YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

October 15, 2012

Orwell, Power, and the ‘Totalitarian’ State

[Updated 6-4-13:] This blog has three purposes: 1. To demonstrate that there is no such thing as “power” as an end in itself, and in Orwell’s most famous book, his villain O’Brien explicitly makes mind-control the chief end of the Inner Party. But in doing that he separates mind from body, suggesting that Orwell was never a materialist, in contrast to Freud and his materialist followers. In prior research, I noted that the formulation of “the will to power” (as an end in itself) was asserted by aristocrats, like Nietzsche, critical of the rising middle class, of rising women, and of the “jewified” bourgeoisie in general. 2. To suggest that social democrats fastened onto the term “totalitarian” (invented by Italian Fascists) in order to distinguish themselves from rival statists, whether these be fascists or communists. It is my contention (and here I find both Eric Hobsbawm and Jacob Talmon very helpful) that fascists and communists had antithetical orientations to the Enlightenment, notwithstanding their terroristic methods and lack of regard for dissent. But communists acquired adherents among artists, for instance, because they promised emancipation from the philistine bourgeoisie and the commodification imposed by “capitalism.” That Bolsheviks (including Trotsky) did not deliver on this promise is often forgotten by today’s New Left and the counter-culture with which it is in alliance. 3. To suggest that George Orwell was taken up by British social democrats, even though he was obviously concerned about the direction of the (anticommunist) British Labour Party as he wrote his last book. The companion piece to this blog is https://clarespark.com/2013/04/21/fascism-what-it-is-what-it-is-not/.]

One of the chief claims of Orwell’s 1984 is that, for the Inner Party (the state terrorists who destroy the autonomy of Winston Smith–one of the Outer Party intellectuals who writes history according to the ideological needs of Big Brother, but who struggles to maintain his inner freedom– the aim of O’Brien and his cohort is to maintain power for its own sake. Such an attachment to total control as an end in itself is a symptom of the ‘totalitarian state’, i.e. Nazi Germany and its supposed twin, the Soviet Union. “O’Brien” makes this explicit as he tortures Winston Smith:

[Part 3, Chapter 2:] “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?’ [O’Brien]

…’We are the priests of power,’ he said. ‘God is power. But at present power is only a word so far as you are concerned. It is time for you to gather some idea of what power means. The first thing you must realize is that power is collective. The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. You know the Party slogan: “Freedom is Slavery”. Has it ever occurred to you that it is reversible? Slavery is freedom. Alone — free — the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal. The second thing for you to realize is that power is power over human beings. Over the body but, above all, over the mind. Power over matter — external reality, as you would call it — is not important. Already our control over matter is absolute.’” [End, excerpt from 1984, my emph.]

However, the fact that both loathsome dictatorships murdered millions of their own and warred with rival peoples, does not justify lumping them together as if each had exactly the same historical trajectory; as if each and every member of the Third Reich or the Soviet Union was successfully inveigled to love Big Brother. Indeed, Orwell may have been criticizing capitalism, not some variant of socialism, so as not to become commodified in a world where every human relationship is on the market, measured by “the [Jewish] money power,” as the broken Winston recites ‘Under the spreading chestnut tree /I sold you and you sold me –‘.

It is my suggestion that “totalitarianism” as a conception (from Italian Fascism, coined by Giovanni Gentile) was adopted by social democrats in order to remove the stain of proto-fascism from themselves. Hence, in opposition to these admittedly violent dictatorships, they could grab the flag of freedom, while conflating Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as structurally equivalent tyrannies, and as predictable outcomes of the Enlightenment. Such a strategy was brilliant, for it constructed statist New Dealers in America as the polar opposites of the hated dictators, notwithstanding the New Deal’s social policy rejection of the Enlightenment conception of the autonomous individual in favor of collectivist political identities and rule by Platonic guardians. (For more on the “integral nation” see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/20/an-awesome-inauguration/.) Indeed, many of Roosevelt’s social psychologists and sociologists were busy looting Hitler’s remarkable sykewar arsenal, admiring Hitler’s management of “the little man” whom they held responsible for his popular appeal. (For examples, see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/05/proto-fascism-and-the-democrat-peoples-community/, https://clarespark.com/2009/12/13/klara-hitlers-son-and-jewish-blood/, https://clarespark.com/2010/04/18/links-to-nazi-sykewar-american-style/.)

