’s truth, and wished to rid the earth of whatever was an abomination to the Lord. Duty was the highest thing to them, and they struggled hard to obey its behest. Their boldness was not a brutal, vulgar, ignorant temerity, without reverence, without faith, but solemn and noble. I feel sure of this, notwithstanding Sir Walter’s graphic misrepresentations. I have often talked with some of the remnant of that old stock,–a few who still keep alive the holy flame,–and know what true refinement lies at the bottom of their noble natures. But, alas, that race is becoming quite extinct. The poor men, the mechanics, weavers, and the like in our towns, care not one farthing for the Covenant, or for those deeper matters of which the Covenant was a symbol. They know nothing about duty or faith, or God; they care only about their rights; they talk only about reform, universal suffrage, from which they look for justice and deliverance from oppression. They do not look up to God for help in the old-fashioned way. This may be a ‘progress of humanity,’ and all the rest of that jargon, but I, for one, cannot admire it.”

[W.B. Yeats, Early Memories, MCMXXII, 21] Sometimes here in New York I have wandered into apartments and among people where they were running some great factory for the production of opinion, anarchist, socialist, pacifist, I know not what. The din seemed that of the trenches, only that instead of heroism and the sobering effect of great issues on which man stand face to face with death itself, we have small antagonisms and vanity and temper, always temper, and instead of intensity, vehemence; and pitiful mental and moral squalor of men trying to dominate, and with that end in view quite content to be shallow in feeling as in thought; quite willing, also, to insult with ugliness and to make themselves ugly–in fact, anything for effect! To be with my old friend was like entering a shaded parlor, its quiet only broken by the rustling noise of a fire burning briskly on the hearthstone.

[The Grand Conspiracy of the Members against the Minde, of Jewes against their King, by John Allington [a sequestered Divine], London, 1653:] An example strongly convincing me, that even the Law and light of Nature, were it not clouded with carnall and perverse affections, even that glimmering light were enough to teach the minde, that resist we may not against God’s ordinance.

[Shelley, “Passage from The Wandering Jew”:] The Elements respect their Maker’s seal!/ Still like the scathed pine tree’s height,/ Braving the tempests of the night/ Have I ‘scaped the bickering flame./ Like the scath’d pine, which a monument stands/ Of faded grandeur, which the brands/ Of the tempest-shaken air/ Have riven on the desolate heath;/Yet it stands majestic even in death,/And rears its wild form there.

[W.B. Yeats, The Trembling of the Veil, 1922, 58-60:] I know very little about myself and much less of that anti-self: probably the woman who cooks my dinner or the woman who sweeps out my study knows more than I. It is perhaps because nature made me a gregarious man, going hither and thither looking for conversation, and ready to deny from fear or favour his dearest conviction, that I love proud and lonely things. When I was a child and went daily to the sexton’s daughter for writing lessons, I found one poem in her School Reader that delighted me beyond all others: a fragment of some metrical translation from Aristophanes wherein the birds sing scorn upon mankind. In later years my mind gave itself to gregarious Shelley’s dream of a young man, his hair blanched with sorrow, studying philosophy in some lonely tower, or of his old man, master of all human knowledge, hidden from human sight in some shell-strewn cavern on the Mediterranean shore. One passage above all ran perpetually in my ears–“Some feign that he is Enoch: others dream/ He was pre-Adamite, and has survived/ Cycles of generation and of ruin./ The sage, in truth, by dreadful abstinence,/ And conquering penance of the mutinous flesh,/ Deep contemplation and unwearied study,/ In years outstretched beyond the date of man,/ May have attained to sovereignty and science/ Over those strange and secret things and thoughts/ Which others fear and know not.”…Certainly if wisdom existed anywhere in the world it must be in some such lonely mind admitting no duty to us, communing with God only, conceding nothing from fear or favour. Have not all peoples, while bound together in a single mind and taste, believed that such men existed and paid them that honour, or paid it to their mere shadow, which they have refused to philanthropists and to men of learning?

[Axel to Sara, Axel’s Castle, MCMXXV:] The external world! Let us not be gulled by the old slave who sits fettered in broad daylight at our feet and promises us the keys of an enchanted palace when his clenched sooty fist hides only a handful of ashes!

