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.]

fedallah

*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/.)

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November 23, 2012

Historians vs. pundits: the Eric Hobsbawm synthesis

Liberty Leading the People

For a more recent assessment of Hobsbawm, see https://clarespark.com/2012/12/08/hobsbawm-obama-israel/.

I was going to write a straightforward few paragraphs on the irresponsibility of today’s journalists/pundits compared to archive-scouring historians. But in the meantime, I was reading Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (1962), and my focus changed to the achievement of EH’s major work, and its precise transmission of Marxist-Leninist dogma, dialectical materialism and all, as he strives to fuse the Hegelian opposites of Romanticism and neoclassicism, letting vitalism and mysticism into his ostensibly rationalist synthesis explaining the rise of mass politics after the French Revolution.

For those who have missed the furious debate since the death of EH and his legacy on October 1, 2012, here is a sampling of what I have read. Ron Radosh’s essay was my favorite, for it was a fine survey of opinion, and also recounted some horrifying details missed by others, for instance, EH’s ferocious rejection of Israel, which he wished would be nuked, according to one unpublished account.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Hobsbawm

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/oct/01/eric-hobsbawm-historian

http://frontpagemag.com/2012/bruce-bawer/intellectuals-rally-to-eulogize-stalinist-eric-hobsbawm/

http://pjmedia.com/ronradosh/2012/10/13/can-stalinist-be-good-historian/

Though I thought that EH was clueless regarding the contributions of the Romantic composers and authors (e.g. their exploration of human emotions as worthy subjects for art, often leaving more rigid forms for fantasy. Cf. EH condemning the Romantics as Satanists, or as flunkeys for the bourgeoisie and its heroic individualism/economic liberalism),  I came away with one valuable insight: EH explains that the creation of the new industrial working class kept both aristocracy and bourgeoisie on edge up to the present day. For it was the (middle-class) French Revolution and Napoleon that elevated the self-esteem of “the People” in what EH calls the double revolution: 1. The French Revolution, and 2. The Industrial Revolution. (He implied a third factor: the development of “national cultures” that would lead, in his later life, to the lauding of “liberal nationalism” as a spur to further progress, with capitalism yielding to communism and the defeat of the bourgeois oppressor.)

In whatever period I have studied since the Enlightenment, I have seen the red specter operating in the imaginations of every artist and writer. Certainly it is foregrounded in the work of Herman Melville, whose interpreters cannot make up their minds whether he is a Romantic individualist (of the type that EH excoriates) or a proper moderate conservative like themselves, hence the Ishmaelite repudiator of that arch-individualist and revolutionary Captain Ahab (or his successor, Pierre Glendinning).

EH mentions Herman Melville twice, though he does not go into any detail whatsoever. I presume that he viewed Moby-Dick as an allegory for the French Revolution and those that followed in 1848, perhaps dwelling upon the multi-colored crew of harpooners, as did C. L. R. James, a favorite of the New Left anti-imperialists. But this would make EH no better than the bourgeois primitivists EH attacks as perpetuators of the noble savage image. [Added, Nov. 23: In his second book, EH makes it clear that he believes that Moby-Dick is an indictment of American capitalist-imperialism; he has a superficial reading about whaling ships and the denouement near Japan. EH believes that Melville is the greatest artist of the American 19th century, for that reason, obviously.]

Alarmingly, EH’s book on the “Age of Revolution” laid out the synthesis that guided my graduate work in history at UCLA, and that now dominates textbook writing throughout the liberal school system in America. Prende garde, mes amis. Eric Hobsbawm, in death lauded by many communists, liberals, and conservatives alike, fused the roles of pundit and historian, leaving us with activists in both fields, while drowning in their wakes those historians whose regard for the truth is, well, undialectical. (For my assessment of “activist” scholars see https://clarespark.com/2013/05/06/the-new-left-activist-scholars/.)

November 8, 2012

The Magical power of “Negroes” and other Beautiful People

Viola Davis as magical

One Facebook friend reports polls concluding that Romney voters focused on the economy, while Obama voters responded to his “caring” persona. This is valuable intel, for it reminds us of the Magical Negro archetype described here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_Negro. As Wiki tells it, this archetype is a throwback to the “noble savage” who emerges in the European age of expansion.

(This one of those “back to basics” blogs, basic tactics for political support that are cross-cultural and universal in their efficacy.)

But more, we should reflect upon the power of the Beautiful People, and the mass appeal they exercise. Why? Is it simply that “beauty” is a supremely rare quality that mesmerizes us in all times and places? Or is it something more primal, which returns us back to the emotions of early childhood and our dependency on mothers and fathers for care and protection?  After all, Mitt Romney projected a “caring” persona, as Anne Romney emphasized in her RNC account of their marriage, noting her husband’s constant attentions to needy neighbors and even strangers. But all the demonstrated compassion in the world is not enough to compensate for the image constructed by Democrats that Romney was the (uncaring) tool of Wall Street and the Big Money.

In prior blogs, I have written much about populism and its embedded antisemitism, how many ideologues continue to blame Hollywood “Jews” for corrupting the masses and either converting them to the Democratic Party and to the Left in general, or conversely, fastening the “mass” psyche to the material goodies promised by capitalist economies. Both claims are nonsensical, for such “Jewish” titans as Laemmle, Mayer, Goldwyn, or the Warner brothers adapted themselves to immigrant tastes and prejudices. The history of the Hollywood film is replete with bloodsucking bankers and other capitalist villains, valiantly opposed by the muscular Common Man. (For the femme fatale as a repudiation of the idea of progress, see https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/, retitled “Film Noir, decoded.”)

All tyrants use visual images (including architecture) to consolidate support and to divert mass rage away from themselves; pictures are deployed to evoke parental imagos.  The tyrant’s friends are beautiful—as lovely as the nursing Mother to her clamorous infant, or as her glittering earrings are to her toddler who pulls on them, while enemies are as repulsive as the angry father wielding a cane or whip (think of the omnipresent Big Brother) or old crones—women who no longer expect to please men, and who have nothing to lose by stirring the pot.

Female Chartist

And so, fed by a diet of idealized/demonized images, we continue the process that psychoanalysts describe as “splitting.” Our love objects, whether politician or other celebrity, can switch with alarming frequency from ministering angel to terrifying demon. Don’t look to popular culture for “integration, “ i.e., a less distorted view of The Loved/Hated One.

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