And so it is with numerous academic studies of Orwell, written by members of the British Labour Party,  in which the word “totalitarianism” is thrown around (or, in one case, was seen as somewhat old hat, as a Cold War strategy that became passé after the 1950s, yet the word was used by this academic). Similarly, they do not question the notion of “power” as an end in itself, which of course, in their emotional identification with “the working class,” they wholeheartedly reject.

Are these Labourite authors both narcissistic and statist (as one friend suggested today)? Reading British Labourites on the Orwell problem,* I tend to agree with the view that statists are narcissistic. Like George Orwell, they imagine “the working class” as one happy, warmly attached family, lodged in its compassionate, emotionally expressive, and self-enclosed “community.” So Orwell’s greatest quality is his identification with such working-class communities, where egalitarianism reigns supreme. Perhaps this confusion of themselves with working class students whom they teach,  is a projection of their own grandiosity as advocates of the (hypermoral) planning state.

Why do I then reject the  notion of “power” as an end in itself? First, the word power is abstract and empty. It only has content with respect to “power” over something. As I read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) and then 1984 (1949), I was struck by his belaboring of the theme of dirt and smell, all the while imagining that working class folk in Spain or in a future Britain, had the gift of comradeship and a lust for life, something missing in his own family and in his schooling. He also belabored/glorified suffering along with the total control exerted by his villains: in this he reminded me of a practicing sadomasochist (Steadman Thompson) in middle management whose collages and fantasies I examined in the Sadomasochism collection at UCLA Special Collections. Like Orwell in his latter years, S.T. believed that revolutions were pointless in that masters and slaves simply changed places, with former slaves becoming as brutal as the former ruling class. Second, the only character in the history and mythology of “the West” who wants power for its own sake is the Devil. One cannot argue across religious lines.

The persistent theme in S. T.’s writing was this: once he had subjected himself to caning or whipping by a maternal dominatrix, he was restored to the lap of the good parent. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/07/13/eros-and-the-middle-manager-s-m-with-implications-for-multiculturalism/.) Of all the biographies I have read, only Jeffrey Meyers has emphasized the masochistic elements of Orwell’s personality, but even Meyers does not report the tedious quality of  the early pages of Homage to Catalonia, dwelling as they do on the repulsive aspects of trench warfare in northern Spain for page after page. However, Meyers’s biography does pick up on the suicidal tendencies of Orwell’s management of his own health.

We don’t see often enough that middle managers (college professors or high school teachers) are masochistic insofar as they submit to the bullying direction of their superiors, but sadistic in depriving their students or the workers whom they manage of the skills necessary to reject illegitimate authority. By crippling their students of the power to think, and to see the inseparability of mind and matter, they are minor league O’Briens. (It is materialists like myself who insist on the unity of mind and body.)

From the vantage point of my years, I have often seen the desire for boys and girls alike to control Mothers—mothers who may cling indefinitely, or who, conversely, may separate too crudely and quickly from their small children. It is in such twisted experiences of early childhood that we might find the appeal of “power as an end in itself” or the notion of totalitarianism itself. The abandoned child wants to control straying Mother, while the suffocated child needs to push Mother away.  But in the real world of adulthood, such maternal imagos may not have the power imagined by Orwell or by his character, “the Last Man in Europe.”  The antimodernist Orwell, who sees Nature as a maternal refuge, apparently even in the hostile, punishing Hebrides, was emotionally and politically confused. One of his critics should point this out. Stephen Ingle’s second book makes a stab at the political confusions, but is limited by his “ethical socialist” commitments. But we must not forget that Orwell was worried about central planning by the new managerial class, as warned by James Burnham. I don’t want to psychologize this structural change and thus reduce it to family relations alone.

Owell passport photo

*Orwell’s 1984 was welcomed by rightists and Cold Warriors in 1949 and afterwards as proof that Orwell, as in Animal Farm, had exposed the bogus democratic pretensions of the Soviet Union. Much of the voluminous subsequent academic scholarship was devoted to retrieving Orwell for the “socialists” in Britain, not that these authors were themselves unequivocal in the accomplishments of the British Labour Party.