[Mad Kate:] In both his 1919 essay on Melville and in the 1936 attack on Lionel Trilling, Weaver had distanced himself from “Freudians,” perhaps too vehemently. A receipt in his files show that he was reading The Psychology of Insanity while researching the Melville book; Joseph Freeman wrote that Weaver had introduced him to Freud through A.A. Brill;[1] meanwhile unpublished letters to John Erskine and Mark Van Doren suggest or indicate that he was under psychiatric (probably not psychoanalytic) supervision shortly before his death, and probably earlier. Before we examine these and other Weaver materials at Columbia University, I shall draw out Weaver’s intellectual debt to the Romantic tradition, particularly to the Victorian poet and radical reformer James Thomson (“B. V.”), whose affinity to Melville is well known, but has not been analyzed in the Melville scholarship. Weaver frequently cites Thomson in Mariner and Mystic; the politics of Sphinxes and Medusas are plainly drawn in Thomson’s Symbolist poetry.  Thomson admired Shelley, whose sequence of poems: Queen Mab (1813), The Mask of Anarchy (1819), Beatrice Cenci (1819), and Prometheus Bound (1820), suggests the pattern of revolt and recantation one sees in Hawthorne, Melville, Thomson, and Weaver. For instance, in The Mask of Anarchy, “written on the occasion of the massacre at Manchester,” Shelley advises “the many” to passively resist future assaults by “the few” by resolutely refusing to answer violence with anarchic violence, thus shaming their persecutors who will reform and desist.[2]

Perhaps these pure young men and the readers who respond to their art react furiously against illegitimate parental authority and excessive punishment by “bitter and biting” sainted mothers, but then turn their contaminating aggression inward.  Romantic defiance seeks the inner check to preserve the family: Comes now the repentant Wandering Jew, following, not truth, but longing for the violent death of annihilation or the easeful death of oblivion, “conquering penance of the mutinous flesh” thus “attained to sovereignty and science over those strange and secret things and thoughts which others fear and know not.”[3] Such asceticism, both admired and resented by (the child in?) Yeats, is an evasion of personal history that protects the pure and Christ-like suffering mother. The ancient witch archetype makes sense to these “allegorical” writers and their witch-hunting friends not because of a “collective unconscious” or because they simply copy other writers or because they are inscribed with a cultural code or because mothers (not fathers) socialize children. Rather, my collected witch-hunters share an unusable past, partly or entirely repressing the same searing memory: the now benignant, now malignant evangelical mother whose flashing eyes and burning criticisms implied abandonment and death to the child who has been too needy, dirty, rude, or unhappy and who persistently asks the “why” question. Such writers will create “doubles” to confront the abusive parent whom they may never cease to idealize; but the double will die, dying only to return in another costume.

James Thomson said he was thinking both of Dürer’s figure of Melencolia[4] and the Victorian Radical George Eliot when he constructed the heroic female figure who rules his City of Dreadful Night, but it is possible that he also drew upon Shelley’s Wandering Jew fragment (while installing his own pessimism into Melencolia’s “tenebrous regard”) for Thomson’s Melencolia does not suffer from writer’s block, as does Panofsky’s. Here She is:

[Thomson:] Anear the centre of that northern crest/ Stands out a level upland bleak and bare,/ From which the city east and south and west/ Sinks gently in long waves; and throned there/ An Image sits, stupendous, superhuman,/ The bronze colossus of a winged Woman,/ Upon a graded granite base foursquare.

Low-seated she leans forward massively,/ With cheek on clenched left hand, the forearm’s might/ Erect, its elbow on her rounded knee;/ Across a clasped book in her lap the right/ Upholds a pair of compasses; she gazes/ With full set eyes, but wandering in thick mazes/ Of sombre thought beholds no outward sight….

Unvanquished in defeat and desolation,/ Undaunted in the hopeless conflagration/ Of the day setting on her baffled prime.

Baffled and beaten back she works on still,/ Weary and sick of soul she works the more,/ Sustained by her indomitable will:/ The hands shall fashion and the brain shall pore,/ And all her sorrow shall be turned to labour,/ Till Death the friend-foe piercing with his sabre/ That mighty heart of hearts ends bitter war.

But as if blacker night could dawn on night,/ With tenfold gloom on moonless night unstarred,/ A sense more tragic than defeat and blight,/ More desperate than strife with hope debarred,/ More fatal than the adamantine Never/ Encompassing her passionate endeavour,/ Dawns glooming in her tenebrous regard:

The sense that every struggle brings defeat/ Because Fate holds no prize to crown success;/ That all the oracles are dumb or cheat/ Because they have no secret to express;/ That none can pierce the vast black veil uncertain/ Because there is no light beyond the curtain;/ That all is vanity and nothingness….