Brunsdale,  Mitzi M. Student Companion to George Orwell. Greenwood Press, 2000.

Hitchens, Christopher. Why Orwell Matters. Basic Books, 2002.

Ingle, Stephen. George Orwell: A Political Life. Manchester UP, 1993.

__________. The Social and Political Thought of George Orwell: A reassessment. Routledge, 2006.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. Norton, 2000.

Newsinger, John. Orwell’s Politics. Macmillan, 1999.

Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. Secker and Warburg, 1986.

__________. 1984. (Read online)

Rai, Alok. Orwell and the Politics of Despair. Cambridge UP, 1988. Chapter two is devoted to tracking the conception of totalitarianism, which he traces back to Giovanni Gentile, Mussolini’s confederate and a major figure in Italian Fascism.


October 11, 2012

September 28, 2012

“Bibi” and the human nature debate

CNT poster 1937

(This blog should be read along with https://clarespark.com/2015/01/22/orwells-wartime-essays-some-surprises/ and https://clarespark.com/2012/10/15/orwell-power-and-the-totalitarian-state/.)

Recent historians are acknowledging that the transition from pre-capitalist societies to capitalist societies is prolonged, tempestuous, and violent.  At the bottom of all the fights between political factions in our country (the U.S.), can be discerned sharp differences over the precise content of “human nature.”

For instance, in David Horowitz’s recent book Radicals (2012), he concludes that progress (linked by him to utopianism and perfectionism) is a leftist/fascist illusion; that human nature is evil, and the best we can expect in the route to amelioration is “compromise.” He thus marks himself as a moderate man, and is aligned with some of the figures most criticized on my website, notwithstanding DH’s strong support for Israel and opposition to jihadist Muslims. (For instance, Harvard Magazine is promoting “The Case for Compromise” in its Summer 2012 issue.)

This last week I carefully read George Orwell’s famous work Homage to Catalonia (1938). It is a confusing work, though much admired by anarchists and Trotskyists for its testimony as to Orwell’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War, in which he witnessed the destruction of POUM by Stalinists, leading him to denounce all bourgeois influences as fascist, and also to complain about non-peasants and non-laborers as “money-grabbing.” He went on to denounce journalists and Communists for betraying the facts of the Spanish Civil War.

This populist term of abuse (“money-grabbing”) led me to wonder if Orwell’s critique of Communism, Fascism, and “Ingsoc” in 1984 was not at least partly motivated by an aversion to the “jewification” often ascribed during his lifetime to the modern world, a “materialist”/anti-“spirituality” modernity that seen as inducing “degeneration” from the late 19th century onward. Indeed, in the last words of 1984, the rehabilitated Winston Smith sings ‘Under the spreading chestnut tree /I sold you and you sold me –‘, suggesting that the modern world has been commodified, reducing all human relationships to the cash nexus; but more, he is as hard as any Frankfurt School “Western Marxist” on the horrid influence of mass media in controlling the proles, the “85%.”  [In prior blogs I have noted that Hitler had been assumed to carry cunning Jewish blood;  that Hitler himself viewed Soviet Communists as fronts for finance capital; and that J. A. Hobson’s influential study Imperialism (1905) blamed a conspiracy of wealthy Jews for war, which they instigated through their control of international finance and mass media (in his case, newspapers).] I am not concluding anything in particular about Orwell’s possible Jewish problem, but noting that it is worth exploring. (For pertinent blogs see https://clarespark.com/2009/12/13/klara-hitlers-son-and-jewish-blood/, https://clarespark.com/2009/09/18/bad-sex-in-the-new-york-times/https://clarespark.com/2011/06/19/index-to-links-on-hitler-and-the-big-lie/, and https://clarespark.com/2009/11/17/melencolia-i-and-the-apocalypse-1938/.)

On September 27, 2012, Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the United Nations General Assembly. Few of the press reports I have seen mention the beginning of his speech, in which he explained global conflict as a fight to the death between modernity and medievalism. In the process, he highlighted the Enlightenment elevation of science, technology, and medicine, fields in which Israel excelled, but which threatened their hostile neighbors who worshipped death and promoted unquestioning obedience to authority (i.e., to the medieval order).

“Bibi” also urged that his formulation of conflict was more precise than a rival formulation between “tradition” and “progress” (much used in the culture wars, I might add).  The Jewish tradition, he argued, looking back to Isaiah, Amos, and Jeremiah, comprised the very foundation of “civilization.” This is an argument that one rarely hears in public these days. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/09/30/bibi-as-warmonger/, for the photo used by the Wall Street Journal, which may have chosen to depict Bibi as the bossy and militaristic Jewish deity promoted by Talcott Parsons in 1942.)

Now, Netanyahu and David Horowitz are both known as conservatives, yet they differ considerably on the subject of human nature.

The Enlightenment view of human nature relied upon travel narratives, that demonstrated that the material resources of cultures and their modes of exploitation/production that were just being discovered during the period of Renaissance exploration, determined their belief systems: thus was derived “cultural relativism,” a notion that has been resisted by some believers and manipulated by leftist “anti-imperialists” to discredit modernity tout court. The notion of “progress” was a distinctively Western notion that in turn depended on worldliness, science, reason, and the determination to lift up humanity to unprecedented heights. Moderns learned to understand their ancestors, but not to  worship them and their mores.  With economic and political development, perhaps wars and less cosmic conflicts over land, markets, and resources could be eliminated one day.

We have just completed the Jewish New Year, in which Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, caps the period of inner examination and resolve to improve one’s relations with the Jewish God. Repentance and fairness is an obligation every day in the year for Jews. Clearly, a view of human nature is implied in the notion of self-improvement and reparations. That view is not oriented to a better world after death, nor to the notion that we are necessarily befuddled by our evil propensities, carried in the very DNA of our species. Christopher Hitchens’s 2002 Orwell study (Why Orwell Matters) ends with a stunning revelation about the “radical” Hitchens view of human nature:   Like other British intellectuals with a highbrow education, he doesn’t see sadomasochism in Orwell,  but thinks it normal: “With a part of themselves, humans relish cruelty and war and absolute capricious authority, are bored by civilization and humane pursuits and understand only too well the latent connection between sexual repression and orgiastic vicarious collectivized release. Some regimes have been popular not in spite of their irrationality and cruelty, but because of it.” (p.191)

Freud himself noted that aggression was part of our natures, and often difficult to control, but he would never have agreed with Hitchens on S-M as normal. Part of human nature, in the rationalist Enlightened view that I share, is in the development of curiosity about the past, including those unresolved conflicts that linger into the present to the confusion of our political culture (world-wide), which is highly heterogeneous and internally conflicted.

Sadly, the counter-Enlightenment influences remain strong enough to halt appropriate curiosity in the young, to the detriment of the progress that the more advanced parts of humanity still find compelling and swear by. In our New World scenario, the Devil (or the demonic) is a relic of the dead past and his persistence in the belief systems of some political entities and societies should be strongly resisted. Nothing less than the survival of our species and the planet depends upon it. Medievalism was not only bad for the Jews, it was bad for all of humanity.

August 20, 2012

Ernest Hemingway, Carlos Baker, and the Spanish Civil War

Orwell, 1938 dust jacket

This blog is not a defense of Trotskyism. The Spanish Civil War and its treatment by literary historians is important because only the “Trotskyists” of, say, Partisan Review or The New Leader in the late 1930s nailed the Stalinists and their fellow travelers for covering up such events as the purges of the old Bolsheviks (1936 onward), and for penetrating liberal organizations devoted to cultural freedom, turning them toward statism, dialectical materialism, silencing criticism of the Soviet strategy in Spain, and joining with the “only” antifascist forces, i.e, the Comintern and its docile filmmakers, novelists, screenwriters, and other artists.