…Her subjects often gaze up to her there:/ The strong to drink new strength of iron endurance,/ The weak new terrors; all, renewed assurance/ And confirmation of the old despair.[5]

[Mad Kate:] Throughout Melville, Thomson and Weaver, I have found an obsession with this Mother: the outwardly beguiling and impressive but inwardly terrible Nature goddess of the fatherless nineteenth century: with “the instruments of carpentry and science scattered about her feet” Melencolia is a Promethean figure of science, artisan revolt, and indomitable aspiration, like Milton’s Mammon, turning sorrow into labor, but whose “full set eyes…wandering in thick mazes of sombre thought” crazily pore into the heart of things…to discover the void which Thomson’s desperate characters had asserted earlier in the poem.   Following the logic of Thomson’s imagery in this and other works, however, Melencolia may not have discovered anything; rather, she has created the void by destroying all meaning in the universe with her “tenebrous regard,” with the eyes that belong not to “science” or to the process of introspection, but to the punitive mother crucifying the furious but cowed and silent child, and carrying not only her own deadly disapproval, but his.

The abused child is trapped through introjection of the cruel parent’s judgment; by internalizing the parent’s point of view with masochistic self-punishment and/or the sadistic punishment of other “evildoers,” the child is temporarily relieved of the dragging burden of anxiety brought up by filial opposition, specifically, the sense that his anger has poisoned the family well, that he has brought greyness to a clearly delineated black and white world. Disowning or repenting of his world-destroying feelings, the purified ex-rebel child/man stands tall to declare  “objectively” that all striving for knowledge, goodness, and happiness is misguided, pointless and dangerous; revolution, even reform, is “vanity” or terminal narcissism: the unpardonable sin of excessive self-regard.

[This passage refers to Melville’s “crazy” novel, Pierre, or The Ambiguities (1852).] The apple of the tree of knowledge  (which confers knowledge of both good and evil) has turned to ashes in the mouths of Milton’s rebel angels (the snakylocks); after Pierre learns of his idealized father’s duplicity and tries to rectify this hero-worship by blending previously split images of happy and sad father (a view which brings him into opposition with his mother), he dissociates. After Pierre recovers his “composure” he looks inside himself to see a charred landscape, a frightening image which presages the final catastrophe. We are to conclude that there is no truth, there are only “rebel senses,” “points of view,” and dauntingly endless ambiguities. However, such melancholy formulations may not be hard-won bold and risky “truths.”  Before we acquiesce in the ever more fashionable attacks on the Enlightenment,[6] we might consider how convenient such drastically subjectivist and anti-materialist epistemologies most certainly are and have been to conservatives and reactionaries in class societies bent on monopolizing learning: terrorizing the many in order to limit the impious curiosity and self-confidence of, say, public library patrons that threaten to delegitimize established authority. We look to earlier passages in Thomson’s poem and a predecessor, To Our Ladies of Death (1861), to propose a source for Melville’s Mortmain[a disillusioned ex-revolutionary in Clarel], and the imagery which expressed Raymond Weaver’s nihilism (in his own view, apparently, sadomasochism) and the rationalization for his destructive behavior–but also which may have prepared him to grasp some of the pressing structures in another Ishmael’s psyche.

MELENCOLIA AS A WAY OF LIFE

[James Thomson:] …Some say that phantoms haunt those shadowy streets,/ And mingle freely there with sparse mankind;/ And tell of ancient woes and black defeats,/ And murmur mysteries in the  grave enshrined:/ But others think them visions of illusion,/ Or even men gone far in self-confusion;/ No man there being wholly sane in mind.

And yet a man who raves, however mad,/ Who bares his heart and tells of his own fall,/ Reserves some inmost secret good or bad:/ The phantoms have no reticence at all:/ The nudity of flesh will blush through tameless,/ The extreme nudity of bone grins shameless,/ The unsexed skeleton mocks shroud and pall.

I have seen phantoms there that were as men/ And men that were as phantoms flit and roam;/ Marked shapes that were not living to my ken,/ Caught breathings acrid as with Dead Sea foam:/ The City rests for man so weird and awful,/ That his intrusion there might seem unlawful,/ And phantoms there may have their proper home….

“Who is most wretched in this dolorous place?/ I think myself; yet I would rather be/  My miserable self than He, than He/ Who formed such creatures to his own disgrace.