The “liberals” (who succumbed to the Popular Front during the 1930s), and who continue to opine on the course of the Spanish Civil War, leave out the Soviet-directed destruction of Jose Robles, POUM, and the Anarchists, thus passing over these atrocities but also skipping over the twists and turns of the Comintern during the 1930s and early 1940s. (Examples: from 1928 on, Communists were devastating critics of the “social fascism” of the New Deal and of Social Democracy in general; but the Popular Front was effectively in charge from 1935 onward; then the Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939) reawakened the older critique of the Western democracies as really imperialists, like Hitler; but then the Nazi invasion of the S.U. reawakened the Popular Front with the American bourgeoisie in order to defend the Soviet Union and to quash isolationist sentiment.) (See Stephen Schwartz’s article on Stalinist treachery in Spain here: http://www.jewcy.com/post/cheapest_transaction. )

Carlos Baker’s 1969 biography of Ernest Hemingway had no problem describing Joris Ivens as a Communist filmmaker: I don’t know enough about Baker’s own political allegiances to say why. Perhaps Baker agreed with those for whom the communists were just another form of enlightened and moral liberal, maybe a bit more serious about uplifting the masses and rooting out nativism and American sympathizers with Hitler and Mussolini. Such naiveté was how communism infiltrated the New Dealers and their populist sympathizers: Only the Stalinist Left was held to be serious about fighting fascism or criticizing the Neutrality Act of the Western democracies that prevented the supplying  of arms and oil to the Spanish Loyalists. “Trotskyites,” the Comintern declared, were in league with fascism and Nazism! The Comintern-controlled Abraham Lincoln Battalion is still presented as comprised of idealistic young Americans, for instance in the atrociously slanted and mendacious HBO movie Hemingway and Gellhorn, most of which is devoted to the Spanish Civil War, and which ignored the bloody, faction-ridden history of that crucial conflict, without any political criticism from dozens of reviewers all over the world. (For a brief review of the HBO offering, see https://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/,)

Princeton professor Carlos Baker was oblivious to George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938),* a deafness that allowed him to record, without comment, that Hemingway sent his editor Maxwell Perkins as a taste of what to expect in For Whom The Bell Tolls, “Pilar’s” account of the Anarchist massacre of the “Fascists” of [Ronda]. Worse, Baker described Gustav Regler only as a friend of Hemingway’s. But Regler’s 1959 memoir The Owl of Minerva (cited by Baker) did describe a conversation with Hemingway in 1940, wherein Hemingway chastised Regler, the former political Commissar of the Twelfth International Brigade, for deserting the Communists! Having read Regler’s fascinating memoir and having quoted from his book regarding Hemingway’s feisty defense of the Communists in Spain (see https://clarespark.com/2011/06/30/ernest-hemingway-and-gellhorn-in-china-1941-4/) I was not amazed that briefly opened Soviet archives revealed that Hemingway was recruited by the KGB in late 1940, despite his strong criticism of André Marty and Dolores Ibárruri (La Pasionaria) in his popular novel—a criticism that did enrage such American Communists as Mike Gold or the reviewer writing for The Daily Worker.

La Pasionaria

And while well-situated liberals in the most prestigious newspapers might have thought in their own minds that they were allies to “the common man,” they were in practice tolerant of their friends on the Soviet-controlled Left. After the war, these same Popular Fronters hated to be associated with (vulgar) McCarthyism, so that the identification of communist penetration of American institutions left the nailing of an American Fifth Column to the far Right. Since the Soviets had defined the Right (Big Business) as fascist, the “liberals” would characterize these “loons” as paranoid extremists, a label that persists to this day, notwithstanding the archival research of Mark Kramer, Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Alexander Vassiliev, to  name a few.

And that is how we lost the Cold War and the struggle for hearts and minds—until the Soviet Union collapsed from within. Sadly, it was too late for the better American universities. The Popular Front had done its work and generations of Americans were disabled from seeing into the wildly successful cultural work of the Soviet Union and/or Communist China.

*[Added, August 23, 2012: A dispute has broken out in the Comments section to this blog, regarding Orwell’s intentions in his novel 1984. John Dos Passos wrote a biographical chapter on Orwell in his Century’s Ebb (1975): “Orwell’s mind was shaking loose from the Socialist dogma. He began to see history whole: ‘What is obviously happening,’ he wrote in his offhand way, ‘is the breakup of laissez-faire capitalism and of the liberal-Christian culture. Until recently the implications of this were not foreseen because it was generally imagined that Socialism could preserve and even enlarge the atmosphere of liberalism. It is now beginning to be realized how false this idea was. Almost certainly we are now moving into an age of totalitarian dictatorships–an age in which freedom of thought will at first a deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction.'” (p.64). Dos Passos finishes with this thought (relating how Orwell had become an invalid, afflicted with tuberculosis): “Relapses took him to hospitals. All the while he stuck with ferocious tenacity to the novel he was writing. 1984 was a bitter parable of the totalitarian world he saw developing out of German Nazism, Russian Communism, and the decay of the spirit of liberty in Britain….(65-66) I.e., Dos Passos sees the parable as the last stage of Orwell’s gradual disillusion with the libertarian promise of Socialism and Communism. The following chapter is a scathing account of the indifference of Hemingway and Gellhorn to his search for his friend Jose Robles, using fake names.]

November 13, 2010

“Humanities, Anyone?”

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Jascha Kessler

Thanks to Jascha Kessler for this guest blog. He is a poet, essayist, and Emeritus UCLA Professor of English.

Communication and Knowledge, two terms commonly attributed to the finest of benefits bestowed by the World Wide Web, do not of themselves suggest what today troubles professors of the Humanities. Speaking of whom, reminds me of a cartoon I saw in 1954, , showing the usual nondescripts at a cocktail party.  One brisk, bow-tied fellow asks another, *Read any good books lately?”  The shabby, grizzled tieless and round-shouldered other replies, *Wrote one.” Further to that, when in the summer of 1947 my 10 year-old kid brother paid me a visit at a resort hotel where I was a waiter that summer, I asked him what he had been reading.  “The Iliad,“ he answered.  And recited a passage.  “Good for you!” I exclaimed.  That honest child, abashed, giggled, *Well, no. CLASSIC COMICS, actually.”]

  Which digression at the outset leads me to the following observations. It’s loudly lamented our colleges are losing faith in, and (funding) support for, the Humanities. At the same time, people seem universally excited and entranced, deliriously engrossed by instant electronic communication and what they think is knowledge enhanced and ubiquitously available on their portable screens.  The scene today is almost like Caliban’s speech in Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST, wherein he wonderingly tells of music and voices unseen around him everywhere on that desert isle — Ariel‘s and kindred angelic benevolent beings.

 I remind college students that what the WWW provides is mainly INFORMATION.  Well and good.  I am immensely grateful for the resources that can be called down with a click or two.    When I am at work writing or studying, I need but a ”keyword” to summon information I don’t clearly or exactly recall. Marvelous!  Wonderful! However, I read books in the several decades that formed my education.

 The students I greet in my UCLA classes, bright, willing, and eager though they are, haven’t the foggiest.  I find they mostly, like my grandchildren, have not read and digested too many books, or even stories or poems or history’s tales.  To say the least.  They seem to have been informed on the fly.  The world they live in affords downloads of a million or more “songs.”  It seems difficult to tell them one from another., as any shopper in a drugstore or supermarket knows.  Whereas at 81,  I find that the music, for instance of a Schubert song I’ve heard now and then since my teens, offers notes and phrases I’d not heard before.  Let alone the newfound sense of a line or two in a sonnet of Shakespeare!  I see for instance in my seminar titled, WHAT A POEM SAYS, that our 18-20 year olds cannot hear or grasp a simple word, let alone a phrase, though they try to guess.  They suppose the sound and spelling constitutes the word. They speak, sweetly and modestly themselves, yet seem not to know what the speech of poetry is.  They understand what they hear as familiar merely as TV chatter; they can apprehend the announcements of politicians and statesmen; yet au fond they do not,or cannot comprehend them as anything more or less than communication or information.

 Personally, I am perpetually astonished by the simplest phrase, say in a poem such as I have gone over with them word by word: what it imports, what it contains of the writer’s experience of the world in which it was uttered, and the history of that language’s aura, so to say.  It is no wonder clerics sermonize weekly, expounding a sentence or phrase ancient and familiar, yet essentially mysterious though it contains a well of feelings and thoughts and facts of life.  