“The vilest thing must be less vile than Thou/ From whom it had its being, God and Lord!/ Creator of all woe and sin! abhorred,/ Malignant and implacable! I vow

“That not for all Thy power furled and unfurled,/ For all the temples to Thy glory built,/ Would I assume the ignominious guilt/ Of having made such men in such a world.”

“As if a Being, God or Fiend, could reign,/At once so wicked, foolish, and insane,/As to produce men when He might refrain!

“The world rolls round for ever like a mill;/ It grinds out death and life and good and ill;/ It has no purpose, heart or mind or will….”

Man might know one thing were his sight less dim;/ That it whirls not to suit his petty whim,/ That it is quite indifferent to him….” [James Thomson, City, 1874.] [7]

[Raymond Weaver:] Full divers times I fall a thinking,/ Thinking of this life on earth,/ Thinking of the scheme of man,/ Thinking of his roles from birth;/ Thinking how he strives and masters,/ Falling, how he braves disasters,/ Thinking how he shirks square labors,/ Rough cabals onto his neighbors;/ How cunningly he strokes designs,/ To cull the gold from strait confines,/ Until at last, I fall ablinking,/ Blinking in my cushioned chair.

Witness man’s affections waver,/ How untruly full they savor;/ Mastered still by earthly passions,/ Yet impelled by Gobbo’s fashions;/ How unaptly reigns his reason,/ Yet how choicely tricks in season./ Thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking,/ Then I tire in my chair,/ Fidget, wriggle, turn to visions/ And my heart falls in despair./ Nature’s dogmas, planned to follow,/ Leave no loopholes fools to wallow,/ Nature’s laws are last decrees,/ Rendered final, how they tease,/ Enigmatic, sealed, charaded,/ E’er long it was light evaded./ Seeing that ’tis useless picking,/ I subject me to the licking.

Yet postulatum humbly offered,/ If in spirit fair ’tis proffered,/ Can’t but lessen, if a mite,/ The burden of the clouded sight./ This life is but a quickened vision,/ Reserved for men of fast decision,/ Replica’d in salient phrases,/ Birth and love and death that razes,/ This cosmic unit whole, entire,/ Is but a ghastly bog of mire,/ For him who waits and waits and waits,/ And him who prates and prates and prates. [“A Soliloquy,” R.W., Headlined “He Philosophizes on Life, In Poetry. ‘R.W.’ Waxes Poe-esque in Anathemmatizing [sic] the Cosmic Unit.” Oct.4, 1919, Evening Sun. Weaver papers; he was working on the Melville biography.]

[Thomson:] Next Thou, O sibyl, sorceress and queen,/ Our Lady of Annihilation, Thou!/ Of mighty stature, of demoniac mien;/ Upon whose swarthy face and livid brow/ Are graven deeply anguish, malice, scorn,/ Strength ravaged by unrest, resolve forlorn/ Of any hope, dazed pride that will not bow.

Thy form is clothed with wings of iron gloom;/ But round about thee, like a chain, is rolled,/ Cramping the sway of every mighty plume,/ A stark constringent serpent fold on fold:/ Of its two heads, one sting is in thy brain,/ The other in thy heart; their venom-pain/ Like fire distilling through thee uncontrolled.

A rod of serpents wieldeth thy right hand;/ Thy left a cup of raging fire, whose light/ Burns lurid on thyself as thou dost stand;/ Thy lidless eyes tenebriously bright;/ Thy wings, thy vesture, thy dishevelled hair/ Dark as the Grave; thou statue of Despair,/ Thou Night essential radiating night.

Thus have I seen thee in thine actual form;/ Not thus can see thee those whom thou dost sway,/ Inscrutable Enchantress: young and warm,/ Pard-beautiful and brilliant, ever gay;/ Thy cup the very Wine of Life, thy rod/ The wand of more voluptuous spells than God can wield in Heaven; thus charmest thou thy prey.

The selfish, fatuous, proud and pitiless,/ All who have falsified life’s royal trust;/ The strong whose strength hath basked in idleness,/ The great heart given up to worldly lust,/ The great mind destitute of moral faith;/ Thou scourgest down to Night and utter death,/ Or penal spheres of retribution just.

O mighty Spirit, fraudful and malign,/ Demon of madness and perversity! The evil passions which may make me thine/ Are not yet irrepressible in me;/ And I have pierced thy mask of riant youth,/ And seen thy form in all its hideous truth:/ I will not, Dreadful Mother, call on Thee….[To Our Ladies of Death, James Thomson, 1861. Thomson chooses the mother of oblivion, rejecting both this annihilating Isabel (the precursor of the Queen who rules the City of Dreadful Night); and the “gracious mother” for whom he is not worthy.]

[George Eliot:]  Dear Poet,–I cannot rest satisfied without telling you that my mind responds with admiration to the distinct vision and grand utterance in the poem which you have been so good as to send me.

Also, I trust that an intellect formed by so much passionate energy as yours will soon give us more heroic strains with a wider embrace of human fellowship in them–such as will be to the labourers of the world what the odes of Tyrtaeus were to the Spartans, thrilling them with the sublimity of the social order and the courage of resistance to all who would dissolve it. To accept life and write much fine poetry is to take a very large share in the quantum of human good, and seems to draw with it necessarily some recognition, affectionate and even joyful, of the manifold willing labours which have made such a lot possible….M. E. Lewes [George Eliot to Thomson, defining good workers, May 30, 1874]

[Thomson:] Dear Madam,…I have no Byronic quarrel with my fellows, whom I find all alike crushed under the iron yoke of Fate, and few of whom I can deem worse than myself, while so many are far better, and I certainly have an affectionate and even joyful recognition of the willing labours of those who have striven to alleviate our lot, though I cannot see that all their efforts have availed much against the primal curse of our existence. Has the world been the better or the worse for the life of even such a man as Jesus? I cannot judge; but I fear on the whole considerably the worse. None the less I can love and revere his memory….

I ventured to send you a copy of the verses (as I ventured to send another to Mr. Carlyle) because I have always read, whether rightly or wrongly, through all the manifold beauty and delightfulness of your works, a character and intellectual destiny akin to that grand and awful Melancholy of Albrecht Durer which dominates the City of my poem….[James Thomson to George Eliot, June 18, 1874, in Henry Salt’s biography of Thomson, owned and marked by Melville (Eliot on labor and order).]

[Mad Kate:]  James Thomson’s religious and political views are said to have shifted from conservatism to pantheism to pessimism and “confident atheism” during his career as a journalist and poet,[8] but his biographers have not studied the continuities in his image of woman, or the childhood experience of early and devastating loss which, like Herman Melville’s, guaranteed that his “politics” would always be grounded in the irrational.  Thomson was an insomniac and an alcoholic who, like Weaver (but unlike Melville in Pierre), was loath to discuss his childhood directly: he did not consciously attack his parents, but displaced his resentment onto nature, reformers, and powerful Jews (as in his essay “An Old Jewish Firm”, attacking Christianity), viewing himself as “Ishmael in the desert from my childhood.”  Like Melville’s family, Thomson’s experienced a “fall in the social scale.” In the autobiographical sketch he provided for his sister-in-law shortly before his death from alcoholism, Thomson demonstrates the selective memory that implicates himself and a “terrible storm” as chief villain and author of his distress:

[Thomson:] “I was just past eight years old and at the school when mother died, so I can only give you very early impressions. These are, that father and mother were very happy together when he was at home, until, when I was about six, he [a sea captain] returned from his last voyage paralyzed in the right side, the result, as I understand, of a week of terrible storm, during which time he was never able to change his drenched clothes. Before then I think he was a good husband and a kind father; her I always remember as a loving mother and wife. He may have been a bit gay, in the sense of liking a social song and a glass, being, I believe, much better looking and more attractive in company than either of his sons. She was more serious, and pious too, following Irving from the Kirk when he was driven out. I remember well Irving’s portrait under yellow gauze, and some books of his on the interpretation of prophecy which I used to read for the imagery. The paralysis at first unhinged father’s mind, and he had some fits of violence; more generally his temper was strange, disagreeable, not to be depended upon. I remember him taunting her with her being his elder. Mother must have had a sad time of it for a year or so. His mental perturbations settled down into a permanent weakness of mind, not amounting to imbecility, but very, very different, I should say, from his former brightness and decision. Before I went to the school he used to take me to chapels where the members of the congregation ejaculated groaning responses to the minister’s prayer, and to small meetings in a private room where the members detailed their spiritual experiences of the week. Good, bad, or indifferent, these were not the sort of things with which he had anything to do in his days of soundness….