 That is what teaching in the “Humanities” means.  True, a college major in Humanities is but the first step into the possible and potential recognition of one’s own being — or of one’s having been — in life itself.  I remind students that we do in fact see darkly, as in a mirror. That mirror is what Matthew Arnold once held up to show us what was the best thought and said … and written by larger lives and souls than youth recognizes.  Or age, for that matter.  History may be tales of sound and fury, narratives written by victors and their historians, as the cynic says.  Nevertheless the records of thoughts in the subjects labeled  Humanities are not labile or friable, or passing; whereas the discoveries of scientific research are, necessarily, always altering, superseding, or abandoning what has been thought to be the case yesterday.  

 It is so difficult to convey what  a sentence of poetry says.  The kids seemed to think the other week, for instance, that they understood what Emily Dickinson said in the first lines of her poem, which run “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul …. “  Just to get at what hope may be, what the word as spoken says, not “means,” took an hour.  As for the poem’s 12-lines, they gradually constitute themselves as an extraordinary artefact, uttered as it were sotto voce if uttered at all, not immediately to be comprehended; indeed in reflection it suggests itself as almost anti-Gospel.

 At the other end of life: I have a acquaintance who travels frequently to international conferences, is a molecular biologist at UCLA commanding a top-flight lab maintained by today’s rich funding for a redhot field.  A modest man in his 60s, he has taken to asking what there is to do in those exotic venues where he does the panelists’ tango, having days of free time before, during and after sessions of science congress.  Lately he has become curious to learn something of the arts and architecture of those cultural capitals.  In short, he has not a clue regarding the Humanities. Surprised, he finds himself suddenly old enough — and eager — to begin to see and hear, perhaps to “experience” what the old poet Yeats called “monuments of unageing intellect.”  Better late than never?  Late, or too late! to paraphrase an apothegm of William Blake’s.

 Those “things” are what we profess who have been students of the Humanities wish to maintain.  Digitization of texts and images notwithstanding, though stored [safely?] and downloaded on request from the Great Cloud to be “experienced” virtually, are not events that will be melded into in our very marrow so to say.  Education requires their absorption over time.  For example, another cartoon recalled from 1954 may illustrate what is supposed our profession.   A young fellow picks up a heavy valise labeled, say, HUMANITIES.  He carries it ten years; is drawn looking older in the next frame; in another 10 years older still, etc.  At last he is seen bearded,  bent, a broken-winded geezer sitting on that luggage … unopened lifelong.  Caption: “The Professor as intellectual porter. Sardonic?  Yes.  Nevertheless it also describes the vast repository now filling with the 0s and 1s that represent whatever that remains of the past, nowadays called Knowledge, though more accurately termed Information.

 Most of our university and college disciplines, larded with pelf and power, carry on their backs  what might be called The Old Man of the Sea — whole buildings stuffed with suites of administrative officials. They with their hugely-funded professional schools, Engineering, Medicine, Law, and Social Sciences like Psychology, tend to regard HUMANITIES as the leaden burden of a portmanteau not worth the effort to schlep along or trouble unpacking, sorting, and demonstrating its content of millennia-old lives to ignorant youth.  They would prefer our wide-eyed, wondering kids deafened by ear-buds to try to hum one or two of the millions of downloadable “songs” — how many of those tunes are electronically potted? than to try to THIMK! as that IBM office poster once had it.  To welter drowned in noise seems preferable to those who haven’t the wispiest notion of what any one “thing” might be, let alone the cost of learning what it is.

I suppose it comes down to this: There is a growing consensus by our budgeteers that confuses the HUMANITIES, whatever they may be, were, or could be, with vocational training, necessary though that is to earning a living.   Professional schools are essentially vocational.  The proper term for them is Technology. the origins of which begin with the first flaked knife or arrowhead, the spark that was struck from a flint to make the fire that cooked our raw foods.  Like Science, like Theology, the Humanities are no mere luxury to be discarded or trimmed away to nothing because they cost a few bucks.  

 As for Technology, what engineering students are not taught is that after 10 years’ work at their speciality, they are usually obsoleted, the grant funds and investors’ cash having been directed elsewhere. For some the reward is being kicked upstairs to a manager’s.  Necessary, but not what they put their best years into.  And even manager’s slot and desk, itself soon obsoleted.    Discarded, they come to resemble the broken ones whom Mr. O’Brien in 1984 sent off to a dingy cafe to play chess and drink Victory gin while awaiting the hour when a bullet would be blasted into their head from behind one ear.

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