I think mother, who was mystically inclined with Edward Irving, had also a cloud of melancholy overhanging her; first perhaps, from the death of her favourite brother, John Parker Kennedy, drowned on the Goodwin Sand; then probably deepened by the death of my little sister, of whom I remember being devotedly fond, when she was about three and myself five, of measles caught from me. Had she or someone else lived [which one?!], I might have been worth something; but, on the whole, I sincerely judge that it was well for both to die when they did, and I would not, for my own selfish comfort, call them back. At first I would have doubtless have done so, but not for many years past.” [Salt, 3,4. Salt, an English Melvillean, mentions the widespread impression that Thomson inherited his imagination from mother and his dipsomania from father; then suggests that whatever the inheritance, Thomson’s nature contained warring elements of cheerfulness and constitutional melancholia.(5)]

[Mad Kate:] To review this family history (mostly ignored in Schaefer’s revisionist work), but restoring its chronology: At age five, Thomson’s beloved little sister dies of the measles, caught from her devoted brother. At age six, hostile nature destroys his father’s physical and mental health, throwing the family onto the charity of others and subjecting James to an unvaried regimen of Calvinist guilt and self-loathing. At age eight (through the intercession of a friend of mother’s), James is admitted to school (the Royal Caledonian Asylum); mother dies shortly afterward, partly of grief at the loss of the little sister who caught James’ measles. At age eighteen there is more trauma: Thomson meets a fourteen-year-old Angel, Matilda Weller, “the beautiful young girl whose love he won, and whose sudden death was the heaviest calamity he ever endured.” [Salt]

Keeping this personal history in mind, we may infer that Thomson’s three goddesses represent a process; that they are not three separate figures, but symbolize the longings and fears that follow sensual indulgence. The child whose mother demands moral purity and family loyalty, or else, will idealize his mother and feel unworthy of her love; contemplating his secret sins he turns away from any optimistic ideology promising either earthly or heavenly paradise. Unconsciously, he probably resents the relentless demands which crush his sense of self-worth and his capacity for enjoyment, just as he must have resented the intrusion of his little sister, a feeling he may not entertain: he could feel that his anger has killed these (three) angels.

In a revolutionary period, the little monster encounters images that both attract and terrify him. Other victims –mantled in virtue and Reason, carrying the Promethean lamp and wielding the sword of political struggle, their snakylocks blowing in the wind–are rising everywhere to expose and punish deceptive and illegitimate authority.[9] But instead of identifying with the militant oppressed, he sees them as an incarnation of his omniscient Mother/Christ whose eyes are everywhere, punishing him for the sins the poor attribute to the rich and which good evangelical mothers such as Maria Gansevoort, or Mrs. Macmillan, or Mrs. Thomson, or Mrs. Weaver would have tried to defeat in their children: selfishness, jealousy, lying, indolence, sensuality. His mother’s wrath and his answering resentment are both projected onto the all-too alluring and all-too-destructive mob.  He seeks the third Mother who embodies the anaesthesia of oblivion because he cannot bear the memory of his infernal rage, feelings which he unconsciously believes killed his rivals or his persecutors, perhaps also preventing him from rescuing the beautiful mother from father.

Thomson fears becoming father: the sinking, drunken, crazy, violent victim of the terrible storm. He and his affinity group describe themselves as “insane” because they feel possessed by the Infernal One when they think angrily about the persecution of the young and other helpless victims; they are losing control (“poise” and “balance”): they must be irrational to resent the loss of their independence: that is how Western culture had explained and stigmatized such levels of mobbish defiance. They must turn themselves to stone. But while in their cups (or in their dreams), defenses may relax; the vision of early childhood returns. Tenebriously, they suddenly see the “purity” of women as a trap: the whiteness and the promesse de bonheur of the smiling virgin conceals the black heart of the bloody avenger who unpredictably turns on the “naughty” child or who sends her “only recruit” off to die in battle. In the imaginations of Melville, Thomson, and Raymond Weaver, the connections between the Mother of Beatitude and the Mother of Annihilation are heretically exposed, like the crimson flower that creeps or seeps onto Lucy’s white pillow in the opening scene of Pierre. Yillah and Hautia, or Lucy and Isabel, or Thomson’s first two Ladies of Death, are aspects of the same figure (which Melville at least partly understands), and are projections of a writer who has remained fused with the mother: The sinless bearer of eternal bliss and the malicious god (or goddess) are split images of both good/bad mother and good/bad child.

[D.H. Lawrence, 1947:] Sex must go somewhere, especially in young people. So, in our glorious civilization, it goes in masturbation. And the mass of our popular literature, the bulk of our popular amusements just exists to provoke masturbation. Masturbation is the one thoroughly secret act of the human being, more secret even than excrementation. It is the one functional result of sex-secrecy, and it is stimulated and provoked by our glorious popular literature of pretty pornography which rubs on the dirty little secret without letting you know what is happening…In the young, a certain amount of masturbation is inevitable, but not therefore natural. I think, there is no boy or girl who masturbates without feeling a sense of shame, anger, and futility…[which deepens] into a suppressed rage, because of the impossibility of escape…And this is, perhaps, the deepest and most dangerous cancer of our civilization…The only positive effect of masturbation is that it seems to release a certain mental energy, in some people. But it is mental energy which manifests itself always in the same way, in a vicious circle of analysis and impotent criticism, or else a vicious circle of false and easy sympathy, sentimentalities. The sentimentalism and the niggling analysis, often self-analysis, of most of our modern literature, is a sign of self-abuse…This is just the same whether it be a novel or a work of science. The author never escapes from himself, he pads along within the vicious circle of himself…The real masturbation of Englishmen began only in the nineteenth century. It has continued with an increasing emptying of the real vitality and the real being of men, till now people are little more than shells of people. Most of the responses are dead, most of the awareness is dead, nearly all the constructive activity is dead, and all that remains is a sort of shell, a half-empty creature fatally self-pre-occupied…emptier and emptier, till it is almost a nullus, a nothingness. But null or nothing as it may be, it still hangs on to the dirty little secret, which must still secretly rub and inflame…”You may put it to death publicly a thousand times, and still it reappears, like a crab, stealthily from under the submerged rocks of the personality.” We must join the “proud minority” who want to escape from the vicious circle…The greatest of all lies in the modern world is the lie of purity and the dirty little secret. The grey ones left over from the nineteenth century are the embodiment of this lie. They dominate in the society, in the press, in literature, everywhere. And, naturally, they lead the vast mob of the general public along with them. Which mean, of course, perpetual censorship of anything that would militate against the lie of purity and the dirty little secret, and perpetual encouragement of what may be called permissible pornography, pure, but tickling the dirty little secret under the delicate underclothing. The grey ones will pass and will commend floods of evasive pornography, and will suppress every outspoken word. [10]

[The sea Crabb, published 1867]  ITT: was a man of Affrica had a ffaire wiffe,/Ffairest that ever I saw the dayes of my liffe:/ with a ging, boyes, ginge! ginge boys, ginge! taradiddle, ffaradiddle, ging, boyes, ging!

This goodwife was bigbellyed & with a lad,/& ever shee longed ffor a sea crabbe./ ging & c.

The goodman rise in the morning, & put on his hose,/ he went to the sea syde; & followed his nose./ ging &c.

Sais, “god speed, ffisherman, sayling on the sea,/ hast thou any crabbs in my bote for to sell me? ging & c.

“I have Crabbs in my bote, one, tow, or three;/ I have Crabbs in my bote for to sell thee.” ging & c.

The good man went home, I ere he wist,/& put the Crabb in the Chamber pot where his wiffe pist. ging & c.

The good wiffe, she went to doe as she was wont;/ up start the Crabfish, & cacht her by the Cunt. ging & c.

“Alas! quoth the goodwiffe,” that ever I was borne, the devil is in the pisspott, & has me on his horne.” ging & c.

“If thou be a crabb or crabfish by kind, thoule let thy hold goe with blast of cold wind”   ging & c.

The good man laid to his mouth, & began to blowe,/ Thinkeing therby that they Crabb wold lett goe.

“Alas!” quoth the good man, “that ever I came hither,/ he has joyned my wife’s tayle & my nose together!” ging & c.

They good man called his neigbors in with great wonder,/to part his wives tayle & his nose assunder. ging & c. [11]

[Mad Kate:] Charles Maturin, clergyman and eccentric author of the Gothic novel, Melmoth The Wanderer, had told his parishioners that only Christianity had elevated woman: she was neither slave nor toy; mothers had the sacred responsibility to mold infant character, but gently, as Christ would have done, to forestall social revolution.   In Weaver’s 1926 novel, Black Valley, one of the female missionaries gloats over the power Christianity has conferred upon women in the home (“Say what you will, that’s one thing Christianity has done for the world,” Mrs. Shea swept on contentiously. “It has improved the home!–Why out here they don’t know what love is!….” BV, p.65) In Weaver’s fantasy, women fight amongst themselves to carry off innocent young men. Young Gilson lives with his missionary parents, Alurid and Monica Wilburforce, in sensual, clean, feudal Japan. He is having a secret affair with a gorgeous and exciting modern Japanese girl, an admirer of Nora and Salome, who will discard him once she has captured his seed and become pregnant. His pure and clinging mother is dying of breast cancer; an evil older woman named Gracia West, Gilson’s friend and a “Socratic demon,” arrives from America to take over his life. A Mother of Annihilation, acting, she says, in Gilson’s and his agonized mother’s interests, she smothers Mrs. Wilburforce with a pillow and takes the liberated Gilson back to America.[12]


[1] Probably the popular Bernard Hart, The Psychology of Insanity(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912). Joseph Freeman unfinished letter to Dr. Fries, June 20, 1947, Freeman Papers, Hoover Institution. Freeman does not say when Weaver began to read Freud, nor the title of the Brill which Weaver gave him.

[2] See H.S. Salt, A Shelley Primer (London, 1887). Salt likens the Wandering Jew to Shelley: “he roamed from place to place and settled nowhere.” The geography is a metaphor for ambivalence of the kind I am describing in this study. Salt was an English Melvillean and source of the story that William Morris was a Moby-Dick fan, for which I have found no confirming evidence in the Morris materials at the Clark Library, for instance, in the auction catalog of his library.

[3] And yet the ambiguity remains: is Shelley conquering his asceticism or is he subduing the mutinous flesh? The two plausible readings express the unresolved ambivalence I have seen in every Symbolist here described.

[4] See Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), 156-171. For Panofsky, “Melencolia I” represents the despair of the artist incapable of metaphysical thought (e.g., conceptualizing angels or “extramundane nothingness”) ruled by Saturn, gifted at geometry, but mired in the concrete: “Winged, yet cowering on the ground–wreathed, yet beclouded by shadows–equipped with the tools of art and science, yet brooding in idleness, she gives the impression of a creative being reduced to despair by an awareness of insurmountable barriers which separate her from a higher realm of thought….”(168). At what point did physiognomy yield to art criticism as the preferred surveillance technique?

[5] The woman who rules the City of iron endurance, despair and terror is linked to the eternal Sphinx before whom an armed male angel progressively crumbles (in the passage immediately preceding these excerpts: these end the 55 page poem).

[6] I refer both to Hayden White-style radical skepticism, and the earlier ego psychology which abused science by a dogmatic loyalty to the status quo; each supports “pluralism” and claims to abhor “prejudice” but without the tools of the radical Enlightenment. Russell Jacoby’s Social Amnesia and The Repression of Psychoanalysis, took up the attack on “adjustment” therapies after Fromm, but with a Frankfurt School conservative pessimism that Fromm did not share. See Fromm, “The Crisis of Psychoanalysis,” 1970, and Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought, 1980. For a classic statement of ego psychology’s peculiar sociology, see Gordon  Allport’s The ABC’s of Scapegoating, reprinted nine times since 1948. Allport deplores all “scapegoating” including labor’s scapegoating of business; Allport has taken a structural antagonism and turned it into a case of irrational projection. Anti-Semitism is rarely linked to the general attack on critical thought throughout the history of the West.

[7] The  passages in quotes from Canto VIII are overheard by the narrator; the speakers may be the phantoms in VII. Cf. Clarel (1876): Celio’s upbraiding of Christ, and the blackly defeated Mortmain’s revelations regarding the vapors and foam of the Dead Sea, representations of evil God and evil matter.

[8] William David Schaefer, Beyond “The City” (Berkeley: UC Press 1965), 77.

[9] Maurice Agulhon, Marianne into Battle: Republican Imagery and Symbolism in France, 1789-1880 (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1981).

[10] D.H. Lawrence, From Pornography and Obscenity Handbook for Censors (Michigan City, Indiana: Fridtjof-Kula Publications, 1958). Reprinted from “Remember to Remember,” New Directions, 1947. In the Gill collection, Clark Library. The cover illustration in red and white (from Eric Gill?) shows a snake emerging from a nude woman’s thighs.

[11] From Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript Loose and Humorous Songs (London: Trubner, 1867). Percy Thomas was bishop of Dromore, 1729-1811. The copy of this book in the Clark Library calls attention to the poem in a pencilled notation inside the cover.

[12] Weaver is also identifying with an interesting female character, Frances, who falls apart when her fiancé, a ship’s captain whom she hardly knows, arrives to marry her. Given Weaver’s history of emotional distress, the story of Frances should illuminate his difficulties.

[illustration: Henry Fuseli, “Mad Kate,” 1806-07]

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